Kissing a Stranger

Story 1:
How To Smile Ephemerally

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"Never a lip is curved with pain, that can't be kissed into smile again."

~Brete Harte

The subway was the last place one would expect to find anything of emotional support let alone solace or hope. I know that's for sure. The station walls are painted light gray with its uniform blue and red stripes, lending a rather bleak look. At regular intervals, seats and colorful ads are strategically placed. Overhead, the lights illuminated the tiled floor with bright intensity. Air conditioners in the ceiling cooled the surroundings. The subway line has a total of twenty-four stations; five of which is underground whereas the remaining ones are either elevated or leveled. Platform screen doors are installed in those underground stations for safety purposes and sometimes doubling as mirrors. The interior of the trains too, were largely stark and simplistic. All in all, the place looked pretty drab. Not much for being warm. Pun intended.

The line's busy island platforms are constantly thronged with people surging in or out of trains. It's always bustling. Up the stairs or down the stairs they go. Some took advantage of the lifts meant for the handicap for their own selfish need. Squeezing in, stumbling out of packed trains. Those in the crowd with restless feet tapped impatiently. Weary eyes eyed the digital clock dictating arrival times. Newspapers rustled, as their reader turn the page, ignorant of the surroundings. Some busied themselves with their gadgets – cell phone, MP3 player, PDA, Blackberry, iPod – you name it, they have it. The more reserved ones idled around occupying themselves with their silent thought. The boisterous ones chat with one another in loud voices – alas, what a bustling atmosphere. Ironically, even with the less than peaceful atmosphere, one could feel quite alone in such a place. Nobody seems to care about their neighbor; so wrapped up in their own business that they seem single-minded. Not that it was an unusual thing.

It's the same old thing, day in day out. To say that the subway station is akin to a sardine canning factory is – amusingly to say – quite apt. It's not hard to imagine the trains as cans and the crowd of people as sardines. And trust me; you do not want to smell the aroma of these trains during those times either. Needless to say, the trains tend to be more packed than a can of sardines then. The only time these busy platforms are actually breathable spaces is the period between the peak hours. A frequent commuter myself, I would know first hand anything a subway could dish out – freebies, eye candies, perverts, rowdy teenagers, etc. Pickpockets and vendors were common though most people pay no attention to the latter. Alas, what more could a subway offer? I'm very much well-versed with the subway's daily routines.

Despite the mediocrity, I have always found the subway fascinating. It is a haven for people-watching; something like bird-watching except you observe humans instead. Oh no, don't get me wrong. I'm not a stalker. I just like observing people – their reactions, facial expressions, body language. I could lose myself in the diversity of it all. Though I must admit, time is a luxury I've never had. If I had that luxury, I wouldn't have to resort to observing people in the subway. I could do so in a more comfortable environment such as Starbucks with a steaming mug of hot chocolate in a hand and a scrumptious blueberry muffin in the other. Either way, I enjoy observing strangers going about their daily routines.

Occasionally, I feel like I'm watching a real live drama playing right before my eyes. Though I'm just an outsider observing from the sidelines, sometimes the expressions these strangers put on tug at my heartstrings though most of the time they tickle my funny bone instead. On the other hand, my vivid imagination does lend a hand in creating scenarios and personal histories for every random person I observe. As such, people tend to throw me weird looks whenever my unsolicited chuckles slip out. I must confess, watching couples can be quite dull after a while not to mention the faint feeling of voyeurism. They're one of my most avoided objects of interest. It isn't exactly heartening to see two people all over one another.

Moreover, I find their antics amusing too. Just the other day, two elderly women were sitting directly across my seat on the train. They were arguing animatedly about the advertisement above my head. It was an ad for a perfume with a half-naked male model clad in stonewashed jeans posing sensuously on the beach. I watched with interest as they bicker over – what an absurd topic – the model's hairstyle in rapid Mandarin. One woman said he'd look better with a bald head. The other argued, saying he'd look like an old man instead. Their bickering continued even after they both stepped out the train. My shoulders shook with suppressed mirth. The book I was engrossed in lay open on a blank page. A young boy sitting diagonally from my seat stared at me with open curiosity. Still shaking, I winked at him and gave a small smile. His brown eyes widen by a fraction and he dropped the ice cream he was eating. The woman in green next to him – whom I assumed was his mom – gently chided him. He couldn't have been more than eight years old. But I noticed the tell-tale color of his cheeks – it was pink. I chuckled. I didn't know young kids get so affected by being stared at. But then again, the poor kid was probably be freaked out by me who seemed to be laughing for no apparent reason.

