Heavy Air by Jowell Tan

“i am here, and you are there;
between us, an ocean of air.”

***

The glass wall was spotless, lovingly maintained by the city workers every day without fail. It seemed invisible almost, only given away by my reflection as I walked towards it.

I tried, as I had done every time, to concentrate my gaze to look further back past the glass, hoping to catch sight of the buildings, or shadows of people walking about, or even a different-coloured light piercing through the veil of the darkness. But even with my nose pressed against the glass, my eyes straining to recognise familiars, all I could see was black.

“C.H. Tang, please.”

I could never tell if it was a robot, or a microphone, or an actual person standing on the other side. I would say her name, and just like that, she would appear.

***

The history of the glass wall is well-documented.

When reports of the first cases appeared, our leaders at the time dismissed it as a minor inconvenience, something of lesser importance than the current issues of the time. However, in the blink of an eye it had spread throughout the city, affecting the economy and impacting lives. There were protests in the street, riots and instability. The leaders could ignore it no longer. The demarcation of the zones was meant to be a stopgap measure, to prevent the situation from deteriorating further.

Scientists were summoned, resources focused on finding a solution. Months and years passed without positive development. As administrations came and went, new leaders were unwilling to maintain funding what was considered “an unsolvable issue”. So it was decided that rather than to attempt a cure, the illness would simply be contained and eventually burn itself out. It was never meant to last as long as it did.

And all the while, people crossed the glass wall, never to return. The rest of us, equally affected and immune, figured out a way to move on. The glass wall gradually became a part of our lives, just in the corner of our sights, yet eternally in our collective minds.

The day she crossed, it was just the two of us, walking side by side until we reached the border. She turned to me and smiled.

She said: “See you on the other side.”

Even in a moment like this, she still had her sense of humour.

I watched her cross the line dividing an entire city from itself. She kept walking, her outline growing smaller as she vanished into the shadows.

***

As always, she had her hoodie on, hands stuffed deep into its pockets. It was like she had appeared out of a giant block of black, a piece of putty poured out and given solid shape.

Her eyes were completely black. Typical, given this was only the start of the visit.

“Hey! It’s been a while!” she said, bringing her fist up for a bump. A soft “tap” sound emanated from our fists hitting the glass simultaneously.

“Hello hello, how are you?”

“Can’t complain. Did you hear about this new thing they’re trying out? It’s like an imaging thing, like you’re doing a scan, but the doctors can go right into your body and rearrange some things to see what might help. Pretty cool, right?”

“I don’t know about cool…”

“Don’t look so grossed out! Some people say it’s working, so who knows? Different strokes for different folks and all that.”

“Have you tried it?”

“No, I’m not important enough yet for them to use it on me. They had that famous celebrity guy – what was his name…-“

Her finger-snapping begins. It’s like watching a fan slowly hit full speed. She starts pacing around, snapping rapidly, tapping her temple.

“Well, what about the celebrity guy?”

“Huh? Oh! He hasn’t been seen since. Probably worked for him!”

It probably didn’t. But I kept that to myself.

“Maybe? That’s a good thing for you to try, if you want to. I can float some cash over if you-“

She cut me off with a wave. “I have money, asshole. I just don’t want to, okay?”

Her dark eyes were starting to lighten up. It was now a greyish tint, with a little dash of colour just visible underneath.

“Okay, okay.” These visits usually didn’t last long, and I didn’t want to spend them arguing. “What’s new with you? Specifically you.”

“Oh you know, not much. We’re pretty much left alone out here. Out of sight, out of mind, am I right?” she shrugged. “I guess I’ve just been chilling, like you always told me to. Now I do it all the time. Fucking A-May-Zing. You should try it sometime.”

I had to chuckle. It took a glass wall and us being apart for her to finally listen to me.

“Yeah, I should. It’s been a crazy week for me.”

“Yeah, enough about me, let’s talk about you! What’s been going on with you!”

I told her about the new clients that came in at work, with their big ideas and pompous attitudes, refusing to listen to reason. I talked about my parents calling and telling me to watch my health for the millionth time. Meeting friends from college for drinks.

As I spoke, her eyes gradually returned to their normal colours, white surrounding a striking brown iris. Her stiff smile softened into a more natural-looking one. She stopped pacing around, paying close attention while I talked. It was almost like we were back at the apartment, talking about our day over a bottle of wine, and this glass wall and this parting had never happened.

I was always happiest when I was with her.

The next few minutes or so, we laughed and we had fun. Then she said, “My parents visited. They want to know when I’m coming back.”

That was when I knew – this visit about to end. If it wasn’t her parents, it was a sad memory, or something I mentioned offhandedly to trigger something in her. Whatever it was, when it happened, it meant that time was up.

“Oh,” I said. Like an idiot. I frantically tried to find the right words to turn this around. “Well-“

“Why can’t they just accept the situation, y’know, like… Like you are? They think it’s so simple, like I can just snap my fingers and I’ll be their daughter again. I’m not interested in keeping up their delusions – ”

With the rising anger came the black. Her iris was now a solid round circle. The whites were slowly being taken over. I had to do something quick before it was too late.

“- There’s nothing to do, I have to just wait around for someone to fix this, so in the meantime I don’t need any of this nonsense from anybody, least of all from my parents who refused to listen, didn’t bother trying to help, and didn’t even show up when -“

I was too late.

“…. When it was my turn to go.” Everything was black now. The shadows had returned and reclaimed her, taken her from me. Not even this short time of happiness could they abide. There was nothing I could do now – this visit was finished.

“I… I’m sorry, I need some… some time. I’ll see you next week, okay? I’ll be better next week.” She turned her back and melded back into the darkness, leaving me staring into pitch black through a glass wall.

“I love you!” I shouted. But those weren’t the right words.

There was nothing to be done. I would just have to be back next week. I walked away, praying that the next time I spoke to her through that glass wall, she would be able to break the cycle and come through the glass, into my arms, and make me whole again.

About The Author

Born, bred, and based in Singapore, Jowell Tan writes prose and poetry after hours for fun and emotional release. His nights consist of writing, rewriting, watching videos on Youtube to avoid writing, and finally, writing again. Please say hello to him on Twitter/Instagram at @jwlltn

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