*Warning: major spoilers ahead*
I once asked the universe how it was possible to know someone, to connect with somone, to see the world of someone else through eyes, words and feelings alone.
The answer? Love.
Or maybe hope.
Or maybe the faith, the belief, that threads of light like spiderwebs connect us all and tell us how we know when we see another soul who has seen the same corner, depths and places of the universe that we have known and felt as well.
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The loud music of the bar thundered rhythmically, its shockwaves sending vibrations out even into the back alley where two lanky and artistically tattooed individuals reclined. Most prominently, the taller one had a blue, sombre wolf head intricately inked into their inner forearm while the one with the black leather jacket had the rocky outcrop and swirling waves of tidal pools spashed all over both arms. As the one with the wolf head took a long draw on the cigarette they were smoking, the other sipped lightly from a beer bottle, seemingly deep in thought.
“So, how was it?” Beer Bottle suddenly asked.
“Hmm?” Cigarette lowered their stick, their eyes still slightly teary, the kind of wet eyes that you see in someone who had just choked on their food.
“The show. How was it?” Beer Bottle asked again. The bottle hung low against their leg, held loosely in one hand. Their relaxed body posture sent different signals from their eyes, which stared intently at Cigarette, taking in all of the other’s subtle cues, noticing, of course, that Cigarette’s eyes were misty.
“Hmm…” Cigarette took another long draw on their cigarette, before puffing out a chimney of smoke. “It was—
good. The story and the characters; all of it was good. But as he walked out of the black box, the space, he kept wondering: was this opinion “right”? Would someone else, some imaginary friend that, in another universe, he had brought along to watch the show, have spoken differently?
He wasn’t sure.
Heartache. It was a deep-seated aching— physical aching— of the heart that he felt, deep in his chest. People say heartache is a metaphor— no. He could literally feel his heart aching, especially at the scenes where the male partner proposed, especially in the scenes where they talked about building a life together, a house together, about whether to have kids, about whether they would choose each other… it all hit a little too close to home, these conversations between the characters. Perhaps somewhere, sometime in life, the people watching had experienced those conversations too. “… if you look and listen closely, I hope you find your name [in the play]”. Well, he certainly did.
The acting (or perhaps writing) was skilfully done. Whether at the director’s behest or actor-initiated, the lack of close physical contact between both partners (he assumed, due to the 1-meter distancing rule) instead only made the love, bond and distance between both characters so much stronger. How could simple physical distance— a distance that traversed not only physical space, but time, time that was lost and time that was gained, near the end of both characters’ lives— speak so much volume of the depth of feelings between two individuals?
Touching, hugging, cuddling— these had always been hallmarks of the archetypal relationship. But in the simple act of abstaining from these, it seems love— both at its conception and at its breaking— became so much more obvious, in ways that he never could have thought.
Symbolism was another masterful sleight of hand in the story unfolding before the eyes of the audience. Perceptibly, the phrase “I love you” and the images of expired food became a recurrent theme— a motif of shared experiences, until they weren’t. Until one soul in the two-way relationship, due to the travesty of time, had the fortunate (or unfortunate) fate of forgetting. Forgetting and remembrance— each force played out in both the way the script depicted the story and the way sound, light and set shifted around the stage to reflect different points of time, and different points of love.
Non-linear storylines were always interesting, yet challenging. Even watching as many shows as he did, he couldn’t always follow the plot’s progression. But somehow, today, he did. Was it a sign that he had grown? Or that the play had stretched his vision, and allowed him to see life as a jigsaw puzzle, as a kaleidoscope of drizzling pieces that fell everywhere, which could be assembled differently according to different people?
The story was a trope, yes— a common romance (relationship?) trope at that— of a couple whose lives came together, then fell apart, then came together, and fell apart again, and at the end, only one half of the (broken) whole would fall apart entirely, leaving only one soul to carry the memories of two. But though the plot’s style was recognisable, what ached the heart most was perhaps how this journey of love, buried within both life (and death), was skilfully played out in the mundane— in the way you move into a home, in the ways which you (we) take apart a home, and a relationship/marriage, and also in the ways in which we mourn, both for those still here yet not here, and those who truly have left. Though we find common threads of stories across the vast sea of human lives, it is the details of our souls’ journeys that make all the difference, that change what seem to be just another life’s story into the heartrending pain of grief, of loss, of love.
He had to commend the lighting design(er) though. It was—
“—good?” Beer Bottle piped up, after what seemed like ages of listening to Cigarette’s sombre recital.
Cigarette smiled, a distant smile that still did not meet the sadness— no, the pain— in his eyes. “No— I mean, not that it wasn’t good— but that’s not what I meant. The light changed things, moved things; it changed, both in terms of direction and colour, to build the space which different souls resided in, not just the people, and although again it did stereotypically create the “light at the end of the tunnel” scene for both the children in the afterlife, there was this one particular scene that stuck with me the most.”
Cigarette paused here. They slowly brought the stick of tobacco to their lips again, incinerating it down to the butt, flipping it to the ground and crushing it beneath their feet, before continuing in the same solemn tone.
“It was the one where Cher—” he cut himself short, reminding himself that they were speaking of the world and the souls in the world, before continuing, “—the female (I assumed) partner and her presumably male counterpart sat on chairs that didn’t face the other. They seemed like they were talking, yet their words were punctuated constantly by the sound of a camera shutter clicking, along with rapid flashes of camera-shutter light. It was… out-of-place, to say in the least. That was the beginning of the end, for me. When their lives started falling apart.” Cigarette suddenly went silent, as if having exhausted his lifetime’s supply for words, and both parties fell into a stoic silence.
“Do you ever feel like dying?” Beer Bottle quietly asked. The way they asked it, it seemed as though it was a question they had been waiting to ask all through the conversation, like a lover’s unsaid “I love you” hanging in the air, which only two souls entwined together could understand.
A loud crackling suddenly resounded from Cigarette’s earpiece.
“… to anyone in the area, we’ve got reports of a snatch-and-go on 52nd Avenue, repeat…” Static interspersed with words made it hard to decipher what whoever was on the line was trying to say.
“We’ve got it,” Cigarette replied sharply. “We’ll head over soon.”
“Wait,” Beer Bottle said. “Finish your Because.”
Cigarette looked towards him, and for the first time that night, truly smiled.
“Because sometimes, I just want to move. And go somewhere. Someplace— that isn’t here.”
“Their hearts never mended, for some wounds never truly heal.”
ANAMNESIS, this is my love letter to you. I hope it does you justice. I write this while drinking milk tea calmly but inside, my heart is crying. My face has simply become numb to the voice(s) of this world.
Thank you for impacting me as much as you did and for reminding me of what love is, to me.
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ANAMNESIS was an independent production directed by Isaiah Christopher Lee, written by Cheryl Charli Tan and performed by Cheryl Charli Tan & Izzul Irfan. Exploring love’s tenacity and its relation to the presence and absence of memory amidst destabilising loss and psychological displacement, the play ran from 31 July to 3rd August 2021 at Aliwal Arts Centre.
Read the full programme booklet here.