Second Home

Jess Wong
Aug 10th, 2014

 

They go there to forget and remember. Tomorrow is far away. They have a few hours before turning off the light and waking up to frustrations again.

 

 

 

The men in my neighbourhood assemble every night.

 

It began soon after the Government encouraged less educated housewives to be retrained as domestic helpers and doulas, or birth attendants. In the housing estate where I live, some women traded their aprons for a job. It meant empowerment to them but something else to the husbands.  

 

Like most men in the housing estate, my neighbour, Mr. Chan, worked hard to support his family. He was fifty and a truck driver. Despite working at least ten hours a day, his salary was barely enough to put food on the table. After discovering the stack of unpaid bills in his drawer, Chan’s wife got a job as a domestic helper. From then on, weariness replaced her smile. She came home to more chores. He came home to stare at his daughter’s bolted bedroom door.

 

One night, when his wife was working overtime, Chan escaped his home and wandered about the neighbourhood. A secluded place by the stagnant river got his attention. It was separated from the garbage collection point by a torn and rusty chain-link fence. The place smelt like rotten fish broth. The only trace of human activity was the discarded bits of furniture. But it was spacious and sheltered by the overpass. It could be an ideal hideout.  Everything was still. He could hear the garbage bags rustle. And someone’s slow and steady breath. He turned around. Three middle-aged men in khakis and t-shirts stood a few feet behind him. As they shook hands, their wedding bands brushed against each other. After exchanging names, they each pulled a chair from a different dining set and sat down next to each other.

 

It was harmless. They knew each other as another married lower-class man with a working wife, distant children and too many unpaid bills. Nothing more. They smoked, drank beers and complained about the results of soccer matches or horse races. That was enough to make them feel alive. The cigarettes urged their hearts to beat fast and loud, reminding them that they were still living. The alcohol warmed their bodies. Their skin tinkled and burned, reminding them of their first kiss in the schoolyard: mesmerizing and short-lived. They were 17 again. For three hours, they could forget about the unpaid bills, the lethal silences at dinner, and the cold and empty stares from their teenage daughters.

 

Perhaps reminiscing about lost youth was too tempting. They could not resist. More cigarette butts decorated the ground. Beer became Maotai. Rants became gambling. Before they realized it, longer hours were spent there. Some began to miss dinner and some stayed past midnight, to immerse themselves in the joys of temporary youth. They chose not to know about their children’s pointless quarrels or the empty side of their beds at night.

 

Now, when I walk past on my way home, I no longer see married men who long to connect. I see boys with wrinkled foreheads and receding hairlines, determined to disconnect with the world until the night calls on them. When their eyes can no longer cheat their minds and insist on closing, they leave with reluctance. On their way back to their flats, the summer breeze takes away the warm blessing of alcohol. Their heartbeats slow down. Each step is weighted by fading youth and responsibilities. As the elevator door opens on their separate floors, all that remains is the pungent smell of cigarettes and the yearning for another night. 

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Jess Wong
Hong Kong
Last blog date: Aug 10th, 2014

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