My relationship with Jack has never been an easy one; neither has it been the most stable relationship in the world. Jack wasn't the most predictable person to be with. In fact, it pretty much goes without saying that he was the exact opposite. And I don't mean it in a good way.
Ever since the police came for him, I had been bewildered, and very lost. That same night I could not sleep. I lied awake on my bed, staring up at my ceiling. I did not cry, for I had sobbed my eyes dry just moments ago, and I seemed to have no tears left. I was instantly reminded of the beautiful night I spent with Jack at the Botanical Garden, just the two of us lying under the stars. We appeared to be the only two people in the world, and up to this day, it was still the most perfect moment of my life. And lying on my bed, confined in the four walls that made up my room, I was hit with a sudden wave of fresh sadness and emptiness that only deepened when my mind returned to the scene earlier on in the living room. The mere thought that I could never call him up 'just for whatever' ever again made my heart clench up, till I found it nearly impossible to breathe, till I found breath coming out in short, quick gasps that eventually evolved into sobs.
I was not adapting very well to the fact that my parents got Jack arrested for assault and abuse. Then again, I wasn't conforming very well to the new and uncertain path my life had taken either. Jack was practically the definition of my life. I was whole when I was with him, and broken when he was angry, but whole nevertheless, because he completed me. He filled the large void I carried about with me for almost my whole life, and when he was gone, I found that the gap he filled had only being stretched wider. Even more so, because although the majority of me was weeping for his absence, there existed in me a small part that was relieved he was gone. That part was so small that it was pretty much negligible, but it was there anyway. And it frightened me.
Jack was like the lone light of my life, and with him gone, the light that he carried around with him and brought to me was instantly snuffed out, as if it were a candle flame that had burned too bright. The look in his eyes, the deadness and coldness, as they took him away did nothing short of wiping out the most exhilarating and painful chapters of my life. I had so many questions I needed to be answered straight away, so many answers that seemed distant and unreachable, for the only person who could provide those answers was locked away in prison.
I'm sitting in a Starbucks café along Orchard Road, waiting for Jack to arrive. I take a sip from my caramel frappuchino (which also happens to be Jack's favourite drink from the establishment) and tap my foot against the leg of the table. My throat feels uncharacteristically dry; I choke down more of my drink. I check my watch; 3.31 p.m. Jack is late.
He announces his arrival by giving me a light tap on my shoulder. I jump, and almost spit out the coffee in my mouth. Jack lifts a corner of his mouth into an ironic grin and wiggles two fingers as a greeting. He goes over to the other side of the table, which barely has enough space to put two cups of coffee and two slices of cheesecake, and sits down. He does all this so nonchalantly, you'd think that Jack and I never had our turbulent relationship, that the last six years have never happened.
Seeing Jack again makes it even harder to swallow my drink than ever. Five years in prison has aged him. Instead of the handsome, clean cut boy next door I knew, his appearance is rugged and dishevelled. His face has the look of someone who's been through hell; evident dark circles diminish his shocking green eyes, so that they fade into a dull shade of dirty green that look almost grey. His hair is unkempt and looks like it has not seen a comb in days, and wrinkles have appeared on his face. His jeans looks as though it has been washed one too many times; the dark denim has turn into a colour that could match the sky if an artist streaked it with grey. His black T-shirt has also faded, and one has to look really close and hard to read the words on his shirt. It reads: "Fucked-up Jailbird. Please Do Not Stare."
When he realises that I have not say anything to him, he peers closely at me with a look of child-like wonder on his face, as if he's reading something in my look that he hasn't seen before.
"Hi, Nanci," he offers. His voice is deep, throaty, husky; hearing it set me adrift on memory bliss, adrift on a trip I will rather not take.
"Hi, Jack," I reply. I avoid his eyes and stare down at my green straw. It's striking how two people can still manage to act so mundane and normal under circumstances that call for them to do the exact opposite.
Jack doesn't seem to think anything of it. He smiles, a real smile, and says, "It's been a while, hasn't it?"
I still cannot meet his eyes. They remind me too much of the past that I have learned to let go of, no matter how painful, how difficult. I don't want to end up where I was at age sixteen a second time.
