Alone, together.

original_caption-_an_amusing_drawing_of_soldiers_joking_with_the_barmaid-_it_was_drawn_by_captain_ardizzone_after_he_had_returned_to_this_country_with_the_bef_on_the_conclusion_of_the_withdrawal-_art

“Do they force you to talk to random people all the time, or am I special?” I asked the tiny Chinese Malaysian person sitting across the table. She’d just been forced by the bar manager to sit and chat with me, despite my stiff objections.

“She’s good bro, don’t you worry. You’ll have good time,” insisted the manager before hurriedly shuffling away to tend to a group of wealthy looking patrons in the next table. They were shouting out his name, clearly annoyed by the lack of hospitality and attention.

I diverted my attention back to the fragile looking creature sitting across the round marble table. She was a tiny little thing, dressed in a black crop top and a 90s style ripped jeans.

“It’s part of my job, lah,” she replied cheerfully, using the intensifier Malaysians love so much.

“Talk to people, make friends. I work from 7pm to 2am. Better than doing nothing, you know?” She added, bubbling with energy.

“How old are you?” I asked. I had been in Malaysia for almost half a year now, and I was no better at guessing the ages of oriental people then, than I was on the day I arrived.

She hesitated for a split second, then responded, “Nineteen.”

She reminded me of myself when I would lie about my age to make older girls like me.

“So you go to school or do you do this full-time?” I asked as I finished my drink and waved at the bartender for another one.

“Wow… You drink so fast, lah!” She seemed impressed. “I go to Taylor’s, doing my undergrad in Finance,” she added briskly.

She did not look like the kind of person who had the temperament for studying Finance. I decided to change the topic so she wouldn’t have to lie so much.

“So what do you do for fun?” I asked casually, trying to light my cigarette. We were sitting out on the foyer, open-air and on the building’s first floor. I cupped my hands around the lighter-flame to protect it from the wet cold breeze flowing in from the nearby lake.

“I drink, smoke weed. Go out to movies, hang out with friends. The usual stuff,” she replied. Her bubbliness was starting to get annoying.

The bar manager seemed to have freed himself from our neighbouring table and had come back to check on us. “Everything alright?” He asked cheerfully. Everyone was too damn cheerful in this place. Sometimes it made me long for the pallid gloom of Dhaka bars.

“All good,” I replied with a fake smile. I too, could play cheerleader when the occasion called for it. I was getting quite good at it.

“You like her? You can take her home, for the right price.” he said in Bengali. I’m sure the girl next to me couldn’t speak nor understand Bengali, but there was no mistaking the sleaze in his voice. I saw her cringe. I was pretty sure she could tell a bargain was being struck, and she didn’t look like she had any say over the matter.

I gave him another fake smile and nodded to let him know I understood. He left us to tend to other customers, leaving a dense, uncomfortable silence in his wake.

“What did he say?” Asked the girl. Suddenly her bubbly enthusiasm was gone.

“Nothing important, just teasing me about not having a girlfriend,” I lied. It was her turn to pretend she couldn’t tell.

A few more minutes of awkward silence passed as I quietly sipped my drink, cursing the manager for cutting into my down-time after work and forcing me to converse with this overtly cheerful woman-child.

“You want to play darts?” She asked, her legs restless under the chair. I could tell she wanted nothing better than to run away from this table, this bar and do anything else but sit with a stranger and make banal small talk in the presence of her sleazy boss.

“No, not really. I’ll be done soon,” I said, pointing at my drink which was nearly empty.

Her face darkened for the first time. “If you leave too early, he’ll be mad,” she whispered as she stealthily pointed at the manager.

I sighed heavily and cursed myself for coming to this bar. I nursed my drink and made another attempt at normal conversation, “What’s the worst thing you have done while hungover?” I asked her.

“I don’t know, I don’t really do much when I am hungover, ah,” she replied, slowly regaining her chirpy composure.

“Come on,” I egged her on. “Everyone’s done something stupid while they were hungover.”

“I… I cry a lot, lah…I just cry,” her cheerful voice cracked mid-sentence as she said the last three words. I seemed to have touched a nerve and stumbled upon the real human person hiding behind the pollyannaish persona.

I looked away and allowed her the privacy of silent tears. The cool lakeside breeze lapped at my face. I waved at the manager and gestured for my cheque.

“Wasn’t she good? We brought her here just for you guys. So the deshi brothers can have some fun while they drink, no?” He spoke again, his voice thick with suggestive undertone.

I wanted to slap the guy for cutting into my quality time with myself, for creating an awkward atmosphere with his perverted remarks and for simply being an all-around-cringe-inducing prick. But I did nothing. This was a foreign land, and I was an alien.

“She was great. A fun person to hang out with.” I replied in English. I saw her face beaming as she looked up at me.

I waved the girl and the bar manager good bye, and hurried downstairs. Uber drivers in this part of the world were not particularly patient. I got inside a miniature Toyota sedan and was greeted by a gruff sound.

“I follow the Waze?” Asked the driver. Waze was Malaysia’s answer to Google maps. He wanted to know if he should follow the navigation instructions from Waze or if I should give him directions manually. I had no idea where anything was, so I merely nodded in agreement.

The streetlights illuminated a portion of his face. It was hard to tell if he was a Malay Malaysian, a Chinese Malaysian, or an Indian Malaysian. He looked like he could be all of them or none. His arms were heavily muscled and tattooed with tribal etchings. I recognized a few shiny cuts on his neck and forearms to be old knife wounds.

Under ordinary circumstances, I would be alarmed in his presence. But private taxi services in Malaysia like Uber and Grab tracked every movement of their drivers via GPS. If this guy decided to rob/rape/murder me, it would be ridiculously easy to track him down.

I leaned into my seat, adjusting the back’s position so I could take a nap.

I woke up twenty minutes later, close to where I lived. The Uber driver slowed down and parked his car near the roundabout in front of my apartment building. I took out my wallet to pay him, but then remembered the fare had already been deducted from my bank account.

As I reached for my backpack in his backseat, the driver asked; “You have girlfriend?”

“No.” I replied curtly. Not wanting to have this conversation at 1am with a complete stranger.

“Here, keep my card. Call if you need girlfriend. Here, keep five cards,” he shoved a few visiting cards in my hands.

Each of the cards had a different picture on it, all of them faces of young girls. Under the picture there was simply a Whatsapp number, and job title which ambiguously said, “Negotiator.”

“Best service in Subang!” The driver yelled and winked at me as he drove away.

I sighed, pocketed the cards, swung my bag over the shoulders and made my way to my empty, sterile apartment.

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