Gazing at falling leaves

Short Stories & Poems

Category: Stories

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“What should I have for lunch?” SL wondered as she pounded her feet on the treadmill. Her friends have already decided to eat at McDonald’s.

“How about a Big Mac meal with upsized French fries and coke? Should she have chicken nuggets to go along? Or would a hot fudge sundae be a better way to end the meal?”

Suddenly, any impending gloom had vapourised along with some of her perspiration. She tried not to think about the people who will turn up for lunch today. It was usually five of them, including SL.

But as soon as she decided that she would have both the nuggets and hot fudge sundae with her Big Mac meal, she started wondering if Ben would be there and how she should behave.

She hoped really hard that he would not offer to queue and buy the meal for her. She was so embarrassed the last time. Everyone in Group V knows that Ben likes SL. So did she.

“What should I do? Offer to pay for his meal? Would that lead him on? Please, I hope he won’t ask me out. Should I just have McDonalds at another outlet and meet them at Minds?” SL breathed out louder than usual through her mouth. This was more exhausting than running.

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She knew that she shouldn’t be lost in these thoughts or else it would likely be a downward spiral. SL has been doing so well in the last year or so. She has managed to stave off so much of the sadness that plagued her in the last nine years since she lost her parents.

First her mother who died in the hospital and then her father who died of heartache and loneliness. They left her one after another.

In the deeper recesses of her mind, it used to be “mommy” and “daddy”. But now it’s just “mother” and “father” because it was easier to bear. Initially. But seriously, now she cannot remember when was the last time she referred to them as “mommy” and “daddy”. Perhaps when she was little.

She shook her head hard from side to side as if that would shake off those thoughts and ran to the door to put on her running shoes. She grabbed her keys and bolted out of her house.

SL broke into a brisk jog. She needed to get there as quickly as she could. She was very sure where she needed to be as she ran towards the treadmill. Aahhh yes, this was her refuge.

The gym at her condominium was flanked by four glass walls, three of them looked out into a lush landscaped garden. In the centre of the garden, was a four and a half metres water feature wall. The fourth glass wall faced the swimming pool.

As SL hopped up on the treadmill, she set its speed to one where she was running furiously, panting and perspiring. She didn’t know what speed that was. Anyway, it was always different depending on her mood. She never actually registered the speed or how much calories she burnt or her heart rate or any of those measurements on the treadmill. She just knew that she wanted to run so fast till her heart burst and maybe, it might even be a good thing if she blacked out from the run.

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She walked to the window and looked.

She wasn’t really looking for anything or at anything but she was disappointed. She looked up at the sky and was dismayed that it wasn’t a bright, sky-blue spotted with fluffy clouds like that in her childhood. It was cloudy and hazy.

When she bought this apartment she could see the sea and as the waters stretched far ahead, it would eventually meet the sky. But right then, she was simply disillusioned, perhaps even depressed at the view before her. Another apartment block stood between her and the sea.

Sometimes things like that made her unhappy. It’s not as if the other apartment block rose up suddenly before her. Yesterday, she accidentally added too much washing powder into her laundry and had to run the wash cycle three times. That riled her to death.

In a bid to dispel her misery, she wished really hard that the winds would change then so that it would blow the haze and pollution away. But deep down, she knew that she had to wait a few more weeks for the dry spell to pass.

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“So you said that you were going for pedicure? That’s painting the toe nails right?” Greg asked, not sure if he should have broken the tranquil silence between them.

“Yeah, it is!” LL laughed. “Maybe you should go for a pedicure with Alison. You know they have these couple packages. So, have you settled into your new place? You know I can bring Alison around if she needs to do any shopping or yeah, maybe a pedicure session”.

“We’ve set up the house and everything and I’ve been working and she’s been working. So well, things are kinda back to normal, things have settled, I guess. But you know, I think this place is new for her and maybe the unfamiliarity is getting to her. I don’t know. She…,” Greg paused not sure how much about his relationship he should share with LL. Of course, he wanted to tell her everything. But would it be too obvious? “I mean, she’s busy with work. Well, everything is okay. We’re going out for dinner tonight at this place a few blocks from her clinic. Tapas Tei. They serve Japanese and Spanish fusion food. Keith recommended it, he said it was good.

