If someone told me ten years ago that simply standing and observing the colourful prayer flags strung across Kathmandu’s sky made me jolly, I would have scoffed at the notion. But who I am today is, obviously, different from who I was a decade ago. Not only have my physical features changed over the time, but the personality and maturity of mine have also adapted to the inevitable conclusion, trying to avoid the “unprecedented” word here, as it already lost meaning being overused. Granted, the world around us did not look the same many years ago, but surely a pandemic wasn’t a negligible thing to consider.
Jamie wanted to press closer to my body. We needed heat, preferably bodily heat. It was just another autumn in the highest capital city in the world, but to us, it was just another day as The Lucky Ones inhaled the clean crisp air unlike in thousands other cities. Those metropolitans usually featured in Hollywood movies, such as Hong Kong, New York, London, or Tokyo have said their goodbyes to civilization since a long time ago. Since droplets could kill. Since sneezing in an underground tunnel led to mortality. Since another human being was deemed a host to the alien parasites; a potential foe, not a friend.
“You should go back to your report. Leslie, Lisa, or– who is your editor again?”
“Liana,” he supplied.
“Ah! Liana. She will harangue me on any channels if you miss your deadline. Again. She said I kept you.”
His green eyes glanced at the roof of the world far away to the north. The white tops were somewhere swallowed by the endless distance of clouds. He barked a laugh all of a sudden, followed by tumbles of sneers. “What is even the point? I could use a break from counting days and harassing the scientists in the lab down there.”
A makeshift research lab stood in the place of an old hospital downtown. They said they wanted to develop the vaccine to eradicate the virus. They said it, like, five years ago. We never found it.
I sighed, giving in to say something that was borderline deplorable in this new world. “It’s never meant to be found.”
Jamie raised his hand to brush his hair frustratedly. Oh, how I’d always wanted to run my fingers over those fluffy strands of brown. “People need hope. Journalists, my job, give them that. We live through one day repeated over and over. The only difference is the number of remaining people.”
“Like the old movie Speed,” I chuckled more to myself. How long had it been again? Speed aired when I was a little kid, totally oblivious that the pretty and promising future could turn bleak in a moment. I recalled, “The scene with Sandra Bullock driving the bus while the video fed to the villain was actually the same scene repeated over and over,” I trailed.
He lowered his gaze to the ground, maybe he found his yellow sneakers interesting. “I’ve been wanting to wash my shoes.”
“And yet you said that months ago.”
“Aren’t we all stuck in limbo? I recalled we had discussed a wedding a long time ago. Before it kicked in and punched us all in the gut.”
“Surviving is the only thing that matters.” I swaddled my jacket tighter to my body. Boyfriend, girlfriend, fiance, fiancee, were the things in the past. Similar to discussing the Law of Hammurabi when I took up History classes at uni.
“This alien virus won, hands down. Look at how many relationships it broke over the course of years? And we thought that stubbornness and infidelity were among the big things that could wreck a home.” He still smiled amidst all trials and tribulations. He still gave his sweetest smile when he was with me; a smile that instantly illuminated the world with a gigawatt power and countless lumens, as if we were just an ordinary couple talking sweet nothings in our weekend getaway.
Kathmandu was by no means a barren wasteland, it still preserved its romantic and spiritual destination aura. In contrast with our ideas of life after apocalyptic events where a mysterious airborne virus wiped out more than two-thirds of humanity, the earth didn’t just change the colour tone to sepia. Water didn’t go monochromatic, and we didn’t dress like in a steampunk film with goggles and top hats. No, we still wore jeans, multilayered shirts and jackets, scarves, and normal shoes. All types of people who found themselves lucky enough–hence, The Lucky Ones–fled their hometown to a higher altitude where the air was cleaner and vegetation was real, not the concrete jungle one. I still communicated with my parents in the Ubud highland. Liana was still living somewhere in Scotland. But the men and women staying in the dense cities, gone.
And yet, we found that staying together in a makeshift house next to a temple inhaling cedarwood incense didn’t alleviate the boredom.
“At least we’re strong together,” I added with a hint of cheerful tone I somehow managed.
