By Pek Wen Jie
Adam works in hospitals. He's been shuffled around a few times – from NUH, to SGH, to Alexander Hospital… not because he's incompetent at what he does, or because he has terrible work ethos or bad breath in the morning when he reports to his superiors, but because what he does is utterly vital and everybody wants him in their department.
Oh, it's nothing of the sort that you expect. He doesn't deal with surgery, or any of the menial labour of changing the sheets of the pallets the patients lie on, or the cleaning of bed-pans that reek of urine and worse; they have surgeons and nurses for that. He's a doctor, really- a title he wore like a badge, though slowly it became something more mundane and boring; lately, he's begun to don it like an old, well-worn jacket. Sometimes, even, what he does seems to be totally unjustified of what he'd done to wear that title like a badge in the first place.
He'd spent six years in medical school, poring over facts and doodles that tried to masquerade as body parts; burned a good chunk of his life holed up in a small apartment in Brisbane, stacks of biology and chemistry texts looming like a monolithic, tentacled octopus lurking threateningly about. They'd menaced him for so long- he'd fretted that he'd mistake the duodenum for the ileum when he performed life-saving acts of medical expertise, but the realization that he'd forgotten almost everything (and that it didn't matter anyway) made him want to laugh some days and cry on others.
He was born at a time when medical studies were prohibitively expensive, and not everyone could afford them, you know. He recalls the heart-throbbing sweetness when the old man at school who served as principal called him up to solemnly deliver the letter of acceptance for the government scholarship; the heady sensation of knowing that he'd finally taken a step closer to crawling out of the pit hole of poverty he'd grown up in. Standing there in that crumbling office that smelled of mildew and enough air-freshener to choke an elephant, he'd felt so high it was a wonder he managed to take the unsteady steps he did to shake that old geezer's hand.
Luck and talent aside, he hardly wanted to waste his time on social interaction – not when he could be memorizing facts about the interaction between the medulla oblongata and the cerebellum. Why go for dates - though the ang-moh women were exotic, and he had to admit to the hot pool of desire in his belly when he saw them in their skimpy clothing - when there were so many handy mnemonics about the alimentary system he had to learn?
It paid off, in its way, or so he tells himself. The sky is gray and dark when he wakes up; he almost doesn't want to leave the warmth of his bed, pulsing as it is with body heat and comfort. Nonetheless, he rises, washes, shaves - the management of a body that proceeds on its course with little to no awareness of what its mind desires.
Occasionally he takes to wondering silly things like who's really in charge of this organism; this being that people have taken to calling Adam Lim. How can his consciousness claim dominance over this beast of nature; this traitorous physical form that pumped hormones and adrenaline and fear all those years ago when that bullying classmate threatened him with a hammy fist? This rebelling construct that still does so now, whenever he gets his queue cut or insulted or derisively dismissed by some gangster that leaves him trembling for shame...
It's all right, though. He always comforts himself with quiet words of logic; these people who walk all over him do not even touch his salary with their labour; they are condemned to an ignorant life of subsistence that barely suffices but is enough for them.
Sometimes, he even believes himself, and is gladdened by the powerful absolution his thoughts grant.
Toes curling into the cheap gritty tiles of the bathroom floor, he stares into the mirror, examining critically the increasing prominence of his forehead – slow down, he wants to say to it, don't leave me bare. He would have, perversely fancying that his hair can hear him, if he didn't know that his type of balding was only caused by an excess of dihydrotesterone in the body; and why plead when you are pleading with nothing? Cease the systematic destruction of my follicles, please.
His receding hairline causes him a certain amount of distress. He is only thirty, after all; not yet found a mate – a life partner, he corrects himself immediately, and is momentarily shaken at his choice of phrasing even in his thoughts. Somewhere, deep inside, he knows that there's a need for companionship, beyond mere sex; though he also knows why (desire for companionship masks a need to ensure copulation and thus survival of genes in progeny via modern context of relationships possibly including matrimony and/or other living arrangements) and sometimes wishes things weren't quite so clear-cut in his head.