"What do you want, Jack?" I say lowly, being careful to keep my emotions that are threatening to spill into over-drive out of my voice.
The smile leaves his lips. "Is that how you greet an old friend? Aren't you even going to ask how I'm doing?" He tears open the straw and sticks it into his coffee. Without waiting for my reply, he says again, "You remember."
He half smiles, and points to his coffee. "That I like caramel frappos. It's amazing." He laughs shortly, more to himself than to me, and rakes a hand through his hand. He leans back in his chair, and, ignoring the great buzz of activity around us, goes back to staring intently at me, as though he's trying to commit my face to memory.
I begin to blush under his intense scrutiny, so much that I forget where I am, who I am, and who I'm with. At the back of my mind I want to ask him what he thought was amazing, the coffee or the fact that I remember, but under his intense scrutiny, I can't do it. I find myself looking back into those brilliant green orbs that I have long memorised, and all of a sudden, I'm fifteen again, back on my first date with Jack.
"How have you been?" he asks. I'm speechless, I'm nervous, my mouth has completely dried up, I can't talk, not with him around. I can't even lift my shoulders in a noncommittal shrug; all I can do is stare back at Jack, and feel completely overwhelmed by his presence.
"You're quiet today," he remarks. "Not quite the chatty girl I remember who always had something to tell me, be it good or bad, funny or serious." He leans forward and draws his face closer to mine, so that the tips of our nose are almost touching. He is looking at me in the eye again, and there is an almost comical look in his gaze. Almost instantly, a wave of nostalgia wash over me as I'm reminded yet again of my first date with him. It is the exact same look he's fixing upon me now that he used six years ago.
"What is it, Nanci?" he says softly. Sensitively. Tenderly. Flashback to five years ago, a few weeks before his arrest. My grandfather, whom I was closer to than my parents, had just died. I called Jack up, and I told him through surpressed tears that I needed him to be with me. He came over immediately, just like that. No questions asked. He held me close to him when he saw my puffy eyes, and let me cry all over his new wind breaker. And he had asked me, his mouth soft against my ear, "What is it, Nanci?"
I shake my head slightly, and manage to answer, "Nothing. I'm just...I'm just really um, shocked to see you again. After all these years. You know."
He grows concerned. "You don't mind, do you? I mean, was it out of line of me to call you up and arrange for a meeting? Did you feel like it was an obligation or something?"
I laugh a little, relieving some of the tension in my body. "An obligation? No. It's nothing like that. It's just...aren't you a little apprehensive?"
"Apprehensive?" he repeats. He scrunches up his face and thinks about it for a while. Then, he lets out a long sigh, and, choosing his words carefully, replies, "I'm not sure...I have these feelings, you know, in me. I have these thoughts in my brains that are kind of...I don't know, they're kind of put on heavy rotation, you know? I don't know, like, I don't know how I feel right now."
He shrugs, somewhat apologetic that he can't give me the answer that I want. A waitress approaches our table, and removes an empty plastic cup. I look at it, and realise that it's mine. I say a small 'thank you' to her. She smiles in acknowledgement of my greeting, and then she turns and diverts her attention to the table behind us, leaving me alone with Jack.
Jack is waiting for my response. I can feel his eyes boring into me, as if he's trying to see into my soul. As if he's trying to re-create what we lost and to make up for five years wasted. I'm thinking that it probably kills him to imagine what we'd become if he hadn't been arrested. I wonder who he blames it on, my parents? Himself? His parents? Me?
"What was prison like?" I ask softly.
He laughs a little, though it has no mirth in it. He takes a few bites from his cheesecake and chews furiously, like he's trying to buy time before answering my question. I don't understand why; it's a simple question that requires no thought. I'd settle with a one word answer, like, "shit" or "crap" or something like that. The way he's chewing and taking long sips from his cup makes me wonder if I should've asked it at all, if it were merely a waste of my breath.
