What you don’t notice is what matters most
The clock ticks and time slips through my fingers; I watch it as its hands dance in incongruent circles around the number eight. The sky is bright, but not with the sun’s kiss: it is a grey red wine of refracted immortal city lights which cover the stars’ gleam like a blanket. The moon is nowhere to be seen and my stomach drops involuntarily. I leave the window and settle back down into my bed; the bones of my spine precariously caress the cheap wall behind me. My room can only fit a kids’ bed, a recycled bedside table with a cracked mirror, and a fan. Nothing about it feels homely. If anything, the overhead lamp makes me lethargic as I bathe under its icy green light. With my head against the wall and a soft gaze, I hum to the tune of the cars racing against tourmaline asphalt outside. The sound of the city is overwhelming, but I got used to it.
I can hear my mother in the room next door, as well as the neighbours above and below us. The apartment is so compact that it barely fits our family of two, and the walls are made of dilapidated paper. Sound flows and melts through them in an infinite cycle. I hear showers being turned on, doors slamming, keys turning and a constant amorphous background chatter.
“Dee, go get dinner!”
Just like a calling, Mother’s muffled voice reaches my ears. She never delivers this task to me face to face: she simply can’t come to terms with the necessity and guilt behind that command. It’s wrong and we shouldn’t be doing it. That’s what the voice in her head says. I’ve had the same voice telling me the same words, but I know I’m stronger than her. That’s why I’ve learnt to push that voice aside.
Because, what other choice do we have?
I get up robotically and automatically, as if I were following a set of instructions from a manual. The practical side of my brain takes over and I get ready to leave. I don’t need to reply to mother; she knows I’ve heard her. In an imperturbable manner, my hands expertly wrap around the strands of my hair, threading them into a braid. Bending down to face the mirror, I apply mascara and lipstick. I look at my face without recognising myself, and the selfish thought of looking nicer never crosses my mind. This is simply a necessary step to the routine.
Holding a neat leather shoulder bag, I hop onto the windowsill. Closing my eyes for a second, I breathe in a compendium of city smoke and penetrating crisp wind. An exhale later, I’m climbing down the building’s safety ladder.
This step, however, is unnecessary.
I could simply take the stairs down. But I just don’t like the feeling of dependence it emanates. Climbing down a building changes me. After every climb, I feel stronger. It is as if I take down fear one step at a time. The thrill, the adrenaline, the blood pumping faster prepares me for what’s to come.
Once my boots hit the pavement, I stand savagely still – slightly dazed. Then, as if a switch had been turned on in me, I compose myself and start walking with a purpose. My head is held high and my shoulders are firm. If you were to look at me now, you’d see a middle-class teenage girl, dressed elegantly, maybe even ready for a night out with her friends. I picture this at the back of my mind and mould myself into it, trying to force this image onto the others as much as possible.
And then I start walking.
This area of the city is nothing special. The same glaring neon lights are projected into the vast sky, crowds still have not dissipated, and the sound of chopsticks against plastic bowls is prominent. Passing the convenience stores, I meticulously count the number of times I’ve been in them for food. I chose an empty 7-11 that’s a few hundred metres away from home. I’ve been in it once, but the image of the storeowner is still imprinted in my mind: lazy, hating his job, going through a midlife crisis, and with a stash of manga he secretly reads behind the counter. Typical and easy.
Strutting into the shop, I take the lustrous black broken phone I found by chance on the street a year ago and pretend to be gossiping with a purpose.
“She lied to me again! Can you believe it? I was talking to Jasmine just now and she was like: Oh, I’m not free today I need to study, sorry! … And guess whom I saw at the mall? Jasmine!”
The voice that comes out of my mouth is distorted and squeaky to my ears. It has taken me me years to perfect the accent of a city-life teenager.
The ash grey-haired man behind the cashier barely lifts his eyes from the manga book that he is discreetly reading over the newspaper. (Nobody could be so enraptured by reading the news, it’s obvious.) His ears, however, perk up – that’s when I know he’s listening to the conversation. I continue the chatter with my apparent friends on the other line, though my eyes are onto a different task. I pass the rows of glistening packaged food that shouts “buy me!” in bold colours that almost blur against my retina.
I glance up once more, and notice, from the man’s glassy eyes, that he is still completely entranced in the fake phone call I’m having. Perfect. I need him to have as many distractions as possible. While my voice doesn’t falter, my fingers casually wrap around two instant noodle cups and a carton of milk. My mind needs to be lucidly concentrated for this to happen. I’ve hesitated countless times and it has led to being chased, which I usually would prefer not going through again.
I like to think of it as more of an exchange. I tell you a story through my phone call, and you give me dinner for that night. I gradually raise my voice as the noddle cups and milk are placed precariously in my bag.
“Wait, what! You’re right around the corner? I’m at the 7-11, I’ll come out to meet you.” I express with excitement to my phone. With a certain intensity, I jog outside the store, with my left hand over my closed satchel. Pause. I turn my head to the left. A big smile spreads on my lips. With the man’s gaze on me, I wave at the friend I’m supposed to meet and start walking away from the store. Keep walking, keep walking… And run. I sprint away from the man, from the law, and worst of all, from the guilty voice in my head.
The heavy breath that numbs the sense of guilt accompanies me all the way home. It’s been an hour since I left. I climb back up into my room and put back the milk in the empty fridge. Mother hears me and turns on the electric kettle as usual. We each sit in our own rooms and wait for its mechanical beep of boiled water.
“BEEEP!BEEP! BEEP!” It screams incessantly, and to me it sounds like a scream of accusation and disapproval for what we are doing. Once again, I brush that thought off my shoulders. We each race to the electric kettle and I hand her one of the cup noodles. I barely look her in the eyes. The love we used to hold for each other has dissipated and has been consumed by our daily routine. We live in good harmony but we scarcely converse. It’s a perfectly oiled system that functions just as well without love nor compassion.
When I think of her, all I remember is her young pale skin, her plump upper lip and her attenuated almond-shaped eyes. I want to keep this image of her in my mind. Of course, this was years ago, before father went away: before he left us in the ruins, and before rejection started biting away at the corners of mother’s eyes, weaving wrinkles where they never were. I can’t look at her because I can’t bear to face what he has inflicted onto her. He managed to destroy her heart, to shatter it and dispose of it, and along with it, our family.
It changed her as a person. All she is now is a shadow of her inconsequential life.
I think of this as I sit on the roof of my apartment building. The roof is a simple cement platform that faces the whole city that surrounds it, and I always climb up here while I eat. My hands cup around my lukewarm dinner. The apathetically grey sky contrasts and moulds with the neon city. With millions of lights and money flowing like a stream through this city, I notice the abundance of life that Hong Kong contains. Then, I look at the sky once more and see nothing beyond it, and I feel caged, despite knowing that there is so much out there. Thinking of this makes me feel tiny and without a purpose. I am simply one in many – and a speck of dust in what’s beyond the horizon.
Strangely, reflecting on this, truly comforts me as I finish my dinner.
With the same thought in mind, I’m lulled to sleep to the sweet lullaby of insignificance; never noticing my mother, who stands at the roof door entrance every night as she watches over me with longing.