After he's driven to work – today is the beginning of his shift at Tan Tock Seng; he almost forgot and took a wrong turn, but fortunately manages to arrive on time anyway - and he strolls into the main lobby, the clerk at the front desk immediately recognizes him.
"Oh, Doctor Lim, thank goodness you're here," she says breathlessly, offering a sycophantic smile. "Doctor Fan has been su-per worried all morning about your absence… go and see him now, please! He's waiting in the Cardiology department – seeing a patient I think-"
He scans for her name-tag; the last time he was here was months ago, and he's surprised she still recalls his name and can match it to his face, ordinary as he is. Priscilla, it reads. Average name, nothing unique in its breadth or depth; distractedly, his eyes dart upwards. She's rather pretty, actually, with her glossy hair and smooth features. Slightly dazed, he nods acknowledgement, walks on towards the lift; his working hours are from eight to six in the evening (two hours more than the average office worker, though God knows he earns more than them), and he had best begin.
He reaches the floor he's supposed to be soon enough, but abruptly struggles to remember the path to the resource room. He is incredulous – though not so much, really, when he thinks about it – when on a hunch he follows his mental blueprint of the previous hospital he'd operated at and finds himself where he needs to be; there's some sort of twisted revelation in that, but he cannot quite figure out what it is and he's too busy at the moment to search for it.
He's performed his preparation so many times that it is, by now, almost instinctual. Where he used to be painstakingly careful and precise he has become indifferent, and he shrugs on the white sterilized robe with a quick adjustment of the collar, casting his gaze around for a clean pair of gloves; upon detection of that resource he nonchalantly stuffs them into his pocket. They will not see that much use in what he has to do, but he has learnt that the accoutrements of the medical profession tend to soothe the innumerable people who come to him wringing their hands in search of comfort.
Soon enough, he begins his tasks. As he steps out of the room, he savours the brief hum of silence that pervades the corridors; it will disappear soon enough.
"What took you so long?" Doctor Fan grumbles, the moment he catches sight of him; but there is a glint of relief in his eyes, and an obvious tension in his face begins to ebb away. "I was almost worried you wouldn't show."
"I don't skive off, doctor."
"I didn't say you did. You're just forgetful, sometimes, that's all."
This made him pause. Forgetful? Him? "And why do you say that?" the inquiry slips out, deceptively airy and flippant.
"The other day when you came here what. The patient… remember...? You just walked right past them without even saying anything."
He considers his words carefully. "It's easier that way, that's all," he says simply.
The doctor's eyes narrow, his brows furrowing, and he opens his mouth; closes it again. He shakes his head ruefully. "I guess that's why you're doing this, horh? It's just..."
Adam looks over at the grizzled man, and wonders if he is supposed to reply, or snort, or do anything to push against the silence that has abruptly enveloped them. He enjoys the quiet, but this is clumsy and awkward, and he does not find much comfort in it; not much comfort at all.
They're endless and faceless and they stopped tugging at his heartstrings a long time ago.
"So..." she begins, clutching at the handbag in front of her as if it will shield her from what is to come. "So... wh-what did the blood test reveal?" Her eyes dart around nervously, and she sits peculiarly erect in the patients' chair, back stiff and rigid against the tattered green of the leather backing.
"The endoscope diagnosis how?"
"-bout the PET image yester-"
"-se Gamma camera?"
Adam casts his mind around for the best way to say this. It's not a matter of pity, but merely an issue of tact and professionalism; and after a moment of consideration, he decides that being blunt would be the best for everyone concerned.
"I'm afraid, Ms Seng, that the blood tests indicate that you're suffering from early-stage HIV."
That is all. No precursors, no entreaties to remain calm, just the facts.
The words have a peculiar effect on the woman. She's in her early twenties, probably. Her olive brown skin masks the drawn features she must have suffered from the strain of not knowing; it tells of the darkness of ignorance, and the terrible apprehension that from her thin – too thin – hands must have plagued her.