"Shit," he finally replies. He takes his eyes off me and stares out of the window. Orchard Road, as per usual, is swamped with people, both locals and foreigners alike. A mother pushing a pram stops to carry her baby; kids in school uniforms laughing and talking at the top of their lungs; business men with briefcases walking briskly, avoiding other people's eyes, as if they got someplace so important to be at that they can't even spare a few seconds to acknowledge someone else's presence. It's an ordinary day outside, and I wish so much that I was part of that world right now. I'd rather join the huge crowd at Isetan and get annoyed by mothers who take about seven children with them while they try on clothes than sit here at Starbucks, attempting to relate back to my ex-boyfriend. Then again, I would rather drill roads under the hot sun than sit in an air conditioned room, drinking nice coffee, with my ex-boyfriend sitting across me, expecting us to go back to the way we were, expecting me to be fifteen, sixteen years old again.
It's my turn to speak, and I have nothing to say. Luckily, he solves my problem for me.
"In prison there was this one guy," he says, still staring out of the window. "He's in for murdering his girlfriend. I heard that he's mentally unstable, that the murder fucked him up. And every night he'd cry out in his sleep. Every single night, and he always said the same fucking thing: 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry.' I never talked to him, but this friend I made told me that he killed his girl on a whim of rage. And it scared me."
He tears his gaze from the outside world, and throws me a small grin. "What a life, eh?"
"I...I don't know what to say," I tell him lamely, for I truly am at a loss for words. His confession surprised me, though it really shouldn't. Jack isn't a monster; he simply has a lot of things to deal with. But what does one say to the things one has been yearning to hear for years? How does one react when one finally hears it?
He lifts one shoulder in a nonchalant shrug, purses his lips a bit and tells me that I don't have to say anything, much to my relief. "He died though, that guy," he says. He seems to be in another world completely, one that doesn't include me. "Banged his head repeatedly against the wall, and boom! He's dead. Just like that."
He returns his gaze to me again, and all of a sudden, I find his eyes staring urgently into mine, like they're trying to tell me something he cannot express in words that he desperately needs me to know. "I missed you, you know. In prison. I missed being with you, I missed talking to you, I missed your voice. I missed you so much, I felt like I could die. I - "
"Did you miss hitting me?"
I say it so softly, and so suddenly, that it took us both by surprise. I'm breathing heavily, and it feels as though we're back at the Botanical Garden...only, it isn't all that perfect anymore. Time seems to stand still as Jack looks back at me with a look on his face that I can't decipher. It's a mixture of...shock? Surprise? Incredulity? Disbelief? Hurt?
The question hangs in the air between us, unanswered and unaddressed. Some man behind me knocks his chair into mine, but I don't flinch, not even when he apologises. All of my attention is focused on Jack, and Jack alone; no one else mattered right now, except Jack. His eyes are locked on mine, his mouth slightly agape, and if the cafeteria wasn't so loud, I'm almost positive that I could hear his breathing.
He fumbles around his pockets for a cigarette, takes one out and is about to light up when he remembers that we're at a non-smoking area. He drops his smoke, and it falls limply onto the floor where a customer breezes by and steps on it unknowingly. He swears under his breath and covers his face in his hands, as if that would make the question go away.
"Well, did you?"
He finally looks back up at me. Tears are brimming in his eyes.
"How can you even think of asking me that?"
I shrug. "I didn't. It just came out."
"Just came out?" he sputters in disbelief. One tear finds its way down his face, where he impatiently rubs it away with the back of his hand. "Do you have any idea how much that hurts me?"
"Do you have any idea how much you've hurt me?"
He doesn't answer, and just stares at me with tears in his eyes, like some poor bastard child who has just discovered the truth about his birth.
"I thought you knew I was sorry," he says quietly. "I never meant to hurt you. I could never do that. I loved you too much."
"But you did hurt me. It wasn't just once either, it was over, and over, and over. Do you call that love?"
"I've changed," he replies evenly, addressing my accusation.
I arch an eyebrow. "Oh, really?"
All of a sudden he leaps out of his chair, his fists balled tight, his eyes ablaze, almost black, like fire personified. He holds up his fist as if he's about to throw a punch at me, his chest heaving up and down, his breath coming out in short, angry gasps. His hand is shaking.
