Then, the penny drops..

    I ordered chicken lasagna but the dish before me looked anything but. It had two rocket leaves curled up at the top, dusted in sprinklings of grated Parmesan cheese. Instead of tidy layers of pasta, bechamel sauce, cheeses and chicken ragu, my lasagna resembled a molehill with broken slabs of pasta piled on top of each other. 

    I glanced around. There was only one other customer. A young man with a tattoo on his biceps. He sat facing me at my 11 o’clock, nursing a hot pot of Earl Grey and reading a magazine. I hummed along to Misty Blue playing at the background.

    I sliced through the side of my lasagna with the tine of my fork and took a bite. For something that was a visual disaster, I must say it was surprisingly tasty. I positioned my phone in front of the lasagna, snapped a photo and whatsapped it over to you.

    “Enjoying a quiet lunch with some pasta and jazzy music,” I wrote, “what a treat!”

    “I am in a bar in Tokyo, having my lunch and enjoying jazz music too.” you wrote back.

    “Pray tell, is there a grey cat curled up somewhere on the cupboard, maybe?” 

    At that moment, my phone rang. You were laughing at the other end.

    “Just so you know I am not making this up, I am going to pass this phone to the bloke behind the counter.”

     I waited.

     The man behind the counter said that his name is Haruki.

     I giggled. The young man looked up from his magazine, scowling.

     “Did you hear what the man said?” you were back on the line.

     “Oh..c’mon..you don’t expect me to buy that, do you? You guys are probably rolling on the floor laughing at my expense.” I smirked. I had made the mistake of confessing to you that the only other guy who I had ever been totally head over heels infatuated with was Haruki Murakami, the renowned Japanese novelist.

     “Will you be back this weekend? I miss you.” 

     You sighed. “I can’t, babe. I have to tie some loose ends. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

     “Can I fly over instead?”

     “Not this time. I need you to hold the fort while I am away.” You sounded strangely muffled as though you had your hand over the mouthpiece. 

     Something inside me shifted; like the lasagna whose tidy middle portion had expanded during cooking and forced upwards like tectonic plates.  Because as you said goodbye, I swore I heard a high-pitched lady’s voice very close to you gushed, “Ikimashou ka?” – Shall we go?

 

Filling in the blanks

There were certain blanks in my life I hoped to fill one day.

For some reason, I can’t remember certain things no matter how hard I try. Whenever I am home and looking through Father’s old photo albums, I would squint and screw up my eyes, hoping that perhaps by doing so, I can see beyond the black and white foreground. Hoping that if I stare hard enough, I can spot something familiar in the background.

But most times, I ended up with a bad headache from too much squinting.

There were also certain questions which I am burning to ask my parents, but refrained. Because it inevitably ended up with an uncomfortable silence over the next few days when an innocent question snowballed into a relentless stream of vitriol resulting from, I suspect, a whole host of unresolved animosity between Mother and certain relatives.

So I would keep quiet and try to catch Father in a pensive mood for my questions. Never in the company of the other. Never in a direct way, but in by-the-way kind of questions slipped into casual conversations, punctuated with current observations to deflect suspicions; much like a young girl trying to assess her father’s take on her current crush.

A good way, I have found out was to look at the old photo albums; the one containing pictures of my parents’ courtship when she and he were on a swing staring lovingly into each other’s eyes. Or the one with him looking smart in a narrow dark tie, white long-sleeved shirt and pleated pants; and she in her dress that clinched at her tiny waist before bellowing into a spherical skirt like a bubble umbrella.

I remember that dress. It was maroon with bold pictures of ladies dancing the salsa all around the edge of the skirt just above the hem. I remember that dress because when I was around 12, she altered the dress for a custom-fit and I wore it for my birthday.

So whenever I come across any old photo, the backstory of which I am itching to ask, I would mentally bookmark the page and the few pages on either side. When Father is alone at home, I would take my portable scanner and scan the photos in the old albums. Then, I would casually ask Father who the people in the photographs were or what the occasion was; as if to write a caption to each photo I’d scanned. I usually start with a nondescript photo of them in a group before treading slowly to the object of my lustful curiosity – the one with just Him and Her.

Awake in someone else’s dream

Isn’t that what the legend says?

If you can’t sleep at night, it’s because

you’re awake in someone else’s dream

           of course!

 

Is he thinking of me? you ask

Is he wide awake, too? you wonder

 

I stare at the ceiling,

grinning, then

           frowning.

