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Love Under the Neon Lights and Other Cheesy Story Titles

July 9, 2013

She eyes him warily. Both are sitting under an umbrella haphazardly propped through a hole in the centre of the plastic table. He is contemplating a glass of lime-coloured, milky concoction with floats of ice moving lethargically on the liquid surface. He stirs at the contents every now and then. It is about seven-thirty in the evening.

“They’ve promised me…I really think they mean it this time,” he says, making eye contact for the first time in 15 minutes.

“You’d said that the last time…months back….” she frowns at him, daring him to refute her. He stares at the drink with its shrinking icebergs.

“But I’m really going to work for them. I’m signing the contract tomorrow. You’ll see,” he speaks to his drink.

“About time. You’ve been unemployed for almost year.”

Silence.

“How much are they paying you?” she persists, her voice softens with the inkling of hope, though the tired voice inside her told her to just sock it. You know what he’s like, nags that voice. But there’s still a possibility, she reasons …

“Don’t know. We haven’t discussed it yet. P’rhaps MYR XXXX?”

That hope lurches violently.

“What???…How do you plan to survive on that? That’s no pay! If you’re going take up that job…ask for something more reasonable.”

He is silent, no longer able to draw on what now feels like a pathetic cache of excuses. Instead, he takes out a cigarette box; a tiny click, a bluish flicker. He puffs away with the faraway look that always infuriates her. He is insufferable, she fumes. Suddenly, he becomes animated.

“Did I mention a piece I’m working on?”

How like him to detract from the issue. Yet, she is startled. She recalls that he had not done anything artistic, on his own volition, in the last two years.

“No…what about?”

“You will see it…when it is ready.” Every syllable painfully enunciated.

“When?”

“You’ll know soon.”

The room is oblong but spacious, with an ensuite bathroom. The door opens into a small courtyard with a tiny garden of sparse herbage. Little pots of bonsai dot the sides of the portico. The room has its own entrance so that she does not have to walk through her landlady’s hall every time she comes home. The bathroom sparkles with porcelain and stainless steel, evidence of regular scrubbing.

The room is lined with five six-foot high bookcases, holding books of multiple sizes. The cases are all covered with glass frames, except for the last one next to the bed, reserved for non-book items. It is lined with all forms of bric-a-brac. There is the Russian matryoshka, a crystal-ball encasing a miniature house, a pair of patung goloks*, Chinese earthenware and miniature figurines bought from flea markets abroad. A self-made papier-mâché cylindrical tube inlaid with carefully varnished sea-shells contains some stationery. There are tins of tea, a dainty tea-service, a tin of Milo, two huge plain mugs of blue and white, a small container filled with cutleries, a jar of chocolate chip cookies, and a bowl of uncut fruits. Two working desks are next to each other; one holds the computer and related paraphernalia, the other performs the triple-function of a writing desk, dining table and dressing table. On the second desk are ornamented baskets that hold her cleansers and potted creams, arranged neatly at one end with other beauty aids and a folded down table mirror.

The door opens and she walks in, discarding her shoes on the rack. After setting her handbag and briefcase carefully at the bottom nook of the open shelf, she gathers some fresh clothes and enters the bathroom.

Half-hour later, she is by her writing desk, stretching towards the opened notebook and pen. She scans through her notes, then turns to a fresh page and scribbles furiously.

____________________________________________

Claudine is alone at her table, nursing her champagne. She wears a gorgeously set, brilliant-cut diamond lavaliere that used to belong to her mother, and a form-fitting, bias silver lame dress with matching dangling earrings and a pair of white satin slides. She is the epitome of beauty, elegance and poise, except for the disconsolate look on her face. Her eyes are furtively darting to the other side of the room, to a particular table. More specifically, they are gazing over at a laughing couple at a table near the centre of the restaurant. It is a ritzy place, but the girl, Eva is simply dressed, like a college student, in white peasant blouse and cigarette pants. No make-up other than a dash of lipstick, no accessories besides the chunky watch she is wearing; her wavy, shoulder length, black hair is lightly styled. But Claudine’s attention is fixed on Rolf, dashing in his evening dress, oblivious to anyone else other than Eva. Claudine notes disdainfully that he doesn’t seem perturbed by Eva’s inappropriate attire, though the former has to admit, somewhat reluctantly, that that girl carries off whatever she’s wearing well.

