Author’s Note: This is a sort of sequel to my contribution last month, which can be read here.
I am determined.
And he’s just sitting there out in the porch by himself, waiting for my big sister, the indomitable Sasha who always runs late, who will rush down the stairs muttering about missing socks and keys and cameo rings. She tells me that this guy isn’t the patient sort, but he sits there calm and quiet, nursing something in a white mug she handed him before she went up to get ready for their dinner with friends. She insisted it wasn’t her fault – he got off work early, she left Dr Salmah’s session late – and all he did was laugh. And he does have a very lovely smile.
I’m only doing him a favour. Whiling his time away with me is hardly a punishment. Nobody has ever complained, except for Sharif, and he loves me more than anyone else does.
As if summoned, Sharif passes by me on his way to the kitchen. His eyes flicker down and back up, that perpetual smirk on his face going wider.
“Don’t even,” I say.
“What? I wasn’t going to say anything.”
“You don’t have to.”
“Sister dear, such ill thoughts. You know I’m the only one who’ll wait in line for you at the cashier during Raya sales while you go look for shoes. Be nice.” He leans against the kitchen door. “Or are you actually nervous?”
“Why would I be nervous?”
“Perhaps for the same reason you’ve got –” he leans in a bit and frowns, “—fresh makeup on. Yeesh, Shakira, wipe that eyeshadow off. You’ll scare him away.”
“This is what I wore to work.”
“No it’s not.”
I look at him, and he returns my gaze with something like alarm and concern. “Yaya, don’t do this to Angah.”
“Don’t play dumb lah.”
I square my shoulders, adjust my peplum top and skirt – he knows this gesture and shrinks a little into the doorframe. “It’s not like they’re in a relationship anyway.”
“Yaya, she’s our kakak. No matter what, you can’t bloody screw things up for her. Not when she’s doing so well.”
“She’s only been to the shrink for three months – it’s hardly long enough to fix her.”
He flinches and looks grave, and it is unbecoming. Sharif is handsome – he inherited Ayah’s thick eyebrows like our other brothers, Ibu’s pretty eyes, and our maternal grandfather’s cheekbones, his jawline made dashing by testosterone and chewing too much gum. To see him without his charming smirk is disconcerting. This is my little brother, the one who used to catch butterflies for me whenever I asked him because they were rare in our compact suburb, who used to place them in jars with tears in his eyes. But now he is grown, and he disapproves.
“Why are you even doing this?” he asks. “He’s not your type, Yaya.”
“I don’t have a type.”
He raises an eyebrow, looking strikingly like our father. “Yes, you do. A very obvious type as well. And he,” he points across the hall and out the front door, “doesn’t even come close to that.”
“He’s not her type either.”
He crosses his arms. “What if she loves him?”
“If she does, it doesn’t show.”
He shakes his head, and something in me cracks. “But he likes her. Maybe even loves her.”
“How can you tell?” I ask. I want him to tell me what I cannot see.
“Because it’s Sasha. Only the strong and motivated stay near.”
I follow his gaze towards the porch, to where that man sits unassuming. He sprawls himself on the old metal swing of our childhood with apparent ease, his hands resting on his knees, the mug perched precariously on his thigh. After his first visit Ibu had smiled widely, dropped clumsy hints to Sasha, saying wouldn’t it be nice if this boy would come more often? I hadn’t met him then and I could not miss the wary smile on Sasha’s face when she insisted, “We’re just friends lah, Ibu. He doesn’t see me that way.”
The next time he visited I was ready with an excuse to stay and watch, and when he strode through the front door with that smile – that smile Ibu gushes over, the one which turns his eyes into half-moons and his face into just that expression of happiness – I could see what Sasha meant. He didn’t see Sasha’s habitual oddities and turn them into a joke; he didn’t make fun of her anxieties or her clumsiness or the way she always manages to say the wrong thing. He chuckled at her bluntness and smiled when she got abrasive.
But there is nothing extraordinary there. He makes Sasha smile more with her dimples, but there is no spark, no frisson which makes the idea of them undeniable. What does exist are inside jokes and easy camaraderie, and none of them spell soulmate.
And the way I see it, why let Sasha waste a perfectly good person?
