Rachel Evangeline Chiong

Short Story - Details

Details

(2015)

I couldn’t tell if the echoes were coming from the train station or my mind. My forehead pulsed numbly, as I pressed it against the handle of the suitcase wedged between my legs. I shut my eyes, forcing myself to fill my lungs like water balloons and stretch them to their limit until I thought I could hear their squeaky surface rub against my ribcage. That calmed me down somehow.

I went through the motions of sipping my mango and kiwi drink. I had ordered it because it was our favourite flavours in one,  but I swore never buy it again. I sucked the straw, the sour acid trailing down my throat and into my thudding heart.

The moment was coming. After we’d say goodbye, I wouldn’t see him until the next school year. People changed over a few months, and in the slimmest chance that he did, I wanted to remember my last moment with the person I knew today.

Was that weird?

I relished the present in order to live in the past.

I soaked up every detail like I was a sponge and the world was an ocean flowing around me, while I latched onto the muddy ground,  eager to absorb as much of the sea as I could. All over echoes circled me, footsteps waterfall-ed into so many different words and voices, threatening to drown me. I let out a pathetic gasp of air and tilted my head upwards. Above me the ceiling domed so high I felt like I was looking at the sky. The infrastructure bunched up in the corners like it was cloth, rippling into fine folds. This could have been a movie set.

And the starring role was about to make his appearance.

He rounded the corner and my world suddenly grew small. The ceiling stopped existing and all I could register was everything in between the top of his head to the bottom of his shoes. He wiped his hand on his jacket, his fingers curling inwards then outwards with the grace of a conductor.

I lowered my eyes quickly so it wouldn’t look like I noticed that he returned.

“Back!”

I saw his muddied boots first. He smelled like coffee. I breathed in. And vanilla.

I glanced upwards, trying to feign surprise, but his smile crawled up to his eyes, and I mirrored it like a fool. “Took you a while.”

“Ha, couldn’t find the bathroom.”

“Wow, you’re an idiot,” I said, but my voice lacked its usual bite, which made me sound weak. Instead I fingered the tag on his suitcase.

“My train’s at the platform, I better get going.”

“Oh?” My jaw locked into place, until I jammed it open.“Well, you don’t want to miss it.”

I stood up quickly. We were standing so close together I couldn’t see his face. I set my drink on his suitcase and clapped my hands together, their clamminess making a wet, dead sound. “I hope you have a great summer!” My throat was so dry; I felt waves underneath my skin pulling me further inside. “I’ll miss you, you know.”

He raised his eyebrow and then glanced downwards at me, bangs falling over his forehead. “I’ll be back in September.”

I didn’t want to say anything, scared that one false word would shatter this moment. I stared at the maroon sweater peeking from between the zippers of his coat and thought that it looked like a cut with blood glistening through two slits of skin. And I wondered if I could maybe be the band-aid.

So I slipped my arms inside his coat and pressed my cheek against his chest. “I’ll still miss you though.”

His arms draped around my shoulders, rubbing my back. “Yeah, me too.”

I shut my eyes and soaked up every detail: how his sweater tickled my nose, how it scratched my cheek, how I couldn’t breathe because I was made for oxygen,  but I still tried to drown myself in him.

The insides of his coat were warm.

His fingertips pressed against my thin sweater were warm.

His chest rose and fell like a surge of waves, tilting my head back and forth into a lullaby. “Stay in touch, okay?” I heard him say, his voice sounding like it was in my head.

“Yeah,” my voice gurgled with phlegm. I pulled away to cleared it. “Yeah.”

I turned back to lift my cup from his suitcase, the drink leaving a darkened halo on the polyester cover.

“Well,” he wheeled the suitcase away from me, snapping the handle upwards.

He was leaving.

“See you.”

He was leaving.

I smiled.

My eyes were sparkling from what he probably thought was the lighting or some romantic movie magic that the station had cast on us. But I knew they were just tears and that I was making my eyes as small as possible so they wouldn’t escape.

As he retreated, I stared. Like I could document every millisecond and glue them all together into a book where he would walk endlessly in the corner, while I flipped the pages over and over again. If only that were possible. Then he turned right and he was gone.


Suddenly my world felt hollow. Noises didn’t reach my ears. I was Saturn and they orbited me like rings, miles of vacuum space separating us. I sat in the subway towards home with my head against the window, bumping into it every time the train slowed. I was consumed with trying to recreate the memory in my head, like a starving artist, scrambling for materials I didn’t have. So when the fortune teller sat next to me and asked what I was doing, I didn’t stop to wonder how she knew I wasn’t napping.

