I wondered why I had come to yet another alumni gathering. Year after year, we repeated the same dumb stories to the best of fading memories, and laughed with undiminished vigour. Luckily, I was seated next to Ken. I knew I could count on him to disrupt pathetic nostalgia.
“The world’s ending again,” he said when appetiser was served. “How’re you guys spending the last few days?” We were next to Vincent and Jill.
Vincent seemed instantly animated. “We—” referring to his tribally specific Brotherhood of Dongguan Christians “— will be dining together on the 21st.” He answered through a mouthful of salad, flashing a kaleidoscopic mixture of masticated lettuce and colourful capsicums.
“You guys plan to enter Heaven as a tour group?” Ken asked.
“That’s right,” Vincent replied, sucking his teeth.
“What are you guys talking about?” Jill asked, innocent as ever. She never pretended to be an intellectual, but was blithely successful as a senior government lawyer.
“End of the world Jill,” Ken explained. “The Mayan calendar ends on the 21st, finishing another b’ak’tun cycle. Some take that as a hint of the world ending.”
“Oh that’s terrible!” she shrieked.
“All calendars must end at some point don’t they?” I tried to be sensible.
Ken smiled, then turned to Vincent. “Tell me: why are you guys so obsessed with End-times?”
“Well, if you love God, death isn’t the end. It’s instead the ultimate reunion with Him, the beginning of eternal happiness.”
“I thought you prayed for your Dad’s recovery from heart surgery, and how it worked miraculously for three years? Why did you ask God to delay your father’s eternal happiness?”
“It’s different!” objected Vincent, indignant.
“Okay, sorry about the bad example. To be fair, non-believers seem equally excited about the Big Ending; but when it comes to personal death, everyone freaks out.”
“So why do you think that is, philosopher?” I asked.
“My take is life’s like a jail-term, and we’re subconsciously anxious to get out.”
“I hope the food’s better,” I said.
“Not if you have to eat lunch boxes.”
“At least we don’t have to wear uniform,” Jill said reflectively, then slipped a tiny leave of salad through her Botoxed lips and held it there, not chewing.
“No?” Ken raised his eyebrow. “Can you imagine anyone wearing a tie and jacket in 35 degree heat and 98% humidity voluntarily? We put on social uniforms everyday according to others’ expectations rather than our own taste or common sense.”
Jill smiled sweetly to herself, apparently not listening.
Ken continued: “Think about this: The average guy’s morning alarm is no more welcome than the wake-up sirens in jails. He hates his job as much as prisoners hate sewing. Lunch hour is just as fixed, probably more rushed. Office hours drag out into overtime dawdling because others aren’t leaving. Prisoners can at least drop a stitch half way when the clock strikes four.”
“Ha, but jailbirds don’t get to go home after work!” Vincent pointed out triumphantly.
“But what’s the big deal about going home for most?” Ken shrugged. “Loners are the fastest growing thing in this city. Modern families stare at the TV rather than talking to each other. Numbing the mind with video games sounded like a good escape at first. But my colleague’s thirteen-year-old is suffering from depression because he couldn’t advance to a new level in virtual world. He’s a cyber failure, getting nowhere. Poor kid.”
“Why don’t we see more suicides then. Jailbreak!” I chipped in teasingly.
“That’s the point! That’s why so many yearn for the end of the world but fear personal death. Imagine —” he pointed a finger to his temple “— if you’re born in a concentration camp and lived there all your life. After fifty years, they say you alone can go. You’d be scared to shitless. But if the gate is thrown open and everyone’s rushing out, you’d be rapturous like Vincent.”
“Well, I kind of share your jail analogy but I’m happy because there’s a destination for me, when this all ends,” Vincent retorted smugly.
“Heaven?” Ken asked. “Sure. But Eternal Life’s another story, a very long one.”
“Oh well, let’s drink to the possibility of imminent discharge then.” I toasted my old school mates. “A rapturous winter solstice! See you guys out there.”