2002

His heart raced when Marianne walk into the classroom. It was the first day of the school year and he had completely forgotten that they’d be in the same class this year. Most of the seats had already been taken, she looked around the room coolly and plopped onto the seat in front of his. For the rest of the day, he was trying his very best not to stare at the back of her head for too long. But he felt a jolt every time she swished thick ponytail across the front of his desk. He has heard that her mother was Eurasian and Marianne’s only indistinguishably European feature was her hair in a deep shade of chestnut.

After the last bell went off, he lingered, packed his bag slowly and waited for most of his classmates to clear out. “Hey, it’s Marianne right? What are you doing after school?” he asked. “Well it’s my dad’s birthday today, so I need to get a cake. It’s nearby only lah, do you want to come with me?” He had not been anticipating that. Yes, of course, right away.

She turned into a large, new restaurant in the neighbourhood. Secret Recipe. He had never been in there before, but she placed her order with much familiarity. “You should try the Oreo cheesecake, it’s the best!” She quipped and ordered on his behalf before he could respond. He thumbed at his pocket nervously. He only had a single 5 ringgit note that was supposed to last him the rest of the week. That single slice of cake was RM5.60. “It’s good, right? My family comes here after dinner every Sunday just to lepak!” she quipped. She talked animatedly about movies she had seen recently, the music she likes, her cello, drama, ballet lessons on top of tuition classes for every single subject. He only understood half of the references that she has made but he was absolutely infatuated. As they left the restaurant, with her father’s giant birthday cake in a paper bag between them, he hadn’t even noticed that she had paid for the meal.

“Ah boy, so late one first day of school? Got porridge and fried fish in the kitchen,” his mother said as he walked into their flat. “Already ate in school, Ma,”

*

He and Marianne transitioned gradually and comfortably to young lovers. They would walk hand in hand right up to the corner turning in to the school gates and let go of each other lest they get caught by one of the teachers or prefects. When he was bored in class, he would doodle caricatures, or wrote lyrics from her favourite Yellowcard songs and slipped them to her. She would always hang on to them unopened, face still attentively glued on the teacher, and waited until the end of the lesson.

Whenever they could find time in between her many extracurricular activities, they would spend time at her house. Both her parents worked late at their law firm and often it was just her and her kakak. Many humid afternoons were spent in her family’s house. On her CD player, she let him listen to rock, classical, R&B and rap music. From her bookshelves, she pulled out her favourite authors – Salinger, Welsh, Palahniuk, Atwood – and asked enthusiastically if he would like to borrow them. He didn’t know how to tell her that he does not enjoy read all that much. But he did enjoy spending those afternoons with her. Sometimes she’d pull out her cello and played pieces by Russian composers he did not know.

Sometimes when her kakak was out doing errands, she would lead him into her room. They would lie on her big queen-sized bed, with soft, cottony sheets with tiny printed carnations. She would lie on top of and pressed her soft lips to his. Her bright hair framed her face like a halo, its smell intoxicating. She would run her tongue gingerly across his earlobes and his neck, and pressed her groin on his. In many occasions, he had tried to slip his hand under her clothes, but she always swatted it away.

*

“Have you ever thought what you’d like to do after this?” Marianne asked one day. “You mean like for dinner? My mother will probably be-” he started. “No, I meant like, you know after we’re done with school?” There was a pregnant pause between them. “I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about it. My cousin has a handphone shop in Lowyat, I help out every year during school holidays. Can make quite a lot of money lah. What about you?”

“Well, I really want to study music. I have a friend who got a scholarship to do that in Berkeley and he is having the time of his life! But, my parents would probably want me to do something more useful, I suppose-” she was interrupted by the large automatic gates opening. A large, black Mercedes rolled in to the driveway. Marianne’s parents greeted her with a peck on each cheek, a practice that he has never seen before.

“Ah. So you’re the boyfriend we’ve been hearing so much about,” her father gave him a vicegrip of a handshake. “Oh, you must stay for dinner, dear. I’ll go make sure Salmah makes a little extra tonight,” her mother said with a slight accent.