“He doesn’t look half-bad,” is what I say, and when I turn to look at Sharif, his eyes are wide.
“Seriously, Yaya? Seriously?”
“What? It’s true. He’s not, you know,” I wave a hand, “classically handsome or buff like Fahrin Ahmad or anything, but he has something.”
“I mean, seriously, that’s why you’re doing this?” Now both his eyebrows are raised and he looks like Groucho Marx, and I laugh.
He finally walks into the kitchen, shaking his head. “Go ahead. Hope you can live with yourself.”
“Not a problem,” I say to his back. And it isn’t, honestly. I don’t feel bad for chasing after something Sasha’s not brave enough to want.
I walk across the living room and out the door slowly, adjusting my top as I go, glancing in a mirror as I pass so I know the smile I wear is a particular one. My eldest brother Shafiq calls it my ‘game smile’, which I only deploy on certain occasions.
“Battlefields crumble and enemies shake at that smile,” he’d said the last time he was home, tugging at my hair and giving me a huge grin, the time spent away making him look older and his speech wistful. “Shameless as ever. You should teach your sister how to flirt; she needs help in that department.”
“I would rather be myself,” Sasha said quietly, looking Shafiq dead in the eye; I saw him flinch, his mouth turned with dismay. “I don’t like to play games.” All these years and Shafiq never learned, or maybe he was used to her forgiveness. When she left the couch and went into the kitchen, he followed her. I heard raised voices, a light slam of ceramic against wood, and then silence. When I went to look, he had his arms around her and she was crying, her newly thin frame made more fragile by her heaving sobs. I saw that moment Shafiq discovered that he could now wrap one arm entirely around our sister’s waist; his face crumpled, and I left them alone.
The next week, Shafiq left for Terengganu again, and our parents took her to her first session with Dr Salmah.
“Hi,” I say when I reach the side of the swing. “Thought you might like some company while you wait.”
I am reminded our mother has a sharp eye when the guy turns around and smiles – it is quite breathtaking, in a way I can’t describe. “Aren’t any of your brothers in?” he asks, pointing a thumb behind us at the house.
“Shafiq’s still posted at an oil rig off of Kemaman,” I tick off my fingers, “Sharif is having dinner in the kitchen, and Saif is back on campus for exams. So it’s just me.”
“Hm.” He takes another sip from the mug, which is pink and decorated in huge red hearts. I made it for Sasha’s 8th birthday, and had written her name in large white crooked letters.
“You like the mug?”
He peers at it and grins. “Well, there’s something very art deco about it. Sasha tells me you made it?”
“Yeah. I was young and broke. Also, Ibu didn’t want us to have another fight over our mugs again. So she took me to one of those shops where you paint ceramics. I picked the mug, painted it. Sasha thought it looked too pink.”
Even in the dark, I can’t miss his raised eyebrows. “You fought over mugs?”
“And everything else.” I sigh, leaning against the swing’s frame, staring at the road beyond our porch, past the little patch of grass our parents call a garden. “Dresses – she wouldn’t wear matching ones when we went out together. Hair ties – she always lost hers and she’d ‘borrow’ mine. And shoes, but luckily for me her feet went through a growth spurt when she was in Form One.”
“You didn’t write your name on your things?” He lifts up the mug.
“We always thought the other person’s belongings were prettier.”
“Is it a sister thing? I don’t have any sisters.”
I shrug, glancing up at the sky. Starless, as always. “I think it’s a Sasha thing.”
“Really? She doesn’t strike me as the type.”
“To what – have arguments, or to want pretty things?”
He only chuckles in reply.
“Well, you have to admit, she could use a bit more…help in the wardrobe department, but not for lack of trying on my part, or Ibu’s.” I turn to stand in front of him and gesture to my outfit. I do a little twirl. “What do you think?”
His glance is quick and his smile is kind. “I’m not a good judge.”
“Oh, just be honest.”
He shrugs. “Presentable.”
I giggle, habit keeping it soft, feminine, everything men say they want. “Such flattery.”
“Like I said, I’m no judge.”
“What about what Sasha wears?”
His lopsided smile, I find, is equally charming. “Did she send you here?”
