By Gabrielle Kurniawan
Q18a. Define the term “gravity”.
Her hand won’t stop shaking.
It’s too cold to take the exam. For a moment, the faint regret of not packing her thicker jacket burrows into her intense concentration, because now she’s freezing and probably sick and filled with the unrelenting desire to go home and collapse on her bed and die an immediate, painless death.
But she can’t yet. She has to focus, because if she doesn’t, the regret will hunt her down and eat her up. She has to at least try and finish this, ignore the throbbing pain in her head, and finish this stupid flimsy piece of paper that feels too cold and sharp in her hand with questions that will swallow her whole…
She closes her eyes, trying to place herself back into a year and a half ago, when this topic was first taught. Which classroom was it in? The air con was cold that day, and the faintest glare from the visualiser was eating into her vision. Gravity is defined as…
“The universal force of attraction acting between all matter,” her teacher had said, rapping his knuckles against the whiteboard. “But if gravity is the force of attraction acting between all matter, why do things fall to the ground?
“It’s because everything possesses gravity, a force that pulls something else toward itself. But the greater your mass, the greater your force. The Earth’s mass is so mind-bogglingly huge that its gravity is inescapable. That’s why if we jump, we all fall back toward the Earth.”
Kate blinks once, twice. Then she picks up her pen and scribbles everything down on her paper as fast as she can before she forgets it.
When she’s done with her eighteenth question and mildly satisfied, she closes her eyes and lifts the back of her hand to her forehead. It’s too hot. She’s burning up, but that can’t be the only reason as to why she sucks at this whole exam thing right now. She looks around the classroom. In front of her, the class president’s a whole page ahead.
Kate exhales quietly, her pen clattering to the table gently as she runs a hand through her hair. Physics has never been her strong suit. Maybe it really is time to get a tutor… who should she go to for a recommendation? It’s unfair that so many students seem to understand physics better than her when she genuinely does like the subject, not to mention the fact that Kate feels like physics is an explanation for everything she’s gone through before.
Why do all students seem to be tugged along the same tide of school stress, of studying until they pass out, of stuffing as many tuition classes into a day as possible? Inertia, equal and opposite forces, gravity. They all make sense on paper but become puzzling when Kate sees them in real life.
After all, she’s not the one scoring A1s for her Physics papers.
“Twenty minutes left,” the teacher at the front of the classroom taps her pen on the whiteboard twice before returning to her seat, shaking out another paper to mark.
Kate sighs, looks down, and picks up her pen.
Eleven years ago
Kate experiences gravity for the first time at the age of six.
Light is pouring in through the windows, and debris of the humid summer air that’s crept into the flat sticks to her skin. Kate’s fingers are intertwined around a thick wooden pencil that clatters to the table as she looks up.
“Mum? Are you done yet?” she says quietly.
“Mm, not yet.”
“Mum? I’m tired.” Kate creeps up to her mother’s side and taps her hand. “Can you come and play now? Please?”
“I told you, I’m busy,” her mother sighs. “Don’t you have a lot of homework? Can’t you just do that first?”
“But Mum!” Tiny fingers lace around her mother’s bony wrist, and her wide eyes blink twice before they begin to well up with tears. “You’re always so busy, we never get to play. It’s not fair…”
Kate doesn’t even notice the stinging at the edge of her eyes until there are round, fat tears rolling down her cheeks like rain. Her mother sighs loudly, takes three long strides toward her, and before Kate knows it her vision is shaky as bony fingers roughly claw at her face.
She looks up, eyes wide with shock. Her mother’s gaze is suddenly unfamiliar. There’s a strange, crazed look in her eyes, an awful sharpness Kate has been noticing more and more often recently. “Well, you know what? This whole shitshow isn’t fair, yeah? You think I want to have to work all day? Huh? You think they worked hard for everything they own? No! They don’t!”
“M—mum?” She blinks once, confused.
