Under The Dying Neon Lights
Shades of red, green and burning blue cast across a sea of faces, most of them smiling or drunk. Hanging above these heads are neon signs that bathe the crowded street in its multi-coloured hues. Here, in the heart of the Soho district in Hong Kong, the low hum of the lights can barely be heard over the usual Friday night commotion.
Traditional restaurants brim with customers, both local and tourist. A few doors down, people chat and smoke outside gentrified nightclubs and bars. Everyone is out, routinely relieving the stress that comes with city life, even if only temporarily.
Further along this street, slightly away from the hustle and bustle, a fluorescent light flickers – the sign of a bar, long closed:
On and off. On and off.
A young woman walks up to this shuttered bar. Bundled up under a long coat and a scarf that drowns her small figure, she glances up at the blinking billboard. A faint, bitter smile.
Back when this place was still open, these types of signs were each crafted by hand. But, like most things, they were now replaced by flashier, manufactured models. While they will never disappear from the city’s landscape, the culture behind them is slowly fading.
She buzzes the front gate of the narrow building next door.
“Come up,” a husky voice purrs through the intercom.
The woman adjusts her scarf and glances at the present in her hands. She steels herself.
Above her, the sign dies down. It stays dark.
His back – that’s how I’ll always remember him.
The gentle slopes of his broad silhouette, dressed in shades of maroon and mustard. The brown curls that caress the nape of his neck and hide the small tattoo of Mimi – his cat – behind his right ear, invisible to those who don’t know him intimately. He rotates his outfits often, but the one constant is how he looks when he walks away from me. Back turned, without a glance or so much as a thought of me.
At first, this familiar silhouette made me bitter. I cursed his retreating figure, hating the way he could so easily forget about me the moment he left my presence. I secretly wished that wherever he was going, he would be less happy than in those few precious hours we spent together.
Then, came the pleading. I begged the gods: I would relinquish my atheism and believe in some higher power if only they could make him stay a little longer. Just one look, one lingering smile.
I saw him in the distance once, walking among the crowd in the Central district. He didn’t see me so I got the rare chance to observe him in a public space, unnoticed.
He walked with a sense of direction and purpose, but his gait was not arrogant. It was collected, like he had all the time in the world. An overwhelming wave of sadness rushed over me. This was who he was without me. This was how he carried himself in this world when he wasn’t around me. I can’t even use the phrase “in my absence” because that implies an expectation for me to be around in the first place. And he has never given me any indication to suggest that was the case.
It was a moment of clarity. He existed outside the realms of my imagination and fantasy. Accepting that truth hurt.
November is the cruellest of months, I think to myself as I wait for him to buzz me in. Hands tucked deeply into my pockets, glancing from left to right, trying to make myself look busy in front of his neighbours who pass by. As if there is a purpose as to why I am standing there, shivering in the cold. The air is brisk, harsh against my face.
He lives in a small, rundown flat with Mutual Friend. Childhood friends, they moved to this city five years ago. Two expats trying to make it in the lively streets of Hong Kong – him as a writer and the other as a fellow poet.
“In this shoebox, we will turn our struggles into art! Here’s to the collective pain of being known!” he declared at one of his parties. Their flat is just above the bar district, so there are always people wandering around. I am one of the many.
The first time I came over, I turned down the wrong alley and spent ages walking up and down the steep hills, looking for his building. Then, someone called out my name. Turning around, there he was, waving at me from his narrow window.
I was still smiling when the front gate buzzes open, jolting me from the past.
The mirror in his lift is cracked, causing my image to look fractured. There is something quite poetic about this. I always search for a deeper meaning in my surroundings, seeking beauty in the everyday. It distracts me, keeps me occupied.
The door opens and there he is. Clothes crumpled, hair still damp from his shower, eyes tired. He smiles softly. I walk past him into the hallway, taking my shoes off in the dark. His cat is not around, cage long empty. Why was I thinking about Mimi?
I hate endings. Always have. The resolute permanence of it. As a species, our existence demands that we seek something more. Society tells us to be in a state of constant evolution and self-betterment. The moment we stop moving, we die a metaphorical death.