“You obviously don’t know us very well.”
“I don’t,” he admits, twiddling the mug, tapping it on his thigh. “So you two fight a lot then?”
“We…disagree,” I concede. Ibu always says that keeping up appearances means refusing to be seen as anything resembling barbaric. “All siblings do, I guess.”
“She gets along very well with your eldest brother, Shafiq, doesn’t she?”
“Yes. They were the only siblings for a while – Sasha was three when I was born. So they’re very close.”
He nods. “She confides in him.”
“Yes.” I adjust the folds of the shawl draped around my head, but he doesn’t even look up at me. “This is so typically Sasha; she’s always running late and making others wait.”
“It couldn’t be helped.” He shrugs. Ibu used to tell us growing up that our faces slowly evolve to resemble our hearts, each ridge marking heartbreak and loss, each crevasse marking anger or joy – canvasses that speak of history. Sharif mentioned this again recently when Shafiq refused to finance his latest endeavour – a gourmet cookie business.
“But you have an open face, Along!” he said almost pleadingly to Shafiq. “You’re generous and you like helping us out. So don’t quit now! Finance this shiz!” Shafiq had laughed, but Sharif was right. Our eldest brother has a face that is light and selfless, an open book that’s easily torn. Sasha had been a very pretty baby, but now her face is all sad and sallow and starved of something important; Ibu said so herself.
And this friend of hers – his face has something wise, strong, kind. But he’s also clever at illusions, enough that I don’t understand him or what draws him to Sasha and stays him there.
“You know,” I say, leaning a little nearer, “for such close friends, you and my sister don’t seem to talk much.”
His smile only falters slightly. “She’s busy. And I’m terrible at replying messages.”
“Then why don’t the both of you make more effort? I mean, Sasha meets up with friends she makes on Twitter, for crying out loud. And you guys have known each other – what, four years now?”
He shrugs. “We’re just not like that.”
I place one hand on my hip, right where my curve hits, in case he wasn’t paying attention. “Any relationship takes effort. I wouldn’t treat you like this.”
“But it’s mutual,” he says plainly. “We’re both like this. Seriously, we’re fine.”
“Are you though?” I ask, and I’m no longer sure what I’m looking for. “I know she has this one friend, a guy – Tom, I think is his name. They talk to each other all the time, constantly on Whatsapp those two, sending each other pictures and stuff.” I glance at him, and he seems to have stopped swaying with the swing. “So, you know, I don’t know why you and she can’t have that sort of friendship.”
“What exactly are you trying to say?” he asks, his voice light and strained.
“That both of you are at a…stalemate?”
“I don’t think so.” He lifts the mug, turning it this way and that, letting the pink sparkles catch the porch light. “Don’t have to talk all the time to be connected. You and Sasha don’t seem to communicate well, but you’re sisters and you love each other.”
“We just don’t like each other very much. Anyway, we have blood shared between us. You’re…just friends. What keeps you two together?”
He stops turning the mug and I wonder if I’ve gone too far.
“We both studied in Chicago. We met, we talked, we clicked. It all worked.”
I snort. “There it is again. Chicago. It’s like a bloody elephant in the bloody room and it just won’t leave.”
He smiles. “How do you mean?”
I catch myself for a moment, trying to wade through my thoughts and pick the right words to say, to tell him how it feels to look my sister in the eye and know that she isn’t here, is never here in this space – that she is always elsewhere living a specific life with specific people. So I try.
“She lives like she’s in mourning.”
He coughs like a mouse wheezing, and I discover the one annoying thing about him. “Come again?”
“She’s mourning a life lost,” I explain, my throat straining with the effort to keep my voice low. Sasha could come down at any minute. “She’s mourning lost opportunities, friends several continents away, cold winters and having Rahm Emanuel as mayor and all that shit.”
“You have a strange idea of what life is like in Chicago.”
“Well, how the hell am I supposed to know? I’m not part of that world. None of us in this house is. Do you know what it’s like to have someone look at you and know that you are only second best?”
“Yes.” He’s no longer smiling.
“It sucks, doesn’t it.”
“I hate it.”
“So does she.”
“Ha. She would run the first chance she gets.”
