Stories That Breathe

A Photogenic Life

Chapter 1

There are usually different emotions on the students’ face on the first day of school: Some look forward to it, some cannot wait for the school holidays to arrive, some sulk when they think about it and some smile when they receive the name of their orientation group.

For me, it was none of the above.

Everyone in my flat was still sleeping when I stepped out of the door. It was six in the morning. There were about five people at the bus stop, all reading newspaper.

“Hello.”

It was a robust male voice. His grey replica Calvin Klein T-shirt was tucked firmly into his tight jeans, like some nerd who had never bought any clothes for the last three years.

Oh shit. Start acting now. Get away from me…

I jumped back. My Puma shoulder bag almost dropped. I opened my mouth, closed it, and took two steps back. Three. Four. Five.

Get away from me…

“Hello,” he said again, droplets of his saliva shooting out like small bullets.

He had a round, flat face and looked to be in his thirties but with a fashion sense of a fifteen-year-old. I took one more step back.

“You are very beautiful,” he said. “Can I marry you?”

That is it—

I wheeled round, grabbed the handle of my shoulder bag and ran. I forgot how long I ran. It was only when I dropped my bag that I stopped running. I turned and looked around cautiously. The man did not give chase, and Bukit Batok MRT Station was just across the road.

Nothing was broken in my bag. After taking in deep breaths, I strolled towards the MRT station and looked at my watch. I had run for about five minutes.

* * *

“Hello.”

I was at the platform, waiting for the train when the voice emerged. I wheeled round. Stared. The train came. People were walking towards the yellow line.

“Is it faster to run to the MRT station than taking the bus?” he said.

I continued to stare at him. All the people on the platform were streaming into the train. I was still rooted to the floor.

“I run before. Take six minute to run from the bus stop to here. You, Sunny?”

The train stayed on the platform for about five seconds, then the announcer said, “Doors closing,” and beeped five times.

“Do you not want to take the MRT?”

Freak it—now!

I screamed. I screamed at the top of my voice, my mouth so wide open that I nearly ripped my jaw off. I forgot how long I had screamed. All I knew was that when I had stopped screaming, the man was gone and tens of worried-looking people were crowding around me.

* * *

That morning, Nanyang Junior College assembly area was peppered with colours: The new students were all wearing their secondary school uniform as that was just the first three months of their junior college education. Once we got our O-level results and wanted to continue in this school, we would then purchase our uniform.

The uniform separated the JC1s (new students) from the JC2s. The JC2s wore a skin-like brown outfit. I rubbed my nose and realized I was a different league from most of the JC1s. They usually came in a pair or in a group. They would crowd around an area, people watching and gossiping.

The JC1s were supposed to gather in the hall. I found my orientation group and took a glance at the students in my group. They all looked “upmarket”: Five had Crumpler bags and two had Oakley glasses.

I sat behind a girl who had her hair tied completely to her back, her receding forehead dripping with sweat. She was so petite that I thought she was a primary school student. She turned, saw me and smiled.

“Hi,” she said. She was wearing an oversized blue shirt and a grey tie.

I thought for a while. Cedar Girls’ Secondary School. One of the famous girls’ schools in Singapore. I managed to force a smile.

“I’m Tan Chew Ling,” she said, turned away and coughed three times. She had a foreign accent, the kind that I often heard in local radio stations and American TV series. “I’ve got this asthma since young, so I cough often. But don’t you worry, it’s not contagious. How about you? What’s your name?”

Poser.

“Linda,” I replied, looked around me and at my watch. It was only seven in the morning.

“I see. We’ll be good friends, okay? I’ve made a promise to myself: Whoever sits behind me on the first day of school will be my best friend. Hey, you look like you’ve just run a thousand miles.” She coughed again. I almost jumped in shock when I saw her bag: It was a red and black sling bag, bearing the logo “NDP 2006”.

I wiped my neck. Although my sweat had dried up in the train, it seemed to come back after I reached the school.

“I go for a morning jog every morning.”

“Oh. Healthy. I like morning jogs too. But I’ve got bad lungs and this asthma.” As she turned and faced me, she sounded like she was breathing in mucus instead of air. “You know, if you jog in the morning, your metabolic rate will increase. Plus, if you have caffeine, like coffee, your metabolic rate will be so high after your jog that you’ll burn double the fat when you move an inch. I think that explains why you’re sweating even when you’re not exercising now: Your metabolic rate is extremely high. Which I’ll think is pretty cool…”

She went on for twenty minutes, telling me how healthy jogging was. I regretted telling her about my “jog”, because even after the teachers—they’re called tutors in junior college—had come to the stage to speak to us, this Tan Chew Ling was still telling me about the benefits of jogging.

