The bittersweet taste of unrequited love; a short story inspired from a poem by Alexander Pope.
”In these deep solitudes and awful cells,
Where heav’nly-pensive contemplation dwells,
And ever-musing melancholy reigns.”
Eloisa to Abelard – Alexander Pope.
The train beeped monotonously as it pulled up in front of them.
‘Finally’, they muttered under their breaths simultaneously.
The doors slid open.
Eyes glazed and bodies limp after yet another monotonous 9-to-5 routine, they trudged into the train’s cavity. Footsteps like a programmed code, legs with minds of their own; they moved their bodies into the train as though in synchrony with the Pied Piper-like beeps.
The doors slid shut.
He was one of them. Another nameless face. Beaten and battered by the rat race, spat out by the world.
He breathed a sigh of relief as he took his seat. A plump makcik in floral baju kurung stood in front of him, clutching two crimson plastic bags. But today was not her day. Today, the seat belonged to him and him alone. He very well deserved the grubby corner seat; well, at least he thought so as he recounted how his boss turned beet red at his one-fingered salute to her. Isn’t it a human right for the newly unemployed to have dominion over a seat in a train?
He suddenly remembered he had a convenient shield against the makcik’s stare. With his thumb, he rubbed the dog-eared cover of the book he was carrying all the while. ‘The Poetical Works of Alexander Pope’, it read. For years, it has been his most loyal companion on those dreary train rides home. Sometimes he’d even forget he was holding it, like today.
He flipped open the wrinkled cover. The edges of its pages were fraying away from years of being gripped by his hyperhydrotic palms. Coffee stains formed a Shroud of Turin likeness of Jesus on the first page.
She gave it to him for his 20th birthday.
To my best friend,
May we experience the love of Abelard and Eloisa, but never suffer their fate.
His fingers traced the curves of each letter written in the handwriting that he had come to know so well. Five years of copying her homework would have ensured that. “She always finishes her homework“, class teachers would tell her mother every parent-teacher day.
A brown envelope surreptitiously peeked out between the chafed pages. He turned to the page that the envelope bookmarked.
‘Eloisa to Abelard.’
Alexander Pope’s poem which was inspired by the tragic affair between the 12th-century philosopher Pierre Abelard and his student, Heloise. After Heloise’s family discovered their illicit relationship, they castrated Abelard. Both entered different monasteries after the brutal assault; Heloise unwillingly taking a nun’s vow of silence upon Abelard’s insistence.
His eyes fell on the stanza before him.
Thou know’st how guiltless first I met thy flame,
When Love approach’d me under Friendship’s name;
My fancy form’d thee of angelic kind,
Some emanation of th’ all-beauteous Mind.
Those smiling eyes, attemp’ring ev’ry day,
Shone sweetly lambent with celestial day.
Guiltless I gaz’d; heav’n listen’d while you sung;
And truths divine came mended from that tongue.
They were best friends since high school. They attend the same church.
To strangers, friends and family – they were the perfect couple. To them, they were best friends; nothing more, nothing less. To him, she was the love of his life. To her, he was her best friend. At least, that was what he thought.
He shifted in the seat, his right hand reaching into his back pants pocket for his wallet. He flipped his wallet open. A photograph of her sat in the wallet’s transparent window. Unlike most of her Oriental ancestors, she had double eyelids; her black pupils blending with the dark brown of her almond-shaped eyes. She had long straight hair with just of a hint of a wave to it, the fringe resting nonchalantly across her high forehead; the latter being a sign of intelligence, as old wives would say and her grades would testify to. Her awkward smile betrayed a person unaccustomed to contorting her facial muscles upon the flash of a camera.
“What do you look for in a woman?”
Her voice rose above the raucous din at the neighbourhood kopitiam.
He chuckled as he pinched off a piece of his char siu pao.
“I’m looking for someone who would drive me around. Own a car, you know. The whole world knows I can’t drive. After all, there’s only so far the LRT can go. There are only so many places the STAR line can take me.”
“Isn’t that what I do already? Drive you around every time we meet?”
He choked on his pao.
“Stesen berikutnya, Sultan Ismail.” “Next station, Sultan Ismail.”
The pre-recorded announcement snapped him out of his reverie. He sat up straight on the seat. The makcik who was now seated across him, shot him a piercing stare.
Running his fingers through his greasy hair, he returned to his book to avoid her gaze.
How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d.
A spotless mind. How he wanted that.
No, fly me, fly me, far as pole from pole;
Rise Alps between us! and whole oceans roll!
Ah, come not, write not, think not once of me,
Nor share one pang of all I felt for thee.