But it’s November.
Not December, not quite the last month of the year where everyone is excited, for the end of something brings about something new, something fresh. November is the month that people forget – the month between the festivities, after Halloween, before Christmas. A month glossed over. How fitting for our final chapter.
He stays quiet as he leads me into his room. He never talks much beforehand; we usually catch up in the pillow talk cuddles afterwards. I stopped making polite small talk after our third, fourth time. It’s like the pointless set-up in an action film.
He shuts the door behind us. I fall onto his bed once more. As I stare into his warm amber eyes, I’m reminded of the first time I gazed into them.
I met him at Mutual Friend’s party, back in January. I was heartbroken over another, so I didn’t take much notice of him. In hindsight, that seems so improbable, but it is the truth. Like many things in life, I didn’t realise how important he would become to me. We spoke a little, about nothing of substance. Even as we shared the bus ride home, I didn’t feel the significance of his presence.
“Where are you right now?” His question pulls me back to his navy sheets.
“Sorry…just reminiscing,” I whisper, wrapping my arms around him. Eyes once familiar, now oddly like those of a stranger, I knew that I was making the right decision. But, memories are enticing – idealised bubbles of moments long gone, perfected each time they are recalled.
His cat meows outside his door. There she is. I smile and draw him towards me one last time.
It was only later that I realised she was saying goodbye. In her longing caresses and bittersweet kisses. Lying in my arms, she had already left me. Would I have convinced her to stay, if I knew? Or did I know from the start that I would spend an eternity missing her? If I had asked her to stay that night, would things be different?
I often wake up from dreams of alternate lives. Sitting on a pebble beach at dusk, staring out at the sea. Standing on the edge of a tall building, gazing at all the glittering lights below. Walking along a quiet street in London on a gloomy night. In all these other realities, I’m always alone.
I keep thinking back to that night in November, when everything changed. But, I don’t remember much. There was nothing out of the ordinary. It seemed like every other night we spent together. We met up. She gave me a leather-bound notebook.
“An early Christmas gift,” she said.
There was a little black kitten printed inside the cover. For Mimi. There was a short inscription underneath:
Here’s to existing someday.
She looked at me strangely. “Of course, I did,” she stated matter-of-fact, as if it never occurred to her otherwise.
I hadn’t even realised that I said my admission out loud.
Wanting to be a writer was a recent discovery. Growing up, I always enjoyed coming up with grand tales of other worlds where I could live. I am a selfish writer: I sew myself into every story, so that all the characters are an extension of me. It comforts me, knowing that other copies of me exist out there, each living a version of some life I could only dream of. On that distant day when I see my completed novel on the shelves of a bookshop, I will know that I’ve made it – I would have created a physical thing that marks my existence.
I had only told her about this once.
Her gift was perfect; somewhere safe where I could scrawl all my yet unpublished ideas. Maybe this gesture was her last attempt to salvage our relationship, the lifeline she was throwing out to me. But, all I did was thank her.
I walked her to the bus stop that night. She paused right before she got onto the bus. She turned to look at me, opening her mouth to say something. Nothing came out.
“Pleasure, as always,” I said into the night. I knew in that moment I had chosen the wrong words again. Because where her face was once lost and confused, it shifted into an expression that could only be described as wistful.
“It has been…thank you.” And with that, the bus drove away.
Sometimes, I want to go to her house and bang my fists on her door. I want to grab her by her shoulders and shake an answer out of her. Why did we have to stop? What did I do? How can we go back to the way we were? I want to fall to my knees and beg. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.
A Bichon Frise stares at me from outside the window. On its head is a tacky designer pink bow, clipped on by its equally gaudily-dressed owner, who is laughing obnoxiously on the phone. Money doesn’t buy style. Nearby, two construction workers sit on the pavement, drinking beers. They try to wipe the sweat off their faces, but the drops keep forming. Dampness is inescapable in this city.
