Fiction / December 2017 (Issue 38: Writing Hong Kong)

Swiping Time

by Abel Song Han

Her boyfriend was in the washroom. She glanced at her cell phone. "How's your night?" read a newly popped-up message from one of her dating apps.

How's her night? Not bad, she would say. She was supposed to say great, since it was the first date with her boyfriend, officially. They had met three times, first in Tsim Sha Tsui, which was the mid-point between their offices; second in Kowloon Tong, where she worked; third in Sheung Wan, where he worked and lived. It seemed like they had briefly reviewed their history in Hong Kong, from this MTR station to another. How convenient.

She could barely recall anything from their conversations at dinner. Something about being tired from work, something about stubborn bosses. That's how two outsiders talk in this city: I've been to this place/concert/restaurant, too! Perhaps they'd bumped into one another before.

Coincidence? No. It felt, at least for her, like recognising a familiar face from a crowd. When they finished their meals and wandered around a park aimlessly, he took out his iPod and handed her one of the earpieces. If listening to music alone was akin to creating a world of one's own, sharing music was defending the world together. From songs she knew to songs he knew, this young man was explaining to her how he came to know each of them, why he loved each of them, one by one, year by year. Like shedding a mask to reveal one's inner self, she thought, he was showing her his history, naked.

She could barely register the conversation at hand on the app either. She could check the history. She did not. She continued. Mostly in English, like English was the official language of this digital empire. How's your day? Not bad. What did you have for lunch? Pasta. Shall we meet for dinner? Sure …

She had always been a good daughter, a hardworking student, a responsible worker. She responded promptly to his messages, for she did not dislike him. One day he asked her "Will you be my girlfriend?" all out of the blue. She wondered if something wrong happened.

In this case, what did she do right for this random guy?

Did she ever like him? Sure, on occasions. Like when he listened to unpopular pop songs with her. He reminded her of a newborn baby, without deep thoughts, taking in everything he saw. Did she ever dislike him? Couldn't remember. She felt him waiting for an answer, so replied, "OK."

Then he started talking about how to celebrate this new journey, what this meant to him, etc. She wrote several words back between his speedy paragraphs. He typed quickly, she thought, as if copy-pasting from a ready-made love letter.

There they were. After the first dinner-date as official boyfriend and girlfriend, they didn't want to call it a night but had no idea where to go. Strolling across the busy streets in Causeway Bay, he mentioned his newly bought bucket of ice cream. He couldn't finish it by himself. "Do you want ice cream at my place?"

"Yeah sure. Dessert always goes after pizza."

He shared the apartment with several roommates. He slept in the living room, now divided into a semi-private "room" with two wardrobes. "And we are not friends. We would just be friendly. You know, we don't really talk to each other. They won't even know there's someone there if we keep the voice down," he explained.

"That's OK. I won't stay there for long," she said, "What's the flavour of the ice cream again?"

He smiled at her.

It was mint, which tasted like toothpaste to her. She focused on the taste of the chocolate crumbs, hoping she could finish it faster this way. Silence, chewing sounds, silence, cars speeding by. From this fourth-floor apartment, you could see much of the street. People, cars, the colour of the leash attached to a running dog. When will this end, she thought. 

Wardrobes might block out the vision, but they did not dampen sounds. "We can't even talk here," she said in a soft voice, "they can hear us."

"What do you want to talk about?" He was lying on his bed. She thought of where to sit. Next to him? No. The chair? No. The chair was occupied with piles of clothes, mostly shirts, in grey, white and blue. His wardrobes were packed with shirts, too. If aliens invaded his room—from the curtain as a door—they may think cold-colour shirts were a kind of human skin.

But when her boyfriend came back from the washroom, she was already lying on the bed. He sat on his only chair first, scratching on his cell phone. He then stood up, coming to the bed.

Their stream of actions had been blocked. The door opened with a thud, followed by a young male voice: "Is anyone here now?" He didn't reply, but an older voice from the room called out: "You're back."

"I have given the key to the new tenant," the younger voice said.

"When will he move in?"

"Two weeks later, I suppose. Come to Hong Kong when the new semester begins."

