PROJECT: Outside In

PROJECT: Outside In

it all started from driving around a New Village with my dad one day. having nothing to do, I looked at the houses and realised that I don’t actually hate all grilles (I used to hate it and dreamt of a house with only windows without grilles). also, kampung folks have much better taste in colours than city people.

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USA: New York City, 2018 | Part I

when I changed my bus tickets, I already knew that I was gonna be late for free MoMA Friday. but life always gets in the way, so suck it up, girl. I opted for the one that would arrive in New York City faster with one transit.

the whole trip was about six hours. I couldn’t remember much except the transit because I pretty much slept all the way. sincerely feeling sorry for the lady sitting next to me. that’s when I learnt that I could wear my contact lens and close my eyes for such a long time! seventeen-hour flight back home, I’m ready. (yes, I broke my glasses a few months back.)

the transit station was a small one. there wasn’t any number anywhere. back in Washington DC, a lady in print pants who’s in line behind me had complained to me how Greyhound didn’t bother to send her an e-mail regarding the cancellation. I said, me too. I was afraid that I was gonna miss my connecting bus, so while journaling, I kept an eye on this print pants lady. a ball of anxiety swelling inside me. I don’t even know what exactly I was anxious about. Christ.

I arrived at a rush hour and gloomy New York City. now, I’m someone who has been to the shady bus station at Bangi, yet, I still found this station underneath Times Square just as scary. it was a busy one, but it gave me much more anxiety than the ones in Tokyo or Taipei.

okay, calm down, Ruo Ling. first, get your Metro Card. then get on the E line. you’ll be fine. after struggling through floors after floors, a dude tried to help me get my card. I said no, no thanks, no, I can do it myself and my eyes were on my wallet, my backpack, my luggage, my fanny pack and the ticketing screen all at once. it took me some time to find the ramp to the E train. I made a mental note on it for when I return a few days later.

guess who’s trained (hah, punny) to have a thick face when it comes to squeezing into the train at peak hours? embarrassed with my luggage, yes, but my thick face won. it wasn’t easy. the wheels of my luggage only decided to work perfectly well on the train. they kept sliding in all direction.

I arrived at Court Square Station. somehow, when thinking of arriving in NYC from another place, I always think of Lady Bird lugging her luggage out from the stairs of a subway to a random street. although truth be told, I look far less elegant from Saoirse Ronan. following my instinct, I dragged everything all the way to one end of the station. stairs. uh-oh. I was expecting this after watching a lot of Instagram Stories of my friends struggling with their luggage.

I couldn’t remember but if I’m not mistaken, someone helped me with it. as always, “ohhhh no, thanks, it’s heavy. it’s very heavy.”

okay. so where the hell am I? Google Maps told me to go straight all the way, cross to the right, go straight, cross an alley, go straight and make a left. easy, right? nope. I was panting all the way. I passed through this neat little hidden restaurant and couldn’t help but feel a little envious for the people inside. “at least you guys don’t need to drag so many pieces of luggage across New York City. you live in New York City.”

as I walked through the swing door to my dorm, I could hear a group of people outside remarking, “oh, I wouldn’t bring that much stuff to New York.” DID YOU THINK I WANTED TO? I would very much love to send this thing back to Malaysia if I could afford it. thank you.

the front desk guy asked if I had a pleasant trip to NYC. I looked at him, all sweaty, and said, “URRGHHH.” yes, I literally did that. when he told me that my room’s on the second floor, I was hoping he would help me with my luggage, this time it’s “oh PLEASE, thanks, it’s heavy. it’s very heavy.” but all he did was give me an “all the best” face. dude, really? but who was I to hate him though? he must’ve all sorts of crazy requests every day.

I walked past the common area, the kitchen, to the stairs. oh, God, no. I’m not ready for this. not after I just dragged them around for almost an hour. being in an all-girls-and-only-one-guy department in the water park, one thing I learnt in the USA was I never knew what I can do until I do it. I used to always look for the easy way out… by look I mean I literally look at my guy friends and beg them to help me carry stuff most of the time. this time, I gritted my teeth, rolled my sleeves and got them both up into my room. one more step, just one more step, and one more, and another, oh c’mon, one more, another, and… you made it! two trips. 30KGs. three flight of stairs. your girl Ruo Ling is a strong, independent woman. *smugs*

after checking out the rooftop view (what a view!) and settling down (someone in my room plays with film camera, there are at least two guys, I wonder what they’re up to, oh my god the shower is so narrow, I hope no one is fat here, mmmm the sheets are crisp and nice, wait do I wear my shoes in or do I leave it… here… or here, shit am I the only one with so much stuff), I really wanna just conk on my bed, but it was still early and it’s such a waste. after much contemplation, I decided to check out NYC at night. having back pain just after three days, I left my backpack and only brought a sling bag with me.

