Autumn Sonnet

Leaves fell from their trees as the fast wind gushed through the backyard. Flakes of salmon pink, flame red and sunshine yellow kept the trunks warm. The skies whisper the secrets of winter but I didn’t want Autumn to depart before we did.

The retreat house wasn’t how I pictured it. When the office manager informed us of the Christmas getaway slash office retreat, much wasn’t disclosed. Upon arrival, my eyes adjusted to the plethora of hue. The trees swayed gracefully to the cool winds. Birds chirping and the delicate sounds of the lake could be heard from a distance. Fortunately, the planned activities weren’t mandatory, so I opted to rest in my quarters for most of the day. The smell of scones and hot tea were the only motivation to put my slippers on and exit my room temporarily. Tonight marks our final stay at this paradisal abode before the city takes us back in its soul-sucking embrace. I decided to take a late evening walk.

It was 10:30pm and the strong winds died down. I walked through three flights of stairs to the courtyard and hopped on a bicycle to the lake. It was only a fifteen minute walk from the cabin but I opted to shorten the trip by ten minutes. The lamp posts were dim but perfect enough to view the clear water. The distant, snowy mountains were visible under the subtle rays of the moon. As I got off my bike, a silhouette came into view; LG was sat on a bench. He looked slightly surprised but broke into a smile right away.

“Sssh,” he whispered. His hair gently bobbed to the evening wind, eyes illuminated by the lamp posts. Even in the dark, his skin was perfect and I could smell his zesty cologne from where I stood. His sharp cheekbones and contoured jawline brought Greek gods to shame. Thanks to a quick current and sudden sneeze, I shook off the swoon.

LG tapped the space next to him and I reluctantly took the offer. It wasn’t until that moment that I felt completely small in his presence, like a nymph next to giant. In a way, I felt safe. Despite the considerable distance between us, I felt comforted by his shadow. “Why are we whispering?”, I asked. He pulled his thinking expression and out emerged the dimple that I was dreading to see. “I’m just paying attention to nature. It’s hard to do this in the city,” he sighed. “Also, it makes you listen inward.”

A piano piece was playing somewhere far off and I started to look around to find the source. Was it all in my head? Have I gone completely mental? LG realised he left the music on and quickly pressed the pause button on his phone. “Oops, sorry. That’s me!” Relief washed all over me. Of all the places to go completely cuckoo, here and now couldn’t be it.

“Ave Maria was playing. Do you fancy classical music?”, he asked. He was looking across the water and at the mountains but he clearly wanted to dismiss the silence.

I followed suit and looked ahead. “Yes, it’s Schubert’s piece isn’t it? Ellen’s Third Song.” I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. I could picture how beautiful the evening was even in the dark; the trees reaching out to one another to form one massive embrace, the lake swaying to the hymns of the moon and the hidden sun gently stirring in its slumber. LG was suddenly silent so I broke away from my trance. He was looking right at me.

“I’m impressed. Not everyone knows that about Ave Maria. You’re a pianist, I presume?”

“I used to, until I was 9. It wasn’t my forte.” I shuddered at the flashback of my father looking down at me sternly as I failed to perfect The Entertainer for the seventh time. I did love playing the piano until my parents treated my lessons like military school. Since then, I never touched the piano. The very sight of piano keys was nauseating.

“Do you play too?”

He shook his head, “No. I have the heart to study and listen to the music, but never the prowess. My late mom was disappointed. I guess I’m a perfect match for my name.”

At work, I never got around to knowing his real name. Thanks to my gossping co-workers who tattled about like birds in summer, I finally referred to the fringed stranger as LG. I assumed that since he was using an LG phone, the nickname became a dead giveaway. For convenience and preference. It was a silly conclusion from my part yet completely possible. As much as my heart skipped a bit for a stranger who worked across the hall from my cubicle, I didn’t bother constructing better theories. In my head, we’ve had mutliple dates in libraries, art galleries, and hipster cafés. Yet here we are, talking for the first time. In complete darkness. Talking about odd nicknames.

He chuckled, “I know what you’re thinking and no, I’m not named after a Korean corporation.” As he turned to face me, he moved closer and raised his left leg toward the bench. “E-L-E-G-Y. Most people pronounce it as ele-gih, when it’s actually eleh-ji. Elegy means “sad poem”.”

Embarassment washed over me as quick and painful as a stubbed toe. I buried my face in my gloved hands. Why do I even call myself a writer? Why do I even mention my published TIME article on my resume? It’s not like I’ve never read the word “elegy”. There must be a toilet somewhere as I need to be flushed down the sewers right away.

LG laughed as he tried to wrestle my palms away from my face. “My own father hates my name so he went with LG.” My face emerged, revealing flushed cheeks. ” Also,” he added, “It’s not like I go around telling people my real name. You’re the first in a long while.”

