When I reached home that evening, Landy was lying on the sofa, crunching a bag of potato chips I had bought a few days ago.
“How’s your first day of school?” she asked. She had small eyes and a sharp nose. I had always believed that she was one of the most beautiful women in the world—if not, the most beautiful Asian. For a long period, I had hoped I had the same features as her. I even desired to live her life: carefree, with boys queuing to hold her hand.
I told her everything about Jacky and the embarrassment that he had caused. Landy was the only person to whom I could pour out my sorrows. She would often drop by my flat for a chat. When I was not in, Grandma would open the door for her.
“So what, you’re going to avoid him for the next two years?” Landy said. “I bet he’s going to stick to you these two years.”
“You know I can’t talk to him,” I muttered. “I can’t harm him.”
“Make sense.” Landy poured herself a cup of coffee and relaxed on the sofa. “Don’t you fall in love with him.”
“I’ll never!” I retorted. “I mean…I…”
“Never is a very strong word,” Landy said. “Remember your curse. Remember. If you fall in love with him, you’ll harm him.”
I lay beside her and memories of how Mum died came back to me. “I know.”
We spent the next two hours trying to figure out how to stay away from Jacky. And two hours later, we fell asleep on the sofa with no solution in mind.
* * *
There was no way for me to avoid Jacky completely.
During lectures, he would sit beside me and I had no right to decide where he sat. He would try very hard to start a conversation, but I would always hint him to shut up by giving him a glare. It often worked; but a few minutes later, he would be talking again.
During lunch break, we would eat together. He always offered to help me buy my favourite drink, soya bean milk. I wanted to tell him off, to say that I preferred to eat alone; but when he returned with my soya bean milk, I would just give up and eat my meal in silence, trying hard to keep my eyes off him.
Rumours about us being an item surfaced after a few weeks. Jacky was especially concerned about disclaiming them. However, no one believed him. One day, he even threatened to beat anyone who spread the rumours; that was the first time I saw his trademarked smile vanish from his face.
“Why do you get so angry when people say something about us?” I asked him that day.
“I don’t wanna tarnish your reputation. What if no one dares to woo you?” he said. “I don’t wanna destroy your future.”
“Then why are you still sticking to me every day?” I said.
It took him a while to register the question—or find the answer. “I…” He smiled once more. “I wanna help you. To see you smile.” He turned away, then whispered again, “To see you smile.”
“I want to do something meaningful while I can.”
Ironically, I frowned and ended the conversation. That night, I told Landy about what Jacky had said, and we spent over three hours pondering on what he had meant. And, as usual, we had no conclusion.
* * *
Four months later, on a Tuesday morning, Mrs Goh, our literature tutor, declared, “Every year, we have a drama competition organized by ELDDS. Every class is encouraged to send a team forward. This competition, I believe, will help a lot in your literature. So I’m going to get this entire class to join.”
The students whispered protests, but Mrs Goh insisted. “Every one of you will help out in creating a play.”
Michael, one of the noisier guys, volunteered to be the scriptwriter. We spent the next fifteen minutes trying to find a suitable plot. In the end, we settled for the final scene in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. It was the scene when Romeo drinks the poison and Juliet wakes up to find a dead Romeo.
However, there would be an interesting change to it. They would speak in Singlish—Singaporean creole English—to add a Singaporean touch. And Juliet would drink the poison instead. We reckoned that would add points to our play.
“Okay, who’s good at acting here?” Mrs Goh glanced around the class. “Let’s find a Juliet first…hmm, whose name starts with ‘J’?”
“Me!” Jacky raised his hand in ecstasy. “Me, me!”
“You wanna be Juliet?” Mrs Goh said and the class erupted into laughter. “We need a girl, Jacky. It’s supposed to be a sad scene, not a funny scene where a macho guy acts as Juliet.”
Jacky giggled and said, “Okay, I volunteer to be Romeo then.” Several male students heaved sighs of relief. “But I have a request.”
I looked up at Jacky. He was staring at my eyes. Oh, shit. I don’t like that look. “I want Joanna to be Juliet. J for Joanna.” The whole class cheered as if Andy Lau had just sung a song.
That guy just won’t let me study in peace, will he?
* * *
We had our first rehearsal in the school hall a few days later. It was unlike the normal tragic ending in Romeo and Juliet. We had to add in Singlish discourse particles like “leh”, “lah” and “oei” into our sentences to make it sound more interesting. I wondered if it would change the scene from tragedy to humour.
