/ Nonfiction /
My wine room—or writing room, or just a room—was located in an old industrial building. There was a canteen inside the building on the ground floor, where people would play mahjong every Friday nights, starting from the moment they rolled down the shutter gate to easily three, four o’clock in the morning. Beer bottles would be all over the floor, clinking against each other from time to time, like how the bowling ball hit the bowling pins, except it sounded much more crisp. I always wanted to go in and see what they did exactly, but what good would happen when a bunch of drunk people were surrounded with glass bottles? With that, I would usually go straight to the elevator, which almost made me turn down the room in the first place.
Unlike the modern, regular elevators we use everyday, it was the kind of ginormous, dated goods elevator that one needed to lift the upper door up and push the lower door down with both hands and slide the gate open, every time, before going in and out. But the worst part was the distinct, sharp chemical smell that trapped inside and never disappeared. I had to hold my breath in there but always gave in midway.
My room was one of the subdivided rooms on the 7th floor. While the lobby presented a rather refreshing, lively feel with plants placed neatly all over the place and artificial grass hung on the walls, my room exhibited minimalism. A white stained oak IKEA home desk placed against a wall, a black IKEA foldable chair situated before the desk, and a storage box (also IKEA, unsurprisingly) for books within my reach. My original intention to rent this room was to read and write in solitude, period. But sometimes, even the best-laid plans could go awry.
It started with an estranged friend with a rare medical condition. In one pre-employment health checkup, Chin-ho found a shadow on his lung. He was then referred to hospital for a further checkup. That was when he shot me a message on WhatsApp: wanna hang?
We lived in the same neighborhood, within a five-minute walking distance from each other, but for some reason, we’d never met or run into each other after our secondary school graduation, around seven years from then, until that message. We met in a sitting area in the neighborhood, where several old, gray-haired men chattered or played chess over cigarettes and beers. The first time seeing him after seven years felt nostalgic and reminiscent, as if I hadn’t seen him for just a weekend; he had the same hairstyle, the same fashion style. Bangs to the left. Mullet to the neckband. Streetwear logo print tee (more upscale, though). Striped white socks with a pair of Jordan shoes. He did look a bit more haggard and mature, though, especially with the smell of cigarettes and alcohol surrounding us.
Naturally, we went through a few back and forth of awkward courteous greetings before actually getting down to the business. The doctor said it could be nothing, he said. A further checkup is more like a precaution. For my peace of mind.
I listened and nodded. He didn’t try to make a big deal out of it; what he did was almost like sharing an experience of a friend, rather composed and detached, but as far as I recalled, he seemed to speak more and faster, as though he was trying to smooth out the subtle uneasiness in his voice. He was the type of person that seldom expressed his feelings, like me. He simply wanted to be heard.
We met again at the same place one week later. Guess what? he said. The uneasiness somehow dwindled in his voice. It’s not a tumor, he continued. It’s a polyp. The doctor said it isn’t harmful to my health for now, that I don’t have to do anything and leave it be, but it may–or may not–turn into something else in the future. He suggested it should be removed, meaning surgery.
Chin-ho struggled at the thought of having his body cut open on the operating table. Who knows what’d happen? he asked. What if the surgeon’s hand shook and cut my lungs by accident, or even dropped the scalpel? Like it’s not that impossible if you think about it. His hand gripped his knee with force and shook slightly, as if trying to prove his own point. Also, he continued, the polyp grows in such an unusual spot that the doctor asked if it’s okay for the medical students to watch the surgery for learning purposes. K, does it even sound safe to you? Like I’m more of a test subject than a patient.
It worried me hearing all these. A few words of comfort crossed my mind, but I couldn’t seem to bring myself to say it. Instead, I gave him a pat on the shoulder. Let’s go have a drink, Chin-ho said all of a sudden. But can you? I replied. Doctor didn’t say nothing about drinking, he said with a smirk. Do you know any places?
The room was the first place that came to my head. I had never shown, nor intended to show, anyone the room, but my heart told me I should after he opened up to me. Yes indeed, I said shortly after.
We walked to the room after he took a bottle of red wine from home. Why do you rent a place here? Chin-ho asked in the industrial building. I expected he would ask that and said, Sometimes I just like to spend my time alone after work. He went on, Look at this elevator! It is one of those things you only see on TV.
A tinge of embarrassment rose within me. I pretended I didn’t hear it and looked around. What’s this smell? Chin-ho asked and choked himself as we got in the elevator. Corners of my lips couldn’t help lifting. It’s not gonna be long, I said and put my hand over my mouth. Perhaps I shouldn’t have brought him here, I also thought.
Chin-ho slid open the gate and lifted the door open once it reached the 7th floor. It definitely looks nicer here, Chin-ho said in the lobby. I smiled and led him to my room. After settling down, he opened his bottle of red skillfully on the desk and asked me if I had wine glasses. I handed him my mug and rice bowl, hesitantly.
Taken aback, he let out a laugh and poured the wine into them. To make it taste better, he said, you need to swirl your glass–or mug or rice bowl. When the oxygen contacts with the wine, it makes it more pungent and fruitier. Easy, K, swirl it gently! He went on, Then take a whiff of it and have a sip. Let it sit in your mouth for a moment. How is it? Do you like it?