Claudine’s eyes narrow as she sees him giving Eva a beautifully-wrapped box. She feels a dull ache and takes another sip at her drink. Despite her attempt at looking inscrutable, she has gone paler beneath her carefully painted face.

Eva unwraps the box carefully, looking startled yet pleased as she fishes inside the bag. She now holds up a large hardcover book which she proceeds to open. After a short interval, she looks up and smiles at Rolf, her lips moving slightly. He gently takes the book and turns it over to the other side. A small, beautiful leather case is lightly stuck to the centre jacket of the book’s flap, done so ingeniously that it leaves no mark or dent on either the case or the book. He detaches the case and snaps it open. Then, holding something glittery, he gets up, goes behind Eva and clasps it onto her neck, gently caressing her nape as he does so.

______________________________________________

A familiar tune floats out of her handbag. She purses her lips in irritation and drags herself off the chair to the other side of the room where her bag sits demurely, the polyphonic tones ululating from its belly.

“What?”

“Can I … Can I see you tomorrow?” His voice hesitant at the other end.

“Why? You weren’t so interested in talking just now.”

“I’m sorry. I’m tired. But I do want to talk to you tomorrow….really…”

“We’ll see. Call me again … before 5 pm,”

She turns her mobile phone off.

She turns back to her notebook. She finds the last passage too contrived. She would need to rewrite. She sucks in her breathe sharply as she thinks of the lack of progress. She has been working on the same chapter for the past six months. She slowly exhales.

As she prepares for bed, she dons a silk slip of peaches and cream before curling under the comforter. Snuggling sideways, she lightly glides her right index finger up her bare legs, feels her skin through the sheer slip, circumvents her left nipple, and finally rests it on her lips. She kisses the tip of her finger and promptly falls asleep. But not before his image briefly flits across her mind.

_______________________________________________

Prone on a moth-eaten mattress, legs out-stretch, and smoke curling through the ends of a stumpy cigarette, his eyes absent-mindedly take in the lattice square of the white-washed ceiling with peeling plaster; his head propped on an unsheathed pillow. A low table next to the mattress is strewn with half-done sketches, all with the face of a particular young woman. It would seem as if the artist had attempted many drafts, some showing the body, some only the face.

A red-and-white chequered mat is the base to the rest of the furniture that consists of a few stools for the only table in the square room, a low shelf with some books, a mug with spoon and three rattan baskets that are each one-metre in diameter. His knapsack stands at the corner. The walls are bare with the exception of some posters he had done in previous jobs, three paintings of his, and two cheap reprints of Matisse and Dali with the corners curled-up.

It is almost one in the morning. For the past four hours, he has been working on sketches which are now on the table, but none satisfy him. He feels like getting a teh-tarik but decides against it, remembering his resolution to be more cautious with the balance of his slender savings. He looks at the sketches, his forehead wrinkling in contemplation. Grabbing a piece of charcoal from a Premier tissue box, he colours in the feathery lines.

After a second cigarette break, he looks at his imitation Swatch bought from a travelling salesman. The hands are pointed at two and six, indicating that it is now the wee hours of the morning. He needs to catch up on sleep.

Just before he dozes off, an image sneaks by.

______________________________________________

She stares at the flat screen monitor, frowning. The figures are not behaving themselves, seeming more interested in playing hide-and-seek with her. She clicks at a radio button on the screen and the rows of figures change into multi-coloured diagrams. They do not look right. She clicks around listlessly until her screen shows the picture of a beautiful young woman with perfect features, perfect make up and flawless, airbrushed skin. She looks to the bottom right, at the design of the new product she has been in-charge of since last month. She looks again at the woman, with her bobbed and textured hair, striking cheekbones and Lolita-like coyness, superimposed against a background of autumnal copper.