“My God, stop crying! All you do is cry,” her mother hisses. Kate’s gaze traces the long rippling bone from the pinky side of her mother’s hand all the way to her arm and swallows her confusion to silence.
“Some people just have it easy, and we aren’t those people,” her mother finishes off bitterly, dropping her fingers from Kate’s face. “You have to work hard. You have to work hard and make it seem like it’s easy, because that’s the only way you’ll win. That’s the only way you’ll beat out the people who don’t deserve it.”
“Don’t deserve—Mum, what do you mean?” she echoes, alarm tilting at the edge of her voice.
Her mother stares at her, eyes squinted slightly as she shakes her head. Suddenly, the wrinkles under her eyes and the protruding bones from her face make her look like a balloon stretched too tight, ready to snap at any moment.
In the quietness of the living room, she watches her mother shrink back into the couch, close her eyes, and fall asleep.
Cheers erupt from the students, and the air is light as the teacher strides out of the classroom. Kate watches her friends sit in their seats for an extra moment, stretching their necks, cracking their knuckles, staring ahead with wide eyes as if they can’t believe exams are finally over. They’re teetering between disbelief and exuberance, not yet fully pushed out from the exam weariness.
Newton’s First Law states that an object will remain at rest or in uniform motion in a straight line unless acted upon by an external force.
Then the school bell rings, loud and clear, and it’s as if the ringing through the speakers is the external force that triggers the eruption of a bubbling volcano as students leap up from their seats and pour out the door. Before she knows it, everyone has disappeared, leaving the classroom empty and grey. She touches her forehead again. It’s still hot.
The smile slides off her face in the darkness as she sighs, sits down, and closes her eyes.
It always feels strange to be alone in a place that’s usually crowded. The classroom is dark now that the last student has flicked the light switches off, and Kate can’t shake the quiet feeling of emptiness crawling up her skin. She wouldn’t be here if she had a choice, but the crumpled piece of paper in her hand keeps her feet rooted to the floor.
Meet me in class after today’s exam? :)
She feels too vulnerable standing like this, in the middle of the empty classroom, one of her fingers laced under the strap of her bag. Like she’s a rabbit waiting to be eaten. She looks at the whiteboard shrouded in shadows and tries to think of her breath going in and out of her lungs, slowly, carefully, each breath dipping into her skin and being tugged out. She thinks of the sensations around her—her skin nestled in between the leather of her bag and the soft cotton of her shirt, the feeling of her jacket pressed against her palm, the cold metal of her watch brushing against her wrist. She inhales deeply.
Behind her, the door creaks open.
“Kate!” A familiar voice calls from behind. “Kate, thanks for waiting.”
She swallows heavily, once, and then crumples the paper tighter in her fist.
Kate turns around, and there he is in all his handsome glory—dark brown fringe swept slightly to the side, stupidly perfect skin, twinkling eyes crinkled at the edges as his lips turn up in a gentle smile. He raises his fingers to wave to her, and she feels oddly nauseous as she raises her own hand to wave back.
Suddenly, she finds herself bearing a striking similarity to Pavlov’s dogs; the sound of his voice is enough to send her stomach lurching as her legs freeze. But she forces a smile on her face anyway.
“Hi, Matthew,” she says quietly.
She sneaks a quick glance at the hallway outside. It’s empty. She swallows thickly, trying to locate every possible exit point in the classroom.
(She comes up with a dismal two.)
He takes a step closer, and she fights the urge to stagger back. “Kate, are you okay? You look so tired.”
A sharp feeling tugs in her chest, but she forces her smile brighter anyway. “I’m okay! It’s just, you know, finals. I need to get some sleep is all.”
He nods sympathetically, and she hides her clenched fist behind her back. “Yeah, everyone’s been exhausted. I wanted to give you something, actually. Hang on…”
Before she can say anything, he’s rummaging through his black bag, eyebrows knitted carefully. Words of protest wilt in her mouth before all that’s left is an unease brewing at the bottom of her stomach.