“I’m trying to remember something important.”

“Why,” the lady asked. “Did you forget something?”

I sighed. “No, but I’m scared I will eventually.”

Her eyes lit up underneath cakes of mascara. She lowered her voice and tilted her chin towards me. “I’ll let you in on a little secret, my dear.” She pointed to her ear, which was lined with piercings and motioned me closer. “There’s a way you can never forget a memory. You just have to be moving very quickly and not at all at the same time. And then whisper the first thing you said in your memory.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. Voices are sounds with unique patterns just like thumbprints and snowflakes. Whisper the words and you’ll be brought back to your memory, which you can relive over and over again.”

The intercom crackled overhead, announcing the approaching stop.

I gazed at the woman skeptically, but she just winked and got up. I called back at her. “But a place where I’m moving quickly and not moving at all?”

She tapped the muddy subway floor with the heel of her boot. “My dear, every second you get closer to home, but you haven’t made a step.” Then she walked out of the car. I leaned against the window to see if I could catch a glimpse of her as the train began to speed away, but she wasn’t there.


Life gradually reclaimed the rest of the week. My planner grew pregnant with dates and exam schedules, my history textbook became my bible, and slowly the memory and my encounter with the fortune teller buried themselves underneath blankets of dates and philosophers until it slumbered silently. But on the subway home, as I flipped through my notebook, searching for a term I did not know, a note he had written slipped out. It was a simple one, asking me if I had wanted to get lunch after class. But the loops of his handwriting reminded me of the loops of his hair, and I needed to see him again.

As the subway car slipped into a tunnel, I remembered what the fortune teller had told me. I lowered my head in the corner of the car, like I was praying, and searched in the crevices of my brain for the words I had said that day.

Took you a while.

The world flashed, as the air grew thin and noise filled my ears. Then, like waking up from a dream, I was back in the train station.

“Ha, couldn’t find a bathroom.”

“Wow, you’re an idiot,” My heart was thumping a million drums, here he was in front of me and there were so many things I needed to say, but I couldn’t pick one. Instead I fingered the tag on his suitcase, rubbing my thumb on the shiny, plastic surface.

“My train’s at the platform, I better get going.”

“Oh?” I said. The familiar rush of dread lodged itself in my throat. “Well, you don’t want to miss it.” I set my drink down. “I hope you have a great summer! I’ll miss you, you know.”

When he glanced downwards at me, a surge of excitement washed over me like summer waves. “I’ll be back in September.”

Then I embraced him. It felt just as I had remembered. The pumping boiler in my chest slowed, as the soothing heat of him spilled onto my hands and arms and down my body, stilling the swirling ocean in my head.

“I’ll still miss you, though.” I whispered.

“Yeah, me too.” His arms went around my shoulders.

Everything I had cataloged into my memory was there, and I tried to breathe him in again, but I couldn’t drown when my sea was so still. So instead I floated. His voice was sweet when he told me to stay in touch, and my voice was hoarse when I replied.

“Well,” He reached towards me only to take the handle of his suitcase. “See you.”

I no longer had any regrets when I smiled. Because I knew I would see him again.

Very soon.


This was my deep, dark secret. This is why I smiled to myself in the cafeteria. This is why I told my friends I was too busy to study with them. Instead I would rush back to the subway to find a secluded seat in the corner, where I could lower my head, and whisper my spell. It worked just like magic. Right after the moment he turned the corner and disappeared, I would wake up as the train arrived at the last station, which was also my stop. My imperfect world had grown perfect, and I lived in bliss when every evening was a romantic tryst. Until the day, of course, when he woke me up.


Hey. I’m thinking of transferring next school year.’


No.


There’s this college here that’s nearer to my hometown…’


No.


‘…and if I switch, they’re offering me a scholarship. I really hope you understand…’


No.


‘…I’ll still come down to say hi, so we can hang out on reading week…’


No, no, no, no, no! My hand shook as my thumb hovered over my phone, the messages turning into a hieroglyphic blur until I couldn’t read them anymore. I needed to leave. I needed to go somewhere people didn’t keep changing and leaving me behind. The asphalt was hot as I ran out of the house. The weatherman warned everyone to stay indoors or die of the heat-wave but at that time it was exactly what I wanted.

At the subway station, my head swam with frustration, as I dug around my pockets only to discover that I had left my pass at home. My eyes watered at my own stupidity and I stumbled around for the nearest machine. Tears and snot streamed down my face, while I jammed the machine with bills. The tokens fell into the steel funnel incessantly, tinkling like rain, feeding the stormy ocean stirring behind my eyes. Scooping the tokens desperately, I plunged them into my pocket and used one to board the train that would take me to the other side.


