Image credit: Instagram post by @hueyxhuey
NEIGHBOURHOOD OF THE LONELY.
Leong sat at the kopitiam and sipped on the piping hot black coffee. It was thick, exactly how Lily would have liked it.
During the weekends, Leong and Lily would go for coffee in the afternoon together. Kopi-c for Leong, kopi-o for his wife. They would sit at the kopitiam for an hour or two, talking about anything under the sun.
That was before she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Multiple chemotherapy sessions and medications drained Lily of her strength. The kopitiam sessions became increasingly infrequent. Leong would reassure her, “You’ll be back home in no time and we can go for kopi together in the afternoons, just like we used to!”
One morning, she was rushed to the hospital and never returned home for good.
It had been a month since her passing and Leong sat at the same kopitiam for the first time since she was gone. They had always been inseparable but today, he was alone. He could picture her sitting next to him, smiling. Leong could almost feel the wisps of her hair against his cheek – She would sometimes rest her head on his shoulder as they people-watched… But Lily was gone, and the vacant seat next to him was a painful reminder of his loss. Waves of grief and loneliness crashed against him. Leong would no longer order kopi-c. It would forever be kopi-o, in loving memory of his wife.
There was a hole in his heart in the shape of Lily, and Leong desperately tried to fill it with the shape of kopi-o.
Christine greeted her neighbour.
“Eh, did you see Leong at the kopitiam last weekend? I see him sitting by himself and I feel so sad. He must be so lonely without his wife – did you know she passed away?”
Christine was not one for frivolous small talk. She nodded politely, and hurried home. Her neighbour was always eager to engage in trivial conversations, passing on gossip about others that Christine had no wish to know about.
She opened her front gate and was greeted by the sight of her fifteen year old son lying on the sofa, his eyes glued to the screen of his iPad. “Is daddy back yet?” Christine asked.
He did not respond. As her son played his game, the only noise that filled the living room was the sound of the laser beams shooting at zombies on his screen. Pew pew pew pew.
“Alex Lim, I’m talking to you. Did daddy come home?”
Without looking up, he said, “He went out.”
“Did he say when he will be back?” Christine asked.
“No, but he said he didn’t want to see your jibai face.”
Christine did not flinch at her son’s use of a Hokkien expletive. She calmly set the food down on the table that she had bought from the kopitiam downstairs. It was her son’s favourite Hokkien mee, with extra pork lard. “Come eat dinner.”
“I eat already.” He said, and went to his room, slamming the door behind him.
Christine sat down, opened up her packet of noodles, and began to eat. With every mouthful of food that she shovelled into her mouth, she became increasingly aware that the emptiness within her was not something that could be filled by food.
Lonely because his wife died? She thought to herself, recalling what her neighbour told her. She wished that her husband was dead. That way, neither of them could have him. If he could not be hers, then at least he wouldn’t be the Other Woman’s. She trembled with anger. She couldn’t understand why her son blamed her. I’m not the one who’s tearing us apart. She wished that the laser beams from her son’s iPad game would slice her into a thousand pieces. Pew pew pew pew.
Christine sat alone at the dining table made for four and sobbed quietly. Each empty seat served as a stark reminder of her family that could never exist in the same physical space simultaneously.
Claudia tugged at the leash. “Time to go, Toby.”
Toby licked Alex’s face and jumped around him excitedly. “Bye Toby.” Alex petted the Japanese spitz’s white fur for one final time before he got up to leave. The fifteen year old boy was Toby’s favourite person to meet while on his walk because Alex would give him a few dog treats from his backpack. “Bye Auntie Claudia, thanks for stopping.”
“No problem, you can come visit Toby anytime.”
Toby was an energetic dog with soft, white fur. He was easily excited – he would dash to the corners of the room whenever he wanted to play. Toby adored Claudia, and he would experience separation anxiety when they were apart. He would follow her around the house. When she showered, he would wait outside the bathroom. When she slept, he would curl up at the foot of her bed.
The story of Claudia and Toby began when Claudia’s daughter went to a pet store and bought her a dog.
Claudia was divorced, and her only child was a successful lawyer who married an equally successful lawyer. Once, Claudia had casually asked if they were intending to have children. I could take care of them for you, she offered. The next week, a Japanese spitz showed up at her flat. “Now you have something to keep you company.” She told her mother.
She would tell relatives proudly, “You know my gal – she’s a lawyer at Baker & Mackenzie now.” When they asked about why she wasn’t at the family gathering, Claudia would tell him, “She’s busy working so she can’t come. But she’s a very good girl, you know. Pays for everything for me.”
Claudia made a large pot of lotus root soup and gave a pork rib bone to Toby. She waited for her daughter to call. When are you coming to drink soup and visit me? Wednesday, ma. I’ll call when I’m coming over.
It was already ten. She dialled her daughter’s personal mobile number, but no one picked up. She tried her son-in-law. “Mother? What’s wrong?”
Oh nothing, just wondering if you all ended work yet? It’s Wednesday. I made soup. I’m sorry, I have a big case tomorrow to prepare for so I can’t come over. Did Rachel call you? No, she didn’t. It’s OK. I understand. She’s busy.
Claudia hung up.
Toby lay stretched out on her lap. She hugged him and he licked her face enthusiastically.