The Mentor’s last stand

     “When the root is deep, there is no reason to fear the wind,” my mentor points to the tv screen.

     The tv is mounted awkwardly at the corner of the bar. It has its sound turned down; a ticker tape showing falling stock prices races across the screen. All the big companies on the stockmarket are flashing their stock prices in red. Each flash a cent down from the previous. But my mentor is calm. You can only get bargains when there is panic and fear, he reminds me.

     I draw circles in the condensed droplets impatiently. He reaches out for my flask to pour cold sake into my cup. 

     “You should take the warm drinks instead of chilled. Too much cold drink is bad for health,” he chides.

     “Surely that’s not why you want to see me for, Sir.”  I wave at the bartender to bring me a bowl of stewed daikon.

     “I have the same,” my mentor concurs, “and I would also like some yudofu. Would you like some yudofu? You used to love the hot tofu.” 

     My heart skips a beat. He remembers

     The bartender’s wife places an earthern pot in front of us and lifts the lid, releasing a thick head of briny steam. Inside the pot are four blocks of freshly made tofu bath in kombu stock. I lean forward to inhale the savoury umami flavour of the seaweed.

     My mentor scoops a tofu block and places it into my bowl. He pours soy sauce and some of his sake onto my tofu before topping it with grated ginger and chopped scallions. Carving a piece off my tofu with his spoon, he blows to cool it down slightly. He gestures me to open my mouth. The hot tofu slides in; its soft custardy texture wobbling on my tongue like creme caramel. He hands me my bowl, “Itadakimasu. Eat. We talk later”

     I steal a glance at my mentor. We had worked together for 24 years. He employed me when I was fresh out of university. He introduced me to the seedy side of global investment banking; taught me how to seduce an investor by playing to his own greed. No qualms. No conscience. No what-ifs. Every successful deal closed was a huge jump in our annual bonus pool. 

     He laughs abruptly. I find myself laughing too. Not that I know what he is laughing about. His laughter is infectious; it comes out as a guffaw more than a chuckle; an echo that rises all the way from the gut.

     He turns sharply and catches me looking at him. I blush. He retrieves a cigarette from the case, taps one end against the counter top before lighting up. A slight tilt of the head. A long slow inhale. A coy smile as warm nicotine races down to his lungs. Later, sharp rushes on exhaling before ashes are flicked impatiently readying for the next puff.

     “Let’s go out for a walk,” my mentor suggests, after we had washed down our meal with the one more flask of warm sake. Our third.

     Outside the moon hangs low in the hazy sky. Spring is here. It will soon become hot and humid. But tonight, it feels chilly. I shiver in my white linen shift dress. I untie the cashmere scarf around my neck and drape it over my shoulders. My mentor takes off his jacket and wraps me in it. I resist the urge to press his jacket against my face.

     “How is he?”

     “Look! what a perfect round moon.” I pull the front of the jacket tightly.

     “Why did you marry him?”

     “Is this why you want to meet me for? To ask me why I decided to throw down my last card?” 

     He stops suddenly and turns to me.

     What is there to tell? That I am tired of innuendos at work? Or that my on-off boyfriend had issued the ultimatum? Or..or.. that I am tired of waiting, of hoping…

     “I just reckoned it was time.” 

     My mentor grabs me around my waist. He tilts my face towards him with one hand while the other holds the small of my back. He caresses the side of my cheek and parts my lips gently.

    C’mon, let me hear you lie again, I said in my heart.

   “Silly girl. Didn’t I tell you that I am still trying to get a divorce?” he said

An inconvenient time

   “Father wants to go home,” my sister announced flatly over the phone.

   I sat up; almost falling off as my lazy chair buckled and tilted from my sudden movement. “No he can’t.  He has a doctor’s appointment in two weeks’ time.  Besides, his wound after the surgery has yet to heal completely.”

   “But he insists on going.  He says that there is something he must do before Mother goes off on her holiday with her friends next week.”

   Oh bother! Mother and her holiday. Damn! 

   “What is it that is so important that it couldn’t wait?”  I said, a tad too loud.  The young man who was cleaning the swimming pool looked up and threw me a quizzical look.  I reddened.

   “I don’t know. I tried asking but he kept saying “you won’t understand”.  I can fly home with him this weekend but I can’t fly him back here in time for his next doctor’s appointment.  I have got an important dinner party to host.  This is most inconvenient.” My sister let out a big sob.

   I could instantly picture my sister at the other end, eyes welling in tears, smudging her carefully drawn mascara as they rolled down her taut face fashioned under the skillful hands of a popular plastic surgeon. 

    Same old, same old, I thought.  My sister is prone to dramatics to get herself out of looking after Father.

   My 78-year old father has been staying at my sister’s house in Kuala Lumpur for the last two weeks after his hip replacement operation.  After my eldest brother passed away unexpectedly, the responsibility of looking after our parents had fallen on the shoulders of my youngest sister and I.  More me than her.  Purely on logistics.  My parents’ house was a 10-minute drive from my condo compared to the three-hour flight time from my sister’s.

