Two Lighters

“Damn it.”

Keith gave up with his attempts to light a cigarette and slapped the broken lighter on the deck of his houseboat. There was still plenty of gas in the lighter, but the flint was gone. He leaned back on a cheap plastic chair and idly scanned the typhoon shelter around his boat—but there was nothing new or interesting.

Since Jane has left him, without even bothering to divorce, the houseboat felt too big for him—but it actually was one of the smallest boats in the marina. It only had a tiny bedroom, slightly bigger living room, and a small open area at the stern. Just enough for a very modest couple. Sometimes they even used to invite one or two friends for a drink on board, but then the marina was bought out and shut down, and all houseboat folks were evicted and scattered around. Like a big bang, he thought. All thrown in different directions and flying further and further apart, never to come together again.

Keith was always a bit slow to adapt to changes, so by the time he finally had to move out of the marina, there were absolutely no places left in any of the other marinas, or even typhoon shelters closer to the city. His boat was now moored in one of the small typhoon shelters on the outlying islands. He couldn’t really complain about it—he now wanted to stay away from the big city, to have some quiet time to mend himself after Jane’s departure. He wasn’t sure how long the recovery would take. All he knew was that all good things tend to take much longer than expected.

Keith resurfaced from his thoughts and looked around. If he couldn’t kill some time with a cigarette, he had to come up with an alternative plan. There was no another lighter—since the days Keith had a family, he didn’t smoke on the boat, and now the new habit of keeping a few spare lighters around didn’t quite form yet. He couldn’t even make instant noodles, not being able to light the stove, so a trip to the shore was on the cards. Back in the days when they were living at Discovery Bay Marina, getting to the shore was as easy as stepping down on the pontoon and walking a few hundred meters to the convenience store. Now, at typhoon shelter, his spot was in the far end, almost at the very end of the wavebreaker. To get to the wavebreaker, he would have to climb over quite a few apparently abandoned fishing boats, sampans, and hell knows what, berthed next to each other, with a few perilous jumps along the way. Even in broad daylight, this was not a passage to be taken lightly, but now it was evening already. He’d be lucky if he could get back before dark.

The evening skyline over the city and mountains in the distance on the opposite side of the bay was gorgeous. He often stopped for a while to enjoy it, even when he had something more urgent to care about. Maybe especially because he was attracted to how eternal this sight was, as opposed to the everyday bustle. Keith just couldn’t resist it now. After all, wasn’t he meant to have more time for himself now? There should be some bright sides to being alone and free of any responsibilities. And there was one thing onboard that didn’t require cooking. He had whisky.

* * *

When Keith was done with his romantic sunset whisky enjoyment, it was dusk already, and he now had to hurry. He grabbed his always-ready-to-go waterproof backpack from the cabin and came out. As Keith was closing the door, he lost his balance slightly. He thought at first that this was a wave from some passing boat, but, when he looked around, he didn’t see any. Well, slippery slope it was, drinking alone after the family breakup. He saw what it did to some of his friends before, but was hoping to do better.

Keith’s journey to the shore was going well until he was just two boats away from the wavebreaker. Closer to the shore, the boats were parked more irregularly because of the shallows and underwater rocks, and there was the most perilous jump between the last two of them. Keith managed to land on the well worn-out unpainted wooden bow of the next boat, just as he wanted—but then something went wrong, he couldn’t stop his movement and lost his balance falling forward, into the water between the boat and the wavebreaker. He only had a moment to wish not to hit any rocks, before the cold and dark water slapped him in the face. When he surfaced, the first thing he sensed before he opened his eyes was the smell of seaweed and oil. Not the best diving spot for sure.

Keith couldn’t quite remember how he got out of the water. It wasn’t an orderly swim, more like shocked floundering until his hands touched the slippery stones. The weather wasn’t very cold or windy, but as he pulled himself out of the water, he instantly felt the chill. Not a good idea to walk into the shop or a food stall dripping wet and shivering. He needed to find a place, protected from the wind, to dry a bit and compose himself. A few hundred meters ahead, on the outer side of the wavebreaker, there was a broken concrete pile sticking out. Around it, there was some industrial garbage, flotsam and jetsam, which looked like a possible shelter. Unsteadily stepping on rugged rocks, Keith walked up to it, but stopped short. The spot was already taken.

