A Love, Immemorial

Jowell Tan

The cai png auntie yells at me: “Faster lah girl, what you want to eat!”

I’ve been to almost every country in every incarnation, seen almost every permutation of humanity, and I will never understand the Singaporean kopitiam auntie. You’re never fast enough while ordering, but woe betide you if you tell her to hurry up.

“Hello, faster!” She yells again, her stainless-steel tongs clanging loudly against the stainless-steel food containers. I quickly point at the first three things I see, and end up with curry chicken, braised pork, and an omelette draped over my plate of rice. I pay her and quickly scurry away before she scolds me again for holding up the line.

Walking back to the table where I had left my umbrella as a placeholder for me while I went to order my food, I find a surprising, but not unpleasant, addition to my table. It appears I won’t be dining alone today. I crack a small smile before I even realise I’m doing it — If he’s here, it means I’m close.

“What are you wearing today?!” I greet him with mock horror.

Throughout the many times I have seen him over the centuries, he has always transformed his physical form into what he believes suits the particular country and era well. It doesn’t always work out well: In 1944 he met me as a German army soldier. In 1998 he wore the black turtleneck and jeans that were made popular by Steve Jobs, but he realised too late that look only worked on skinny people. Now, in 2021, he is wearing a ratty white singlet and jean shorts, with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. He may think he’s being discreet in this getup, but the amount of stares from the other patrons say otherwise.

“What? I’m blending in!,” he retorts, completely oblivious to his surroundings as usual. How is he in charge of the records?, I think to myself. I sit down and raise my hand to get the drink lady’s attention. “Auntie, one kopi.” The lady nods and walks away.

“What is a kopi?” He asks incredulously.

“If you’d asked the man whose body you’re in before you possessed him, maybe you would know.” I snark at him. He opens his mouth, leans back in mock shock, complete with his hand over his chest. Yeah, he’s really blending in.

The drink lady returns with my kopi, and glancing at my compatriot, she screeches: “You, what you want to drink?” Seeing the look on his face as he tries to comprehend what she just said, I have to look away before I lose control and laugh at him. “Uhh...” He stammers, faltering before the lady’s cowing stare. Her sharp “Quick!” causes him to lean back in his chair even further, tilting it on its back legs, dangerously close to wiping out and throwing him into the floor. I reach across and grab him by the wrist, catching his eyes full of fear and horror, and turn to tell the drink lady “no need, it’s okay”. The drink lady snorts in mild anger at him for wasting her time, then walks off to the next table to collect the next order.

Back on solid ground, he exhales loudly to relieve his panic, wiping his brow with the back on his hand. “Why are people here so fierce! Like this guy!,” pointing to his latest vessel. “All I did was start speaking to him and he immediately shouted at me to go away! What is wrong with the people here?”

I just laugh as I take a sip of my kopi. I spoon a serving of rice, with a slice of omelette and a piece of braised pork on top, into my mouth. Singapore cai png is very different from any other food I’ve tasted. It shouldn’t be any different from what I normally eat — I eat curry chicken, I eat braised pork, I eat eggs — But putting it altogether on top of a small mound of rice, like a Singapore-styled sushi replacing raw fish with cooked ingredients, oil and soy sauce seeping through, that mixture turns it into something else, something I can’t quite describe, I’ve walked the Earth many times over and eaten a thousand different cuisines, but a spoon of cai png is a singularly unique experience.

I can see him looking at me while I enjoy my spoonful, deep in thought about something. “You can just ask if you want some, you know,” I say. “Humans need human food to function, and you’re in a human body now. Go get something to eat and stop staring at me.”

He keeps his eyes on me, brows furrowed and scratching his scalp. He’s never been this serious in all the time we’ve met. There’s something else on his mind. “Whatever you want to say, spit it out. I won’t be able to enjoy my food with you looking at me like that.”

He says nothing. All of a sudden my mind shouts: maybe he’s not here! and immediately my appetite disappears. I put my spoon down on the plate, shove it aside. I just barely notice the cleaner take my half-full plate away. I lean forward, almost staring a hole into him. “What. Is. It.” I intone, stressing every syllable with every ounce of strength I can muster, to express to him just how much he needs to tell me whatever he’s holding on the tip of his tongue.

He stammers for a bit, his mind working to put the words together in the right sequence. When he’s got it right, he looks at me and he says: “The other gods want me to tell you that you can be reincarnated.”

For a minute I almost thought I misheard him, and have to replay in my head what he said to make sure I heard him correctly.

“No.”

“‘No’? What do you mean, ‘no’?”

“No. This is a trick.”

He looks offended by my reply. “There are no tricks, Chang’e. The gods got together, looked at you down here running around the mortal realm like a headless chicken, chasing after Hou Yi’s soul all over the place, and they decided to grant you a mercy.” His face softens, and he reaches across the table to hold my arm. “You can be with Hou Yi again. From the beginning. Isn’t that what you want?”

I look at him and I think back on all the times I’ve seen the soul of the man I love over the centuries. I remember every form Hou Yi has appeared as when I found him. I delivered him as a newborn baby in the hospital where I was a doctor. He was the woman that worked at the bar that I owned. I raised and cared for him when he was a dog. As a flower he had a place on the windowsill in my apartment. And when he was the falling rain, I was standing out in the open field without an umbrella, hoping to catch the droplets with my cup.

I know that the offer is real. But I also know that the gods aren’t that easily forgiving. There’s a catch somewhere.

“What happens if I take the deal?” I ask.

“We leave, right now. We go up to the office, sign a few pieces of paper, and then we go straight to the Reincarnation area and you go become a baby again. And most importantly, I finally have no accounting errors on my annual soul report. Do you know how many times I’ve forgotten you’re still here? I waste my time digging through all the paperwork before I realise it’s you that’s causing the problem.” He seems almost relieved to be able to have that off his chest after so long. He’s probably celebrating on the inside that his Chang’e problem is finally about to be solved.

