The first time I felt it, I was at the park with her in the middle of the night. She kept nudging me to try the flying fox. I rebuked that it wasn’t my thing, that it wasn’t appropriate with the skirt I was wearing, that she wasn’t strong enough to push me all the way to the other end.
In essence, I was scared. Yeah, a 15-year-old was scared of a piece of playground equipment that little 5-year-olds rode on a daily basis. Jiamin mocked me in much the same way, as if my reaction were a teleprompt script of my thoughts. I relented and awkwardly attempted to sit on the damn thing. She saw me struggle and halted her sharp remarks, most likely to not dissuade me from my reluctant decision. Instead, she opted for a constipated face, struggling to contain her laughter.
With an effortful push from Ms constipatedface, I was sent gliding across the playground with the whirring noise of cables being my only company. It was....not as bad as I thought. The slight breeze that brushed against my face, the passing scenery of a peaceful night was relaxing, the - yeah I was lying to myself. This was fucking scary. My feet were suspended a meter off the ground, ripping any sense of control I had over this damned thing away from me. I was at the mercy of the imparted force of Jiamin's push and whatever resistance the ill maintained wires provided. Without my calculator and notebook, I had no clue when or where exactly I would stop and not knowing brought upon deep seated feelings of insecurity that I thought I had tucked away under piles of 100th percentiles in report cards.
Fortunately for me, the flying fox slowed down to a stop whilst I was buried in my thoughts. The wires sagged under my weight, leaving my feet within reach of the ground. Jiamin jogged to me with a gleeful expression painted on her features, clearly very entertained by my suffering. I on the other hand probably looked like I came out of the Vietnam war. She asks me how it was, and I groaned. Well, “weh” was more accurate, but I’d like to think it was a groan. She chuckled, her deep voice filling the otherwise empty park. It wasn’t any different from her previous chuckles, but my heart clearly felt otherwise.
I mulled over that feeling for several weeks. It wasn’t a foreign concept to me. I’ve heard friends talk about it at the canteen, heard hushed gossip amongst classmates during lessons and dramatized portrayals in media. But why now? Nothing has really changed between us; she hasn’t changed at all. So why now? 2 months ago, I would’ve said her laugh sounded like a dying pig but now I’m not so sure.
I took a glance at her, seated at a table diagonally to the right of me. To the undiscerning eye she was diligently taking notes in class, her face laser focused on what she was producing on paper. But I knew better. She was probably drawing bats and skeletons and anything else that could pass as a villainous henchman in a kid’s cartoon. She never cared much for math, or any other subject outside of recess. She once told me that she didn’t see the point of trying since she wasn’t planning to go anywhere after secondary school. When I pried further, she said “I’m damn stupid. Confirm cannot go anywhere”.
I think the only time I've ever seen her willingly try to study was in primary 5, a year before our Primary School Leaving Examinations. She suddenly became very interested in studying after I told her I wanted to go to Bukit Panjang Government High, a top public secondary school. Maybe she finally realized how important studying was. For that entire year she was buried in textbooks. I swore her head could've become a bookmark. When results came around, everyone thought it was a miracle, some divine intervention from god, that she did as well as she did. But I knew better. She was never one for prayers. We both entered Bukit Panjang Government High and Jiamin went back to slacker mode.
She turned to me, sensing my stare. We made eye contact, chocolate brown meeting chocolate brown, - yes Chinese kids all look the same – but for some reason I was ensnared.
I felt my face flush red.
I want to die. Please take me now death.
Bewilderment was plastered on her face. A moment passes. Then, as though she was struck with a thunderbolt of genius, her expression turned to a knowing smirk. Death, anytime now please.
She stuck her tongue out at me like the child she is and I, obviously, returned the favor. Because what else do you do when someone flicks their tongue at you? Ok, no death for now.
We shared a quiet giggle before turning back to our work. Well, I tried to. My whole body was consumed by….nice feelings. Warmth that felt like a hug. Butterflies threatening to break from my ribcage. That sort of stuff. It was topped off with starry eyes and a dreamy smile that probably made me look crazy.
I was so glad I didn’t have a tablemate, else I’d be probed on my strange expression. I don’t think claiming that I was merely enjoying the lesson at hand would’ve been believable. If it was it would imply that I was going gooey eyed over first order derivatives. I know I’m a nerd but I have standards. It’s got to at least be partial derivatives in a matrix to get me flustered.
So uh yeah, “mulling” didn’t actually involve thinking about my feelings. More like awkwardly fumbling through the full spectrum of emotions. I should do something about it. Just as I was about to plunge into another train of thought, I received a text from none other than her.
Jiah Lian: Wanna go monti next week?