A girl. A local girl, clearly from the city, not from the fishing village or any other less civilized place. Straight black hair spilling over the dark grey jacket. Tight blue jeans. Some fancy hiking shoes. Age uncertain—Keith never was able to tell it correctly with Asian women anyway, his best guess was around 20-25. “Hope she speaks English,” Keith thought. His knowledge of Chinese was limited to “hello” and “thank you”. The girl didn’t seem to notice him and was staring vacantly into the distance, at something only she could see. Keith cleared his throat.

“Hello?”

His voice didn’t serve him well after the swimming misadventure and sounded quite far from the warm, welcoming tone he was hoping for. After a few long seconds, the girl turned her face to him, but said nothing. Her face looked doleful and pale. Fair enough, happy people rarely sit alone at the far end of a wavebreaker in the middle of nowhere. Keith wasn’t sure what he wanted to do now. He didn’t want to intervene in whatever she was up to. Maybe she needed some help, but would it be anything he could help with? There was no other shelter here on the wavebreaker. She would have to walk all the way to the shore and try her luck there. The girl interrupted his thoughts and motioned him to move into her improvised shelter.

“Sorry to interrupt your solitude,” he said.

“No problem. You don’t look too good either. Sit down,” the girl replied in a quiet voice.

A large piece of plywood, broken off somewhere long ago and washed ashore, was forming something like a slanted roof. Not much of a comfort, but once Keith got behind it, he felt a bit warmer.

“Care if I smoke?” he asked and reached into his pocket. The girl looked at him and suddenly chuckled, a little spark in her eyes. Keith reached into his pocket and extracted a pack of cigarettes, full of water. That was embarrassing, he should’ve thought of it faster than she did. The girl took out her own cigarettes and tried to lit one with her own lighter.

“Damn. No gas,” she said.

Keith was just about to say something about bad luck, but suddenly a bright idea visited him. Living on a boat taught him to be resourceful and creative with fixing stuff. He took her lighter, and for a moment their hands touched. Oh. He hadn’t touched a woman for a very long time now. Must be careful not to get carried away. The girl looked at him sceptically at first, but then he took his lighter with no flint, hers with no gas, put the two lighters together, and after a few attempts, managed to produce the fire. A glimpse of a surprised smile on the girl’s face. They sat in silence for a while, smoking, staring in the same direction.

Something in Keith’s other pocket was pressing against his side. He reached inside—oh, the flask! He put the rest of whisky there before leaving the boat. Luckily, it survived the fall and was still intact. Keith felt like he needed it right now, but still offered it to the girl first.

“Whisky.”

She firmly took the flask, made a sizeable gulp, and coughed.

“So strong. Thank you.”

Keith took the flask back and had some for himself.

“What happened to you? Where did you swim from?” the girl asked.

“Not from afar. Fell in the water when jumping between the boats. I live on a boat there.” Keith motioned.

“I didn’t know people can live there.”

“I didn’t too. But, you know, this little shelter is a strange place for a girl like you too.”

The happy combination of whisky and the shelter was making Keith feel better and warmer. It’s funny how problems you thought were serious step aside, when all you need is to get dry and warm. The flask made another round.

“By the way, I’m Keith. Do you mind if I ask your name?”

She hesitated for a second.

“Tina.”

Whether it was her real name or not, Tina clearly wasn’t a very talkative person. If she doesn’t open up, Keith didn’t know how else he could help. He wasn’t a psychologist, after all. The situation was getting awkward.

“I think I better go now,” Keith said after a while. “Don’t want to abuse your hospitality here, but if I can be of any help, just tell me.”

Tina didn’t respond, and Keith was about to stand up, when she asked:

“Where are you going?”

“I need to get a new lighter. And some food too. Then get back to my boat. I’ll try to be more careful this time.”

“Do you mind if I join? I need to get something to last through the night too, and I’m not familiar with the place.”

“I thought you are local?” Keith lied.

“No. I came on a ferry this morning. Never been here before.”

Keith wasn’t very familiar with the neighborhood either, but at least he knew a few convenience stores and food stalls opened till late. Food stalls were a bit of a challenge as he didn’t know a single word in Cantonese, but he wasn’t picky, and getting a random meal by mistake once in a while didn’t bother him. It could even be entertaining sometimes.

