Nobody Loves You Right Now
By Cyril Wong
Patrick first mooted the idea of seeing the fortune-teller. He had read about her on the Internet. Apparently the woman worked from a dodgy-sounding hole-in-the-wall that sold crystals and Chinese talismans on the first floor of Bras Basah Complex, a place more known for selling stationery, second-hand books and arts-and-crafts. Patrick was whispering everything about this fortune-teller to me during our Linguistics lecture in our first year of university. We were seated right at the back of a lecture hall and found the module boring; the lecturer, a mumbling, male, Caucasian academic in his late 40s, was failing to make things interesting enough for us to stop chatting.
Patrick and I first met during our first tutorial for this module together and we connected not as a result of our common study topics, but on the level of tarot cards, astrology and the supernatural. Once over lunch at the university canteen, I had confessed that I could "see" things. I had unexpectedly felt that I could trust him enough to reveal this aspect of myself. He had since become fascinated by my descriptions of otherworldly encounters. Such encounters were not particularly dramatic or exciting to me, but seeing Patrick's unwavering interest in what I had to say kept me sharing about my experiences.
"They don't jump out at me or anything. Most of the time, I hardly see them at all. I just ... feel them, or I can feel their feelings, if that makes any sense. I even know their thoughts. And once in a while, I see a shadow, or an outline... but nothing too clear. Once I saw an old man in the middle of the road, bowing his head and looking really sad about something. I called out to him, but after a vehicle moved past him to block my view, he was gone, and I knew I had seen a ghost."
Patrick had listened intently. I had wondered what the other students in the warm and humid, open-air canteen, must be thinking upon seeing us, two skinny, darkly tanned Chinese boys fresh out of National Service, clad in loose T-shirts, three-quarter cargo shorts and flip-flops – we had to look like wannabe jocks discussing sports instead of ghosts. "How long have you seen these things?"
"For as long as I can remember, I think. I used to think I was nuts. I even wanted to seek help. But I thought that since these things weren't bothering me anyway, I could just ignore them whenever I wanted or needed to focus on something else. I thought I would just learn to live with it."
"You did the right thing, man. Can you imagine if they certify you as insane and feed you meds and shit like that? Those kinds of medication turn you into a zombie, you know. I heard they can fuck up your brain in more ways than you can imagine. Best to keep your ability to yourself."
I had never told anyone about my ability until that point. Even my own parents knew nothing about it. I had no idea why I had decided to tell Patrick over lunch that day. Maybe I just had the feeling that he would be open-minded enough to accept what I had to say without judgement. Perhaps I had been intrigued by his fascination and curiosity about what he jokingly termed my "condition". Since then I had found out that Patrick loved everything to do with the supernatural and the occult, although he stressed that he never practised any of that shit himself. He just loved reading and knowing about all that. He even kept a pack of tarot cards in his bag, just for the fun of it. He had claimed to know how to read palms; he said he learnt it from a book he bought in Malaysia. He could tell me what every line in our hands had to say regarding our past and our possible future; not that I remembered anything he said about my past or future for I had decided quietly that his revelations, when he finally did analyse my hands, had been somewhat generic. I only remembered that he had said I would lead "a long and happy life", which was hardly specific at all. In any case, our conversations were never boring. He turned out to be my closest friend in the university thus far, which was great since I generally found it hard to make friends or connect with anyone. I liked to think that I was a natural introvert, but I suspected that I was really afraid that people would ridicule me if ever they found out about my spirit-encounters.
The seminar room was getting chilly and I cursed quietly for not bringing a sweater to school. It was hard to sit through a dull lecture in a cold room wearing just a thin shirt, shorts and slippers. There was a general rule here that we had to wear at least sandals and longer pants while in school, but nobody heeded such regulations because of the oppressive, tropical climate and the fact that the way the campus grounds were laid out demanded that we were constantly climbing up and down stairs to get to one place or another. I only regretted breaking the rules every time I stepped into any air-conditioned classroom or lecture hall.