“Wow, you’re an idiot,” I said bitterly.

He smiled and shook his head, rubbing the back of it. “Ha, I guess I am. Hey, my train’s at the platform, I better get going.”

“Oh?” I couldn’t let him get away this time. “Don’t go.”

He smiled again, laughing off my sincerity. “But I have to.” He reached towards me and took the suitcase. “Thanks for watching this for me. Stay in touch, okay?” He was turning. “See you!”

I stood in the station stupidly, watching him leave, holding my jacket closer to myself. I never grasped how cold it was in the memory. In the real world, it was summer. Then in a panic, I realized that I hadn’t stopped him. I lunged forward, but the edges of my vision grew dim and then painfully bright as the subway car came back into view. I kept falling with nothing to grab, until I hit my head on the steel edge of the bench in front of me.


My palm nursed my throbbing forehead, when I sat up in the sticky summer heat. Breathing heavily, I glanced out the window to the other side of the platform where the next train had stalled, preparing to make its journey down the other end of the line. Without thinking, I ran out of subway car, across the platform, my legs almost quaking at the sudden attack of air-conditioning, then into the other train. The alarm rang as the doors shut behind me and the train began to move. I sat down to shut my eyes.

“My train’s at the platform, I better get going.”

I stayed seated.

I fingered the tag on his suitcase. His name had smudged, because he hadn’t used a permanent marker.

A silence hung between us and he sighed. “You know I can’t miss it, right?”

Why was he sighing, like it was so sad for him to be leaving, when he was probably overjoyed to finally go home.

“I really have to go, I’m sorry. We’ll keep in touch, okay?”

I couldn’t look at his face. I couldn’t look up at his sweater or down at his shoes. I went through the motions of taking a drink of my sour smoothie.

Then my head rang with alarm when I saw him retreating again, and I choked back the acid that came crawling up my throat.


I was back in the subway, the taste from my drink somehow still lingered in my throat. Why was the universe being so unfair? He already couldn’t stay in real life, why steal him from my memory too? The subway reached the end of the line, but my chances had not. I jumped out of the car and across the platform, thankful that the place was empty after the lunch-hour rush. I stole into the next train, grabbing the handle of the bench in front of me and pressing my forehead against the cool steel breathing shallowly and praying for another go.


“Took you a while.”

“Ha, couldn’t find the bathroom.”

“I love you.”

“I’m sorry?” He looked at me, his eyebrows arched, and I knew he was mocking me. The corner of his mouth upturned like I told a joke he had already heard.

“Don’t be sorry, don’t leave, please.” I hugged him, my arms straining against my jacket. His sweater was itchy and scratched my cheek. It hurt and I tried to breathe him in, but all I felt like was suffocating.

“Listen, I really gotta go.” I felt his arms come around to peel me off him, like I was a leech, sucking up the blood on his maroon sweater, because instead of a band-aid I had become a parasite. “I’m sorry.” His voice oozed with apology. “We’ll keep in touch, all right?” And he grabbed his suitcase and left, my drink toppling off it, its vomit-yellow contents spilling onto the floor.


I woke up, ran across the platform, and sat in the next train.


“Took you a while.”

“Ha, couldn’t find the bathroom.”

As he rubbed the back of his head, his laugh was horsey, high, and an abrasion to my ears.

“Wow, you’re an idiot,” I said. “Your train’s here, you better get going.”

“Oh?” He said, surprised, looking at his watch then at me. “I knew that, but- I thought I’d stay for a bit longer and say goodbye.”

The ocean inside me began to boil, I wanted to pour it all over him and sear his bruised maroon sweater and his leather jacket., until the skin of his treacherous, lying face peeled off. “Well, if you’re just going to leave. Then leave now. You don’t want to miss your train.”

His eyes widened, he almost looked hurt. He seemed to hesitate for a moment, but he took the zipper of his jacket and pulled it up, hiding the sweater and sealing himself in. “I’ll go then. We’ll talk about this later.”

And he left, his suitcase clacking annoyingly on the floor and leaving me seething, squeezing the plastic cup in my hand until it became flat and jabbed my palm painfully.


I woke up. In a dizzy haze, I watched the day-worn office workers filing out of the train. Hot tears began to fill my eyes again. What was wrong with me? Why was I hurting him? I just wanted him to stay, why couldn’t he understand that? Like a tired dog I followed the crowd out the train, but broke away from them to enter the next one.


