the weekend was uneventful with more studying and playing computer games occasionally with my mom telling me not to play so much, the occasional reminder of a childhood receding in too tall legs and easily exhausted disposition. rin messages me sometimes asking for help on a problem and the tension from friday seemed all the more fleeting as i got back into studying.
as monday came, we prepared per usual, the kettle boiling water and rin spending a moment on her phone whilst looking through notes asking me about an upcoming test i’d been trying to forget.
as students began arriving, i started my walk around the school halls with students talking about what they’d missed that weekend and whatever. a more prominent set of steps sounded behind me and looked to see tsao, po and birdie approach, the former hulking up.
‘how can i help you mr. tsao,’
‘very funny, think i don’t know? who’s the one who sent that photo?’
‘it was from a blocked number, i can’t decipher who it is’
‘really,’ he stepped forth his shoulders bunched as if trying to surround me and i was starting to be a tad irritated thinking it to be too early for this. ‘you know, i think i saw you at the xxx gallery on friday. if that starts to get out, that might be trouble for you’
the insinuation of that while true seemed almost absurd if not outright comedic for how slovenly that threat came out as this individual known mostly for punching his way through conflict was attempting a row at politics.
‘you must not be very good at this. think about your place. people already must be talking about someone bringing a knife, starting fights. someone seeing me at a club? why anyone would go. did you see me do anything unsavoury? even if the teachers knew who would they believe?’
po and birdie crowd closer as tsao shoves me into the wall.
‘listen, i got into a lot of trouble with that photo, maybe if we want to continue as nothing happened, you ought to delete that photo. who’s your informant?’
‘blocked number is blocked number’
a hand appears and places itself on tsao’s shoulder. he instantly deflates upon seeing kwan and thomas.
‘is there a problem?’
‘problem? nonono, just asking the prefect here something.’
‘oh? about the blocked number? ho wouldn’t know. he isn’t the type to ask too many questions about that information anyway. shouldn’t you get to class?’
‘oh! yes, we’ll go immediately’ tsao stutters before hurrying with his lackeys.
‘appreciate the save’
‘i told those guys not to start trouble. i think you ought to keep your head down for a bit.’
‘yeah, you’re right’
‘hey wanna head to the rooftop for a bit?’
‘don’t we ought to head to class?’
‘you did get in a physical altercation, right? i’ll get ms. lee to approve it for us saying it’s for the infirmary’ kwan assured
we head upstairs where the rooftop opened the morning sky to us in full from the fragments we catch from street level. thomas only leans on the railing to watch the soon to be empty courtyard sighing a little as he rights his side part.
‘you seem a little on edge, having problems dealing with those three?’
‘not really, it is hard sometimes but hey, it’s a leadership role. can’t afford alot of those these days’ he squints as if trying to search for an answer out in the distant apartment towers. kwan joins us momentarily with a couple bandaids which i just put in my pocket righting my joints, half-worried about fractures.
‘you know, my brother, alfred? he says that graduate schools aren’t paying so much anymore. he’s scared everytime my parents talk about him moving.’
‘i’m sure they know as well as we do that no one can really afford them. anyone who says otherwise are just bullshitting. hell, look at all the people there all focused on going out and whatever. i guess maybe after, they’ll stay out there given the rent prices’
i imagined this was their conversation brim with scorn to the world outside of them that seemed both trying to imitate the conversations of adults and of a familiar talk of the future trying to create schemes trying to assert the future in all its soon to be barren rooms.
‘you guys sound like a fun group to hang around. maybe you ought to tutor. aren’t there tons of nervous kids who need your prefect supervision’
‘there’s a million of those. not like we can get an office that way’
‘sheesh, no wonder you two hang around by yourselves’
‘you’re one to talk!’ thomas turns and i just shrug ‘anyway, i just remembered a universities fair might happen. my parents and the teachers are all gonna encourage us to go.’
‘you guys gonna go?’
