Desperately seeking my Valentine
A few minutes before they disappeared behind the emigration point at DXB last year, my daughter slipped two small envelopes into my hand, away from the prying eyes of her mother.
"Read the instructions carefully. Happy Valentine's Day in advance." Vava winked as she whispered.
"Open tonight," read the inscription on Envelope 1. No sooner had I reached home than I tore open the envelope, which sprang no major surprise except a small note that said, "Dad, enjoy the solitude we leave behind. Open Envelope 2 on February 12. Until then dream up fresh Valentine's Day ideas, but don't open my room."
Apart from sending a few greetings, my encounters with Valentines had not only been negligible but also poignantly unromantic. The first episode happened when a young Chinese lady, educated in a top-notch American varsity, roped me in to be her Valentine, either as a stand-in at the last moment or as a foot soldier in her world war with someone else.
As was the case with any Singaporean girl, the most romantic part of it was eating, but my Valentine stood apart, maintaining a class with her table etiquette and demeanour. It was a pleasure watching her use the chopsticks, which moved like a tall stilt walker between her lips and the plate. While she silently lifted even the tiniest morsel to her pursed lips, I inadvertently played the drums with the spoon. She glanced up at me as if the clinks of the spoon hitting the china every time I scooped up food were a criminal act. I was good at using the chopsticks but my order required the use of a spoon.
"Excuse me." That's all she said. I got the message but the more cautious I was, the uglier the clinks were.
"Don't use it like an excavator." I blushed the next time she brought it up. I then choked on the recollection of the racist line in my daughter's SS book, "Malays and Indians eat with their hands". Egos clinked against each other during the rest of our dinner.
Another Valentine night turned out to be a health emergency. She was a diminutive, slim girl who loved to eat. I was full with half my order. As soon as she finished her food, she set her eyes on my plate and let out a shriek, "Are you sure you have finished?"
I crooned a yes. She then grabbed my leftovers, ignoring my repeated request to have a drink instead. "Have a drink to honour the night." She finally caved in and had a couple of them. Slowly she started to turn red, face first.
"Is that a blush?" I asked.
"The drinks have triggered off my allergy," she said, showing her neck, hands and legs that had become as a red as a cherry. She was in pain and embarrassment, trying hard to avoid scratching the skin. I quickly got her an antihistamine tablet.
"Call my husband," she said. He picked her up with a sorry and thanks.
Vava's note in Envelope 2 said prepare the following items for February 13: "A coloured candle; a drink of your choice; a yeast doughnut, soft and fluffy; a plate of Mexican chicken chop with fries, coleslaw and spicy mustard sauce; a bowl of dessert, preferably cherry, sliced mango and jackfruit; a medium bubble tea; and a heart full of dreams. Open my room on the night of February 13 and lay them out on the dressing table which I have already cleared. Switch on the little lights crowning the mirror. Have a date with yourself. Enjoy the dinner and open Envelope 3 in my wardrobe drawer."
I sat there for a long while looking at my candle-lit image in the mirror. My cheeks had begun to sink. There were signs of a double chin. There's dry skin around my moustache. When was the last time I looked at my face beyond the shaving time? When was the last time I took a facial treatment? Did I ever get more than five minutes to enjoy my meals? Food had never tasted so good. I took out an ear stud to see if it might look good on me. Isn't it so cute? I should have got my ears pierced. Who was I scared of?
I thought of a candidate to be my Valentine. A colleague? The bartender? My doctor? The effervescent swarthy nurse who spreads joy and warmth with her polite demeanour and evergreen smile? I remembered my recent encounter with her.
"Did I hurt you?" she asked after pricking my hand to insert a cannula.
"You did," I said.
"Every day, I take home a heart full of good feelings when my patients are happy," Reshmi said.
"I am sorry to have hurt a person who brims with positivity. Can you do me a favour? Never let your smile diminish."
She gifted me a smile and said: "Will keep it in my heart." The right soul to be a Valentine?
After the bubble tea washed the last piece of the Mexican chop down my throat, I tore open Envelope 3. "Dad, this is what you had missed in your life. People and profession trampled on your space and time. You need to love yourself before you love your Valentine. As for February 14, don't be naughty.
Amma will be home in time for dinner. Keep your heart wide open."