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It was raining heavily when I hopped down from the bus and ran to the station. Despite the short distance, my clothes were damp. I groaned to see my shoes thoroughly soaked. I was still shivering when the train rumbled to a halt on the platform. With a beep, the platform screen doors slid open and a few passengers trickled out. I was appalled at the mass of bodies packed inside. My wet shoes squeaked on the tiled floor as I squeezed inside. The cool air conditioned air did no good for my body. Teeth chattering, I squeezed my way towards the middle section adjoining the two coaches. I stumbled slightly when the train jerked forward. Tucking a damp strand of hair behind my ear, I popped the earplugs into my ears and switched on my iPod. I settled into a comfortable standing position – my back against the wall with one leg propped up, arms folded to keep myself warm.

I wasn't in the mood for people watching though my eyes casually surveyed my surroundings out of habit. Today's crowd was pretty diverse – a cacophony of different races. But then again, it was a common sight since Malaysia is a multiracial country. Besides the regular commuters I see almost everyday, there were a few extras. A couple of college students sitting nervously on the plastic seats going through lecture notes for – what I assumed – their exams. A group of teenagers stood near the doors joking loudly. Opposite them, an elderly man was leaning on his walking stick, squinting at the route map above the doors. I didn't bother to spare a glance at the young couple huddled up in a corner, flirting. On the other end of the train, a tourist was busy snapping photographs on his huge camera, fascinated by the streaks of water on the window. An unbidden smile crept up my face.

Then I saw him. I was lip syncing the lyrics to the song 'Mesmerized' by Lifehouse on my iPod when he caught my eye – probably due to the large newspaper obscuring his face. I could barely see the top of his head. Unconsciously, I studied him with mild interest. The polished black leather shoes he wore shone under the white light. I was immediately reminded of the shoes I used to wear for marching competitions back in high school. His legs were decked in a pair of smooth, black slacks. I briefly wondered if his legs were as long as they look. The sleeves of his shirt were rolled up exposing tanned and lean, muscular arms. A silver watch was strapped on his left wrist. The tip of a silver tie peeked out from underneath the newspaper. My gaze lingered on his dress shirt. It was a pinstriped black shirt. I vaguely recall my friend, Marie raving about men's clothing.

"Guys decked in pinstriped shirts are so hot," Marie had said while gushing over a young executive in the said shirt. "Especially those long sleeved, black ones."

"Oh please," I had laughed at her. "I bet you say that to every male decked in that shirt!"

"I beg to differ. I do have taste y'know," she returned with a pout.

"I think that's just silly."

"You're gonna take back your words one day."

"Hahaha, I doubt so."

Lost in thought I barely noticed it when he lowered the newspaper. I glanced back at him when he heaved a sigh. Immediately, I was drawn into him. Forget what I said then, I had to agree with Marie. He was an exception. No, it wasn't his looks (which I'm primarily attracted to most of the time) though he was quite good looking. His straight black hair was slightly messy like it he ran his fingers through it countless times. His features were pleasant to look at, bordering on exceptionally handsome and just good looking – my ideal version of eye candy. The silver tie he wore was loosened around his neck. But his most prominent feature was definitely his eyes though I didn't get a good look at them. I imagined his eyes to be dark; mesmerizing onyx orbs framed by equally dark eyebrows. From a distance, his eyes seemed to be the kind that made women knees go weak. My mouth went dry at that thought.

No, I wasn't drawn to him because of that. It was the expression he wore. He looked so sad. How can a person look that sad? I vaguely wondered. I tried to picture his day quite eventfully. A dozens of scenarios played in my mind. Perhaps he woke up late and was late to work. Or maybe he was fired from work? Probably because he forgot to bring some important documents while he was rushing. Or perhaps he's a really rich man and he found out that he was bankrupt. Or maybe he has this gorgeous lady as his girlfriend. But his gorgeous (where did this thought come from?) girlfriend had dumped him for some old goon. So he's depressed as a… as a homeless dog? I almost snorted in laughter.

As my imagination ran amok, I glanced at him again. He had folded the newspaper away and buried his head in his hands. Something tugged at my heartstrings. He then looked up and stared unseeingly into space. He looked like some lost puppy on the roadside. I felt a strange urge to comfort him and tell him that everything will be fine, to run my fingers over his head and soothe him. I unfolded my arms and stuffed them into my pockets instead. I'm just a stranger. Who am I to show comfort for another person whom I hardly know? And it's a man, to boot. The smooth voice of the intercom broke my train of thoughts.