‘fuck no, waiting on those line ups? i’d rather go to one of those hobby conventions for rc cars. at least that’s something to wait for,’
‘well, i’ll have to go anyway. otherwise my parents won’t let me hear the end of it.’
‘whatever, i’m surprised if they make a fit. they don’t seem as strict anyway’
‘hey, just because it seems i have some freedom doesn’t make it so glamourous’ i check my watch and realize it’s almost time for class. nothing really occurred apart from the teachers offhandedly mentioning the university fair. i catch ms. lee finishing up with her class and i wave to her to chat after the students gather to leave. she takes a seat looking a bit more alert, as she clears her throat.
‘i heard from kwan that tsao and his boys were getting rough again.’
‘it was small stuff no need to worry. can i ask your advice on something?’
‘sure, anything.’ she relaxes at her chair.
‘it’s about the university fair. i need to know some questions to ask them’
‘hm, that’s kind of a surprise. but then with how assertive you can be as prefect i forget that you can be kind of shy sometimes.’ she laughs a little.
‘well, it just seems so far away, i don’t really have the slightest idea’
‘do you have any idea of what you want to go into?’
‘not really. just something quiet i suppose. there’s alot of people out trying to compete, i figure something easy, nothing too elaborate’
‘hm...that’s a tough one. usually people decide as a kid and stick with it. i feel like there’s alot of people who can’t really decide. one thing’s for sure, everyone is gonna try to sell you on it so maybe look for someone who isn’t so quick to be long winded’
‘like a conversation?’
‘sure, just ask them what their university is about’
‘sounds like bartering to me’
‘well, they say in economics about a free market. sometimes i wish that just stayed at the night markets at apilu street’ she thinks a moment before saying ‘just ask about their facilities or something, maybe it’s more about seeing their campus environment and what the people there are like. those are deciding factors. i’m sure you’ll figure it out. you have time. you’re quite ambitious’
sure, thank you ms. lee. i’ll have lunch and see what to do later on’
‘the fair goes for a couple days so have some time to think it over’
i went through lunch mostly undisturbed with a few groups of students asking me about what happened with yan and tsao to which i could only give very rote responses saying i had only intervened briefly. They would chuckle riotously prodding me for more details, none of which seemed to come.
‘oh come on, you would know more? what happened to tsao? i heard he was almost suspended!’
‘yeah, it’d be better if his whole gang got suspended. i bet they all just hang around at internet cafes’
‘but cheun, isn’t that what you do?’
‘no! i have to study on the computer, you tard’
eventually, the commotion fell to a more pleasant banter until someone called my name. yan approached from the hall with a small wave when seeing me surrounded by other students. i excused myself to go with yan, surprised he would go and look for me.
‘what’s up pop-star?, looking for a prefect’s protection?’
‘nah, thought i’d do some fraternizing’
‘oh, as in hanging around with higher-ups and co-workers’
‘right...’ i only took a small bite of the pineapple bun, trying to keep the crumbs from falling on the pristine floor. ‘are you going to the university fair?’ i ask with no thought in particular.
‘oh, i guess i should go,’ he shrugged.
‘aren’t you the enthusiastic one...’
‘well, i’m sure it would be useful, that’s all.’ he concludes with little thought to anything more to the fair than just the objective that he would have to trudge through university booths to attain. ‘damn, the air-con’s so strong in here...not even home was this cold’
the thought only conjured one of those summer hills where a light perceptible breeze looms over the grasses, taking the leaves away until i realize lunch period is near done.
the rest of the periods proceeded as normal with the exception of rin hurrying out to the fair while kwan and thomas only kept to themselves watching her quicken her pace before racing out.
‘what a good girl ain’t she. her dad must speak highly of her’
‘whatever, it’s a girls thing, they have an easier time with praise and whatever’
i stopped listening as i went to help a teacher carry a box of exam papers making light conversation while a more frail looking student shudders along before disappearing around the corner.