I look down the street, absentmindedly tapping my notebook – her notebook – willing the day to breathe some inspiration into me. For a writer, I’m often lost for words. I grasp at faint echoes of phrases that swim around my head but are always out of reach. She never has a problem with that. Ideas come so easily to her and she has a knack for spinning them into poetic lullabies. Every word on her page comes from her heart and it rings true.
I, on the other hand, am drowning in borrowed words.
“Alright?” Mutual Friend interrupts my scribbling, as he joins the small cha chaan teng table I am sitting at. He removes his bucket hat, revealing the limp hair underneath, tendrils clinging to his face in the humidity. March is not kind to him.
He had come straight from his shift at the French restaurant he works at, so we chat for a bit about what he got up to that day as he devours a hearty plate of char siu rice. What anecdotes he mentions specifically, I forget. He could tell I was stalling with my indifferent ‘hmms’ and ‘ahhs’.
“Just spit it out already,” he says. I finish the last few sips of my lemon tea under his watchful eyes.
“Have you heard from her recently?”
A knowing ‘ah’. “You know we still stay in touch.”
“How is she?”
He sighs, fidgeting with his napkin. “Don’t ask me that.”
“It’s just a simple question.”
“Text her yourself then.”
I open my mouth, the beginning of a retort on the edge of my lips. Tell him that she has made it clear that she wants no contact. Tell him that if I texted her, all my messages would go unread and all my regrets unheard. Tell him that perhaps she was right: maybe we were better off as strangers again, but how could we possibly forget those who knew us so familiarly once?
But what escapes is, “does she ask about me?”
He pauses, watching the people outside. “You’ve got to stop living with her ghost.”
I forget he is a poet too. They met at an open mic night last year, and became fast friends. He introduced me to her a few months after.
He turns his gaze back towards me. The pity in his eyes is almost humiliating.
He sighs again. “Look, I care about you. Obviously, I do, but come on, she’s my mate too. Let her go.”
“What if I don’t want to?” He had no answer. These words hang over our empty cups. Outside, a fire truck speeds past us, sirens on full blast.
Sometimes, I think I can read his mind.
“You’re not stupid.” I stare into his eyes, pleading him to believe me. He looks away, mouth fidgeting, unconvinced. I tug his chin back towards me. “You’re not.”
“Maybe, not stupid, but…not smart? I don’t know. I get treated like an idiot sometimes, and people get mad at me for the shit I do.”
“Sounds like their problem. People are clever in different ways.”
“Yeah, I suppose…self-deprecation is fuel for the writer, after all,” he muses. “Anyway, sorry for unloading. This is something for my therapist to handle.” He smiles in a seemingly joking manner.
“You don’t need to apologise.”
His grin falters. He plasters it back on again. “Must be the English in me.”
His ignorance frustrates me and it pains me. He has everything: multiple lovers, a solid group of friends…a dream, a passion, a purpose! I just wish he could see himself the way I do.
The candle catches my eye when I enter the room. It had just been lit. The bed is made – fresh sheets – and the smell of lime and basil permeates the small, cosy space.
There is nothing significant about the candle itself. Bought from a grocery store, stamped with a plain label, its design left little to imagination. But, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
He closes the door behind him. “You look nice,” he murmurs.
As our bodies danced in the mirror across his bed, I couldn’t stop looking at the candle. I pictured him tidying his small desk, taking the candle’s lid off, fumbling around for his lighter, lighting it, and probably burning his finger in the process. It made my heart flutter. Such a small gesture, but he thought of me. Even if it was just this once.
I never wanted love that I needed to hurt for. Or something that I had to fight for. I wanted a quiet love: carnival dates, cosy wine-and-paint nights, New Year’s Kiss, handwritten notes read under the dusk sky…
This wasn’t always the case. When we first started, I tried testing his jealousy, as if true feelings could be so easily determined by shameful mind games. I wanted to show him that he wasn’t the only one with options. Maybe I relied on him being selfish. Maybe I just longed to be desired. I felt like a child, acting out to receive attention and validation. It never worked.