   “I am not free either.  I have an important conference to attend overseas next week.” I lied.  I had recently met a guy online and he had suggested that we meet up in Hong Kong for a no-strings-attached fun holiday to see if we clicked in real life.  It is going to be my first real date since my divorce three years ago. 

  I scrolled down my contact list on my phone and called my sister excitedly.  “Maybe we should call our beloved cousin Min up and ask him if he is free.” 

  “Don’t you think it’s unfair to impose on someone else?” My sister hissed

   “Nah. It’s ok. Cousins are also considered family.”  I heard my sister mumbled something to someone as I watched the pool guy power-hosed bits of algae along the ledge.  His thin wet shorts clinging to his sinewy thighs. I swore he wasn’t wearing any underwear.  He turned and caught me watching him. He chuckled as I quickly looked away.

   “I just spoke to Father.  He insists on staying home alone while Mother goes off for her holiday!  And he doesn’t want Cousin Min to accompany him at home.  Why is he being so stubborn?”

   I pinched my throbbing temple.  “Crazy old man! What if something happens to him at home? Can you imagine how irresponsible we will look?  This is madness.  Why can’t he just stay put at your house until Mother returns from her holiday?”

   “Can you send your maid to Father’s house to take care of him instead?  I mean, I am just thinking out loud here. I would have sent my maid back with Father, but yunno, I need her to help me with the party and all.”  Parties, parties, parties. My sister and her never-ending socialite parties.

   “No, I will not sent my maid over to look after Father.  She was the reason he slipped down the stairs, remember?  This is so inconvenient.  Why need to go home now?  Why at this time when everyone is so busy?  Do you think we can ask Mother to postpone her holiday to some other time?”  

    Yati, my maid, has vowed to resign if I ever ask her to look after Father again.  It was not her fault, she argued, that he fell down the stairs.  She had asked him to wait at the landing while she rushed back up to collect his forgotten medicine.  But according to her, he decided to walk down on his own, missing a step and tumbling down the whole flight to the bottom.  According to Father, Yatie had deliberately rushed him down the stairs as she was anxious to answer her ringing handphone.  Fortunately for him, the floor at the bottom of the stairs was carpeted.

   “I have spoken to Mother,” my sister continued.  “She is as inconsiderate.  She said that her holiday had been planned since last year and if the old man insists on staying alone at home, we should just let him be.  Maybe it will teach him a lesson.”

   Frustration gripped my chest as the prospect of spending time with my new boyfriend dissipated.  “What the hell! Whatever happened to “in sickness and in health, till death do us part”?  Do you think we can persuade Cousin Min to take time off work and babysit Father?  We can pay him yunno.  I don’t think he earns much as a lowly clerk.  Maybe we can pay him alittle over his daily rate to babysit.”

   “Stop shouting at me.  I have a situation here,” my sister said sternly.  “The problem is that Father doesn’t want Cousin Min to be with him.  He doesn’t want anyone to be with him, except us.  He didn’t even want us to inform his sisters about his surgery, remember? All of them are not supposed to know, including Cousin Min.  This is so troublesome.”

   I slumped on my seat and inhaled sharply.  “Yes, I agree.  It is a most inconvenient situation at a most inconvenient time.  I still can’t understand why he can’t stay put at your house for the next two weeks until after the doctor’s appointment.  By then, either of us would be free to bring him home.”

   “I know right? What should we do? Are we going to let him stay alone at home and pray that nothing happens to him?”

   I shook my head.  No way am I going to let Father stay home alone, especially when he is recuperating from surgery.  I cannot risk him slipping and falling again.  “I still think that Mother should postpone her holiday to another date.  After all, you and I were the ones taking turns to look after Father in the hospital after surgery; sleeping upright on that uncomfortable chair and eating the tasteless hospital food.”

   “Oh God! I still can’t understand why we couldn’t get a suite.  After all, my husband is a somebody someone, a VVIP!” My sister wailed.

   I rolled my eyes.  “Ya. ya. ya. Tell me about it! I really think you should shoot a strongly worded complaint to the hospital.  But for now, how are we going to persuade Mother to sacrifice her holiday? Hey, maybe we can persuade the Doctor to tell Father that he can’t travel at all.”

   “But that would be lying. The Doctor would definitely not want to lie to Father.”

“Maybe I can get my ex-husband’s brother to write a doctor’s letter to Father, telling him that it is not possible to travel without aggravating his surgical wound.”  I laughed nervously.

   “Your brother-in-law?  I didn’t know you had a brother-in-law who is a doctor?

   “Technically he is a Laboratory Technician.  But he likes people to think he is a doctor. I am sure he can write a medical letter which looks very authentic, complete with the doctor’s official stamp.  I don’t mind paying him twenty Ringgit for that.” I grinned.

 

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.