A Red Light, A Song, A Stranger
And what was said.
His car stopped at what felt like the nineteenth red light in the last hour. Exasperated, he glared at the traffic light that glowered right back at him. It was only 9:40am and he felt his patience had already been stripped down to its last fraying bits.
“And coming up next, we have Oasis with ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’,” one of the two deejays said over Glenn and the Flying Dutchman’s Morning Show.
He adjusted the peripheral view in his mind to settle on a College Carnival that happened two decades ago. It was just how songs weaved their hold on him, transporting him right back to the most significant time he had heard it.
There was a carnival, he remembered. But what special occasion it was, eluded him. There were streamers and banners hung from every floor of the campus, each emblazoned with some rally or message in bold fonts.
There was definitely music, he smiled to himself. Everywhere, students were yelling, singing, dancing, cheering. Even their tutors looked somewhat more normal. This being a Catholic junior college, a party like that happened only once a year, for that special occasion he couldn’t remember.
He could still smell the scent of papaya and watermelon mush sprayed on the muddied grass in the courtyard where they had just played “Touch Rugby” — with fruit that exploded with every throw and catch, smack and smash.
There in his car right now, he could see so clearly his buddies and him — their eighteen-year-old selves — dancing outside their classroom on the corridor, yelling Oasis’ lyrics at the top of their lungs, and more students downstairs on the courtyard (carefully standing around the fruit mush) looking back up at them, laughing and cheering, drinking up on youth to their heart’s content.
These were the people he had left behind, he thought with what bitterness and resentment he could muster. The buddies he had gone to pre-school with and finally graduated from university with, the best friends he had picked up along the way.
And for what, he thought, just to be with the woman I loved? He had met her in the same college, and she had very quickly and fiercely become his college sweetheart, the love of his life, the one who would move away, back and forth, and for whom he would leave his country and home to pursue, make his wife and the mother of his two sons.
He was contented where he was, having built a new family for himself. But sometimes, especially when he was reminiscing or when he was back in Singapore for just two weeks every two years, and mornings unfolded the way it did today, when he had wanted to head to his old neighbourhood to “see some familiar faces” and she had replied with just the right mix of nonchalance and disinterest to rile him up, “What familiar faces? Everyone we want to see, we already have.”; at such times, yes, he wondered if he paid too heavy a price for love.
He turned to look at the car next to his, and that was when he saw her.
Her hand was raised to the rearview mirror and her fingers were adeptly arranging the rose pink rosary hanging by it. She adjusted their loops around the mirror and pulled her head back to check if the crucifix was hanging at an appropriate length.
Her lips started moving… and he could hear the words she was saying to him.
Itstarted out like any other morning and she had dropped both her kids off at their schools before sending her husband off to work. It was almost 9.40am and she was enjoying her quiet drive home with nothing but the Morning Show on the radio to keep her company. She always loved this part of the day when she could be all alone with her thoughts.
Traffic was just beginning to ease into a comfortable pace with cars starting and stopping reverently as directed by traffic lights and this was the ebb and flow that turned her drive into a lullaby, one that removed her from the day’s maddening itinerary toward a more lulling alternative of her choosing.
As always, she found her mind drifting before settling down to its favourite pastime — reminiscing. And today, she knew exactly why: Oasis’ ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’ had just come on the radio and for her, it was the defining song of her youth. That was how it had always been for her — songs were that invisible thread that connected her past to her present.
On this morning, Oasis was singing to her: “Slip inside the eye of your mind…”
She seized the time offered by the red light to adjust her rosary and check her reflection in the mirror. Absent-mindedly, she rubbed off some smudged eyeliner from the corner of her eye but decided against reapplying her lip balm.
Sometimes, she saw herself how others would see her: the 40-year-old stay-at-home-mum who was blessed to have this time with her young children, contented to be at home to watch them grow, disgruntled often from the weight of homework and other tedious and never-ending tasks to do, but who was okay with having no career of her own and perfectly at ease wearing a tank top, shorts and havaianas day in and day out.
Other days, she still glimpsed the 18-year-old in her, fresh-faced and naive, the one whose soul was on fire and whose heart carried yet-to-be-fulfilled dreams, and the one who had spirit enough to laugh, be carefree, and to love. She had always been a dreamer, only now she couldn’t piece together enough minutes of quiet, peace, solitude and rest to put even one daydream together.
I need to be more grateful, she reminded herself ever so often. She had nothing to complain about, she knew. The kids were growing up full of love and life, her husband was kind, generous, and supportive of her decision to stop work to be with the children, and they were surrounded by loving family and friends. But every now and then, she could neither define nor remember clearly enough where she had been driven by need or where she had made an actual choice. And what would she do when the kids grew up? She wondered if she paid too heavy a price for duty.
He couldn’t stop looking at her moving lips and he wouldn’t stop hearing what she was singing to him. Her words were inaudible and her hold on him, invisible, but it was clear that those intangible words that left her lips found their way to concretely lodge themselves around his heart. He did the only thing he could, and that was to join her in song.
Perhaps having sensed watchful eyes on her, she suddenly looked in his direction, too quickly for him to avert his gaze. She smiled embarrassedly and looked away. He willed her not to stop singing, and she must have received that telepathy because she continued to immerse herself in her song.
He decided to think of it as it she had given him permission to be her voyeur today, like he was the favoured one. He wondered if she was also recalling more carefree times when commitments were smaller and baggages only as heavy as the schoolbag on their shoulders.
She wondered which person that stranger in the car next to hers had seen in her: the tired mother, a woman with a life that didn’t revolve around taking care of little creatures or worse, someone not worth paying any attention to at all. She did the only thing she could, and that was to continue singing.
“Stand up beside that fireplace
Take that look from off your face
‘Cos you ain’t ever gonna burn my heart out…”
In their own car, they sang the same lyrics.
Their mouths moved in synchrony with each other.
Their lips each other’s perfect dance partner.
It was like they were swaying to the same pulse in the universe.
Their hearts might as well have been beating to the same rhythm.
“So Sally can wait
She knows it’s too late as she’s walking on by
My soul slides away…”
As the light turned green and broke the spell within the confines of their car and headspace, she would drive off reconciled that while she may not know what was to come, for now, she would realign herself with her role as mother and wife.
And he would go on too, the hard knot in his chest now just a lax ribbon tied around the package of his heart, fully aware that for five minutes at the traffic light, as the stranger in the next car had lost herself in song, he had lost himself in her. Her voice had been the necessary balm on his injuries, and their shared words the very comfort meant for him.
He watched her car drive on ahead of him, wishing to follow along to hear what else she would’ve sung to him. But then, he already knew what that would be, and so he sang on her behalf and promised to take her words to heart:
“Don’t look back in anger,” I heard you say.
Ever so often, I find myself at the right place at the right time, and strange occurrences happen for me to hit that necessary ‘reset’. Sometimes I wonder if maybe every place and time is right, and we only need to notice what we’re there for. Thanks for reading!
This story was first published on P.S. I Love You.