I used to think love was supposed to be epic. With a bond so powerful, it must be full of its ups and downs. A turbulent process. That toxicity reaped an equal measure in sweetness. But because of him, I’ve slowly unlearnt this. It is the simple things, the small acts, that make you fall for someone.
To be known is to be loved.
She was casually cruel sometimes, unaware of the power that she has over me.
She once called out the name of another while we were fucking. At first, I didn’t believe it, maybe I had heard incorrectly. But then, she gasped his name, moulding it into a dagger that plunged straight to my heart. Who was this other man she was thinking of? Did she think so little of me?
She had a tendency to mention the other people she was seeing. Among the crowd at my party, she leant in: I thought she was going to tell me a secret. She whispered into my ear, how bored she was and how she wished she was fucking someone else – another lover.
I asked her if she was seeing anyone else seriously. “I don’t want to be a homewrecker or anything,” I said, as if that empty excuse would justify my personal curiosity.
A level gaze. Almost as if she was scoffing to herself. “I’m not dati- I’m not committed to someone, I wouldn’t do that.”
Her words didn’t sound true. I should have trusted my instinct: was I a fool to not have believed that I knew her too well at this point?
I have never heard my name leave her lips. Never once have they parted and uttered the two syllables that signal my identity. When we meet up, it is always “hey you” or “hello stranger”.
Sometimes, I think of possibilities as to why that is. Maybe she doesn’t want to call out my name because once she begins, she cannot stop. Maybe she finds that if it becomes familiar to her, it means less. Maybe she is ashamed to share my existence with her world…
I dream of answers to questions I will never ask. It’ll probably hurt less than the truth.
It would have been easier if she weren’t friends with Mutual Friend. That way, I wouldn’t feel the shame and judgement that comes with his gaze every time I walk into our flat with a girl who isn’t her. I hadn’t done anything wrong, but that’s the thing about guilt – it’s the quiet enemy of the mind. It creeps up on you and it lingers.
One time, he told me that he purposely didn’t invite her on a night out with our friends because I was there with another girl. “I didn’t want to hurt her feelings,” was what came out of his mouth, but all I heard was, “you selfish bastard.”
“I know why you write. Do you?” he asks, fixing his steely gaze on me. The two of us were sprawled over our tiny sofa, smoking after a long day of waiting and bartending. Temporary jobs, we said, and before we knew it, five years had passed.
“Too much shit to say and no-one to listen?” I take a hit from my joint, offering it to him. He declines, shaking his head.
“Nah, people listen all right. But that doesn’t mean they’re hearing you. Because you hide behind your words.”
“You spend all your time poring over the perfect phrases, as if their aptness could somehow shield you from their true impact. You edit everything you say, because…you can’t handle what is in front of you.”
A moment of silence.
“Glad you got that off your chest. Anything else?” I stub the blunt out, replacing it with my glass of whiskey.
“I’m sorry, but it had to be said.” He could at least try to look somewhat apologetic.
“That was harsh.”
“Life is harsh! It’s imperfection on the daily. But that doesn’t make any of it less true.”
It isn’t her fault, but sometimes, I resent her for the way she makes me look in front of him. I wish we never started seeing each other.
He asked me once if I had read my poems to another person before.
We were lying on the sofa, his head on my bare chest, basking in the comfort of post-sex intimacy. Candles flickered in front of us.
“No, never,” I replied, absentmindedly running my fingers through his locks. They always smelt faintly of coconuts.
“Why not? Aren’t poems supposed to be heard?”
“So, what’s the issue then? I’m sure people would want to hear your words.”
“Not if they’re unwarranted.”
He stayed silent after that. It was the sort of omission that held too much sad truth in them, that he could not offer any words of comfort. He didn’t know I had already written countless verses about him – for him.
“The poems aren’t good enough to be read out loud anyway,” I admit. “Sometimes, I think all I have are empty words, which I audaciously call poetry.”
“You don’t actually mean that.”
“I do. But, it’s fine. When I write, it’s a form of catharsis for me. I’m not writing those words to utter them into existence. Actually, it’s better if they stayed a secret of mine.”
