By Ioannis Gatsiounis
Father died in his little room while I was abroad. An e-mail informed me, and though the family could have afforded my airfare back, they said it was better if I tended to my struggles freelancing here.
The advice made sense to a degree. Father was out of my life between the ages of four and 22, till three years ago. And though I knew for the last year the cancer had been nibbling away pretty good, I hardly thought about him.
To this day, I harbor no desire to piece together his past. I am content with the little I know — that he had spent time in a Nazi concentration camp, that six of his seven siblings had starved to death when the Germans cut the rail lines, that he might have been a Communist, and that he had wished since he was a boy to have a son who would become a famous violin player. I am his only child.
I mention him because I see now that who he was — or wasn’t — had something to do with why I chose to settle in this fast-developing “paragon of tolerance and diversity” in the first place.
Not much else did. Not then. I could say the editing did, but then I could have done that from other places. I could say the exotic, but then it looks more like home here than anything out of Henry Morton Stanley’s diary. I could say the religion, and there might be something to that (as a Westerner abroad these days being with the Muslims matters) but only about two-thirds of the population is Muslim, and they lacked the air of zealotry that makes such endeavors seem meaningful.
Mostly, though, going somewhere — anywhere — “foreign” was my attempt to settle the score, to rid myself of one-half of my history, Dad’s history, which never felt like mine to begin with.
Most everything I remember about him boiled down to snippets, like during our last visit, in response to my decision to come here, “You don’t care to see vheres the faters is from? In time, in time — vhat is tis?”
He leaned back in the window booth of his friend’s Midtown diner, long face bruised-gray as an Austrian church, knobby thumbs looped into his alligator belt, polished shoes set flat and wide—a specter of disgust, a shadow of elegant surrender. I sensed he felt the weight of his neglect, that for the first time he realized I wasn’t him — or his — that he had nothing to show as a father.
I settled in a blind neighborhood across from the new train station; three blocks of crumbling four-story concrete; the sidewalk lain with striations of yellow rubber; every few doors leading up a dank stairwell to a blind massage and Super Sauna. After a while you didn’t notice the blind people any more than they noticed you. Sure, they caused the occasional disruption. They might run into a table of beer-drinkers (to which I heard a man slur once, “Whose drunk now?”), drift up the dotted white, or mistake a brothel entrance for 7-11. But they weren’t odd by comparison, next to the spandex-clad old women harrumphing their way through stacks of cardboard, the Cantonese-speaking junkies flashing sheathes of pirated DVDs from their seats along the curb; or Jamu, the limbless boy wonder who snatched up used condensed-milk cans with his teeth, thrashing his head about like a dog tearing meat as he flung them into the bamboo basket on his back. And the tap of their canes was less disruptive than the azan’s call, Vishnu’s bells, or the karaoke that rang till late through my alley-facing window.
I loved it all, even if, to them, I appeared like the blind one, someone who’d hung a wrong left at the train station. There you saw tourists, white folk, but not here, which I cherished: slipping into a dissolving shadow of breakneck progress; the Sheratons, the KFC’s, the mega malls and light rails, all I’d known and was trying to get away from. It helped that I found a local housemate, an affable graduate student, Razali, who in his own way was a little out of sorts in the neighborhood: his family had moved around, from England to the States to Singapore before resettling here when he was 16. “I don’t have that kampong mentality, you see.”
That was the first morning of the fasting month, and he was at the dining room table, robe undone, smoking a cigarette, wincing like poison into the sunlight slanting across his frying rice.
As the month progressed he grew bolder, parking himself with his exam books at the sidewalk tables downstairs, ordering food and drink as he wished.
“Hey brother Roommate,” he would say whenever I passed on the way to the library, or the train station for inspiration that rarely came. “Come join brother Roommate for a teh o ice, la. Let’s watch the blind watch us, ah.”
This was dangerous because he was Malay. The Malays, a race by one definition, were born into Islam, and Muslims were prohibited from violating fasting hours. The Malay could not hide.
When dusk arrived and others in the neighborhood gathered in front of food carts to break fast, Razali was usually fast asleep or tweaking his building designs on his Mac, or in the dining room smoking and drinking powdered Milo with his friends.