After the whole ordeal, Keith felt like all the alcohol from his blood had evaporated already, and he was remarkably sober, but exhausted. Tina, however, didn’t look very steady—either tired, or whisky, or both. They stood up and began slowly and carefully threading their way along the wavebreaker toward the land.

* * *

The wavebreaker was long, their pace was slow, and Keith broke the silence first.

“Damn these typhoon shelters. You know the story about a retiring sailor?”

“No.”

“He went ashore, put an oar on his shoulder and decided to walk away from the sea, and settle where somebody would ask him what is this thing he’s carrying on his shoulder. Very similar to how I feel now after years of living on a boat.”

“Is this what you’re going to do?”

“I’m not a sailor, I just couldn’t afford a home on land. Don’t think any sane person would want to live here like, a refugee, by choice. But can’t stay here for much longer either, it’s just dragging me down, day by day.”

“Do you have any place where you can return?”

“No. No place, no job, no nothing. Need to start everything from scratch. Preferably somewhere far away from here. A leap of faith. But I’m not sure I have enough faith in myself anymore.”

After a long pause, Tina said, “I wish I could too. This place is doomed. Everybody thought we still have two decades before the things will change, but now with these riots and destruction every weekend, it’s going down the drain fast.”

“If you don’t mind me asking, why were you sitting there?”

“I came here for a day trip in the morning, and then stayed behind after the last boat to the mainland left. It’s hard to explain why I did it. It wasn’t planned.”

Not exactly the answer Keith was hoping for, but still better than nothing.

“Running away from something?” he asked.

“Yes, in a way. But I’m not sure if it is possible, to run away.”

Keith wondered what she could be running away from. Tina looked well-groomed, her outfit definitely wasn’t the cheapest one and showing some good taste, no sign of physical abuse or anything. Her face was a bit pale, but this could be for lots of natural reasons. The only signs of a troubled soul were in her eyes, maybe also in the way she spoke. It didn’t feel like the right moment for direct questions yet, even though there might be no other chance—their ways could part any moment.

“Well, my case is a bit different. All my previous life, as I knew it, has run away from me. And I haven’t found a new one. Maybe wasn’t really looking hard enough. At first, I felt so bad I thought I was gonna die, but now I find this emptiness somewhat addictive.”

Tina glanced at him with interest.

“Emptiness… Are you a Buddhist?”

Keith smiled wryly.

“No. It probably would’ve been easier if I was, but I’m not. I’m not religious at all, it’s just emptiness and me, no gods or deities involved.”

Tina didn’t reply, pursing her lips, as they kept walking along the wavebreaker in silence.

By the time they reached the tiny local convenience store, it was already dark, but luckily the store was still open. After all the weekend visitors had left the island on the last ferry that Tina missed, all local life had virtually stopped, and they were the only customers there. Auntie at the counter looked up at them briefly, and indifferently returned to browsing some magazine in Chinese. Keith could smell some food cooking next door, but it wasn’t an eatery, just a local fisherman’s house. Keith respected the locals, but hadn’t made any friends since he moved here. The locals had their own lives, and he did not belong to it. He could only peer in their windows, and maybe envy them a bit. Like a stray cat, he thought.

Keith filled his backpack with a typical bachelor’s diet of instant noodles, snacks, coke, and a new bottle of whisky. Tina just got some water and nuts. Keith raised his eyebrows.

“It’s probably none of my business, but are you really going to survive till morning on this?”

The night was promising to be a bit chilly for her thin jacket. Tina shrugged.

“I’ll go back to the shelter and will stay there till morning, and then I’ll figure out what to do next. That shelter wasn’t so bad, really.”

It would’ve been only natural for Keith in such a situation to invite a person to stay on his boat, but the last thing he wanted was his invitation to be seen as a pickup line. Such things were definitely not on his mind now.

When they left the shop, the moon already rose from behind the mountain on another side of the bay. It felt romantic, in a strange way, though. They walked back along the wavebreaker, deliberately slow, hoping to postpone the uncomfortable decisions to be made at the end of the journey. Keith tried to keep well clear of Tina, not wanting any accidental touch to spark something.