“It’s like Schrödinger’s cat. If no one sees it, then it teeters on the line of reality and fantasy. The words remain both true and untrue, and my feelings too remain as both.”
“But you read it, so you make it true.”
“I don’t count.”
He sat up, stopping my strokes. His eyes glistened golden in the light of the fire. They were too honest.
He leaned in and washed this image away with an embrace.
The beginning of the end came when I saw the photo. It was something I shouldn’t have seen – an illicit affair, on par with catching a Victorian couple between the rose garden bushes. In that moment, my patience for indifference began to wither away.
There was nothing objectively extraordinary with the photo. It was taken in his home and he was wearing casual joggers. The mess in the background meant he hadn’t done his weekly chores yet. A seemingly ordinary day.
But, he was cooking. He was cooking for someone else. The pretty one.
I had seen pictures of her before. Blurry snapshots of a beautiful brunette with a dazzling smile and a full figure. A woman in her own right. If she had just stayed as an image on the internet, how easy it would have been to ignore this.
But, he was cooking for her.
They say eating together bonds humans quicker, more intimately. Perhaps it is because when we eat, we are at our most vulnerable. Our guard is down as we relax into our food and company. That is why it is a cultural tradition to go to a dim sum restaurant to celebrate the Lunar New Year with family. Even business deals are often conducted over dinner and drinks. If we satisfy our bellies, we satiate our desires.
Him and I, we hadn’t even shared a meal together.
I knew in that moment that our connection could never exist beyond the eight walls of our bedrooms.
It is 4:27 am.
“I wish you were curious about me,” she whispers into the dark, thinking I am asleep. My hands were wrapped around her waist. I don’t move as I lie there, trying to make sense of her words.
“I wish you asked me questions about my life, my thoughts on random topics, my stories of mundane shit.” She pauses, letting the words fall around our intertwined bodies. “Or, I wish you would at least pretend, even if you didn’t care about my answers.”
A fake snore escapes before I can stop it.
She sighs and turns away from me. Her dark hair pokes my face, but I don’t want to shift, in fear of having to come up with a reply. I know she would judge my questions.
Every moment in our lives is a forked road. There are so many things we can choose to do, but don’t. I always thought that the way to move forward was to commit to the decision I picked. That no matter what life threw at me, as long as I didn’t stray from my path, everything would work out.
Nobody has made me doubt this more than her. She makes me question all my actions and my decisions.
“If feelings could have substance, physical substance I mean, life would be so much easier!” she laments.
“What do you mean?”
“Think about it,” she rambles, “if you could reach into my chest right now, yank my heart out and rip it wide open to see all my feelings in there, it would be proof that I feel and I love! That my emotions are real – I am alive, I exist.”
“Something like a soul?”
“Perhaps…” She stops getting dressed, plopping down on the bed, next to me. “What would your soul look like?”
“You. All you.”
“Ha. Ha. Very funny.” She nudges me playfully.
“Truthfully? Okay, not all of it, but there’ll always be a space for you.”
“Thanks,” she whispers, placing a soft kiss on my shoulder. “I don’t believe you, but I’m choosing to trust you.”
I should have lied.
It’s strange, the things we remember about people.
I can tell you about his sleeping habits, the way he takes his coffee, how he got that scar on his forearm – he broke it as a child, when he was running away from a dog, hence the preference for cats. Surface level things.
I can list all the foreign curses that spill out of his mouth when he cums. I can describe the contrast between the scratchiness of his beard and the softness of his curls. I can sketch the outline of his tattoo from memory. I can point out the small mole on his thigh, unseen by most.
I can also delve deeper and tell you about his insecurities and how tired he is of slaving away all day at his bartending job. I can reveal his secret dream of opening a small bookshop, the type which attracts regulars and ushers them into the comfort of familiar pages. His burning desire for his own book to be on those shelves one day.
I can shout out into the world so many facts that I’ve kept in my head: his full name, his birthday, his siblings!
