Belle and Sebastian
By Jen Wei Ting
I dreamt of you this morning. We were walking shoulder-to-shoulder, boots scraping against the freshly shovelled sidewalk. Was that Kiev, where you grew up? It was so cold it couldn't have been San Francisco, where we met at college and you now practice medicine. Reaching for my hand, you pulled me in so close I could smell the mint on your breath. Blushing, I trained my eyes on the gravel until we reached the entrance of a gated compound.
Snowflakes dancing around our earmuffs, you placed your gloved hands on my hips, my head finding its place on your shoulder by instinct. As you leaned into my ear I thought you were going to kiss me, but you just murmured something unintelligible, voice as light as a feather. Was it Russian? Or Hebrew?
"What's that?" I asked.
"It means goodbye, beautiful." The tenderness in your voice lingered in the distance that stretched between us as we parted at the gate.
You were so real it made me wonder if perhaps, you were thinking of me on the other side of the world at the same time. I even remember how your scratchy, tobacco-scented pea coat felt against my cheek–the same one you bought from Russ, the used clothing store on Shattuck. Waking, I searched for signs of your presence in my life again: maybe an e-mail, or a missed call.
But there was nothing, just the sound of the air-conditioning fan and the fast vaporising fragments of a hazy dream.
Every time I hear Belle & Sebastian I think of you. Surely you remember why. It's midnight over the Arabian Sea and I'm sleepless, flipping channels on the plane. A familiar cover catches my eye and my fingers automatically select the album. The first ring of the tambourine sends me back ten years in time, to our favorite record store on campus, the beacon for band nerds and Haight Street hippies. Oh, the hours we spent there! Losing ourselves in row after row of dusty vinyl records as we shared our favourite bands and songs.
"Ling, over here." Rising to my feet, I craned my neck in search of your voice.
"You gotta try this." You found me first, holding out a CD with a monochrome photo of a group of campy adolescents on the cover. Belle & Sebastian: Dear Catastrophe Waitress.
We listened to the album in your room that night, heads bobbing along to the infectious rhythm, legs dangling off your bed. At the lead song, you bounced onto the floor, grabbing your guitar.
"If you find yourself caught in love," you serenaded me, mimicking Stuart Murdoch's winsome voice. Our eyes met and all of a sudden my tongue caught in my throat.
So instead, I changed the topic, making fun of your falsetto.
"Ouch, that hurts." You clutched at your chest, making me stifle a giggle. We both fell onto your bed in peals of laughter. Our feet hung in the air, yours a full foot further out than mine, stiff grey sheets accentuating the pale pink of your skin in contrast with my sallow hue. Infected by the free love spirit of our college town, we were sold on the belief that love could break down any barriers erected by race, religion or nationality. But prejudice has persistent roots; it lingers in the subconscious, crawling uninvited into actions and words.
"That's why I love America," you told me, sharing stories of your family's persecution as Jews in the former Soviet Union and their subsequent escape to Milan in the early Gorbachev days. "It's the land of the free." Your scientist parents worked twelve-hour shifts washing dishes for a year to earn passage to Chicago. It made me wonder about my own grandparents' escape from Shanghai during the war with the communists. They never told me anything, so I made up my own family history, though I could never tell it with as much conviction as you. I'm not even sure why they chose Singapore, a sleepy English colony in Malay seas, whilst their friends moved in droves to Hong Kong, Taiwan and California.
We talked for hours that night, our shared experience as foreigners in this beautiful land shaping most of our conversation. At some point I fell asleep on your shoulder. When I came to, your arm was wrapped around my waist, your face less than an inch away. The blood in my veins rushed to a complete stop as you leaned towards me. My eyelids thudded shut as your lips, soft and moist, pressed against mine.
A cacophony of thoughts cut through my bleary state. Where was this heading? Did I want this? Most inappropriately, my mother's voice started droning in my head, with the warning repeated many times before I left for college:
"Don't you dare come back with an angmoh (white) guy."
It completely ruined the mood.
Sensing my hesitation, you pulled away, scanning the reaction in my eyes.
"I... I'm sorry." Till today I still don't understand why you apologised. Was it because of my inexperience? I didn't tell you that was my first kiss. Maybe I should have.
We walked a fine line that night, one we never visited again. For months after, I berated myself as an awkward distance settled between us and hardened into a cordial friendship. By the next school year, we each found someone else – me a Taiwanese boy from an appropriate background, while you started dating Julie, a Comp Lit major and music junkie from Oregon.
The last time I saw you was after graduation. You sent me off at the airport. Just before going through security, you caught my hand, leaning in to kiss my head. "Goodbye, Ling."
I've not seen you since but I always wonder: if we could turn back time, would you kiss me again?
Days after my dream, the strangest thing happens. My husband comes home, all excited. His company is sending him back to California for a short-term posting. We leave in two weeks.
On a whim, I look up our online alumni directory after the move. Your name is there, clear as day, with an unusual e-mail address. I drop you a message and you call that very morning. It's surreal hearing your voice after a silence of more than ten years. Should I be shocked you sound just as you did in my dream?
But we're no longer eighteen, I'm past thirty and you're still a week younger, I'm married but you're not, though you're still with Julie. I can't help but wonder why. It's the last piece of your American dream, what your parents wanted so badly for you, after your M.D., your post at Kaiser Permanente hospital, and the yuppie condo you just bought in the city.