NYC Subway, ew. as I waited for the train, I read the notices that were everywhere in the train station, something about this train closing for road work at midnight and additional buses, blah blah blah. it caused me a lot of anxiety. I don’t wanna be stranded in such scary stations at midnight!

before heading out, I’d plan to catch the Japanese animation Perfect Blue at the Metrograph—an indie movie theater (and it’s quite famous). I’ve made it a point to watch at a repertory cinema in the US at least once. this was a good time since my plans were all messed up and the showtime fitted perfectly.

to the Metrograph I went. I took the subway, got down the subway, walked past a park, walked past some Chinese shops, walked past more Chinese shops, looked into the Chinese shops to see which one I can run into just in case anything happens because it’s starting to feel scary, made it into a darker street and I was almost there. I looked into the left street where Metrograph is located and saw a group of party animals loitering there. I was so near! but my instinct told me to turn back. without much hesitation, I listened and almost broke into a run. I kept walking and kept walking without stopping until I saw a McDonald’s and realised that I was hungry. well, I was never a person who made sure her stomach is filled well.

eating at McDonald’s in New York City. that’s like the worst thing you can do, right? this country, in a lot of ways, is like home. think the melting pot and the racism. and New York City? it’s all the more. there’re so many people in this metropolis, which means there’s a lot of good food just like home. and of these choices, I chose McDonald’s. =)

my first time ordering from a machine at McDonald’s was this time. back then, there’s only one in Malaysia. (but so glad to have it at most outlets now!) dealing with machines make me stressful. I usually buy my ticket or pay my parking at the counter, where there’s a human. (I’m a lot better with McDonald’s machines nowadays, no worries.) however, this time, as always, was s-t-r-e-s-s-f-u-l. I couldn’t look for the number plates. I asked the lady beside me. she couldn’t help me too. so I decided to press for take-out instead. then I turned over to tell her my decision after the conversation stopped like two minutes ago. 🤦🏻‍♀️

spoiler alert: I got my McDonald’s fine and sat alone at the bar facing the street. now, eating alone wasn’t anything new to me. I did that half the time in Malaysia. but somehow, maybe it was because of the foreign place, or maybe it was my damn luggage (emotional baggage, perhaps?), this was different. the internet probably wants you to think that, “oh, look at this lucky girl, enjoying her solo trip!.” but truth be told, most of the time when I ate alone during my travels, it was, “oh, look at this poor girl, with no one together.” that was my first of many times feeling lonely during the entire trip.

I didn’t want to head back just after a McMiserable. so I decided to check DUMBO out. York Station was worse than Court Square. but the tunnel has this feel that somehow attracted me. those white tiles, dirty floors. mmm. *slurps* (more York Station love in the coming posts)

I got out of the station to a mostly empty place, save for an underground restaurant. there were two touristy looking women who got down from the same train and they seemed just as lost as me. I wondered if I should ask them if I could tag along if they’re heading to the same destination. but then, if the situation was reversed, I would be scared af when someone approached me like that, at night, in an empty neighbourhood like this. so I let it slide, plus they went this way that I think… is… not… DUMBO?

anyway, I just picked any one side of the street that I thought will lead to DUMBO at this cross street. pure guesswork. guess what? it didn’t lead me to DUMBO at all. it did, however, lead me to one end of the Manhattan bridge. so I thought, fuck it, I’m here, what am I gonna do? go back to the train station? might as well walk the bridge and take a look at NYC at night, right?

this… unfortunately… was taken on another day.

this… unfortunately… was taken on another day.

it was a dumb + crazy decision. the kind that would make a story of a lifetime. so, what’s the story you ask? the story was I walked the entire bridge, the whole 2KMs of it, alone, at night. it was SCARY AS FUCK. as I later told my friend, “it was scary when I was alone on the bridge and there wasn’t anyone. it was even scarier when there’s another person on the bridge. ‘cause I don’t know if they’re gonna rob me or what.”

why did I finish it if I’d known it was scary from the beginning? it’s just the same as how you keep giving in to someone. you keep giving in, keep giving in until there’s no point of return.