"This fortune-teller seems quite amazing," Patrick was carrying on. "She can tell us a whole lot just by looking at charts and making calculations based on our birth dates and times. She can even know whether you have the Third Eye or not, just by looking at her charts."
"But I already know I can see things what ... Why do I need her to confirm this?"
"Maybe she can tell you why you have this special gift lah? Or shed more light on what you can do with your X-Men power!"
I laughed. I did not foresee this fortune-teller being a mentor like Professor Xavier from that X-Men movie, one who would guide me and bring me to new heights with my special power. What guidance did I need anyway? So I could see or sense things. No big deal, really. Or, at least, I had never allowed my "gift" to mean anything special. I just possessed a mildly intensified sixth sense. That was all.
The shop was exactly as Patrick had read about from the Internet, except for the purple. Everything was purple, from the shelves, which displayed statues of Laughing Buddhas alongside chunks of opalescent, crystal mountain-monstrosities, to the walls and the counter behind which the fortune-teller sat. Maybe purple was her lucky colour. The woman we had come to see was a middle-aged woman in a black suit with messily permed hair that had been dyed a disorientating shade of bright red. The almost haphazard way her hair had been permed and coloured did nothing to mitigate the chubbiness of her cheeks, which pushed up and reduced her already-small eyes to comedic slits.
We sat down before her at the counter. She started speaking to Patrick in Mandarin and he helped to introduce the two of us, probably alerting her to the fact that I was hopelessly monolingual. She looked and sounded like she could be a noisy, distant relative that one might bump into at weddings or funerals; I wondered if Patrick thought the same thing. Coming from an English-speaking, Peranakan-Chinese family, I had a limited Chinese vocabulary, and although my parents had the foresight to make me study Mandarin in my early days of school, I still could not manage to hold a decent conversation with anyone in the language to save my life. Suddenly the fortune-teller was smiling at me and spoke in a rather loud, laughably sing-song voice, smiling broadly at the same time, "So, you Mark, huh. My name is Helen. You got question for me or not. You must come with question, then I help you. But give me your birth date and time first, okay?"
I gave Patrick a look. He simply nodded in encouragement, barely repressing a burgeoning grin, so I provided her with the relevant information. She scribbled down the date and timing on a piece of paper, told us both to hang on a minute, mumbled something else in Mandarin, and scuttled to the backroom of her shop. I heard the sound of a printer running and spitting out paper. "She's doing her calculations on her computer, then printing out the results," Patrick explained, as we waited patiently. It sounded all too mathematical and humdrum for my liking.
In a few minutes, Helen returned and sat back down again, this time with a few sheets of paper that she plonked down in front of us. I could see only charts with symbols and Chinese characters that were totally foreign to me. I noticed that she had not stopped smiling since we entered her little shop in Bras Basah. She smiled consistently even when she was talking, which had to be tiring for her face. "So you got any special question or not?" she was asking me now.
"Er... not really... maybe I want to ask about... my future? Will my life be okay?" I was making it up as I went along. I had nothing specific to ask. Despite what Patrick had told me, I was deeply hesitant in talking about my ability to see things with anyone else.
With all seriousness, she studied the symbols and the characters on the papers in front of her, as I distractedly analysed the brown beads around her fat wrist. I noticed there was a faint smell of Chinese medication or ointment in the air. Helen pointed to something on one of the pages, then she looked back up. "You no worries lah. You won't be very rich. But you'll have long life. You'll have wife and children by thirty-something, almost forty; two children, maybe boy and girl; or two girls. But you'll be working hard for long time to take care of family. Not much money coming in."
Patrick sniggered a little too smugly. "She told me I will marry before I hit 30 and retire by 40-something."
"You different lah. Everybody different," said Helen, obviously trying to console me; not that being poor was something I was worried about. Nothing wrong with having to work all of one's life. Anyway I was not even sure I believed in any of this. Patrick and I were doing our majors in English Language. What possible job could Patrick do after school that would make him rich enough to retire early? I imagined us both joining the teaching profession eventually; even though Patrick also entertained the idea of going into Real Estate, since his own aunt was a Property Agent and had told him that it was a tough but profitable profession. Studying English was just something we were doing to ensure that one had a basic degree – in anything.