“Then why is she still here?”
I shrug. “Circumstances? Commitment. She feels she owes it to our parents to stay with them.”
He nods. “You’re her anchors.”
“Really? It feels more like we’re burdens.”
“And you don’t want to hold her back.”
“I really don’t.” He scoots quickly when I sit next to him. I feel so tired. There is a bubble in my chest and it grows tight and wide and I feel like I cannot breathe. “I want her to leave. I want her to have the fabulous life she so desperately wants and which we don’t let her have.”
“But it’s her decision to stay. Nobody forced her hand.”
“I think we did. I think we said, ‘We miss you’ but we really meant ‘Don’t ever leave us again’.” I look at him and his glasses reflect the porch light, bright glares in place of eyes, and it’s unnerving how he stares. “It feels like we’re second only to her friends. We’re her family.”
“But they were her family too, Shakira. For four years, they were her home.”
“It feels like they mean more to her than we do.” My breath comes out in a sigh.
His mouth moves silently, as though he’s measuring his words and weighing them with his tongue. So unlike my sister in that respect. “Sasha tells me you’re popular,” he says. “That you’ve always been popular, all throughout school and after.”
I shrug. “Are you changing the topic?”
“No I’m not. I’m trying to – you see, Sasha’s not like you. She never fit in anywhere when she was growing up. Am I right?”
He raises an eyebrow and I shrug in reply. I no longer care that I’m petulant.
“I’ll take that as a yes, then. So she’s been this lonesome person. But there, in Chicago, she has friends. People who love her and care for her as she is.”
“As if we don’t.”
He shakes his head, and his small smile makes me wonder what Sasha’s told him about our family. “You love her because you have to. It’s built in you and nurtured. But these people – they never had to. They didn’t have preconceived ideas about her. They let her be kind and gracious to them. They let her be herself. And they found that they love her.” He starts pushing the swing again, and my added weight makes it stutter, makes us sway out of sync. Push, drag, sweep.
“You don’t find her attachment weird, then? The way she keeps talking about them at random moments? The other day she told me about her friend moving back to Turkey to follow her husband; she asked if I thought a trip to Istanbul was about right.”
“What did you say?”
“I told her she was nuts and I’m broke.”
He laughs and a flash of irritation joins that bubble in my chest, wound tight with anger. “Doesn’t it bug you?”
“See, Shakira, I have no right to be mad. I’m one of those friends from Chicago. I just never left her, is all. She’s never had to say goodbye to me.”
“Who now?” It’s Sasha, dressed in jeans and a tunic and she’s ready, even has her shoes on, one hand on her hip and a lopsided smile on her face. But her eyes are hard, and she’s looking at us on the swing sitting side by side and she’s wondering.
He doesn’t see that look, doesn’t know it like I do, and so he has it in him to answer. “Nothing. Ready to go?”
Sasha nods. “Here, give me that mug, Basil.”
“I’ve got it. I’ll just pop it in the kitchen and go—”
“No,” I say, tired of the shuffling. I don’t know when the fight in me left, but it’s fairly evaporated into the humid night. But I am insufferable to Sasha, always, and I don’t move from my seat. “I’ll take it in later.”
“Now, Shakira?” she asks with exaggerated politeness.
“Later. Basil was just telling me about his time in Chicago.”
“Which is just the same as yours, wasn’t it Sasha?”
Her laugh is uneasy, and he shifts in the swing, making me sway sideways. “In some ways, yes. In others…”
“Like the time we all went to Six Flags and you sat through one – one – ride and you nearly passed out—”
“Hey, I always knew I couldn’t do that 360-degree-loop ride thing—”
“And you just sat out everything afterwards and basically babysat us—”
“Which was helpful when you nearly broke your finger on the rollercoaster harness—”
“What?” I blurt. “How do you—”
“Exactly,” Sasha laughs, and the sound is full and hearty and I realise I’ve never heard this laugh before. “How did he, indeed. Of all the things, Bas, and we had to go to the A&E at like, 10 pm because of your brilliant timing.”
He grins, flexes his left index finger and I can see it’s dented. “But you took care of me. Thank you.”
