Polleen is the daughter her Chinese mother tried not to bring up whenever she saw her relatives.
‘Is she married?’ her sister Ann would ask.
Instead of answering a yes or no, she would divert her attention into thinking about her own faults.
‘You said your friend had a son looking for a wife during Chinese New Year. I’ve never heard from you about him since,’ she would say to her.
Whether this was real or not, it didn’t matter — Madam Lee’s goal was accomplished: she didn’t need to answer the embarrassing question.
But no matter how she distracted her relatives, the mother of three couldn’t help but feel a little guilty. While both her elder son and daughter were married, her youngest daughter was coming close to 30 and still living at home with her and her husband. What had she done wrong?
She lit up an incense and prayed to the large Guan Yin statue in the temple. It was the fifteenth day of the fourth lunar month. Although Madam Lee had shown up in the temple every first and fifteenth without fail for the last forty or so years, this was the first time she had felt so desperate.
In this temple, where she once prayed for Polleen when she failed her exams in Form 4 and saw her bring home a miracle B grade soon after, she was hoping for a new kind of miracle.
‘Guan Yin Pu Sa, you know my daughter Polleen Lee Shi Yin is still alone. Please, if you could gift her with a husband who would love her like family,’ she prayed quietly, kneeling.
It was not that Polleen was oblivious to her mother’s concerns. She had seen traces of it everywhere, not least in her mother’s excitement whenever she mentioned she was going out.
Though, Polleen couldn’t say she was as concerned. It wasn’t 1970 anymore and she wasn’t the only one in her group of friends to be unmarried.
Sure, she was one month away from turning thirty, but Polleen didn’t feel any different. The dreaded biological alarms? She didn’t hear them. New wrinkles on her face? That didn’t quite affect her either. At twenty-nine, she was still being mistaken for a college student all the time.
So you couldn’t really blame her when Madam Lee came home that evening with an amulet for her, Polleen simply said thanks, put it in her bag, and went back to watching TV.
Madam Lee saw this as an insult to her efforts.
‘You are not taking this seriously,’ her mother told her.
‘It’s just an amulet ma, it won’t -‘ Polleen said to her.
But before she could finish, her mother broke down crying.
‘Do you know… how worried I am…,’ her mother asked Polleen in between her sobs, ‘Tell me, who will take care of you when your father and I pass on?’
Polleen was shocked. Her mother was not someone who gave in to tears easily. But this time, things appeared serious.
‘I didn’t mean that, sorry,’ she told her mother, ‘Look, I know you’re worried. I’ll do something about it.’
Her mother looked up. ‘Is that true?’ she asked her, ‘Will you really?’
‘I promise ma, I will,’ Polleen told her.
That night, against her own reservations about online dating, Polleen registered herself as pollylsy1988 on a dating app and then uploaded a picture of herself. She wanted to keep her promise.
A few minutes after, she started receiving messages from complete strangers online.
That was quick, she thought, this is easier than I thought.
But when she opened the messages, she realized that most of them were looking for one-night stands. Even though she didn’t reply to them, she felt embarrassed having the messages on her phone.
Doesn’t look like I’ll get what I want here. I’ll have to try another site, Polleen thought to herself.
But as she was about to exit the dating site, a new message came in. It was from a guy with the username cwmaster.
‘Hey,’ he wrote, ‘looks like we’re from the same city. Do you like Sanny’s Pizza Place too?’
It was a guy named Calbert, a 29-year-old guy who seemed to be from her city. The profile picture was of a bespectacled and fit guy in his twenties. She wondered if the picture was really him.
Athletic, Full-time accountant, part-time toys enthusiast, his profile description had read.
Should she reply? Polleen wondered.
But there’s no harm, Polleen thought to herself. There was a screen between them and other than her first name and picture, she hadn’t given away other personal details about herself. Anyways, Calbert seemed friendly enough. If anything went wrong, she could always just stop replying.
Soon enough though, Polleen realized there was little to be concerned about. Calbert never made inappropriate remarks and, he was fun to chat with.
