“Don’t forget to complete questions 3 to 7a. We shall be going through them on Thursday! Remember this, I can’t help you if you choose not to help yourself. So please, be true to yourself!” reminded Mr Toh, our Physics teacher. As the school bell sounded like it always did on the hour, my classmates erupted into incessant chatter, likewise with the other classrooms adjacent to ours. Lorraine, who sat nearest the door, immediately faced towards the diagonally-opposite corner of the class, and tried to catch the attention of Jolene, her best friend. “Jo!” Lorraine beckoned. “What do you wanna do later?!”
Lorraine’s shrieks faded into the background as I made my way out of the classroom, trailing Mr Toh. With some effort, I jostled through the pairs and trios of students who were walking along the corridor. Disgruntled, I made my way to the ground floor. Surrounding me were class benches.
It was the same old sight every day. In their cliques, girls engaged in gossip. People charged their portable chargers at the wall sockets while they perused their lecture notes. The same people had their earbuds fitted nicely, with which they enjoyed what was supposedly their favourite music. Unattended laptops, phones and other valuables lay atop the class benches. And yes, I know, I know – how can we forget that group of people – the same old familiar faces masquerading around school. Though they didn’t hold hands (which they were certainly not allowed to), it was obvious to anyone with half a cerebrum that they were couples. In the evening, some of these couples even shared earbuds, that they might listen to the same music while “studying”. The sight went in stark contrast with what my father described to me when he himself was a student. When he was in my shoes thirty years ago, things were different. Back then, discipline and order were apparently upheld and championed with pride. Even girls were only allowed to have short hair. C’est la vie. As for whether the past could be coined “the good old times”, well, that’s ultimately up to our imagination, isn’t it?
At that moment, I couldn’t help but recall a picture I had chanced upon online. The picture was divided into four quadrants. Each quadrant contained one sentence. Strong men lead to good times. Good times lead to weak men. Weak men led to bad times. Bad times led to strong men. One-sided arrows connected the quadrants. Chuckling to myself, I made my way to the gate at the side of the school led me on my way to the nearby Starbucks joint.
As I opened the glass door to the Starbucks joint, the gush of cool air comforted my face. In its embrace, I was there and then relieved of the discomfort from the beads of perspiration that had been cascading down my forehead and cheeks.
Oh, thank God for the air-conditioner.
I headed towards one of the chairs and promptly set my brown leather sling bag on it. After glancing around, I then glanced at my watch at the flick of a wrist. Hmm. It was barely a quarter past one.
Shouldn’t there be more of a crowd? Well, in that situation, I wasn’t one to complain. This was a blessing.
“What you want today sir?” hissed the bespectacled woman who donned a sulk on her face. Well, there can never be enough negativity for one day huh.
“Do you do Trentas here?”
“Huh? Tlenta ah? That is what ah? Got such thing meh?” she replied, baffled.
“Never mind then. A Venti Iced Teavana Shaken Strawberry Green Tea Infusion Lemonade with sugar and caramel syrup.”
“Huh? Sorry can repeat again?”
That phrase bugged me. The word “again” is redundant, unless of course, I had already repeated myself, something I clearly had not done.
After successfully completing that unusually arduous task which seemed to take aeons, I proceeded to my seat and whipped out the tutorial questions that I had to complete by Thursday. While I don’t normally do schoolwork in places like Starbucks, this time was different. Somehow, I felt that I should just complete it before going home.
I opened the booklet containing the tutorial questions, while also laying beside it ruled paper. Just at that moment, the door swung open, initiating the chime of the miniature bells that adorned the top of the door frame. In walked a girl whose hair was neatly tied into a ponytail, with a black hairband holding it in its place. The badge on the left collar of her beige blouse was no strange sight. Though I knew not her name, I had seen her frequently, albeit from a distance, as I traversed the school premises. It must be something like the Baader-Meinhof at play here. Given her petite figure, I doubt she would even order half of what I ordered.
“A Short Iced Coffee please, and also, without sugar or syrup”, she remarked, with a smile plastered on her face. As expected – how predictable.
She soon returned to her seat which was three seats on my right. While sipping on her coffee, she glanced out of the window, looking at the vehicles zipping past along the road, all while maintaining her pleasant smile, as her visage basked in the glory of the majestic limpid sunlight that filtered through the speckless windows. Putting her cup of coffee down, she soon began to glance around the joint, just like I had done. Briefly, just so ever briefly, our curious eyes met.
I immediately darted away. It soon dawned on me how long I had spent gazing at her – from a distance. Oh dear. I certainly hope she didn’t think I was a creep. That was certainly not a first impression of myself that I intended to establish. What’s wrong with choosing to be more cognizant of one’s surroundings?
I started doing the tutorial questions. Yet, I yearned to talk to her. Who was she? I simply wanted to know the name of someone whose face I kept seeing. I could not focus on the questions that lay on the table. Though they were right before my very eyes, they were taunting me.
I glanced back at her.
With her left thumb holding a verso and a recto of a paperback apart, she gently sipped on her coffee once again. That was it. I was going to walk up and talk to her. Thoughts were running through my mind. “What if she just stares at me upon approaching her?” Anxiety coursed through my veins. “What if she just stands up and walks away without saying a word?” After overcoming the internal cognitive dissonance, I mustered whatever ounce of courage I had in me. With the faith of a mustard seed, I departed for her table (which was technically my table since all the seats shared a single long table). No sooner had I taken three steps than she glanced at me in surprise. However, upon arriving at her seat, whatever courage I had was now depleted.
“Hey, my name’s Nic. I couldn’t help but notice you when you walked in. You see, I somehow notice you a lot lately on campus, I mean…not that I actively look for you, but…”, I stuttered slightly in a way that was not representative of my usual coherence.
Mmmmm. Pretty sure she donned a Gucci Bloom – a rich floral scent that suits her so well. I was now close enough to her that I could see in full view her dark hazel iris and sharp gaze as though her eyes lined with shards of glass around the edges. The calculating coldness at the centre of her pupils drew me closer.
She put her book down, with the front cover against the cool surface of the pine table. The look of surprise soon morphed into one of serenity. And now, this time, though her lips were delicately against each other, she sat there smiling. Those few seconds of silence felt like an eternity. How was she going to reply? To say that I had mixed emotions was an understatement. There she sat, smiling at me. I wonder if she knew the effect that she was currently having on me. The dimples on her cheeks now further catalysed the melting of my heart. Yet. Yet, I could feel my heart palpitating with trepidation, as consternation and uncertainty engulfed my thoughts. Soon, she spoke with a delicate and mellifluous voice that caressed my earlobes like the petals of a rose.
“I was wondering when you would approach me”, she beamed.