Earphones firmly in place streaming podcast wisdom. I had my usual unwaivering momentum. Wake, walk, subway, sit. Almost always the same spot in the library. My office shared with hundreds where I persistently try to hack away at the mountain of things that need doing.
I always take the stairs. We should be judged by the number of steps we can leap in one bound over the pills we consume in one day. It’s not unusual to find other students stepping outside of the quiet space into the staircase. Designed for escaping fire, equally suited for escaping the silent humdrum. Most take calls, some have snacks, once I saw couple make coffee from scratch. Grinding the beans noisily and weighing the result before making their refined midday brew.
A dark figure, face hidden by a large hooded coat didn’t strike me as odd. Until I noticed the absence of our most precious of screens. Was this person sleeping? No, people nap at their desks or on the fourth floor couches if they know about their out of place existence.
I think this person might not be ok.
Already three steps up, I head back down.
What am I doing? I’ll just ask. It’s probably nothing. Try not to frighten them. Doubtful they’re expecting your foreign face this morning.
Nothing. Ah they’re listening to music. Or a podcast! Still their body language is rather withdrawn. Normal voice this time, more stern than I intended, “Hey.”
Her face emerges from within. She’s been crying. I ask if she’s alright. She obviously isn’t. I continue to ask anyway. She says she is, she just needs some time. I can see her holding her emotion in. She’s young, definitely an undergrad. This university is really demanding, and it’s exam season. Am I able to relate to her needs? Am I the one most suitable to help?
I tell her that there are more comfortable places to sit. Couches on the fourth and first floors. I remind her that she’s not alone. Thank you she replies. It feels so formal. I leave, noticing my earphones were in my hands. Soon my ears. She retreats back into her own embrace. I walk up and I immediately regret the interaction.
Earlier this week I was teaching students about the meaning of the word empathy. The purpose was to practice English but I also wanted them to be aware of powerful and meaningful words. This word being one I feel we all need to put into practice more.
In another instance I spoke and listened to a 4 year old boy who was causing havoc in an art class. He didn’t want to paint he told me. And so asked I what he really wanted to do? Paint. Ah, Ok? Not what the girls were painting. He wanted to paint a plane. What kind of plane? A big one. I drew it, and a big truck after it. He diligently painted both. Suddenly focused, calm, even happy. A little listening with my eyes at the same height as his was all that was required.
I aspire to be someone who takes notice. Modern society has made us all so insular. We pay more attention to influencers on Instagram posting perfect pictures of travel destinations than to someone sitting silently on a pavement. Invisible and unnoticed. I want to be a friend my friends can count on and within this lonely existence I want to make meaningful connections. In the end, nothing matters. From dust to dust. We’re all dying. Slowly, fast, or suddenly without any hint of prior notice. It’s all about the journey. And along the way the relationships we make.
As I sat down, ready to work, I felt uncomfortable. I should’ve done more. I could’ve sat with her. Perhaps a coffee from downstairs. If I am to be who I want to be, I should be more willing and able. I reasoned that perhaps this is the cusp of change. That as we decide to be a different version of ourselves there has to be a point of transition. A line that we cross where we flip, finally, from old self to new self. As gradually as the sun sets, there is a point when it is definitively night. I’ll be better for the next person I find experiencing a low moment.
I study with a good friend. Totally different fields, we sit near each other, observe the other’s screens preventing procrastination. Where was he? I see, our usual spots taken he sat somewhere new on the floor. I’ll convince him to switch. As I get up, I see her walking ahead of me towards his section of the floor. Wonderful, she’s back on her feet. I wasn’t needed after all.
When I get there. I can’t see her but do notice a new fire escape door. Has she changed locations? She probably wants some quiet. Fate is toying with my commitment to my aspirations. What will I do now that I have a second chance to remedy to my first hopless attempt? Sit back down of course. Change is hard. I stand still on the precipice.
I need a coffee. I walk down the same staircase where I found her earlier. An afterimage of my disappointment faintly appears as I pass our meeting point. Do I have some sort of saviour complex? Who exactly do I think I am? Am I thinking about this so much because she’s a she? Becuase she’s young? A young she? No, that wasn’t the texture of the feeling. Someone was sad, and if I’m the one who stopped to check, then surely we’d reached the limit of people who might stop. Where are her friends? Why didn’t she text someone? Maybe it’s something her friends won’t know how to deal with. Maybe someone close to her died. Maybe then, I can help.
I return, coffee in hand. Walk to secret fire escape. She’s there. New staircase, same position. I still decide it’s best to leave her alone. She’s made it this far. She doesn’t appear to be in danger. Really what the hell was I thinking I was going to say or do?
I leave. Again.
I take a phone call. I reply to a text. Mere distractions. I can’t shake this thought. For how long will my inaction haunt me?
Oddly concerned by what the people will think of this madman walking around so much heading once again towards the least popular staircase. Their eyes transfixed with their various screens, I clutch my phone and earphones, an unnecessary disguise.