"Oh... wah... you got special skill huh," Helen suddenly exclaimed, reacting to something she was now noticing on her paper, one fat finger tapping the sheet. "Here say you very sensitive one... can see what other people cannot see... I correct or not huh?"
She looked up at me, expecting a reply. Patrick was already nodding furiously with approval on my behalf. I wanted to clarify what she meant exactly by "sensitive". But she went on, "You can see ghosts or not?"
I was speechless. Maybe she was the real deal, after all. I was floundering to retain my scepticism. Uncertain what to say, I merely nodded. I asked, somewhat stupidly, "How do you know...?"
"Aiyah, it says here mah. The paper tell me I tell you lor."
Patrick interjected, speaking directly to her in Chinese, which he later translated for my benefit. "I asked her if you got any other special power or not that you don't know about."
She replied, "Eh, being sensitive is not just see ghosts hor. Being sensitive also mean reading people's minds or seeing the future."
"You mean ... seeing the future, like you?" I asked.
"No, I not have skill lah. I just calculate and read what the numbers tell me only. I not talented like you. Eh, how long you can see ghosts already huh?"
I decided to tell her. "Er, for very long already. Since I was very young. Mostly I don't see them; I feel them only. But I don't know about the reading of other people's minds leh. I have never done that before. I don't think I can."
"No, maybe you have, but you don't know yet. Or maybe you haven't learnt to do it yet. But people who can see ghosts can see other things too." Then she asked, half-jokingly, "Eh, when was the last time you saw ghosts? My shop, this building, here got any ghosts or not?"
I could not help but smile a little. It was an obvious, follow-up question to ask. Patrick had asked a similar thing when I first told him; and I had told him there were some presences in school, but they were benign; mainly spirits who were hanging around, lost in their own private thoughts. I had not been able to see them but I knew they loitered close to the lecture hall entrances for some reason, unsure what they were doing there. I had only known they were confused about where they were and were uncertain about where they should go next. The general trend about these presences was that they were often in a state of perpetual puzzlement about what they were doing; some even did not know who they were or that they were even dead.
"The last time ... was actually on my bus ride here. I was sitting at the back of the bus. I was alone but I knew I really wasn't alone. Someone, an older woman, a mother, I think, was sitting beside me. She was wondering where her home was, wondering where her child was. She was asking all these questions in Malay, but she was not asking anyone in particular, because she kept repeating the same questions, and always in the same way. I felt kind of sad for her. As for Bras Basah complex, your shop ... I think there are a few just standing outside, but I didn't go close enough to hear their thoughts and find out what they were feeling. Inside your shop, here, I don't feel anything. You shop is clean, I think."
I hated using the word "clean", as it suggested that any possible presence was like a kind of dirt or infection, which seemed disrespectful. But I thought it was a word that would make Helen happy, knowing that her place of work was not haunted. From my experience, I had come to my own conclusion that spirits who were caught in this present world, unable to move on to their next life, were simply lost, forced to repeat their motions, asking questions or muttering the same things over and over. I had no explanation about how they got lost in the first place, or how long they necessarily stayed this way. I had a theory that we hang around after we are dead because we find it impossible to let go of life when it ends, or to let go of the living, especially our loved ones.
Helen was busy nodding. Patrick was practically beaming from ear to ear. His face was telling me, I told you meeting Helen would be something! I merely smiled back, acknowledging tacitly that he had been right. But Helen was clearly not done with me. Studying the pages now laid out messily between us, she had more to say. "Mark ah, you must also be careful. Seeing these things ... can be bad for your health. You must be careful not to let these things make you too sad or angry. They can ... "
At this point she turned to Patrick as she had run out of words in her limited vocabulary. She rattled off in Mandarin. Patrick turned to me and translated, "Oh, she meant to say ... what you see can make you sick; they can drain your energy if you are not careful."
