A taxi conversation.

“Where to?”

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.

“I see.”

“So what brings you to KLCC? Shopping?”

“Yeah…buying presents.”

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.

“Thank you.”

“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.”

“Huh.”

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.

The illusion of being alone.

In my years of growing up, I’ve gotten used to being alone. It’s during these times that I’ve felt most at home, bare of pretence and the need to be civil. It isn’t always pleasant or easy, but I accept it as a need all the same.

My need to be alone is negligible (or so, I’d like to think) but necessary. I indulge in solitary activities; long lunches alone, detours on walks back home, solo trips out of the country (or state), hours spent reading until bad posture jolts me back to reality and force me to move – anything to get in touch with my subconscious, recalibrate and understand myself better, something which seems to get trickier with age. Not many people are okay with this need. For some reason, there exists a certain stigma in being seen without a group, as if it’s capable of stripping away one’s dignity. I’ve received countless weird looks when I mention my preference to go out for solitary meals and how going to gigs by myself isn’t that big a fuss. People shirk away from being seen by themselves as if it’s a valid cause for embarrassment, as if their skins are so thin.

Don’t get me wrong; as much as it can be insightful to indulge in activities alone, there are many things that should be enjoyed with others. A good movie, an excellent meal, a barbecue, a trip to an amusement park, birthdays, dates – these are all better spent in the company of a loved one. And now that I’ve experienced what it’s like to be in a stable relationship, I understand how easy it is to attach oneself to another, as if the other person is a limb that has suddenly grown from the body. Once a person has experienced this, there exists a new sense of absence without the presence of another and being alone by choice sometimes feels out of the question.

 

But it takes years and effort to understand things and I think it takes even longer to understand our own motives and desires. Perhaps the reward is in the process. Perhaps others can see that sometimes being alone isn’t really about being lonely at all.

The Mourning After.

It’s that part of the night where nothing and everything happens. You’re sitting on the edge of Craig’s lumpy white couch, the one that’s slightly sunk in the middle and isn’t exactly white anymore, uncomfortably refreshing all the social media apps on your phone. Your throat is parched from the cigarettes. Music is playing in the background. It’s a band you don’t recognise; you’ve stopped checking up on music in the last three years and no longer spend money on music festivals. You can barely work Snapchat and try to conceal your annoyance as you see people trying to make their night more interesting than it really is. It’s starting to embarrass you how often your parents still bail you out of sticky situations. And you’ve been working hard, trying your best not to quit even if the job kills you, because you can’t afford to jump jobs anymore since that track record isn’t looking too good. The way you are dressed now, in cotton tees and less form-fitting pants ever since the beer caught up with your belly, has less thought invested into it than the Nudie jeans and Supreme sweatshirts you used to wear.

You’re tired, you think, as you watch the crowd flock this cramped living room. There is a more exclusive group of smokers starting their own party outside whereas some are lying belly-down on the floor. Some things don’t change. Craig looks forever young in spite of his premature balding. It’s in his full-bodied laugh which makes it sound like he is genuinely bemused by everything. He drinks like it’s his first year of college – relentlessly, unapologetically, as if there is no tomorrow waiting on him.

It’s been awhile since you’ve fallen in love but you gaze at the sea of pretty faces glimmering in your half-sober state. All these lovely tiny mouths, like little flowers. It feels lonely here, listening to the shimmery sounds of laughter and watching everyone exchange pleasantries that won’t last the night. You think of your past relationship and how you mistakenly thought it’d end in marriage. The both of you don’t go to the same places at the same time anymore, or try not to anyway. The city is too small to avoid each other forever. You used to love all the ways in which she moved, the way she fiddled with her fingers when she got nervous, how her eyes lit up whenever she had an entertaining story to tell, the way she would tip her head slightly when she was feeling flirty, the way she held her cigarette daintily. You see now her movements were never crass, or at least not during the prime of her girlhood. When was the last time you’ve felt the way she made you feel? Not since Tinder exploded, surely. You remember again how dating is hard. Where do all the decent people go to and,

was that even love? One day you will forget the way she smelled, the texture of her hair running through your fingers, the way the both of you belonged to the other during quieter moments of the day. A few days ago you found out Prince died. The both of you used to love listening to his music together. He was a hero, one you always thought of as ageless and eternal, just like Bowie, but he too has passed.

