ISSUE Magazine

The Backups by Lutfi Hakim

Her name was Diana. She was 5’5″, with light chocolate skin that only browned a little in the sun. Dark Asian eyes, but otherwise had most of her geography scrubbed off her. She spoke, walked, and thought within the paradigms of global Americana pop, yet another child raised on American satellite TV.

Of course I found her incredibly attractive. I was also another child nourished by the same teat. Her language was my language, her thoughts were my thoughts. She wasn’t blond and blue-eyed but she was to me a passable copy of the All-American Girl. How could I have resisted?

She could.

I was great, she’d tell me, often, but we both knew I wasn’t good enough. She never said that out loud, but it was obvious our familiarity bred no attraction for her. I was the understanding confidant: I knew where she came from and I knew what she wanted. I was fine with a cheap copy, but she wanted something more.

Diana, ‘dīăn`ə’ in its original Latin but pronounced like the princess in cities, found her Grade A copy in the form of a coupe-driving Syed. A natural heir to the glossy pages of Tatler, he was clearly a much better deal than I could have ever been. She had faith he could afford A Good Time, when I would have to think of starting a line of credit to pursue the same purpose. He would eventually leave her for an international school girl he grew up with in the UK.

So that was how I found myself, again, here, in this smoky food garden. It’s too upmarket to be called a food court, although the only sign of any real garden here are the concrete tree stumps that serve as stools for the shishaa connoisseurs convening next to their colourful stalks of tobacco.

I am here again with the same basketcases with whom I share a similar demographic profile: young male professionals with enough disposable income for occasional nights like these. After last week’s wedding, we’re now down to four: Hafiz, cobbled together like a scarecrow with a shirt too big; Shawn, still hungrily eyeing the leftovers of a chicken chop, even after he’s gobbled up his meal and two drinks; Farid, puffing silently on a cigarette while tending to a phone call so important he had to stop eating; and me.

There is nothing we found particularly enjoyable in the food here or the venue. The air sticks with humidity from the mist sprinklers above us, the food is overcooked with too much sauce on top, there’s not enough lighting, the TV’s too loud, there’s no parking; it’s a pale contender to what we collectively held as A Good Time but it’s something we could afford with the few notes in our wallets. The accumulated discomfort and inferiority of everything around us is still preferable to spending another night alone stalking pictures on Facebook.

We are today’s Sad Young Men. Unwaveringly single and still living at home, we are the highly educated eunuchs of society. Smart and talented enough to be prized and entrusted with duties, we aren’t bold enough to be of any real consequence to our paymasters. We are castrated by a lifetime of entitlement, and silenced by the need to be respectable.

“I’ve got to go. My idiot of a boss wants his report by 10am,” Farid tells us as soon as his boss ends the call. It is half past 11; he is not going to get much sleep tonight so we let him leave without paying. He only had a chicken chop anyway; the rest of us could afford to split the fifteen ringgit that it cost. Shawn is already smiling.

It is almost the end of another year, but it is as if we hadn’t left this table since we met here this time last year. We could see that time had marched on — our stomachs are flabbier and our hairlines have crawled a little backwards. Besides these unwanted souvenirs, we don’t have much else to show for ourselves. We could say that we filled twice the number of paperwork this year than we did last year, but that is nowhere near as impressive as flashing the keys to your new BMW.

Next to us is a rowdy table of big lardy men. Their wrists gleam with the shine of their expensive chunky watches, and there is three times as much food on their table as there is on ours, but only half of it is eaten. The rest is for the bin.

We don’t like these guys. They are noisy, uncouth, rough, stupid and coarse, but they have every bling in the world on them. They are barbarians that rob and pillage, with no sense of investing money away for future generations; they are bad financial planners. Most of all, we hate them because they are having A Good Time, although it isn’t our version of it.

While we rationalise and commiserate, they celebrate their victories and show off their spoils. They are no lords — we know they are just underlings — but they are dangerous enough for their sponsors to not unnecessarily rub them the wrong way. Only women rang their phones at this hour, not bosses.

We hate them because they make us hate ourselves. We are so much better than them, these barbarians — we work classy jobs, but we live like cowed servants. We hate them because we hate the fact that one of them will shove aside our master and take over the reigns, and we, the ever-loyal functional eunuchs, will end up kissing their hands and feet.

It might sound strange, but the sight of these fat barbarians rolling around on their bellies only make me miss her more. Diana, she who is my close-enough ideal of sophistication, will be happy to settle for one of these vulgar examples of manhood. Oh yes she would — I’ve seen it happen too many times: smart, capable, independent girl hooks up with a boy who hasn’t outgrown board shorts. He is the anti-ideal, the presumed disappointment, the kind of person your parents warn you about, the Wrong Guy.

How could she ever resist?

I crush the ice cubes of my drink in my hand. There is something oddly satisfying about the crackle of it breaking into smaller pieces of cool melting debris. Yes, that is why I deleted her off Facebook; I didn’t want to see that inevitable coupling happen, followed by a wedding invite, followed by pictures of a cute child.

One of the barbarians notices my glaring and glares back. I hold his stare. Look at that hideous organism — cheeks bloated, skin sallow from cigarettes, the vulgar rings on his fat fingers, that pitiful excuse of a goatee. I’m not afraid of you, you’ve stolen Diana from me, I don’t care.