I can describe the way she tastes and the sound of my hand slapping her ass. I can show you how she likes it when I wrap my hand around her throat while we fuck, and the way she buries her face into my neck when she is on top – she is sensitive with necks.
I can tell you about her no-nonsense, blunt attitude. How rough it is sometimes, but also refreshing. I can detail what she looks like when she is nervous, the rosy blush of her cheeks, the awkward way she tries to maintain eye contact, but fails.
I know when she is preoccupied with other things (or people), when she worries about her friends and feels out of place at a party. I can admit how much I want to reassure her in those moments that she is my guest, that she belongs there with me.
I can describe how it feels when my lips wrap around her name. Like a classic lullaby, the sound of comfort and peace. I can declare that when I’m lying on her chest, with her arms around me, I know I never want her to let go. I could tell everyone all these details about her, things I’m not sure she realises herself.
But, there is so much I still don’t know. That I will never know now.
HER & HIM
She meets him again, on a cold, misty night. Caught by surprise, the click-clack sound of her boots slows to a standstill.
Sitting on a bench by the seafront promenade, silhouetted against the streetlight, is a figure that she would recognise anywhere. Her masochistic curiosity gets the better of her. Step by step, her feet take her forwards.
It is him.
At first, she is not sure if he is a mirage, a sight so perfect, untouched by time. But then, she notices that his hair is shorter and he is wearing unfamiliar clothes. Yet, the colour of his eyes remains the same – bright and amber, glowing under the lights.
She walks around the bench and stands in front of him. “I didn’t know you were back in town.”
He glances up at her voice. She could see that he too is surprised.
“What are you doing here?” she exhales softly, thinking back to the time when they saw each other last. More than a year has gone by already. It is January again.
“It’s been a while. I- we’re just about to watch a film.” His head tilts to his left, gesturing to Mutual Friend. She had not even noticed him.
Mutual Friend stands up and gives her a tight hug. “Happy New Year. You alright?”
“Yeah, I’m good,” she replies, almost robotically.
It is then she realises that the other boy had remained seated all this time. As if he could read her thoughts, he quickly stands up to embrace her too. It is so brief that she does not even have enough time to shut her eyes and take in his scent, which she has sorely missed.
“Just came out of a film,” she adds, uncomfortable with his sudden proximity.
“Looks like we just missed each other then.” He smiles at her, amusedly.
“Looks like it.”
There is a long silence as they stand there, both unsure if the other would continue the conversation. To a passer-by, the two could pass off as strangers.
He bites the bullet. “So, how have you been?”
“Alright. Living, I suppose. You?”
“Yeah, not too bad. Just back visiting some friends. Needed a breather from the job.”
She tries to keep her voice level and her face neutral. “Oh, yes. Congrats again.”
He had finally managed to get a lease to open his own bookshop. A ferry ride away in Macau, the small store is in a quaint neighbourhood, nothing like the gritty streets of his former home. Though she was the one who ended things, she spent countless nights crying over his lack of goodbye when he moved away last May. She never visited.
“Thanks. And you too. I read your book.”
“Oh.” This catches her off guard. For some reason, it never occurred to her that he would buy her book of poetry.
She had swallowed her fears, pride and self-doubt, and met with a publisher last summer. They hit it off. Her book was on shelves by Christmas. “The perfect stocking stuffer,” was what one of the reviews said. She is still unsure whether she should be pleased by that comment. But, at least her words are out there now.
“Yeah, good stuff. I loved the poem about Soho. Reminded me of home.” He mulls. “Come to think of it, you wrote a lot of poems about that neighbourhood. How’s Old Man Chang doing?”
Mutual Friend shifts, noticing how her face tightens.
“Well, I suppose. He’s got the spirit of a fighting horse after all…but I don’t really hang around there anymore.”
After her former lover relocated, Mutual Friend only saw her a handful of times. And it was always a quick, polite smile across a room full of other creatives – a neutral setting. He never blamed her though. He knew he reminded her too much of the writer.
“Oh?” Said writer is still clueless. “Exhausted all of your inspiration?”
“Something like that.”