He gave me a sidelong glance, smirking. There it was, the spark that stopped the time. “Are you saying stubbornness and infidelity are the ones that might ruin us?”
“Hey,” I backhanded his toned arm lightly. Who knew even the simplest, as non-sexually charged as possible action like a backhand to an arm could leave me frustrated?
He shifted his weight foot-to-foot nervously while taking a deep breath as if wanting to say something, but he stopped himself before any words came out. Instead, he just gulped. He then moved his body so now he faced my side. Jamie knew what I was doing. The same longing was painted all over his face.
“Don’t tempt fate,” he hissed. “You know we can’t touch, can’t hug, let alone kiss, for the sake of maintaining a respectable distance–”
“As if we were living in a regency era,” I sang bitterly.
“Look at all the invisible eyes. The black drones,” he pointed upwards, one small drone with an aerial camera flying happily to record everything, making buzzing noises when refocusing, “can always catch you doing something reckless like that. I can’t live without you, Kay.”
It was due to either his breaking voice or my pent-up emotions that my fist clenched hard until the nails of my fingers left crescent-shaped scratched on my palm.
“Can we. . .not talk about this?”
“Shouldn’t this be the only talk we could talk about?” And just like every other time, I braced myself because what he said was still valid. Listening to him was unlike listening to a broken record, forever repeated. His concern was nothing new, but his emotion was always fresh as if he woke up every morning with new ammo ready to be offloaded to the world. And it was not directed to me.
“I knew that since the global government was formed and new laws instated, there was zero possibility that we could stay together and got our happy ending. But some random planetary movement apparently put us in the same flight to Nepal before it hit the fan, me for a reportage, you for a research trip. And here we’ve been for years, relishing time after time. I’m lucky not because I’m alive, baby. I’m lucky because I still have you by my side. Count the rest of the Homo sapiens on earth. How many are they still with their kins, let alone their. . .”
Normally, as in years ago, I would hate being called endearment. It sounded stupid and childish. But the way my temper softened just after being called such showed the magnitude of relationship deprivation we had.
“Love,” I picked up firmly. “I won’t be afraid to say that loudly to the land and sea. I love you, J.”
His fingers couldn’t curl around mine, filling the gaps to make my hand complete. His arms couldn’t round my shoulders. His head couldn’t rest atop my head. Sometimes, at night, I wondered how his scent would lull me to sleep, instead of wafting smoke of incense creeping through the window. We slept alone, each of us. Every physical interaction normal to lovers was impossible.
“If only we could turn back the time to the 1950s.” Sensing my brows raising, he continued, “You know the feeling when we listened to Sinatra’s or even older songs. The melody was such that our heart was embalmed in hope that everything was gonna be alright. Like the olden Disney songs.”
“It’s the chiaroscuro of the era,” I chimed in. “Everything sounded so pacific to us now, conveniently forgetting the Cold War. But who even remembered the details of the past? Who will even remember us now in the future? Bleak, it is.”
The drones never recorded audio, but it was enough. Nobody staging a coup went undetected visually. I revised, nobody staged a coup. The only people caring enough about the future of mankind were those sitting at the ivory tower called the central government. The rest were too weak to even attempt an uprising. Relationships died not because the tyranny enforced a series of laws prohibiting physical contacts. They didn’t wither away because passion died. Relationships were gone because people stopped fighting for them, generally uncaring for the sake of merely surviving. Relationships were just an afterthought.
There was no world domination if the subjects subjugated not because of the suppressed will but because of the lack of it.
Jamie avoided the dangerous path of madness, the train of thought of questioning our relationship. We were just like the renters of neighbouring rooms in a hotel.
“I love you’s became an empty concept, an empty phrase someone could throw around randomly without consequences. Because I love you, I care about you, but I can’t touch you. Nothing stands out in my actions that makes me distinctive to you than the other Lucky Ones based on their actions towards you. So don’t act as if you don’t care. Don’t touch me because it endangers us. You want this thing between us, you’re here for the long haul. I’m here for as long as I can, taking up jobs I despise for plastering lies because I can’t not do anything. I can go mental and you’ll hate me and then you’ll leave. I want to stay with you. Please, give us a chance.”