All my memories of you are from your pot-smoking, guitar-strumming days at college; I laughed when you told me you're a full-fledged obstetrician. It's the last thing I could imagine, and yet I couldn't be more proud of how you've straightened out your life, especially when you coyly admit to graduating top of the class from one of America's most respected medical schools.
Should I see you at your clinic? You suggested I visit, after I told you about our difficulties having children. My stomach feels queasy at the thought of us resuming such close contact. It's been so many years. But I can't stop thinking about my dream and how your voice made the air between us sigh, even when my husband and I make love that evening. So as much as my conscience screams at me to hang up, I'm dialing Kaiser's appointment number. They book me for a visit in two weeks.
You still look the same after so many years. Age has added weight on your face, but it looks good on you and lends a gravitas that's probably an asset in this profession. Your mouth falls open as I enter your clinic and close the door behind me, but you recover quickly.
"Ling! My dear, you should have told me you were coming." You rise from your leather seat and stride to my side, giving me a warm embrace.
The nurse watches us with a skeptical eye because we behave like two long-lost friends, not a top women's doctor and his patient. Even as you review my medical history, I'm a little confused if you're my doctor or friend. "You mean this was going on even in college?" I blush not from your question, but the odd looks your nurse casts our way.
It's time for the ultrasound inspection, and my nerves are fraying, my pulse racing. I'm starting to realise this may not have been such a good idea after all. The wildest, most perturbing thoughts are running amok in my head as you approach. This sounds ridiculous, but the first thing that comes to mind is this: maybe I should have shaved.
"Relax, this will take just a minute."
After a few false starts we complete the inspection, which ends up taking far longer than one minute. You diagnose me with a condition I've never heard of and prescribe me some medicine, telling me to return for a follow-up visit in a month. As I make my way out, my hand on the doorknob, you ask a question that turns my limbs to jelly.
"My shift ends shortly. Do you have time for coffee?"
This is crazy, but I find myself nodding.
"Great." A smile breaks out over your face and for a split second it feels like we're back in college. "Meet me in fifteen minutes at the first floor cafe."
As I linger in the hall outside Sweet Eats, it crosses my mind that it would probably cost me less heartache to return to my car now. But I drag my feet and you burst out of the elevator on the dot. Sans scrubs and tie, you're my scruffy Sasha again, from the sideburns to the shy grin that welcomes me as you catch my eye.
"You drink coffee now?" You express surprise as I order an Americano at the counter. I'm impressed you still remember this small detail about me.
"Yeah, it's a habit I picked up from banking. The hours are awful. See these eye bags?" I gesture at my face as we collect our mugs, settling at a table in the corner overlooking the hospital's central garden. I can't help but notice how you move your chair closer to mine as you sit down. Our shoulders are almost touching, and you've put on fresh cologne. I wonder if you still smoke.
You squint at me, an unreadable look on your face. "Huh, really? But you look even better now." The honesty in your voice almost makes my heart stop.
I need a distraction, quick, and immediately the Kremlins come to mind, the little Russian band you started in high school.
"Are you kidding?" you exclaim. "We're all over the country now." Russki, your drummer, is in Wall Street, "conning the pants off rich Jews". Misha, the bassist, is at a startup in Seattle, while Boris, your keyboardist is a teacher in Florida. "I wish I had time to play. But I barely even see Julie with these ridiculous hours." Your voice aches with wistfulness for a time that can no longer be relived.
"But you love what you're doing." It's not something you've said, but it seems obvious given your enthusiasm when you speak about your job.
"Yeah." A smile lights up your face. "It's the best thing in the world."
"Yes, exactly." You seem pleased that I understand. It's something I've learnt from countless visits to the ladies' doctor over the past year. As much as it may sound like a teenaged boy's fantasy come true, no one stays in this line unless you really love the job.
There is so much to catch up on, but darkness is falling rapidly, the garden losing its luster as the sun disappears over the edge of the concrete building across the road. You insist on sending me off, so we wait in line for a cab at the taxi stand.
My turn arrives all too soon, and you pull me in for a hug as we say goodbye. As we part, your lips brush against my cheek. The clock rewinds furiously as your lips find mine again, just a feathery brush at first, but speeding up within seconds into a tentative kiss. Can you taste the regret on my tongue? The years flash past my eyes as you claim what I should never have held back. Closing my eyes, I let myself fall.
"Sir, I'm going to take this cab if you don't want it." An elderly voice startles us and my head jerks back. We're both breathless and there's a glazed look in your eyes. Something in the air tells me you want me to stay, but you don't say the words and I can think of a million reasons why this is a bad idea.
"I need to go." You resist, holding onto my hand. My heart sighs and it takes everything I have to step away and get inside the cab.
"Wait." Holding the door open, you bend towards me. "Call me if you need anything. And come back and see me in two weeks. Promise?" You don't move until I nod.
But I don't go back to your clinic, not even when your nurse calls asking why I didn't show for my follow-up appointment. My phone shows your number ringing the next day, but I can't find the strength to pick up.
Three months later, I'm finally pregnant, with twins, thanks to your treatment. You're the first person I want to share this with, but that strikes me as immoral and wrong, so I never tell you, not even when I deliver a healthy baby girl and boy nine months later. But I name them in your memory: Belle and Sebastian.QLRS Vol. 11 No. 4 Oct 2012