I recalled an incident when I had been walking past a void deck of a flat close to my home. There had been an old woman, or the thoughts and feelings of an old woman, haunting one of the benches where teenagers would normally sit and chat. The presence had been full of regret about something, but I had not been able to discern her thoughts, as they had been articulated in some Chinese dialect that I did not understand. I only remembered that the hairs on the back of my neck had arisen, and on my way home, I had felt feverish. I had swallowed a couple of Panadols before I went to bed that night and had been fine again the next morning.
Remembering this, I nodded at Helen, thankful for the advice. But I had been sensing and dealing with these spirits for a while. I knew how to take care of myself. She started talking to me again, after Patrick's careful translation. "Sometimes must think happy thoughts. When they sad, don't feel sad with them. Just think about other things. Or just ignore the ghosts. Or else bad for health."
I nodded again. I could never just ignore them, yet I knew what Helen was getting at. I could not cling to what I was sensing. If I felt them, I felt them, but then I had to consciously move on from what these spirits would say or feel; or else they would make me, quite literally, ill. Helen stared more thoroughly at the papers between us. Her smile was not as broad as before. I almost wished she would stop smiling to give her face a rest. "Another important thing hor. Later this year, maybe next few weeks or months, you'll do something very important ... " Again she turned to Patrick for help. She jabbered in Chinese. He translated. "Oh ... she means that you will be preventing ... some kind of big disaster ... she doesn't know what it will be. But ... you must be on the look out for it."
I was startled. "That's not exactly very helpful," I replied. "Is it some kind of accident? Does it involve just one person or a group of people? How can I stop it if I don't know what it is?"
Patrick and Helen exchanged more words in Mandarin. He continued translating, "She really can't tell from your charts. But it's going to be something that could ... affect you, but indirectly. And if you're alert enough, you might catch it in time – and prevent it from happening."
I stared first at Patrick, then at Helen, quizzically. Patrick had a funny look of uncertainty on his face. Helen had stopped talking but she was still smiling at me, her eyes so small they almost disappeared into her face.
Although the time we spent with the fortune-teller was interesting, meaning that she came up repeatedly in conversations for a few days in school, we soon forgot her in the weeks to come. She had been spot-on about my special sensitivity, but vague about what I could do with it; and even vaguer about that impending calamity and my possible effectiveness when disaster finally hit. So she had not turned out quite to be Professor X, as Patrick had hoped. For maybe a day, I worried about what disaster might strike in the future. The following day, I stopped caring altogether.
Then it was exam time. Patrick and I stopped hanging out together, whether during lunches between lectures and tutorials, or after school, in order to study separately, undistracted by the urge to talk about all things supernatural. After tests ended, it was a long two-month break towards the end of the year, during which I thought Patrick would text or call me. When he failed to do so within the first week of the holidays, I sent him a text-message, asking him if he was free to head out to somewhere in Lavender, where he stayed with his parents and younger siblings; we could have late-night supper at a coffee-shop near his home or something.
There was no response. Another week passed. I sent another message; still nothing. I passed the days at home, entertaining an uncle and aunt who had come to stay with my parents and me from Canada, where they were both currently residing as Canadian citizens with their children. My mother urged me to use my free time to tidy my bedroom, where notes and books had colonised all the empty spaces on the floor. I complied. I even did my own laundry over the weekends, even though my mother had gladly taken care of it for me before and during the exam period.
Then, one evening, it happened. First, it was a series of things. I had gone for a jog and was returning, sweaty and panting, back to my flat. I was about to take the lift, when suddenly I realised that I was seeing more than I should. Often, in passing, I might overhear passing thoughts or catch a whiff of emotions that were not my own, as I sauntered past a presence or strode right through one, sending chills racing down my spine and causing little hairs on my arms to tremble awake. This time, however, I could see everything. I could see every single one of them.