Her smile is soft; I like this smile. “I can’t even count the times you’ve done the same for me.”
“I’ve never had to drive you to the hospital like that. You ran so many red lights.”
He smiles at her ducked head. “Anyway.”
I’m not daft. I know when I don’t belong, and sometimes I see it in Sasha’s eyes when she’s talking to me, like I am something out of place – that camel in her mirage, the thing that pulls everything out of balance. Sometimes I see it when Shafiq is home and they’re both sitting together on their favourite sofa, feet bumping into each other and she’s looking at him like she can’t quite believe she’s here. Half her heart is 22 hours too far and I think will always be that way.
But this moment is ours. I am on the periphery, but she hasn’t pushed me away. I look at Basil and wonder just how much of her he carries around with him, to make her so full and so present.
“Well,” he claps his hands on his knees, the swing creaking as he stands. “About time we left?”
“So sorry I was late, Bas.”
He hands me the mug, his long fingers deftly skimming the uneven letters before he lets go. “It was an interesting wait, wasn’t it, Yaya?”
“Do I even want to know, Yaya?”
“It’s nothing, Sasha.”
She nods. “We’re leaving. I’ve told Ibu. Might be a bit late coming home. The other people we’re meeting with have a loose concept of time. Great people, but…you know.”
Another suspicious look before she walks away, car keys swinging from her fingers.
“Hmm?” His normal smile is in place again, like it had never left.
“She loves you.”
His grin grows slightly. “I know.”
“I never stood a chance, did I?”
And he leans back, the movement deft and imperceptible, but I was looking. “I’m going to pretend I don’t know what you mean.”
“So we’re playing it like that.”
“Yes.” He runs a hand through his hair. “If it helps…I would never hurt her. Not in any way.”
I clutch the mug closer, feeling the ridges and the rough pink sparkles stick to my fingers. “That’s not a promise you can make.”
“I can promise I’ll try.” This is the first time I’ve seen him less than perfect, less than calm. His brow has broken into a light sweat and his eyes dart back and forth between Sasha’s car and my face. “Do you…you know about the Swedish Guy?”
I nod. “Yes, of course. The guy from her second year there.”
“Okay. Okay. He was – you know how she felt about him? And how he just –“
“Was a total asshole? Yes. Sasha told me once, a while ago.”
He nods, mouth pursed. “He was rude when he turned her down. And I swear, I saw what that did to her. I swear I will never do the same.”
“Shafiq told me about you,” I say. “He told me about what a good friend you’ve been to Sasha.”
For the first time, I see some expression in him that isn’t placid or benevolent. “I don’t know if I’d say I’m a good friend.”
“Like the time you waited for her during that terrible storm? She was stuck, home alone with the power out, and you were the last person she’d talked to on the phone so she called you. And you went to her apartment and waited with her until the storm lifted.”
His smile is small and distant. “We prayed aloud a lot that day. She couldn’t find a headscarf to wear so I stayed in the next room so I wouldn’t see her.”
“How long were you there for?”
He shrugs, and it’s almost angry. “A few hours. Just to make sure she was safe. It was a really bad storm.”
“Yet you went anyway.”
“I lived nearby.” I can feel him glare at me. “No big deal.”
“Be careful, is all,” I say airily. “You give a woman ideas.”
He shakes his head. “Sasha and I are so far from – we’re not even — huh. Well. I can see what she means about you.”
“That I’m annoying?”
“No,” he says with that smile. “Uncanny, is what you are. Assalamu’alaikum.” He nods and leaves quickly, moving after Sasha in a light jog.
Sasha’s old Daihatsu Charade is a noisy little creature, and the street fills with its rough shuffle-cough-shuffle as she gets the engine going. She has the windows down because the air-conditioning hasn’t worked since 1998 and I can hear her voice and Basil’s mingle with the engine, trying to drown it out – they’re arguing and laughing in almost the same breath. That tightness is my chest eases itself, just a little — enough that when Basil raises his hand at me as they chug along, I wave back.
Syazwina has a driver’s license but doesn’t drive. It is something she hopes to remedy very soon. She blogs and tweets about it sometimes, but not too often, because that would be like pressing too long on the clutch — yeah. No driving jokes either.