There was hurt in his eyes and I wish I had the courage to ask him about them. I never told him this but I often used the word “elegy” in my poems. It is truly beautiful as it is strong. Sadness holds a bottomless pit of inspiration to fuel one’s literary fires. To translate this influence into the written word is both redemption and a sacrifice in itself. Some say Autumn is the season where everything is in the process of death. I think Autumn is just the earth’s brave way of telling us to live the most out of life until our pulses rest. Even in death, there is hue. Even endings get a beginning.

We sat in silence for the next fifteen minutes, paying attention to the gentle harmony of the night. That was our first and last encounter. Upon returning to the city, he took a plane to Europe and never came back. I’d like to think that we both sat next to each other in the bus on the way back and that our third date was an afternoon tea offering at the fanciest restaurant in town. This led to poorer dates in the coming weeks but street food never tasted better until I had them with him. Maybe we even visited the retreat house every year to comemorate our anniversary – during Autumn, of course. Autumn is our season, the time we tied the knot, also the name of our first child. She played the piano beautifully and often mocked LG for his lack of talent. Her second name would be Sonnet because her being is a poem still being written, one that will be forever etched in mine. Just like Ellen’s Third Song, replaying memories is as good as making new ones with better endings.

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Le Mal Du Pays

Skwee. Skwee. Skwee. He bobbed back and forth on his ergonomic chair. What was meant for lumbar support ended up straining his shoulder muscles. Where is the ergonomic in that? Pain throbbed in his upper back. Sometimes, he couldn’t help but wince and resemble that one kid who tasted lemon for the first time. Apart from his tossing jet black hair, the white-washed office was unmoving. All Marius could think about is going for a massage. He felt his wallet mock him at the back of his slacks. Skwee. Skwee. Skwee. What kept him sane was occasionally heading over to the cerulean aquarium by the couch and talking to the fishes. Marius claimed that one of them nodded in the middle of a conversation about yogurt. It was yet to happen for the second time.

You’d think a receptionist’s desk would consist of clumps of paperwork along with a confetti of Post-Its. But Marius couldn’t care less. Everything was organised on his laptop with the occasional folder for dispatch. It could be a fascination for minimalism, or avoiding all means of attachment. Zero trace of sentiment. Zero trace of himself.

Distant elevator music broke the silence. The tune resonated from the hall to the office until its doors were shut. The clacking of heels grew closer and a tall, blushing lady emerged. Her eyes were green and wild like the untamed forests of the Amazon. As strong as her gaze was, her stature was a delicate one. Ash blonde strands fell on her face, her freckles like scattered stars upon her flushed cheeks. Wearing a white cardigan on top of a laced pastel brown dress, she resembled a porcelain doll. With a final skwee, Marius stood up to greet her.

“Welcome to ABSOLUTE INC., Miss…?”

“Cheryl. Cheryl Berg of Grey Pharmaceuticals. I’m here for Miss Perkins. We have an appointment in the next 5 minutes.” Cheryl spoke quick but ended her sentences with a kind smile. She glowed all of a sudden.

“Please,” gesturing over to the satin couch, “Have a seat. She’ll be out in a second. Anything to drink for you?”

She shook her head and took a small bow before taking a seat. Cheryl moved swiftly and Marius was able to trace a hint of vanilla shampoo. He barely moved from his desk when a plump lady entered through the revolving door behind him.

An all-black suit complemented her plump figure. In spite of the tall clogs, she was still below average height. But she doesn’t seem deterred; with only light make-up on, she let her blow-dried, bouncy hair take care of the intimidation.

Cheryl stood from the couch as Miss Perkins walked over to her. There were two sets of clacking heels now. Dismissing the pleasantries, both ladies entered and disappeared through the revolving door. There was silence again.

This was a typical situation for Marius. Even before he could begin small talk with clients, Miss Perkins would appear and reappear like a phantom. What took place behind those doors was unbeknownst to him. All he cares about is the wage at the end of it all. The company has only been active for barely two years but it was a successful business. Who knew life-coaching would be a huge hit? After university, the average adult takes the first job they could find, work until they could earn enough to pay for a life-coaching session to settle the misdirection. Who knew adults would lose their way so much? Who knew you could profit from the next person’s misfortune?

Life-coaching sessions could sometimes stretch for hours. Miss Perkins didn’t mind Marius leaving at 5pm. Her only instruction was to feed the fishes before logging out. Complying with her wishes, he did this remarkably robotic and quick and out the door he went.

As he stepped out of the marble building, he was sure that the days of humidity were over; Marius was enveloped with the calm November breeze and he wished he could hug it back. The evening commute was a treat. Watching the lamp posts come to life reminded him of Christmas. At the tender age of 7, he knew he wanted to become a musician when an orchestra played in the telly that one winter night.

With a fascination for jazz and classical music, he often visited the opera and theatre for live performances. It all started when his father took him to a local band’s live performance. Marius was tall and looked older at the time so nobody knew that a 13-year-old boy was present at an 18+ only pub. The sound of the strings, strength of the piano keys and tangible hymns of the violin stole his soul then and there. The experience was otherworldly as it was an out-of-body experience. When he wasn’t busy being a Psychology major, music and its research replenished him to the core. He owned a guitar and a violin but was most proficient with the latter. Along with the death of his father came the hiatus for music and quitting university. His mother sought solace in the province while he remained in the city. The first job vacancy he saw in the paper was from ABSOLUTE INC. two years ago. He hasn’t looked back since. The irony is as clear as day.