I got on the bridge, walked a bit, saw nothing. maybe if I walk a little more there will be something? once I see something I’m just gonna head back where I entered. I saw some buildings. not impressed, I walked more. hmm, I don’t think I can see the entrance now. then, I saw the East River. I turned back. I think I’m nearer to the other end than to this end now (fact check: I WAS NOT), might as well keep walking. then I saw the Brooklyn Bridge and felt envious for whoever who owned this beautiful, chill balcony with this view that I’m seeing. now that I can see the Brooklyn Bridge, I’m somewhere in the middle of Manhattan Bridge… right? (fact check: NO) so I kept walking, thinking that it wouldn’t take me long to reach the other end. at one point it got so frightening I wanted to FaceTime my friend just so we could “walk” together just in case anything happened to me. the scariest part was the end of the bridge but I was so glad I was over it.

so after walking the Manhattan Bridge, what’s my thought on it? every once in a while, there’s the strong tremble on the bridge from the passing trains. there’s an old couple walking a few hundred meters ahead of me. I tried not to lose them, but at the same time kept a distance to not creep them out. occasionally there would be bikers and joggers, and group of friends chatting and laughing. how do I put it? it’s a terrifying and lonely walk if you do it alone, but contrastingly, it’s a charming, romantic walk if you do it with your lover, and it’s a fun walk if you do it with friends. bring your camera along. someone tore down some parts of the fence so you could take pictures of the entire Brooklyn Bridge.

I got out and into a part of Chinatown (only guessed but didn’t know it was Chinatown for sure until March 6, 2019, as I’m writing this and did some fact check). at that point, I was so frightened that I didn’t register my surrounding much anymore. all I’d wanted to do was to find a subway station and get the hell home. I walked past fruit stalls, I walked past clubs, I walked past Rich Kids of Instagram getting out of chauffeured cars, I wondered if any of them has a spam account that followed me on Instagram, I wondered if their parents are stinky rich or they’re in fact struggling at a food stall and I couldn’t help but felt a little sad for the parents.

I got back fine. I couldn’t remember much from the trip but decided to not stay out that late anymore as I settle into slumberland.

USA: Washington DC, 2018 | Part II

wonder what’s in my giant suitcases? it’s embarrassingly stuffed with Oreos and some 3-in-1 Milo. breakfast was made with the attempt of reducing them. c’mon, they’re serving their purpose!

I set out my journey by taking the free tram (never took one before in my life). I didn’t know I was at the last stop until everyone alighted. it’s supposed to stop at Union Station, no? confused, I broke away from the crowd and took a detour unexpectedly.

back when we had the trip to Washington, my friend posted a photo of a corridor that caught my attention. he couldn’t remember where it is (“one of those buildings”). turned out that it’s just outside of Union Station. I didn’t notice it the night before because I was busy weighing my choices + getting distracted by the lit dome, hoping for some action sequence, maybe a helicopter chop, chop, chopping above and Nicholas Cage descending from a rope stair.

anyway, while I was mesmerised with the beauty, I had my first stranger interaction. seeing that I was busy with my camera, a working class man offered to take a picture for me. I know, what are the chances of someone running away with your big, bulky DSLR? but there’s this funny ad that I once saw, (sadly, I can’t find it anymore), where a photographer offers to take photos for strangers and then run away with their camera to capture the strangers’ reaction. plus in my head, there’re ten thousand ways to rob a camera, (though most of them aren’t viable). anyway, spoiler ahead: the photos he took of me were okay.

first stop was, of course, Capitol Building. the last time we’re here, we didn’t make it down to the visitor center. this time I did. that is, after spending a good fifteen minutes or so under the sun, trying to get a good photo of the dome.

upon entrance, people were being rejected to enter from the security gate because of the water they carry. not wanting to embarrass myself, I dumped my water to the grass. usually I’d be worried, but in big cities, everywhere you go, there’re always water fountains and clean bathroom, and that’s what I love in America. I know Malaysia is still a developing country, but hopefully one day we’ll come to this point.

