Wednesday, January 25, 2012

ikan bakar - fish grilled in banana leaves, covered in spicy marinate

Rathi was not sure why she was there. She knew she liked spending time with him, he had the right balance of light hearted humour and awkward charm. She knew she liked sharing odd details with him. She also knew of his taste in girls and that she was nowhere near that range.

She stared at a back that was becoming fast becoming familiar to her. He had his blazer off and was wearing a light blue work shirt with small white stripes. Rathi looked away and waited for him to take the escalator down one floor to where she stood – Baskin Robbins.

“I should play it cool,” she thought to herself and decided she would be all grown up about it. Instead she turned and smiled as he walked along the row of shops towards her. She did not realize it then but she was smiling for a good five minutes, taking in his slightly rolling gait, the slight stubble and his loafers.

“So what’s the plan?” he asked as he walked up to her.

“Dinner would be good,” Rathi said a bit stupidly. “Ikan bakar?” she added quickly, trying to save a measure of dignity.

“Ok, suggestions as to where? The best ikan bakar I know of is right here in this mall.” His smile was slow and Rathi was pretty certain he had no clue as to what it was doing to her insides. At least she hoped he did not.

“There’s this place in Damansara. I think. Went there once and I’ve yet to find a place better than that. How? Ok ah?”

James shrugged. “The thing is I parked over at the Gardens. You don’t mind the walk, do you?”

Rathi laughed. “Sure beats taking the commuter.”

They walked along, chatting about nothing much in particular. They spoke about Baskin Robbins and about how he once donned a pink hairband and another friend flashed a pink bra to get the Wednesday discount and Rathi wondered in a small corner of her mind if she had ever owned a pink bra.

Then they got to the car park and James was frowning. “I think I parked on this side,” he said a bit hesitantly and led the way up the ramp and then stopped short. The look on his face as he turned around was so comical it made Rathi laugh in bed for months to come. “The car’s on the other side.” They walked back down the ramp and took the ramp leading to the oppsite side of the car park.

James tried to keep a straight face but he could see the flicker of a laugh on the face of the small woman he was with. He led her to his pride and joy, a red Ford, as old as him, but somehow intimately connected to each of his phases of life. He watched as she pressed her hand against the windshield at a McD’s drivethru sticker.

“So you have this and have yet to stick your roadtax, eh?” she asked quizzically.

“A man’s gotta get his priorities in life right, you know?” James grinned as she laughed a most unladylike laugh and told her a patchy history of his Ford and how it had covered 1000km within the KL-selangor radius within a week more than once.

Rathi smiled and inside she wondered again why he went through so much of trouble for other people and why they hardly knew anything about him as a person. Everything people had said about him being a lady’s man could be true, but all she saw was a pretty normal guy who she liked whiling away the hours with.

She noticed his firm grip on the steering, the relaxed manner with which he shifted gear. She blinked a bit and turned to look out of the window to stop herself from staring and remembering ridiculous details like his stubby fingers with squarish nails or the strong chin or short thick eyelashes.

“Ok so we’re at Damansara uptown, now where is it?”

Rathi squinted at the buildings. “This is where Farah works and did you know 99 Speedmart has the cheapest milk powder?” Saying that she kicked herself inwardly. Way to go to impress a guy, talk grocery shopping list with him. “Let me get the directions, ok? I know there’s a Famous Amos shop opposite the hawker centre.”

James frowned a bit as she asked for directions and grinned when she said she had directed him to the wrong place. They were supposed to go to SS2.

“Oh my God, did you just get me lost in my own backyard? The irony…” the melodrama in his voice made them laugh. He pulled over to the side of the road and Rathi watched as he determinedly tapped on his phone screen and GoogleMapped the hawker centre.

Twenty minutes later they were seated under the KL sky, yellow bulbs shining overhead as they tucked into ikan bakar, claypot chicken rice and popiah nyonya. She remembered his need to drown the fish in sambal and his ironic humour as he recounted work to her. They laughed over common friends and how their friends were convinced that something was up between the two of them.

As James laughed it off, Rathi told him how he was supposedly dating two other women at the same time, all mere speculations and how she had told a friend that it was his life and he could date whomever he fancied. She listened as to how he had developed feelings for one and was best friends with the other. She remembered how each guy friend she had ever known had fallen head over heels for both of these girls. Rathi looked down a bit self-consciously at her yellowed nails; yellowed from the saffron she had rubbed into the fish she had cooked earlier in the day. She could feel her appetite lessening as he described how those two girls were every guy’s dream girls and Rathi was enthralled. “So that was definitely his type of girl, eh?” she thought to herself.  