“Took you a while.”

“Ha, couldn’t find the bathroom.”

“Wow, you’re an idiot,” I said. I fingered the tag on his suitcase, but the paper loop ripped off.

“My train’s at the platform, I better get going.”

“Oh?” I said. “Well, you don’t want to miss it.”

I stood up and slipped my jacket off, letting it fall onto the wire bench behind me. I set my drink on his suitcase and clapped my hands together, the force stinging my palms. “I hope you have a great summer!”

Then I stared at him. He looked exactly the same. But I didn’t feel anything.

“I’ll miss you, you know.” I said, reaching towards him and pulling the zipper up his jacket, sealing it closed.

“I’ll be back in September.”

I smiled, knowing that the fiercer I did, the harder it would be for tears to escape. He stretched his hand to me and I gave him the handle to his suitcase.

“Stay in touch, okay?” He said.

“Yeah.”

Then he left.


The lights outside the subway flickered, making the midnight stragglers look like ghosts as they climbed up the flight of stairs that lead to the bus platforms. On the window’s reflection I saw the fortune teller sitting beside me.

“Give it back.” I said, my voice was hoarse, but I did not take my eyes off her.

“What back, my dear?” She said asked.

“My memory. I want it back, untainted before everything changed.” I snapped my head around to glare at her straight in the eyes. “What you gave me is a curse. There’s no good having to remember something that isn’t the same.”

“There’s no good living in the past either.” Her crooked smile was sharper than the plastic cup that had pierced my hand. “And I’m afraid I can’t give it back.”

“What?” I stood up. She didn’t understand how cruel it was. I wanted to turn into a typhoon and drown her in it over and over again. “You’re the one that did this to me. Reverse it, use your magic!”

“I never did anything. You did it all. I simply told you how to do it.”

“Please,” I hated how pathetic I sounded. “Then tell me how to get it back.”

She shook her head helplessly. “It is impossible to restore the original memory. I can only give you two choices. Either you keep the memory you have now, and you can spend the rest of your days fixing it until you’re satisfied. There’s some hope in that. Or I can erase it all together, and you will truly forget everything that happened.”

I sat back down on the bench heavily. I didn’t know what was scarier: the world above the subway line where I would live without him or down here underneath the ground where I would live with my many versions of him. My mind felt like a shoreline, the water creeping closer and closer, lapping against my thoughts, beckoning me towards the right choice. I rested my head wearily on the fortune teller’s shoulder and then told her my decision.


“Back!” I said, holding up the smoothies, my palms were freezing and I regretted telling the server I didn’t need a drink tray.

“Took you a while.” He laughed, wheeling his luggage behind him.

“Sorry, I couldn’t decide.” I handed him his drink, and we left the station. The city met us with a blast of cold wind, the summer heat long gone.  The pavement was still wet from the early snow that had tried to fall that morning, as we navigated underneath the castles of construction scaffolding heading to his relatives’ place where he would be staying for the reading week.

“God, I think I missed this place.” He said, stepping over a puddle of spilled coffee.

“Well, this place didn’t miss you.”

He smiled. “But you did, right?”

“Please,” I laughed, hitting the button on the cross walk, while we waited at the edge of the curb. “The world doesn’t revolve around you.”

“Okay, so I’m not the sun, but how about the moon?”

The white stick-figure blinked across the road. I turned to look at him as we walked. “What?”

“Can I be the moon that revolves around you?”

“That doesn’t even make sense.”

“No, but think of it this way. The moon’s pull is the reason why the tides and oceans surge at night. And seventy percent of the earth’s surface is covered with water. So you know,” He tipped the unopened smoothie at me, “it still makes a big difference.”

I snatched the drink from him, “You’re so full of yourself. If you really liked me you would have stayed.” But I was smiling, and I jabbed his purple straw through the plastic covering. “Anyway, here you go.”

He took the drink and peered at it from the bottom. “Interesting, what flavor is this?”

“Kiwi and mango. I haven’t tried it before, but it’s a mix of our favorites so I figured that was a good place to start.”

He took a sip and gagged. “God! It’s awful!”

“It can’t be.” I popped my own and drank it. The slush burned my throat painfully with the most unpleasant sweet and sour mixture. “Oh, God. Remind me never to buy this drink again.”

I told him to wait a second, so I could throw out the drinks. The bottom rang hollowly as I tossed them in. I watched the bin’s lid for a moment as it swung back and forth like a metronome, before I took his arm and walked away.