Next to an actual old, Chinese man sitting at a round table fixed to the floor, was another older, Indian man. The first man was smoking, even though it was illegal to smoke in void decks. The second man was just staring at him with a forlorn look on his face. The Indian man just sat absolutely still in a brown, formal-looking, long-sleeve shirt and white pants and seemed to glow like a projected image on a screen. In another corner of the void deck, a little Chinese girl was staring up at some point beyond my shoulder, speaking in a barely audible voice that sounded like it was echoing from a great distance; she was, in fact, yelling for her mother. There were more presences in and around the void deck. I only had to take a few steps in any direction and I would see, and hear, somebody speaking or crying or shouting, and all as if from an impossible distance. Yet when I could make out all these voices at the same time, the overall effect was close to deafening. I felt a combination of different feelings, unsure if any of them were mingled with my own, ranging from panic, frustration to sorrow. A pounding was starting somewhere in the back of my skull; a pounding that grew but oddly inflicted no real pain. Then the pounding receded and I knew that both Helen and Patrick had been wrong: there was nothing special about my gift. I just could see things. It was as commonplace as that sounded. It was not special because there was nothing I could do to help the spirits that I saw. Nothing I could do to stop them repeating their thoughts and their feelings of frustration in their purgatorial state. My Third Eye was more like an extra finger on a hand, or a third nipple. I was as useless as the next person in helping the dead to come to terms with their death or with themselves. With a sharp sigh, I cast off every layer of emotion that had been flung over me. I shook it all off until my brain felt clearer and lighter.
Quite abruptly, all the visions vanished. And the voices quickly dimmed. I was alone again, although I knew that I was probably still far from solitary. The presences were still there; they were just not bothering me anymore, at least not for now. I paced up and down the void deck a few times, wondering what had just transpired in those few minutes. Had my Third Eye just widened, briefly, like a door kicked violently open? But by what? And for what purpose? What did it all mean?
And then it kicked in.
I had some loose 10-dollar bills in my back pocket of my running shorts that I hurriedly yanked out. I realised I had enough to grab a cab. And so I walked briskly to the main road and flagged a taxi down, half-worried that I would stink up the whole vehicle with my perspiration. I told the cab driver where I needed to go. He merely grunted and started driving. Breathing heavily, I counted the minutes that it took to go where I needed to be.
He was sitting in the void deck of his own flat, not on one of the public benches, but right on the floor along the edge where the void deck ended and the pavement surrounding the flat began. Leaning against a pillar, Patrick was smoking. I had never seen him smoke before. The fluorescent lights in the void deck that came on every evening half-illuminated his face. He looked unshaven and he was wearing an oversized T-shirt and shorts; he looked like he was wearing the clothes he normally slept in.
He saw me approaching in my soggy singlet and did not look surprised to see me. He did not even nod to acknowledge that I had sped here to see him. His eyes were just blank as he watched me approaching, before he looked away to stare at something else. Quietly, I hunkered down and sat beside him, feeling the hard floor through my thin shorts. We sat in silence for half a minute, before I finally spoke. "Hey ... you want to talk about it?"
"What's there to talk about," he replied, still not looking at me, after taking another puff of his cigarette. The smoke blew in my direction, but I did not wave it away. "You're the X-Man here, why don't you tell me what's wrong with me."
"I really ... don't know. I just knew I had to come here."
"And rescue me huh. You hero lor." Sarcasm. I decided to ignore it and waited for him to say more.
Patrick took another puff. He was gathering the courage or the strength to speak. It could take a while. I waited.
"You're going to think it's really stupid... " (he took another puff) "I met this girl... online. On a personals website. Indonesian Chinese girl, only older by four years. We had been talking to each other... for quite a few years already. I just never told anyone." He paused, before continuing. "I know... lame, right? All because of a girl. But I really loved her, you know. We spoke almost every night on the phone. Cost me a bomb too. She comes from well-to-do family. So she called me more often than I called her. I think... I didn't know how lonely I was... until I met her. I mean, she made me realise I really needed somebody in my life, you know... the things we said to each other... she totally understood me... there was even sex talk... I know I never said anything about her to you... I didn't want to jinx it, you know... I never told you this but I... have been depressed for a long time... long before I went Uni... I was even on medication on one point; my bloody parents made me see a psychiatrist right after National Service... I was on top of everything. I could handle it, for a while... then I met this girl online and she was like me ... she suffered from depression too... and she's so fucking cute too. I'm sure she liked me back; she even said the L-word a couple of times. I also said it back..." (another puff, his cigarette diminishing quickly) "She was supposed to come to Singapore and see me. There was even... talk of marriage. Then nothing. She stopped emailing. She stopped calling or texting. Bloody bitch just went cold. She removed everything: her Facebook profile, her personals page, her blog... like she wanted to disappear. Her phone stopped working when I tried to call. I'm not... even sure she was real anymore."