On one such night, Nadhira said, “Why must he disrespect? The police ask only that he do it in private.”
“Should one be ashamed to eat in public?”
“It is the Holy Month.” Religion could really draw her out. Otherwise she mostly just glowed with a mesmerizing calm. But her inclination toward quietude, toward people-watching and eating in silence often found me flustered, like I had succumbed to passing anonymously on a distant planet. So sometimes I used religion to liven things up.
She said, “I hope when I return you’ll have found another place.” After Ramadan she was taking off on a five-month group tour of Asia. We hadn’t been apart since near when I arrived, a year before. “It’s so, are you even aware that you’re the only expat here who lives like this?”
The muezzins cries splayed humorlessly through the city smog. Nadhira and those around us stretched for plates of dates, rice, fish and sambals. I recognized the “Osama” twins from the printing press (called so because of their long grizzly beards), the old gossipers with the nurse’s union, and a prostitute or two, fixtures in those pink-lighted doorways.
“I do, too.” I said.
I’d in fact have moved sooner, at least to a place with a view, but I couldn’t afford to. Editing jobs had declined (mainly I suspect because I pushed copy in the opposite direction required of the state-controlled press). And Nadhira was not cheap — she demanded things: clothes, meals, stays in hillside bungalows. Then there were abortions, three altogether, which I’d had to pay for, because she’d have just as soon quit the modeling to start a family, with or without me.
Strange now to think that I was her first non-Muslim friend, and that if not for the modeling, which I’d urged her to take up, she may well have fallen the other way, into the atavism that her family had raised her to believe was The Strait Path, that a year ago had seemed unwaverable.
Some things were better then—how mindful she had seemed of everything I said. And on days we met at the commuter rail she would bury her face in my chest, leaving it there until I whispered, enough, after which she’d peer up at me in a rapturous daze. I often warned her (after reminding myself) not to get too close; we could never work. I knew, mainly through Dad, what men and women are capable of — above all, abandonment. And I didn’t want to be the one to shatter her innocence, her connection with God and culture. Not in that way, not in any way. So I told myself.
With each abortion, my sense of guilt grew, to the point that, while sitting across from Nadhira during this pious indulgence in surfeit, I couldn’t bring myself to broach the topic — though Christ how we needed to. She was two months Late, and once she left, my opinion would hardly matter. She’d go right on through with it, I was sure — she had a real deaf and counterintuitive streak — return home all bloated up, rearing to drop, despite what her family might say, despite not having a name picked out or even a pair of shoes and cap for the little bugger.
To my horror, everywhere I turned I suddenly saw children, through scissoring legs and the steam of boiling noodles, leading the blind in search of coins. A woman was changing a baby’s diapers inches from where a man was hacking a chicken to bits. I listened. Not a weep to be heard. It was rare they cried. They were the cutest children I’d seen anywhere: soft and tan, with thick tussled hair, full lips, big soulful eyes.
This led me more than once (usually before insisting Nadhira go for an abortion) to envisage settling in these parts, raising one, with a young beauty like herself. It seemed a way of confirming my own path, distancing myself from the confusion of my own blood. The brown and white factor seemed inconsequential; I felt if we loved and nurtured the child with our full selves, he would possess no confusion over it.
I asked, “Are you nervous?”
“Not at all,” said Nadhira, not missing a beat as she handed a dollar to a skull-capped beggar boy. “You ask as though I’ve never traveled before.”
“Only to Saudi Arabia — and Dubai for transit was it?”
“But if I could handle that — all those slimeballs hitting on me because they’re not used to seeing a woman with only her head covered.”
“But it’s a Muslim country. And you were with...”
“Say it, my dad and his third wife.”
I swallowed hard. It was a sore subject. She had grown up nearly as fatherless as I had, her father often tending to his other families in other states. And it was that, I’d grown convinced, more than our physical attraction, more than our disparate backgrounds and a desire to make sense of them, that had kept us together.
She said, “Besides, starting the modeling could be considered going to a foreign country, for a good —”
“I know, I know, a good Malay girl like you.”
In the street a couple voices had turned into several. A wand-like instrument flickered above heads.
