ISSUE Magazine

Of Swaying Hips and Coffee Cups by Atiqah Mokhtar


Could I explain to you the appeal of going clubbing? Probably not.  If I were to sum the experience up, it begins with not knowing what to wear, carries on to spending a fair bit of cash, and culminates with coming home really late, feeling hungry and with some unflattering pictures.

When you are in a club, you may as well give up on the idea of talking. Or else be prepared to play this sort of tag game where you shout into someone’s ear, and then receive someone’s shouts in your ear in return. I usually resort to a stock response of smiling and nodding semi-enthusiastically whenever someone appears to be saying something to me.

The appeal of an alcoholic beverage is palpable, and if you drink and have cash to burn, by all means, knock yourself out. However, if you don’t have deep pockets, it’s a burden, and if you don’t do alcohol, you are left with the option of ridiculously priced soft drinks. You will end up going for that RM 15 Coke though, because having a glass in hand puts you at ease as you wait out that first hour where the music is still stuck at a mediocre level and the lack of setting where one can have an audible conversation means a lot of awkward standing around.

Music. Chances are, you’ll be at a place that plays a mix of Top 40 tunes, some old-school throwbacks, and clever remixes. And that’s great! You’re not there to achieve musical epiphanies or discover a song that peers into your soul. A decent beat and recognizable chart-toppers are more than adequate. Even then, no matter how great the DJ is or how smooth the transitions are, chances are the song selection isn’t going to be stellar all the time. So when Marc Anthony is singing to let it rain all over him (let what rain all over?), or when Sexy And I Know It comes on for the nth time, it may occur to you to ponder, “Why on earth are we still listening to this?”. But no matter, you will not be fussed, and soon enough, you’ll be doing a cringe-worthy attempt at shuffling, or trying to find your Mr. Saxobeat.

Is it the appeal of the opposite sex? Perhaps it’s the idea of seeing girls dressed up in outfits that gloriously accentuate the curve of hips and hourglass silhouettes, with smoky eyes and red lips. Or maybe it’s the thought of being desirable, of catching someone’s eye and knowing that they might want you.

The first time I went clubbing, I was armed with a couple friends, a sense of anticipation and the guilt of doing something wrong. I had spent the majority of my teenage years at a boarding school that had drilled into my head that clubbing was the epitome of rotted youth, where such an activity was only partaken by westernised, wild adolescents who had gone astray.

Sure, I still have that internal grapple before I go – that it contravenes the upbringing I had or the idea of toeing a religious/spiritual line, however I may draw it, and the feeling that to do this is to be sub-par, that by wearing that skirt and moving my hips to the beat, I am cheapening myself in some way. On the other hand, I could exasperatedly point out that to dance to club music in a public location does not equate moral decay, and that I have no plans whatsoever of being an uber-whore, thank you very much.

But really, in spite of the inevitable shortcomings and the moral dilemma, I go because if I’m lucky there will be that delicious collision of events:

The one where you are in the middle of the dance floor, and you are surrounded by your friends, none of whom bear you ill will, at least not at that moment. And there will be that one song playing, the song that makes you feel like bursting or dancing or jumping or exploding with the sheer energy of a good tune that belies the normalcy of everyday routine. Those first few seconds it takes to recognize the opening notes of the song are a burst of giddy excitement, and as you start singing along, it may occur to you that you are behaving extraordinarily goofy, with your jazz hands splayed out, or perhaps clasped to your heart to emphasise a particular lyric, but trust me when I say you will not give a flying fuck, and you will carry on singing at the top of your lungs. And when the beat comes in, you will dance in a way that can only be described as zealously, as if you were dancing alone in your room with the door locked. In that moment, while there’s still more than half the song to go and the music pounds in your ears, you will not think of anything else, and it will not matter if anyone’s watching or if anyone isn’t.  For those glorious minutes, it’s just you and the music and the company of friends, and it is an utter, utter high.


When people ask me if I miss Melbourne, I think I am mostly honest when I say “Not yet”, but I do think of the cafés. And while a large part of that is linked to how I distinguish Melbourne in my head – cafés galore, the coffee-pomposity of its inhabitants, memories of grasping a take-away cappuccino on the way to lectures on winter afternoons – by and large, I often find myself thinking of them in relation to a friend I once had.

Our meet-ups were synonymous with having coffee. It was usually instigated off-the-cuff, a last-minute text to meet somewhere 15 minutes later. If we were lucky we planned ahead and went out to the suburbs, to discover delightful lemon squares or soy lattes raved about, but more often than not, we met at this place near my apartment, tucked between buildings. We would pick a table, order our coffees, and stretch out for some conversation. “So?” one of us would say. “How have you been?”

I often think that some of the best conversations I ever had were during these outings. For one thing, I could never quite shut up when I was with him. Forget any sense of reserve – thought filters would be turned off, speech left unguarded, verbal watchdogs put to sleep. We would sit together – he would smoke a cigarette or two, periodically tapping them over an ashtray, I would prop my elbows up on the table – and we would talk. Properly talk, not the kind where I try and figure out the next question to be a conversation filler, or the one where words are smothered by empty courtesy and a sense of obligation. It never seemed hurried, and it never seemed uncomfortable. I always found myself blurting out some piece of me, and he would listen.

Oh! How he would listen.

Could I tell you how it went wrong? Probably not. Even though I have thought about it over and over, and that it still creeps up in my mind when I am idle or doing the mundane – I could be stuck in a jam or driving home from work at night, or alone in the elevator, waiting to reach my floor, when suddenly I am reminded of the disintegration of this friendship, and I am stricken by the idea that I have let that happen, though I’m not sure why, or how.

