Coming back to the room in my parent’s apartment. Shared air duct, every murmur exchanged and amplified between their room.
A message is awaiting me on Facebook.
Open a tab, click on a YouTube clip. Switch back to the message.
It’s her brother. Awkward, slightly arrogant geek-boy, we spent teenage years outdoing one another with word games, trading subtle insults, a little respect. He had just got married to family crisis – a white girl who handed my sister/twin a bridesmaids outfit so ugly and unflattering she invented for me a hilarious bemused monologue of suffering dedicated to the dress, but secretly, and then went about patching up the breaks in the two families.
No context. Just terse.
Call me? A number.
I looked at that message, and the world blurred. The earth started to slide away.
Scrambling for the phone, I messed up country codes, overseas calling digits, and my fingers grew thick and heavy as the weight in my belly that threatened to close my throat.
No idea what time it was there. Or here. Managed to say words. Heard words.
But only one made sense: Dead.
She was dead.
Suddenly untethered, floating, or sliding, falling down rocks into a cavern, dripping with weight and waterlogged, unable to hang up the phone.
No longer sure what my hands were for.
Days go by and my research, my work, is dust to me. Brushed away, valueless.
Singapore is the only place I can be, Melbourne and Australia distant, my mum cradles my head in her lap and shushes me, brushes my hair.
My tears spill and spill and I’m not sure if my face is dry or wet anymore. Sleep comes in fits and starts, waking to a freshly damp pillow or body-wracking sobs. It’s unreal, too real, nothing is real anymore.
The only food that can get past the gulp in my throat is Vegemite on toast – reminiscent of an Australian childhood I never knew.
Her parents barely acknowledge me when I call. Preoccupied, worried.
Hong Kong has burial permits and funeral bookings for weeks, and they’re trying to find their way through.
I’m suddenly asked to read, to speak for her, and I know what it will be. I have a piece I wrote for her in that time when I was fighting for her to commit to her passions.
It’s suddenly essential that I read it there, that whatever her mother pieces together for this funeral a little piece of her, as she is, is found.
I go back through and carefully edit out the comments I made about the pain her family has caused. In this place, at this time, I cannot stomach even the truth of that. She wouldn’t want it there, I know, and I won’t be the one to push it out of the places where it has been neatly tucked away.
That One Day grows in my mind. The one we had in Singapore. Where we talked about Sydney, about more research for both of us, using our pieces of Australia and of Asia, and twinning them, piecing them together, collaborating academically.
We put all of the pieces of us aside, or together.
We focused on all the shared history, on all of the unshared history.
Told all of the stories we had, ate the food she had found for me in the days before – vegan, of course. Apologising for her size that had been made remarkable by constant comment in Hong Kong, even as I had used Sydney past to teach her that she was normal, beautiful, better than normal could ever encompass. Deserved to wear red lipstick and toss her enviable hair.
Back in Australia, Melbourne is different. I am different.
The world is broken, discontinuous, and I mouth words that are nothing like love, and reach out to other places.
My conference paper proposals are accepted, accepted, accepted, and I break loose and fly. Thirty-five flights in one year. Up in the air and down and never resting in one place, living for two.
But I have to come to rest somewhere, so Melbourne it is. Again.
My research stalls in my body. It stays between that place and here, and I try to look at it again, but am sightless.
Changi. Suburb, prison, airport. The internationally acclaimed airport where I locked myself in a bathroom and sobbed till I could look her family in the eye.
Changi*. The search I do of the news articles I’m working with, as I run them through the quantitative analysis software. It’s no accident that it picks up the word “changing” again and again, frustrating me, shifting my search, bogging down my research.
Everything is changing.
It’s the place that ‘my’ Australia historicises as the prison camp of their WWII POWs, mythologised, serialised, repackaged and loses the fact that more than four times the number of locals were held there as ‘our’ Australians.
Changi is semiotic, place, time.
It’s the research that I walked away from once I got that message. Everything is changed.
She is hugging me, and we’re saying goodbye. I take one extra second to express my love. She’s brought her bags so she can rush right to the airport, to Hong Kong. I take one extra second to mouth love at the departing taxi, not sure she’ll see, knowing it’s just for me.
It’s her birthday in a few short days. Her thirtieth. It comes just before Chinese New Year this year, and we promise one another we’ll travel together. Meet in some city we’ve promised one another but never yet reached. Me wary of our clashes.
Committing to it anyway. Because.
Author’s note: This piece is dedicated to Sarah.