A voice rose, “Put that away, la. You think you can just walk anywhere — because you can’t see, ah?...I don’t care that you’re late for breaking fast. You see these here, ah?” He pointed at the yellow striations. “You think they for us? Hah?”
I said, “That’s Charlie Fong. A pimp. He hates the blind, ever since a group of them were teasing him that they could smell his girls’ cunts from down the block.”
“What I don’t get,” I said, staring at the squat blind man staring hard (if that’s what you can call it) at Charlie Fong, “is why they don’t just use dogs. So most of them are Malay.”
The blind man removed the headphones in his ears.
Nadhira said, “Dogs are haram.” Forbidden.
“For blind people? Who says?”
“Lester.” She signaled to the waiter for the bill, “I’m not going to miss this. Sometimes I think I’ll hardly miss you. You’re ever more intolerant, you know. Why? I can’t tell why. You say you love it here —”
All that came to mind was Dad — a reflex, not an answer.
She said, “I really worry about you.” She let out a suppressed laugh, as foreboding can leave us wont to do. “How you’ll cope when I’m gone. If you could just be more accepting, you’d be more confident.”
The lane began to clear.
Nadhira said, “Isn’t he supposed to be asleep?”
The aloofness in her voice signaled who she meant, and through the parting mass — in their dhotis, sarongs, greasy singlets and headscarves — there was Razali, consoling Fong, directing him back to his brothel.
I hoped for once he didn’t see me. This was the last time Nadhira and I would be alone before her trip. We had pregnancy and babies to discuss.
I said, “Look at that kid.” He was five or six, clearing plates, trudging back through the Eazy Inn brothel to the sink. An orphan I gathered. “If he had parents — that’s why I’m not a father. Because I couldn’t provide and mine might well end up just like this one.”
Nadhira didn’t look, just took the bill from the returning waiter and fished into her purse.
Razali handed the waiter a 50 and shooed him away, then picked a date from the tray.
Nadhira was adamant about reimbursing him.
“No, no, least I can do. May I.” He took a seat. “After all, word on the street hast it you’re setting sail on quite the voyage.”
Razali grinned when she didn’t reply. “Well, I can tell you this, Lester is going to miss you a great deal. And I can tell you this, also, we’re going to take good care of him for you. Has he told you? This, you know, will be his first Aidilfitri.” The one-month celebration after the fast. “Well, we picked him out a baju melayu yesterday — gold like a rajah; the white rajah! — and he’s going to wear it with the rest of us back to my auntie’s kampong.”
Nadhira fetched her car keys from her purse. “Won’t that be nice.”
Razali said, “Will you be doing any modeling over there?”
Nadhira said, “Did you fast today, Razali?”
“I tried.” He ran a hand along his wiry almond arm. “I try everyday... I just don’t usually get very far.”
“Have you ever?” said Nadhira.
“Has brother Roomio?”
“He is not Muslim.”
“So your expectations of me are higher?”
“They are only different.”
“And yet you seem to approve of him more than me.”
“It is not so.” Her glare for a moment was as cold as his.
And for an instant I felt like that child being fought over, weeks, or was it days, before Dad left?
What I couldn’t discern is where it all stemmed from—whether one’s aversion preceded, and in turn triggered, the other’s, or whether it was mutual from the start. I don’t think Nadhira or Rizali knew. But whatever the sequence, it seemed indefatigably intuitive, as these battles for cultural and religious superiority among one’s own often are.
Nadhira rose. “Anyway. Lester? I will see you at the airport, Tuesday, seven, not later.”
There was a subtle authority in the way she ran her long fingers between mine, and I thought, she’ll be okay wherever she goes. I already missed her for that. “And Razali, good luck with the designs.” She glanced about the crumbling shophouses, with their mildewed facades and whirring air-cons. “Maybe some day soon you can lead the charge for a face lift here.”
For a while afterwards, Razali and I leaned back and watched passersby, like we were any other men in the neighborhood.
I saw more of Razali and his college friends after Nadhira left. They would often chat till late in the kitchen, smoking, sipping the Milo, nibbling on kuey, discussing class projects or local politics.
None were so friendly and their eyes clung to me as I passed to my room. Now and then Razali would knock on my door to invite me to join them, or apologize if they didn’t seem as warm as they were. “Their English isn’t so good.”
