Tan thought they were past this: arguing about which jam to get in the middle of the condiments aisle. She liked apricot while Nam liked peach, but it was in their unwritten agreement to buy only a single jar of jam every month.
“This month is my turn!”
Their bicker drew the attention of some people. An employee glanced at them. Tan wondered whether it was an amused look or mockery on her face.
They ended up buying two jars, and none of them were apricot or peach.
Someday when Nam died, she would carve out his name, emblazon it into a wooden plate, and write a biography of a hundred pages of his life, laid out for everyone to see and peer over.
She would include how he’d got over his major failure in the past. His track record of organizations that, if listed down, would take an entire afternoon to finish. His dreams came true half of the time and went down the drain half the other. His fear of—
Her train of thoughts was broken by Nam yelling from the backyard. She got up abruptly, almost spilling the content of his mug, and walked briskly to the source of the voice.
She found Nam, brandishing a broom like a sword, eyes sharp but hands shaking. Tan followed his line of sight to find a kitten, lying comfortably, swaying its tail from left to right, clearly not recognizing the threat that came in the form of a lanky guy trying to look menacing but horribly fails in the process.
Which, now that Tan thought about it, might not be suitable to be considered a threat at all, considering how scared the man was of cats.
Nam must have sensed her presence, for he turned to her, and looked affronted by her just standing there in the doorway with arms crossed in front of her chest, clearly enjoying the view.
“Tan!” Nam called out, almost sternly, although trampled with desperation. “What the hell is this ca—this creature doing here?!”
Tan hoped she had brought along her mug of tea. “I don’t know, looking for some food?”
“Well, get it some and shoo it out of here—aAAHHHHH!”
The cat raised its body on all fours and meowed softly. Nam dropped the broom. He whizzed past Tan, slamming the door in his wake. Tan blinked. It was as if a mini tornado just ran past her. Did it really just happen or was it just her imagination?
She stared at the cat, who stared back. It was a cute, small one. Barely two months old, it seemed.
“You freaked him out,” she told the cat.
“Meow,” the cat said in agreement.
Immersed so deep in his thoughts, Nam failed to notice the uneven ground. He slipped, braced himself for the fall, but it didn’t happen. Tan had reached out, linking her arms around his torso like a pro as if she’d done it a hundred times, preventing him from toppling head first into the pavement.
Nam stacked photos of Tan on his desk. Or at least he used to, back when he was still too shy to initiate the conversation with who seemingly was the most outgoing barista in their campus cafe. Now the photos resided inside a box, opened only when Tan wasn’t there, or when he missed her, terribly so, like the time being.
He took out the box.
“You know I don’t like coffee. And it doesn’t work on me. So, Nam, I swear to God—oh fine—”
At the look of utter dejection on Nam’s face, Tan snatched the paper cup from his hand angrily.
Nam had been asleep for hours when Tan pulled up to the gas station. The digital clock on the car panel showed two in the morning. The road was of a silent sight, only a couple of cars passed through every few minutes.
Nam had been curled up against the car window ever since he’d got in. He had taken to visiting his little sister in the hospital, in the neighboring city. Tan, who happened to pass by the city on her way back, decided to pick him up.
It wasn’t exactly stopping by, considering quite the detour she’d had to take, but it didn’t matter. She’d never seen him so sunken and hopeful at the prospect of not being left alone with his thoughts.
Tan used to think her heart had been frozen out cold when her abusive relationship with her now-ex turned sideways and the end was nigh.
Yet Nam seemed to break through the ice.
Among all things Tan expected Nam to have, it was anything but this.
She stood in front of a terrarium, conducting a staring match with the iguana residing inside.
Nam had an iguana for a pet. Now that’s simply hilarious.
Tan tugged him forward, clearly about to swing her body towards the examination room, but was quickly held down by a pair of arms covering her wrist. She squinted her eyes at Nam who wouldn’t stare back. “You’re six-feet tall! You’re not afraid of anything!”
“This one, I am,” he muttered sulkily. Tan smiled her wicked smile, poking him in the ribs. He jumped indignantly.
