Monday, October 30, 2006


by Kow Shih-Li


Today, I am at the bank, as always. The fluorescent lights throw a flat, white brightness on everything including the plastic potted palm standing by the grey blinds. Everything is sterile and inorganic, including me in my starched, white shirt. The continual whirring of the bubble jet printer is unrelenting, printer-head grinding its teeth on accordion-folded, four-ply paper. I am as accustomed to this background noise as I am to the sound of my own breathing but today, its dogged busyness jars my senses. The inescapable dreariness of mechanical efficiency is distressing.

I have been sleepless for three nights now. Some non-existent pump in my gut is pushing adrenalin through my body. Continually nervous, I feel as though I am standing on metal grating in a high place through which I can see the long fall down. Maybe it's the tea-lady's coffee, maybe it's Her.

Work is a distraction. My shirt collar chafes the back of my neck, the tie presses against my throat like the cliched noose. I have to plan for bigger things now. I have to plan for Her. It is impossible to concentrate. The dotted lines awaiting my signature float in and out of my field of vision randomly as I try to focus on the loan approval forms. Fuad had better be diligent checking though the paperwork.


I am told I have an analytical mind. A way with numbers, never misses details yet always sees the big picture. The powers that be tell me that in my annual performance appraisals every year, without fail. Of course I have a bloody analytical mind. What other kind of mind would a dean's list accounting student with a Masters in International Finance have, the morons?

Today, this exemplary mind is taxed by the thoughts of Her and lunch last Saturday. It was Japanese, always safe for a first date. No sharing of food, no clumsy cutting, no splattering gravy, no messy servings and prawn shells strewn on table cloths wet by tea. Only convenient, bite sized pieces on individual plates that you could transport into your mouth without appearing undignified.

So, we ate, sitting across each other at a small table, a young couple on the other side of the fake rice paper screen. Conversation ebbed and flowed with the tea. Her hands were beautiful, curled around the glazed teacup. She smiled a lot and laughed a little. She would be away, she said, for a few days. Would I call her when she got back?


The framed poster in my office proclaims, "A dream is just a dream. A goal is a dream with a plan and a deadline. -Harvey Mackay-" I did not know who this Mackay was but plan I shall.

It has been 5 days since we first met. I could not remember her face, only the fact that it was pleasing enough. The prospect of seeing her again tomorrow excites me. I plan an agenda for the next two months. Ten dates tabled under the headers Date, Meal Type, Restaurant Options and Other Activity. I had vicarious pleasure with Other Activity. Date-plan.doc is saved in my Personal Folder on the computer.

Friday - The Second Date

Her favourite steak place was a dimly lit colonial bungalow. In the candle-illumined gloominess, we talked about work. Listening to her voice lilting around narrations of difficult clients and the tiredness of being on the road, I drank 2 beers and felt the nervous anticipation of the week drain away from the base of my spine. She had red wine with her medium rare. God, I love a woman who eats red meat. When we finished, she touched my arm with her beautiful hand as she got up from her chair. A fleeting two seconds, a slight pressure burning a hole through my sleeve. I thought she was heaven sent and hot as hell.


The bank has me in its confines again. Lee Mei, my assistant, is driving me crazy with her rational explanations of why every problem she brought to me had a right to exist and was impossible to solve. Fuad has been sensible enough to stay away and feign independence. The slowness of time makes me increasingly crabby.

I type out an imaginary conversation with Her, save it as Conv-plan.doc and mark as 'Done' Date No. 2 in my dating schedule.

Tuesday - The Third Date

I had an Other Activity planned; an artsy Chinese movie with subtitles. Her closeness in the darkness of the cinema was discomforting, the space between our shoulders hung like a tangible mass. The movie was filled with grandly coloured scenes but I barely heard the dialogue. I was too busy rehearsing, in my head, the witty conversation that I had concocted yesterday. I would use that over teh tarik and thosai after the movie.

It worked brilliantly. I brimmed with charm and she was adorable in her compliance to my scheme to win her.


She calls and we speak on the phone in the privacy of my office for twenty-five minutes. I spend another forty-five replaying the conversation in my head, reinterpreting for clues. Someone less pragmatic would have called the analyzing cold-blooded; I prefer to think that I am searching for a way into her beautiful mind.

Two cursory knocks on my open door. "Good morning, Andrew. Where's that monthly loan status report you were supposed to give me yesterday?" I am startled but the matronly bulk of Mrs Tan is already lowering itself into my visitor chair. Chain-smoking, audit tyrant from HQ. I didn't know she was at the branch today. Shit.

"Hey, Mrs Tan. I didn't know you were coming today. Fuad! Somebody, get Fuad please and tell him to bring the loan status report."

Mrs Tan lights a cigarette. That woman has no decorum at all, and it is against branch regulations to smoke indoors. My coffee cup turns into an ashtray. I hated her stubby fingers. They were so inelegant compared to Hers.

"Come on, Andrew. You're slipping up. You always meet your deadlines and now you've missed three in 2 weeks. This is not going to look good in your appraisal. What's wrong? You lovesick or what?" she said, emphasizing 'not' with a little pause and puff of smoke.

"No'lah, Mrs Tan. Everyone is just a little overstretched. That new loan scheme HQ launched last week is flying and we're just trying to cope with the response. I haven't had a good break since I don't know when."

"Is that so? Well, maybe you should take some time off when you sort out this mess." She steals a glance at my computer screen. Thank god I had just opened a busy looking Excel file to work on.

Fuad comes in with the loan status report, looking mousy in a beige shirt. Mrs Tan is diverted, she has fresh prey.

