By Katrina Lee

He looked at the words — clean like a buzz-cut, clean like an electric shock, tremor shooting ever so slightly through the phone nestled in his palm — until they were scorched behind his strained eyelids.

Praises packaged as appreciation for the poetic expression, deep, earth-shattering, soulful, even, churned out from people’s factory of phoniness, made his stomach somersault, his heart aflame. Genuinity was dead, he thought to himself, chuckled as he realized how the word itself was never a dictionary entry, soon, his thoughts leaked as muttering; a heavy-set man, feeling his personal space was intruded by this loony-like murmuring, scurried away.

Genuinity was slowly but surely replaced by generosity — he arrived at this conclusion as the train approached Fo Tan; the former is inward-looking, a gouging of one’s flaws and faults and the ensuing tidal emotions of deflation, imperfection and humanness, it’s the embracing of all that unworthiness about yourself then deciding against every fiber in your body, to present those things, anyway, to the gaze of strangers and friends alike; the latter, he decided, in this day and age where people liked people to be liked, was nothing but a veneer for the entrenched feelings of self-importance, of decided belittling of others’ existence spurred on by one’s sense of entitled specialness. Praises were engendered by generosity — also known as, phoniness — and he, body swaying in rhythmic unison to that of the train carrying him to a temporary homeliness, would never again yearn for people’s praises.

Fed up with humanity’s vacuousness and above all angry at its invasion in his online life, he stopped following the poetry accounts and with that, #instapoetry. He thrusted his phone into the pocket of his jeans, with more than slight aggression that the fabric seemed to protest, making it hard for a smooth deposition. He fumed, swung his backpack in front and threw in the phone.

The announcer chimed in its singsong voice familiar in pleasantries, mechanical and sonorous, “Next stop, University,” spurring on yet another sanctimonious contemplation — this time on the chopping board in his judgmental mind, was people’s great disguise at being affable, pleasant and agreeable social animals.

Why isn’t there a sliver of decency in each of us to be whoever we want to be, hugging shame closed to our chest, cherishing the heart-thrumming before we speak, like we’re in treading rapidly deepening waters? Presently these thoughts plunged him into a bottomless hole; There might just be great food to be enjoyed and better company once we clamber onto the bank, if only each of us had been genuine; they had him in a tight clutch now. Why can’t we say things we wish to say, in ways we wish to say them? His head was at the moment pervaded by snapshots from last family dinner.

“…My youngest son,” ripples foreign to his sun-spotted face, were grooves of age and pretenses stored up over the years, and as had been watching this smile blossom on his father’s face, he knew deep down, it was one of relief rather than happiness, unleashed like pent-up emotions, or, caged circus lions, on this family-name-earning, face-retrieving night, “got into University. The Chinese University.”

His father had been a few seats away but his shoulder tensed, as if charged with electric current, as if they had prematurely felt the pats that were sure to come.

He’d felt something move inside his body as the crowd around him — his brother, whose own strained grin marred his dark face; uncles, aunts, whose children’s eyes averted, lips twisted to withhold gossips which would spring out in a minute in the security of deafening chatter; all these people, arranged neatly at a round table, had reached for their glasses, the contents of which were red-rimmed dark wine, some with bubbles, gurgling.

They had toasted to him. Jolt out of his absorbed observation by his mother’s elbow nudge, a smile had broken onto the barren terrain of his face. When things were loud inside your head, others’ loudness became unbearable. That was why he had eyed, compulsively, the supermarket sign while voiced carried on around him, partly because it was opposite the modest restaurant, partly that the advertising board was distracting with its broken light, intermittently signaling repairment.

But mostly, a raspy-haired tiny woman, possibly in her sixties, strolled into the place in her frail form, whom he observed through the floor-to-ceiling glass panes. She started to peruse the items on shelves, absorbed in her own world, initiating then repeating unmindful gestures of putting and checking and picking up and flicking the apples, smelling the mangoes, right up to the nostrils, hitting the watermelons, so selfish, so genuine — he found her to be infinitely more interesting than the clamor buzzing about him; or the voices’ masters, least of all his father, who would soon enough treat him like a stranger again, a total, strange, failure, once this stern giant of a dad found out his son, his son who’d half-assed D.S.E. to “got into University,” was going to study English, not Medicine, Law, or even English with teaching prospect.

The things that had got him here today were not smooth sailings, his story in English paper 2, writing, was his saving grace, giving him the star that ensured an “Uni entry ticket”; this was, he was well aware, a self-pitying thought, nonetheless, a true thought and one that he wished would snake into his father’s brain because then for once, his father would see him as who he always aspired to be — a fighter through his words.

He trudged up the slopes, now, outside University’s train station, and the path would bring him to another bout of intellectual stimulation by the professor and students of In Dialogue with Humanity.