I could relate to that, as Father’s English wasn’t good either. Through his and my time together I’d learned to talk in pidgin, to make the non-fluent feel they were doing okay, that they were understood. But I found myself less tolerant of the fact with these boys. Maybe because they were college students in a globalized age. Maybe because I’d come to expect this from the younger Malays, and this made them seem flippant and cut off, more aligned with tradition and religion than worldly realities. Or maybe just because Dad was my Dad, and they were not.
Razali did take care of me as he’d promised, though it has been a struggle, with all that has followed, not to lose sight of that.
A day before we were to head to his auntie’s, I came down with flu. Razali didn’t leave my side. He brought in clean blankets and changed the sheets. He had me drink warm water and tea with galangal. He stopped smoking inside. He rubbed jamu into my limbs and chest and neck.
“We must fix your angin, brother R,” he would say.
Karaoke coming through the open window was okay — “Music has medicinal qualities, even some bad music” — but wind coming through was not. “That means a spirit is following you.” And he would draw the water-stained curtains.
Desperate to get well, I was receptive to all that he prescribed and noted each step.
“Where did you learn this all? Not in Singapore. Not in England or the States.”
“We couldn’t get the ingredients there, but my father often complained when one of us got sick, about how he would treat us if we were back home. When we came back — a year before I started college, which was by my father’s design, a year he thought would give me enough time to reassimilate — I was so disoriented by things: hearing that this all was my own but having little reference point other than my parents. And the medicine was one of those things I associated most strongly with my father and culture. So naturally, I gravitated to it.”
Razali gave me a sick bell, he filled my book and magazine orders. He kept me posted on happenings in the hood. “Charlie Fong’s still upset about those boys!”
“Do you think it’s racist?”
The Chinese were a gruff money-minded minority. The Malays were said to be passive and courteous, to cherish God and family and bumming around more than money.
“Why are you so paranoid, la?” asked Razali. “I give you some news and —”
“Because I don’t think it is.”
“Good, because it’s not.” His smile was reassuring. “The races may not love each other but we’ve done one hell of a job of tolerating each other.” He sounded like the news copy I was expected to make shine. “Nothing racial here since the Sixties — why? Because everyone’s taken care of. Any fighting here is just humans versus humans, natural, la. You want to see racism, you go to England, and ask the Pakistanis what they feel, or Singapore and ask what the Malays feel.”
“Or America, and what the blacks feel.”
“That’s right. That’s right, brother R.”
He took my temperature.
“A few more days, I think, but you’ll have to rest, and eat plenty of durian, the heatiness will be good for you.”
He would wheel in his Mac for me to check e-mails.
“My managing editors,” I would say, though they were hardly who I hoped to hear from.
“It’s her you’re checking for, is it?”
I asked, why the animosity between them?
“There is nothing brother Roomio. Nothing. I swear to you in the name of Allah. It’s just — you see how she looks down on me because I don’t fast. But that’s only for Allah to judge.” A stern weight entered his eyes. “My father is a good Malay; a Muslim. If he saw her acting like that, in the name of decency, he would tear her up. Maybe even lecture her parents.” His voice brightened. “Me? I have lived abroad, I don’t take such things so personally, I know God and race are no matter, really. It is a private affair. God will love me either way.”
“And I think she’s learning that.”
“Is she?” he mocked. “She maybe comes from a good family — okay, she’s not kampong, la. But — she is not herself, that is the problem. The modeling, the Western clothes —”
“She’s evolving. That’s natural.” Learning the emptiness, the predictability, the fear, the confinement inherent in tradition, I was tempted to add.
“Is it? Is she?”
Days passed. I began to heal. Soon I was walking to the end of the block. The mundane stood out — the young wiry Indians looking like licorice lollipops as they tried to drift surreptitiously from brothel to brothel in their motorcycle helmets; the clinic offering “24-hour blood investigations”; the chorus of tapping canes, sounding like rain; the variegation of unusable eyes: some shut, some strabismic and fluttering, some nothing but whites, others almost like yours and mine.