They all handle it differently, but in the end it all is the same. Some succumb to the drug of denial; their eyes go wide with incredulity and disbelief. They implore a re-test, demand that a mistake has been made, beg for a solution.
Some buckle under the strain; their minds scramble frantically to correlate the neat little pathways of their ordered lives with the train wreck that has been shoved in front of their faces. They nod, stare at you with their suddenly empty face; placidly accept everything you say, and walk out of the clinic with a detached calm that is so fragile and precarious it crumbles at the slightest touch.
As, apparently, Ms Seng is doing. Her face goes a horrid white that is sickening against her tan, and her chin trembles, but no tears threaten.
"No..." she croaks. "Oh God, oh God, oh God..." He can almost see, in the fleeting emotions across her face, what's on her mind; there's horror and shock and an overwhelming fear of death…
...brought suddenly closer now by the death sentence she imagines her disease to be.
Not that she's inaccurate in thinking that, of course. It's the nineties, and science attempts to outdo itself with brand-new bells and whistles every day, but after every clash with HIV it always retreats to lick its wounds.
"There are treatments available, ma'am," he says gently. It's easier to be gentle, now that he's gotten the hard part over with. He never ceases to marvel at how volatile humans are, that within the breadth of five minutes they can go from uneasy to devastated to pained; and he wonders, exasperatedly, why everyone can't just be stoic and take things in their stride.
Visibly pulling herself together, she takes a long, shuddering breath and is quiet for a while. He studies her face, intrigued by the subtle muscles at play beneath her skin, that might – if given meaning and thereby life – offer some indication of the strife in her mind.
Finally, quiet and numb, she says, "How long?"
He thinks for a moment.
"Not everyone is affected the same way. It's entirely possib-"
"Please," she says weakly, "how long?" The anguish in her voice trembles in the room, and for a moment Adam wonders if he'll forever associate the sharp scent of the cleaners in hospitals with that particular brand of emotional torment.
He doesn't hesitate. The patient knows what she wants; and he'll offer that information to her without any preamble.
"On average, I'd say about ten years before it develops into AIDS."
"And then... you'd probably have around nine months."
In the end the cycle of emotions always returns to a blank gloom; a resigned depression that shows in the dullness of their eyes and the hunched set of their shoulders. The weaker ones almost seem to wilt as their situation's reality dawns upon them, and they realize just what their disease means.
It's strange, he muses, that perhaps they might be better served from not knowing; then, perhaps, the decay of body might be separate from that of their minds.
In his detached way, he can understand why his fellow doctors seem to find revealing to their patients the various maladies that they suffer from an abhorrent practice. At times it's almost disheartening, seeing the way the fire that drives them – the light in their eyes; their spirit, almost, if one were to be subjective – is extinguished with a few simple words. You have HIV, or You have Cancer, or You have Leukemia. The information that he gives them and that they entrust him with is disgustingly personal and sometimes he wants no part of it.
In an ideal world – an informed one – they should remove the middleman. Erase the doctors. Guilt is a terrible thing to foist upon someone else, undeserved as it is; let the patients make peace with their demons themselves, let the misery of their struggles weigh upon no man or woman.
But then he'd be out of a job, and where would he be then?
Despite the morbidity of the subject, Adam allows himself a muted smile.
Around half-way through his tenure at Tan Tock Seng, he takes his parents out for lunch.
They're frail, now, when once – a long time ago, admittedly – they used to be the pillars of his life. If he leaned on them now they'd shatter, and so he offers his mother his arm in support. His father has his pride, and that is enough for him to hobble around on.
It's a dim-sum restaurant that he brings them to. It's reasonably popular with the masses; the Saturday morning he decided upon sees it filled with families, squabbling children, the odd business executive looking for a cheap lunch. Adam cannot help but wince at the cacophony that assaults his ears; somewhere in the restaurant, a distraught brat is wailing his displeasure at his parents at the top of his lungs.