"Stesen berikutnya, Wangsa Maju. Next station, Wangsa Maju."

I hesitated. My stop was nearing. My feet moved towards him, my body following reluctantly. He sat near the doors. For the first time, I was lost. I didn't know what I wanted to do. He met my uncertain gaze for a split second before the train came to a halt with a jerk. As soon as the doors slid open, I was thrust out of the train onto the platform by the throng of people rushing out. I was momentarily caught in the middle of human traffic. By the time I disentangled myself from the mad rush of people; the doors slid shut and the train started forward.

Realization hit me the moment a wave of regret washed over me. I felt unreasonably guilty for hesitating. I felt guilty because I knew I could've done something to ease that sorrow he felt. But my logical, rational side argued that I didn't know the person that I should not meddle into people's affairs. My emotional side reasoned that I could at least have smiled at him in empathy. I stood in the middle of the platform while my two sides rage war inside my head. Enough! I mentally slapped both voices silly and started for the stairs. As I trudged home that night, I couldn't forget the sad look etched on that handsome stranger's face. I rubbed my arms involuntarily.

I was still feeling restless even after sitting through an hour of sitcoms. Stretching my arms, I padded to my kitchen for a cup of hot Milo. With a steaming mug of hot liquid in hand, I detoured to my room and grabbed my laptop. Settling on the couch again, I decided to indulge myself in a little cyber therapy. I checked my e-mail, tinkered around with Facebook before I decided to blog. For a moment, I was lost in my world of written reality. I went to bed, feeling considerably calmer. As I stared up at my ceiling, I sorted out my feelings. After all, I reasoned, it's not like I'm bound to see him again, right?

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Gritting my teeth, I narrowed my eyes at the man's back as he walked away from me. This was the second time he walked by and brushed my backside with his fingers. He looked like one of those illegal immigrants overrunning the country recently. I watched him as he made a wide circle over the neighboring shelves, feigning interest in the books displayed every now and then. I thought he accidentally brushed past me since I was standing in the middle of the aisle. I apologized and graciously stepped closer towards the shelves to allow space. He went on his way, seemingly wandering among the books. When he brushed by me and apologized again, I was inwardly seething. My usual Book Therapy Friday in Borders was working wonders to relax my mind until that sleazy guy ruined it. From the corner of my eye, I saw him making his slow, seemingly innocent advance towards me. That slimy git… When he was less than a foot away, I met his gaze head on and poked him viciously on the chest.

"If you touch me one time with those itchy fingers of yours and you'll be sorry you ever laid eyes on me," I said through gritted teeth. He had the cheek to look surprised. I glared before adding in a dangerous voice, "Don't say I didn't warn you." Turning on my heels, I stormed off. Still seething, I made my way towards another section on the other side of the store. Grabbing a random book from the shelf, I headed to the nearby sofa and sat. No way was I taking any chances of being felt up again. After reading the synopsis at the back of the book, I eagerly opened up the book and lose myself in the world of – cough – yes, romance. Two books and a head full of romance later, I decided to head home early to avoid the rush hour. Apparently I got a little too carried away when I belated realized that it was in the middle of the rush hour. I sighed in defeat. Two trains had passed and I still hadn't moved more than 3 steps – the queue was too long.

Then, a familiar looking guy with a large newspaper obscuring his face caught my eye. I was contemplating why he looked so familiar when memories of yesterday flooded into my mind. It was like I'm reliving yesterday all over again – except that he was standing opposite me and we were not in a moving train. I studied his profile. I was right, his legs were long. He had on the same shirt, same tie and the same pair of slacks. His hair was messier than yesterday. I began to wonder whether that was his working attire or he didn't go home the day before. I cocked my head to the side and studied the newspaper he was reading. It was obviously a business newspaper and I caught the words like 'investment', 'stocks', 'plummeted' among the jumble of words. Again, he had that sad look on his face. And again, my heart went out to him.