“Yeah, I’ve heard rave reviews about it. Mikey and I have also wanted to try but he’s busy, travelling so often. Hmmm, maybe I should just bring the kids, they would enjoy it too”. LL wanted to comment on how Alison was feeling after relocating. After all, she has counselled many students who were adjusting to a new place. But she has already forgotten the first part of what Greg said.

As LL turned her head to dust off a fallen leaf on her right shoulder, Greg looked closely at her and averted his gaze the moment she turned back. “Do you want to join us at Tapas Tei?”

“Oh of course not! Please enjoy your date night! I really appreciate your offer. I was just saying that we’re meaning to try it, as if I was thinking out loud. Greg, you’re always so nice and considerate to EVERYONE”.

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“How do find the coffee? Pretty smooth and crisp tasting, right? I’ve always wanted to ask what beans and machine they used but yeah, never got down to it,” LL said after she took a sip of the coffee and a bite of the donut. “Mmmm, the donut goes really well with the coffee. The coffee brings out the burnt taste in the caramel, well, in a nice way”.

“You should be a food critic,” Greg teased. He liked the way that she enjoyed her food. What would life have been like if he never left Verbena.

They just sat on the ledge, drinking their coffee and watching a few people form a short queue at the food truck. A comfortable, almost comforting silence settled between them amidst the shady spot in the afternoon sun.

LL was really enjoying this moment, sipping hot coffee in the cool shade and munching her salted caramel donut. It’s been a long time and she had forgotten about this sensation. When was the last time, she wasn’t busy running around or thinking and planning furiously?

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“So no classes this afternoon?” LL hazarded a guess. “What would you like? Long black as usual?” There were three people before her at the food truck.

Greg was surprised and delighted that she remembered how he liked his coffee which was the same as how she liked hers. “Mmmm, sure,” he replied, trying to be nonchalant, as his eyes betrayed his true emotions. Sometimes over the years he would think about what to say to her when they meet. The funny thing is, now that they have finally met, first at the supermarket and then here, none of those rehearsed conversations mattered. They just talked so easily, erasing the twenty years between them.

“Two cups of long black, please. Large please. Oh, and a salted caramel donut. Thank you,” She turned to smile at Greg as she ordered the donut. “The coffee is on me. Welcome back to X. Everything looks the same, right? They’ve built a new wing to the school of engineering but I think that’s it”. LL paid and handed a cup to Greg. She pointed to a low ledge on the left that was partially shaded by the trees and they walked towards it.

“Yeah, it sure looks the same, man,” Greg agreed. LL looked the same too. And this moment was deja vu. He watched her a little more closely as as she put her cup of coffee down on the ledge. Greg was almost certain that this entire scene has been played out before- sipping a cup of long black with LL in the late summer afternoon.

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LL closed the door to her office and took her mobile phone out of her bag. No messages or missed calls meant that all was well and she could proceed with her pedicure appointment. Her daughter had her swimming lessons and her son was at his friend’s house so she had the afternoon off.

She’s not sure whether she liked or disliked these relaxing afternoons. She enjoyed being busy, running about, doing things and getting things done. When she stopped moving, her mind would start to wonder. Maybe her mind wouldn’t wonder too much today during the pedicure. She’s too tired this week. Mikey was travelling for work again so that was her excuse for being tired. The fact was that her workload and household chores load were the same as before.

Maybe the pedicure would be a nice distraction for her tiredness. She reached for the glass door handle but someone behind got it before her. LL turned her head to thank that person and said in surprise, “Oh hi, Greg! Oh thanks for getting the door”. What was he doing at this side of campus?

“I just had a couple of donuts from the food truck, my students recommended. It’s pretty good, the salted caramel one especially,” Greg smiled, not sure if it was because he was recalling the donut’s taste or because he saw LL.