Technically, that was my first time tasting red wine. I mean, of course, I drank it before, but I was either in some noisy bars or at some friends’ home. We downed one after another between games in the you-lose-you-drink manner. We had a fun time, we got drunk, we threw up, occasionally. And that was about it.
Complex flavors hit my taste bud when I rolled the wine around my tongue for the first time. Overwhelmed, I couldn’t discern and pinpoint the flavors one by one. All I could say was, It’s pretty sour. Th-the good kind of sour, I mean.
Indeed, Chin-ho said with a laugh after finishing his sip. It tastes sour with a fruity aftertaste. And if you pay closer attention, you may as well taste a tinge of vanilla and chili, which could come from the oak barrel, I suppose.
I took a sip again and tried to pinpoint the flavors in my mouth. I didn’t taste vanilla, but the fruitiness and chili note gradually creeped into my tongue. Pure joy started to spread outwards from my mouth. I wasn’t sure if it was the alcohol, but my fingers and feet were heated with an unshakably tingling sensation. I took another sip, tasting the almost untraceable vanilla this time. Jubilation lingered, like the fruity aftertaste.
* * *
Six weeks after the surgery, we had another drinking session in the room. Chin-ho’s polyp was removed successfully. I texted him right after his surgery, wanting to pay him a visit in the hospital, but he said he would be discharged soon. And no more replies.
How do you like this wine? he asked in the room.
It’s sour, I said after careful tasting, with a hint of coconut. Also the body is so full I can almost chew it. After that night of tasting red wine for the first time, I bought two wine glasses and red wines and tasted them by myself every Friday. It was riveting to find how a mouthful of red could contain so many flavors and be identified one after another.
Chin-ho gave me an impressed look and clinked my glass. There is like nothing here, he said in the middle of drinking. What do you do here?
Normally I would just make up something and change the topic, but for some reason, my inner voice told me I should open up to Chin-ho more. Because I like to write, I replied, and need a quiet place for that. I felt uneasy for some reason and left it at that. So you want to be a writer? he asked. I paused for a moment, the uneasy feeling climbing up. Well, I don’t know, it isn’t that easy.
Why don’t we create a social media account? Chin-ho proposed. Say, wine tasting. So we can write and drink every week.
The reply was a delightful surprise, mixed with relief and thrill. Chin-ho poured the last drop of wine into his glass and put the empty bottle onto the desk’s right corner, saying, That’s the first bottle we’re going to write. And every wine we write about will be lined up here, like a collection.
Every Friday after work became our tasting session. The wine bottle corner started from one bottle to two rows of wine made in not only France, but in Japan, Argentina, the US, etc. I enjoyed how reviewing wine made me focus on the nuances of flavors and break them down, despite slow, but steady, growth in our social media account. There was one champagne bottle among the collection, from the time we had a little celebration after the doctor said Chin-ho had a full recovery in his last follow-up consultation.
After that, things, without a sign, started to go downhill like a streak. He became hard to get a hold of and didn’t reply to my messages until the next day, or at all, not to mention updating our social media. A thought crossed my mind, but I needed to confirm it. I sent him a text, We can review beers, like local craft beers, food or restaurants if we don’t have time to drink together. He wrote a review or two on restaurants before he stopped again. There are no restaurants that are worth writing about lately, he texted, followed by three laugh cry emojis at the end.
I was waiting for a bus at the usual bus stop after work when the text popped up. Off the top of my head, there were manifold restaurants we talked about and could try: the Michelin star pizzeria which was considered underpriced by many, the internet-famous burger joint with the most photogenic burgers, the popular cha chaan teng known for its insolent service but quality food. A wave of disappointment and embarrassment crept in, rather than a surge of anger. I put on my headphones and slipped my phone back to my pants pocket.
The bus arrived. People boarded it one by one, methodically and mechanically. My feet turned away from that and towards a promenade nearby. Numerous people jogged towards and past me, waves ebbed and flowed against the wall, like most of the human relationships. He just needed some company in his rock bottom, I figured. Normally sadness would be as far as it would go, but I took him to the room; a feeling of betrayal soon surfaced.
Writing is always my insecurity, because telling people I want to become a writer is a big statement per se, not to mention I write in a language that is not my first language, in a place where English is not the most commonly used language–not even the second most, arguably. Two questions always pop up in my head: am I good enough to write? and am I good enough to write in English? Words are just words. Everyone who gets a pen and paper (or a computer) can write. What makes my words different from the others’, and a sea of native English writers’?
And who would rent a tiny room in an old, sketchy industrial building just for writing? You must be really struggling and desperate. Or you must be really good then. You go out of your way to rent a room just for writing. What did you publish? Did you publish a novel? Or a short story collection? Um…um, actually, I haven’t published anything…
After the walk along the promenade, I found myself in a liquor store and bought a red wine. An intense sour smell flowed to my nose as I opened it in the room. I swirled the bottle and took a sip, as usual. It tasted sour, with an even sourer aftertaste. I haven’t texted Chin-ho since that night, neither has he. But at least, on the bright side, he is living a good life.