I think it isn't going to rain for like three, four days.
Can’t seem to draw today. i don’t know why but I’ve grown to be scared of my own characters. I created them, but they’re too real. When they come alive on the pages, sitting on the bathroom tiles that was, a memory from childhood. water droplets sliding off the ends of their auburn hair that I See so clearly, I can hear the rhythmic tick-tack, tick-tack, bounding off of cold ceramic walls. They’re thinking...clearly. I’m in their heads.
A sigh escapes me. Smelling my breath, I wonder if I should eat again. It’s 2:16pm. I put down the pen and amble to the kitchen. Journaling isn’t really much help, especially when you’re a comic-book writer and not a writer-writer. Words don’t do much for me that drawings can. Despite the clearly overblown benefis of journaling, this obnoxious creature that resides in the corners of my brain, who cannot stifle its taunts and mocks for one second, prompts the contents of my stomach to somersault and threaten to jump out of my mouth, every single time I sit down and journal.
Journaling is like confession. And I’ve never been a fan of confessing anything.
Drawings are different. There is something about visualising the character’s surroundings, their immediate environment – what is put on their bedside table, what brand of milk is standing on the counter - that excites me. I could be in their lives. I can see their lives. It’s gotten to a point where Mother calls every other day to see if I have enough food in the fridge, or money to pay water and electricity bills.
She wants me to tell her she had done a good job raising me so that I can take care of myself. That she’d been a good mother. And I do; I tell her I’m great. Just like when she would call me every day during class to check up on me. Except when you’re 15, having consistent calls from your mother only warrants you names in the hallway, a reputation in the school. My class teacher tried stepping in but Mother would have none of it. "Mind your own damn business, hun." She said, nostrils flaring.
Once, I tried shutting down my phone. Mother didn’t make dinner that night. She sat on the floor in the living room, expressionless.
In the middle of the night, she climbed into my bed, wrapped me in her arms and whispered - her hair cutting off my oxygen - “I only want to make sure you’re still coming back.”
She loves me, I know that; I think she loved me twice as hard because my Father went away. I simply wish her own specific brand of love was the right brand for me.
Other than drawing, I was focused on my goals. Like she always used to tell me. But I secretly fear I have never been enough. When I had simply suggested pursuing comic-drawing as a career, she dumped the college acceptance letter onto my lap, pulled out the half-finished bottle of champagne buried in the back of the fridge.
"We’re going to celebrate." She squealed.
The alcohol tasted sour.
Yet I also knew that without Mother, I wouldn’t know who I am.
When I find myself suffocating, I would tell myself I was someone else. Just like the game Mother and I used to play when I was five or six, I was scared shitless of cockroaches in the bathroom I never got into the bathtub unless she accompanied me.
“You’re braver than this. Captain America wouldn’t be scared of roaches, would he?” Mother brought in my one and only action figure; I had gotten him when we ate at McDonald’s last month. She drowned him into the water, pulled him back out; he was flying. I resisted telling her Captain America didn't fly.
Then she would leave. She turned off the light and I was plunged into darkness. I remember hearing rhythmic breathing; I knew Mother wasn’t standing outside, it was just Captain America coming alive.
Captain America and Mother together teamed to play a father’s role; they taught me about acting stronger and braver than I really was. I find my way back to my childhood’s imagination whenever I think of Father, constructed upon Mother’s slurred and fragmented words, spurted out when she got drunk enough. When I finally picked up the courage to ask Mother about him, she slapped me across the right cheek twice. Then she lowered to kiss my forehead, went into the kitchen and reheated last night’s leftovers like nothing had happened.
Unlike Father, I never disappoint or hurt Mother. Though, lately, I’d been involved in a freelance job Mother would frown upon, if I get around to telling her. My only friend throughout secondary school called me up and said there was a spot in his agency. He knew how much time I had on my hands. He knew I wanted to draw for a living.
I just graduated college, Mother, I’d find a job. I’d tell Mother.
Maybe if I do this job well, she’d be proud. I tell myself.
I carry the reheated bowl of pad-thai from last night and return to my room. I clear the worktable by pushing aside sheets filled with story boards and doodling of ideas. A pen rolls to the floor. Bending down to retrieve it, arm muscles straining, I realize I haven’t even once exercised since graduating college. A memory of the mandatory physical conditioning class that I took sophomore year rises to the surface, clouding my vision -- Every other guy in my class managed to finish the runs faster than I did, held onto the bar longer than I did; Their embarrassed faces while standing by, watching me try to lift a dumbbell.
I remember hearing my phone rang.
I succeeded in lifting it but failed in letting the dumbbell’s weight transfer to my underdeveloped bicep, “Queen Elizabeth Hospital…” I let it drop.