It’s strange, she thinks as she looks at him. Whispers passed around the classroom have told her that this is the boy who’s always been well-known for being intelligent, sweet, thoughtful; yet when she looks at him all she can see is a ravenous wolf hidden behind a ready smile and dark eyes, ready to pounce and gobble her up.
Why are they talking to each other like old friends, she wonders? What kind of performance is he staging?
Or does he really not know? Does he really not know the way she feels about him, the anger that surges through her veins every time their eyes meet? That every time their eyes lock, the same sentence from so long ago rises to her head?
“You have to work hard and make it seem like it’s easy. That’s the only way you’ll beat out the people who don’t deserve it.”
You don’t deserve it.
“Aha, here!” At the sound of his voice, she snaps her head upwards. He grins victoriously, waving a little biscuit packet in the air. “Found it. I hope you’ll feel better, since, well, you’ve been looking a little pale recently.”
She forces a smile and accepts the gift politely with two hands. In her fingers, the plastic crackles like static. “Thanks, Matthew. I’ll bring you something next time.”
He grins, waving his hand. “No need, Kate. If you did, it wouldn’t be a gift, don’t you think?”
“Ah… Well, I guess not,” she concedes quietly. An awkward silence hangs over them, and she spies his fingers fidget nervously next to the pocket of his pants. She exhales through her nose, trying to rack her brain for a suitable excuse to leave as quickly as she can as she subtly peers over his shoulder to the corridor, which is shining with a faint glow of light.
Kate feels herself redden. “Sorry. You were going to say something?”
“No, no,” he shakes his head. “I suddenly forgot.”
“Ah.” She hums noncommittally, but it’s clear that he knows exactly what he wants to say. And she knows exactly what he wants to say, too.
Kate forces herself to look up, and the thought crosses her head—do I hate him? In that same moment, he raises his head too, and there’s a split second where their gazes are locked.
Do I hate you? she wonders, and as the thought flashes across her mind, it’s like a switch is pulled and the universe shifts into acceleration and it’s just the two of them standing in an empty class. And why are you here? What do you want from me?
“Excuse me, Mrs Lee? You didn’t call my name on the attendance register.”
“Is that so?” The teacher glanced down at the list of names. “Kate Hong? Ah, you. You’re the one who didn’t come for the registration briefing.”
“Registration brief—what? What do you mean, Mrs Lee? I didn’t hear anything about a briefing.”
From the side of the class, Kate watched as a humid puff of water vapour expanded in her teacher’s saggy cheek and disappeared into the air. She shook her head and rapped her knuckles on the table in the way teachers do when they want you to feel like you’re the worst person in the world.
“Can someone inform Ms Kate Hong here that next time, she needs to take responsibility over her matters? We even waited ten minutes for you to show up, but you never did.”
“W—what? Are you sure?” she protested. Her cheeks felt like they were burning against the tide of faces staring at her blankly in irritation. “But I didn’t receive any notice of anything!”
“I’d think after so many years of being a teacher, I’d at least hear a better excuse than that.” Mrs Lee scoffed. “Everyone else made it here just fine. The student rep gave out the briefing slip, after all. Unless you mean to say that it’s my fault?”
She glanced toward Matthew. For a split second, there was an indescribable emotion flickering across his eyes before he turned away from her entirely.
“But Mrs Lee—”
The teacher turned to face her, gaze icy as murmurs drifted throughout the class like rippling waves. “Kate, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
Kate felt her jaw clench as she looked at the ground. Suddenly, she felt as if she could identify the look in Matthew’s eye as she caught his gaze one last time before turning around to leave.
She glances down for a moment, tracing her gaze over his navy windbreaker. It’s the same one he wore last year around the same time as today, when the exams were drawing close and deadlines for projects were looming near. She had been so frustrated and so tired that day that she wasn’t thinking clearly, so angry that she couldn’t control herself from confronting him in broad daylight in front of everyone else.
