Every few months I go down with her to the hospital. We have lunch at the canteen (which finally, finally is air-conditioned so that means there are no more houseflies to buzz around my ears and annoy the heck out of me).
She always tells me the same thing- How when she was five years old, she was really really hungry but her sadistic mother decided that no one in the family was allowed to touch the already cooked food just sitting dumbly on the kitchen table. So being the clever girl that she was, she sneaked into the kitchen when no one was looking, climbed on top of a wooden stool, and dug her two fingers into the white tender flesh of the steamed fish. And she ate, and she ate, and she ate, and she was happy. And before she realized it, she had finished one whole side of the fish! So being the clever girl that she was, she turned the fish over to the other side and it looked completely brand new. No one ever found out you know. No one!
“Why do you remember this so well?” I ask her, “I mean, why do you keep recalling it and thinking about it?”
“Because I knew that I was wrong. I knew okay. But I learned that I could get away with it. No one cared. No one cares. You know what I mean?”
“I think so…” I nod, “So if someone had stopped you, would it have changed your life?”
She laughs, “Don’t know sia! No one cares. No one loves me.”
“Oei! Say until like that!” I glare at her in jest, “That was then! Now you have me!”
An old woman wearing large brown sunglasses sits next to us, for no rhyme or reason, crosses her stick-thin legs elegantly, takes my cup of teh and begins to sip it leisurely. I know better than to say, “Ey that’s mine!” I simply look at her sunglasses (which are totally lop-sided and a little heavy on her tiny face), and wonder if I should tilt it back straight for her.
The man sitting across from us energetically taps his chopsticks on the surface of the table, as if he is playing on a set of drums at some dusty popular nightclub.
“Crowded day today arh,” she says.
I look around, “Yah. Okay lar. Could be worse.”
“Twelve years already.”
I frown, “What thing twelve years?”
“We come here for twelve years already.”
I cock my head to the right, trying to do the math and failing terribly, “Shit.”
“I’m twenty one,” I tell her.
“Of course I know.”
My jaws drop, “If its twelve years… Wah lau! That means I’ve been coming here half my whole damn life lar!”
She laughs, “Yah lor. Sad right.”
I put my hand over her hand and put on my best encouraging smile, “No lar.”
“You see, you see! You're doing it again lar!” she tells me.
“Yah? Its supposed to be a good thing.”
She shakes her head enthusiastically. She spends close to half an hour telling me that I’m such an ‘enigma’. She goes on and on about how ‘mysterious’ I am. What am I hiding? She wants to know. What’s the secret?
I blush and shrug and tell her that I have no idea what the hell she's talking about.
When she speaks to the psychiatrist (who we always make fun of because he is balding and looks exactly like Flintstone), I see a side of her I tend to forget exist- that five year old girl, afraid of telling the truth, eager to please, with half-crazy wild eyes that dance around the room and drop the most appalling and hurting confessions.
“Do they still come and look for you?” Flintstone asks.
“Doesn’t matter,” she says, “I’m dead anyway.”
“When was the last time you thought of dying?” he probes.
“Hmmm... Yesterday. I was at Toa Payoh, looking at all the high-rise flats. Then wahh some of them are so tall! Thirty, forty stories.”
I bite my lower lip. I was with her yesterday, and I had said to her jokingly, “That’s a good place to jump down and die man.”
Later on, when her name is called aloud, she becomes ashamed of having to collect her medication from the counter, and I have to pretend that I am her and pay for them on her behalf. At first I get angry with her- that she has to push her burning sense of humiliation over to me. Have I not been nice enough, spending my time keeping her company instead of studying? At first I really want to walk away from her.
“No one knows!” I hiss, “Just take the pills and go very hard is it?!”
“Everyone knows!” she snaps angrily, “Everyone is staring at me! They all think I’m crazy!”
I think, that it is so easy to love people, when they are happy, and successful, and healthy. Everything is smooth. Everything flows naturally. But is that love? Is that love, if it comes so effortlessly? I don’t know. Maybe. I just know that lonely, broken and messed up people are so hard to love (and oh god, so so hard to leave). It takes all of me. It takes all of my heart. I have to keep going at it, banging my head against the wall. And when I push myself to love until I am on the brink of hopelessness, when I push myself to love until their darkness drips inside of me and threatens to eat me up as well, I know that that love, that sacrifice, is worth so much more, and means so much more, because it comes when they most need it but least expect it.
(Maybe that’s the secret, darling.)