Images from yesterday and today merged into one. He looked so vulnerable with that sad look on his face. I could not just stand and look like I did yesterday. Recklessness made me bolder than usual. I walked up to him till I stood in front of him. He didn't look up from the newspaper. Gently, I lifted his chin and was frozen momentarily. Again I was right. His onyx eyes were exactly the kind that made women knees go weak. When he locked gazes with me, his onyx orbs widened by a fraction. A hint of surprised flickered but the sadness never left his eyes. My smile was laced with empathy. Without a word or a rational thought in my head, I rose on tiptoe and kissed him – right in the middle of a busy platform filled with strangers during the rush hour. Till this day, I don't know what compelled me to do that. Perhaps it was to the numerous romance novels I filled my head with that afternoon. Perhaps it was the dead, lonely look that his sad eyes radiated. Perhaps… oh perish the thought.

I could tell he was slightly taken aback. Yet he neither pushed nor encouraged me in any way. I tried to convey my reassurance to him; that everything will be all right and he needn't worry. That he needn't to make that sad face ever again. As I kissed him, a random quote by Margaret Mitchell came to mind; "Her lips on his could tell him better than all her stumbling words." Despite the circumstances and my intentions for kissing a stranger I hardly know, I felt like I've done something right. I was equally startled to find it rather thrilling – especially so when his hands came up to cup my face. The moment he got over his surprise, he responded to the kiss with restrained passion. I broke the kiss and before it went out of control. He was in a daze and I threw in a hug for a good measure. His arms were limped at his side in shock.

"You–" he began. I smiled and shook my head, placing a finger on his lips. He smiled a little. The ethereal quality of his smile took my breath away. It made him look younger, more handsome with a hint of boyish charm. It was like the sun bursting through the clouds on a rainy day. But alas, it was just an ephemeral smile. As much I wanted to be lost in magic of the moment, reality came knocking on my door in the form of the tell-tale sound of a train approaching the platform.

"There's always hope. Don't give up," I replied. With that, I disappear into the oncoming crowd leaving him speechless in the middle of the platform. From the confines of the train, I watched his expressive onyx eyes shift from confused to comfort. Not a single trace of the sadness I saw earlier was to be seen. Still smiling that ethereal smile of his, I watched as he picked up the newspaper from the floor. He looked up just in time as the train pulled away. I continued to watch until he disappeared out of my sight. He couldn't have spotted me right? I shrugged the thought off and made my way to the center of the train as usual.

Replaying the scene in my head, an unsolicited chuckle escaped my lips. I really acted like some ephemeral being when I disappeared into the crowd. The wannabe Goth standing opposite me cocked an eyebrow at me which pointedly said, 'What's your problem?' but I ignored him. Feeling considerably much light hearted, I plugged in my iPod and observed another pair of squabbling grandmas with amused eyes.

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I yawned and tore my gaze away from a trio of foreign travelers pouring over a map of the city. The day was a drag to put it mildly. After pouring over books for hours, I decided to take a break head down to the city to clear my poor, muddled head. Hopping onto the subway, I was hoping to occupy my bored mind with some interesting people watching. But alas, today's crowd was as boring as my Civic classes back in high school. No one was remotely interesting to watch. I leaned my head back and mused. What shall I do for the rest of the afternoon? The thought of retail therapy seemed strangely appealing. Probably due to the fact I was never much of a person who goes shopping for fun and a major year end sale was going on at most of the shopping malls.

My phone buzzed and I fished it out of my pocket. It was a text message from Marie.

"Hey! Wanna go shopping at Isetan 2moro? They're hving A SALE!"

I smiled and typed a reply.

"Hey Marie :) LOL, I was just thinkin bout it. Tho I'm adi there y'know x)"

"U kiddin me? Evil, ur goin shoppin without me! x("

"Haha.. tis ok, I'll buy something 4 u :)"

"Hmph. You BETTER."

I laughed just as the smooth voice of the intercom interrupted my mirth. "Stesen berikutnya, Ampang Park. Next station, Ampang Park."

Might as well get her some cutesy stuff at Ampang Point first, I thought.

I stepped out of the train. The first thing I noticed that the island platforms were rather bare. The other thing that caught my eyes was the strange assortment of people grouped at a section of the wall, peering at something. Some walked away after viewing it, shaking their heads and muttering under their breath. I was wondering about it when one of the onlookers moved away, revealing something neon yellow in the middle of the stark wall. I realized it was just an ordinary post-it note tacked onto the gray walls of the station. But it wasn't the only one.