That’s weird. Monti was a candlelit atas* [Fancy & expensive] restaurant that sat on Marina bay, aka the kind that people bring their lovers to for a proposal and have anniversaries and junk. I’d been wanting to eat there for months because apparently the pasta is to die for and they cook it tableside (I know, I have spoilt rich girl tastes) but I never really got around to it. I didn’t think it was her kind of thing. If I nagged her enough, she’d probably go with me, but show up in shorts and sandals and complain about spending $58 on pasta.
Trash bag: Sure, but don’t wear shorts
Jiah Lian: Wah, u wan see me naked alr? Pervert
Trash bag: Gross
Jiah Lian: ILY too :)
Trash bag: Wed?
Jiah Lian*: Caaaannnn
[*a pun on the singlish word “ah lian” which means female gangster]
Wow. Oh wow. Out of all the things I thought would happen today, seeing Jiamin in a dress was not one of them. To be frank I was expecting her to show up in either shorts or a shirt-pants combo. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t pleasantly surprised though. She was wearing a spaghetti strapped cocktail dress that hugged her in all the right places, accentuating her slim form. The dress slit went all the way up her smooth, never-ending legs, leaving just enough room for the imagination. It was bare back too. The dress probably showed a bit too much skin considering she came from a conservative household, but I’m not complaining.
In a manner that was so unlike the way she was dressed, Jiamin yelled “Rachel!” and hurriedly made her way across the train station to me. She was like a puppy bolting towards its owner when they came home. Adorable.
She circled me once over, eyeing up my outfit in enthusiasm. Seemingly satisfied with what she saw, she gave a smile that ended at the corner of her eyes.
"Wah you damn chio*"[Pretty] She said, gesturing to my dress. It was a simple, off shoulder, A-line affair.
I nudged her shoulder playfully with my fingers.
In response, she gave a goofy, ear to ear grin, her normal go-to reaction to compliments. Though this time I could’ve sworn there was a tinge of red coloring her cheeks. Maybe it was a trick of the light.
We made our way to the restaurant, talking about anything and everything from some idiot in history class that declared that they didn’t need to know about Hitler because, and I quote; “all the Jews are dead” (I don’t know how he got into an elite school) to whether or not caviar and white chocolate would taste nice together. Our hands brushed together once.
“In theory it should work because, according to food science, they have similar flavor compounds, like trimethylamine which has a fishy odour. So they – “
“What the shit! Who the fuck thinks white chocolate tastes fishy?!”
“Science does!” I happily sang. “and it thinks white chocolate would be very good with caviar.”
“Eeeeee, fuck that’s damn gross.”
“Hmm I dunno, now I’m very tempted to try it. Maybe I’ll order caviar later.”
She grasped her chest in relief.
“Thank god, Monti don’t have caviar.”
I gave her the most innocent and earnest smile I could muster.
“Then next time, we’re going to a seafood place and I’m bringing white chocolate.”
She looked at me with absolute horror. “I don’t know you! Who is Rachel?!” She proceeded to wander off in faux abandonment. I on the other hand am cackling with laughter. I loved grossing her out with science.
Once I caught my breath I jogged after her.
Our dinner was filled with idle chatter and a savored appreciation for the food. There was a moment where I thought she was going to place her hand over mine as she lightly grazed it, but in reality she was just trying to steal my phone. I would’ve thought that after the 10th time she’s failed that stunt, she’d know better. When the bill was settled, Jiamin of course complained about the exuberant price of pasta and my 'atas' tastes.
"I can treat you, y'know as 'compensation' for your company."
"You make me sound like a prostitute." We both chuckled. I continued.
"Legit though, I can treat you if you want."
She dismissed me with a wave.
"No need, hanging out with you is treat enough" She had a smirk and a...blush? Or was that the lighting? Doesn’t matter. What does matter is that I've gone into cardiac arrest and I haven’t told my family that I wanted a secular funeral. God bless the dim lighting.
On our way out, Jiamin's hand brushed against mine again.
Normally I wouldn’t think much of this, but the fact that it’s the 3rd time it happened today and on the same hands mind you,I was a bit perturbed. Jiamin was never shy about physical affection. In primary school she would constantly hold my hand, stating that it felt “nice” or something. I didn’t know why it’d be nice though; I was a sweaty kid; my palms were nasty. A couple months ago she tackle-hugged me because I helped salvage her “hopeless” physics project. In that same timeframe she pinched the crap out of my cheeks after we looked at my old childhood photos when we were at my grandparent’s place. That’s on top of her still holding my hand all the time. Then again recently there’s been a lot less physical affection. Maybe I pissed her off. Eh, she’ll talk about it when she’s good and ready. After all, she’s that kind of person. If you try to crack her open like an egg, she'll call you bitch and stop talking to you for 2 weeks. Trust me, I've tried.
Her hands brushed mine again, though this time she seemed more daring. Her index curled up around my pinky, as if testing the waters. I responded in kind, and she took that as a sign to be bolder. Her fingers cautiously crawled up further and soon our hands were intertwined. My stomach did something that the rest of me could not; a fucking backflip.
