Monday, April 16, 2007

The L-word On the Beach

by Chua Kok Yee

Lisa was ten years old when she found a message in the bottle.

She was on holiday with her family at Pulau Pangkor, and strolling along the beach with her eldest sister, Mabel. The sun was sinking into the ocean, leaving fading layers of orange across the graying sky. The ocean shimmered with reflections of the remaining sunshine; a welcoming prelude to the twinkling of the stars arriving soon from high above.

Lisa was shuffling her bare feet along in the soft sand, when she came across a half-buried bottle.

"Ah Jie! Look, there's a bottle there!" she pointed it to her sister. Mabel, who was seven years older than her, picked the dark green bottle up, and dusted away the sand. Then she pulled out the cork, and fished out a roll of brownish paper from inside.

"Is it a pirate's treasure map?" Lisa asked anxiously. She was already wearing an eye-patch and holding a long sword in her mind.

"Hahaha, no, it's not! It's just a message in the bottle," her sister told her.

"A message? What does it says?" Lisa studied the note in her sister's hand.

Both of them were standing at the edge of the water as Mabel's slowly unfolded the roll of note. Even though she squinted, her eyes lightened up when it traced through the lines of the note. Her lips sculptured a smile, and she read the message in the bottle to her little sister. Those simple words seemed to glide across the paper, sailed through the air before it anchored inside Lisa. That evening, under the embrace of the tender sea breeze and vanishing daylight, young Lisa received the first love letter of her life.

If you're holding a small piece of my heart; no matter where you are , I will never be alone again.

Twelve years later, Lisa wrote her first love note on a beach.

"You sure you're OK?" Mabel's voice over the hand phone was soft and tender, with a hint of concern.

Of course I'm not. I just found out that ex-my boyfriend is a pretentious jerk who has been cheating on me all this while. I gave him everything; treated him like a god and asked for nothing more than his love. It hurts like hell when I found out that the person I genuinely love think of me as just another conquest. When we kissed for the first time; I was thinking how special it was. But it must have been just another routine for him, another steps in his scheme to get into my pants. It made me feel so stupid; I'm so frustrated and angry with myself!

"Don't worry, Ah Jie. I'm OK," Lisa told her sister. Her pains were entrenched too deeply inside that she would not be able to share it even if she wanted to. Besides, she knew that she must overcome the pain on her own; only she could stitch back the pieces of her fragmented heart.

"When are you coming home?" her sister asked, but Lisa knew the question was from her mother.

"I'm not sure yet. Most probably next month or so after the results come out." At that time, Lisa was working in a beach resort in Cherating while waiting for the results of her university final examination. But Lisa did not go home the following month.

Upon her graduation, the management of the resort offered her a permanent position. Since she has always loved the tranquility of the seaside, she decided to stay on. From the day she arrived at the beach, she had been religiously taking slow walks along the beach late in the evening. She loved the sound of the waves as it gently rolled over the sand, and then slowly recede into the sea, taking along all the regrets and hurts of yesterday.

During one of her evening strolls, she saw a young girl working building a huge sand castle. The girl, most probably about seven or eight years old, was diligently scoping out buckets of sand with her plastic spade, and then patiently re-shape them as the walls, towers or blocks of her castle. The castle was quite impressive for a young girl to build on her own, with a tower on each of the four corners of its square wall, and a huge tower in the middle of the courtyard.

"Hi there!" Lisa squatted down near the east tower, and waved at the girl. The girl has a pair of huge eyes, and her brownish hair was tied neatly at the back. She looked at Lisa for a moment, then her little lips curved to a smile before she continue to pile wet sand onto the basement of the centre tower.

"That's a nice castle you have there," Lisa tried to coax a conversation.

"Thank you. I hope she'll like it," the girl barely lifted her eyes from her castle.

"Who is it for? Is it for me?" Lisa teased her.

"No, you silly! It's a present for the Mermaid!"

"Oh? You know the mermaid too? She's my friend too. I think she'll love it!"

"Really?" the girl eyes widened with joy.

"Yeah. It's a very nice castle," Lisa assured her.

"I hope tomorrow she will come visit the castle, and we can play together," the girl said, her face brimming with hope.

Lisa stood up, and looked further out towards the sea. A heavy feeling of dread came to her heart as Lisa confirmed her anxiety; the girl has built her castle too close to the edge of the water. When the high tide comes in the morning, the castle will be washed away. Tomorrow the girl would come back to the spot with great hopes, only to be disappointed by the disappearance of her castle. But how do we tell a child that, sometimes in life, our honest toil and pure intentions worth very little?

Lisa stood in silence as the girl put small flags on the top of the towers.