As I looked around, I spotted another yellow post-it on one of the standing ads. A few was stuck at irregular intervals throughout the platform; on the wall, trash bin and – oh my – the exit sign too. Seems like whoever stuck those yellow notes wanted it to be noticed. It did work. Curious people grouped around those notes like bees to honey. Curiosity begged me to take a look. As nonchalantly as I could, I walked to the nearest group of people and peered above their heads at the yellow piece of paper. My eyes zeroed onto the writing and widened. It wasn't the tackiness of the note. It wasn't the handsome, strong writing on it either. It was the message depicted by the writing. Written in black ink, the note said;

"To someone special,

I don't know who you are

Nor do I know your name

Though you seemed like an angel

When you kissed away my pain

I doubt we've the chance

Of crossing paths again

But I want you to know

Your deed was not in vain

From the bottom of my heart,

Thank you for bringing back my smile :)

- Fain - "

A corner of my mouth tipped up in a wry smile as I read the short poem. The pseudonym was rather unusual. I fished out my Palm and keyed in 'fain'. The screen flashed the result of my search; Fain stems from the Old English faegen "glad" which means happy or pleased. A strange feeling slowly blossomed in my chest and butterflies seem to take flight in my stomach. My smile grew wider. I glanced at the note again. I noticed a little smiley drawn at the last line and thought it was a little silly, childish even. I chuckled and reached out to peel the note off the wall much to the chagrin of onlookers. I never knew why I took the note; I just felt that I had to – like it's meant for me. I went on my way, albeit grinning like a cat got cream.

As I walked up the steps onto the concourse, I pondered about yesterday's incident. I honestly don't know what compelled me to act the way I did nor do I know who he was or his name. I don't know where he worked nor lived. I don't know whether I'll chance upon him one day. Nor will I know how he felt when I kissed him yesterday. Perhaps he regained his strength to stand on his two feet and smile at the world. Perhaps I showed him there's still a glimmer of hope. Will he think of me? That is one thing I'll never know. One thing is for sure, I somehow made a difference, an impact in his life despite us being strangers. And that's all I need to know. While it was not a real regret, I'm not planning on doing it again... or was it? What's this strange urge to find out the name of the stranger I kissed yesterday? Why do I long to know who he is or how is he doing? I shook my head, scattering the stray thoughts.

I fished out my monthly pass card and mused again. Subways are the last places one could find peace let alone comfort or solace. But I changed that thought almost overnight. Sure, it doesn't really affect the world. Isn't it funny that something as simple as a kiss could do wonders to lift a person's spirit? At least, I made someone else smile though it was ephemeral. And really, it is truly a wonderful feeling. Strange, yet wonderful. Could it be…? Nah, I dismissed the thought.

I swapped my pass at the ticketing machine, pushing the tripod-like barrier. I could already hear the sounds of the bustling city above when I climbed up the flight of stairs out into the open. I breathed in deeply. Open air never felt so fresh after being cooped up underground for almost an hour. I skipped the last step into the bright sunshine. In a distance, the majestic Petronas Twin Towers stood proudly like pinnacles of silver against the blue sky dotted with fluffy clouds. I unclasped my hand and read the note again. Again, that unfamiliar, fuzzy feeling surged my being. Hmm, what if…? I turned it over. A silly grin crept up my face at the sight of another smiley and I sped off in the direction of the familiar place still grinning. In my haste, I didn't see the clock tower on my far right. It was half past four already.

My Converse thudded on the pavement steadily. I initially wanted to wear my brand new sandals to go with the smart casual clothes I picked out for the day but thought better about it. Converse made running much easier. I silently sent a prayer of thanks to God for my practical sense of fashion. I could see Kuala Lumpur City Center entrance but took a left turn instead, cutting through the park. A large pool with fountain in the middle sparkled on my left. I knew the playground and gardens were located beyond the pool. Restaurants and cafes of every kind imaginable mushroomed along the boulevard. I ran along the corridor, past Isetan departmental store and halted just outside Dome. The familiar white and green sign hung next to it. I surveyed the tables in search of a familiar head among the patrons but I saw none. Panicking, I glanced at my watch. A quarter to five. Am I too late? The words on the back of the note materialized before my mind's eyes.

"Starbucks Coffee, KLCC. 4pm. I'll be waiting. :)"

Fighting back a wave of disappointment, I whirled around. The breath I didn't know I was holding came out in a whoosh. There he was – pinstriped shirt, silver tie and all – sitting by the veranda, staring wistfully at the fountain. His arm was propped up, his chin resting on the palm of his hand. His free hand tapped the mug on the table anxiously. As if he sensed my presence, he looked up. Then he smiled.

"Hey… I thought you wouldn't come."

Yes, as I took the seat across him, it is a wonderful feeling.

– The End –


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