He's glaring at me with such fury and hate, I find myself flashing back to the past, to the number of times Jack got angry like he is now. I would tease him light-heartedly, not knowing that he was in a bad mood. He'd turn to me and stare at me with eyes so dead, so blank, he became nobody I recognised. He'd slap me across the face so hard that I can still feel my skin tingling, still see the red imprint of his palm on my face. There were times too that an innocent discussion about music or movies turned so nasty, he'd rain punches on me as if I were an annoyance to him. I'd beg him to stop, scream at him that he was hurting me, but the more noise I made, the harder the strikes became, until he reduced me to nothing but a tiny, weeping, fragile porcelain doll that had fallen and broken into bits of insignificant pieces. After he had enough, he'd stop abruptly and stare at me in fear and shock, and rush forward to hold me close to him, whispering hasty and tearful apologies in my ear that he seemed to mean and feel with all his heart and soul.
Perhaps it was my fault, that I brought it upon myself, for I always forgave him. No matter how scared I got when he was angry, I always forgave him afterwards. He promised me he'd change, that our love was too strong to be ruined by his stupid fits of anger. I see very clearly now that all his promises were nothing but empty words to bide us over until someone interfered in our relationship. My parents' calling the cops on that day was a blessing in disguise; who knows what would have become of me if I had let him destroy me inside, bit by bit, piece by piece?
Starbucks is uncharacteristically quiet; all eyes are on me and Jack, who has lowered his fist, and is staring at me in shock, exactly like how he did in the past. I'm shaking inside, for I have come so close to erasing the five years I spent re-building myself without Jack, and finally moving on.
I squeeze my eyes shut, and count silently to ten. I inhale deeply - the strong aroma of coffee fills my nose - and exhale slowly. When I open my eyes again, Jack has his palms pressed on the top of the table, his head lowered. I can still feel eyes on me as I slowly get up from my chair, take out a few bills from my purse and leave it on the table.
Then, I say to Jack, loudly enough for him to hear, but softly too, so that no one can eavesdrop, "Please don't call me again, Jack. I don't want to ever hear your voice on the other end of the telephone line. If you call me again, I'll have the police come and get you. And I mean it."
I turn to leave, but stop in my tracks when a moan escapes from his lips. He has one arm outstretched, as if he's trying to reach out to me, and another clutching his heart. He lets out a strangled cry of a wounded animal. He's crying freely now, without any reservations.
"Oh, god, Nanci," he sobs. "I'm so sorry. I'm so fucking sorry. Please don't leave me, I can't go on knowing that you don't love me anymore. Please, Nanci, don't walk away from me. Please!"
I feel my heart twist into a knot upon seeing him being reduced to a blubbering mess. He's crying so pathetically and painfully, I find myself starting to walk towards him. But his next words stop me.
"I promise that I'd change, Nanci. I promise, I can change, I can be the person you want me to be. Just, just don't walk. I can't take it...I love you so much..." His voice escalates to a high-pitched falsetto, and breaks upon reaching the last syllabus. He covers his face in both hands, letting his emotions take over his body.
"I'm sorry, Jack," I reply with a calmness I don't feel. "I can't do this anymore. Not when I've finally found myself whole again, without you. I loved you once, but that's all in the past. I can't go back there ever again."
I don't know if he heard me, as he doesn't look up. He sinks into his chair, as if his weight is too heavy for him to take on. A security personnel approaches me and asks, "Miss, you okay? Want me to call the police?"
I shake my head, give him a weak smile, and, ignoring the harsh scrutiny of the crowd, step out of the café into the warm mid-afternoon sunshine, and rejoin the mothers, the students, and the businessmen.
A/N: Talk about melodrama! For some reason, what started out to be a short story became quite a long one. If you made it until here, hats off to you. Please leave your feedback, 'cause I really need it. Okay, Orchard Road is Singapore's shopping district; Isetan is the name of a departmental store, and the thing I said about moms with seven kids is true, if not a bit exaggerated; Jack is an ang mo, which is Hokkien for Westerner (it actually means English, but whatever), which explains his green eyes, but Nanci is a Chinese with exceptionally good English. I don't actually know what the penalty is for abuse, I'm just making stuff up. Again, this is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to anyone living or dead is purely coincidental, blah blah blah, please don't sue, blah blah blah. All belong to me except Starbucks, Isetan and Orchard Road (though it'll be cool to own them).