Date
18 August 2017
A little panic thrums into my chest at the thought of oversleeping on the MTR -- missing my stop and being late yet again for class. Photo: HKEJ
A little panic thrums into my chest at the thought of oversleeping on the MTR -- missing my stop and being late yet again for class. Photo: HKEJ

[Hong Kong's Top Story 2016] Six Minutes

It only took a breeze to bring me back to the years of my youth. Those days in Hong Kong had sat in the nooks of my memory, the brooks of my brain for the last decade – untouched and quickly fading. I’ve never been one to dwell on the things that have happened to me; I fervently believe that the act would distract me from the things that are happening. Just the idea of looking back and regretting what I’ve done sends me into an uneasy state of mind, which is why I hardly reflect on my yesterdays. I even forgive easily and move on with a smile, but today I feel… Odd. For some reason, as this pen glides across the page and the bitter aftertaste of my morning coffee slowly dissipates, the wind flowing through my living room window smells like the outdoor sports field of my old high school.

Suddenly, I’m thinking about the three times I took the SAT, and the fact that I saved all my studying for the day before each try. A little panic thrums into my chest at the thought of oversleeping on the MTR – missing my stop and being late yet again for class. Even sounds of home begin to come alive in my ears: my mother humming to herself in the kitchen while my younger brother goes off about some new toy. Out of nowhere, I’m worrying about which college to apply to since I think all the chances of acceptance are not in my favor. I’m scared of choosing the wrong major, of burdening my parents’ wallets, of leaving the place I’d come to know like the back of my hand but then…