However, her mind is already elsewhere even as her pupils continue to fixate on the image. She is thinking about the private meeting she had earlier that morning, when the company’s director had asked to speak with her after their weekly production conference. He had invited her for coffee in his shining, vast office, something which he had never done before. As she was sipping, he had informed her, in his thick Parisian accent, that they had been observing her performance keenly, which was excellent, he had explained with a smile. Only half conscious of what he was saying, she took in his pale blue eyes that were slightly puffy, his blond mane with little ringlets sleekly combed down, and his shapely, enticing lips which betrayed a man much younger than the sober suit he wore. He came to head the Malaysian branch eight months ago, taking over from an incumbent who had gone back to France. She only ever dealt with him professionally, though it did not stop her from occasionally fantasising about him. He did, after all, fit the character of the hero in the novel she is writing. An older version of the hero, that is.

As she studied his profile, she became aware that he was offering her a post in the Parisian headquarters. She will be sent there as an assistant to the general manager in charge of the Asian market, where she will be groomed to take over the latter’s place less than a year from now because the current general manager will be promoted to the position of Vice President of International Markets. Would she accept this challenge?

She started, realizing that she is idly clicking on her mouse; her screen in front no longer holds the face of the model but random slides of her report. The office is buzzing. She looks at the time on her computer. Five-thirty. Nobody is leaving yet, other than the receptionist, lower-level clerical staff, and the tea ladies, and those who were already out on appointments. But the air is electric, for many who were working like drudges since after lunchtime are now infused with new energy. He has yet to call. She stares at her nails. They need a manicure.

________________________________________________________________________

He sits on a bench-table, working hard at a design for a non-governmental organisation. The small publishing house he is newly attached to occasionally does pro-bono NGO assignments because of the publisher’s previous affiliations to the Opposition party and left-wing NGOs. This piece of work he is doing is the first assignment they are setting him. He has been hard at it since before lunch, having come in at around eleven in the morning.

The managing editor tells him that they will have a meeting later tonight to discuss the new art magazine. The meeting is set at seven that evening. He will also meet the managing director and publisher. Together, they will discuss his duties and his contract.

His stomach is kicking a fuss because he had forgotten lunch again. He goes to the pantry at the back of the room and makes himself some oatmeal before getting back to work.

Even as he tries to concentrate on the work at hand, his mind keeps drifting back to the sketches.

“Hey, come have a drink,” urges Nordin, coming by the table. Nordin, his former colleague and a good friend, has been freelancing with the company for the past six months.

“Nah, I need to finish this. Got a meeting later.”

“Ok. See you then. Am off for some cigarettes and food.”

They inform him during the meeting that they have decided to give the Artistic Director position to Nordin. The excuse given is that they want him for the position of a senior writer-cum-illustrator. They have read the art reviews he had done for the other magazines and a newspaper. They thought that it would be good for the magazine to have a critic who is also an artist. Besides, says the managing director, taking a gulp at the teh-tarik and giving a not- so-discreet burp, we need someone with a degree for the position of Artistic Director; and someone who has been in the industry longer.

But why, he exclaims. Who is going to care? The readers will only care about the magazine’s quality when deciding to invest in a copy.

The shareholders have insisted, said in a tone that broke no further argument. He wonders who they are, these shareholders, since the company is so small.

He knows that he lacks Nordin’s academic credentials. But he is confident in his abilities, which he secretly thinks surpasses Nordin’s. They are making a huge mistake.

Nordin is not at the meeting. Was Nordin already aware of all these when he came into the office that afternoon?

She looks at the clock. It is six-thirty. Her mobile is silent. He has not called. She no longer cares. Not like she wants to see him anyway. She turns down her colleagues’ invitation for a drink and goes home.