‘guess not everyone’s left yet’ i remark. the teacher only shrugs before we place the box of papers back in the storage closet.
taking the minibus, it lurches toward each stop where the doors unfold to a slam whilst passengers inch their way in, the a/c only tepid within the interior prompting impatient looks out the window with the fleeting trees give a slight breeze or the casual fanning with paperback books as the bus speeds through streets with open garages, mechanics tinkering with the engines and chassis of hondas in fluorescent bays forgotten in glass high-rises and long billboards, vignettes of bright past-times and small moments.
at hong kong island near central, i arrive at the convention center which portrudes off connaught road’s raised highway ramps curving into the inner city streets outlined with pedestrian overpasses. under the clamshell roof cowling over the centre. the university fair would be taking place where students were pouring out of buses rushing through the atrium ignoring the long posters unscrolled from the high cieling trusses. in the exhibition hall, tables with unfolded bristol boards smattered in photos of the universities and scenes of overjoyed students populated the space already full with students still in their uniforms or some in smart-looking dress-shirts chatting up career advisors and current uni students who gave bright greetings and pamphlets and everyone seemed to know how to proceed their exchanges prompting laughter at jokes or contentious detailing of the school’s capabilities and statistics. things i could barely incite any interest for as i look a bit alone, just catching trace remarks about an engineering program or how another finance program doesn’t compare. being tired of looking a little aimless, i wander to one of the booths, an attend looked for a moment before approaching.
‘hi, how are you?’
‘well, thank you...’ the greeting took me aback a moment before i was able to respond. i could only gesture to the blown up photo of the campus standing by a table of pamphlets, ‘could you tell me a bit about the campus’
‘sure! we’re the rated number 8 campus in all of hong kong but with the friendly environment there, we more than make up for it. that way students are less stressed out, becoming more and more capable out in the workforce...’ i had begun to tune out as she had named a bunch of alumni that failed to register in my mind. ‘so did you know what you wanted to do?’
‘er...uh i thought of studying economics? my family would like me to work in something stable,’ a clumsy assemblage of generic expectations as i had never thought of these occupations, watching from foot-bridges at causeway bay where salarymen dart down different intersections, letting those streetcars slide toward those fluorescent windows, of rooms we would all return to thinking i could be any of them, grabbing noodles at late night restaurants or sleeping on the mtr awash in concrete and tiles prickling between glass panes where i catch myself, a little faded among the moving pedestrians, a little too hardened among all the soft lights and diminishing sillhouettes.
‘ah, you’re quite ambitious, aren’t you?’ she thinks a moment. ‘well, business is becoming more personalized so it won’t be just about studying but about having the right attitude. making sure you can always secure sales, i mean...you like games, right?’
‘i guess so...’
‘yeah, just think of it like a big game. that’s how you rack up the numbers. so many people your age can do it. even those people doing gachas.’ the level of ease that she delivered these lines seemed off, even offensive because i had difficulty imagining professors teaching economics by disregarding graphs and simply shrugging to the whims of their students. regardless of that, it almost seemed as if there was nothing that would follow graduation, not even any secrets to learn, only the exhaustion of salaryworkers slumped through commutes with little more than the simple passage of time on watches leaving only an inherent temperament that would allow everyone to carry on with their bountiful exchanges of daily lives and futures that i would have little bearing on. my mother would always tell me that i need to find myself and so on idle afternoons, this sensation or even nerve that is supposed to be within would fail to conjure as the night would then be deserted.
‘i see, thank you, i will keep this in mind, may i have a pamphlet?’
‘of course! i really hope you consider us when you graduate.’ she hands me the brochure with a montage of labs and classrooms on the cover that i immediately throw in my bag without another thought leaving myself to the waves of conversations barely able to differentiate anyone from the crowds, the clean tones of the university students guiding the stuttering high school girls looking to their parents who would step in or precocious students being patted on the back already forming a little coterie around their booth. a slap on the back wrenches me around to see yan, nodding as a way of greeting.
‘hey, what a coincidence,’
‘sure is, how are you finding the convention?’
