I don’t know what time it is, but it’s late at night. The both of us are perched on the rooftop, sharing a cigarette. I watch my younger self inhale and choke on the smoke. She clearly grimaces and hands it back to me. I inhale deeply, biding my time. The edge of the cigarette crackles as I slowly exhale into the cold, night air.
“What’s on your mind?” my younger self asks me, noticing my sullen behaviour.
I do not reply at first, not until I bring the butt of the cigarette to feel the heat against my lips. I had to choose my words carefully, for her sake. She did not have to know what was coming to her.
“I wasted twenty years in vain,” I finally replied.
“Why do you think so?”
I keep my eyes trained on the wide landscape of the neighbourhood, with rooftops upon rooftops. Some of the lights are still on for some of the houses. Others are pitched dark. Someone laughs in the distance as I register the sight of a flickering streetlight.
“It gets lonely,” I explain, “I spent a lot of my time thinking about what I should and shouldn’t have done. I think about all the times I walked on eggshells, only to bleed across the soles of my feet. Or maybe the times I constantly lied – as I pushed people away just because I had my suspicions. I hated my friends because of my own expectations but then again, I didn’t know what it was truly like to have them. The only time I knew what friendships actually looked like were the movies. You can’t believe everything you watch, you know? Everything’s romanticised there for a reason.”
Her silence encourages me to keep talking. “There are so many things I still don’t know. I still rush in and refuse to take a break even when I should. Sometimes I still get angry about how bland my meals are, and how stubborn and impatient I can be. I still hate myself for holding on too hard sometimes — even if it starts to hurt. I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to hold on even harder because it brought me so much comfort. It was too easy — to find an ounce of happiness in others but it’s not healthy. You would start putting pressure on them to make you happy, and they can’t tell you no because it’s common courtesy.”
My younger self ponders my words. “Do you — do you wish it was easy anyway?”
“I do.” I watch the ashes of my cigarette flutter to my feet. “I spent so much time letting people hurt me, but then again, I didn’t know how to defend myself. It took me years to realise I was secondary to someone I valued so much — that I was their punching bag or a supporting character to drive their story. I’ve been friends with so many friends of circumstance. I always refuse to move on from the resentment and I never do learn, do I?” She nodded her head in agreement.
“It gets so lonely during the day too. I can never stay up late at night to watch the best parts. I can’t live for myself anymore–” I sigh. “–not if I’m still stuck in that embryo of uncertainty. I do not know what I want. It’s ironic really – I’m a writer but I can’t even communicate to save myself. I couldn’t break free of the passwords, lockjaw and the walls.” I look at my younger self who’s still intently listening, perhaps waiting for me to continue. “Maybe a part of me wishes to hide forever, to seek solace in my own silence, but I don’t want to. I’m already latching onto bad habits and cycles – why should I, right?”
“Right.” she echoes, her voice seemingly distant.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me sometimes. I’m always there for others, and somehow I do not receive the same in return.” I shrug, taking another smoky whiff. The pain that my ego refuses to admit. The pain, masked with complaints and other sour moods. I can’t swim because I’m scared of the water, but how do I survive the feeling of submersion in the liquid void of carbon dioxide? How am I to float, carefree, if I still have things I haven’t accepted? I can’t breathe. I don’t know if I’m just tired – or bored but my hands itch for work. I work so much that I end up burnt out despite the continuous urge to spit out my creation. I get these headaches and I hate the blocks. Writer’s block, memory blocks; they’re both the same.”
“Maybe – just maybe – I’m drawn to chaos because I haven’t gotten a chance to experience peace. The tranquil feeling of not having to trigger all the warning signs and lashing out. I am a fool for letting people tear my heart out and for allowing the hellfire spew past my lips. I’m practically dripping in gasoline and blisters, you see. I’ve had my identity evicted because I had to hold myself back, as I try to perceive my reflection and mirror what they see in me, what they think of me and what their cameras have captured. I’ve been poked and prodded everywhere so that I can squeeze into moulds of mediocrity.” I roll my eyes, laughing bitterly. “I was raised in a world that begged me not to be different, yet they would rather confiscate my potential.”
“I don’t – I can’t cry.” I shake my head. “It’s a sign of sensitivity, as they say. If they threaten to cut me into pieces, I can only grit my teeth. If they dare to push me, I can’t push back. I grew numb at their expense and I hate crying because of how it makes me feel as the initiation of a self-destruction sequence destroys me from within as I gasp for air helplessly. I can’t take another moment of them chastising me to stop being pathetic and so sensitive. I’ll just lock myself up somewhere.”
“How do you even manage to sleep at night?” she asks, perplexed.
“I do manage to sleep,” I replied with a shrug. “I try to fall asleep to the comforts of my dreams leftover from when I was a child. I save them for the worst nights but when you’re lucid dreaming, you feel like you’re falling. Sinking deeper into the bed sheets but I always end up forgetting them so I have this journal. I can’t find the heart to write in it though. If I do, it’ll be too damn sweet for me – I always find myself sugarcoating it. Sugarcoating the fact that I’m wounded with torn bandages. I find myself tied to a machine that breathes for me, but I refuse to sign the do-not-resuscitate form.”
“I don’t get what you mean…”
“Me either.” I sigh. “They’re funnier as jokes though. I don’t know, I just find too much humour in my own problems. I just brush them off with a giggle and belittle them. But these days, I’ve stopped. They were staring back at me in concern and finally, I realised that something was really wrong. So wrong that the party stops breathing for you. It’s like the biggest sunrise of your life, or when an artist gets their inspiration after a stagnant period.”
My eyes widened right there, right then. I lean backwards, feeling the blocks of the rooftop dig into my lower back. “Oh God.” The hell I’ve made myself go through after all these years…
Beside me, she doesn’t say anything at first. She understands what I’m thinking. Instead, she reaches for my cigarette wordlessly and tries again. I give it to her, watching her inhale and exhale whilst looking out into the distance like I did earlier, digesting my words.
I had warned her about what was going to happen to her, and now I needed to wait for her to say something. Everything about her is bittersweet. There’s something familiar about the way she leans into her knees. I noticed the rectangular glasses I used to wear as a teen, right before the pair I’d gotten before university. Her bangs were still tousled and unflattering. She seemed tired – I was too.
“I’m sorry,” I quietly say, breaking the silence.
She turns to me with those solemn eyes I still wear. I can’t remember the time they lost their light. “For what?”
It’s uncanny how I still have parts of me that still remain by me despite the years. Our eyes, our crooked smiles. There’s still so much she needs to grow into. “You need to let go.” she declares after a pause.
“I know. I’ll try.” I answer. As an afterthought, I quickly add, “Thanks for listening, Natasha.”
“You don’t need to thank me,” she says, eyes softening.
I want to reach out and hug her, but she’s growing translucent before me. She notices my panic and tells me she has to go. I stand up as she does, muttering to herself as the cigarette ash on her legs begins to degenerate.
“Wait – where are you going?” I stutter.
“Home.” she grins, disintegrating into ash and dust. My hand slips through her transparent wrist and I hate how I still have so many unresolved questions. She disappears into the night and the only thing left of her is the cigarette. It drops to my feet, burnt out.
I don’t bother lighting another cigarette. It’s my last one. I crush it with my feet and climb back into my room.
Written by Natasha Effendy