Feeling restless, she decides to go to the gym for a little workout, having not done so in two weeks. All sweaty but more relaxed, she takes a shower, pulls on some casuals and heads to a nearby café for dinner. Then it is back to her room. She wants to spend some time alone, to either redo the previous night’s effort, or write a different scene.

After half an hour of futile attempts at writing, her mind unable to focus, she decides to go to the usual curry house, where she normally meets him, just in case he might be there. He is nowhere in sight. But she sees Nordin. So she talks to Nordin instead.

She is now in a room alone with Nordin. They are sitting together on the rug, facing each other. They are murmuring to each other. Suddenly, she clasps Nordin’s hands and pulls him towards her. In response, he swings to her back and embraces her. His hands move underneath her baby tee, feeling his way towards her bra. He kisses her neck, while his hands are busily undoing the front clasp of her sports bra. He rolls the shirt up to expose her breast and flings the bra onto a nearby poof. With both hands, he massages her breast and pinches her nipples, making them taut and sensitive. He sucks hungrily at her neck. Pulling off her shirt, he pushes her down onto the rug. He proceeds to take off his shirt and begins to unbuckle his pants…

“Huh?”

Her mobile is ringing. She sits up and rubs her eyes. She is in front of her desk, but the page of the notebook is blank, saved for some illegible scribbles. Her pen lies near to the top right of her desk. The alarm clock nearby says eleven thirty.

“Yes?”

“Can you come out now?”

“I told you to call me earlier but you did not, and you expect me to….”

“I’m really sorry. I was busy… plus I had a meeting. Then I had to rush back home for a bit. But I want to see you now…if that’s possible…to show you something important. It’s not completed yet but I want your opinion.” The words flow out in a rush.

“Fine. See you at the same place in half an hour.”

She is facing him, under another, equally unstable umbrella. On their table are two teh-tariks. It is almost midnight.

He is not looking at her; his eyes intent on his drink. Neither is he smoking.

“I did not get it,” he blurts out, looking up at her.

“Get what? The job?”

“Yes.

“Why?”

“I’d rather not discuss it now…”

Hmm.

“What are your plans?”

“Take time off and think about things.”

Not like he has done anything else recently.

“Anyway, I want to show you something, which is why I asked you out,” he continues after a slight pause.

She looks at him quizzically.

He reaches into his knapsack and pulls out a hard manila file. He retrieves a stiff drawing paper and sets it in front of her. On it is a pencil sketch of a woman who looks suspiciously like her. There are pearls and gemstones dripping through the slender torso encased in a soft, flowing dress which is lightly darkened with charcoal. Her figure is only slightly visible through the blurred outlines he had pencilled in. There is a tear-drop near the left eye. On each hand, she holds a book and a basket. In the basket are many cubic monads portraying snippets of the woman’s routine as the artist imagines her to have. She is shocked to note how closely the captured fragments resemble aspects of her life. A fountain pen with a tapering tip stands out from among the objects in the basket, like a dusky stalk.

She looks at the picture. Then she looks up at him.

“Do you recognise her?” His eyes ask.

“Why are you using me as a subject?” Her eyes query in return.

He smiles.

She blushes.

She is sitting on his bed, smiling at him as he draws her. Her mind liquid, she holds her laptop on her lap, typing away feverishly, captive to a stream of images that refuse to stop. She writes chapter after chapter, until he comes up to her and removes the laptop from her lap. He holds her and kisses her fully on the lips.

She wakes up.

___________THE END__________________________

Glossary of Terms for non-English and untranslatable words.

Teh-tarik: a favourite milky tea drink in Malaysia. Usually, the tea-stall owner will perform a dramatic ‘pulling’ or ‘schlepping’ at the tea with two enamel mugs before finally pouring the frothing liquid into a glass.

Patung Golok: Javanese dolls that are made of wood and manoeuvred with strings, usually used in shadow puppets presentations.

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