She, too, will age, and so will you. The both of you will find refuge in other bodies again and again. But on some days you will always still be caught in a more innocent time, so far away, when little else mattered except getting through the days running errands, savouring meals, and listening to music in the company of the other.

The prince doesn’t save her.

The first time they painted her face, she’d wanted to cry. She didn’t understand how the art of making a person beautiful transformed her instead into a caricature. Her coral mouth looked clownish, her silver-painted eyelids accentuated the purplish tint of her dark circles, the mascara transformed her lashes to look like the many tiny sprawling legs of a spider. She couldn’t afford to cry at the time, not as aunts with pinched smiles watched and told her she looked beautiful. Later at night she would wipe everything off and wonder if the problem was in the makeup artist or in her, the subject.

The first time she appeared wearing a kebaya in her first year as a woman, her mother’s eyes crinkled with pride. Beyond her slender waist and wider hips, she carried the same rare beauty her mother had glimpsed in other women. It was in the easy way her daughter’s laughter would complement her eyes, in the way she bowed slightly for a salam encasing hands older than hers with all the warmth and grace she had to offer, this time no longer as a child but as a burgeoning woman of her own, in the attentive manner she would listen, so attuned, before she spoke to others.

The first time she went to a concert, she saw the magic in which music could augment the beauty of another. Before her eyes was a boy she’d seen many times but was never drawn to in previous days. A seemingly plain boy, a seemingly simple boy. As the music began and enveloped them in its warmth, she noticed the way those boyish limbs moved, the milky white flash of neck under dim lights, the way he closed his eyes to embrace the kinship that filled the room, how he savoured every beat as if it filled him up. All this watching made her shy. As she took in the smell of sweat and alcohol in the room of moving bodies, she realized that what she felt was the ecstasy of attraction.

The first time she knew it wouldn’t work, she wondered if it was anybody’s fault or if it was just people in the 21st century that gave up on people too easily. She needed for things to end, she thought. She needed to ache to understand; not to stop seeing the beauty in past lovers but to stop yearning for that beauty too much. She’d heard stories of arranged marriages with longer lifespans than marriages of people who were crazy in love and wondered how much of love was about perseverance and how much of it was truly organic in nature.

 

Aida.

There was nothing Aida feared more than being cheated on.

When it finally happened, it was an affirmation that the reality of their carefully cultivated 15-years together was finally over. Breath straggled in throat and cheeks flushed from anger, she grabbed the keys for the white Honda MPV, now grey and dusty from neglect, and drove off into the night. The last she saw from her dashboard mirror was her husband in his boxers and cotton grey t-shirt, arms flailing in the dark to stop her from leaving as if signaling for a helicopter from the skies to come and organize a rescue. “Aida!” he yelled. “Come back!”

She wondered if he enunciated the other woman’s name with the same fervor.  The declaration left his gaping mouth emptily and lazily; she didn’t care for his words no more than she cared for the dinner she’d half-heartedly prepared a few hours earlier. Funny how love, too, has an expiry date. There was something both comic and tragic about his cries as she reversed out of the driveway and pressed on the gas, tires screeching with its ugly, sharp sounds puncturing the otherwise pristine night in the quiet neighborhood of Damansara. Most of her neighbors were old retirees, many of them no doubt nosy about the commotion taking place outside. She could picture Joyce from the corner-lot semi-D peeking from her upper window in her pink nightie, her spectacles dangling on the bridge of her nose, but Aida was too distraught to care about public opinion at this point.

It was the kids she pitied most, the image of their crestfallen faces already making her sick to the stomach. Sorry Abah’s not been behaving. She knew kids can always tell when adults try to deviate them from the cold, hard truth. Both her boys were still peacefully sleeping in their beds, oblivious and untouched in their dino pajamas. She’d come and collect them the next day, she just needed a few hours to get her shit together.

