This is the story of a normal man, who, like many other men and women during this period, was sitting in front of his computer in his room with a backache that was growing more severe by the minute.
The long hours he spent in his chair had breathed insidious life into his back and waist, both of which took up the detestable habit of singing choruses of protest towards the time he spent fermented in his rented room, glued to the computer screen that constituted the flat bulk of his world in the past 20-something months due to the (still ongoing) national lockdown imposed to curb the virus.
One look at him and you would immediately notice that his eyes were glazed over as he browsed incessantly, unseeing; his cursor controlled by the innocuous vortex of pictures and headlines and autoplay and memes. Maybe he was lonely.
Suddenly the exuberant ping! of his handphone scattered his nascent dandelion thoughts – a text message in the WhatsApp family group chat. It was a copied message, the kind that propagated far and wide due to eager elderly users who forwarded them to at least ten different groups.
Fellow Malaysians, we must unite to get through this New Normal!
He was not lonely; everyone was literally one tap away.
His eyes glazed over the deluge of text under the heading. Bullet points, bold headings, italicized emphasis. It all looked the same to him. These messages had stopped harboring any real meaning since long ago – the New Normal was still ‘new’ even after almost 2 years.
To him, the word ‘Normal’ with its capital ‘N’ seemed to exude a certain desperateness – like someone pulling a rug over a prickly cactus, sitting on it and proclaiming (loudly) that it was comfy as if the act of deeming its thorns invisible would somehow render it more endurable. Inexplicably, he felt quite pockmarked about this and inwardly refused to use the term ‘New Normal’. The text message, failing to pique his interest, wilted away as he turned off his phone.
Rubbing his eyes, he groaned and stretched in his chair, using his feeble might to extend his flaccid limbs like a starfish at the bottom of the sea. He sank back into his chair, and, while rubbing his temples, he closed his eyes and concentrated as he listened to the slow but steady drip, drip, dripping of the leaky tap in his damp, dirty toilet. If he listened hard enough, he could sometimes imagine a rhythm. And sometimes, just sometimes, he would tap along with his foot.
Lunch or brunch was always a Milo malt drink with cream crackers. Its predecessor was Maggi cup noodles, which tasted like salty tears or piss to him after a period of continuous consumption. The sweetness of the sugary malt drink would last longer on his palate, he hoped. He would make his drink by first boiling water on a gas stove using a metal bowl. He liked hearing the clicking sound that conjured the fire to life, the bright embers reflecting in his dark eyes.
Because it took several minutes for the water to reach boiling point –minutes so idle that long-buried thoughts might threaten for attention in his head– he would always leave the bowl on the lit stove and go back to his computer, when he would promptly forget about it and only return when the water became less than half the amount he had initially put in. This did not bother him as he would just proceed to bancuh his drink with a mix of hot and room temperature water. Thus, lukewarm Milo became routine.
He enjoyed putting his crackers in the opaque liquid and letting them steep and macerate, stirring occasionally with his metal spoon and only scooping them up finally after they have all drowned in brown. Then he would slurp the soggy, pillowy crackers, so tender and stuffed with moisture that they broke apart with one touch of his spoon. He tasted nothing but sweet stale familiarity with an insistent tinge of metal.
Recently, he liked to sit in the living room after his meals for a change of scenery. His apartment was sparsely furnished, but in front of the tiny balcony window was a set of thin transparent curtains that his mother had installed for him when he moved in. Another thicker layer of ‘proper’ curtains was supposed to be hung over them, but the lockdown commenced before he had the chance to collect it from his family home. That was fine, for the thicker curtains would only make the apartment even darker. He liked to open the window and let the wind blow in. Since his unit was situated on a high floor, the wind was naturally abundant. They would come gusting in, generously crooning to him when, not wanting to lose out, the transparent curtains would sashay inwards flirtatiously, slapping and caressing him, flap, flap, as he sat on the floor near the window. He would sit there for a long time, cell phone in hand, feeling and unfeeling until he was numb. Then he would go back to his computer and numb himself some more.