“I’ve have about half an hour before my pedicure appointment, do you want to have coffee? The donut food truck serves pretty good coffee too,” LL suggested.

Greg agreed and they walked out of the glass door into the courtyard towards the food truck.

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Her gaze moved from Mel’s eyes to the top of his body. When she saw that his left arm was gone, she recoiled in shock. She struggled to find her voice. Should she say hi, how did you find me?” or “what happened to your arm?!”.

Her eyes moved from his arm and downwards. His running shoes were so old and worn that his left big toe was sticking out. Finally, she said, “Mel? Long time no see”. Why was he here and why now, after all these years? A part of her wanted to slam the door in his face. Another part felt sorry for him.

Slowly but steadily, small but persistent waves of sadness, anger and self -pity beat against her memory. They were followed by sadness and pity for Mel and maybe some guilt and regret.

“Your mom is dead. She died last week. We didn’t know how to contact you. But eventually, I got to your friend, Emily and she gave me your address”. Mel’s voice was soft and devoid of emotion.

She strained to hear what he just said and because he sounded so matter-of-fact, she almost thought she heard wrongly. “Mom is dead. What happened? If she was already ill, you had so much time to tell me”.

Mel pursed his lips and indignation flashed in his eyes for the briefest of seconds. “You didn’t want to have anything to do with us. I didn’t know if you wanted to know and we didn’t even know where you were”. He paused for breath and continued, “She had cancer, cervical cancer. It was late stage so there was not much we could do”. He sighed.

She felt a lump in her throat that was about to explode and she wanted to scream. She wanted to scream and slap him and finally collapse on the floor. But all she did was stare hard at Mel, frozen.

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Was she unnecessarily blaming their jobs and the long hours? Maybe they didn’t share the same values or life goals in the first place. She wanted to focus and excel in her career as well as to travel the world. He wanted to settle down and have children. Perhaps he even expected her to raise these children that he always wanted but never had. Maybe it wasn’t any of these. Maybe he still wanted to be with LL.

There were many times over the years of their marriage that she felt that they have drifted apart. But she was easily distracted with her work and ambition. They both moved ahead with their careers. It was motivating and exhilarating to be recognised for the expertise in their fields. This meant that they were paid well too and had the means to enjoy all the finer things in life- going on overseas holidays, travelling on business class, staying at fancy hotels and dining at equally fancy restaurants. Now she’s not sure if these material trappings and a successful career satisfied her. Perhaps it was the move that threw everything upside down. She just needed to settle down, get her practice thriving again which she was confident of and to start her teaching at X, something she was terribly excited about. Yes, that was what she needed. She didn’t need to quarrel with Greg and make it uncomfortable for each other.

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“Here, try one piece,” Alison said sticking a slice of peach into Greg’s mouth. She saw him winced. “It’s not that sour, right? And why do have to work on a Saturday? Since we moved here, you have been working almost every weekend. Is that what I came here to do? Watch you work every weekend? I gave up my successful practice and travelled across the country to be with you. I’m new here and every weekend, you are working”.

Greg sighed a little. “I’m sorry, baby. Can you give me an hour and let me check the figures tabulated by the other researchers? Then we can go for lunch, okay?”

“If I knew this, I would not have moved. I had a thriving practice and now I have to start all over again. And do I get appreciated for my sacrifice? You just sit behind your computer and work all the time”.

Greg cannot remember how many times they had this conversation over the last week. “You know, we talked about the move and we made the decision together. You agreed to it mostly because you could teach at X. Isn’t that your dream too? It’s perfect for you now, baby. You can combine academia with your practice”. Perhaps it was his fault for neglecting her since they moved here. She was right. It was a new place for her. She had only him.

Alison turned around, walked off and out of the room. Lately she has been doing that ever so often. Has she always been so unhappy? What happened to them? They were so good before. Greg had always been there for her, even supporting her through medical school. They lived frugally on his meagre pay check from his part-time work at the downtown book store. They were hungry sometimes and often very cold but they were happy and in love. Perhaps the years have changed her. They have changed them. Long hours of working have driven them into their separate lives.

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