Maybe it’s his fault, because, as I like to mutinously mutter to myself — he held me at arm’s length. We both had guarded dispositions, but somewhere along the way I gave in to this idea that I could show him what was me, in that I could beckon him into the darker parts of my head. And as patient as he was with me, and as carefully as he climbed over my walls, I could not do the same for him in turn, and there was always a part of him beyond my reach.  How I resented him for that! For allowing me to be vulnerable where he wasn’t. For needing him in a way he didn’t need me.

Maybe it’s my fault, because one day I was studying our shoes underneath the table, and it occurred to me that it looked nice, having his accompany mine, and then I realised it felt nice, and as I looked back up at him over the table, it dawned upon me that I could see him in a different way, that if I concentrated long enough, my view of him could flicker and morph into something different. But I suppose it never occurred to him that our shoes looked good together, nor did it ever occur to him to see me differently – at least, not enough to do anything about it.

I can careen between blaming him and blaming myself, and I have spent a long time trying to decide if and how I fucked it up. But at the end of the day, I remember this: we had reached a point where we stopped talking properly, and I didn’t like the person I became when I was around him, and coffee meet-ups weren’t enough to fix what was wrong.

These days, increasingly so, I forget. But when I am sitting somewhere in a coffee shop alone, nursing my caffeinated beverage of choice, I often involuntarily think of him. Sometimes I get angry at this, and I want to pull an Eternal Sunshine, erasing this Joel from my brain, but mostly I am sad, and I would be tempted to call him. But I don’t, because I know that he would get pissed off that I was being a neurotic female; I would get frustrated by his innate aloofness.  Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I have no clue what he would think. I had stopped knowing how to interpret him a long time back.

But he was my friend in those years I was there, and for a defined segment of my life, those coffee meet-ups felt like home. When I think about them now, I remember the sound of the espresso machines, and crates that served as chairs, and canisters of brown sugar and water glasses made somewhere not in China, and chats that were, I swear, heartfelt, and the recognition that this was someone who was really listening to me, and someone I wanted to listen to in turn. And in the millions of variations of pleasure in this world, with him I found out there was a specific kind that occurred when he would glance over our empty cups before looking at me and inquiring, “Shall we have another round?”

In all of that, I remember something that was good.


Image is ‘murder scene’ by robotson on Flickr.

Atiqah - ThumbnailYou really don’t want to see Atiqah  getting groovy on the dance floor. It’s awe-ful-inspiring.

This entry was written by atiqahmokhtar and published on 14/02/2013 at 09:54. It’s filed under Atiqah Mokhtar, Essays, ISSUE9, Writings and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

4 thoughts on “Of Swaying Hips and Coffee Cups by Atiqah Mokhtar

  1. alzaquan on said:

    Oh god Atiqah, this was just so heartfelt, sensitive and all kinds of lovely. I wish the second part (‘Disintegration’) was fiction, because its such a sad and relatable story, and its unfortunate that friendships can end that way. With the clubbing story, I totes agree on the awkwardness and the secret desire to see if anyone’s paying attention, and of course the goofiness – there’s no way to feel sexy, so best just dance and laugh. This could be my favorite piece from you yet, I loved loved loved this Atiqah.

    “I remember this: we had reached a point where we stopped talking properly, and I didn’t like the person I became when I was around him, and coffee meet-ups weren’t enough to fix what was wrong.”

    “When I think about them now, I remember the sound of the espresso machines, and crates that served as chairs, and canisters of brown sugar and water glasses made somewhere not in China, and chats that were, I swear, heartfelt, and the recognition that this was someone who was really listening to me, and someone I wanted to listen to in turn.”

    This was fucking beautiful, das all.

    • atiqahmokhtar on said:

      When I read this comment I spent a good couple minutes grinning stupidly from the sheer niceness of your words. Thank you Al, so much 🙂 When I was talking to Li-Ann the other day, I commented on how I am somewhat afraid(more like, frakkin terrified) to broach fiction, and she suggested starting off with what I know, but writing endings different to what actually happened, maybe penciling in a conclusion I’d rather have wanted (which reminds me of Atonement!). It made wonder what sort of parallel universe I would write in this case.

  2. Farah hanani on said:

    Ugh i am reminded how god damn good of a writer you are when im reading this.

    I never went clubbing of course,but i’ve been to a lot of dance parties i think more similar to prom scenes. It was exactly the same elements ; the dance halls, ligtings, DJ’s , remixed boom boom music and we all put on our sexy? dresses and makeup and had our legs waxed . The only element missing was alcohol and boys and we had prayer breaks. It was weird, and novel and new but apparently common during Eid, weddings or whenever the girls want a dance party to fundraise something. But i an relate with one thing: UTTER HIGH LIKE I DONT CARE. Although i dont think i danced, per se, more like writhing my arms and legs, and ocassionaly hips

    I will further tread into sensitive territory here and i will start with this: The education religious education was done in a way that dont inspire people to understand but merely to impose. And this is problematic , and in effect you have people traumatized and have internal conflicts. As per case above: you can partake-why the hell not- but under acceptable settings and isolating the obvious prohibited components. Granted, it takes a bit of work than readily available options but it can be done with a little creativity. And at that time, i felt super vindicated because thats a wham in your face proof to the zealots out there that they got it all wrong.

    Anyway ateqs, whenever you’re tjinking of coffee alone, send me a text sometime maybe who knows i may crash your impending solitary activity.

  3. Farah hanani on said:

    Pardon ze grammerz #iphoneproblems

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