Very quickly, their conversations drifted from pizzas to their shared love of sports and then, everything else. About one week into their first chat, Polleen found herself logging into the app only to check his messages every day.
Was she in love with Calbert? she didn’t know. But now, three months into their chatting with one another online, Polleen found herself liking and trusting Calbert enough to suggest a meet-up.
As if he had read her mind, Calbert suggested a meet-up even before she asked.
‘Aren’t you afraid I’ll catfish you?’ Polleen teased Calbert.
‘I’m willing to bet you won’t,’ he told her, ‘But well, if you do catfish me, well, I could just up and go. But I’m pretty sure it won’t happen.’
It was late June and that meant the Polleen would be getting a night off from her weekly shifts at the General Hospital the week after.
‘Is Tuesday good for you?’ she told him.
‘Let’s do that. Sanny’s for dinner?’ he said.
‘Sounds good to me.’
Polleen remembered the large clock at the corner where Sanny’s was. It would be the perfect place to spot one another.
‘Let’s meet under the white clock,’ she told him.
Boy meets girl
When it was finally Tuesday, Polleen felt energized enough to wake up even before her alarm rang.
She got up, got ready and put on a nice dress with some perfume.
She didn’t want to admit it but she was feeling giddy all over, something she hadn’t experienced since high school.
Was she really doing this? Meeting up with some guy from a dating site?
As excited as she was about the meet-up though, she hadn’t told a soul about it. She wanted to make sure that if things didn’t work out, she wouldn’t need to explain to her friends about it. She could just delete her profile from the dating app and bring the embarrassing secret with her to the grave.
‘I’m the guy in the white shirt and black pants,’ she receives a message from Calbert an hour before the meet-up.
In her white top and black skirt, Polleen had coincidentally matched up to Calbert’s outfit that day.
‘It appears we’re twinning today. I’m wearing a white top and black skirt. This will be fun,’ she replied.
‘I’m on my way now,’ another message from Calbert came in fifteen minutes before the meet-up.
‘Me too,’ she told him, exiting from the train station nearest to Sanny’s.
Out the underground tunnel, she could see the white clock about ten metres in front of her. Just under the clock stood a few people who seemed to check their phones every now and then a few others who were already in pairs or groups and were about to leave for their next destination.
From where she was standing, she couldn’t make out a man in a white t-shirt and black pants. Maybe I need to move closer, she thought to herself.
‘I’m here,’ she receives a message from Calbert.
She looked again. Still, she could not spot anyone in a white t-shirt and black pants.
Maybe a little closer still, she thought to herself.
Polleen’s heart beat faster. What is that feeling someone gets when they meet a virtual person in the flesh? she wondered.
Well, she was about to find out.
The pedestrian light turns green. She walks across the zebra crossing, inching her way to the clock and Calbert.
About halfway across, she saw him. Well, not exactly, but she was sure it was him from behind. He was right height and shape.
She walked faster.
‘Calbert?’ she called out to him when she stood right behind him.
But when the man turned around, his face bore no resemblance to the guy she had been chatting with for the last three months.
It wasn’t Calbert.
‘Oh, sorry,’ she said to the guy, ‘I thought you were someone I knew.’
Where is he? she now wondered. He said he was here already. Polleen looked around her.
‘I’m here now,’ Polleen sent Calbert a message, ‘Where are you?’
‘I’m right under the clock. Are you?’ he replies.
‘Yeah, I am. Where are you hiding?’ she teases him, slightly hoping he was playing hide and seek with her.
‘I’m not hiding,’ he told her.
Polleen looks around again. She searches every single inch within a five metre radius from the clock. Still, Calbert was nowhere.
‘Stop playing with me. Are you here or not?’ Polleen was starting to get angry.
‘I’m at the only white clock in this whole entire neighborhood and you’re not here,’ she says, sending him a selfie of her and the clock.
In return, Calbert sends a selfie of him with the white clock also.
Two hours had past 7pm. Things were starting to get confusing and Polleen was getting tired of the hunt. Was Calbert taking her for a fool? She didn’t know.
She squats down under the clock.
‘I don’t think we’re getting anywhere with this,’ she sent Calbert a message, ‘Let’s go home.’
