And here you are, on a bench in the Botanic Gardens. In front of you is the museum.
It’s wet everywhere, including your sneakers and jeans. But you’re used to it by now, getting your hair and clothes soaked almost every Sunday.
You pull the hoodie over your head and tighten its strings when a lady in a pink fluorescent jacket walks past.
She’s looking at you, just like the two ladies and a guy before her.
You cross your arms and grip a handful of your jumper. You could scream out loud now but someone might call the police on you.
“You alright, love?”
Kalai wasn’t your first kiss. She was your fifth or the sixth. You were fifteen when Siti Safiah ran her sweaty fingers across your cheek in the PE room.
You pushed her hands away when she pinned your feet with her school shoes, infiltrating your personal space. Her face was so close that it was impossible to unsee the chilli flake stuck between her gum and her front tooth.
“Don’t pretend to shy-shy, lah,” Siti Safiah said in Malay, adjusting her headscarf. “I know you like girls.”
She squeezed your wrist like it was a sponge.
And before you could push her away again, her other hand had found its way to your right breast.
“Close your eyes,” she whispered.
You saw her smacking her lips, holding eye contact. Then, you felt everything: the peck on your cheek; the exploration of her tongue in your mouth; and the nibble on your bottom lip.
“French kiss,” she whispered, as if you needed to know what she’d just done to you.
You didn’t like this ‘French’ kiss. It was sloppy, making the area around your mouth all sticky with someone else’s saliva.
You swore to yourself then not to breathe a word about it to anyone. And you kept that promise until you met Kalai for the first time in uni during the orientation week.
Kalai had told you her experiences and you were able to share and laugh about yours with her then. She saved your number and crossed her heart to ring you.
Kalai didn’t disappoint you. She’d called you five times and left a ‘hi’ in your inbox when you were already in bed.
You look up, hoping that her common sense has kicked in and that she’ll just bugger off. But she’s still standing there.
The stranger lady bends, meeting you at eye level. Her glasses are fogging up and they’re wet with drizzle.
“You alright, sweetheart?” she asks again, and sits next to you, uninvited.
The bench creaks as she struggles to cover her bum with the edge of her waterproof jacket.
“It’s dreadful, isn’t it?”
She means the weather, not you.
She stretches her legs, then bends them.
You can tell her to fuck off right now, or you can simply stand up and let her watch you fuck off. But you feel stiff all over.
“I was just coming back from the, erm…”
You’re not listening to her.
On Valentine’s Day, Kalai had proclaimed her love to you with a box of Ferrero Rocher and a greeting card with a huge glittery red heart on its cover.
‘You’re my love, Baby Ma,’ she’d written.
You cringed when you read that.
You weren’t sure what stirred within you that day: fear; desire, or love. It must’ve been a combination of all of that, jumbled into one tight ball, or else you wouldn’t have let her call you whatever she’d fancied, or ignored the stares you received from strangers when you held her hand in yours, or booked budget hotel rooms in Serdang and Seri Kembangan in the years that followed.
Kalai had insisted on paying for the rooms with her student loan, but you declined her offer. You didn’t feel right about that. So, you dug into your savings for it was all worth, although you felt anxious about it. Some religious officers could break into your room and arrest the two of you for khalwat or whatever. But Kalai convinced you that it’d be OK, and that those kind of rules aren’t applicable to people like you and her.
Your girlfriend was adventurous and daring in that way. It was she who’d found out about the novelty shop on the top floor and at the far corner of Mid Valley Megamall. You didn’t enter that shop, instead, you watched her from a fair distance, pretending to be busy on your mobile.
She picked up a wobbly dildo and raised her eyebrows at you, twice. She bought it with her own money, spending the ang pow she’d received from her family for Deepavali.
At your graduation, Kalai had gifted you a bouquet of twelve roses at the entrance of Dewan Besar.
“You’re mine now,” she’d whispered when your family wasn’t looking.
And you treated her to a romantic dinner at The Mines Shopping Mall, watching koi fish in the indoor waterway. It felt like you were somewhere overseas, Venice, but not quite.
Within the next few months, Kalai had moved to Penang to teach in a secondary school while you secured a job in a building facing the Petronas Twin Towers.
The distance in between was simply ridiculous. But you found ways to meet up every week, then gradually once a month. It was exhausting. More and more when you were with her, she couldn’t shut up about other girls or guys whom she referred to as ‘my new friends’.
The journey to Penang during the Chinese New Year holiday was seven hours, twice as long, plus crawling in traffic from Jalan Duta to Taiping. You were already dead-tired and sleepy by the time you got yourself a Double Prosperity Burger meal from the Mc D’s drive-thru and had it in your Honda, patiently waiting for her.
Kalai finally showed up with a bunch of people you’d not met. She was wearing a kurta the colour of turmeric, and had flowers in her hair: a version of her you’d not seen. Her forehead was marked with vermilion and vibhuti, and in her hands was the prasadam, half of a cracked coconut stuffed with two bananas and betel leaves.
She didn’t notice you at first until you found yourself standing right in front of her. She told you that she went to the temple and then introduced you as ‘my uni friend’ to ‘my new friends’.