“Matthew! Did you—were you the one who messed up the notice to turn up for Mrs Lee’s class? I didn’t get anything, and you’re the student rep.” She strode down the hallway, face flushed with anger, crumpled piece of paper in hand.
As she drew close to Matthew and the crowd of students surrounding him, though, her confidence quickly evaporated. Suddenly, a thousand eyes were pinned on her.
“Who is this girl again?” someone murmured.
“Kate… are you okay?” Matthew tilted his head, eyes wide. “Are you trying to say that I—”
“Everyone but me got the slip. I didn’t even see you that day, and no one said anything to me. Do you think I’m stupid?” she’d continued.
She knew it was a small matter but she couldn’t help being so frustrated that she wanted to cry. She’d never done anything bad to him, and everyone knew that if you wanted an A, you had to be in Mrs Lee’s class. She’d done everything in her power to walk in the right direction, and now… now…
“Woah … Kate, do you want to talk about this privately? I think maybe you have the wrong idea. I don’t know anything about that. I told you about it, in the hallway, remember?” He stepped forward and placed a hand on her shoulder, like she was an angry child who had to be calmed down.
One of the students by his side stepped forward. “See? I know you—always whining about stuff like this. Why do you hate Matthew so much? What did he ever do to you?”
“I—I, what?” she stammered. “That makes no sense. You never came up to me at all…”
“Don’t be upset, Kate.” Matthew smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes at all. “I know you’ve been stressed recently…”
Her jaw clenched and her lips parted, but the words stayed stuck in her throat..
With everyone’s eyes on her, she had no choice but to drop it. Throughout the rest of the day, the blazing tide of anger kept her hands clenched. A sea of whispers followed her wherever she went.
Kate closes her eyes, fighting away the memory gnawing at her head. There’s a gust of cold wind blowing in from the door, and all she really wants to do is leave. “What do you want from me, Matthew? Is it just more reassurance that I won’t tell anyone about it?”
“Tell anyone about…?” He trails off.
“I know you missed me out on purpose. I don’t know why but I just know you did.” She feels her teeth grind against each other as she swallows.
“You… you…” he echoes again, but for once, Kate sees the faintest flicker of fear dart across his eyes.
She sighs and lifts her head to face him. “I don’t get it. Why are you being so nice? Do you feel bad? Or are you just worried that I’ll tell someone? I don’t have proof, anyway, so nobody would believe me even if I tried.”
“Kate, I… I think you’re… mistaken.”
“Am I? Then why are you being so nice to me?”
“What—what are you trying to say?”
She exhales through her mouth once, closing her eyes briefly. “I saw you that day, shredding my notice into the dustbin. I checked. It even had my name on it,” she exhales, waving her hand slightly. “It’s old news. I don’t care anymore.”
The sound of her name is low in his mouth. Even almost… frightening.
Kate turns around, raising her head to face him. When she meets his eyes this time, all traces of a smile are gone, leaving behind only an angry scowl and dark eyes that seem to cast a shadow over the rest of his face. He takes a step forward, cold gaze lingering directly on her own.
A quiet dread begins to brew at the bottom of her stomach. “Wh—what is it?”
“You… are you really over it?” he says, looking down at the floor. “I just wanted you to know that—if at some point, you change your mind, and decide to do something in return… I won’t let it go easily, you know.”
She swallows, but forces herself to look up anyway, trying her best to blink away the fear from her expression. A scoff falls from her lips. “Finally. I guess this is what you’re really like.”
“You’re full of shit, too. Acting like you’re always the victim when you’ve been plotting something against me, haven’t you?”
Kate feels her fingers clench involuntarily in her pocket; she tilts her head. “You know, all this time, I even thought that you might even have felt bad about removing me from Mrs Lee’s class, but I guess I was wrong.”
“I didn’t remove you—”
“No? You didn’t?” Kate says coldly. “Then who did?”
He says nothing. Just casts one last look in her direction before he turns around and goes.