It all made me wonder, what was I? Had I lost sight of (no pun there) what I was becoming, or was I, by way of my absence, reawakening to what I wasn’t? Are we the culmination of our experiences, or are we no more really than the sum of our youth — with everything else constituting no more than an aberration, an illusion of evolution, false familiarity, something invariably foreign?
She’s evolving. That’s natural.
Is it? Is she?
I had vowed long ago not to ever grow dependent on a woman. Not ever to dwell on one. I’d seen what Mom did to Dad. Every time I had met Dad he’d lay into a teary tale about how he would have joined up with me sooner if not for her. He still wore his wedding ring. But when Nadhira’s first, and last, e-mail arrived — hell, I couldn’t stop reading it, as if on subsequent readings some lacuna might magically appear. There were nights I fell asleep with the printout.
Everyone in the group now knows about you. It has been hard not to talk about you because it is hard not to think about you. The Taiwanese were more pleasant than I had imagined. Shanghai felt determined in a naïve way, racing to cloak its bones in steel and glass and panache, neighbor’s clothes mostly (has found me rethinking how we’re “progressing” back home). We fly to Seoul in the morning. Then, over four months, Nepal, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan. I now know what you meant that time you said travel is equally about escape and self-discovery, how related they might be. Maybe we haven’t given that enough thought. But I must admit, Lester, after three weeks without, I miss the sound of the azan, and I know when I hear it I will cry. When you hear it please think of me. It is a blessing unto you, a call to another self.
p.s. The 28th is Alsama’s fifth birthday. I promised her you would take her to McDonald’s. Five, and not later please.
The days passed with nothing more. Soon I was confiding in Razali, the last person I thought who wanted to hear about Nadhira. But he took it like a champ.
“Brother R, we got to get you through this.” Smoke burst through his nostrils as he scanned the sidewalk with the tetchy fatigue that was the neighborhood’s. Behind him Big Chin Choo was standing at her spot in the pink-lighted doorway. (Sometimes I wondered how the old whores kept at it when there were so many young ones to go around. The blind seemed to offer a clue.)
“Rest assured,” he said, pointing to the letter, “she says here it’s been hard not to talk about you.”
“About what? She doesn’t say. But what really gets me is, all those countries over four months.”
The tap of his cigarette was dismissive. “She’s lucky.”
“It’s not that.”
Frying chili powder was triggering an epidemic of sneezes and coughs. Motorbikes roared. A pair of depilated kittens tumbled over each other in the street, while an Indian dance song boomed from in front of Snooozeland with its stacks of plastic-bagged mattresses spilling into the street like a holocaust.
Razali sniffled. “So what is it, the azan part? That’s reality roomio, I keep telling you — who she is.”
“You don’t know her more than I do. You’re Orientalizing her.”
He sniffled again, short and blunt this time, his stare was wide. “Am I? When’s the last time she ate at our place?”
I watched a blind man drift alone down a dark alley. “That’s how you know it’s safe around here.”
“Stick to the point. When?”
“Leave it alone. Last week actually. Dates and rendang.”
“A meal you cooked. On our plates. Remember last week, you offered to cook dinner and she said she wasn’t hungry. But you’d been with her the whole day, and what’d you tell me, that you all hadn’t eaten since breakfast. Not hungry?”
“You’re not halal, man. She won’t eat on our plates because you don’t follow that bologna.”
People were rising, clearing their throats, paying their bills. I felt like someone in an emptying theatre, grappling to make sense of what I’d just seen. “That’s not it,” I said, though the revelation stung. “Those four countries.” He scanned the letter. “Taiwan and Korea are her last chance, she’s four months pregnant and like she said the last time we went through this, she won’t abort in a poor country.” I thought I could just slip it in.
“Well this I didn’t know.” He appeared careful not to move. “And who might be responsible.”
“Who? Are you accusing her of sleeping around?”
“Well, I wouldn’t think a ‘good Malay girl’ would sleep with anyone before she’s married — let alone an American infidel. No sir.” He folded his hands on the table, making like an axe about to be lifted, as his voice quavered in search for denial. “Well. Rape then, is that what you’re telling me, she was raped?”
I was tempted to assuage him, it seemed easier, while my other half insisted, What am I running from?
“Razie, are you saying you thought we weren’t having sex. For chrissake, look at her. I’m a heterosexual man!”