* * *

When they got back to Tina’s shelter, it looked somewhat more appealing in the moonlight, or at least it felt more welcoming, maybe by contrast with the surrounding desolate landscape. Tina straightaway moved in and sat down, then put her tiny backpack on the ground and hugged her knees. Keith hesitated for a moment. On the one hand, he hated when something was spoiling his plans—even if his plans were as small as getting back to the boat, having some instant noodles, maybe—not maybe, definitely—polishing it off with more whisky and happily passing out till late morning. On the other hand, simply leaving Tina here alone just felt wrong. Logically, it was none of his business, but still. Keith looked back at the typhoon shelter and its dark waters. Only a few dim lights on the fishing boats closer to the shore could be seen. The pervasive smell of seaweed, fish, and something rotting on the shore, the quiet splashing of waves, an occasional gust of chilly wind making noise in his ears were complementing the doleful scenery.

“Are you sure you’ll be ok here?” he asked, looking for her reaction.

“Probably as good as anywhere else,” Tina said after a short pause. “Doesn’t matter.”

Even though Tina tried to sound confident and indifferent, her body language was already showing signs of physical discomfort. Keith knew well how it works. The mind is strong, but the body is weak. After hours of trying to find a comfortable position on the hard surfaces of the shelter, cold and discomfort would become impossible to ignore, and eventually would grow into despair. Would she be able to get to Keith’s boat safely in the middle of the night, if she needed to? Or where else could she go? Not many options around here at this late hour.

“Look, I don’t want to be intrusive, or for you to think that I have some plans on you, but in case you need to get out of here in the middle of the night, I’ll put a red blinking light on top of my boat over there, ” Keith waved his arm in the general direction of where he thought his boat was. He reached into his pocket and took out a small headlamp with a whistle.

“You might need it to get around safely in the dark.”

He stretched his arm, headlamp on his open palm, toward her. She looked up at him for a moment, then briefly covered his hand with hers before taking the lamp. Her hand was cold.

“Thank you…” she said in a quiet voice.

Keith was about to get up and go, when Tina suddenly asked: “Can I have some more of your whisky?”

“Sure. You look like you need some.”

Keith took the new bottle from his backpack and gave it to her. Tina made a few big gulps, then a few more, and passed the bottle back. Keith only took one small sip, watching. Either she was trying to get warm, or brave and decisive, or both. Something was going to happen.

Tina raised her head sharply, turning her face to him, staring him straight in the eye. In the moonlight, her eyes look so intensely dark on a pale face, that Keith had uncomfortably cringed.

“I’ve put you in an awkward situation, did I?”, she said. “You should’ve left me alone here, pretend you didn’t see me. So stupid of me to run away and come here, only to cause trouble again.”

Keith opened his mouth to say something, but she motioned him to stop.

“Do you want me to disappear? Do you wish you’ve never met me yet?”

Keith tried to object, but she stopped him again.

“Where is your boat? Let’s go.” She stood up abruptly.

Is she drunk already, Keith thought. At least it wasn’t the worst emotional outburst he saw in his life. The memories of his separation with Jane were still vivid.

“Don’t worry,” Keith said. “It’s a small houseboat, but more than enough space for two. You’ll have half a boat for yourself. Whatever your problem is, leave it till morning after you’ll have some sleep.”

“Misfits club by the seaside,” Tina grinned.

Keith didn’t think it was funny, but had to admit that maybe she was right.

* * *

Keith’s boat was dark. He opened the salon door and turned on a dim LED light. Tina stepped in, looking around.

“So this is your boat… Looks like you had a woman here, but a while ago.”

“You’re right, but let’s not touch it. What’s gone is gone.”

“Sorry.”

Keith read a mix of curiosity and disappointment on her face. His boat was indeed small. Other than the open deck area and the salon with big windows, there was only a tiny bedroom. Just enough for a modest couple, nothing like luxury pictures from a boating magazine.

“Can you sail away on this boat?” Tina asked.

“Not really. Probably the longest travel it has ever made was from Discovery Bay Marina to here, and even this you can only do in good weather. None of the dreams stuff. Would you like to sail away?”