They had a delicious spread of chicken chops, mashed potatoes with gravy and steamed vegetables. He was taken aback, he had only ever had chicken chops in restaurants, the entire set-up felt a little formal. Their kakak – Salmah laid out beautiful silverware and served wine for Marianne’s parents and orange juice for the both of them as they ate. Over dinner, her parents casually asked him about school, his hobbies, his family and he twitched uncomfortably in his seat. He suddenly felt inadequate sitting at her family’s huge oak dinner table and telling her father that his worked in a timber factory outside the city. And for the second time that night, he was again posed with the question “What would you like to do after this?” He would like very much to do nothing except lie next to Marianne, bury his face in her hair, hold her soft hands, and not think about what lies ahead.

“Oh dear, look at the time! It is a school night. Why don’t you drop our new friend off, honey?” Marianne’s mother suggested later that night. He was suddenly appalled at the thought of that black Mercedes driving into his neighbourhood. Afraid of what Marianne’s father would think of his family’s apartment block, with obscene graffiti and loan sharks’ stickers plastered all over the walls. The unsanitary, unlicensed hawker stands right outside the building. The smell of cat piss of the six hundred cats belonging to his neighbours roaming around at night. “Oh no, Uncle, it’s ok! I cycled here today,” he thanked Marianne’s parents and dashed out of their home so quickly that he had forgotten to say goodbye to Marianne.

“Hey. Everything OK?” her text read. Were they? He couldn’t answer, so he didn’t.

*

The next day, he couldn’t face seeing her at school. So he changed out of his school uniform in a public bathroom and went to the nearest cyber cafe instead. Before he realised, it was already three in the afternoon and he had squandered an entire day on DoTA. He saw two missed calls from Marianne on his phone and decided that it was time to stop running away from his realities. He could not change his circumstances, but he could rise about them and be better.

He wanted to pick up a slice of Oreo cheesecake from Secret Recipe to surprise her. As he turned in to the bright cafe, there she was. Sitting across a tall, handsome guy he had never seen before. They were sharing a meal and he said something inaudibly that made her laugh hysterically. He conjured up images of this stranger sniffing perversely at Marianne’s hair, licking her neck and running a hand up her pale thighs and her not resisting. He imagined this person being able to take her on dates in the city, in his own car, and being able to impress her parents with his intellect, eloquence and wealth.

“Marianne, what are you doing here?!” he shouted across the restaurant. All eyes were on him now. Some patrons have set down their utensils and turned to face him. Marianne’s date looked at her, “Mare, is this the guy you were talking about?” “Yeah, Mare,” he said mockingly, “What have you been telling your secret lover about your good-for-nothing boyfriend? Who has no future? Who can’t understand your atas music? Who embarrasses you and your parents?!” his voice raising with every second. “Look, dude. Calm down. Maybe we sh-” “Don’t tell me to CALM DOWN!” Marianne had tears streaking down her face as she grabbed his arm and pulled him out of the restaurant.

“What is going on?!” she gasped. “I haven’t heard from you all night and you barge right in and start yelling at me. He’s not my lover! He’s been a family friend of ours for decades! The music student who goes to Berkeley, I just wanted to find out more about admissions!” he had never seen her so distressed, her cheeks pink with frustration, anger, and perhaps the worst of them all, disappointment. “Marianne. I-I-I’m so sorry.”

He pulled her body close to his but he felt her arms stiffen on her sides. He wondered what she would think if she met his parents who spoke no English. Or if she could tell he was only pretending to know who Beethoven was. He knew that in two months, she was going to get offers from the best universities in the country, or even abroad while he wouldn’t. He wondered if she was aware of these difference. He wondered if she cared. Surely she must have seen something in him, even if he failed to. He held her even tighter but she did not return the hug. He knew that he had lost her.

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Matilda

She stepped nervously into the chemist’s while fidgeting with her wedding ring. She didn’t want anybody to think she was just a vagrant twenty-one year old having unprotected sex. Standing in front of the family planning aisle, she felt a wave of nausea. She had not anticipated that there would be different types of pregnancy tests. Her neighbour Martha had only told her that she had to urinate on a plastic stick.

e.p.t. That must be it.

Hullo love, everything good?, the woman at the checkout smiled at her. She was always taken aback at how Australians greeted strangers with such familiarity and superficial tenderness. That’d be ten dollars darling, she rummaged through her jeans’ pocket for part of the emergency money that her mother pressed into her hands at the airport in Malaysia. She didn’t think she’d be needing it so soon.

So where you from, love?, she hated the way people over-enunciate when speaking to her. Mill Street, she answered briskly even though she knew that wasn’t what the checkout woman meant. Besides, she only had a couple of minutes left in her lunch break.