His silhouette disappears quickly down the hallway, and her eyes graze over his rapidly evaporating figure as he vanishes through the far door and from her sight. The moment he’s gone, she closes her eyes and sighs. The biscuit packet goes plummeting into the bin.
Six months ago
“Second again,” her mother says sharply, voice hoarse. Her report card is crumpled at the corners of her mother’s tight grip. “Second, again.”
“Mum,” Kate whispers pleadingly. “Mum—”
“I tell you the same thing every time, and you never listen. I don’t even ask you to be first in the level, just first in class. Why is that so difficult for you? All you need to do is study harder!”
Kate looks up for the first time that conversation and immediately regrets it. Her mother’s eyes are crackling like thunder, each word a bolt of frustration, disappointment, anger, striking across her face. Her nose is stinging, but she doesn’t want to cry in front of her mother. “Mum, you don’t understand—”
“What? What do I not understand?” Her mother takes a step closer, and each word sends her voice growing louder and more piercing. “Do you think I had it easy? Do you not think that I worked my ass off to provide for you, to ensure that you can get somewhere in this society by getting into a top school? We cannot live life like those who have it easy, Kate! Like your friends, like that boy who keeps getting first! That should be you! We are not one of those people!”
Kate falls silent.
Months ago, in her physics class, she learnt this: when a thunderstorm hits, lightning strikes because the atmosphere is simply too different from the ground. Particles in clouds collide and hit each other, and this causes a buildup of charges. Clouds become negative, unlike the positive charges of trees, lightning conductors, or even… people.
On a dark afternoon, when the clouds become too negative, electricity is tugged toward a person on the ground, and lightning forms like a bolt of hatred.
“Mum,” Kate whispers. “Mum, I’m sorry. I know you have it tough. I… I’ll study harder.”
Her mother only looks at her, the inexplicable cloud of exhaustion lining the bottom of her eyes as she pinches her nose and exhales. Kate’s fingers curl into fists as she looks down, blinking back the sharply pooling tears.
(Her mother hates it when she cries, after all.)
Outside, lightning strikes, and the sky starts to pour.
When the sun is about to set and the campus is finally empty, she walks out of the building. The quietness is almost deafening—even though it’s like this on the last day of exams every year, she never really gets used to it.
There’s a spot at the edge of one of the cement buildings where she likes to sit. It’s her favourite seat, underneath the withering tree that nobody else likes. Even though the leaves aren’t thick enough to provide shade and always drift into her hair, there’s something comforting about it—like you’re sitting with an old friend after a long time.
She leans back, not bothering to watch her posture, letting her body melt itself into the shape of the wall. The cement is cool against her skin as she tilts her head backward and exhales, swinging her legs against the step.
The sky looks so grey today, she thinks blankly, letting the thought swirl inside her muddy brain before draining itself out slowly. So many things have happened this term, but now it feels like nothing at all.
The day is empty and quiet, and for once she can hear her own thoughts. She’d studied so hard for this term but probably won’t get the scholarship anyway. Where will the money for next semester come from? What’s her mother doing right now? With the whirlwind of exams gone and dusted, the exhaustion is beginning to creep in as she closes her eyes.
Are students supposed to be so tired? What is she being so tired for? The thought resurfaces to her mind, but this time it’s so faint she can barely hear it, like listening to the final echo a cliff coughs up at you before the sound disappears entirely. You have to work hard and make it seem like it’s easy. That’s the only way you’ll beat out the people who don’t deserve it.
But why? Why does she have to beat them out? She tries to remember, closing her eyes and struggling to fit the crumbling puzzle pieces of that day back together. Did her mother ever actually explain it to her? Why does she have to keep struggling to reach the top when she knows she’s never really going to make it? That was so long ago…
Kate looks up. There’s a leaf falling from the tree above, something that sitting at this seat so faithfully promises. Her hand rises to her head, plucks it out, and then lets go. Slowly, quietly, it floats toward the ground.
She closes her eyes.