I see her. She’s moved again. Further up, closer to the door, just enough to feel the warm sunlight from the ceiling window. I exhale, she’s ok. But fate isn’t having any of that. We’re supposed to be meet today. She turns and sees me. Easily the most recognisable person in the entire library, there just aren’t many biracial africans with nose rings and mustard yellow raincoats wandering around. I can’t run.
I don’t want to.
Hey, you moved! To state the obvious. She nods, flashing a hint of a forced smile. I feel the cultural chasm I imagined before shrinking. A chance to be better than my earlier self. I ask, what’s up?
She broke up with her boyfriend the night before. Must’ve been quite a relationship to have this heartbreak.
How long were you dating? 6 months. Wait, as I try not to wryly smile. How old are you? 18. You’re both from the same hometown and you both came to Tsinghua together? A teary, soft yes.
I love first loves. I know the experience well. From my own perspective. From being a first love to two others. I can’t forget. There is nothing quite like first. Second love is amazing, it can last a lifetime, deliver beyond imagination. But the texture is different. The second bite is not the first. There can only be one first.
First love is all consuming. You are both standing beneath the waterfall and are the waterfall itself. It is reckless. You feel forever within the finiteness of everything and yet don’t question its nature. Anything is possible in first love. Its end is devastating. How can something so pure be a lie?
She tells me what happened. Back in high school, the mission of getting into university was a much simpler and focused existence. The world was smaller then. Now it’s growing, at an increasing rate. So much more complicated. What he wants, as a traditional chinese man as she puts it, of her and from her are not what she wants. She dreams of travelling to remote parts of China and teaching in underprivileged communities, doing first hand research to the benefit of person and country. To see the world and learn another language, make the best of her time and resources. This is her dream. She’s fiercely determined. I know to expect nothing less of the students here.
Hold on. Pretend I have no idea what you mean by traditional chinese man? Ah, yes, hmm, he won’t be happy if I go somewhere far with other boys. Oh, I think all men are like that. At least at the start we all have to learn what secure attachment looks like.
She says it is her fault though. Recently she hasn’t felt in control of her emotions. Too easily angered and she doesn’t know why. There just isn’t any time and everything is harder.
Stress is cruel in its subtle sabotage of us. All the people around her are breaking up too. All the evidence we need.
What about her friends? Her roommates? She admits to having done a poor job of getting to know the latter and she hasn’t really found the former, she’s been spending all her free time with him. Now she’s alone in a way she didn’t expect to be. She doesn’t want to be so sad.
I remember that this is how it’s supposed to be. To be sad is one of the indicators that the relationship was important. That it meant and still means something. Friends? This is the perfect time to make some. Pointing to myself, she’s just made a new one.
None of this lessens the heartache. Not hers and, as I reflect, not mine.
I share my vulnerability. Yet again I find myself nursing my broken heart. Wondering not why I repeat this endeavour but whether I’ve peaked? Thinking of all the mistakes I made and how I lost a perfect treasure. Will I reach such great heights again? I have to remind myself, continually, that it was luck, serendipity, kismet, that lead to my discovery. I didn’t really do anything. And if I could find love in a faraway land, then it can be found anywhere. She’s surprised that I speak of more than one, eleven years her senior I tell her she has ample time to catch up.
I assure her that I’m grateful to have known a handful of people intimately. Deeply. Because the ones that stand out, really do stand out. Not merely the brightest stars in the night sky, but the Sun giving us the day.
She’ll love again I promise her. Also a promise to myself. Thinking again of my twenties, I let her know it’s so much more convoluted that it initially seems. She may still return to him. Repeatedly. Or never again. Maybe she’ll move to another country and find a new love or lovers. She smiles, yes lovers. I feel like a fairy godmother now. The options are endless, she only need do what she’d like to. All is not lost.
She’s noticeably better. I shift our conversation to food, an easy topic, and uncover our shared appreciation of chocolate and ice cream desserts. A glance at the time, a reminder that we have busy lives to attend to, we part. She thanks me for meeting her today, I thank her sharing her story. I remind her that it’s ok to be sad but to remember she’s never alone.
I thought I was going to help her. I didn’t forsee that listening to her would help me too. As I near the end of my twenties and she the start of hers, her future concerns are my past successes and regrets.
Easy to forget the journey travelled and the sheer cliff faces scaled to get to this point. The anguish and the triumphs. She helped me realise I have grown and I have learned. I feel helpless, hopeless, and disconnected as I fail to figure out my thesis work. Floating unthered in the void waiting to suffocate is not how I imagined my masters would be. I’ve been here before though. As all defining as it feels, it’s not, and it’s not why I’m here. I am relentless and increasingly resilient. I think we all are if we let the lessons shape us. I’m still figuring myself out but I am enjoying the process. We are who we aspire to be and it’s never too late to go back.