‘But I’m here. You don’t think I’m lying, do you?’ the message from Calbert came in swiftly.
‘Look, it’s getting late. I’m not hungry anymore. We’ll… plan something for next time,’ Polleen told him. Inside, she didn’t even know if there would be a next time.
Reluctantly, Calbert agree. ‘Okay,’ he says, ‘be safe okay? Let me know when you get home.’
‘Yeah, you too.’
Smells like a fish
‘You should check him out,’ her friend Jenny told her, ‘lots of scammers online these days. Who knows? He might be a Nigerian Prince.’
Polleen had gone home that night confused. Though she had sworn not to tell anyone about it, what happened had confused her too much and she needed some answers.
‘But he sent me a picture of him right there…’ she told Jenny.
Her friend laughed. ‘Boy, you’re really new to this, aren’t you?’ she said, ‘A picture is a picture. How would you know when he took this? It could have been a few days before yesterday.’
Her gut feeling about Calbert told her that he wasn’t someone who would lie to her. Could she be wrong?
That day, she didn’t reply to any of the new messages Calbert had sent her. She didn’t want to invest any more of her feelings in a relationship that was not real.
The truth will free you
‘Look,’ she finally sent him a message at night, ‘if you are lying to me, if you’re a scam artist, you can come clean now.’
‘You weren’t really there on Tuesday night right? The selfie was a picture you took a few days before that.’
Calbert was online, but for a good thirty minutes, he didn’t reply.
Polleen felt her heart sink. Maybe Jenny was right. Calbert, having been caught, was finding it hard to weasel his way out of this one now.
She stopped looking at her phone and switched on her TV instead. She should never have signed up for dating apps, she thought herself.
But about five minutes into watching TV, she gets a reply from Calbert. She did not reach for her phone immediately. Although she was expecting the worse, to see it written out plainly would only make her feel like a failure.
After a few minutes, she gathered enough courage to finally open it.
‘I’ve been thinking about what to reply you,’ he wrote, ‘I was there, but I guess what you want is evidence. So, I’m going to ask you to take a look at those photos again.’
‘Behind the photo, you can see a banner for the ‘Raise Hope for Children with Cancer’ foundation. It’s a yearly event that happens every year on the 5th of July. They’re only there once a year on that day. So at least that verifies that I was really there on the day itself.’
5th of July? Jenny thought. Wasn’t it the 3rd of July they met?
She checked her phone. She was right. The Tuesday they met was 3rd of July, not 5th.
‘You mean 3rd of July right Calbert? Because the 5th is a Thursday.’
‘No, the 5th of July is a Tuesday. Are you looking at the right calendar?’
‘Yes, I’m pretty sure it’s the 2018 calendar on my phone,’ she told him.
‘Yeah, uh, that’s the year we’re in right?’
‘You’re joking with me or something? It’s 2016.’
Still smells like a fish
‘What joke is this? Now this Calbert guy is pretending to be someone from 2016? What are we? Actors in Blast from The Future?’ Jenny laughed again, ‘Even if all facts check out – that this Raise Hope Foundation is real – he could have just photoshopped himself in. With scammers, the sky’s the limit.’
This time though, what Polleen saw wasn’t so sure about Calbert scamming her.
Noticing her friend’s reservations, Jenny leaned in and said, ‘Look babe, I know you’re totally in love with this guy, but you have to protect yourself. You don’t have to take my word for it, Google him.’
Google him? Why hadn’t she think of it?
‘Google has everything about anyone. You just have to dig,’ Jenny continued.
When she went home last night, Polleen wrote Calbert’s name into Google and let it do its magic.
Within a few seconds, she found him. Jenny’s a genius, she thought to herself. She should have done this earlier.
In the first link was Calbert’s LinkedIn profile. In it, she found everything about him professionally. He was an accountant like he said he was. From his profile, he had worked with all big fours in the country. At his age, he had already accomplished himself as an executive.
Well, at least there’s a real Calbert Yeong, she thought to herself.