But he doesn’t know how manipulative the gods can be. He doesn’t know what I know.

“Do I have to go to Meng Po?,” I ask, and immediately I see the joy in his eyes slipping away. He hadn’t thought of that, and now that he has, he knows what my answer will be.

“... I- I’m sure you don’t have to,” He stammers, trying to salvage the deal. But he knows the truth better than me — Everyone goes through Meng Po before they go through reincarnation. The gods wouldn’t allow anyone to be reincarnated without drinking the tea that wipes their memories. No exceptions.

“Look, let’s go up first and sign the papers, and then we can ask the gods and we can plead for your case, I’m sure they’ll be willing to make an exception...” He’s continuing to ramble, desperately fighting to convince me to accept the offer.

I interrupt him with a raised hand — Stop. His face falls. He knows it’s over.

“Tell me — Is he here?”

He sighs, rubbing his face roughly. “Yes,” he mumbles, “He’ll be here soon.” He stands up and lights the cigarette that he’s been holding. A deep breath and a long exhale. “The humans say these are bad for health, yet they continue to make them. Are they confusing to you too?”

I let out a small laugh in agreement, and I say to him: “I’ll see you next time. Don’t leave this body in the middle of the road like you did the other time.”

“We said we would never speak of it again!” He mock-yells at me. He walks off with a wave, disappearing around the corner, and I order another kopi while I wait for Hou Yi’s latest form to arrive.

~

My glass is almost empty when he finally appears. I look at his latest form and I have to stop myself from simply running to him and wrapping him in my arms, for he looks almost exactly like how he was, back when we were both mortal and we were in love. His eyes, his lips, his nose, everything is an exact replica of the Hou Yi I have kept in my mind for so long. The gods were going to make me leave before I saw him, as a final fuck-you to me: You fell for our trick, and we made him like you remember him just as you threw in the towel. Under my breath I curse the gods, and I laugh at their failure. But there’s no time to bask in my victory.

I stick out my leg just as he walks past me holding his plate of food. He trips and falls to the ground, rice and meat and vegetables flying through the air. Everything stops to look at the scene I created, an excuse for me to get close to him.

“Oh my God, I am so sorry!” I say, rushing over to help him up. “Are you okay? Are you hurt?” As he turns around to look at me, I fight down another wave of emotion at the sight of his face, the splitting image of the man I loved. The man I still love.

He looks up at me with surprise. Perhaps somewhere in his soul, even after his innumerable reincarnations and drinks of Meng Po’s tea, there’s still a piece of Hou Yi that remembers his lost love, his Chang’e? His brow furrows for just a second and then straightens again, as if he almost grasped a memory but it was just out of reach before it disappeared. He helps himself up, checking to see if his shirt got dirtied by the fall. “I’m okay!” He says, straightforwardly. “Did any of it get on you?”

“No, no, I’m okay. Please, can I buy you a meal? Let me make up for my mistake.”

“That’s not necessary, it happens to everyone.” We make eye contact again, and something inside him tells him that I’m not just any stranger. Something inside him says Yes, sit with her. He nods and motions for me to sit. He orders another meal and comes back to sit opposite me. “Do I — Do I know you from somewhere?”

“No, I don’t think so,” I reply, hoping my face doesn’t say otherwise. Keeping in my heart’s urges. “Where are you from? Maybe you know someone from where I’m from.”

~

Before the both of us know it, we’ve chatted for almost two hours. His empty plate sits beside him, his drink grown cold and forgotten as we talked. But as with all good things, this moment must come to an end.

“Oh no, is that the time?,” he exclaims, staring at his watch. “I’m way past my lunch hour. I’d better head back before my boss scolds me.”

“That wouldn’t be good,” I say. “Please — I’ve held you long enough.”

He smiles and stands up, pushing in his chair. He nods and starts to walk, before he stops, having thought of something to ask. He turns back: “Hey — Do you work around here? Do you think you’d want to meet for lunch sometime? Without you accidentally tripping me this time.”

I can only smile and laugh. “Yes, Let’s do. How about tomorrow? Same time?”

“You got it. I’ll see you tomorrow. My treat.” He smiles back, then he turns and walks off. I watch him as he walks further and further down the road, eventually disappearing around the far corner. He won’t be seeing me tomorrow. He’ll never see me again, until his next reincarnation, when he’ll have forgotten me once again. And so the cycle continues.

No sense for me to watch him grow old and die, questioning my unageing looks and my eternal youth. I’ve done that before, and it only ends in heartbreak and anger. This is much better for the both of us — He’ll remember the enigmatic lady who he had lunch with, a lady with a face just out of reach for him to place. I’ll be in his memory for as long as he lives. That’s good enough for me.

Standing up to leave, I notice the old man in the singlet and the jean shorts again. By now the records keeper should have left him, but just to be sure, I shout: “You’re still here?!” To which he replies: “Siao ah! Who are you!” At least he didn’t leave the body in the middle of the road.

I put my sunglasses on and walk in the opposite direction. I’m going to go home, drink a very stiff drink, and then sleep for as long as I can. And when I wake up, I’m going to wait for Hou Yi’s next reincarnation, and then I’m going to find him again.

I will see him again. I’m looking forward to it.

When not surviving Real Life, Jowell Tan writes about fictional lives. Never without a new story idea, he spends his nights typing and his days reading, juggling his many roles as a rat racer, a father, and a writer. He somehow stays afloat. He sometimes gets published by journals. He always tries his best. Say hi to him on twitter (@jwlltn) — he promises not to bite.