‘it’s about what i expected. at least i can say i went to the convention center at least once’
‘right, because you were in san fran...’ in that moment, yan’s disinterest in the convention seemed more real, as his smile gave only a small ease that seemingly asked nothing from you in his company apart from the now blurred table booths.
‘i was actually on my way out actually, wanna come to a restaurant with me? it’s out in jordan so would that be on the way for you?’
‘yes, i would like that’
‘yeah, i was getting parched from talking anyway.’ he jests
we leave taking the mtr back up to kowloon, yan reading out of a paperback novel most of the way. jordan with its k-clubs and glass offices hidden beside the concrete tenement buildings jutted over the sidewalk. the restaurant was a tiled affair on plaster that seemed to melt within the heat, the air taut by the air conditioning into a cool space where the pale squares shined over the fluorescent light.
‘ah, mr. lau, y-you’re here today?’ a harried man in an apron came up with reproach to our table.
‘yeah, could you get us some sodas, and uh maybe some rice noodles. want some? i’ll buy,’
‘uh sure, i could use some food,’
‘of course, of course, no worries’ the waiter scribbled at his notepad before walking off and i half worried he would complain about us in the silver kitchen. the food comes quickly, silken noodles stewed in the castor broth with two cans of cola and fanta.
‘so, who’d you talk to out there?’
‘uh, just the city university of hong kong for finances. kind of an odd conversation’
‘that one? what do you mean?’
‘oh just the person there was talking about personalized business or whatever. said your personality would get good business’
‘really, huh?’ yan began sipping the noodles before continuing. ‘well, that’s unfortunate, here i thought you could just turn your brain off and head to work but i only worked as a cashier so i guess i have no say in the matter’
‘always in search of the true self, are they?’
‘yeah right, tell that to the pamphlets you got.’
‘and you? what did you get?’
‘other than polytechnics? a couple for teaching english. guess i could do that.’
‘heh, mr. lau? i guess there’s a reason people call you a country boy if you like manual labour so much.’
‘who said that’
‘oh, well, if you go into finance and can’t make sales i’m gonna make you lift a bunch of crates for that’
‘fine, we’ll see who becomes whose boss’
yan smiled before we continue eating as more people flutter in from the warm dusk as unwieldy conversations dart around the restaurants, the television at the corner starts playing entertainment news. ‘you know, there’s alot of people going away to study, did you know?’
‘no i wasn’t aware’
‘yeah, not that many people wanna stay here anymore. some people are planning to study in canada or the states. i wonder if it’s really that difficult to study around here.’
‘well according to thomas and kwan, it is. they say rent here is high as all.’
‘yeah, but still, people live here. rich or not’
‘i worry you’re seeing this a bit too optimistically’
‘irregardless of that, this place is supposed to be home, right?’
despite all this, it seemed that the better world that we had hoped for as children where we would know better and perhaps be more understanding of others receded before us, leaving only us, like everyone in a city, simply trying to get somewhere behind fateful doors glowing with comforting light or avenues. a group of girls from our school arrive at the restaurant, their laugher glimmering among the muggy air as if arriving out of those glassy promenades, glimpsing rin and some of her friends, sasa playing with a universities catalogue. the restaurant was near full so they were left wait at the entrance where a waiter at a podium wrote a table number on a scrap piece of paper. waving to her, she inches her way through to our table.
‘hey, what a coincidence to find you here’
‘i’m getting that alot’ i smile ‘ i take it you just came from the fair?’
‘sure did, they have to get everyone they can you know to apply’
‘right, i forgot’
‘you’re here too, yan’
‘uh, yes, i was uh, just showing brother ho a good place to eat’ he rambled a moment, trying to correct his manners.
‘that’s good, he could use better taste’ she glances on me with a small smirk.
‘what’s that mean?’ i ask before yan cuts in.
‘actually, we’re just about done here, your friends are here too, right? how about we give this table to you?’