Revisiting unpleasant memories gets worse each time -- your shamefulness gets piled up, eventually you get buried under a mound of snow, and you can’t ever crawl out because the snow keeps falling.
The meaty sour smell of the noodles assaults my nose. My stomach grumbles. I pick up last night’s chopsticks from the bag, positioned just beside my worktable, and start devouring. I flip open the black folder and get to memorizing my current target’s profile.
The client called one night while I was staring at the bottle of sleeping pills on the bedside table. Before I answered, I glanced at the top of the phone. It’s 1 a.m.
“Hi, is this Devon Lang?” Her high-pitched voice quivered. And it sounded familiar. The pause before saying my name as if she’s consulting a business card, which I know doesn't exist, the upward inflection at the end subtle, like a bell toll. But I couldn’t attach her voice to a face.
I cleared my throat in fear of coming across as unprofessional or that I’m ill. “Speaking.” My voice still came out as hoarse. I covered the receiver and coughed.
Slow breathing on the other end. I imagined her clutching the phone at the edge of her wrinkled and otherwise empty bed.
“I would like to….” She trialed off.
“Place an order?” I ventured, sounding so uncharacteristically cheerful I was a stranger to myself - I felt an urge to impress her.
“Great. Tomorrow 11 am, the Starbucks on Hennessy Road, or Dundas Street?”
A beat. “Wan Chai would be fine. I’m sorry to ask this, but would…12:45 work?”
“Sure. See you tomorrow.” I picked an outfit – trousers and a button-down – returned to bed, and fell asleep.
As I walked into the coffee shop, a survey around the room was not necessary - I instinctively knew who she was. A woman in her mid 20s with sleek shoulder length black hair, lip gloss reflecting the lights, dressed in formal attire and perfectly balanced on her office heels, stood up to greet me.
I shook her hand.
A black folder sat solemnly on the round table between us, beside a pair of sunglasses, and two cups of coffee.
“What can I do for you, Miss…” I asked as we were sitting down.
“Ho. Call me Gabrielle, though.” She flashed her white teeth in a wide smile, her muscles twitching.
She pushed the file to me. Waste no time, I see.
“I’d rather hear it,” I placed my hand firmly on the folder, “I’ll read these later.”
Gabrielle is a personal assistant to CEO, Ronald Ng, of a drugs company. Shortly after she was an indispensable link in signing a contract with a major overseas supplier, she began an affair with Ronald, who, during their weekend getaway last month, promised he would leave his wife. Gabrielle wanted me to “check” if he followed up on his supposed plans.
“You can count on me, Gabrielle.” I said. As I listened and observed this woman in front of me, her eyes constantly evading mine, I didn’t see a home-wrecker - though that was exactly what she was. But she was also a person in love. I wondered what it’s like to be in a type of love that drowns out all moral codes. Who is this Ronald, worthy of this love? I think of his wife. Who does he think he is to betray her?
When you’re at the receiving end of love, I think, it’s easy to forget how much pain you need to swallow in order to give love away.
I wondered if Mother ever loved anyone this way.
I was going to help Gabrielle, I said to myself.
“Thank you. So much.” She looked down at her legs for a moment. Momentarily, she put on her sunglasses, picked up her handbag and left. I looked at her receding figure down the street, bitter coffee warming my throat, and saw her expensive shawl caught in the early summer wind, flowy and barely there. I wondered if it was a present from Ronald, and what would happen to this woman if the meeting that had just taken place was ever to be found out.
Ronald Ng doesn’t exist. In a sense. He doesn’t have any social profile, not even a LinkedIn account which has been my go-to for professionals like him. The more I try to uncover mysteries surrounding him and come up with nothing, the more I’m being pulled into this man’s story. His history. There must be one. What person leaves no trace in whatever he does? Who is practically a ghost, in this day and age?
Maybe that is how he manages to maintain an affair; my inner voice suggests.
I finish the pad-thai, stacking the bowl onto last night’s plate.
For now, I can only rely on what Gabrielle’s folder told me. Annoyingly, she didn’t include a photo. I guess it is pretty weird; I picture her putting this file together, gathering all that she could about Ronald and his family, her finger resisting to push the button that would print out his picture. I imagine that to her, seeing his face would make the betrayal more real. And she didn’t include his residence, either.
I wanted to call Gabrielle but swiftly decided against it.
Somehow, I brought my laptop today; I never bring along anything that could distract me to work. The fact actually makes me grateful to have something else to work on - I have been sitting all morning in this café near the building in which Ronald Ng works, but so far I’ve only been lucky with spotting his car - the license plate conveniently provided by Gabrielle - which stopped outside the skyscraper in Central at 10 am. His chauffeur stepped out, carrying an umbrella and opening the door for Ronald, shielding his face. I only memorized the color of his suit, blue-black, adorned with a grey tie, and polished black shoes. I could see his broad physique filling up the suit jacket as he turned to walk into the lobby.