"Table for three, please," he manages to a waitress behind a desk. Her garishly red lips curve upwards in a professional smile as she leads them to a thankfully quieter corner of the restaurant, and she dumps three menus in front of them before heading off to attend to a desperately waving customer.
"So, how's work?" his father gruffly asks in Mandarin, over the menu he's examining studiously.
"Oh, the usual. There's been a rise in liver cases lately – probably because of the financial crisis," he sighs, "a lot of people drinking this year."
"Yah, a couple of my friends' sons got laid off… you know, you're very lucky to be in a stable job!" his father says, his tone unconsciously slipping into a preaching one. All of a sudden, Adam feels – almost overpoweringly – as if it's twenty years ago again, his father is lecturing to him about the importance of school, and that nothing has changed; and in the throes of that nostalgia he doesn't know whether to laugh or cry.
"Pa, I'm thirty," he reminds him with a chuckle, shifting uncomfortably in his seat.
"Oh, Qiang Hao ah, you really should think about settling down," his mother pitches in placidly. "I know the daughter of this lady who would be perfect for you!"
It's almost unbelievable the way they bear down upon him like a pack of wolves; in their way, he supposes, they're showing the love they have for him. But still…
There is a brief moment of annoyance. It's his life, now; he worked hard, won his grades without their mandate, lived life without their nagging. He wishes, briefly, that he hadn't brought them out for lunch, then quashes that uncharitable thought; wonders if just as he still can't shake his image of them as the looming guardians of his life, they can't forget the watery-eyed boy with skinny knees he used to be.
"I'm really not interested in getting married now," he mumbles. "I'm only-"
"You're thirty, Qiang Hao! In a couple of years you'll be thirty five- and then forty- I want to see grandchildren before I pass on," she says, tremulously now. He's surprised, briefly, by his Chinese name. People are more comfortable with doctors who use Western names, due to some sort of association of the West being synonymous with high quality that Adam can't quite understand.
He can't help but roll his eyes. She's sixty, and nowhere near dying any time soon; he knows, because he performs her health checkups regularly, and (as well as his father, actually) is physically fit. Counseling from their son to avoid certain foods and substances results in a healthy diet, and you are what you eat, after all.
"Please, Ma, don't make me go through this again," he implores.
Fortunately, at that point a waitress asks with a bored look on her face if 'the customers would like to buy anything', and Adam seizes the opportunity to change the subject.
Later, as they're exiting the restaurant, he supports his mother down the stairs, while his father unsteadily clutches the railing.
"Hello again, Ms Seng," he says, with some small measure of surprise. He usually doesn't deal with patients twice in a row; after the dirty work, so to speak, has been dealt with, they're usually gladly attended to by his colleagues. "What are you doing here?"
"I... I asked for you, actually," she averts her eyes and looks down.
"Oh?" his eyebrows twitch upwards.
She's quiet for a long time. "Ever since I've gotten this... disease... everyone's so careful around me. And it's so frustrating- I may have HIV, but I'm not some- some glass doll!" she finally bursts out. "You were- well, you weren't stepping on eggshells around me, and I thought that maybe… I'd rather you give me advice, than..."
He thinks to himself that what she might need is a psychiatrist, not a physician, but he dons a sympathetic smile instead. "So... how can I help you?"
She deflates instantly. "Well, the last time I was here you mentioned something about treatments..?" she says, eyes downcast.
"Yes, of course. You're – lucky, I suppose, in that there's been a recent huge discovery in the fight against HIV/AIDS; have you heard of HAART?"
"Heart?" she repeats dubiously.
"No, it's an acronym- stands for highly active anti-retroviral treatment, though you don't need to know that," he adds quickly, seeing the befuddled look on her face. "It appears to give HIV sufferers the opportunity to live a full lifespan..."
"I sense a 'but'," she commented.
"Well, some people don't respond very much to the treatment... but you'll never know unless you try," he admits.
"In which case, I suppose I have nothing to lose, right?"
He guides her through the administrative procedures, and about fifteen minutes later he's done; but on an impulse – one he thinks he'll probably regret later – he grasps her arm as she's opening the door to go. It's warm and soft, and she looks up, with shock in her face.
