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Artwork by Lily Greenwood

 

This isn’t really a story, but the memory of one, preserved like dried flowers between paper pages. Boy meets girl has been told and retold. Boy dumps girl has variations too. But not boy abandons girl, or boy loses faith in girl, or boy reimagines girl as a monster and runs far, far away. To clarify, boy and girl isn’t boyfriend and girlfriend. He wasn’t an ex, but an ex-something, an ex-maybe. An ex-almost.

We were both the type that was easily detached from others, which meant people were surprised when they found out we were close. And they’d tiptoe around the subject of him and handle it carefully, like he was some sort of cautionary tale.

He’s a bit callous sometimes, and speaks without thinking in a way that comes off too blunt. There’s a disconnect between his mouth and his brain. He has a whole limb-in-mouth syndrome, when he decides to open his mouth, which is not often. Do you mind that?

I’d tell them no, because I’m similar.

So you’re similar, but not the same, right?

Right.

People thought that if we weren’t the same, like two parallel trains running the same course, there would be an angle askew somewhere and one day we would collide.

No, I don’t think he’s the type to be involved in collisions.

Nobody’s the ‘type’ to be involved. But everyone is, at some point.

From the outside he didn’t seem accident-prone, at least not when he was pinned to the wall of a first year party like a climbing rose.

But I remember noticing how his stare was blank and glassy, looking out at the crowd but not really seeing anything. He would occasionally take a sip from his bottle, but its volume wasn’t actually diminishing. Maybe he was a teetotaller but too afraid to show it.

I remember quietly sliding along the wall to move out of others’ way, and ending up next to him. We stood in silence for a few minutes, in that groove of serenity carved into white noise, like we had found a little pocket of introversion all for ourselves.

“I’m so bad at parties,” he said.

“Me too,” I answered.

When he finally looked in my direction, it was like he was looking through me, not at me.

He smirked, “You don’t drink either?”

Almost on cue, cider slipped down the wrong pipe and I replied through coughs, “I’m stellar at hiding how much I drink, actually.”

“Well, Atlantis thrived beneath the water, not above it.” A smile crawled at the corners of his mouth. “As in, you can’t judge people based on appearance alone.”

He slouched, though he was very tall. He kept his chin down and avoided eye contact. His shirt was neatly ironed but misbuttoned.

“For the record, I would’ve realised you weren’t a socialite even if you didn’t tell me.”

“I don’t really like bodies of people clumped together in small spaces. I don’t really like people, period. I’d rather be alone.”

“Oh. Sorry to interrupt, then.”

“Not you.” He corrected himself quickly, “You’re fine.”

I looked into the bottom of my drink, staring into myself. “I’m similar. I don’t not like people, but social events aren’t my thing. To put it clumsily, I’m more of a social larvae than a social butterfly.”

“What a bizarre analogy,” he mused. “Yeah. Human interaction is an introvert problem.”

I shook my head. “Not a problem, really. It’s just who we are. Problems send you to the hospital, prison, or the morgue. Everything in between is just inconvenient.”

He turned to me immediately. “I don’t know many people like you.”

“Like me?”

“Yeah. In the world we live in, extroverts thrive, introverts don’t. And I don’t know many people like you, who are like me. You think we can stick together?”

“Of course we can. You didn’t need to ask.”

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We stuck together long after that party, and had a lot in common, so we grew close quickly. I wasn’t the type to make friends easily and neither was he, but it became habitual for us to do things alone, together. I’d be in the fiction section of the bookstore while he’d peruse non-fiction. I’d plug my earphones in, he’d walk alongside me with his headphones on.

But after that, he would try to educate me about Nietzche’s Death of God theory and I would clarify Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness, or I’d connect our devices with a splitter and we’d listen to Nujabes in silence. Being alone didn’t resemble loneliness for very long after that.

We never expressly pigeonholed our relationship, but maybe my mind did. Because when somebody instinctively reaches for your hand in a crowd, or idly blows on your fingers if it’s cold outside, or catches your wrist to get your attention, it feels like something stable to anchor yourself to while the world spins around you.  

“I’m not a fun person,” he would sometimes remind me. “I’m actually a really boring person. Very vanilla.”

“That’s okay. We’re the same branch of person.”

He ended up familiarizing himself with the minutiae of my mundane life, as I did his. If the sky seemed bluer than usual, or the bus arrived late, or I learned a new word, I’d let him know. The last one was kismet.

“’Kismet’ sounds familiar. Is that like karma?”

“Yeah. It’s like fate. There are a million romantic words for it but I’ve never heard kismet until today.”

He was quiet for a minute. “There’s a word that describes good fortune entering your life, out of the blue. Do you know it?”

I didn’t know what it was, or maybe I was too tired that day to remember.

It was serendipity.

“Like the John Cusack movie?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Like you.”

Emotional expression was not my strength. But in that moment, my heart grew so much it could burst out of my chest. I tried articulating that feeling and typed it out, but backspaced it just as quickly. If I opened that Pandora’s Box I might never be able to shut it again.