Thy oaths I quit, thy memory resign;
Forget, renounce me, hate whate’er was mine.
He wanted to forget her.
But every day, that thin paperback rests in his hand as he makes the daily trip to work and home.
O write it not, my hand — the name appears
Already written — wash it out, my tears!
His fingers toyed with the brown envelope as he read on. He never told her of his feelings for her. The letter in the envelope was to change that. Putting pen to paper was the only way he could tell her anyway; emotions flourishing at the tip of his pen, emotions that would otherwise never see the light of day.
Yet write, oh write me all, that I may join
Griefs to thy griefs, and echo sighs to thine
It has been eight years since he wrote that letter; that envelope still nestled between the pages of Alexander Pope’s Ovidian epistle. Like Heloise – unable to express love due to an unwilling vow of silence, but a vow that was taken nonetheless.
But the truth is, he is afraid.
“Best friends”. He would rather hide behind the safe confines of the term than to risk rejection, than to risk losing his magnetic north.
He sighed and stared forward. The train window framed an urban portrayal of van Gogh’s Willows at Sunset. As though god himself took a paintbrush and stirred the skies, clouds were strewn across the horizon. Tinted with faint streaks of sunlight, they retreated further into the horizon as the sun slowly crept to its earthly slumber.
Beautiful, he whispered.
He sighed and closed his eyes.
The shrill of a B minor chord pierced the static silence of the train. Unannounced, the unmistakeable sound of piano keys burst into a familiar string of notes.
He opened his eyes, startled.
Her hands were in his. Sheathed in white satin gloves, her hands were a departure from their usual smoothness that he was accustomed to.
He glanced upwards. Her hair was pinned up in a bun; a white veil extended down to her fingertips, partially covering her head. A glossy shade of scarlet adorned her lips; her almond-shaped eyes hinted of eyeliner. White pearls framed her neckline, otherwise left bare by the strapless sheath dress she was wearing. Lace overlays lined the gown’s bodice, her dress flowing out into a cathedral-length train which swept across the aisle of their church chapel.
“Beautiful”, he whispered as he stared unbelievingly at her.
A familiar voice could be heard singing the opening verse of Gungor’s Beautiful Things, the soft trill of the violin framing the plucking of guitar strings.
It was their song, their favourite song.
She told him that she wanted their close friends to play it at her wedding if she got married.
His heart jumped a beat.
“Could this be”, he asked himself, “our wedding?”
“Thank you so much for coming. You know how much it means to Peter and I.”
That familiar lilt of her voice put a wedge in his train of thought.
As he digested her words, his stomach felt as if it was being wrung like a rag. His arms stayed tight to his sides as she threw hers around him in an awkward embrace. Numb, he stared forward at the wooden cross nailed on the wall. Onstage, a live band made up of their closest friends was a curious juxtaposition against the backdrop of stained glass windows.
She withdrew her arms from him, turning to a tuxedo-clad man who placed his hands on her waist. She smiled at that man, ignoring him as he stood frozen, arms still by his side. Her smile was unlike the awkward one he gazed at everyday in that photograph in his wallet. This smile is the one etched on her oval face when no cameras are in sight.
It was her dream wedding but it wasn’t his.
She was not his bride. He wasn’t her groom.
“You make beautiful things / You make beautiful things out of the dust / You make beautiful things out of us”, that familiar voice sang.
* * *
The swaying of the train woke him up. He opened his eyes.
Small beads of sweat bubbled on his palms. He wiped his hands against the polyester fabric of his black slacks; squinting his eyes to adjust to the glare of the train’s interior lights. The smell of pisang goreng wafted in the air-conditioned train. His stomach groaned.
“Stesen berikutnya, Pandan Jaya.” “Next station, Pandan Jaya.”
His stop was a good three stations away.
His attention shifted down to the brown envelope in his hands. Clasping it with his left hand, he smoothed the folds and creases on the envelope with his right. He took a deep breath.
The train beeped monotonously as it came to a momentary halt.
The train doors slid open.
People trudged in and out of the train’s cavity. Footsteps like a programmed code, legs with minds of their own; they moved their bodies as though in synchrony with the Pied Piper-like beeps.
He was not one of them.
There was something subtly different in his gait as he stepped out of the train; ‘The Poetical Works of Alexander Pope’ in one hand, a brown envelope in the other.
“Come, Abelard! for what hast thou to dread?
The torch of Venus burns not for the dead.
Nature stands check’d; Religion disapproves;
Ev’n thou art cold — yet Eloisa loves.”
The train doors slid shut.
When love beckons to you, follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams
as the north wind lays waste the garden.
The Prophet – Kahlil Gibran