"If you have any problems- I know this sounds strange," he says awkwardly, "but here's my phone number." He tears the top leaf off a writing pad and scribbles his number on it.
There's a long pause, then she smiles. "Yeah, thanks," and then she steps out the door.
The reason why Adam is indispensable in hospitals isn't because he's particularly skilled at medicine (because he isn't) or because he's hard-working (even though he is); and it most definitely isn't because of his compassion.
Quite the contrary, actually.
Adam does things in hospitals that the other doctors don't want to, and that is his role. Diagnosis, mainly, because that is where the sob stories congregate; where all the bleeding hearts in the medical service flinch every time they inform someone that their life spans are, most likely, going to be terminated sooner than expected.
It began, years ago, when during a lunch break the doctors were discussing their work experiences – talking shop, in their way.
"I just felt so horrible looking at her face crumple," a colleague said.
"You know what they say about grown men crying," another added gloomily.
"Well, you have to tell them, right?" Adam said with a measure of surprise. He'd felt a little uncomfortable, certainly, but nothing near what they apparently did.
"But they look so upset," the first declared.
A little investigation later, Adam discovered that everyone, indeed, did find the process of diagnosis distressing.
When he offered to take over the role for the hospital he had been working at, he hadn't expected it to blow up into his main task – absolving the guilt of his colleagues. It was a slightly demeaning process, but it paid well, and soon before he knew it doctors from other hospitals had bludgeoned their department heads into inviting him for a 'temporary change in working location': and as the years passed, their dependence on him only grew deeper.
It is good work, he supposes. It's necessary – pleases the doctors, definitely, cheers them up so much their efficiency skyrockets. He's even famous, in a warped little way, for what he does.
He just wishes that sometimes he wouldn't feel so wretched about his job, that's all.
Adam can't believe he's really here.
In the middle of Chinatown on a Monday evening, no less.
Around him the dying afternoon bathes the streets in a brilliantly rich orange; looking around, he sighs, takes his wallet out, and examines the card his mother gave him.
As he helps her exit the car, she suddenly grabs his arm. "Ah-Qiang ah, your hair is going is it?" she says, eyes penetrating as she scrutinizes his head.
"A bit," he says sheepishly.
"Don't worry, your father last time also like that one," she winks. He glances over to his father, who has a full – if graying – head of hair, and is examining the pavement with apparent interest. Digging in her purse, she pulls out a tattered business card and firmly sticks it in his breast pocket.
"A very good sin-seh my friend introduced," she says solemnly. "Confirm can help you one."
"I'll think about it," Adam promises, and gets back into the car. She waves goodbye until he is out of sight.
The card was plain, a solid white, with Chinese characters along the top, and below that – Teng Fei, Doctor. Along the bottom in tiny script was 'Teng Fei''s address.
A short period of walking later, he finds himself outside what, according to the card, is Teng Fei's clinic. The glass door is tinted dark, and he cannot see inside; it seems a strange choice for a doctor, and he stands outside for several moments, wavering in indecision. Finally, feeling slightly foolish for the apprehension nipping at his heels, he pushes open the door and enters.
The smell of traditional herbs and powders is thick and strong; his eyes begin to water almost immediately. But what stuns him, really stuns him, is the sheer amount of people in the cramped waiting hall. It almost seems like any modern clinic, and he's momentarily taken aback by the similarities to other clinics he's been to. There's a TV on a counter, and the attendants are glued to the Channel 8 drama playing.
One of the middle-aged, overweight women tending the counter manages to tear her eyes away to greet him distractedly. "Ni hao,"
"I'm here for a consultation..?"
"Oh, right. Your queue number is 23... take a seat if you want," she murmurs, already returning to the program.
There's suddenly a silence punctuated only by the babbling of the television and the tireless fan overhead, and, almost furtively, he looks around at the people who were here before him.
