The old playground of my prepubescent years was a hive of social activity ranging from the friends I played with, the bullies I battled with, the ruffians I took pains to avoid, the adults that watched over us and managed our time at play, and, in my 9th year of existence, first love.
It was never something that was properly set in stone. I was 9, she was 10. We were still at an age where girls think boys are smelly, and boys thought girls were gooey. But even though I kept my feelings to myself for the better part of the time we spent together, from the moment I laid eyes on her, I was spellbound.
She had just moved in with her family, and came to the playground for the first time. I was with my usual band of boys, 2 brothers and a chubby little boy that we would always pick on, but hung out with us anyway because we picked on him a lot less than the other groups at the time. After a little bit of egging from her parents, she came up to us and asked if we could play with her. I remember when I saw her for the first time that day and the many days that followed; long hair tied into a ponytail, swaying from left to right as she walked, the wind carrying her scent towards me each time she came near. Her eyes, large, brown and soft, windows to a fragile soul pure enough to crack the grimiest of little boys’ hearts. And how I melted each time she smiled at me for the first time every time we met. I was smitten.
That first time led to a second play date the next day, and then a third the next day, and again, and again, and it continued on just about every weekday for the next 3 and a half years. The school holidays were of course the most intense, and each day we played, we grew closer, though our understanding of the relationship between boys and girls at the time still very much involved smell and goo, and this was evident through our playful belittling of each other.
I remember days when the belittling would go a tad too far, and I would make her cry. I seemed to be the only one in the group that ever made her cry, and throughout our years playing together, it happened on a number of occasions. Sometimes I would wonder if it actually meant she felt a certain way about me enough for me to hurt her feelings, but every time, I would feel guilty for making her unhappy.
Interestingly enough, it was a couple of years before the chubby boy found out about my infatuation with our only female playmate. And, as with all chubby little boys with loud squeaky voices, he snitched on me with all the other boys the very next day, and the entire entourage then went on an extended tirade of teasing me for having a crush on her, in front of her, much to my embarrassment. Through that time, I never admitted it in front of the entire group, and as such, she would laugh it off sheepishly and we would continue as we usually would with our chosen gameplay of the day.
We all had curfews; the boys had to be home by 6. I usually could stay on till 7.30pm, and she would sometimes stay with me. We got close enough to share time talking to each other, but not close enough (nor brave enough) to actually convey nor confirm our feelings for each other. It led to an exchange of phone numbers, and we would spend hours in the evening talking with each other on the phone about the inane things 10-year-olds always talk about, me always making her laugh, and her always showering me with her laughter.
Months went by, then years. I was starting my secondary school education, and she was already in the second year of hers. That year, we spent the most time with each other, because we would board the same public bus to school every morning, and reconvene in the afternoons for our daily playtime routine. It was the only time in my life when I was motivated enough to wake up early in the mornings just so I could spent those few precious minutes at the bus stop and in the bus with her.
Up until this time, I had only plucked up enough courage to prod her about having a boyfriend without actually saying I wanted to be with her. One night, I decided to try.
It would be the last phone conversation I would ever have with her. In fact, it would be the very last time we ever talked.
I honestly didn’t know what happened. We were about 30 minutes into our usual phone banter when I asked her about boyfriends again. After saying she really didn’t have one, I rather prudishly asked if I could be her boyfriend. The short silence that ensued told me immediately I had made a fatal mistake, and she abruptly broke off the telephone conversation, saying it was time for her to go, and the line went dead.
The following day, I woke up early to head to school as usual, hoping to see her at the bus stop as usual. But she wasn’t there. A day later, I still didn’t see her. I went to her place to find out what had happened, but was greeted by her mother, and a rather cold, “She’s busy!” before the door slammed on me.
On the third day, she finally reappeared at the bus stop. I tried to approach her, but sensed something was wrong when she not only tried hard to avoid eye contact, but was actually inching farther away from me. The bus came not 2 minutes after I saw her, and just like that, we never spoke to each other again.
It would be almost a decade before I saw her again. I moved to Little India after I completed my national service, and almost entirely lost track of my old life back in Ang Mo Kio. Then one day as I was window shopping at the IT mall, I saw her. She was working at one of the laptop dealerships in Funan. It took me another round around the floor of shops before I worked up the courage to walk into that store (besides, I just started working and couldn’t afford a laptop). As I pretended to enquire about one of the display sets near the entrance, I realised she didn’t recognise me at all, and while she had looked up when I initially walked in to see what I wanted, she then waved another staff on me with detached disinterest.
Another couple of years later, we crossed paths again, this time at one of the IT shows in Suntec. I was taking a break from the busy exhibition after a hairy round of squeezing around visitors looking at nothing in particular. Heading towards an exit where an ashtray was available, I spotted her leaning over a railing, dressed rather smartly with an exhibitor pass around her neck, having a smoke. I took out a cigarette of my own and, in a bizarre whim, approached her to ask for a lighter. With a tired look, she handed me the lighter she was holding in her hand. I lit up, and returned the lighter to her with thanks, and she turned back to join her friends in blank conversation.
I have never seen her since.