Saturday - The Fourth Date

It went exactly as planned. We spent the whole day together. Shopping, eating, another movie. Her closeness was no longer a thing to be conscious of. We held hands and it was perfectly natural.

Over dinner, I told her about Mrs Tan and the people at work, making Mrs Tan uglier and the rest more incompetent than they actually were. It threw my own competencies into clearer relief, I thought. She laughed, said "You're so mean" and slapped me on the arm. What would I say to my friends about her? I told her and she fell silent.

Sunday - The Fifth Date

The walk back to the car from the restaurant was secluded. I kissed her and she leaned in.

It was a triumph of planning and execution. The Kiss was 2 dates ahead of schedule.

I allowed myself to think about a future involving a diamond ring of a certain size. This was The Big Picture.


I stopped planning dates because there was no longer a need. We were calling each other several times a day, and meeting as often as we could. I started planning a little holiday away. A 3-day rendezvous at the beach, probably Langkawi. I booked the AirAsia tickets from the office and filled out an Annual Leave Application form.

The people in the office say I look good. I agree. A spring in my step, a sparkle in my eye. Work was no longer a burden. In fact, I excelled - I was incisive, emphatic, even warm and connected. Fuad and Lee Mei flourished under my effectiveness. Mrs Tan would have no reason to visit again.

Food tasted better.

The Holiday

She was surprised when I told her about Langkawi. Not as happy as I expected she would be but she said was tired from the pressure of meeting quotas. The month was coming to an end and she had to sell more insurance policies to make her numbers.

"Why don't you sell me a policy? How short are you on your quota?"

"I couldn't. It's not right. This is too personal, you can't bail me out all the time."

"Why not? Anyway, I don't have one of those medical cum life cum unit trust type of fancy schemes you have. "

The monthly premiums could have paid for a small car but what the heck. She would love me for it. I was doing well at work and my transfer to HQ would come through in 6 months.

In Langkawi, I gave her a necklace with a little diamond heart. Just to let you know you're special. Oh, I love you, she said, with tears in her eyes. The sun set behind her, an orange globe swallowed by the single line of the horizon. I had a right to be smug. It was perfectly timed, perfectly planned. The sky flushed a rosy pink. All was right with my


I had another preoccupation now. Planning a marriage and a new life after. I was filling in the colours of The Big Picture.

The structured demands of a HQ career worked well for me. My name cards have been reprinted twice, each time with a title bearing more letters and hyphens. A real plant with juicy, verdant leaves sits next to my office door. There are no printers within earshot. Bliss.

An October wedding would be ideal. We'd have Christmas together for a honeymoon and be comfortably acclimatized to face Chinese New Year in January as an angpow-giving couple together.

The Proposal

I made reservations at an expensive French restaurant. A resident four-piece string quartet would provide a suitably romantic ambience, I was told.

The half-carat ring is in my pocket. I had taken care to wear dark trousers so that I would not have a stain on them after I got up from bended knee. The menu would be light and delicate. Salads, pates, fish, soufflé, wine, mousse.

On the way to dinner, she disgorged the daily complaints about work and her boss. It was tiresome to listen to but it was her routine. I let it wash over me. It would be another coup; I had the perfect evening planned. She would say yes, the strings would play and I would be on my way to a perfect, married life.

After the cheese and before the dessert, the quartet moved close. It turned out to be a Filipino mariachi group, all grinning broadly. What the heck. The only strings were the six on the guitar. The bongo playe had the drums hanging
down to his shins. I pushed my chair back. I have something to ask you. Down on one knee, smoothly practised.

"Will you marry me?" Ring box clacked open decisively, the diamond was a triumphant, multi pointed sparkling star.

She had a strange smile on her face. It looked almost pained. I noticed then that she wasn't dressed her best. It must have been a rough working day. I didn't remember what she had said in the car. Her shoes had a ring of dried mud around the soles and her make-up had lost definition.


The word quivered in the air. I saw us frozen as in a still photograph. She in her chair, me in the ludicrous pose, the guitar, the bongos, the tambourine and the maracas in attendance. The 'No' written in thick strokes hanging over our heads.

The music faltered, leaving the singer unaccompanied for an awkward second, his voice unadorned. He wavered, picked up the song again and started to walk to another table. The rest followed the cue. My chair felt like it was a million miles away.

Dessert arrived, chocolate mousse with strawberries and sugar dusting in the shape of a heart. It all seemed so contrived now, like a Valentine's Day gimmick.


"Because…because this has all been about you and only you. You don't know me. I am not an acquisition merger joint venture whatever. What am I all about? What did I dream of today? What do I want? I am not a scheduled timetable to be followed and executed. Not a target to be met, to help you achieve a goal of marriage before you turn 40. I am not incidental. I refuse to be."

Quietly aflame, her tone was low and her face controlled but I did not see her. My excellent and reliable mind was already reacting, making a list of counteractions to deal with this. Plans for finding a substitute, for apologising, for trying again, raced through my consciousness. The logic machine was moving in full gear. Yet I could almost, almost but not quite see, like a speck of dirt on my glasses that wants to be ignored, something in there crumbling like a house of cards. That speck, in its quietness, knew that something would break and would not heal but I do not accept that. Planning and effort conquers all. There would be no failure. Grief was not permitted.

"And happy birthday, by the way. It's next week isn't it? Turning 40 isn't so bad," she said.

She got up to leave, putting both her beautiful hands on the table. When she was gone, the Langkawi heart was left on the table where her hands were. Small and encrusted in glassy stone.

I tried to drink, swallowing was painful. Breathing hurt but all I needed was another Plan. Mr Maracas' curious eye was set on me, he was singing back up. Bloody musicians