Notion Press Malaysia Short Story Contest 2017

Hold Your Breath

By Gie Mei Teh in General Literary

I often think about that particular commute to the heart of the city, my city. Three years and many commutes in, I could still remember every single detail of that day. How the trees danced to the wind, the odour, the rocks, how the track winded, the emptiness of the compartment at that time of the day, the announcements repeated in multiple languages, the individual who sat next to me, empty mind with his costly earphones plugged in, the song on loop and the guilt that never left.

I lived on the outskirts. I was one out of the 7.2 million people living here in the city, and it was easy to feel lost. I wanted to feel lost. The heart of the city was my hiding place. The buildings, they shelter me. I could be anything and anybody I wanted for that few hours. On this particular commute, all I wanted was to open a can of beer and watch the sun set over the fields. I wanted to open another and be among the city lights. To top it all off, I wanted to do this alone. Was this what freedom feels like? Because if it is, it’s awfully lonely. Then again, loneliness was an old friend whereas helplessness was someone I did not want to greet.

I remembered being lost in the city. I retraced my steps as per usual but only this time, I kept reappearing at the exact spot every five minutes. Even the cat on the sidewalk was getting used to seeing me. The city I knew inside out was somehow alien, and nothing like I had mapped out in my mind. My trusted phone couldn’t seem to point me in the right direction. Nobody in this over polluted and populated city could point me in the right direction. My brain was going haywire. I wanted to feel lost in my mind, not physically lost. I desperately needed a cup of coffee. Without my familiar café in sight, I went to the nearest McDonalds and got an Americano, without sugar – the usual. It tasted like acid. It was disgusting. How on earth did something so familiar such as coffee became so foreign? One gulp in, and into the bin, it went. I went into the toilet to freshen up with hopes that it’ll do me better than that awful cup of coffee. Why do people even enjoy this? Why did I use to enjoy this drink? I looked up and stared into the bathroom mirror, not recognising myself at all. I had bags under my eyes, my skinny jeans were loose and all I could conclude was that the splash of water didn’t help me at all and all I knew was that I was on the run. Unbeknownst to me, the sight of you that I have ingrained in my memory that got me fleeing to my hiding place, I saw it for the next 72 hours. Everything was the same, wasn’t it? You, the coffee and the city, except nothing was really the same. Maybe I wasn’t.

We had a knack for numbers, I recalled. It wasn’t anything new or colourful. Numbers were easy, it was logic as you always say. It was black and white and it tells no lies. The length it took for you to get my heart all warmed up and fuzzy, the pressure for every ruffle on the hair, the time taken for each hug, the weight we carry on our shoulders. We could always count it. Laughter added years into our lives, work and stress subtracted some of them. The day I came out of the womb multiplied your family and your love had to be divided equally. It was easy, quantifiable and all logic.

The commute was when all logic flew out of the window and all flipped upside down. It was when math stopped making sense. Right there and then after that very phone call, my constant became a variable. How did the graphs we believed that will never intersect the bottom of the axis did so soon? When did it come to the point when probability got the better of us and dictated the victory or loss for you and me? When did the odds stop playing in our favour? Have we been playing a losing game, or have you knocked yourself out so that I can make something out of this game that is impossible to win? Did you lose, so that I could win?

I took no victories on that day. I lost the ability to count, to quantify and allowed the computer to do all the work for me. My brain was fuzzy and there was no amount of logic that could help me make sense of this. The numbers were computed for me to see how far you were gone. Was I lucky to be able to do one last math problem or count with you? I’m not so sure anymore. The last thing we counted together was how much your muscle was trying to keep you alive, the pressure of your blood tensing up the entire room and the clock ticking by. The only thing I managed to count by myself were the years of service we did together for our cruel master called life. Sixteen years. Sixteen years of honour, privilege and the biggest lesson of all, to love and to be loved. Sixteen years was not enough and it'll never be enough. I could only hope for more.

The first count came after the last two days after. Did we have to put you into a box or did we have to put you six feet under? There were decisions to be made and cost to be counted. I went into your old office and took the one thing that meant the most to you and me – the calculator. As much as you try to increase someone’s life exponentially, there was absolutely nothing you can multiply a zero to. Math was black and white and that, I understood. These feelings that couldn’t be expressed, I couldn’t comprehend. There were no tears.

Death of one,
Burial of many.

Here I am, sitting on the ledge, contemplating to free fall and accelerate at the gravity constant into the lot next to yours. However, the slope of my graph is not at its peak. Perhaps, only when it decides to crash into the axis like yours, but today isn’t the day.


Copyright Gie Mei Teh
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