“I wish I could’ve got further away than I did today. But, practically, I doubt if it makes sense. I can’t run away from myself. Maybe if I could get to an uninhabited island with nobody around at all, at least nobody else would be sucked into this too. But I won’t survive on an island. Being different doesn’t matter if you’re useless, as some people say.”

“I understand that. Running away has never worked for me. Confronting things and changing is never easy, too, but I’ll try.” Keith wasn’t really sure that he will try indeed, but he felt an unusual desire to make things look more positive than real life. It was a bit strange to do so for a girl he was seeing for the first, and likely the last time, but Tina looked like she needed it, the world to be a better place.

Tina chuckled.

“You know, we’re like these two lighters today,” she said. “Each of us is broken and useless in our own unique way, but together we kind of make some sense—even if for just a moment.”

“Hmm. Interesting metaphor,” Keith said after a pause. He suddenly recalled “Light My Fire” song by The Doors, which he probably didn’t hear since his university years, and couldn’t help smiling.

Tina looked exhausted. Keith passed her a spare thin blanket, which used to be colorful, but now was greyish, and Tina curled under it on a salon coach. Keith sat on a plastic chair opposite her, poured himself another glass of whisky and was sipping it in silence. In the good old days in the marina, he would’ve had it with ice, but now, without the electricity from the shore, this wasn’t possible. It felt a bit strange, to be still well within the city borders, but being cut off from everything and living off the grid. Long before he finished his drink, Tina was fast asleep.

Keith now could afford to study her face without looking rude.

When he saw Tina for the first time today, she didn’t leave any particular impression on him. An average local young woman, probably of northern Chinese descent, moderately likeable, nothing special. Back in the days when he was coming to the downtown area often, he would not notice her in the crowd. But right now, asleep, she looked more beautiful, and vulnerable. Or maybe it’s whisky was talking, he wasn’t sure. Keith felt some kind of attachment to this girl now.

Keith turned off the light, slipped outside onto the open deck, and lit another cigarette. The moon was high and almost full, no other light was needed. The dark water was gently sloshing against the hull, lulling the world around. Somewhere on the shore, a lone dog was barking. Airplane turbines whining somewhere high in the sky on the descent to the airport. If he didn’t meet Tina today, he would have been asleep already, and nothing would have disturbed him, but now the feeling of discomfort and loneliness was intense. For the first time since Jane left, he had somebody other than himself onboard—a woman—and yet he felt more lonely than ever before, as if Tina’s presence has highlighted something in his life that he used not to notice.

Keith hasn’t been with a woman since Jane has left him. He didn’t want to get into any new relationship, feeling too much burned out. This, of course, didn’t stop him from having more short term desires. Tina sure was attractive, but she looked so vulnerable now, that his desire to shield her, to protect her, was equally strong. Make the world a better place for her, if only till morning. Conflict of interest it was, damn it.

Shall he just leave the boat to her and disappear? She probably needs it more than he does. Of course, she hasn’t got a clue about life on a boat, but she seems to be smart, she’ll figure it out. After all, that’s probably one of the very few remaining ways to disappear in this part of the world, and this seemed to be what she wanted. A little place for oneself with no address, no attachments, no security, no nothing. Just an unassuming temporary floating shelter on the journey from birth to death. He read somewhere that in Japan they call such people “evaporated”. He threw away the cigarette butt only when it nearly burned his fingers. The time was up.

Keith stood up. The only way to his cabin was through the salon, past the couch with Tina. He took a deep breath and stepped in. Tina apparently has warmed up in sleep, and the blanket now was on the side. She was lying on her back, fully exposed. Her nicely shaped thighs in tight jeans, one hand on her flat tummy, unzipped jacket and a slight curvature of small breasts under the black T-shirt underneath, thin facial features and black hair spread out on the pillow—all this was appearing before Keith’s eyes as he was moving closer in the dark. How does she smell, he thought.

Keith kneeled beside her. There was no space for two on the couch anyway. Tina must have felt his presence and suddenly opened her eyes, staring at him. Keith stopped, trying to decipher this stare, but couldn’t. Tina didn’t move, neither toward him nor away, and kept looking him straight in the eye. They spent maybe a few minutes like this, just looking at each other. In the end, Keith gave up, put his hand on her forehead, then began patting her on the head, as gently as he could. Tina flinched and closed her eyes, receptive.