“With no self-control, and in violation of the law. Malay girls aren’t allowed to be in a compromising position with you. I have let her enter our home, because I thought you both respected Malay culture enough not to abuse the privilege.”
“Is this respect you hold in such high regard part of Malay culture or Islamic culture? Ha! Are you Malays even conscious of the difference?”
“I see now you are nothing but materialistic pigs.” I noted the plural.
“You are not a virgin.”
“But I have never slept with a Malay girl — not until I am married. I wouldn’t trample on my culture like that.”
We never discussed the matter after that night. We didn’t discuss much anything after that night. Razali barely hid his disgust. Nor did his kitchen friends, with their seething stares and sealed-off minds, righteous people as they knew themselves.
I started checking out new places to live, all the while struggling to keep positive. I felt the drag, that same weight I used to romanticize, of never staying anywhere long, of pursuing this little conviction: that peregrination is, more than discovering oneself, about discovering one’s other selves. Anyway, during one visit, a week to the day before I got the news that Dad died, I was riding in the slow lane when a sedan circled behind my motorbike, then nudged close as it sped past. I wasn’t wearing a bandana over my white face so I wasn’t surprised; it happened sometimes.
But gone was the will to ignore. As the sedan lined up behind me at the next stoplight, I cut the ignition and climbed off my bike. Approaching from the car was a young average-built Malay man in dress shirt and slacks, hands slipped into pockets. A vein like a noodle slithered along his temple. He brought his nose to my chin; his breath was slow and modulated, as if on a leash.
“You stink,” I hissed. He didn’t, though something about him looked as though it did. He held a finger to my eye that felt more like a blade than a finger.
A bus horn blared, drawing stares from the shopping mall, taxi stand, and office towers. I sensed vaguely in that moment I was being misunderstood, and that was enough. I turned to leave, before thinking, the rational mind proceeds without fear of disgrace. My fist exploded where that vein ran. It felt good and heavy to me, coiled with months of — just months — and I waited for the life to shake out of him. But he barely stumbled and with a swift boot leveled my bike.
We took to each other’s throats, and hollered obscenities that refused to come out.
“Not here,” bellowed a middle-aged man wearing a skull cap, and I thought, how we need this, how we need not go farther, we really don’t; and the sanity of religion is here to save us. But he took a club to my ribs instead. “Foreigner, go home. Go home.”
“Your country,” came another voice, before a fist blinded my right eye. “Now.”
I pled into the stream of dizzying horns — the police, call.
“On your bike.” The old man said, giving rise to laughter from the sidelines. I pictured myself: the foreigner, the former colonialist, being ordered by one of their own. “Or you will never leave here. Now!”
I was all nerves and couldn’t steady the bike, so the three men swiftly beat me onto it, and with one good eye I veered through a hailstorm of flying fruit, cans, flip-flops, traffic cones, shopping bags, lit cigarettes and a bunch of other stuff that on any other day I might have confused for a parade.
We define who we are first by deciding what we are not.
“You late,” said Alsama, as I stood panting in the doorway.
“But you’re not ready.”
She was wearing a headscarf, studying the Arabic alphabet.
“Because you late.”
“I have a good —” Too young it seemed to understand. “Trying to call home. They send a note and then don’t pick up the phone for three days.”
She pattered off into the back room and returned with her long hair flowing, wearing a pair of yellow-tinted shades. She cocked her head about smiling, waiting for me to notice.
“New?” I asked.
She nodded furiously. “This too.” She handed me a purse, which still wore its tag, and I shivered. Was she wearing all this, the white dress too, for our walk? Wasn’t it just a walk?
“You know, I mad at you,” she said, leaving the TV on as we descended the stairwell — the open trash chutes, the abandoned sofas, the pen-marked walls with outlines of ganja leafs and male anatomy. I placed my hand over my mouth and nose. Actually, I felt more comfortable suffocating here than I would in a few minutes, on the main road, white man, brown girl, not far from the crime scene.
We leapt over gaping pits in the sidewalk, ignored the rats disappearing and reappearing in the uneven fields between buildings like gophers. She said, “You haven’t visit me for long time.” Three weeks, long time? “I should have be prepare, Auntie says that’s like you.”