They're what he expects, for the most part; a collection of sad-faced middle-aged men and women who find themselves two generations out of date. Their clothing speaks of decades that didn't see Chanel or Christian Dior or Calvin Klein or Ralph Lauren; they're from a time when clothing was for the sake of modesty and utility and that was all.
What does surprise him is when he spies a familiar face.
"Uh... Mister... Peng, right?" he calls out hesitantly. He's breaking all the rules he told himself he needed to follow, violating the tenets that enable him to do his job, yet he cannot help but do it. He can't believe his actions, but something drives him to move forward - he's been making a lot of stupid decisions this month, and he detachedly wonders why.
The person in question snaps his head around guiltily, and starts when he sees Adam. "Er, hello," he says evasively.
Adam struggles through the crowd, stepping over feet and bags carelessly strewn along the floor; he pointedly avoids the curious looks directed his way.
"What are you doing here?" Adam asks finally, feeling uncomfortable at how blunt he's being. His patient – suffering from prostate cancer, if he recalls correctly – shifts and refuses to meet his gaze, turning around to walk to the far side of the clinic. Adam follows doggedly.
"I could ask the same of you," his ex-patient retorts sullenly.
Adam blinks, considers for a moment. "I'm not avoiding chemotherapy."
"I don't want Goddamn chemotherapy." Mr. Peng hisses hatefully, whirling around. "I don't want to go bald, not when there are other methods that work!"
It has been two weeks since he last saw him. He'd been shattered when he was informed of his disease- shuddered and shook in horror as he processed the information- but to throw his life away for some kooky Chinese treatment?
Perhaps Mr Peng had been more shaken than Adam had thought.
"Traditional Chinese medicine may have benefits," Adam says quietly. "But it cannot cure cancer."
"You don't know that. You don't know anything. You're just-"
"A doctor? A practitioner of medicine? A medical school graduate?"
Abruptly he changes tack. "You don't understand." And he looks at Adam with something glimmering in his eyes – something desperate and needy, something that Adam shies back from. His sense of self-preservation advises him to retreat, before the raw emotion pulls him in, and for a moment he recovers his sense of detachment.
"No... no, perhaps I don't, at that." Adam says finally, turning away. A decrepit old woman shuffles into the clinic as an attendant yells out her number, and Adam takes the empty seat- he stares at his hands in his lap, not raising his head again until he is summoned to see the doctor.
When he receives a hysterical call at work, he's complete befuddled.
"Y-you said I could... c-call you if anything…" he hears, over choked sobs.
Ah. He remembers now- his momentary lapse of judgment.
Sorry, he mouths to the patient he's currently seeing, who looks slightly irate. "This isn't really a good time... how about... lunch? No? How about dinner? Right then, I'll see you-"
Later, after he gets off work, he heads home for a shower before he meets Ms. Seng. As he shampoos his hair, he's struck, suddenly, by the absurdity of going to dinner with a woman whose name he does not know, and swallows his chuckles. Briefly, he entertains the notion of applying cologne, and feels slightly foolish at himself for even thinking it; instead, he sprays some deodorant and gets ready, combing his newly revitalized hair.
"Hey," she says with a wan smile, after he arrives. It's a moderately fancy restaurant, and for a moment he wonders what the hell he's doing here, going for what some would perceive as a romantic night out with a HIV patient, no less.
"Were you waiting long?" he asks, as he slides into his seat. It's a building by the Singapore River that the restaurant is situated in, and lights from the city sparkle on the water's surface.
"Nah, I arrived ten minutes ago..."
They stare at each other, Adam shifting uncomfortably in his seat. The air is suddenly awkward, tense, and once again he wonders how he deluded himself into thinking this would be alright.
The waiter comes in and saves the day, smoothly asking if they want any drinks.
"Perhaps a bottle of red wine-?"
"Wine is good," she said, ducking her head.
"Of course, sir, madam, right away," the waiter says deftly, before backing off.
He spends some more time observing her. He's met her all of two times, but she looks so different now – paler, and thinner. Her hips are so slim she almost looks like she would snap if jostled.