He barks at me, and the horde takes notice. I don’t let off. I’m not going to let them win this one.

The horde gets up from their table and challenges me to a fight. My friends notice my staring. Shawn tells me to stop. “Bro, what are you doing? Are you trying to get us murdered?”

Ha. Just like us eunuchs to be scared of a fight. We’re only supposed to serve, never to challenge. While the horde strides ever closer, swinging their big dicks under their huge guts. Let them come over.

Now, none of us has been in a fight for years, and it shows. We are as untoned as they come and, with the exception of Shawn who took kickboxing at the gym with his sister, threw pitiful excuses for a punch. The only thing we know how to properly throw is a fight, but I wasn’t going to let that happen tonight.

Something about tonight just makes me feel different. It is almost three months since she and I parted, and though I think about her everyday, it’s never made me want to do anything about it. Tonight, it’s different. I’m here putting my friends in harm’s way because I realised earlier that nothing ever happens in our lives.

I was at the office at 3pm, and it was a quiet day, one of those days where you sat around and breathed for money. I got a text from Farid, who was also bored because his boss went out for a long lunch and didn’t leave him instructions. We weren’t supposed to spend time outside when nothing happens in the office, so we just sat and texted each other.

The cleaner came barging in an hour earlier, and announced that she’s sorry but she’s got to clean this office now because she needs to take her son to the clinic later. He’s been coughing and feeling feverish for the past two days. I nod to her and let her start her work. I thought how nice it must be to have something real to worry about, like a sick child. I don’t really worry about anything to be honest — maybe lunch. Sure I worried a little bit on the day I told Diana I liked her, but only because I wasn’t sure if a positive response was something I really wanted to hear.

“I like you,” I had told her. That line alone was a long time spent deliberating: ‘love’ was too strong; ‘want’ — too misogynistic; ‘need’ — too needy; ‘fancy’ made her sound like furniture. To be honest, ‘like’ to me sounded adolescent but that was what finally came out, so I waited.

She smiled. “So do I.” Woah. “I think you’re the best movie buddy I’ll ever meet.”

Something not quite right about that line there.

I clear my throat and look into her eyes. “I don’t think you understand.” I had a slight stutter now, “I… Like you.” I said the word again with an emphasis on the first syllable to make it really clear to her what I meant, if my hand-wringing and damp forehead were not clues enough.

Her lips pursed a little, before she put on again her tight smile. “That’s sweet… But you know I don’t feel the same way.”

I was aware of that.

“…and you know I’m seeing someone, so I’m sorry dear, but what did you hope to achieve from telling me this?”

I knew this was a bad idea from the start. She looked really irritated that I raised the subject, and now I felt like a certified idiot.

But she was right — just what exactly was on my mind that made me ask her this? To this day I can’t think of a strong answer. Yes, we were close. We enjoyed each other’s company and we had excellent chemistry. We would have made an entertaining comedy troupe, but there was nothing in our long friendship that suggested we would have been as great as partners.

Yet something drove me to do what I did.

Maybe it was just a feeling — a want to change this undefined ease we had with each other into something more meaningful. Maybe it was a way of me for me to upgrade myself from an optional accessory into something that she needed. Maybe it was because she was really pretty and I wanted a pretty-girl girlfriend.

The cleaner had a difficult life, I realised, but her life was real. Her life had real relationships and real experiences: marriage, childbirth, motherhood. She may spend three quarters of her day on her feet working for a fraction of the sum us eunuchs earn, yet she was still the richer person.

So here I am, being pushed against the floor, enjoying every minute of pain the barbarian inflicts of my body. I see Shawn curling up in the foetal position, and Hafiz trying to push away a man twice his size from his back. How it hurts!

How long has it been since something other that the sides of my head felt pain? Each blow feels like an explosion that runs up the sides of my limbs.

I can feel the blunt surfaces of his rings digging into my chest.

I can hear my heart pounding wildly and taste the blood in my mouth.

What a sensation.

Image is REMARKABLE BEETLES FOUND AT SIMUNJON, BORNEO by E. W. Robinson (1890 (10th) edition, from PapuaWeb) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

LutfiLutfi works hard for the money.
Say hi at @ltf_ha

This entry was written by kirdain and published on 14/12/2012 at 17:00. It’s filed under Fiction, ISSUE7, Lutfi Hakim, Writings and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

4 thoughts on “The Backups by Lutfi Hakim

  1. Aisha Adam on said:

    Haha, enjoyed this so much, i forgot to be mad at my patients who defaulted treatment today.

  2. ‘Highly educated eunuchs of society’ is definitely going to be a thing I’ll be saying a lot from now on.

    A lovely piece with deft prose, heartbreaking, ridiculously honest (says the person who knows you cursorily), and a bit reminiscent of a John Hughes movie towards the end.

    Congratulations on popping your ISSUE byline cherry, Fi.

  3. alzaquan on said:

    I’ve read this several times,and I think I appreciate the piece more each time I read it. The sentences have a sense of patience,you haven’t packed them too full with detail but they are there to assert something important. Lovely piece. Napa gambar lipas bro?

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