She opens the second link. It was a news about Calbert’s achievements in sports in secondary school. He was a swimmer and according to the news article, his coach had eyed him for the Olympics one day.
Wow, Calbert never told me about that! Polleen thought to herself.
She goes back to the search results and looks at the third link. Unlike the first two links though, Polleen wasn’t quick to open this one.
The third link read:
Obituary: Calbert Yeong, Wake at St. Michael’s on…
An obituary? Maybe this is for a different Calbert, Polleen thinks to herself.
What she sees inside, however, confirmed her worst fears.
In the same spectacles, she had seen hundreds of times on Albert’s chats with her was a black and white photo of Calbert in a dress shirt.
There, just under the photo read:
Calbert Yeong Tze Loong, 7/12/1987 – 14/7/2016
Polleen tries to catch her breath.
It can’t be real. It just can’t be.
Death is a master
If the obituary was real, Polleen thought, then, Calbert will die in a few days.
She wondered if this was an elaborate hoax. She looked around her. Were there hidden cameras somewhere?
You can come out now, she thought.
Should she tell Calbert? she wondered. If this was real, if everything that had happened was real, then, maybe Calbert deserved to know.
That day, perhaps because of the unease about the information she had discovered about Calbert, Polleen was acting strangely in her chats with him.
Try as she might to sound normal, Calbert somehow sensed that something was amiss with Polleen.
‘Is there something wrong?’ he asked her.
Something is very wrong, Polleen thought to herself. She took a deep breath and decides to tell him.
‘There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you,’ Polleen said.
‘You can tell me anything.’
‘I found something online about you today.’
‘Woah, you Googled me?’
‘Haha yeah, I did.’
‘So what did you find? Hopefully something good? My swimming achievements?’
‘Yeah, I found that, and, something else.’
‘What’s that something else?’
Polleen couldn’t breathe.
‘Your obituary,’ she finally uttered, releasing the tension she had held inside of her for almost a day.
For a few minutes, Calbert didn’t reply.
‘What does it say?’ he finally asked.
‘I don’t know… maybe you should see it for yourself,’ Polleen replied.
She sent him a screenshot of the obituary.
A few minutes passed before Calbert replied her.
‘This means I’m dying in three days,’ he wrote back.
‘Look, I don’t know,’ Polleen wrote, ‘this could mean nothing…’
‘It means everything Polleen,’ Calbert replied. ‘But if you’re worried about how I feel about it, don’t. I’ve never feared death. I’m prepared for it.’
Calbert’s reaction wasn’t something Polleen had expected. In contrast to the feelings of fear she had anticipated, Calbert was unusually calm. It was as if he was comfortable with the prospect of dying as if he had been rehearsing for it for a long time.
Polleen, on the other hand, felt a tinge of sadness grow inside of her. If this was real, she would be losing Calbert very soon.
‘If this really happens,’ she wrote to him, ‘I’m gonna miss you very, very much.’
‘If it makes you feel any better,’ he replied, ‘I want to give you to remember us by.’
He then sends her a photo.
It was of a single red rose inside a glass container, like the ones you saw on Beauty and the Beast.
‘I’ve loved the movie Beauty and the Beast since I was a kid,’ he wrote, ‘I told myself, one day when I grow up, I want to gift it to the woman I love.’
Polleen started crying.
‘I bought this for you for our first meeting,’ he told her, ‘It was with me all the time as I waited for you under the clock.
If this is all real, and you are from the future, I’m going to leave the rose in this house. I’ll ask my mother to keep it for me. I’ll tell her a girl named Polleen Lee will come and collect it two years from today.’
And that would be the last message Polleen received from Calbert.
No matter how many messages Polleen sent him, there would be no more replies.
Finding her rose
One month passes with no replies from Calbert. Polleen’s mind shifts several times a day from imagining the entire thing as a hoax played out by a clever con artist and the more unreal scenario of having somehow met and fallen in love with someone from a different point in time.
She drove past the house Calbert had given her the address of a few times. On a few occasions, she saw a woman in her late fifties watering flowers outside.
It was a big house, probably built in the 1980’s with a few vintage cars parked in the driveway and one Camry from 2017.