“Uni friend?” you asked afterwards, in a hotel room.
“Ya-ah. You’re my uni friend.”
“I’m your uni friend? That’s all?”
“You know you’re more than that.”
“Then, why did you introduce me as your uni friend?”
“Come here,” she said, tilting her head to the side.
“Who am I, Kalai?”
“You know who you are.”
“To you! Who am I to you?”
“You know who you are, to me,” she said, tapping her laps twice.
After you two made love, Kalai had told you that she wasn’t happy living alone, away from you. She even told you that her job had become a nuisance.
“I need to teach, do admin work, write the minutes of meetings every week, run the school Sport’s Day, emcee this and emcee that,” she said, twirling your hair into knots. “And you’re not here. I don’t get to see you.”
When you left that Sunday, she’d told you, “We need to do something, Baby Ma. A plan. I don’t want you to wake up one day and say ‘I wish my life was different’.”
“Where are you from, love?”
You hear her now.
You don’t answer. Why should you? Why should you tell anybody where you’ve come from? Will it make a difference? Does it even matter?
They always seem to assume that from your obvious features.
You say nothing and let her be wrong, saving yourself from getting tangled up in another pointless conversation about your background with a total stranger.
Not this time.
“Are you a student, love?”
You grip the sides of your jumper.
“Do you have any family here?”
You shake your head.
“It must be hard,” she says.
The bench creaks again as she pushes herself closer to you.
“It must be really, really hard. You poor wee girl.”
Kalai gathered your details and got back in a month with a reply from a job agency you’d not heard of before.
When she’d driven to see you, you two had imagined a future you could build and be in together.
Sitting on your couch, arm in arm, the plans seemed surreal but achievable at the same time.
“An apartment facing the Irish Sea would be nice, wouldn’t it?” she’d said into your hair, holding you in her arms.
She liked that idea, and she liked doing that: squeezing your arm gently and brushing her breasts against yours.
The plan was for you to leave first. Then, she’d resign when the time was right, pack her stuff and join you.
You called, texted and even left voice messages when you were in the airport, but there was no reply.
After checking in and depositing your luggage, you called and called her phone again. You kept turning around, searching for her, hoping to see her amongst the people crowding up before the security gate.
A lady in a navy blue uniform smiled politely and gestured you to speed up. You knew that there would be no turning back beyond that point.
Just after you’d hugged your family goodbye, your sister shoved an envelope with a tiny glittery heart on its cover into your bag and made you promise her to only open it when you were in the air, and not before that.
When the seatbelt sign above your head turned green, you lowered your cabin bag and reached for the envelope.
To: Baby Ma
I’ll come there to be with you soon, Baby Ma. We’ll be together.
Your new home wasn’t facing the Irish Sea. It was facing a row of double-storeyed houses on Malone Road.
You slept the whole morning after you’d arrived, woke up midday for a glass of tap water, then went to bed again. You woke up at midnight, feeling cold, hungry and confused.
There were fifteen missed calls from Kalai.
The rain is getting heavier now but the stranger lady still won’t budge.
She scoots closer and places her hand on your lap.
“There’s a nice wee coffee place down the road. Maggie May’s. They’ve poached eggs and toast, to keep your bones warm.”
You turn to face her.
She has the mask on, the one they wear for people like you, the one that looks like they have all the solutions to save you or something.
You poor wee girl.
You could lie to her now. Tell her that you’re waiting for a friend, in the rain, and make her go away. But you know that her type would not move an inch. She’d stick to you like a suckerfish in a tank until she’s done. That’s what they all do.
She has started telling you another story. This time, you manage to grasp some of the whatever she’s blathering about: a wee Syrian girl; her mother; at school; my sister and her husband; two boys; church.
You stop listening, again.
Somehow the days passed: work, sleep, repeat; work, sleep, repeat. Your life had become as dull as the grey walls you saw everywhere.
You texted Kalai more than ringing her: in the bus; at work; after work; and before you slept. Sometimes, she’d reply immediately, at other times she wouldn’t at all. And whenever she did, she cried and cried about everything. She’d talk about the past, the time you two were in uni.
“You don’t sound like you anymore,” Kalai had said during a call.
“What do you mean? Of course I sound like me. Nothing has changed, and you know that.”
“I don’t know. Your now, you and your house… don’t sound Indian anymore.”
You became more cautious about your accent afterwards and tried not to sound too foreign to her.
You couriered her bottles of perfume and boxes of sweets for New Year although she’d specifically requested chocolates. Sure, they’d arrive sticky and shapeless if you sent her that. And when you went to the City Centre, you bought a wand from Ann Summers without feeling awkward about it.
One night, at a weekend, Kalai had forwarded you her nudes even after you’d repeatedly warned her not to take the risk.
“Encrypted,” she said.
You never believed in that BS: encrypted or unencrypted, nudes get leaked, somehow. Maybe her phone, or your phone, could be stolen or misplaced. Besides, Kalai knew the girl from Penang, the one who forwarded her nudes to her boyfriend as a birthday gift. The so-called boyfriend made it viral when they broke up. And the story didn’t end there: the girl was found hanging from the ceiling fan in her own bedroom.