Marius sat on the bench and watched the several files of people enter and exit the train cabins. Evening reflections were common but tonight was a special night. Putting his headphones on, he selected Le Mal Du Pays by Liszt. (Directly translated from french, it means melancholy or homesickness. But as his father always used to say, regardless of what a song is about, it’s what you feel that matters.) The piano started to play and everything was in slow motion. A lady struggles with bags of grocery in one arm. A balding man pats his head as if whispering at the remaining strands to multiply. A group of men exchange shocked expressions before breaking into laughter. A lone woman sits in the corner of the cabin with a book in her hand, licking a finger before turning the page. She reminded him of the latest client, Cheryl.

There’s a crick in his neck that won’t go away. With a swift spin to his right, there was a loud crack. A worried passerby looked away quickly before scuttling off into a queue. He tittered under his breath before unearthing a book from his back pocket. Selected Poems by T. S. Eliot.

The first page read, “I am thrilled and blessed to have you as a marvellous son. May your music flow through others as it has touched me. Do good, but don’t forget your happiness is the wish of your ever loving, Dad.”

Brushing his fingers through the smudged handwriting, Marius whispered, Happy birthday.

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The First Morning

The alarm went off five times yet the contour on the bed didn’t stir. Blades of the 9:00am rays scattered through the sheets, outlining the window blinds. As though afraid of waking her, the clock’s ticking was unhurried. A cat sprawled on the kitchen top lazily stretched its body. Apart from the flash of ginger fur, the studio apartment was empty. All was still.

The bed creaked. Fingers pulled the sheets closer. There was heavy breathing and intervals of hushed sniffles. This was the first of many mornings where the door won’t open from the other side.

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Chow Mein Rice

The war has robbed me at least a decade of my life. If it weren’t for my passion for ramen, I would be discovered in the gutters, patiently waiting until my last breath expires. Though quaint, my diner is home to women and men of the night. I like to work against the tide which was why my opening hours are from 12 midnight until 5 in the morning. While the rest of the world is already tucked in bed, I cater to the few who are restless and seeking solace in a hot bowl of ramen.

It’s funny how you can easily get people to open up through inebriation or thorough meal satisfaction. Ferdinand Winter is one of my loyal customers and comes through the door 2am on the dot. Although he’s a nine-to-fiver, the writer in him stirs him at 2 in the morning for a quick inspiration run. When done in vain, he rests at my diner in the presence of his fond order, Chow Mein Rice. I’ve only ramen in my menu but customers are free to request for any dish as long as my kitchen has the ingredients.

The only son to parents who run a successful chain of retail stores, Ferdinand never shared their passion for it. While Mr. and Mrs. Winter take pleasure in waging wars with their competitors, their son worked in the newspaper business. Print is a dying medium, Mr. Winter would retort everytime Ferdinand would visit during weekends. You should be training to take over the empire. Mrs. Winter would nod in agreement and chime in, We’re not getting any younger too.

Ferdinand hated the word “empire”. It felt exclusive, selfish, and arrogant. Appetite was at a loss with every visit but the diner stood as his beacon of hope. As expected, the wooden doors would reveal his frustrated face at 2am. As soon as the aroma of the Chow Mein Rice wafted in the air, all worries are washed away. He lights up and so do I.

I didn’t get to attend college but I’m an avid reader myself. Camus and Kafka are personal favourites, while Fern held Fitzgerald and Wolfe dear to him. We’d exchange favourite passages, drop in a fact or two, and challenge each other to read a best-loved novel of the other with his every visit. After serving in the army, I spent most of my days in the library or visiting thrift stores. It was my Chow Mein Rice.

Fern often wondered about the scar that ran from the side of my forehead to my cheekbone. Every time he asked, my story was different. I got it when I was a child because I fell down the stairs. I slept with a woman when I was 21 and she slashed my face with a butter knife. Due to scented candle fascination, burning hot wax dripped on my face one fine day because why not? He’d roll his eyes and eventually gave up the query altogether. In the midst of cooking his order, I’d chuckle under my breath. War changes people. Every type of ghost, be it a person or a memory, wears you like a glove. Although the diner is my salvation, people like Fern can help mend unseen wounds.

“It’s tough holding on to a dream while spending most of one’s hours doing something else,” Fern sighed. He placed his spoon and fork on the top right side of the plate and drank the last of his coffee. It was almost 3:30am. The newspaper’s call time was at 7. Just as he was about to head home, I told him, “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer”. Camus is a friend, and so am I”. A gentle smile appeared on his lips, “Also, “Loneliness is and always has been the central and inevitable experience of every man”. The greatest people thrive in the thrills. I might as well pretend until it’s true”.

Fern waved goodbye and exited the diner. It will be 12 hours until I see my friend again. Until then, on I continue with the ramen cooking with a little bit of West Egg on the side.

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