"What if tomorrow when you come here the castle is gone?" Lisa asked. She felt she had to gently prepare the girl for the impending disappointment. The girl continued to adjust one of the flags as if she was ignoring the question. After the flag was straight and flapping in the evening breeze, she returned a question to Lisa,"How can the castle be gone?"

Lisa unconsciously bit her lower lips,"Maybe some bad people steal it?"

The little girl stared at her for a moment, before she gave her a smile that seemed too wise. Then she told Lisa,"It's OK.

"You won't be sad your castle is gone?"

She shook her head as she flattened the western wall with her spade, "The mermaid don't like it anyway."

"How do you know that?" Lisa did not quite understand her. Her bafflement must had been comically obvious on her face, as the girl giggled at her expression.

"You're so silly! If the mermaid really likes it she will protect it. No one can steal it then!"

Lisa would not had expected that answer in a thousand years. She stood there for awhile, slowly contemplating the words, while waiting for the girl to complete the castle. Later that evening, after sending the girl to her hotel room, Lisa returned to the sand castle. She brought along a chopstick, and scribbled the words from her heart onto the wet sand next to the castle. That night, Lisa wrote her first love note on a beach.

If you're holding a small piece of my heart; no matter where you are, I will never be alone again.

Three years later, someone finally replied.

That evening, Lisa was strolling along the beach as usual when she noticed a peculiar shape on the edge of the water. Under the fading light, it looked like a huge semi-circular wall of an abandoned sand castle.

"Oh, no! Another grave for the pet!" Lisa moaned. In the past, she had a few cases of kids burying their pets on the beach. She had nothing against kids paying a meaningful last respect to their beloved pets, but a hastily-dug grave on the beach usually meant floating carcass when the tide is high.

But as she walked closer, she realized that it was not a grave. The pile of pebbles and rocks were arranged carefully in circle, with a layer of plastic sheet wrapping the inner wall. It was quite crude, but the two feet high circular wall played its role to perfection by preventing the seawater from invading inside.

Lisa stared unbelievingly at the words in the centre of the circle.

In her heart, she was hoping that a man will find the words she left behind on the beach, and he will keep them in his heart to protect them from being washed away by the waves. Then one day, he would look into her eyes and then return them to her, word by word.

She had never expected, or dared to hope for, anyone to actually physically preserve her love note on the beach! Now she did not know what to do!

Shall I leave my hand phone number or what? Or maybe email address too?

Lisa pulled out her chopstick, and wrote down her phone number underneath the original message.


Lisa turned around and saw a girl. She was a tall girl, with a fashionably short and spiky hair. Her large almond eyes were diamonds that sparkled on her smooth round face. The white singlet she wore accentuated her womanly curves, and her slender legs looked great in a pair of khaki shorts.

"Hi!" Lisa replied, feeling the color rising in her cheeks. She has written so many times on the beach, but always alone in the dark. No one has ever caught her doing it before, and she suddenly felt vulnerable. It was like reading aloud the most intimate poem in her diary in front of a stranger.

There was a wall of awkward silence between them, before she pointed to the writings on the sand.

"You wrote those?" she asked, her eyes wide with anticipation.

Lisa nodded her head.

A wave of disappointment washed over the girl's pretty face, and sluiced out the lustre in her eyes. She withered, with her slumped shoulders and bowed head, like a morning rose under the afternoon sun.

For a moment Lisa was perplexed by both the girl's question and reaction. Then the cursed needle of realization slowly drilled into her heart, and injected bitter doses of reality into all the sweet possibilities. Lisa searched for the stranger's eyes, demanding the answer to an unnecessary question.

"I'm sorry," the girl apologized without lifting her head.

"It's OK," Lisa lied.

"Really. I'm sorry. I didn't know who wrote it, but it was so romantic. I thought it was by a guy, so I.." she explained.

"It's OK," Lisa said, this time she meant it.

The girl and her were so alike; both victims of their own lonely heart. Inside, they built an incomplete puzzle of love, and waiting for the arrival of the final piece. It was a cruel twist of fate that they heeded each other's call, even though they did not have that final piece.

"Thanks," Lisa said. The girl lifted her face, and stared at her with eyes as clear as that morning's blue sky.

"Yeah, I wish it was a guy, but at least you get it. You knew what to do, and that means a lot to me," Lisa told her.

She nodded, and beamed a sunshine smile that Lisa thought was the sweetest she had ever seen.

"At least now we know there are still some romantics out there, and we can always hope, right?" she replied with the words that were lingering on Lisa's tongue.

"Yes, we still can hope," she murmured to herself.

That night Lisa and the girl sat together on the beach and shared stories of loves, heartbreak and hopes. When the morning came, they hugged each other, bid farewell and never see each other again in their lives.