Venomous words almost rolled out my tongue, criticising his choice of words that hinted I was insane because I did nothing. Secondly, how low he thought of me. At the end of the world, I would love being with someone. Why would I leave?
“If you don’t want that job, please quit. I can’t see you like this forever,” my volume weakened. I knew I still cared. Above anything, I cared for him. It wasn’t his first outburst, but I could listen to him on and on reciting his noble way of life.
“I’m in love with you and humanity, and I’m standing in front of one of them, now. I love you each 100%. I know it doesn’t make any sense mathematically. But really, I can’t choose only one. And if that makes me involved in a toxic relationship with one, I’ll make sure the part I live with you is not it.”
Thunder rumbling in the sky broke the silent spell that encased us. Jamie licked his lips, and his strong gaze directed again at the white peaks, majestic and untouched, unaffected by the plague, much less the petty love problems.
“We’ve got an hour before my next con-call. What about some momos?” he suggested.
And who was I to ever deny such a childish request? Momos were one of the things that gave us a semblance of normalcy. Momos schedule was the only thing to keep our collective sanity not snap, because we got a sense of time rolling, days changing. Momos date was every weekend. That alone was a proof enough that we didn’t relive one template day copied multiple times.
We made a beeline to a momo stall. Dollars, rupees, almost anything could pay for food nowadays. Because The Lucky Ones didn’t care when all of humanity had made a full circle, back to the barter era. Besides, what was the point of currency rate when the lowest slab of Maslow’s pyramid was attainable and abundant, but life expectancy wasn’t? We’d reached a point where the people who cared were minuscule compared to the people who didn’t. Those who cared made surveillance and jails and the false hope for a vaccine. Those who didn’t just existed. Perhaps, that was how it always was. Global warming and all, only the scale was not this massive. We came to a point where irrational fear was confused with care, and total control was sold as attention. Jamie and I stopped caring to try to find out why those people in the central government wanted to seize control so bad.
“What an irony,” he murmured while looking up at the Eye of Boudanath. My eyes followed his line of vision. The lady at the stall still prepared our order. My hand instinctively went to reach out his hand while we were waiting while my mind simultaneously thinking about the irony he mentioned. The Eye that didn’t actually see in contrast with the drones that saw all. The reality came crashing down on me. My hand stopped mid-air.
“What are we doing? Why are we even standing together if I can’t hold you? What is this, Jamie?” I broke. I wanted, dear heavens above, I really wanted to touch his hand. I yearned for it. I craved it, as if all my atoms were screaming his name and begging my brain to just grab his hand and kiss him senseless. But my brain was the only organ commanding perfunctorily, otherwise, I would have been thrown to the deep recess of Hades, the literal hell of the earth to contain inmates. A death sentence, I had to say, since being isolated with sick people in jail to it was as different as twelve to a dozen.
“I miss you,” my whisper just went slightly above audible frequency. One bulb of tear rolled down steadily on my cheek, leaving a trail of salty liquid in the wake of its journey to my collarbone.
Jamie stared at me. I knew nothing could be done from his end. The hopelessness of this situation was ironically blatant. Every single time we walked, spoke, or even breathed was a second away from constant monitoring. We could not evade the proverbial eyes watching us, while in fact, the Eye of Boudanath did not have the literal means to watch us.
“There you go,” the lady broke our little domestic by offering a takeaway bag. Steam rolled up from the opened top.
Jamie smiled, thanked the lady, and left a buck on the table. His joy sounded enforced, “Now, let’s get Liana some figures to update.”
Big chance was tomorrow would be the same. Wash, rinse, repeat. There would be no vaccine. There would still be tired employees operating the communication satellites, towers, and channels. Foods would still be around, they were gonna be for a long time now that there were fewer mouths to feed. There would be the same news coming from outlets forgotten by mankind who generally had given up on the future. And still, there were cameras like the eyes of black hawks shadowing our movement, orchestrated by people who cared.
Perhaps, one day I would give up, too. I didn’t know. Simply cruising through life did sound unappealing. But as long as Jamie stood with me, I would try my best to survive.
Perhaps, before I gave up, I would kiss him square on the mouth.