* * *

The next morning Keith woke up early, lying on the floor in the salon beside the empty couch. Tina must have covered him with the blanket while he was asleep. So this is how it ends, Keith thought. He fell asleep, patting her on the head. To the best of his memories, nothing else has happened between them, and now she was gone.

For a few minutes, he kept lying still, coming back to his senses and becoming increasingly aware of the discomfort of lying on the bare wooden floor all night. Keith was happy to wake up—he had a bad dream. In this dream, he had a girlfriend, and found that she was terminally ill, and then he was trying to grapple with all the ensuing chaos and despair as the situation was getting worse. The dream has left a disturbing lingering aftertaste in his head. He needed a cup of strong coffee to wake up fully and shake it off.

Keith stretched and stood up, looking around. The morning was a bit chilly and sunny, picture-perfect. The bright beginning of another glorious day, paradise stuff. Such a contrast to yesterday’s mood. A good day to be reborn and start a new life from scratch, this time doing something differently and hoping it will work out happier. Tina was nowhere to be seen, but there was a piece of paper on the table, folded in half, with the headlamp he gave her yesterday on top of it.

Keith put the piece of paper into his pocket without reading. Whatever was written there, reading it would bring an unbearable finality to the moment. Until he reads it, anything was still possible. Only one thing didn’t seem to be possible anymore—continue living his previous life, as if nothing has happened. He didn’t know yet what exactly to do about it, but something had to be changed now, for good or bad. Now he finally felt like he had enough will to make it happen.

One thing Keith was certain about was that he must ensure he would not return here. The temptation to come back here in the evening and happily postponing the beginning of the new life till tomorrow might be just too strong. Keith even thought about dramatically setting his houseboat on fire, but the typhoon shelter was too crowded, it would have been a disaster for the boats around. In the end, he decided to sink his boat. This way, it would be relatively easy for the fishermen to dispose of it, yet for him it would be irreversible.

Once the decision was made, the rest was straightforward. Keith went down into the cabin and opened the door to the tiny bathroom. The musty smell filled the cabin. He didn’t use the bathroom on the boat since he left the marina and was left without fresh water and electricity. From the small mirror on the wall, a fairly battered man with a short dark, with a hint of silver, hair, two-day bristle, and a bit of a madman spark in the brown eyes, was looking at him. Not nice. If he were Tina, he probably would have been scared.

Crouching under the sink, he disconnected the pipe going out below the water level and opened the valve. Cold water gushed in. He got out of the cabin up on deck and grabbed the backpack. The houseboat was submerging quickly. He climbed onto the fishing boat next to him and untied the mooring lines, watching his sinking home slowly pulled away by the current. Keith took off his black baseball cap and bowed his head for a moment, then put the cap back on and began his journey across the boats toward the wavebreaker for the last time, not looking back.

The first thing he saw when he climbed on top of the wavebreaker was Tina’s body washed up onshore. Her face pale and content, her dark hair beautifully disheveled in the water. She looked so beautiful that it took some time for Keith to realize what had happened, before the shock of loss has hit him hard. Loss. As if he has found her, and she was his to lose in the first place. When did it happen that he hasn’t noticed?

Then Keith realized that, even though he did nothing wrong, he’d be in big trouble now. He looked at Tina’s body again. It didn’t look like she became a victim of violence or an accident. She seemed amazingly peaceful, as if this was what she wanted. Keith thought for a moment, would it be better if they never met? Probably, it would have ended in the same way for her anyway. Yet, he felt happy that he met her. And at the same time, he now wished he die too.

Shaking off the stupor, Keith reached for his wallet. Still enough for a one-way ticket to somewhere. Something else was in the pocket. A piece of paper, folded in half, and a broken lighter. And then he broke down, grinding his teeth, clenching his fists, crying and shouting “fuck this life”. In a rage, he threw it all into the water. Finally, he collapsed on the rough rocks of the wavebreaker, face down, his arm stretched out and touching Tina’s cold hand in the water.

The current was gently pulling the broken lighter and the piece of paper away. As the paper was absorbing the water, it was unfolding slowly, like a tea leaf in a cup, and soon it was lying flat on the surface. The rising sun was indifferently shining on the letters “Thank you for the happiest evening in my life.”