The wine arrives, and the waiter pours a glass for both of them.
It's a good wine; a year old, full-bodied and fruity, and he gets lost in its heady scent for a moment; then he remembers where he is, and whom he is with, and sets it down.
She seems uneasy as well, sloshing her wine around, and occasionally taking delicate sips.
"Do you... want to walk outside?" he asks, hesitantly.
He pays for the wine, despite her protests, and grabs the bottle, taking the cork from the waiter. "No sense in wasting wine," he says, quirking his mouth up in a smile.
The night air is humid, but cool. The water smells sharp in the darkness, and they walk slowly along the river, watching the lights in the distance.
He doesn't stop to examine his actions, because if he does so he knows he'll be left gaping at the inappropriate nature of them. He's taking a moonlit walk with an ex-patient – it violates so many rules of customary doctor-patient conduct that he almost cringes at the implications.
But as he looks over at the woman he's met only thrice, he sees the anguish on her face and decides, surreptitiously, that perhaps he can stay for a while longer.
But before he can open his mouth to speak, she does so. "It didn't work," she says softly, and the words are difficult for her. They're torn loose like feathers from a wing, stinging, and he knows they hurt her.
"The... the treatment."
That is all.
What else is there to say?
They step purposefully along the riverside, but they have no destination.
"It's just... so terrifying, you know?" she says suddenly.
He looks over to see if she expects a response, but her eyes are fixed ahead, as if by staring into the darkness she will find what she wants right under her nose; something in him aches to see the look in her eyes.
"And sometimes I wonder if… I don't know, ever since this whole thing… I've been forced to deal with-" she breaks off suddenly, and her chin wobbles threateningly.
Slowly, tentatively, his hand reaches out to capture hers, and she looks up in shock before giving a weak smile. The intimacy of the action – on his part, and hers – takes his breath away. Her hand is fragile and impossibly small in his, and cool to the touch, and she struggles on.
"It's all so sudden," she breathes, "and so- so unfair… and sometimes I can't help but wonder if there's a God," is as much as she can manage, before a shimmer of sparkles snakes down her cheek and he realizes that she is crying -
When he enfolds her in his arms she is quiet, just leans into his chest for a moment, her tiny frame trembling like a leaf in a storm, and minutes slip by.
After a long time, her sobs turn to sniffles- she gently disengages, but not before leaning over and brushing his cheek with her lips. "Thank you," she whispers.
"Give me a second- take this..." struggling with his wallet, he pulls out a handkerchief and something else, pressing them both into her hand.
"Teng Fei...?" she reads curiously after dabbing at her eyes with the cloth, struggling to see in the darkness.
"Yes," he says. "Yah, just check it out."
"If you say so," she responds, bemused. She makes as if to give him back the handkerchief, stained with tears now, but he shakes his head.
Leaning against the railing, she looks out over the water, and he follows suit.
The sky is cloudy, a deep velvet purple-gray that stretches so far away it hurts to try and see it all, but the moonlight slanting through the clouds casts a white haze on everything.
Despite what he knew about the horrid cleanliness – or lack thereof – of the river, in the darkness, it looked rather pretty.
"I realized I don't know your name," she suddenly says.
"And I yours," he agrees wryly.
"I'm... I'm Vanessa Seng."
"Adam Lim. Nice to meet you," he adds, and she gives a little laugh.
There is another amicable silence, the kind that he has grown to love.
"Don't the lights... look like sparkles of stardust?" And though her tone is still subdued, it appears that she is better now.
"Stardust?" he echoes.
"Or... I don't know, fairies," she says, slightly mischievous.
"They're just reflections of the city lights," Adam says, amusement in his voice.
"Well, yes, but… you know, use your imagination," she waves her hands to emphasize her point. "Go on!"
He blinks. He has never really done this before, and he's a little mystified.
"Fairies?" he says thoughtfully. He squints at the lights, considering.
"Yeah," Adam muses. "Yeah, I suppose."QLRS Vol. 7 No. 2 Apr 2008