Tony Chou sleeps at the petrol stations because there is nothing to go home to but an empty fridge and three unopened bottles of lemonade. Tony Chou makes friends with the people who sleep with cardboard or newspaper for blankets and we’d discuss what it means to love and live. Maybe he’ll wander a city one day like a lost atom in a haze of Monday blues, late nights and reports due on Friday.
Every now and then, he gets into his old second-hand car and gets lost in places where he’s never been lost before. But he still did keep a phone with him: the only connection he had with the outside world. So that someone who meant a lot to him would tell him there was something to come home to after all.
An old Jaguar pulled up at the train station and Tony, a man of simple taste dressed in a black suit and black tie and black everything else leaned forward and wondered if this was the one. People strode or limped into the bright wintry outdoors to greet others (some weeping and others laughing) or there would be no one there to greet them and they would just shrug their shoulders, sit on one of those aluminium benches outside, listened to music, read a book or stare off into space wondering how the physics of winter worked, which was a symptom of long-distance travel shellshock. Some went to the payphones to make a call and some he assumed were hailing an Uber. There was an old woman who wanted to board a train but was barred by the security.
Tony had seen it all and he didn’t really mind waiting. He popped a cigarette and perpetually lodged it to the corner of his lips, which he then ignited with his petroleum lighter. Blowing out a plume of smoke that shrouded most of his vision, he continued to wait.
He became really good at waiting over the years.
There were exactly 246 people standing outside the station and the roof was made of 1001 brick red tiles. The difference between each train’s arrival time is 2 hours, 12 minutes and 43 seconds.
Okay, he might take that statement earlier back. He soon became bored of it all and reached out for a scrunched-up magazine, beginning to read. He had been reading the same magazine for eons but every day there was something different about the stories he read there.
2 hours, 12 minutes and 43 seconds later, he became so absorbed in the magazine that he failed to notice a diminutive, tiny female form standing beside the driver’s window. In his daydream, he thought he heard woodpeckers tapping on the bark of a tree.
But it was no woodpecker.
It was that woman. Knocking on the window. Smiling.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
He rolled down the window and the two stared into each other’s eyes quite nostalgically. The funny thing was Tony seem to remember making a vow to himself never to look into those pair of eyes again.
“Hello,” she said, “I think I know you.”
“Yeah, me too,” Tony said dryly.
“You once sold cigarettes illegally so that you could afford a physics textbook do that you could study with me.”
“I think that was me. I can’t really remember. I think we ran a study group together. 40 dollars for a study session. People used to call us crazy for that. I remember a chapel in the crossroads, snow on the grass and cobbled streets from the pizza place. Your little brother used to love the comics there.”
“Yeah, I think that happened.”
There was silence. The woman rubbed her arms.
“Mother -, here come in and get yourself warm. It is cold around here at this time of the year.”
The car was unlocked in a dull click. The woman returned a smile and opened the passenger seat’s door, sitting beside him. Releasing the parking brake, he shifted gears and the old Jaguar was on the move again.
“My name is Marsya Ali,” she smiled through chattering teeth.
“Tony. Tony Chou,” Tony returned the friendly gesture.
“Okay, Tony,” she gave a light chuckle.
“How was the train?” he finally asked.
“Good, there was some delay towards the beginning but other than that it was fine. Food’s terrible though,” she frowned.
“Not surprised. Budget is somewhat significantly lower than what those profit-oriented bastards would dare spend nowadays. Was the egg plastic?” Tony laughed.
“Yes, it is!”
“Did you get everything done that you needed to do?” asked Marsya, concerned.
The Jaguar hit a speed bump.
Shifting gears again, Tony replied, “Most of it, I think. I am still not ready to go home just yet.”
“Your mom is worried sick. It has been ten years since you graduated, Tony.”
Tony cleared some space at the back then took his sports jacket off and scrunched it up so that it took up as little space as possible.
“Aren’t everyone’s mothers always worried all the time for no particular reason?” he grunted.
“She was scared of you dying.”
“Pfft. Everyone is doing that the moment they started breathing in oxygen. For crying out loud, I am only 30 years old. I can take care of myself.”
“Graduated with high honours with a masters for physics and engineering. Tony, I hate to say this to you (because I know you would not like it when I say things like that, but nevertheless), but you could have had the life!”
Tony uncomfortably shifted gears as he took a hard right. Marsya was thrown towards the window and hit her head on the window. Tony looked on apologetically and whispered an indirect apology of, “Fasten your seatbelt.”
“I could have had the life? That was what I am running away from in the first place. Old bosses telling me stuff I already know about and papers I need to file otherwise I will get sacked. It is boring as fuck. I wanted to see the world, you know, before I get to work. You know what I mean, Marsya?”
“Oh my god, this is the worst case of Catcher in the Rye ever. Babe-, I mean, Tony, I would understand it if you are only about 21, or 22. Because that is what most of us did before we started working. Vicky hiked some mountain in Nepal and now she’s an accountant. Sulaiman went to Myanmar to help out with the Rohingya crisis and now he is a lawyer. Roget played football for Manchester for two years and now he is a property developer. You have been driving around Europe and Asia in an old Jaguar that is bound to break down for TEN years, Tony,” growled Marsya.
“Are you scared?”