it was such a shame that I didn’t know that I could watch the congress in session. if I did, I would’ve planned it in advance. channeling my #NerdyRuo. otherwise, there’s the exhibition hall that you can visit.

anyway, after some time in the dark hall reading about the dome (pretty impressive), it’s time for the next stop—The Library of Congress. it’s another photo that’s posted by my friend which caught my eye. the details of the interior are just… *inserts Owen Wilson’s WOW* just look at it for yourself.

my favourite thing (so hard to choose!) in this library should be all the famous, remarkable quotes on the ceiling. the one that first caught my attention was this—"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings."

then, I made my way to the National Air and Space Museum. again, there’s a security check. I was puzzled with the tight security at first. then, I realized, “oh, this is DC, the capital. c’mon.” most places have bag scan, or at the least, a hand search. now looking back, you know what, America, forget about fences or teachers learning how to shoot, maybe you should just put these machines at school entrances. get some control on your gun control yo.

anyway, I knew this museum because of… *drumrolls* yes you got it, my friend’s Instagram post, again. XD jeez, do I have any of my own ideas? apparently Night At The Museum was filmed here?

but before I was at the museum, my stomach was already growling. a guest at the water park who’s from DC told me that there’s a restaurant offering good Malaysian food in DC. alas, I couldn’t find it, so in my indecisiveness, I resorted to eating at the museum in the end. pretty sure if I were travelling with pals there would be sounds of complaints but I really don’t mind much when it comes to food. I sat at a spot with sunlight and enjoyed my lunch.

you wouldn’t imagine how much time I had spent at the museum. almost three hours of reading stuffs and playing around with the interactive exhibits, which I love a lot. the How Things Fly part of the museum made me miss Physics class. and c’mon lah, there’s no broken stuff whatsoever unlike here.

it’s partly also because of my indecisiveness (again). I’d wanted to visit Newseum (journalism fans out there, anyone?) initially but my itinerary was running an hour late. so might as well just hang in this museum, right? so I bade goodbye to the museum. I mean… it’s been three hours, hello? at last I skipped Newseum to go straight to the National Gallery of Art.

I didn’t have any good photo of the National Gallery of Art, but some interesting things happen while I was there.

there was, of course, the bag check again (ugh). that’s not the interesting part. somehow, I made a swift turn into the visitor centre to grab a brochure because I thought I didn’t wanna waste my time finding my way in this big, art maze. the friendly elderly man at the desk asked me if I needed any help and realised that my huge backpack was somehow allowed in, so he advised me to sling it to a side so it wouldn’t be noticed. hey, thanks man!

the brochure that grabbed my attention was the one with Van Gogh’s face on it. surprise, surprise. I didn’t know they have Van Gogh’s work here…

finally at the gallery exhibiting his work, I plopped down on a sofa and just… look at the paintings. after so many Madonna and Child (I swear, they’re the art world equivalent of pop songs) and other works that do with religion, it’s pretty good to see something different.\\

there’s this guy taking photos really, really up close to the painting with his phone, as though he’s looking for some secret Van Gogh code in it. the Vincent Van Gogh code, Professor Langdon?

“Excuse me,” a voice next to me said, “may I know what picture you’re taking?”

“Oh, just… a picture of a picture.” I replied rather awkwardly.

the middle-aged man continued, “are you Van Gogh fan?”

now, here’s a man, sitting on this sofa long before me, just looking at the paintings, and at the people looking at the paintings. so I said, honestly, “not really.”

I’m not a die-hard Van Gogh fan, no, didn’t know much about him. only heard bits and pieces about him from my good friend Tumblr. I love Starry Starry Night for the fact that many of us see the night sky the same way (thanks to the ever growing timelapse video on the net) but this guy saw it so differently and beautifully.

he laughed. he said that’s fine. in fact that’s actually good, because I can really tell which painting I like. I told him, of all the paintings currently hanging on the wall, I like his self-portrait best. I like the blue in the background. it’s very moody.

“What about Roses?” he asked.

I thought that’s not quite like Van Gogh. to be frank, if it weren’t for the brochure / leaflet / whatever you call it, I wouldn’t’ve known that that’s his painting.

another lady joined in the conversation and said, “that’s because he was trying to make money!”

we chuckled. God, nothing beats people who share the same humour. it made me fell instantly in love with galleries.