* * *

Chew Ling followed me wherever I went, and that was when I realized that we had something in common: We did not have any friend in this school. There were quite a number of Cedar girls around, but they did not seem to know Chew Ling, although Chew Ling smiled at every one of them. Actually, Chew Ling smiled at everyone in school.

When we stood beside each other, her head was beside my chest, and I estimated her to be less than thirty kilogrammes. She had to be the smallest JC student I had ever seen in my life. If not for her Cedar uniform, I would have thought that she had yet to go through puberty.

“Caffeine helps to burn fat,” Chew Ling said. “That is actually a myth, but it is more or less true. I’m not going to explain in detail why, because it will take forever. One of my friends claims that she drinks five cups of coffee a day, but she’s still so fat. Why? She takes them all with condensed milk! Come on, how can someone eat fried chicken every day and run every day and think that she is trying to lose weight, right?”

Our orientation group leaders—OGLs—comprised two JC2s: one guy with dark skin and oversized biceps, and a girl who looked malnourished. They seemed to talk non-stop; telling us about the history of the JC, the haunted areas and tutors who had bad breath.

“Okay, Linda, I think we should concentrate on the orientation games. You should not talk to me anymore; I need to concentrate on the games.”

Huh?

When we played the first game, I felt like an adult strolling inside Toys”R”Us. All my OG mates shouted and ran, ran and shouted, while I walked and stared.

“Hey,” Chew Ling whispered. I turned to her. I thought she said she was not talking anymore? “The OGL is cute.”

I looked up. It was our male OGL, the one who had biceps that seemed to be pumped by air.
“Tell you a secret, Chew Ling,” I said. “I think I saw him stealing looks at you a few times.”

“Really?” Chew Ling stroked her hair. “It happens all the time.” She then pushed her glasses up her nose and smiled. “In fact, Linda, I think almost half of all the boys here are stealing glances at me. I’m used to it.”

I nodded.

“Five weeks ago, someone asked for my telephone number in Junction 8. He started by asking me if I was a student. I tried to change topic. I was so reluctant to give him my number, you know. In the end, I gave it to him, seeing how sincere he was. Guess what? He called me the next day! Asked me out.”

I nodded again.

“Guess what? I said, ‘No, I’m not free.’ He then asked me if I was working, and whether I had savings or insurance! I knew right from the start that he was so interested in me that he wanted to know so much about me. He must have been thinking about marriage already! But still, I rejected him.” Chew Ling looked up at Mr Biceps, then back to me. “Holy ant, Linda, I think you should stop asking me so many questions. I want to concentrate on the games. Ah, our OGL is stealing looks at me again.”

* * *

It happened again after our second game. Our OGLs decided to give us a break, and we crowded around the canteen.

“Guys are so shy nowadays,” Chew Ling said. She was not looking at anyone and I wondered if she was talking to me. “Everyone seemed to look at me just now, but now that we can talk freely, no one comes and talks to me.”

I lowered my head and opened my bag. I did not know when the break would end; with the free time, I might as well listen to some songs. When I found my iPod, a male voice roared above me.

“Hey, River Valley High, right?”

The guy was wearing a light brown uniform with a durian-like hairstyle. I gasped and dropped my iPod back into my bag.

“I’ve got a friend there. You know Hwee Meng?”

Should I shout?

I shook my head and started to look for Chew Ling. For the first time since I met Chew Ling, I was hoping to hear her voice.

Posttraumatic stress disorder. Fear.

“You okay?” Mr Durian said. I shook my head and then nodded. Swallowed. Nodded. Fine. No.

“Hey”—Mr Durian touched my shoulder.

* * *

—started with a touch on the hand—memories; embedded, invented memories—and a voice: “Dar, please…”—

* * *

I screamed.

I yelled, “Chew Ling!” at the top of my voice. The touch went off, the memory jogged off and I continued to scream until I felt a burning sensation in my throat.

When I stopped, the only sound that could be heard was the spinning of the fan. Everyone was looking at me: the upmarket students, the nerds, the weirdos. Chew Ling’s mouth was wide open.

“Erm, Linda, if you missed me, you could have just…called me. In your normal voice,” Chew Ling said. I sprinted towards the toilet. I counted my steps and it was on my twenty-first step that my tears came.

Artificial tears.

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