Calbert had asked her to go there to collect her rose, but she was afraid that if she did and there was no rose, she would have to face the reality of this entire thing being a hoax.
But if she never went to ask, she could always cling to the possibility that this was real and that it was her who did not go and collect what belonged to her.
She laid in bed one night imagining her life with Calbert if this was just a joke and Calbert was not only real but lived in 2018. Her mind drifts to the rose again.
Maybe I should just ask the lady if Calbert lived there, she thought, if she says no, then I’ll just leave.
She thought about what pleasantries she would exchange with the lady before drifting into sleep.
The next day she finds herself passing by the house again. But unlike all the other times, this time, she stops her car and gets down.
Her body shakes as she walks toward the gate.
She reaches out for the doorbell, touches it with her finger and then removes it quickly as if she had touched the edges of a hot wok.
A moment later, the speaker activates and the sound of a woman comes through. ‘Hi there, Yeong’s residence. How may I help you?’
‘Um,’ Polleen said, swallowing her saliva, ‘I- I’m, er’
‘What is this?’ the woman asked, perplexed.
‘I’m looking for Calbert.’
Through the speaker, Polleen could hear a slight gasp. And then, the speaker deactivates.
A few minutes later, it activates again.
‘May I know, who this is?’
‘Er, it’s, er, Polleen?’
The speaker deactivates again.
A moment later, the front gate of the house opens. Surprised, Polleen walks toward the gate to see what was happening.
There, in front of the house, the lady she often saw watering her garden stood, waving at Polleen.
‘Come inside,’ the lady shouted at her.
Having past by the house at least thirty times, when Polleen actually walked inside, the house felt different from the one she imagined looking outside in.
The garden was much larger, there were more varieties of flora. A pond with some six or seven koi fishes, something she had never seen from the outside, was also apparent.
As she approached the lady, she noticed that the lady appeared slightly older than she imagined. Within a closer distance, the fine lines on her forehead and eyes were much clearer.
‘I’m Madam Yeong,’ the lady says to Polleen, ‘come inside.’
Inside the house, there is a big framed picture of Madam Yeong and her family. Behind her stood someone familiar to Polleen: Calbert.
‘How did you know Calbert?’ Madam Yeong asked Polleen as they walked inside, ‘He told me a little about you, but not too much.’
‘We met online,’ she told her.
‘Ahh, young people these days. Well, back when Calbert’s dad and I were dating, we met through letters. Times have changed, haven’t they?
Anyway, take a seat,’ she told her, ‘I’ll be just a minute.’
Madam Yeong disappeared into a room behind where Polleen was seated.
As she waited, Polleen looked around the house. There was an old Yamaha piano in one corner. In another corner was a cabinet full of medals. She stood up to take a look at them.
On top of one medal was a swimming icon. What did it say on the plaque? she wondered, leaning in.
‘Ah, sorry to keep you waiting, Polleen,’ Madam Yeong appeared from behind her, startling her.
‘Here,’ Madam Yeong says, handing her a velvet box, ‘I’ve never opened it, but he told me that it was important for him.
Keep it for two years, he said. A girl named Polleen would come and collect it. I didn’t think it was real… it’s such a strange request after all… but I did it anyway… how could I not…’
Polleen felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand. Keep it for two years. A girl will come and collect it.
Either Madam Yeong was in on this hoax or she was witnessing something so extraordinary only she could say it was real.
‘Um, so, where- where’s Calbert?’ Polleen didn’t know why she asked that, but the words came out of her mouth.
Madam Yeong’s eyes widened and eyebrows raised slightly.
‘Funny you should ask that,’ Madam Yeong said to Polleen, ‘I’m actually going to see him today.’
In the back of her mind, Polleen wondered if seeing Calbert meant going to a house or…
‘Would you like to join me?’
‘Sure,’ Polleen replied, ‘I haven’t seen him in a while too.’
They got into the white Camry she had also seen so many times when she had driven by.
When they were inside the car, Madam Yeong switched from her chatty self to become quieter. Along the way, other than asking if Polleen was cold, Madam Yeong didn’t say much.