Faces he past were blurred into a willful blob of nothingness. Though he yearned for that momentary spark of something, one, in the wide array of murky facial features and expressions, would warrant a closer look, a more intimate connection. As if on cue, his body tensed up in sight of familiar figures approaching — here we go — the exchange was brief as it ever had been and ever would be; the pair of boy and girl whose parting words still reverberated between his eardrums, their imprints bearing grooves in his mind as he mentally recite them, now, verbatim: i thought you were quiet, but then as i got to know you these few days i genuinely think you are nice and actually you have loads to say behind that shy demeanor! let’s reg lunch! There had only been two lunch dates in the past months and he’d only gone to one — hardly regular — and found the shift, topic after topic of things, alas, uninteresting. It’s not that I think I’m better than these people, he ruminated in self-defense after the hellos, going to class? and see-you-arounds were exchanged, it’s just that something threatens to pull me apart and vivisect me every time I have to perk up and strangle words out of my mouth.

Friends, friends were important, stick with your friends.

His endeavors hadn’t been half-hearted, nor had they been successful in budging the gradually cementing verdict he’d reached — that you need not reg lunch with friends in order to be happy in uni. The thing was, he wasn’t about to believe in things perpetuated and almost mythologized, but every now and then the weight came down, the noise outside of him getting louder, then, compressed like a balled-up piece of paper, just as in the orientation month before school started, he had succumbed, armed with skepticism and an at once vapid and fervent wish to find out for himself. Miscellaneous events, college lunches, reunions at which his presence was preferable, numerous meetings with his prospective jongyuens, cabinet members, all left him more hollow and miserable than if he had been left alone and holed up in his room to read, or write, or bleed his thoughts out in the relative quiet. He would’ve felt rejuvenated, more hopeful, less cynical, if he’d just get his nerves together to say, yo, um, won’t be coming, have fun.

But he’d known about people who’re left alone, who were soon to be regarded as a different species. There was a before and an after — he scoffed, and the slopes turned into stairs — there was the completion of certain things before anyone would be declared a normal college kid, otherwise you’d be tossed into the bin of no return, a certified outsider.

No doubt some people have genuinely found their place and voice within these activities, these ventures, and he felt happy for those people, but mandating with unspoken rules that absolutely everyone should enjoy them as much as the next person, was frankly enraging. It’s like those shirts or skirts or whatever with the product description one size fits all, as in, what the hell?

That said, he also often thought about right and wrong, about whether he was standing, drenched, so deep in his own biases and judgments he’d been blind to how uninteresting and ugly he himself was. He even occasionally got into fitful state of mind in which he blamed himself for his sadness and his rudeness, that was akin to self-reproach.

With indignation clogged in his throat, he walked into a classroom with chair arranged in circles, and willed his convoluted thoughts to come to a halt; he prepared his mind, his heart, his lips, beckoned to his words from around the scattered corners of his brain, hoping they would come to his aid in time. This process was not unlike putting on an armor, none too alien to him. Plus, nothing felt more like home than discussion about things that had and never would have answers.

Back in his hostel, he was sitting before a blank page, the cursor beside a blipping stroke.

Before his mind relaxed into yoke and another tirade started and words flowed through him, his roommate stirred on his tangled mess of a bed. “Hey, why are you here?”

He could smell the stale breath of an alcoholic ogre inside his roommate’s mouth, lingering like a crazy ex, in the crevices of teeth, under the tongue. He answered without attention away from his laptop, “I don’t have class til 2:30.” As the often funny and rarely punctual friend moaned and stretched without getting out of bed, he knew he’d stay in and skip this afternoon’s class; he pictured a beam of signal shooting out from his roommate’s head, an antenna-like device that transmitted the message: hey prof um won’t be coming, have fun, and he thought to himself, what a loser; but breath caught, his speedy heart lurched, rocked by an unknown force.

As if the sky cracked open and down poured were answers, his brooding thoughts aligned — Was there only one way to be a student, a college kid? And if there was, what would it look like? He thought about the poetry he’d read this morning, how he’d felt crushed when people sought to express themselves truly, in ways genuine to them and fraudulent, only, to him. How anger had seeped into his veins and clotted like internal scabs. How his apprehensive reflection stared defiantly in the mirror, and the shards under a violent fist turned into knives planted deep into his own body, glinting and smirking in the dark valves of shrinking cavities. If one way to live, to act, to express and to be, dictated all lives, then genuinity is truly dead, and truly there was no hope in his future, personal and collective; in a society that — increasingly and dauntingly and domineeringly — valued conformity, uniformity, and oneness, he feared for everything and was enraged by everything, before they even happened inside his minutely expansive reality, his trivially indispensable existence.

A swivel in his chair showed him a panoramic a view outside his windows, the great beyond of this room amidst the perennial leaves and the meandering footpaths. There’d been such fantasies outside of his room; then a terrible thought was whispered, a valiant flag inserted, a gentle beauty removed his sweat-soaked blindfold: outsider, insider, the shunned and the hip, all were nothing but crude distinctions drawn by equally confused and lost people, flailing in the same big ocean to reach out for a buoy or a lifeline. The consciousness — his reality was his to craft — he’d been awakened to when he stepped into this new environment, the excitement, the gratitude, all swept away by cynicism and insecurity — and how to fix this, this broken thinking machine lodged inside. He planned, and stopped planning, a wrench pulled in time, a button pushed before siren sounded, and eventually, he simply pulled out his phone, notification reminding him of reunion tomorrow evening, he texted people: hey, won’t be coming, have fun. And he started to envision what contentment, growth, genuinity in years ahead, in his path, would look like for him.