The warbled ads on the radio weaved themselves into her unraveling thoughts. 1-300-88-2525. She would’ve ordered pizza in more often if she didn’t care so much about the lack of nutrition it gave her kids. It was only during a traffic light stop that she realized she was hiccuping from all the crying. She was headed to her childhood home, where Mak and Bapak would be sound asleep. The sight of her would scare and hurt them but she realized with a sinking sensation she had nowhere else to go. At 38, her waist was no longer neat and trim, not after the two pregnancies she labored through.

She’d given her body to build a family with a cheater, what did she lose and gain from this? She thought of the lines and fading scars on her body and how it traced the history of her years. Aida was no longer the wisp of a girl she was, but there were days where she could feel its ghost stirring inside her, staring mutedly into the mirror as she begged for verification of its existence.

Promises untold.

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What would life be like if she had chosen a different route?

At 26, she had been juggling the roles of housemaid, resident cook, as well as adopted parent, sibling, and friend for six years now. She’d never intended to lose her girlhood the way she did when she crossed land and sea to work in Malaysia. Like all other human beings, she’d often lie awake at night as she skimmed through What Ifs in her head.

Maybe she’d be manning a food stand. Her days would begin at five in the morning with huge silver pots of beef broth simmering away on the stove. The sky outside would shift from the velvety darkness of night to hues of blue, the air containing a crispness she’d never find in any city. She’d then clean a basin full of beansprouts, nimbly removing their roots, her fingertips pruned from being in water too long. With hair neatly tucked underneath a bandana, she’d move to chopping coriander and chilli as condiments for the bowls of steaming beef noodles she’d sell.

Or, alternatively, she’d be toiling away on the fields as a farmer’s wife. The weather would reign over their fortune and sorrows. Day-by-day, she’d be dressed in cotton trousers folded high above her knees as she’d trudge through the fields and tend after the animals. Nights would be perfumed by the smell of the sea cucumber ointment she’d rub all over her aching joints, her back sore and bruised from carrying heavy rattan baskets filled with freshly harvested crops.

Or, what if she had chosen to marry and stay at home instead? Perhaps she’d show off a fuller body and a softer stomach, with stretchmarks across her abdomen and her buttocks — all emblems of successful births she’d relish with pride. Her husband would be her first and last glimpse of each day. While he’d be at work, she would fuss over keeping their house in tiptop condition, making sure their finances were in check and that they’d have enough to go around. Her hands would be rough and they’d have little to make do with, but at least it’d be through the expense of their own home.

Most of Imah’s nights were coloured by the notions of these other lives. All the while, the ceiling fan would whir rhythmically as her mini pink radio blared Hindi songs singing promises of love, warbling occasionally from bad static. Promises, like all the things she was promised in her life.

*This is a snippet of my revised edit of ‘Imah’, a piece I have been revisiting during my MA Fiction Workshop. 

Hues of blue: a short update.

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I can’t remember much now of the energy I had before I left for England or what it was I was hoping to find when I traveled all the way here with my maroon luggage bag which equaled me in weight and height. When I think back about how I was, desperate to find some vestige of meaning in an age where it feels elusive, I still feel disbelief at how I  managed to forge through in spite of the doubts and challenges.

Some days move by slowly, some weeks fly by much too quickly. In the blink of an eye, I am already halfway done with my program. These recent months have been much more welcoming than the earlier ones and I have been grateful for the longer days, the warmer company amongst friends I’ve made, the skills I’ve developed as a person.

It has been humbling to realise how much I lack in writing, to read other stories and marvel at other voices trying to develop as much as my own. I used to write for myself; because it was cathartic, because it felt good and it was the only way I knew how to things fluidly. Writing feels a lot more weighted these days and sometimes this feels uncomfortable. There is a distance between the reader and the pages at hand I still try to bridge. I may not always be successful, but I’m aware of the responsibility that lies in wanting to convey important messages and the promise of growth keeps me going. Writing is the attempt to approximate what others feel. Isn’t that still a wonderful task to endeavour upon?

And perhaps any worthwhile fight is meant to be uncomfortable at some point.