"Goodbye, my almost lover
Goodbye, my hopeless dream"Almost Lover (2007) by A Fine Frenzy
"The centre of my universe is me, and the rest of the world is in orbit."
I was fifteen but could pass for twelve, scrawny little thing that I was. This time, I found myself in a forest at an hour far from midnight and farther still from dawn. I was led there with instructions to keep my head down low and my eyes shut tight. Then, a whisper came with an order for me to sit down on the kerb of an asphalt jogging lane. "Keep head down, keep eyes closed," I was told and the whisperer left me there; I could hear the rustle of his footfalls fade away. The cold of the woodland night suddenly dropped a smidgen, and I hugged my legs close to me, forehead resting on my knees. The trees I could not see crowded around me in the dark, breathing down my neck.
Time is a putty when you're in isolation, a strangely malleable animal when unwatched. I noticed that the air felt emptier without the weight of man-made noises but I waited not in utter silence. I could hear the murmur of zephyrs weaving through the canopy and I could hear a strange, rhythmic tap-tap striking the bed of desiccated leaves which blanketed the forest floor, sometimes sinisterly close, sometimes far away. The forest had a presence and I could sense it. It was alive and somnambulant; walking in a waking dream, and the tap-tapping was its footsteps.
Rain? The rational mind protested.
I got my answer almost immediately when a dead leaf dislodged by the mischief of breezes sailed down onto my head. 'Tap' went the metaphorical pin, startling me and breaking my voluntary blindness. With my eyes opened, I realised that the darkness was within me, not without. I saw a gray world bathed in translucent shadows and widely-spaced trees, more cathedral than sepulchral. Moonlight filtered serenely down through the foliage and I saw that I wasn't as alone as I was led to think. There were other kids like me sitting on the kerb by the jogging path, separated only by 10-metre intervals.
To my right was Spoon, pondering her kneecaps.
"That's 'cause I'm shaped like one," she explained once upon a time when I asked her why she called herself that. As a description, it was apt - she's practically just a head on a slender stem - but I like words like 'elfin' or 'impish' better; they paint a more meaningful portrait of her. Her eyes were bright and her smile was mischievous. At fifteen, she looked ten - her body had yet to shed the innocent androgyny of a child. To encapsulate her in a single sentence, she was the cutest girl I knew - cute in the way children sometimes are when they aren't monstrous little shits.
I signed up for a 3-day camp at the Recreational Forest in my capacity as a Red Crescent Society member (crescent because the cross was too Christian for the daulah islamiyah that is Malaysia). Spoon was there for the heck of it, as far as I could tell. She was not a member of the Society and she only got a place because one her best friends was part of the organising committee. As luck would have it, Spoon and I found each other in the same group, where everyone else besides were strangers.
Deserting each of us individually in the forest in the dead of night was part of the camp's "character-building" itinerary. There were also the obstacle courses and the ghastly nighttime jungle treks (where at one point, we had to wade across a waist-deep, leech infested stream at 2:00 am). We were rationed, at most, two to four hours of pillow time a night. Why a tiny girl like her put herself through such an ordeal is beyond my ken. I must ask her this one day.
It felt like hours before the camp counselors rounded the lot of us up from our stint of abandonment in the forest. Right then, I thought we could finally head back to camp to rest when I realised that we were being herded in the general direction of away from our cabins and out to the edge of the woods.
"Pair up," ordered one of the many sadistic beasts prancing about under the guise of a camp counselor. "You are going to have to find your way back to camp on your own in twos."
Spoon was naturally my partner for this, as she was for every camp activity which required twosomes. Many mistook us for lovers, and many boys asked if that's true. No, we weren't, I told them. One boy actually perked up at my denial and said, "So you wouldn't mind if I go after her, right?" That same boy would later wink at her across the mess table at breakfast. She retched quite violently in reply.
The pairs were released a few minutes between each so by the time Spoon and I set off, the couple which preceded us was nowhere to be seen or heard. We walked side by side in silence, feeling tense because we thought some counselors might be hiding behind a tree, waiting to ambush-scare us. Nothing of the sort happened though. What did happen, however, came completely unanticipated - like a thief in the night.
A small hand found mine and it held my fingers gingerly, as if unsure. The contact sent an effervescent wave of static electricity through my body and left me at a loss for response. I neither withdrew my hand nor did I reciprocate her grip - my right arm simply hung limply by my side as if it had forgotten how to move. It felt like several sunlit days to me but time, as I've learned, is a strangely moody creature. It could not possibly have lasted longer than a minute.
Then, as inexplicably as it began, it ended. Her hand melted away, leaving mine feeling oddly naked, my heart oddly cold.
At camp, in a clearing outside of our cabins, we waited for the stragglers to return. Spoon and I still had not spoken. There was a spell in the cold, night air which would shatter with the force of a single word. We sat leaning quietly on each other's backs as wild thoughts buzzed dizzyingly in my head. I fancy I could feel her heartbeat tap-tapping against me, like the forest but much quicker. Or was it my heart? Was I waiting for something else to happen? Was she?
Whatever it was, it never arrived.
I would be a year or more later after that extraordinary night in the forest before Spoon and I talked about it for the very first time. At this point, she was already dating a boy and I was in the middle of a two-year long chase of a girl who would later become the Ex-Grrrfriend™. Time had laid itself, an ocean, between us.
"So, why did you hold my hand?" I asked with self-surprising candour and I still ask myself today if I had accidentally fallen for her without knowing it. Oh, what different lives we might be leading today had a single word been spoken differently or a timelier gesture made! I live an alarmingly great portion of my waking Present in the Past, poring over the muddled mess of decisions which led me Here. Life seems so straight a walk to me but yet every time I look behind, all I can see are the forks and crossroads I trampled past without noticing they were even there. I would like to say yes - yes, I had fallen in love with her, if momentarily, when our fingers met. But the truth is, I don't know. I'll never know, and thinking about it is a true exercise in pointlessness if there ever was one. That scrawny fifteen year-old boy belongs now to a lifetime apart; his mind estranged from my psyche, his secrets are his to keep.
I noticed that she neither asked me where nor when. She knew precisely what I meant.
"I didn't," she said. "It was you who held my hand."
"But there are some things which have no orbit. They come - and then they go."
Stabbed by a fork,
k0k s3n w4i