He smiles. “Well, I guess that gives me time to catch up.” He notes her confused expression. “I’m still scribbling away in that notebook. It’s almost all filled up now.”
“You still use it?”
Mutual Friend does not want to be present for this any longer. He gets up, motioning to the cigarette in his hands, and silently walks further down the promenade.
The remaining two watch him go, puffs of smoke in his trail. His departure breaks her out of this reverie of banal false pleasantry. She is suddenly tired. Tired of this conversation, tired of pretending as if there is not a burning question, waiting to be asked.
“How is she? Your girl?” she blurts out.
He did not think she would ask. “It’s going well. She’s good,” he says slowly.
“That’s good to hear.”
Good – the meaningless phrase that haunts their every reply.
He and that angelic brunette made things official shortly before he moved. Nobody understood why, but he made things work by visiting Hong Kong every now and then. His girlfriend has never seen his flat in Macau, as he always insisted on coming back to the city. Perhaps a part of him hoped that a situation like this would happen.
“Well,” she said, glancing down the street, “I should get going. I think my friends are long gone.” She could not bear to look at him anymore.
“Right. Of course.” He is flustered again, for the abrupt ending of this conversation.
“It was really nice seeing you again. Let’s catch up soon.” A script so often recited the words ring empty.
She gives him one last tight smile, waves a goodbye kiss to Mutual Friend, and begins to walk away.
“I was going to text you, you know?” he calls out after her. Her footsteps halt once more.
And there it is. Under the cloudless, evening sky. Hanging in the air like those diminishing neon signs nearby.
Going to, but didn’t. The agonising heartbreak of potential.
She does not turn around in fear of two things: either she would break down crying or she would throw herself into his arms and never let go again. She swallows her feelings down.
“Of course.” Two syllables, dripping bittersweet.
He stays silent behind her. She knows he will say no more, that he can say no more. Her feet carry her forwards, her body protecting her, going through the motions in a self-preservation mode.
But, like Orpheus, she cannot help herself. At the next lamppost, she looks back.
His back is turned, he is facing their friend. Her long forgotten. It hurts to know that once she leaves his sight, she is out of his thoughts. Perhaps that will always hurt more than knowing she was never in his heart. Him. It is always him.
He watches her as she walks away. Something stirs deep in his chest. It is in this moment that he finally understands what she meant all those months ago.
“Yearning,” she whispered, as she cradled him in her arms one night, “is one of the most desperate acts of survival. To yearn after something or someone means to love without expectation, without reprieve. It’s admirable. But, it’s also pathetic.”
“How can such a cowardly act be praised?” he challenged. “How can that truly be love?”
“The intimacy of being known is far more powerful than any outward expression of love. For it is the very concept of love itself.”
So, he says nothing as she fades into the crowd and city of lights. Behind, the taxis honk on the busy street, and in front, the sea twinkles under the moonlight. Life continues.
Once you know a person, they never really disappear from your life. When she sees a black cat, she thinks of his amber eyes. When he reads a poem, he remembers her sweet perfume. She uses coconut shampoo now. He lights a candle in his bedroom every night. They find each other everywhere and unconsciously adopt the other’s habits in perpetuity. A lifetime of echoes and mismatched moments.
Her and him. Him and her. Rarely them.
Like the misaligned wires of that faded neon sign outside his old flat, the two just never met in the sweet spot where everything fell into place, where everything could be right. They fell – because that is how it is with love – one after the other, and soon, falling was all they knew.
Tonight, they will dream of another life in which things worked out. Then, tomorrow, they will wake.
Under the dying neon lights, we glow.
Burning passion, embers refusing the winds of change.
The city swirls around us, a typhoon of progression,
but time bears no barricade in our eye.
Goodbye came before we were ready,
turning us into a memory under my gaze.
But, our existence has seared into forever,
so never would we fade.
Audrey Lai is a writer based in London. A visual-led storyteller, she enjoys working on observational dramas, psychological thrillers and writing stories about her broken heart. Read more of her work on Instagram and Twitter at @audreylai_film.