His sister was a frontliner, a nurse. His mother would occasionally send him concerned messages, asking him to stay brave or be strong or take care, but she made sure that it was not so often that he would get annoyed. Sometimes he found these texts rather insulting. His younger sister would share impressive photos in the family group, fully clad in protective wear like a dystopian movie character with her team at the hospital. Sometimes she also sent messages of complaints with a certain stressed-but-I-got-it tone to them, to which his parents would respond with saccharine encouragement. Stay brave, be strong.
He had nothing to be brave or strong about when his biggest contribution to the world was locking himself away from it. He had no complaints. He hardly needed any more coddling; he didn’t even have a job.
Just then, the sound of a boisterous family from one of the other units drifted into his ears. It sounded both distant and familiar at the same time, and somehow certain childhood memories vaguely surfaced in his mind, memories of how his sister used to be his sidekick when they played heroes with cardboard shields and newspaper roll swords. He suddenly felt rather demoted, the feeling of his tailbone pressing against the hard-tiled floor becoming more palpable. He proceeded to assuage himself by sending her a text message. He typed, backspaced. Paused. Typed. Fighting! he sent, both an encouragement and a statement to himself.
Halfway through his normal day, the heavy tranquility of his room was shattered by the sudden presence of an invader. It was the big, antennaed, leggy nightmare of common folk. The cockroach had traipsed unannounced onto his barefoot, its tiny feet sending prickling tingles up his spine. Slow fear seized his consciousness as he yelped and kicked out in alarm, whipping the cockroach to the edge of his desk when, to his utmost horror, it spread its wings and began to fly amok.
He wanted to yell but he was choked by the fear that the insect would charge right into his mouth, so instead, he clambered around and threw a tissue box, a pen, and a notebook at the critter, missing the target each time. He promptly ran out of his room and shut the door behind him in a panic. I’m bigger, he said to himself, a mantra he repeated in times of distress.
I’m bigger and I could squish it with my foot, he thought. He squirmed. I’m a giant.
After convincing himself of his superiority over the insect, he decided that the wisest action to take would be the most peaceful one – he would allow the cockroach to leave on its own accord. However, he was now as good as stranded since both his cellphone and laptop were still in his room.
Bereft of distractions, he fiddled around aimlessly before making the spontaneous decision to go downstairs to the park shared by all residents of the apartment. He rummaged around for a face mask, put it on, and exited his unit. He had never once gone down to the park, not even before the pandemic struck. He pressed two buttons in the elevator because he was not sure where it was. G and 1.
Turns out, the park was located on the ground floor.
He emerged from the elevator into a surprisingly pleasant open space of paved walkways and trimmed greenery. The air was considerably less viscous than that of his room and he found the sunlight abnormally bright. To passers-by he probably resembled a lost creature that had just emerged from a cocoon, only he was regressed instead of evolved.
He looked from left to right before deciding to head towards the right where there was a small rectangular pond. Peering into the green water, he was caught by faint delight as he spotted swimming Koi fishes inside. He squatted down like a goblin and stared at the fishes, who were swimming confidently in confinement. They were shiny, pearly, beautiful, and unfathomably quite sure of themselves. They were in their element; he was out of his. He stared at them, affixing his eyes onto their pale bodies, and swam with them mentally, going around in circles, but with intent.
A plastic ball hit him in the head and almost sent him diving into the shallow waters. He cradled his embarrassment as he turned around – a kid was looking at him apologetically, almost uncertainly.
I’m giant, he told himself.
The ball was now floating in the pond, bobbing up and down in a mocking nod. Luckily, his limbs were just long enough to rescue the ball from the water’s murky depths. He scooped the ball out of the water and shook the ball dry before handing it to the kid, who said thank you with a beaming face that turned his eyes into rainbows. He felt prickled with mild pleasure.
Before he could smile back to prolong the moment, the kid ran away to continue his game. He shrugged to himself and looked around, feeling as if the impact of the ball had knocked something out of him – his retinas were rattled into place, perhaps, for he felt that the alien, brilliant colors surrounding him had leached grayscale the mental image of his room.
He placed one foot on the green grass, then another. He looked up and forwards, and his footsteps started settling into a steady rhythm. And just like that he started taking a walk around the block, his first walk in almost two years.
Actually, it was his first walk in many years. He breathed.
Copied and pasted from Eksentrika.