When they arrived at their destination, Polleen understood why.
They were visiting Calbert at a quiet Chinese burial ground.
‘How do you like this place?’ Madam Yeong asked Polleen as she stopped her car.
‘It’s quiet. There a lot of flowers and it’s clean,’ she told Madam Yeong.
‘Yeah, yeah. That’s what I thought too. Well, I’ll show you where Calbert is.’
Madam Yeong leads Polleen to a row of tombstones five steps up.
Even when she was so close to Calbert, Polleen still felt a sense of surrealness about the entire situation.
A guy she had only met online months ago, it seems, was dead for two years already.
‘Here we are,’ Madam Yeong announces as she stops in front of a large red and black tombstone.
There, on the tombstone head was Calbert’s photograph. It was that bespectacled guy she had met and fallen in love with not too long ago.
Calbert Yeong Tze Loong
7/12/1987 – 14/7/2016
They had finally met.
Madam Yeong laid down her flowers and started talking to Calbert as though he was still alive.
‘His suicide was so sudden,’ Madam Yeong says all of a sudden.
‘He died of a suicide?’ Polleen asked. She had never expected that.
‘You didn’t know?’
Polleen shook her head. ‘We talked online but I never found…’
‘Yeah, he killed himself.’
Polleen looked away from Madam Yeong. She had imagined maybe a car accident, but imagining Calbert killing himself felt tragic.
‘Three days before his death,’ Madam Yeong continued, ‘he started telling me weird things. He told me, somebody had told him in a dream that he would die soon. I told him it was nonsense.
Doctors said he was perfectly fine. But he said he knew for sure… and that if it were that way, he would rather kill himself than wait to die.
So… he started to, uh, get things done, prepare… just one day before, he passed me your box and then after that, I found him in his room, lifeless…’
Madam Yeong began sobbing.
Polleen felt a tinge of guilt wash over her. Could Calbert have made such a rash decision because of the obituary she sent him? If it were so, she was ready to tell Madam Yeong.
But before Polleen could, Madam Yeong continued.
‘But he was right you know,’ she said.
‘Right about what?’ Polleen asked.
‘That he didn’t have long to go…’
‘Why would you say that?’
‘An autopsy revealed that his body was in advanced deterioration. We had just overlooked it. He had only a week to live. We should have known that about his disease anyway.
Disease? Calbert never told Polleen about the disease.
‘What disease?’ she asked.
‘You didn’t know?’ Madam Yeong asked her back, seeming genuinely surprised.
Polleen shook her head.
‘He had a rare form of muscle degeneration. Noticed it when he started to fall down while walking.
Doctors gave him five years at first. He lived for ten more. He’s a fighter, isn’t he?
But he always knew, one day, his time would come.’
Madam Yeong wiped away her tears and reached into her pocket for her phone.
She showed Polleen a photo.
It was the same bespectacled guy she was so familiar with, except that, instead of standing up, he was in a wheelchair.
‘One day, he told me, I’m going out on a date. He ordered this flower online and had it sent to him.
I was against him going out that day. He had just completed a session of therapy.
But he told me, he met someone he really liked and that was important for him to go out that day.
I don’t know what happened but he came back two hours later with the flowers. I asked him what happened. He said he didn’t know. He just couldn’t find the girl.’
Polleen was trembling. She had known nothing about Calbert’s illness or him being wheelchair bound. He never mentioned it. Maybe, she thought, he didn’t think it was that important.
‘Whoever he was trying to meet Madam,’ Polleen told Madam Yeong, ‘must have been one lucky girl.’
Madam Yeong smiled and pat her Polleen’s shoulder. ‘Okay, it’s getting dark, let’s get going,’ she said to Polleen.
As Madam Yeong walked in a distance in front of her, Polleen opened her velvet box.
Inside that velvet box was exactly what Calbert had promised her. A red rose in a glass container.
She opened the glass container, took a petal from the rose and laid on Calbert’s tombstone.
Thank you Calbert, she said to him, for the memories. I’ll keep this with me forever. It will be our little secret.