I really didn’t want this night to end so soon and it seemed as though Jiamin thought the same. She suggested that we take a walk along the bay because ‘food coma’. I happily agreed and that’s how we wound up walking along the bay hand in hand.
Her gaze was drawn to the city skyline on the opposite side of the bay, just as mine was to her. Her deep brown eyes hidden among too long messy bangs, petite pink lips and razor-sharp jawline were all illuminated -no- highlighted by the moonlight. She really was something else. I could almost just-
"The view damn nice."
My head snapped to said view. Little boxes glowed with artificial hues of blues, greens, whites and yellows. They peppered the orderly array of skyscrapers, starkly contrasting the night sky. Each building was interwoven with one another, smaller ones disappeared in the shadow of larger ones and the ones that were front and center demanded attention like a whiny 5 year old. Some towered above others in a supposed race to be the tallest, but never in a disorderly fashion. Every tower had its own distinct curves, angles and edges. Shapes that would normally belong in a dull geometry paper were fused together into deceitfully simple artistic hybrids, giving each building its own sense of character. Yet they all managed to fit together nicely into a coordinated group of semi homogenized modernity.
Pristine, structured, and beautiful. Truly fitting for a metropolis.
"It’s weird how every tiny box that’s lit has a worker inside" Jiamin gestured to a well-lit office building. She turned to me.
"Do you think our lives are gonna be like that? Working until 8+ in a box then go home and sleep and then do it again?"
"Maybe? That depends on the job type and-"
"Do you want that?"
My expression furrowed. I’m not really certain of my reply but let it slip anyways. Bad Rachel.
" I-I don’t know. I haven’t thought that far. I mean we're so young and all.”
She quirked her brows.
"Then why you study so hard?" Despite her choice of words, her tone holds no animosity, just genuine curiosity.
"Well, because I like it." Jiamin continued to look at me, expecting more. I took a deep breath and continued. "And also because it gives me security"
"Like it opens up more doors? "
"No. It gives me something..." My eyes searched the ground as though the right words would appear at my feet. I swallowed. "to be proud of"
Jiamin fell silent at that. Her eyebrows furrowed, whether in thought or in sympathy I don’t know, but I hope it wasn't the latter. I don’t need that.
She chewed on her lips, contemplating on whether or not she should say whatever it was that was on her mind. I had half the mind to ask but again, I knew better.
"Sometimes I fail things on purpose."
My jaw dropped.
"People think I damn useless. Like cannot do this, cannot do that. -she brought up her fingers to count - I lazy, stupid, hopeless, cannot make it."
I frowned and knitted my brows, trying to stitch together what she was trying to say.
"So you want to spite them?"
"Maybe. At least I know I'm good at failing"
I fell into silence, letting that sentence stew in my thoughts for a moment. I knew what I wanted to convey but I didn’t know how to convey it right. Neither of us cared much for words of pity after all.
"You know, I heard the best way to say 'fuck you' to someone is to be happy."
"You think I not happy is it?" She growled.
I held my hands up defensively. "No no. That’s not what I’m saying. I'm trying to say that maybe you should consider what does make you happy."
Jiamin paused for a moment, lips pursed in thought. She turned away to look at the skyline again and that was the end of that conversation. There were more words to be said about this topic, but they weren't going to be said today. That's fine with me.
The journey home was filled with a comfortable silence, the kind that I've always enjoyed with her. Though this time there was an added feeling of warmth and a silly soft smile plastered on my face. I never thought I'd like hand holding this much since primary school.
She followed me to my doorstep, and we embraced in a hug that lasted way longer than it should. As she departed, bidding an I'll text you when I'm home -a mere formality in Singapore- I began to wonder.
Did she feel the same?
My answer came the next day, when I found a bouquet of flowers carefully tucked under my desk. Attached to it was a handwritten note with an anonymous sign off. I had only read half the note when I realized who my secret admirer was.
The messy scrawl was practically indecipherable to all but the best doctors, but I had seen it far too many times to not know what the squiggles conveyed. I sighed. I told her more than a dozen times that she should've done her handwriting homework, stating that unlike every other mundane piece of work she never did in primary school, this would come back to bite her. Only once had she listened.
It was apparent from the first line of the note. The ‘a’ in dear, in my name and scattered about in every other word that demanded the vowel stood out like a sore thumb. Unlike every other letter which was hideously malformed beyond recognition, the ‘a’s were written perfectly. From the not quite circular tri-pointed body to the tail flick at the end, the ‘a’ was a perfect imitation of the template we were forced to trace over as kids.
I pulled out my phone, shooting my not-so-secret admirer a text thanking her for the bouquet, watching in amusement as her face turned the same color as those flowers.