Sometimes she wishes she could just let go like that, drifting as the wind takes her. Maybe then there wouldn’t be so many things to do, so many things to handle, and the magnitude of her gravity would be less. Doesn’t the magnitude of the gravity that tugs at you depend on the mass of the object you’re being tugged toward? Would the mass of that object decrease if her mother disappeared? If people like Matthew vanished? Or would she still find another way to stress herself out, find another object to be catapulted toward?
After all, gravity spares nobody.
Soon after that incident with Matthew happened and his friends found different ways to terrorise her, she really was angry. She thought that maybe, maybe she could post the truth on the school’s confession forum anonymously and see if anything would happen to him. Or maybe she’d go and dig up some dirt about his family, or make up some secret, illicit relationship. There are, after all, many ways of getting back at someone.
But in the tail end of the month, when her hatred was fizzing out anyway, she found the last remaining debris of anger evaporating out of her as she sat in the corner of a seemingly empty library and listened to the sound of Matthew’s familiar voice and a phone call come drifting over.
“Do you know how much we give you to succeed? How much we provide for you? You have everything you need to do well! And yet you insist on slacking off!”
“I’m—I’m sorry, Dad.”
“I can’t believe you almost let that scholarship girl—what’s her name? Kate?—beat you last semester. Your performance compared to your brother’s is disgraceful, Matthew. Think about it. If you put yourself and Kate in the same situation, same tuition, same enrichment, same privileges, who would come out on top? Who? Tell me who!”
“Dad, please, just stop—!”
“It’s sure not gonna be you, am I not right? God. My God.” A beat of silence. “What kind of son are you?”
Matthew didn’t say anything in return.
Mild shock hung in the crack between the books on the bookshelf from behind which Kate was watching him quietly. She blinked once, twice, letting her unnoticed gaze linger over Matthew’s curled fists and damp cheeks as he hung up, pushed the library door open and then disappeared into the night.
(So he knows of gravity too, she thought.)
There are certain things you cannot be hateful about, especially when they remind you of yourself. The picture of Matthew slumped against the cold library table, staring blankly at the glowing exit sign for half an hour lingered in her brain for days on end. When she got back home, she deleted the drafts she’d written for the confessions page and went to sleep.
All that was left in her was pity.
After all, she’s not too different. She knows what it’s like to long for acceptance and approval so much that it makes your head hurt. That you’d do anything. Almost all the students here do, anyway, it’s just the way by which you achieve it that makes you different.
How to succeed. She thinks of Matthew. How to be pretty. She remembers the retching sounds she heard when she was in the toilet the other day. How to make people proud. For a moment, she thinks of herself, the reddened skin of her own cheeks and her mother’s hand not too far away. Students in this day and age can tell you how to do nearly everything, because they’re all so desperate to do it themselves.
But what about being children? Do they ever get a chance to take a break? It’s another question that gets swallowed up in the rumbling sound of thunder that hammers across the clouds as she looks up. The sky is beginning to darken.
She closes her eyes and inhales deeply. Perhaps it is greedy, but she just wants this moment, this one moment, to herself. She will remember this moment of quietness forever, she thinks—a moment carved from a late October’s Tuesday, the kind of day when you begin to wonder whether you should begin spring cleaning, nevermind the season. She doesn’t want to think about the homework sitting on her desk, the projects due soon, all these things tugging her down like gravity.
No. For now she will be weightless, like the hanging crystals of water vapour suspended halfway into the soft, slow-moving air, drifting upward into the clouds. Kate lifts her hand into the air and rubs her fingers together once, slowly.
The moisture is cool on her skin.
In this moment, it seems almost as if… gravity doesn’t exist at all. For the first time, even if it is only temporary, she feels it—the tide of bitterness in her throat is finally beginning to recede, beginning to drift back toward the horizon.
Gabrielle is a seventeen-year-old student from Singapore who found her first loves when she was first introduced to reading, bread, and God. She has been previously published in the CAP 30 Years Commemorative Publication, Thir.st, and Blue Marble Review.
Image: @grstocks via Unsplash