A few hours have gone by and the car hasn’t returned. Ronald may have already left, I wouldn’t know. I still have no idea what he looks like.
I sigh and start packing up. My hands stop as I detect from the corners of my eyes the black car that dropped off Ronald this morning. A figure slips into the back of the car the same instant I raise my head. I gather my things and rush out the doors.
I hail a taxi which, thank God, appears right around the corner just as I step onto the pavement. My heart speeds up with Ronald’s car becoming smaller down the busy street.
“Please, it’s an emergency, follow that black car.” I put a hundred-dollar bill on the console and the taxi driver glances at me as if I am insane. He puts the car into gear. The old driver loses track multiple times, so I keep giving him directions.
I follow Ronald Ng to a large-scale shopping center. Which tells me he probably doesn’t need to work as hard as people think CEOs do. When he emerges from his car, I see his profile at a distance; he’s wearing sunshades. I pay the driver in a rush and take off after him.
Inside the mall, he doesn’t take off his shades. I slow my pace in fear of his suspicion. His hair is parted the same way mine is, to the left. I’m desperate for him to turn and reveal himself. But I slow my heart rate; It’s no use to rush in this line of business.
He goes into a supermarket. He picks out a set of six-packet Vita lemon tea, peanuts, some black grapes and bananas covered with brown spots, three packages of instant noodles in the roasted beef flavor – at which point I start to feel a bit creeped out as those are the exact items I would pick out during grocery shopping – two tubes of toothpaste, one for adult and one for children, antibacterial wipes. He lingers a bit in the child-care section, picking up and putting down various different brands of formula milk. As he approaches the self-check-out stations, I hide behind the stacks of potato chips, pretending to be looking at which of them has less sodium.
As he leaves, carrying two bags stuffed to the fullest, I put down the potato chips and continue tailing him. When he sets down the bags and hands the stamp stickers to the patiently waiting elderly woman at the exit, he takes off his sunglasses and smiles warmly at her. I rush forward to look at his face.
But what I see stops me in my track.
Ronald Ng looks exactly like me.
He looks exactly like me, just stronger, richer, more put together and successful, more deserving of love…If only I had been more like him.
Only then would I have been enough. Father should've been like that to deserve Mother's love. He must've been like that.
Just as Ronald Ng raises his gaze, I take a few steps back.
Then I start to run.
Towards him. No, she would hate me then. I hate this guy in front of me. I am not like him. I don’t disappoint her. Not ever.
His eyes widen when he sees me, a gaping hole where his mouth is. I crash into him. We are face to face.
He is me.
“What…” I don’t wait for him to finish. I run for my life.
Everything rushes past me, or I am the one running past them. The floor turns to liquid every step I take, or maybe it’s my legs that are turning into jelly. When I burst into the men’s room, I collapse into one of the stalls.
When I come to, harsh white light penetrates my eyes. I blink some more. My head feels groggy like it has suffered from a blow.
My mother’s face swims into my vision, whose mouth starts to move, wrinkles manifesting themselves. But then she stops, expressionless again. Her hard, calloused fingers caressing my face. Her gold ring scratching my cheek.
I force my eyelids to open all the way. I’m alone in the room.
A nurse walks in. “Good, you're awake. Some water?”
I faintly nod. The taste of metallic water pulls me up from under a state of murkiness.
“Mr. Ng, you’re undernourished. You were …” Her voice fades into the background. I slip into that in-between space - I am aware that I’m lying in a hospital bed, but I’m not really…here.
I relish in this feeling. It helps.
Gabrielle’s hand slips under the sheets and reaches for mine.
“Mother, had I been enough? I was a good boy for you, right? Tell me I am.” I turn to face her.
My heart, which has been slow before, pumps blood to my brain.
“Did you name me after him as a punishment? Why did you punish me?” I ask her.
When no answers come, I continue, “I have been so scared of turning into him. I never meant to be a disappointment.”
Outlines of the curtains, the bedframe, the table and its drawers, become harsh edges; I can’t bear to look at anything, so I shut my eyes.
“You are enough.” Mother says, stroking my hand.
“Queen Elizabeth Hospital. Mr. Ng, we need you to come right away…Your mother has been found lying in the bathtub…”
“Then why did you cut your wrists?” I shout, my eyes flying open.
“It’s not your fault.” Gabrielle whispers, lowering her head next to mine. “I’m so sorry.”
A moment later, she says, hair brushing against my right cheek, “You’re braver than this. Go back.”
“Get out of here.” Mother says, 42, frozen at the age when she left me.
“Okay.” I close my eyes, imagine that I am Captain America, open the window, leap out, and I wouldn’t die.