“So leaving on Wednesday, huh?” his sudden question brought her out of her reverie.

“Yup,” she replied, nodding. “It has been a good summer, you’ve made it a bit more interesting.”

James’ expression was unreadable as they drove back. They were racing against the clock as he had an appointment with his mother. His phone rang and he picked up.

“Which girl you with now?” Rathi could hear his mother ask teasingly on the phone. “Amma will be a bit late, Aiya,” she heard her say.

“It’s OK, Amma, I’ll just hang out with my friend a bit longer.” Saying that he hung up, smiled at Rathi and made a U-turn at the traffic light. “Let’s maximize our time together, shall we?”

Rathi laughed and wondered if he knew how charming his subtle wit was. They drove back to PJ and swapped stories on PJ outings, his more social oriented, Rathi’s a bit more commonplace.

“You do realize we’re going around this roundabout for a second time, right?” Rathi pointed out.

“Ah, damn, you noticed,” his voice was light. “It’s just nice, driving around, I do it at times.”

“Indicator’s still on,” Rathi said and smiled at the flash of annoyance in the corner of his eye. It felt shockingly comfortable, spending time with this person she was just getting to know.

His phone rang again. He was to go get his mum in fifteen minutes.

The drive back was relatively silent, each lost in thought.

“The white gate,” Rathi said, aware that she might never see him again. “Thanks for dinner, twas good.”

He held out his hand. “I’ll see you around, then.”

Rathi stared at that hand for a while then smiled and reached out for an awkward half hug. She felt the slightest sense of relief as he hugged her back and then they drew apart and she opened the door. She was about to close it again, but then bent down and said seriously, “You still owe me Vitagen you know, I guessed your passion for cars and interest in photography without even knowing you.”

His slow smile wreaked the same havoc on her insides and she gripped the car door a bit more firmly. “You should have reminded me, next time OK?”

Rathi nodded, not trusting herself to answer.

She closed the door and waved. The car did not move. She sighed. He was obviously one of the few guys left that wouldn’t leave until she was safe inside the house. She locked the gate and watched the red car move away.

“Hi, Farah,” she said a bit listlessly, suddenly feeling empty. “Gonna change.” Rathi went into her room and sat on the edge of her bed. So what if she did not see him anymore, she would still try and keep in contact with him. Being his friend was all she wanted, right? Not like he would look at her in any other way. But why had he made that U-turn and that unneeded roundabout circling? What was that? Was that how he was with all the girls? Rathi shook her head.

“Stop over analyzing. He’s being a friend, hopefully enjoying your company as much as you enjoy his,” she muttered under her breath. She giggled as she remembered how she had gotten a hug back.

45 minutes later she dialed his number. “Back home safe?” she asked him.

“Yup, made it just before the weekend jam. What’s plans for the night?”

They kept talking for a while more and as they shared stories and she told him how she was checking out his ex-girlfriends, he wondered what was going on. He decided he’d just go with the flow. After all she was leaving in a few days, and she was the nerd of the group. No way in hell she was developing an attachment for him. She had already established that she did not believe in relationships and had even ‘promoted’ one of her childhood friends as someone he should consider for a serious relationship. Serious relationship. Like he needed one right now. Or ever.

Somehow Rathi’s direct interest in him had a sort of magnetic pull. There was no guile there, at least none he could sense. She was a strange person, hardly the run of the mill girl people fell for. Eh wait what was he thinking. He smiled and went to do his laundry, trying to understand why Rathi kept talking to him or texting him or why he did the same. Boredom, perhaps?

The next morning when he woke up, he looked at his phone. No text message yet. Then his phone vibrated. It was from Rathi. He smiled as he read the message. It was nice to have a friend by him day in and day out. He remembered telling her how he had not texted or called anyone this much since his last relationship. He remembered how he had said it in passing but had looked at her for a response.

It would never work, whatever it is they were playing at. But for as long as it made them both happy, he’d keep at it. It was not as if either of them was looking for anything serious.

Prologue: James and Rathi are currently dating, nothing serious, just taking things as they come. But they’ve worked out a confidant system and have reached the you-annoy-me-lah stage and are still there in each other’s faces day in and day out. Neither one believes in relationships up till today.

*disclaimer: similarities to real events and people living or dead is almost purely coincidental

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