There’s laughter. There’s this symphony of serene, muffled laughter like a distant echo of a dream I hardly remember. I’m trying to wrap my finger around it – to catch the fleeting noise that fills the cavities of my chest with a bliss that I haven’t felt in forever… And one by one, the people who were once my world begin to appear before my eyes. Familiar faces and forever brilliant smiles completely captivate me, and I am – somehow – 18 again.

~~~

Back then I swore everybody felt it. No matter who they were or where they were going, they must have felt this murky draft of finality within the Tai Wai train station. It was one of the most bittersweet days I’d ever had in my life. Sweet because I was with my usual dorks – the four people I’d lived and breathed with for five whole years. Bitter because my world was shifting: starting the following day, we were no longer high schoolers, and nothing was going to be the same.

The train ride over was depressing: words refused to leave our throats when usually things were the exact opposite. Any effort placed into shutting each other up was futile on our normal days, and on abnormal days, we wouldn’t even try to shut up at all. So, the silence that day was absolutely excruciating. It pricked at my chest – pinched at my cheeks – and when we arrived at Tai Wai, I gasped for breath without realizing I had been holding one in; I was too scared of my sighs tapping on the fragile quiet. Slowly, we shuffled to our bench.

Well, it was practically ours.

For the last five years, on that metallic beauty seated on the platform of incoming Wu Kai Sha trains right in front of car 8, we had bummed out about a million afternoons. That thing had seen it all: Wendy’s lanky pre-pubescent body, Thomas’ obsession with probably every manga to exist, Vanessa’s hilarious crush on one of us, Stephen’s mental breakdown thanks to exams, and yes, all of my countless but ridiculous “counseling” sessions. True, it was just five years, but we grew up with it. It was our go-to spot and the fact that college was about to pluck us away from it one by one… Everything was falling apart.

At first, we tried to forget what was coming. We shot a few rounds of Big Two, played a couple of small board games, and secretly ate out of our backpacks. Every so often, we would lose ourselves in the jokes – our laughter completely washing away all notions of a future. But as we neared the final few minutes we had together as “us”, we couldn’t ignore it any longer.

It was 8:54 p.m.

T-minus six minutes until it was all over.

“My mom wants me to start heading back at nine,” Wendy sighed, throwing down her winning card. For some reason, she always managed to slay Big Two. Well, she didn’t win every game, but she might as well have. How long has it been since I last played? Two years? Three?

“Same,” Stephen muttered, delicately collecting his playing cards to fix them as we tossed them into the middle. His fingers moved slower than usual, pushing the out-of-place cards into order with a concentration I hadn’t noticed at the time. It’s only now I see that it was his way of prolonging this – of stretching time.

Another thin crowd of people filed out of a train, filling our silence with the soft tapping of shoes and cotton murmurs. My friends… They couldn’t bear to look at each other. I felt horrible, but I had this inkling that it weighed more on them than it did me. I was ready for college. Excited, even. Sure, I had to leave them behind, but that was all a part of growing up, wasn’t it? Plus, it wasn’t like we weren’t going to stay friends. Us not staying friends sounded like such an impossible idea to me. It was so impossible that the thought had only popped up once or twice – each time swiftly dismissed. I was sure that years later, we would still find ourselves gathering at this bench saying, “Come on, for old time’s sake.” I miss that confidence. Where did it go?

As they avoided looking at each other, trying to keep the tears at bay, I shamelessly stared at them; happily tracing every detail like each one brightened the highlight of this moment. Stephen carefully slid his cards back into its box, his thick-rimmed glasses glinting at me like they always did. His eye grade was insane, just like his effortless A grades in school. He always blamed his eyesight on the number of times he ignored his parents’ rule and read in the dark. However, the way he always buried his nose in books also did him some good. It excellently mixed well with his unquenchable curiosity and he ended up being that one kid who knew how to solve calculus questions before he even stepped foot into the class. He was also the type to completely beast at anything he tried out as long as he did some research beforehand. We jokingly picked on him for this: it was one hundred percent not fair, but hey, at least he fell flat in the emotion department. I always had to explain situations to him ‘cause he didn’t get why some things were happening when it logically shouldn’t be.

Vanessa was also staring at how Stephen was putting his cards away. She was the cute type, if I remember correctly: childlike, innocent, and hilarious when she wasn’t even thinking about it. Trinkets and multiple strings of jewelry adorned her person and it was because she liked collecting things in moments she found herself happy. The key ring on her pinky was from our group’s first biking trip, and she had found the piece of metal sitting on the sidewalk when we had paused for air. Her necklace held a bead from her first prom dress. Even though that night started horribly (nobody had asked her to dance), Stephen last minute ditched his plans of staying home that night just to show up as her knight in shining armor. She held onto these moments nice and tight, keeping them on her as a reminder that no matter how crappy the day, there is always something to be happy about.

Thomas constantly asked Vanessa about them. He would point to anything new he spotted on her and ask for a story. He was obsessed with stories. From manga, to film, to a well plotted television series: he loved them all. It was why he spun them so well, too. He had piles of unfinished notebooks sitting in his bedroom and when he found himself in a bit of a pickle at school, the smoothest lie would leave his lips. There was something about his tales that captivated us, but we couldn’t tell him that ‘cause his ego would’ve grown bigger than it already was. A lot of the time, it was his stories that cheered us up, and I wonder whether he had actually published any of them yet.

Wendy probably loved them the most: she was a sucker for his stories. It made me a little jealous, but it wasn’t like I could do anything about it. Even if I had told her, she wouldn’t have cared – she liked doing whatever she wanted as long as it didn’t hurt anybody. I guess that’s why I fell for her: she was never afraid to just do things. From finding a way onto the rooftops of the sketchiest buildings in Causeway Bay to walking from station to station on foot – she just went and did it. We went with her a lot of the time, too, but what I admire is how that didn’t really change things. If we went, that’s great. If we didn’t, that’s also great. Being alone didn’t bother her like it used to. I fell in junior year. I didn’t realize it then – I had no clue what love was – and never saw it coming. The fact was even denied repeatedly whenever the subject surfaced. In the middle of senior year, when I finally figured out I wanted to be with her, I also figured that I shouldn’t go for it. We were going to split ways after graduation and long distance relationships rarely worked out. Besides, I was going to meet tons of different girls in college – a greater love was probably waiting for me. But the idea didn’t help much then. It still hurt to look at her.

I tore my eyes away from Wendy, a slight pain jabbing at my chest as I stood up.

It was 8:56 p.m.

T-minus four minutes until it was all over.

“We should get going,” I breathed out, pressing my lips together as all four pairs of eyes snapped to me. There was a small hesitation, and then one by one they slowly got up onto their feet. Even the slightest movement was crippled with an overwhelming reluctance as they all stood beside me, looking down at the thing that meant everything to us.

We didn’t say goodbye. We couldn’t. We kept repeating that this was a “see you later”, an “until next time”; that even though it was the end of high school, it wasn’t the end of us. We stood there, making small promises of summer returns and impromptu weekends for a few minutes, trying to fight against time and suck out every second we possibly could. But after some point, we couldn’t do it anymore. The longer we stayed, the harder we gripped onto what we had, and the more painful walking away was going to be.

And so, we left. Some time around nine o’clock, we turned on our heels and began down our separate paths. It was all over: the end of an era, the end of the start of our youth. Who would’ve guessed that, 10 years later, I would be sitting here with my morning coffee; unable to recall the last time I had heard their voices?

[Top Story 2016]

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JP/RA

First Prize winner (Junior Category) - Hong Kong's Top Story 2016

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