ChinaThai Restaurant was owned by a Malaysian man who was a friend of her husband’s. He had never been to China nor Thailand. The food they made was neither Chinese nor Thai, but Australians didn’t know nor cared.

She locked herself in the staff bathroom and tore the box open, revealing a plastic pen wrapped in a clear plastic bag along with a little booklet of instructions. She skimmed through the booklet and anxiously uncapped the pregnancy test. Martha told her to not go to the bathroom in the morning so that she could have the most accurate results. After what seemed like an eternity, a faint red dot started appearing on the tiny panel. A sudden rude rap at the door startled her making her drop the flimsy plastic stick that was holding the weight of her world. You in there too long already, get back to work!

That night at home, she unpacked the greasy leftovers from ChinaThai and unpacked the greasy news to her husband. I’m pregnant, she announced while heaping kampung fried rice onto his plate. Stephanie, he started. Stop calling me that, call me by my real name, she snapped. They have agreed that now that they were in Australia they would go by their new Australian names – Albert and Stephanie. Names that their boss’ wife picked for them arbitrarily. Names that even her own mother wouldn’t be able to pronounce. She hadn’t mean to snap at her husband, but hearing him call her that made her feel more alienated than ever.

You have to get an abortion, no way you can bring baby up here, their employer told them the next morning. Horrified, she looked over at her husband, his blank face and stolid silence made her blood boil. No!, she yelled, slapping her palm against the heavy table. You should teach your woman to hold her tongue, he refused to look at her while reprimanding her. For God’s sake, it’s 1988! Isn’t this supposed to be a progressive country?, she screamed as she stormed out of the restaurant. Her husband didn’t run after her, neither did she expect him to.

As she marched down the street she remembered how proud her family had been of their decision as they chipped in to pay for the plane tickets. Her colleagues at Public Bank had been so envious that she was moving to Australia – a place that only the wealthy was able to visit and brought back clip-on koala bear stuffed toys for everyone. She was on her way to becoming the youngest manager in her branch, but here she was waiting tables and washing dishes in this so-called land of dreams. She placed a hand on her belly and thought about the baby that would be born in August, dead in the Australian winter. Last winter she had been so cold and miserable. She couldn’t afford any proper winter clothes so she just piled on layers of her husband’s clothes which hung unglamorously on her skinny frame.

A sudden splat hit her feet and snapped her out of her reverie. It was an orange from the sky. She looked up and saw three teenagers on the roof of a building. Oy, go back to China!, one of them yelled while the others clapped his back in approval. She opened her mouth to cuss and wanted to give them the finger. With her hand still on her belly, she stopped herself. After all, she was a mother now.

 

Bethnal Green

By the time we have made our way down the dizzying escalators at Holborn Station, the two glasses of vodka lemonade had already dissipated. In all my clarity, I still found you incredibly attractive and as you led me towards the Central Line, I guess you did too. The walk to your apartment seemed excruciatingly long and dotted with the immense scent of cigarettes and public urination. My heart was racing but I laughed heartily and climbed all fifteen steps with fervour.

Inside, you offered me a glass of water as if that was the kind of thirst that needed to be dealt with. You surprised me with the tenderness of your kisses while I tried to tone down the sense of urgency that Hollywood and trashy free pornography has taught me. You kissed my fingertips, my forehead and my chin with more familiarity that our relationship had warranted at the time. I was suddenly all too aware of my body’s awkwardness and didn’t know what to do with my hands. I placed them gingerly on your cheeks as I felt your soft lips on mine. I had never touched a beard before.

I ran my curious hands up and down your torso as I had never been with a man with body hair before. The way its coarseness changed with each bodily topography made me tingle with excitement. I removed the last remaining item of clothing between us and gasped in surprise. I was nearly 28 at that point, and considered myself pretty sexually experienced. But surely, that has got to be beyond my anatomical limit.

Please be gentle, I said. Hoping that you would sense the genuine panic in my voice. As you climbed atop of me, I was suddenly all too aware of how strong and muscled you were. If something were to go awry, there was no way of escaping. But the only escaping we did was from our month-long sexual tension. You pierced me with so much pleasure that I soaked your dark bed sheets with my ejaculate. Once. Twice. Over and over. If you were at all surprised, you showed no sign of it. You are turning me on so much right now, you whispered as I felt your body tense and then release.

You collapsed on top of me and planted a kiss on my smile. I placed a hand on your small, toned butt and discovered that you had hair there too. How utterly strange.