I got frustrated that sometimes he didn’t realise how much I cared for him. But as time passed, I realized I couldn’t punish him for not being telepathic. He wasn’t superhuman. Subsequently, he never got the message that I didn’t care much about what we did, the when or the where, but I would never not feel at peace when we were together. For once, silence wasn’t a space I had to pry open with my fingers. It was a room, a pancake parlour, an old bookshop, a car floating down the freeway, and getting lost in backend streets, watching orchestras and reading side-by-side in a library. Sound was unwelcome. I didn’t need to act and I didn’t need to speak and neither did he, and that was everything to me.

Of course, I didn’t tell him any of that. I just smiled, and stayed quiet, and expected him to read my mind.

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This story isn’t a didactic one, but it has two lessons to offer, and neither is about love.   

Lesson number one is that most conversations are a form of Chinese whisper. The nature of Chinese whispers is this: A speaks to B, B speaks to C, C speaks to D, to an infinite linear string of hearers, until the information at the finish is a mangled interpretation of what was said at the start. The players of that game are hearers, not listeners, because they only need to hear what is being said, not understand. And games do not have substantial consequences, but life does.

I learned that lesson the hard way. I said something I didn’t mean, at the wrong time and the wrong place, to A. A spoke to B, who spoke to C, who spoke to D. Mouths became megaphones, and words about me got caught in the wind and carried away, far out of my reach. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing at a primary or collegiate level. Once you misspeak, retracting what comes out of your mouth is as feasible as chasing smoke and catching it between your fingertips.

Lesson number two is that defending yourself from people who talk behind your back is hard if you don’t talk much yourself. By instinct, you stay wordless and just let the hyperboles shade and fill in your outlines until others complete the image themselves. They put together what they believe and what they hear and if there is enough similarity between the two, the pieces click into place. Even if it doesn’t make sense, or it’s only conjecture, or they think it could be wrong, you haven’t given them anything else to work with.

So you end up walking around like unfinished art that’s canvassed with rhetoric that hasn’t been contextualised, fragmented bits of behaviour that have broken to the surface and splintered pieces of soul, to stitch up a person who doesn’t really exist. But this new monster fits the old mould, and there’s just enough resemblance there to call it logic.

I hadn’t heard from him in a while, so I sent him a message.

“Long time no see.”

When I began to lose track of the days I didn’t get a response, I sent another.

“Are you okay?”

More time passed before I realised what a more appropriate text would have been.

Are we okay?

Joining the dots was the easy part, but the same couldn’t be said about stepping back and realising the picture that had been created was monstrous and coming out of its outlines.

It didn’t matter if he was B, C or Z. He became a player, a hearer, who heard terrible things and believed terrible things. So I asked him to listen to me instead, so he would believe that the rumours weren’t true and I was still the same girl.

I sent one last message.

“After everything we’ve been through, surely you of all people will let me prove I’m not the kind of person you’ve heard I am?”

Wallflower. Atlantis. Social larvae. Vanilla. Serendipitous. All those epithets still applied. That girl still existed.

Yeah. I knew that girl. I liked her a lot.

But I don’t like you.

If the text glowed, it wouldn’t register. I typed a new message, then deleted it, and another, then deleted it. Then I deleted the whole thing, the entire thread, every picture and secret shoved into the back of that digital wasteland. Each pixel undid me stitch by stitch, every opening I’d drawn closed and shut myself under all these years burst open at the seams.

I wasted a lot of time hypothesising why he no longer wanted to listen. Some reasons were cynical. I wondered whether he had any independent judgment at all, or whether his consciousness was the kind that switched off when the screenwriters in his mind turned out the lights and went home. But some were realistic. Maybe he had a history with people who presented themselves as one thing and turned out to be another, or his benefit of the doubt was a scarce resource. Generally your view of the world isn’t touch and go, but your view of a girl you met shoved into the corner of a party is.

It took too long for me to realise that on paper, I’d coloured him with epithets that made him someone like me; introverted, literary, contemplative. But there was no shading to this portrait, and in real life, light doesn’t exist without darkness. Perhaps I vested too much faith in someone who didn’t really exist in the first place.

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When a reader abandons a book in the middle of the story, the ending still exists even if it’s unwritten. This ending crystallises through a lens of assumption, and becomes an instrument of clairvoyance. The last few pages can be blank and you’ll still predict it accurately.

It’s something along the lines of – he won’t talk, you won’t talk. The silence between you two will turn to space, but just the empty and blank kind. You won’t reach out if it means he’ll turn his back on you, and you’d rather preserve the illusion that he might not. And if there’s one time that you want him to read your mind, it’s right now, even though it’s impossible.

So you’re just not going to look back, and you’ll be fine. Soon, there will be so many yesterdays you’re going to lose count. Soon, your tomorrows will run into each other and synthesise. Soon, you’ll forget where you were up to in the story, close the book, and tuck it away in the corner of the bookshelf where it belongs. Boy met girl, past tense, the story of a memory. Full stop.

 

Clarissa Kwee

The author Clarissa Kwee

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