"So, you are ready to go back to the Mainland now?"

"Yeah, I have packed everything. Need to post one more box of books, and I'm done."

"Jealous you can go home."

"No, I go to Beijing directly. I will start working next week."

"Gosh. You haven't rest at all. What's the new job about?"

They were now lying on the bed side by side and face to face. Her boyfriend was reading a book, turning the pages aloud. The book separated him and her, giving her room to look at her phone. She was playing the dating app again, swiping right and left. He said, "Sorry about my roommates, think they'll stop chit chatting soon."

"That's OK. I kinda like listening to people talking."

How many years have you been here? This voice asking the question sounded more mature than the other one. Five. Two more years in this cage, and you can get a permanent residence card. Yeah, but what's the point? I feel like I will go back one day too, like you.

School life, working life, how they missed their first day in Hong Kong, stepping out of the airport and Hung Hom station with their luggage, like travellers from ancient time. They talked about classmates and then colleagues. The older voice said that one of his classmates was an associate professor now, which was sounded regretfully. The younger voice said one of his new colleagues asked him how he felt about company spirit. "Seriously! She looked at me earnestly, like she will be the president one day, so she needs to prepare now." She laughed at this point, quietly.

She didn't have any hearts now, hearts to swipe right. She kissed her boyfriend and mouthed words to him: What shall we do now? He looked in the direction of their speech and shrugged: "We should reply something, too." He played a song on his phone, and raised the volume, then down, and raised it again to show someone was here. But the voices were still there, discussing secondary schools and hometowns.

When the song ended, and nothing new appeared on social media platforms, she started to write down the keywords of their conversation: river, basketball, school bus, midnight radio show, poetry club, night market.

Gradually she couldn't distinguish which word belonged to which voice, the younger or the older. Soon she felt like it was her boyfriend's version of being a youth, and so was hers, too.

Her boyfriend went out to take a shower. She hoped that maybe he would say something to them, tell them it was time to sleep. He went out. He came back. He said nothing. Their conversation continued over the shower sound and soap smell.

"I think I need to leave now," she wanted to say. "I am running late for the MTR."

"Do you want to stay tonight?" He asked her when was back, "It's getting late."

She couldn't remember when exactly they stopped talking. Her cell phone died, time was passing by in the dark without a trace. What they were talking about lingered, every word, every tone, inscribed in her mind, in her dream (salary, flight, quality …). Half-asleep and half-awake in the single bed, she lay between the wall and her boyfriend. The voices were like a pain in the tooth. It was soft but stuck with you all the time, chasing you, stinging you. When they disappeared, she was immersed in complete quietness.

Then she could hear the sound of cars and air-conditioners again. He had fallen asleep already, his eyes closed peacefully like a small buddha. She crawled over him and put on his slippers. She finished her shower in cold water and slept again, thinking about what they'd said.

The younger one would leave tomorrow.

Will I leave one day? The older one sounded jealous.

Am I jealous? Do they want to turn back time, too? Do I need to go home tomorrow morning? Will my colleagues notice I am wearing the same clothes? Do they care about my outfit?

What time is it now? When she got up, she was worried that it might be noon already. He was looking at her, holding a bowl of cereal. "When do you need to work?" he asked, in a normal voice, "It's only half past seven. Do you want to have some cereal?"

She said she'd better leave now. She thanked him for the evening. She said she looked forward to meeting him again soon. She kissed him and said goodbye, leaving him alone with his breakfast.

The street was relatively empty, waiting to be filled up by the working men. She stepped into the subway and took out her cell phone, then remembered that it had died. Sitting on the train, she looked around like an elderly woman with nothing to do.

Do I need to send him a message? she thought. What should I write?

Ignoring her roommate who was boiling water, she plugged in her phone. It was charging. It started up. She opened the app impatiently, searching for him, her newly met boyfriend. She scrolled down once. Nothing. She scrolled down twice. Nothing found. She scrolled through a third and fourth time, but he'd simply disappeared.

Like a drop in the ocean.

The app notified her that she had hearts now. "Let's swipe."


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