“Scared of what?” scoffed Tony. “Of Monday blues, reports, Saturday hangovers, kinematic equations and Huygens’s Principle? Please…”
Now, they were both staring at the vast and endless road ahead of them. The only sound that dared to interrupt the serenity were the gears shifting. Finally, the engine exhaled and exhausted its capability to move on and the vehicle slowly came to a halt.
Steam rose from the engine.
“It is always like this,” he responded in kind to Marsya’s shocked expression. “The engine overheats, but in this weather, it would cool down faster and we will be lift off in no time.”
“Luckily for us, I brought something to pass the time,” smirked Marsya mischievously.
“Umm… what do you mean by that…”
“No, nothing extreme. Yet. Just some puzzles I brought. I hope ten years did not screw up your Mathematics.”
“You always win in these games,” grunted Tony.
“Because you let me win too easily,” laughed Marsya. A faint pink blossomed from her cheeks and in Tony’s mind, her laugh flashed a watery image of a laughing fairy with her hair let down.
Rubbing the fantasy away from his eyes, he switched his attention to the puzzle Marsya laid before him.
Nelson had two tortoises, one called X and one called Y. X is twice as old as Y. In 10 years, the sum of their ages will be 47.
How old is X?
“Easy,” grinned Tony. “Answer is 18.”
“See? You still got it.”
“You are only showing mercy.”
If it takes 50 minutes for three astronauts to replace 12 parts of a satellite, how many astronauts are needed to replace 16 parts on a satellite in 10 minutes?
“20,” said Marsya.
“Wait, what? I am still counting. 1 astronaut would take 200 minutes to replace 16 parts… 200 divided by 10 equals to… yeah, 2o,” groaned Tony. “Shit.”
What is nuclear fusion?
“When two lighter nuclei collide to form a heavier nucleus. This must happen under the condition of super-magnetic fields, causing more collisions. Boom,” smiled Tony.
“Why did you run, Tony? We missed you,” whispered Marsya.
“No reason,” he grinned. “Lost track of time and didn’t manage to come home as scheduled.”
“I am serious.”
“No, you’re not.”
“No, I am not.”
“But I won’t tell either ways.”
“So, there was a reason.”
“You remember the first night we met? When we doubted whether or not we wanted a date, not love; whether or not we care about sleeping with each other but not when we wake up; whether or not we would lie?”
“I dream about that some nights,” she whispered. Her head rested on his shoulder.
Tony looked down at her and a smile crept up his face.
“You know, in class, you were the earliest in class. There was a seat next to you I could never sit. When I am near you, I… I just don’t remember how to use my hands or how to walk like it was the first time I was doing it. Sometimes my lungs had just too much air in them whenever you are near like I could never breathe out enough. In the end, my throat closed whenever you are far like I could never breathe in again…”
“Point being?” Marsya asked dreamily.
“Point being I realised the purpose of what our love is. So that when I forget how to feel, you would remind me how to. Although technically, love does not really exist, at least in the way we want it to be.”
“Yeah, no shit,” she yawned as she stretched her body.
“Remember when you asked me who my hero was?”
“I told you it would be me ten years from now.”
“Yeah, you did.”
“I don’t think I am that hero yet. Not even close. Did you think I gave the right answer?”
“Tony, the point of having heroes is not to be them. It is to have someone to chase after: your ideal self. So that when people tell you the stories of the things you cannot do, you come back with all that heroism about you and you tell them the stories of how you will do those things and prove them wrong.”
“All my life, I wanted to be a great physicist that can save the world. But what if I did not have that in me? I don’t even know who I am yet.”
“Baby, do not fall into the entitlement trap: that you are the victim. You are not. But perhaps finding out who you are begins with finding out who you are not. Once you do that, you would already know what kind of person you are because you had eliminated the whos, the whats and the wheres that you are not.
The engine roared back to life. Tony gave a light laugh and shifted gears. The Jaguar was on the move again.
By the time they reached the train station, Marsya fell asleep on his shoulder.
Tony nudged her with his elbow to wake her up and she did.
“I think my hero is me ten years from now, Marsya,” he smiled.
Marsya laughed and kissed him on the cheek.
“Of course, you would say that.”
“So, what can we do to try and create clean and self-efficient energy?” asked Mr. Wictor to his best scientists in the room. It had been three months and Marsya sat dissatisfied with her own work on bio-efficient fuels that could replace those of fossil fuels.
“Perhaps, a fusion reactor, sir?” piped up a voice.
Everyone looked behind to listen to what the Chinese guy had to say.
“Highly energized particles moving in a circular path due to magnetic field acting upon them, and thus generating energy through collisions, much like how the Large Hadron Collider works in real life. We just need to test fusion reactors at lower temperatures using cleaner fuel.”
“So, you have an idea on how to do this?”
“Well, I am no Tony Stark, but I think I can get it done. If we succeed, we could power New York ten times over without a single piece of coal touched.”
“See me in my office soon,” said Mr. Wictor.
When the scientists flocked the pantry, Marsya and Tony were the only ones left.
“So, I guessed that nuclear fusion question got to you, huh?” asked Marsya.
“I did the math. It is theoretically possible,” muttered Tony, smiling.
“So, Tony Chou, tell me. How did you cheat to pass your entrance exam in time in a month?”
Tony furrowed his eyebrows and smiled.
“I didn’t cheat. I studied for two months and I passed. Turned out thermonuclear astrophysics was not as hard as I thought.”
Later that evening, they agreed to have dinner over at Marsya’s place. The old Jaguar hummed to life and it was the last time Marsya saw the car.