You’d never do that to her, your Kalai. Never. So, you deleted the videos after watching them. You cleared all data and emptied the cache and cookies, just in case.
You didn’t need that from her. And you certainly haven’t forgotten her body.
Now, she seems to be repeating herself, asking if you’re alright.
You hear a voice in your head telling you to ‘Fuck it!’
So, you tell her the story of the girl in Penang, the one who hung herself. In your version, the girl is your girlfriend.
The look on the stranger lady’s face is priceless as if she has just discovered that she has won a lottery or something.
She puts her hand on your lap.
You flinch again.
“Oh, my love. I’m so sorry. It must be hard. It must be really very hard. Poor girl.”
You switch off.
It took you almost a year to get used to being away. And summer wasn’t like what you and Kalai had imagined. It wasn’t really summery. It was wet.
You told Kalai about the picnic you had, sitting on the grass in Drumglass Park with your colleagues, eating pizzas and ice cream. You also told her about your puffy eyes and swollen lips.
“You’re OK. Just hay fever,” Emma, your colleague told you.
You’d no clue what that was. You’d not even heard of such a fever before.
Emma had given you a tablet for it, which you threw in the bin before you got home.
Kalai had stopped talking to you for two days. Her schoolwork must’ve kept her busy, but you knew that that wasn’t the real reason for her silence.
You were tagged to a video on Facebook: Emma yelling ‘I Love You’ with something spilling from her cup, as she hugged you around the waist at the Kremlin. Emma was like that, ever ready for banter when she was drunk and happy.
You texted and called Kalai to explain, that you’d no interest in Emma or whomever.
But then, she blocked you on everything and left you hanging loose for three months.
“Do you have faith, my love?” the stranger lady asks.
You don’t say a word. You know what’s coming next.
“Do you have a religion, love?”
“Indians are Hindus, aren’t they? Hmm. And Muslims?”
You say nothing.
“You pray to Ganesha?”
You don’t know to whom you pray. There are thousands of Gods in your religion.
“Maybe,” you say.
Her eyes widen and her eyebrows raise.
“Ah. Yah,” you say.
They all seem to know that God around here, the obvious one.
The stranger lady unzips her pocket and pulls out a card.
No doubt it’s them. They’re everywhere, with their radars always tuned to vulnerable people like you, seizing every opportunity they can sniff.
She pushes the card into your hand with a smile, forcing you to accept it.
If you don’t read it, she won’t go.
“Dear God, I admit that I’m a sinner –”
“From your heart, love,” she says as her voice softens.
She closes her eyes, palms press together.
You clear your throat.
“Dear God, I admit that I’m a sinner and need your forgiveness. Thank you for sending Jesus to suffer the punishment that I deserve for my sins. Please help me every day to turn from my sin and live a life that pleases you. Amen.”
The stranger lady whispers something to herself and opens her eyes.
You were walking home from the bus stop after work when she pinged you a ‘hi’ and you immediately rang her back.
“Why did you block me?” you asked.
“Hey. No hello? No hi?”
“Why did you block me? I didn’t do any –”
“I know, but you and that blondie bitch –”
She meant Emma.
“You haven’t even met her yet! We work together and I’ve told you she’s a little mental at times.”
Then, Kalai did it again. She blocked you.
“Now you see, love? God –”
You wipe the drizzle from the card with your sleeve and pass it back to the stranger lady so that she could save her breath from preaching.
“That’s yours. God wants you to have it,” she says.
You can tell her that you don’t need it and that people like her need it more than anybody else. Or, you can tear it up into pieces and scatter them like confetti, right in front of her.
“Now you see, love? God doesn’t abandon anyone. He showers his loving-kindness and is good to everyone. He loves all his creations. And God loves you. God, loves, you.”
She gets up now. She’s clearly forgotten about her offer: the poached eggs and toasts to keep your bones warm.
She stands in front of you, the tip of her shoes nearly touching yours.
You look down.
They aren’t Siti Safiah’s school shoes but they’re the same colour and design as the ones you got Kalai from the City Centre. The pair sits in the bottom drawer of your cupboard, next to Ann Summers’ wand, waiting for her.
The stranger lady hugs you, smothering your face with her wet pink jacket.
“It’ll be alright, my love. You’ll be alright. Trust in God,” she points at the sky.
She lets go of your stiff body.
“God loves you. God, loves, you, love.”
You don’t watch her walk away in case she decides to smother you again.
“It’s not alright,” you hear your voice telling the card in your hands. “It’s, not, all-right.”
You look up at the sky and the sun peeks from behind the grey clouds.
You’re done with it.
You’re done with her.
You pull out your phone from the pocket and scroll down your feed on Facebook again: six images.
Six bloody images of her.
She’s all smiles in every one of them, draped in a violet sari, holding her fiancé’s hand.
Her fiancé, soon to be her husband.
You’re not hers. Not anymore.
You walk to the nearest bin with your phone and the message from God.