“No…cannot be…you cannot die one…” I cried without tears. Jacky lay on the floor with his eyes closed. His lips were trembling, threatening to laugh any moment. “If you die, I also die then!” He could control it no more: He laughed out loud, infecting the entire hall with laughter as well.
And I always frowned when they laughed because it would mean another round of rehearsal. Every time there was a rehearsal scheduled after school, I would think of numerous excuses to skip it; but in the end, I would still attend the rehearsal.
* * *
When I told Landy about my role as Juliet in the play, she laughed for fifteen minutes. “You, Juliet? Juliet!”
I had not expected my best friend to react in that way. Actually, I was hoping for some comforting words from her. I kept quiet and when she sensed my displeasure, she lowered her voice and said, “You don’t like it?”
“I don’t like it,” I answered. “I don’t like talking.”
“Are you going to ‘curse’ anyone in the script?”
“No. I’ll be following the script. No worries.”
“Then it should be fine,” Landy replied. “You will enjoy yourself. After all, Jacky is Romeo. It will create a romantic—”
“Landy!” I cut in. “Don’t start!”
Grandma came out of her room and stared at both of us with her eyebrows lowered. She could not see well and often mistook any girl of my age as me while in the streets. She hobbled towards the kitchen with the help of her walking stick and muttered, “Is that Landy? You talking to Landy? It’s late. Landy, don’t you have to work tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow is my day off, Grandma. I’m going to have a nice, long chat with Joan—I meant, Juliet!” Landy exclaimed and we chuckled. I helped Grandma to the toilet and then back to her room. When we were alone again, Landy said, “That Jacky seems to be interested in you, Joanna.”
“Don’t give a damn. I will never like him.”
“Let’s try to analyse what he meant when he said he wanted to help you.”
With that, our girls’ talk lasted for more than three hours. And once again, we did not come to any conclusion.
* * *
We were supposed to get a song for our play.
Almost everyone had his or her own view. Some preferred a love song, whereas others preferred Mozart’s music. A few of us even thought that including a song in the play was a bad idea. After discussion, we decided to go to HMV in The Heeren to see if we could find a suitable song.
When we reached the place, they rushed into HMV as if they were children in Toys”R”Us. I sat at the edge of a fountain outside HMV. To my surprise, Jacky did not go in as well. He sat beside me and cleared his throat. “Not going in?”
I shook my head. The loud music inside the store always gave me a headache.
“Well, me neither. Bad for the ears,” he said, slapping his ears. Then he laughed at his own joke. “Well then, I’ve dug out another secret of yours. Secret number ninety-one of Joanna Fung: She does not like music stores. It’s the same secret as mine. I don’t like music stores too.”
“Good for you.”
“Then how did you get your CDs?”
“Through a friend.”
“Okay, great, secret number ninety-two of Joanna Fung: She does have friends outside school! That’s good! That’s very good! That’s damn really freaking good!”
“It’s not funny,” I mumbled and looked up. “I’m going up to Adidas to have a look.”
“Count me in.”
We went up and browsed for about ten minutes, then met up with our classmates. They had all decided on a theme song. It was “Only Love” by Trademark. Jacky and I both agreed with their choice.
We went back to school that evening for another rehearsal. The play was due in three months. For the first time, we did the entire play without an NG. The song was played first, and then it faded away as I entered the stage to see an unconscious Jacky on the floor. I walked slowly towards him and sat beside him, my tears dripping (the magical eye drops).
“Romeo…no…cannot be…you cannot die one…” I pressed my head to his chest and could hear his heart beating. “You promised me so many things…so many things! You must not die…open your eyes leh…” I then yelled, “No!”
The song played again for a while. When it faded away, I held up the cup of poison beside me and said, “What for I live when you died already…? If you die, I also die then!” Then, I downed the poison (it was green tea) and, within the same second, I shook my head gently and fell on Jacky.
The chorus of the song played loudly for a minute or so. I could feel Jacky moving a little, and then his voice came. “Juliet? Juliet! Juliet!”
He must have found out about the poison when he whispered, “No, Juliet …” I knew he had stabbed himself when he slumped onto my back.
I knew why he had volunteered to be Romeo. He only needed to memorize two words and got to lie on a pretty girl’s back. Smart guy.