I offered a tentative question at this point. "So... this was recent, when she started ignoring you?"
Patrick threw his cigarette to the ground. It went out when it landed without making a sound. "You know what's the worst thing? She never even said why. Why ignore me like that? I know you don't know this – why should you anyway – I was fucking okay until we hooked up online and she started answering my messages. I was not depressed or anything. Then when we started talking, I'd miss her... all the time! Then when this happened..." Without warning, Patrick turned to me, almost spitting the words out. "You know why I like all this tarot card reading and astrology and shit... my psychiatrist told me to do it, if I was interested in it – go get a fucking hobby, he said, something to distract me from being depressed, so I can stop being a nuisance to everyone, my family..."
He turned away and glared into space again, as if his parents' faces, or maybe even her face, floated somewhere in the dark. I was unsure what to say. A long time passed before I ventured a question. "When was the last time... you thought about suicide?"
He looked back at me, but only from the corner of his eyes. "Not bad. The fortune-teller was right about you... you know things ... I don't know lah. I think about it... maybe once or twice every few months? I mean, when I get depressed, it's all about... why the fuck does anything have to mean anything anyway..."
"Are you still on meds?"
"I fucking hate the meds. I feel... nothing after I take the meds. I don't want to feel... nothing. I take them... now and then. Not regularly. They are... fucking poison."
Another long pause. Patrick directed his eyes to the ground and spoke again. "I miss her. I keep thinking she might come back, or at least come back online, with an explanation... but I know it's over. She really loved me. I know she did. I still love her. I don't know if anyone will ever love me... like that..."
"Patrick, just because nobody loves you right now, it doesn't mean that nobody will love you in the future. Shit like this... just happens. I'm sorry it had to happen to you... but..." I did not quite know how to complete my sentence. I just trailed off into silence. Patrick was still staring at the ground. I wondered if he had heard me at all.
How had he planned to do it, in his depressed state of mind? By jumping from the highest storey of his flat? Had he just gone down to the void deck for one final cigarette before taking the lift to do it? Had I come just in time and was it my so-called gift that had brought me here – to stop him?
Maybe he might not have done it. Or he could call me after tonight and pretend that everything was normal, that there was nothing wrong with him. We would meet in the school canteen again and I would not have any inkling of what he had gone through. Maybe I did not even need to come here and see him.
Patrick was still not saying anything. His side profile was too dim for me to sense what he was contemplating. More minutes passed. The silence thickened around us. I was not sure whether, in the silence, we were being pulled apart or becoming closer as friends. We were just sitting there. I cast a wide glance around the neighbourhood surrounding us. The distant flats looked farther away than I remembered. All this time I had come by to visit Patrick, I had not properly noticed the public car park in front of the flat, the flats beyond it which stood in solemn rows, nothing to distinguish the buildings from each other but their configurations of lights from windows that blinked on and off at different times in the course of the night. A breeze came and went. The rustling of one of the larger trees closest to me distracted us at the same time and we looked up. The tiny pocket of chaos contained amidst its branches ceased and our eyes fell again. I could neither read Patrick's mind nor know what he was feeling, despite my so-called sensitivity, my special gift.
It soon struck me how quiet the neighbourhood was in this moment. It also struck me, and this was the oddest thing, that there were no supernatural presences I could register: no thoughts I could overhear and no passing wave of emotion ensnaring me in its wake.
Without thinking, I placed a hand lightly on Patrick's shoulder. He did not shrug it off. With a selfish sense of relief, I realised that we just might, for once, be utterly and undeniably alone.QLRS Vol. 13 No. 1 Jan 2014