I dab the corners of my eyes. I don’t know where to either. Not that it matters; I just need time to think. The taxi driver, an Indian man with a rat-tail, winds his window down. He must be in his late forties or early fifties, tops. His lashes are fuller and longer than mine. He’s skinny; so skinny I can see the veins protruding from his hand perched on the window.
“KLCC,” I hear myself say. Yes, KLCC would buy me forty-five minutes to think. With luck, there might even be a traffic jam on the way. A fat raindrop, which seems to have fallen from nowhere, lands hard on my face. The earthy, damp smell of rain on concrete surrounds me.
“You better get inside,” he says.
I sit at the back of the taxi. The driver starts the meter and steps on the pedal. The cracks in the cushion seats are like white veins. I touch them and the softness of the cushion spills out from beneath. The smell of essential oils and cigarettes makes me dizzy. I wish I brought along a bottle of water but I’d left the house in a hurry. Last night’s ultimatum speech from Daniel plays in my head.
“It’s been five years, Lina. Either we get married, or we don’t. Don’t you think it’s time you make up your mind?”
I remember toying with my pasta, taken aback by this sudden revelation. The look in his eyes told me he wasn’t playing around. He hadn’t touched his food either. I’m usually good at anticipating things but I hadn’t expected this. He’d proposed a year ago. I’d turned him down and didn’t think he’d try again so soon.
“It’s not that hard. The problem’s all inside your head,” he said. “Think about it.”
Just thinking about it riles my nerves. A part of me wants to call him so we can argue. The heat of it would help me blow off some steam. I reach for my phone in my handbag only to realize I’ve turned it off. But it doesn’t matter; I’m still here simmering with the weight of my thoughts. Before I can formulate just the right, sarcastic comebacks in my head, the taxi driver speaks again.
“How’re you today?”
My eyes are puffy. With no makeup on, I look like shit. I wonder if he’s being polite or if he’s just plain oblivious. It’s hard to tell sometimes. I look out the window. The grey clouds look like they’re threatening to burst. The traffic light turns red though it’s only been a couple of minutes.
“Fine. And you?”
“I’m alright. Could be better. Tough times ever since Uber came along,” he says,
shaking his head.
“So what brings you to KLCC? Shopping?”
The pause between us drags a bit too long. I’ve a feeling we both know shopping isn’t on the agenda.
As if sensing my discomfort, he puts on a Hindi song and winds the volume up. It’s the kind of tune where the woman wails as if mourning a loss. It feels as if this high-pitched voice is trying to assure me of something in a language I don’t know. As she continues to sing, I think about the truth. That I love Daniel, but not enough to fully commit. Yet I don’t want him to leave. I’m not ready for new plans as much as I’m not ready to have meals alone. The thought of having to go either way makes my chest tighten. Before I know it, my eyes begin to water. I taste the salt in my mouth.
The driver glances at me in the mirror. He lowers down the volume.
“Are you studying or working?” he asks. Maybe he’s just the type of person who always has a straight face, I think. Maybe he should consider poker. I swallow before I speak.
“Working. For seven years now,” I reply. My voice sounds like I have the flu.
“Oh, you look young,” he says. He flashes a smile and I notice his very white teeth. I extend my neck to check the route he’s taking. For now, he seems to be going the right way.
“What do you do work as then?”
“A social media specialist. You know, Twitter, Instagram, all that,” I say, moving my hands around.
“Ah, yes. My kids are always on their phones.”
He has kids. This softens my perception of him. I don’t know why I think people must have more sense if they’re parents even if that’s not true. There are plenty of awful parents. The traffic light turns green and the car starts moving again. Outside, the rain is really picking up. The sound of the wipers working away is beginning to drown the music.
“How many children do you have?” I ask in a loud voice.
He leans backwards to hear.
“Two boys. One’s fifteen and the other’s twelve. They stay with their grandparents and I see them on weekends.”
“How about your wife?” I ask. Once the words leave my mouth, I wonder if it’s too much. Daniel has mentioned how upfront I can be. I look at the driver’s face and want to tell him he doesn’t have to answer. But his expression is unchanged.
“We’re not together anymore.”
“Oh. Sorry about that.”
He chuckles. “Noting to be sorry about.”
I watch the raindrops stream down the windows and run my hands along my arms. With my phone off, I don’t know what else to do. A taxi suddenly doesn’t seem the right place to be alone with my thoughts.
“How do you know when it doesn’t work out?” I ask.
“What? Marriage? You don’t. It’s like there’s an invisible expiry date they don’t tell you about.”
I imagine an expiry date on the bottom of Daniel’s feet and laugh. I feel better. The driver’s face breaks into a smile when he hears this. It changes his face completely. The smile goes all the way to his eyes. The dark brows that gave his face a naturally stern expression has crinkled into a friendly face.
“Now isn’t that a nice smile,” he says.
A warm feeling spreads in my stomach as I put a hand on my cheek. I want him to keep speaking so I can listen and not think for a bit.
“Do you think you’ll ever remarry?”
He weighs this over as if it’s something that’s just occurred to him.
“Maybe, but isn’t so simple. My mother used to say you can’t just take somebody’s daughter without some guarantee. Plus, I have two kids.”
I think about this idea of a guarantee. The idea of holding back until you can truly give something in return. I’ve heard my mother say the same thing. Heck, I’ve heard mothers and fathers, Chinese, Malay, or Indian, say the same thing. Traditional, as much as it’s responsible.
Maybe Daniel has thought about this too. He probably won’t be getting his money’s worth with me.
“But the chance is still there, right? To marry again?”
“Of course,” he says. “Why shouldn’t it be?”
“Because people can be disappointing. Or might be. Or you never know for sure until
it’s too late.”
“Well, it’s either you get what you want or you just get old,” he says. He takes out a packet of gum and offers me one. I take one stick and put it into my mouth. The spearmint taste cools my throat.
“Maybe some people are happier alone.”
“Maybe. But I know myself enough to know that’s not true for me,” he says.
I think about Daniel and how whenever I’m with him, I get lazy. He takes charge of every situation. It makes me feel like I’m spineless as much as it makes me feel safe. I think about the best parts of him, his kindness and his ability to keep calm, even when people are horrible. I’m too cynical to ever be like that but he must see something in me to stay put.
“And I’m sure you know yourself enough. More than you think you do,” he continues.
This catches me off-guard. I blink several times, wondering if I misheard him.
“I’m s-sorry?” I stutter back.
In the rearview mirror, his face has transformed to that soft, wrinkly smile again, his eyebrows creasing gently into his face.
“Have you ever considered that he might have the same doubts? Nobody’s ever a hundred percent. But he made a choice.”
We’ve almost reached my stop. The Petronas Twin Towers peeks through the foggy window, towering and stately. I don’t know how the sight of the city’s most iconic building still fills me with awe. The thought of how traditional we are yet how far we’ve come makes me think it’s okay to stick to some things.
I turn on my phone. I think I’ll give Daniel a call now.