I pointed to the painting next to Roses—Farmhouse in Provence and said I actually like that one more than Roses. it felt more Van Gogh to me. he then explained to me what he thought is so good about that painting. the man in the painting was Van Gogh’s best friend. the postman, I assume? (see, I told you I’m not a die-hard Van Gogh fan) he asked if I know how Van Gogh died.

unsure, I said, “uh… he… cut his ear?”

this got him. losing an ear led Van Gogh to his death, yeah, really, Ruo Ling, just what the hell were you thinking? I was ignorant so he proceeded to tell me that he shot himself on that very field in that painting. and that’s the story.

silence followed as we continued contemplating the art pieces. a moment later, he said, “you know the thing about Van Gogh? No one buys his painting, yet, he still draws, for fifteen years. Why do you think so?”

I continued staring at the paintings because I thought the question was rhetorical at first. realizing that he was waiting for an answer, I said, gingerly, “he is… crazy?”

he laughed again this time. I like how my new friend laughed. taking his time to appreciate all this silliness and to only reply when he’s ready. I laughed too and to my defence, I said, “I mean… he cut his ear!”

he replied, “well, I was gonna say perseverance… but he is crazy too.” and we both laughed again.

ain’t it weird that one can share a similar sense of humour with another person who’s double her age? in fact, I find that I’m always more chatty with middle-aged people when working at the water park. maybe it’s seeing too much of life and accepting all the foolishness that it is, thus, sharing the same sick humour.

it was a few months later when I had the chance to watch Loving Vincent in the cinema that I knew what he’s trying to say about Van Gogh’s passion and determination.

we parted ways after some general topics, agreeing that I should stop taking picture of a picture, because they’re so… Googleable. you know, when Google Image Search is full of the similar photos… and that I should take it the Vincent-Van-Gogh-code way since it could be my one and only time to be this up close with these paintings. we also noted that life's pretty odd in that in a few days, he’ll be closer to my home (he’s based in Vietnam) while I’ll be closer to his home, and I’ll be travelling the path that he’s travelled in the past few weeks.

I’d thought of walking to Lincoln Memorial but then I saw a few people standing in line at a bus stop. so I took a $1 and got on the bus but the driver said, “nah, just get on.” I insisted on paying but then he said something like, “it’s passed the time” or something like that. shit, did I do something wrong again? T~T

I really, really didn’t want someone to run off with my camera or my phone, yeah? so I tagged along this kind-looking person who’s sitting in front of me in the bus so I could ask her to help me take a photo. but then the vibe wasn’t right. then, I noticed this family speaking Malaysian Bahasa Melayu. trying my best to you know, jadi kawan, I went ahead and asked, in BM (HAHAHA oh God now thinking back I really wanna laugh at my desperation) if the daughter could help me take a photo. gotta send it to my mom so she knows I’m safe.

since I took the bus, I’m now running early. so I just sat at the stairs facing the Monument, swiping my phone while getting used to being alone. it suddenly hit me that, OH MY GOD I FORGOT TO PRINT MY BUS TICKETS. distressed, I texted Aaron (as if he could magically bring me my tickets), figuring how to overcome yet another hurdle in this trip while overlooking the city, thinking, “where the hell do I look for a printer?!?!”

I couldn’t remember what made me felt assured that things would go smoothly. somehow, I just went on with my day without giving any damn about those tickets.

I walked the tree-lined path (not pictured) to Martin Luther King Jr.’s Memorial, all while appreciating the good weather, although I was sweating a lot, and the fact that I was at a very walkable city. throughout the day, I could see that some people had already reset themselves and gone back to their daily routine for the rest of the year, while some were still trying to catch the tail of summer with their kids. it was nice.

I figured that there would be many tourists at the Lincoln Memorial catching the sunset. so, I’d planned to do it at Lake Basin. it’s actually the highlight of my plan, haha, ‘cause I was excited to get a photo of the Washington Monument in the evening sun that’s different from the usual angle from Lincoln Memorial.

granted, there’s no one there except mosquitoes swarming around at dusk. growing up in Malaysia, I thought it wouldn’t be such a big deal. I was wrong. holy crap, the mozz fest was HORRIBLE.

