"You'll go and I’ll be okay,
I can dream the rest away.
It's just a little touch of fate, it will be okay."Neapolitan Dreams (2008) by Lisa Mitchell
I have been holding off writing this for about a week now, hoping that my thoughts would fall into place, into something closer to what I really mean to say - but I know that that would never happen. I have always been imperfect, always saying imperfect things with imperfect diction. That is something I battle on a daily basis; a chronic case of being at a loss for words.
It's been one whole week since my great grandmother's funeral. The wake was on Saturday, in a funeral parlour somewhere along Jonker Street which, as you probably already know, is practically a carnival on weekends. It's funny contrast; we were mourning inside while everyone else was having fun in the immediate exterior, eating a melange of greasy hawker food and buying tacky souvenirs which they'll forget about before the month is out.
I arrived late and no one cared. In fact, my aunt told me that I needn't go if I didn't want to. The wake itself seemed to be little more than an overlong game that no one wanted to play. It consisted of several "rounds" of sitting on straw mats with joss sticks clasped in our hands, listening to the priest chanting Taoist prayers in Cantonese and little periods of recess in between them. In every other "round", we all got up and walked several times around the coffin containing my great grandmother's cold, stiff body. By the second bout, everyone was complaining about the exercise and having small talks throughout the sitting solemnly on straw mats bits (for which silent reflection was traditionally demanded, I bet). That pretty much sums up my family's attitude towards death as a whole. We don't care much for it. And I care least of all.
There were a lot of people I do not recognise at the wake. I was told that these are my relatives. My great grandmother's estranged daughter - my grandmother's long lost sister - was there, along with her progeny. Hers is a whole branch of the family tree which I never knew existed. Then there are those that I do recognise, but have not talked to for so very long that awkwardness have settled all over our blood ties like dust, rust and aging yellow. But that's okay because I don't like talking to relatives anyway.
There is, however, one person I did want to talk to. I went to the wake hoping that she would be there, and she was. The last time I saw her was more than 10 years ago, when she last visited. She was a teenager, clip-clopping around on two 5-inch-high pumps. I don't have the slightest ghost of a memory of how she looked like back then, but what I do have is an impression - an impression that she was the most beautiful girl I have ever seen.
Rewinding further back in time, I remember her as my childhood friend sans ridiculously high pumps. I can't recall when we first met but I have always looked forward to her visits (and I was always sad when her visits ended). You see, I'm a bit of an oddity in my family. I'm the eldest of my generation, and an "in-betweener" in age. I found my cousins too childish and my uncles and aunts too austere and adult. The only person I could identify with was her, who was the youngest of my mother's generation. She's my mother's cousin and she's two years older than I am. I suppose she's an aunt of some sort according to Chinese genealogical conventions, and I'm suppose to address her using some weird familial title I will never learn. In English, she's my first cousin once removed. In my heart, she's the big sister I have always wanted.
I stole a few looks at her at the wake and looked away when she met my eyes. Funnily enough, I caught her doing the same several times through the night. I only managed to get a proper look at her when we were playing Ring a Ring o' Roses around my great grandmother. What struck me hardest was how much older she appears to be. An aunt actually wondered why she looked so much more matured than I am but of course, I could not offer her an answer. I can, however, tell you that I feel a little sad about it.
After the ceremony was over at half past eleven, we somehow ended up sitting at the same table for the first time that night. She was preoccupied by one of my younger cousins, who have taken a strange possessive liking towards her. So, I had to interrupt.
"Hi," I said, but it came out soft and squeaky. That happens when you keep your silence long enough. Your voice gets all shriveled and withers inside your throat. It's been years - real, bona fide 365 days years - since I last tried to initiate a conversation with a relative.
"HI!" I went at it again with a lot more conviction. This time, she turned around, smiling. For the first time that night, I smiled too.
I dislike being presumptuous, but I had this weird feeling that she has been wanting to talk to me too. Damn perasan, right? Well, it's just that she has this way of squeezing herself into the middle of my sentences to say what she thinks about anything, and completely aborting my threads of thought in the process. And I found it exceedingly hard to interrupt her. Yes, it's like talking to a female version of me. I was surprised to find that I was amused rather than annoyed. After sometime, I made a game out of anticipating the exact moment when she would interject. I fancy that I could see an excited, impatient quiver on her upper lip a moment before she does that, or maybe it was that slight brightening of her eyes. She was absolutely bursting with things to say.
I've always thought that I am the first and only one in my very financial-biz-oriented family to step into the medical field but that night, I finally found another. She told me that she is nurse, and has been one for four whole years already. Me? I have yet to graduate. In a few months time, she said, she would be going to Saudi Arabia to work.
'Wow, but I've only just found you again,' I did not say.
We talked for about an hour straight and I confess that it passed like a minute. Then when it was time to leave the funeral parlour, I offered to drive her and her mom to my uncle's place where they were staying - just so I could talk to her a little longer. Maybe you wouldn't understand, but I was so very glad to have finally rediscover a relative with whom I am not merely related to, but could relate to as well. All my life, I always feel a little left out in the whole family thing. Blood ties are these cumbersome things which fate doles out to you like numbers in Bingo. They count for something, true, but you don't get any choice at all in the draw.
I asked her if she has a boyfriend and she said no. She said that no one has approached her.
"I find that unbelieveable," I said. Then, I said it one more time and tottered on the last word, wondering if there's anything more I should say. I decided that there wasn't.
Before she left Malacca on Sunday, she came by to my grandmother's place to say good bye. She came as a knock on my room door, in a long-sleeved black top and a long, skinny pair of black jeans. She obviously likes her black. Good taste.
"They really renovated this room well, huh," she commented. My room used to belong to my recently deceased great grandmother.
Of course, I began apologising profusely for the state of mess the room was in. That is pretty much what I do every time anyone sees my room for the first time. My grandmother who was passing by right that moment could not help herself but agree heartily and loudly with me about what a shithole my room was. Thanks, grandma.
We made small weather talk for about a minute, with her still standing at the door and me, in my chair. I'd ask her to sit down if there's any space on my bed not covered by laundry and books, but there wasn't. And while I was saying something inane about long bus rides, I noticed the little signs of an imminent interruption flickering on her face - so I braced myself for impact.
"Who's that in that picture on your desk?" she asked.
"She's my girlfriend."
"Oh, but she looks so... young," she said, laden with unfortunate implications.
I laughed awkwardly and immediately declared that Phoebe is really just one year younger than I am. We talked a little bit more after that but that's about all the talking we have time for. There's a bus she had to catch back to her hometown of Penang. In a few short months, we wouldn't even be in the same country anymore. It's funny how things go, really. First, her family stopped visiting for more than a decade. Then, I went to India. When I finally came back and met her again, I learn that she's leaving for the Middle East.
I wonder why do all these things kept happening between my favourite cousin and I, of all people. It's like I'm constantly being screwed over by the Fates.
This has really been a season for goodbyes, hasn't it? There are simply no sighs long enough to express how I feel right now.
P.S. Call me a pessimist, but I don't think I'll ever see her again.
First cousin once removed,
k0k s3n w4i