If I don’t fall asleep soon,

I’ll look like crap in the morning.

 

Outside, the city lights are fading.

I count them,

            whispering..

he likes me, he likes me not,

      he likes me, he likes me not,

          he likes me, he likes me…hmm…

I look around and spy

four small red dots afar.

He likes me,

          oh my!

Mind games

   I was happy to hit the road.  As I sang along to my favourite song and thumped the steering wheel to the rhythmic beat, I glanced at my brother who was sitting on the passenger seat.  Henry looked forlorn.  Sad.

   No, let me rephrase that. Henry was happy until it was time to kiss Mother goodbye and he saw tears in her eyes.

   Mother seldom cries when we leave.  Maybe it was because Henry will always scold her and say “You cry as though I am not coming back.”  He knew it was wrong to say such things to an old lady but my brother and I – we both hate sad farewells.

   Actually, it is not the farewells that I hated.  I can’t wait to leave.  Everytime I go home, I feel huge gnarled roots grab me into a suffocating chokehold, bullying me into a cowering heap of filial subservience.

   But for Henry, it was the tears he can’t stand.  Tears made him feel guilty, he confided, as we lay in our bunk beds in the bedroom of our childhood.  

   I remembered that conversation well because that was the first time my brother and I had a “real” conversation.  Before that, he would usually ignore me or treat me like a child; which I supposed was expected, especially when my brother was a 14 years older than me. 

   I called Mother as soon as we reached home to say that our baggage, cramped tightly to the hilt at the back of my car with homecooked goodies – chilli crabs, tempoyak, sambal petai, acar rebung and asam laksa – had made the journey unscathed.  Then she said, “Come back soon.”  And she sounded genuinely sad; surprisingly bereft of that emotional blackmail she doles on us every time.

   Something in her tone tugged my heart.  But I ignored it.  Dying and the dead were something I rather not dwell on at length. 

   My brother remarked that Father looked his usual happy self. I smirked and commented that Father looked as though he was trying too hard. Putting up a show when we were around. I can see through that game face of his, I insisted.

   “They are trying not to squabble in front of us,” I said.  I knew they get on each other’s nerves – alot.  She with her sharp tongue, dripping with sarcasm; ready to strike and cut Father into a sulking mess, even if the bone of contention was something as ridiculous as getting names mixed up in a conversation over some drama serial on tv.

   But my brother begged to differ. He thought that it has a lot to do with money.  Mother told us that Father has been giving money to his relatives, specifically, his sick brother. But Mother’s argument was that Uncle’s kids were well-to-do.  They should not accept Father’s money.

   “They will come up with some sob story and expect your old father to contribute.  Why can’t his own children foot the bill?” she gestured wildly.  “Have you seen their cars? All the latest models.  But hospital bill for one father they cannot afford.”

   My brother shushed her because she was getting loud, and he didn’t want Father who was upstairs taking his nap, to hear.  We can see that pained expression in his eyes every time Mother brought this topic up.

   To me, how Father spends his money was his business. He has his own bank account. She has her own bank account.

   Father once told me that he felt happy giving money to people in need.  When I reminded him that there have been cases of people taking advantage of his generosity, he would say “It’s ok. They have to live with their conscience.  Every time they see me, they will remember what they have done.”

  “In fact,” I told my brother, “I suspect that Uncle would purposely get himself admitted into that ridiculously expensive hospital when he felt that none of the relatives and his children were paying him enough attention.  At least when the relatives know that he is in hospital, they would feel obliged to visit him.  And his children will have to take turns to be at his side, to be at his beck and call, to cater to his every whim when he was in hospital.  Otherwise…yunno…relatives.. they.will.talk… if they come visit and find Uncle alone. Quivering and moaning at his bed.  Alone.”

   My brother laughed softly.  He said that I am starting to sound like Mother and I felt strangely pleased although I wasn’t sure if it was meant to be a compliment.

   “Is that why you were always so combative whenever we go home and Father tells us that we should visit Uncle? Can’t you give Father some respect?” my brother asked.

   I bit my tongue.

   “It’s true,” I finally admitted. “Unlike you, I can’t pretend.  I can’t do stoic.  I can’t mask the look of utter disgust no matter how hard I try.”  And it always ends badly; with me displaying that thundering glint my eyes can’t hide, that hard look my face can’t disguise, that curtness my voice refuse to conceal.

   My brother stared hard at me.  I looked away.  Because deep down, I was afraid that I’ve disappointed him.