By Fadzlishah Johanabas bin Rosli
The sky is steel grey, its whole expanse peeking between tall buildings covered with cloud. But I can still feel the sun from this oppressive warmth even though there are a lot of empty seats, and both air conditioning outlets over my seat are pointed at my face. I barely feel the current, but at least it's cooler than the right side of my face, which I have plastered against the tinted window of the bus. In my head I can hear Mother nagging at me for slouching and leaning against the window, something a proper woman never does. I choose to ignore it. I will be thirty-two in three months, I work as a cashier at a hypermart, I am still single, and I live with my parents. I don't have the energy, the will to sit up straight.
I give a small jump when my handbag vibrates. My ringtone – a kiddy-techno music that seems to annoy anyone who hears it – fills the bus when I slide the zipper open. I press the green button on the phone without looking at it before I take it out of the bag. The plastic and rubber surface feels cool against my right ear and cheek.
"Rohaya Ahmad, where are you?" Mother always uses my full name when she's miffed at me. I hold the hand phone away. I can hear her well even from this distance.
"On my way home." I feel like shouting back, but I tone my voice down to a forced whisper.
"What's taking you so long? Your shift ended forty-nine minutes ago."
"Well, make sure you reach home soon. I'm expecting company."
"Bye." I press the red button and drop the phone back into the mess I call a handbag.
I prepare myself to continue staring at the passing cityscape, but a couple two seats in front and across the aisle are conversing loudly I cannot not listen in even though I try not to. Well, at least the large middle aged woman in bright flower-print baju kurung and an equally bright red scarf is. There is a rule: the emptier the place, the more hushed the conversation. Apparently she never received the memo.
"Make sure you're in your best behavior. I mean it."
The man sitting next to the window nods like a little lamb. He's taller and larger than the woman. I wonder how they can fit the narrow and uncomfortable seats. I can make out his face. Full cheeks, acne ridden, pinched nose, and thin lips. Eyes that seem to be fixed looking down. His center-parted hair is oiled slick and hugging his scalp. His checkered shirt is buttoned up, and his chin is straining between the collars. From the lack of facial crease, I gather he's the woman's son. He's too ugly to be her plaything. My body gives an involuntary shudder.
"Now tidy up your shirt, sit up straight." I roll my eyes at this. Mothers. "I want to make sure you give the best first impression."
"Must we go through this?" For a big man, his voice sounds...small. And whiney.
"If everything goes well, I'll get you married by the end of this year."
My ears perk at this. I lean closer, my forehead touching the seat in front of me. Now this is interesting.
"What if it's like the last girl we went to see? What if she laughs at me?"
"Her mother tells me she's a very proper woman."
"How old is she?"
A slight pause. "Just over thirty."
She swats the side of his head, sending oily hair jutting out at odd angles. Serves him right. "Don't be picky! You'll be thirty-five this year. She's younger than you. Be thankful for that."
She licks her fingers and straightens his hair. Gross. "This girl works, so talk about that when you meet her."
"Working as a what?"
"I don't know. At a shopping mall or something."
He gives a small smile, making him look...less ugly. "You think she'll like me?"
"Of course she will. You're my son." I can't believe how she pulls that one off sounding proud.
"My future wife. I wonder what she looks like."
"Remember, don't be picky."
I don't know how the snort escapes my nostrils. The man turns at my direction but doesn't make eye contact. I cover my mouth to contain my laughter. I can imagine how equally ugly and desperate this mystery woman is. I shake my head, amused. This is 2009, not 1949. People are supposed to find their own love, their own future wife or husband, without parental intervention. Parents are not supposed to play matchmaker. But looking at him, I'm sure he needs all the help he can get.
"How did you get to know about this girl anyway?"
"Oh," she says, "Her mother and I meet up for prayer group every Friday afternoon. She's a good woman, that Halimatun Rahim."
My heart lurch into my throat and my stomach shrivel up in a tight knot. I taste bile in my mouth. I feel like gagging but I clamp my mouth shut with both hands.
Mother.QLRS Vol. 8 No. 4 Oct 2009