I shot a timelapse while non-stop swatting the mosquitoes away till sundown and walked back to Lincoln Memorial to catch the monument at night. remember I said that I’m glad that drink fountains and bathrooms can be easily found? guess what, the water that came out from this fountain was yellowish. I was doomed. I can’t go without plain water for more than half an hour.

when I was finally back to Lincoln Memorial and prepared to take a photo, my camera died, like died DIED. not even the pull-battery-out-and-stick-it-in-again trick would work. I had the crazy idea of borrowing from some Nikon user, but then borrowing a battery just to shoot a photo? I fit perfectly well into the “Japanese tourist” stereotype. 😐

I was pretty upset. I mean, I came all the way to DC to catch the lit dome at night (cues action sequence fantasy again) and there wasn’t a point to see it without my camera (maybe I am truly a “Japanese tourist” at heart). you can tell it’s a hard decision. in the end, I reluctantly called an UberShare (one of the best inventions, seriously) and got back to my dorm.

my new friend had told me that DC serves great coffee. unfortunately, this girl doesn’t do coffee. I was hoping that maybe I could still visit a cafe for a quick breakfast, but it turned out that I woke up earlier than these businesses did. in the end, I cashed out and bought some okay-only-lah food from the grocery store. the ATM that’s built into a hole in the wall was fascinating to me. (channeling my #GeekRuo). I don’t think this type of thing exist in Malaysia, does it? we don’t have good sidewalks to begin with. they’re usually terribly made, ill-maintained, vandalised and badly designed. I mean, sometimes the sidewalk just narrows and then… disappears completely and you find yourself walking dangerously next to the open road. ah, also, there’re snatch thieves.

anyway, when I got my stuff in order, it’s time to leave. just when I made sure I had everything with me—my backpack, my big luggage, my small luggage, my money, my passport—and reached for the front door, I felt something wrong with my feet. MY SHOES! they’re still on the first floor. I bolted upstairs to get them and made an embarrassed smile to the cleaner. I should nickname myself “embarrassment”, really.

being the person who always have to make-make sure (you know, make sure again and again), upon arriving at Union Station, I asked the Uber driver, “is this where the bus station is?”

to my horror, he said he thought it’s somewhere else. this is the train station. what now, do I still wanna stop here?

I said, yeah. it’s not like I could make it to my bus on time if the bus station was really somewhere else, right? might as well take a look here and make sure this is the bus station. I might look calm on the outside but it’s really a panic-stricken moment, I tell you. I was worried that I was running late, what with my bus tickets and you tell me THIS IS NOT THE BUS STATION?!??!

rest assured, things didn’t get better after that. I frantically looked for an elevator. but that’s not the only thing that I couldn’t find, I couldn’t find THE WORD too.

in screenplay format, it went like this



(calm outlook but nervous on the inside)
Hi. May I know where’s the li-

(realises that the Americans don’t use the word “lift” and it means Lyft the e-hailing service not the big box that goes up and down)

um the

(a beat)

(another beat)

(another beat)



I didn’t know where the lady pointed me to. anyway, I made it into a service elevator. and it was scary.

when I finally got to the upper floor, it turned out that bus station’s another floor upstairs. I knew I was definitely going to be late if I went to look for another elevator (the service elevator couldn’t take me to the rooftop) so I told myself fuck it, just use the escalator. guess what? IT FITTED. my damn luggage fitted on the step. just nice, just right. as if escalators were made so that a big luggage could fit, or the other way round. a matchmake on Earth.

alright so things were turning brighter right? NO. life always gets in the way. I went straight to the bus line, waved my phone to the conductor, asked him if I could board with just a confirmation e-mail. he said, “oh no, your bus is cancelled. please go into the office to sort it out.”

right… thanks, man. it was a good thing amidst the bad, really. ‘cause they’re gonna have to print the ticket for me. so ticket problem: solved. bus problem: uhhhh let’s see. spoiler alert: I arrived at New York City that day, safe and sound.

where the bus station is situated and the direction we’re heading, I couldn’t get a decent view of DC when I left. I remember back when my first time visiting DC, while searching for places to visit, I found this place uninteresting. yet, my heart was heavy when I left for the second time because I wasn’t able to take one last good look at this city that captured my heart so easily with its second chance.