She held my hand and led me briskly past the sweating young men working on their motorbikes, the haji pushing his food cart, the housewives staring down from laundry-clad porches. Since my move to the expat enclave, this was a return to the familiar.
“What else does Auntie tell you?”
“You taking me to McDonald’s!”
“It’s your birthday, we can do better. There’s a decent stall just up here.”
She yanked her hand away, stiffened, and began to ball.
On the main road, we talked our way contentedly through the hazy blitz of rush hour, my forearm propping up her rear, her cheek against my chest. It was the safest I’d felt in a long time.
“So he just like died?” she asked of my father.
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Do you miss him?”
I wiped my damp face against her thick plaits of hair; her neck pushed into her shoulders and she giggled. I said, “When I was around your age, those were the last vivid memories I have of him, the ones I can’t shake.”
“Auntie says he stole you.” What else did Auntie tell her?
“One or two weeks — that’s all.”
As it had felt then — left alone most of the time in a windowless dining room, napping under a table of powdered pastries, while Father and an ageing couple spoke ceaselessly with comers and goers behind a locked door in a language I couldn’t make out. That was my first taste of travel. And maybe it’s that foreignness in the familiar, which I found in Dad, that I’ve been chasing ever since.
I asked if she had traveled anywhere.
“The island,” she said. “Last week. But there were so many Chinese and Indon. And Mommy and Daddy fight the whole time.” Nadhira had predicted they would be divorced by the time Alsama hit six: “She has seen more than is good.”
Up ahead, officers were smoking by the front door of the police station. I hid my face behind Alsama’s as we passed. The last time here had been a disgrace — recounting to the Malay staff how their own had banded together to thrash me. My follow-up phone calls went unreturned.
Under a banyan tree at the end of the block, Alsama said, “I think they talk about you.”
I knelt. “Don’t talk to anyone. Don’t leave the tree.”
“I’m thirsty.” She was drenched, palish.
“Five minutes. For Uncle.” She pressed her nose to my cheek.
Inside a laser printer ran, sounding out of place under the faded portraits of the sultan and premier, amidst the bare desks, the antennaed TV, the taped-up photo copies, all that smoke.
A slight old man in a dhoti was pacing unnoticed in front of the counter, his beard and chest flecked with dried blood, a sopping wound clotting on the back of his head.
I asked a woman there to see Datok Hamzah.
“Datok is very busy, better you try next week.”
“Is okay, I am here,” came a clipped voice behind her. “Come.”
We took up at the end of the counter where he said from behind his precise wedge of a mustache, “We are not ignoring you, you see how many cases —”
“Not one phone call.”
“We will call you when we hear something.”
“You have license plate numbers. You have descriptions. It has been weeks.”
“You provide no witnesses.” He blinked with a sense of closure.
“There were hundreds. You’d think some would have had the decency to come here on their own.”
“I don’t want to hear this.” His voice threatened to rise. “It is not racist, as you mention to my colleagues when you fill out your report. They are three people, they are probably from kampong, they move to city —”
“Sound just like my last housemate. I arrive home purple-eyed, swollen-ribbed shirt torn, and what’s the first thing he says — it’s not the Malays. So paranoid. He never did get past his shame.” And that had hurt more than the beating itself. “What do you say for the others yelling at me, throwing debris—from offices, the upscale mall, the bank? Kampong?”
His gaze switched to the floor beside me. Alsama’s chin dug into her collarbone, her wet face was weighted with delicacy. I knew what was next. I swept her into my arms. “Go on now. I promise, two minutes.” Why, I wondered, did I insist on abandoning her? Why was I promising to return?
A babel of azans began to slither through the traffic’s hiss.
“Who’s this?” required Hamzah.
I pushed a finger to Alsama’s cheek so he could see, but she slapped my hand away, stared out the door.
He said, “This is your daughter?”
The very word; I nearly dropped her. But then glancing at her, I saw what I wanted to see.
I mustered a half-smile. “Today’s her fifth. Isn’t it honey?”
Hamzah asked if she spoke Malay.
“Of course,” I said, “Mother is Malay.”
“Learning.” And in his language I told him what I hoped he might still do for me. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, preparing it seemed to listen a while longer.