‘oh we can’t possibly...’ and before rin could even finish, he calls for the bill and motions towards the girls at the entrance both surprised and slightly thrilled by his granting them a table before their patience thinned. some servers come with a couple extra stools for them and yan gives a small note of thanks before the other girls, mostly sasa start making up semi-dates with yan for karaoke or ocean park sometimes glancing over to say i can come too, rin shrinks a bit into the crowd before yan is able to extricate himself from their advances to go to the cashier.
‘i’ll see you tomorrow, yeah?’ i nod to rin.
‘yes, good night.’ she attempts to retain her smile a bit more melancholic, one that i would see a few times when counselling a student who had lost a family member and trying to tell them things would be fine. despite the student no longer crying, i thought that her delicate smile held on as little as a cloud was a kind of honest determination, that we could keep going with just a small motion, a simple thing could bring some change.
yan goes to the same harried waiter from before and fishes his wallet to pay for the food despite my insistence to pay my half. flustered, the waiter also seemingly tried refusing.
‘oh mr. lau, you need not pay so much...what am i to tell shek?’
‘just take it, i did eat here didn’t i. just use it to pay him later,’ yan mentioned before leaving mostly to avoid any further insistence he freeloads.
‘i’m guessing you’re a regular then huh?’
‘well, tutoring has its perks i suppose.’ we step outside, the long glass panes of convenience stores soften into the neon flowing roads, signs affixed overhead glowing of billiard halls and karaoke bars for people to wander into from the warm air slightly stirred from moving cars. yan walks with little to talk about, wandering through the cobblestone sidewalk it was as if he was always moving, twisting around the pedestrians, unable to find a time or pace that would move with them, as i almost struggle to keep up. he stops when we get to yau ma tei, young clerks filter into in’s points for glass encased figurines and model cars.
‘well, i gotta get going,’ yan mentions abruptly.
‘oh i forgot to ask, where do you live around?’
‘hm, i never told you that did i?’ he laughs before telling me. ‘ i live near kowloon tong in one of the apartment towers’
‘i’m at sham shui po. that’s not too far by mtr.’
‘yeah, we’ll meet again for sure’
‘you make it sound like a farewell. i’ll see you tomorrow’
back at home, chopsticks stir a moment before pecking off bak choy vegetables or fish from the plates strewn about at the middle of the table, the cieling light shining the brightest where we all gather around, the news in muted voices talking about rising stock prices with lists of currencies next to flags cutting to footage of brown floods sweeping through villages.
‘oh, the university fair was today was it not?’
‘were you able to find out about any universities you want to go to?’
‘why ask him, does he even know what he wants to do?’
‘i..uh...’ i attempt before rushing through. ‘i grabbed a pamphlet’
‘just one? sounds like you’re wasting your time.’ i sometimes worry about this thought. when we first learned of death, the thought panicked the ticking seconds where we would slowly fade away into nothing. we would be told to savour time that would constantly slip through no matter what we did, we would only be thrown to cold beds or realizations that we were still walking to fine mornings, time our parents one day decided to take us to repulse bay on a whim only to find a near-hysterical effort for those smiles in photographs that we fondly thought of in idle moments. yuen only said nothing
‘at least he’s trying’ my mother weighed in and the dinner proceeded as terse as ever, the consequences once again evades as everyone finishes their dishes and the small groans upon who washes the dishes fill the room a bit. At my room, i only watch the evening pass sometimes eyeing some of my reference books for an upcoming test before sighing on my bed, barely with any compulsion do much. yuen knocks before coming into my room before perusing through my shelf as if looking for a book.
‘are you ok?’ he asked.
‘yeah, just...kinda tired’
he only nodded, wandering in the room another second before sitting down.
‘listen, what is it you want to do? you can be honest with me’ even then, this elicits no compulsion, no image of any childish doodles on what we would want to be. the question had made the moment more tense as there was nothing to even reply that would glint of honesty, let alone passion. yuen leaves after a few moments, leaving me to the dim nightlit room, the very contours of myself where it is only through windows, i can glimpse through to those crowds and empty streets thinking i could be among them, laughing about last night or the one before it, or even about now.