“Maybe that’s why your Mum called me,” she said, “to make sure you did get your jabs instead of backing off.”
Tan, standing near the window, with curtains around her, looking fresh and basking in the morning sun.
Nam, sleeping on the couch, with the cat curling in his lap, the only time Tan could get Nam close to a cat without causing too much uproar.
He had sworn to stop buying her cereals. Tan clearly had an unhealthy obsession with that one particular type of food. She would visit various stores in order to try out every brand of cereal possible, stocking up boxes and batches of them every few weeks or so, making breakfast with horrible things thrown in such as dragonfruits and leftover toast from the day before.
He had fallen into the habit, too, after Tan made him buy one or two each time he went to a store. After realizing the pattern, he had sworn he would stop.
As he watched the cashier count the grocery, Nam realized he had, perhaps subconsciously, put some cereals, among others.
Tan was scheduled to go out of the city for a week.
On the second day, Nam wondered if it was possible to die of missing someone this much.
The lady behind the counter asked them whether they would have popcorn or cola with their tickets. Both Nam and Tan shook their heads.
They were never really the eating type during a movie.
“Guess who likes cats, now,” Tan exclaimed from inside the house, having peered to the backyard from the open window.
“Not a word!” Nam yelled back, still petting the cat carefully.
Tan used to be far too private.
She didn’t trust easily, never let anyone know her story, not even bits, and bobs of it.
Now she found herself retelling her day to Nam on a daily basis.
“You play the Red Queen.”
“For the upcoming show.”
“That Red Queen.”
Tan scoffed. “Yes. For the fifth time, yes.”
Nam snickered and pulled her into a hug. “Aw. It’s okay. It’s far more worthwhile. Alice is boring, anyway.”
Tan dug her elbow against his side but deflated quickly. “I’m not that cruel to be the Red Queen.”
“Uh-huh,” Nam mumbled, not agreeing.
This looked like a holiday, Tan thought, as she leaped from her seat and was greeted by the chilly twilight air. Nam had made for her hand but was met by empty air, for Tan was already across the parking space, pushing the door of the minimarket.
Nam drove slowly to one of the empty spots.
“I want to see the snow.”
“When I said I would get you anything for your birthday, it doesn’t include changing the weather or the season at a moment’s notice, silly.”
They were at the crossroads, waiting for the light to turn green with a group of pedestrians. There was a street musician just across the street, the direction they were heading to, and Tan couldn’t help but stare.
She used to perform the same way, back in the day when life was much simpler. She was quite skillful in guitar, and her childhood-to-college friend had a beautifully refined voice, and they used to stand there, freely and out of their doubts, singing for anyone who wanted to hear.
The light turned green. Nam tugged her hand forward, and Tan snapped out of her reverie.
Nam had a habit of mucking up the navigation. He would be only a hundred meters away from the supposed turn but somehow ended up driving a kilometer past it. Or, once, he had plonked to an unknown district just because he missed the u-turn and had had to drive for three kilometers to find another opening. He simply was the worst Google Maps reader ever.
At times like these, Tan had to take over the wheel or they would never arrive at their destination.
Nam resigned from his position at the office.
Tan resorted to staring at the seat he usually occupied during his shift.
The moment he pulled out the Jenga piece from its slot, he knew he was done for.
The structure collapsed with a loud, clanging noise. Tan stood up in triumph, basking in the glory of winning the bet and a week’s supply of banana milk.
How cliche, Tan thought, as she waited for the doctor to come round, to leap and prevent Nam from falling into the ditch only to sprain her wrist in the process.
One of these days he ought to give Nam a piece of her mind.
Nam bought her a black-and-yellow-stripe bumblebee legging for her birthday.
It was absolutely lovely, the legging. And endearingly cheesy. It reminded her of a rom-com movie she once watched in the past.
They bought a two-month subscription to Zoom for their anniversary. It was done out of unnecessary intention. She had just heard of the teleconference app that’s apparently worth to try.
Then the pandemic started, and they had never been prouder for taking a step ahead of everyone.