Disguise Painting by Bob Salo

The hotel room smells of kretek smoke, sweet and almost like the incense burning in the temples that I had spent a childhood visiting, praying with empty words. She has finished her fifth one of the morning, we have done nothing else besides raiding the mini-fridge of the last few packs of chips. Now the smoke is in my eyes, but I can hear just fine-any moment now the manager will come knocking on the door, demanding that we get out.

Why do we always come back here? I ask.

She turns around. Without any makeup on I can see the fleeting glimpses of age in the lines that crease around her cheeks, but her eyes still burn with a thousand unfinished adventures.

Where else? Georgetown, Malacca, JB…in the end there’s no escape from Kuala Lumpur. Tell me honestly la, no other city in the world feels like ours. It’s just here, waiting for something to happen. The past is the past but the future is so uncertain and the entire city is just holding its breath, unsure of which way to fall towards.

Ha! It sounds like you took a puff of ganja again. Remember that time that we were down by the beach, it was Batu Ferringhi wasn’t it, where you took the keys off the counter? There was a jazz band and slow dancing under the moonlight, and the old uncle who sold little pewter trinkets by the ferns had a secret pocket where he sold the stuff?

You still have much to learn, she says wryly. You’re just like a child sometimes.

You taught me everything I need to know, I said. You got me thinking about how we first met. I have a good memory for that kind of thing. I was new from the outskirts and out of luck with nowhere to turn to, if I told you the name of my town you wouldn’t be able to find it on a map. It’s one of those kampungs that were briefly alive before vanishing back amidst the plantations, waiting to become useful again.

I remember that night too-it was not a good one for me. I’m usually more careful than that, but the Australian I was with could drink a lot. But he was sober enough to catch me with a hand in his back pocket.

You owe me, lady.

Hey, I have already paid you back. One drink with you and that where the trouble started. You were tired of your end-of-the-line job, watching over the drunken gamblers on their way up to the top of the casino, ready to throw themselves off the mountain.

Perhaps that was your plan all along. You wanted an accomplice, some fresh-faced young man with a head filled with confused dreams, so you wouldn’t constantly have to deal with those dirty old men alone in the bars of the tourist joints. You’re very good at what you do.

Then the knocking on the door begins. “Excuse me,” begins the nervous voice of the maitre’d, his posh accent slipping away. “Mrs__? Mr __? Are you inside and is everything alright?”

It doesn’t matter what names we use, they change with each city. We are new people every night.

*

                She told me her name, of course, but I never believed it was real. I tried to invent a hundred thousand fictional histories for her, she had been kidnapped as a kid and then escaped only to find out that there was no escape from the streets, or else she was a bored university student who left her studies behind to live life young and fast and wild. And that was precisely what we did, those long wild nights twinkling through the bubbles of foam in a beer glass, her stilettos perfectly in sync as we danced, sometimes with each other and sometimes with strangers, where our hands would reach into pockets or purses for keys and cash and promises, starting life anew each day when we packed our bags for the nearest train or bus or taxi.

In those suitcases we kept our tangled lives separate. Mine was packed with the usual relics of a provincial life, the cheap T-shirts from the weekly pasar malam where I begged the street hawkers for extra air mata kucing slowly being replaced by Padini suits, but hers was always enigmatic. In between the skirts and blouses she had a dog-eared copy of ‘The Harmony Silk Factory’ tucked away, which she read when she thought I was fast asleep. While she read the book I counted out her heartbeats, one, two, three, sixty-one, sixty-two, sixty-three, calmed down after the excitement of each evening.

I’m not your first companion, am I? I asked once.

Of course not, she said. There was someone else here before, I can’t give you his real name, but we’ll call him Max. Max, he was wonderful. But I knew that it couldn’t last, there was the one night that he told me that he knew they were coming for him. They were following him, and then JAKIM came and it was all over.

I kept quiet, trying to breathe some life into her story, but the unpleasant realities of her life were too much to bear and I didn’t say anything. She changed the topic instead and began to talk about the geometric principles of the Twin Towers and the curious intricacies of Peranakan Malay, spinning stories so thickly and quickly that I didn’t know where the truth ended and the lies began. I just listened as she talked about the one time that she was running, faster than she ever had as the police followed her through the streets, and even safe in her hotel room she could still hear her heart beating like a wounded animal.

*

                So where to next? I hear that the Mandarin Oriental has a good restaurant. Who will we be this time? Visiting young millionaires from Shanghai with millions to burn, or pampered Indonesian debutantes from Jakarta, ready for a night in the clubs?

I want something simple tonight. I always wanted to go up to the revolving restaurant atop KL Tower, it was one of the places that my mother always wanted to go to.

I stiffen. She hardly ever talks about her past. Tell me more, I probe further, trying to prop myself up on the sheets. But the mattress is so soft that I seem to melt right through it.

Why does it matter? She scowls. The next day I could get run over by a lorry or squashed by a falling bridge. There’s no need for questions, all we need is to live while we’re young. And God knows that I’m never getting those years back.

She avoids strapless dress, but when she does it is just possible to see the faint imprint of criss-crossing lines, almost as fine as hairs, as if drawn over her skin like a fine whip or razor. The only time I asked her about them she stiffened. That was when she stopped answering my questions. We just wandered on, from the trains to buses and taxis, from highway to coastal road, all the while staying out of sight of the weary police in their squad cars or the rempit bikers who spent each night in an ecstasy of adrenaline. We were all dreamers, living in a sleeping city afraid to awake.

“If you don’t open up I’ll call the police!” The Francophone manager, an Algerian from Calais, has started hammering on the teak doors, harvested from sad-looking trees in the deep jungles. “We know what you’re up to…”

*

                The thing about our transient life was that it felt so empty, even after all the madness and the ecstasy of every night. We were reckless but sooner or later I knew that I had to walk away. But where to next? I couldn’t bring myself to go back to a forgotten town amongst the plantations with a scandalous new life as a con artist and a few scraps of Ringgit notes that had not yet been spent on booze and cigarettes. Like her I would have to begin anew, but while I knew that I would be able to get used to the slow hum of life in an old-fashioned coffeeshop in Jinjang, she would have to keep spinning faster, as if she was in a universe of her own, drawn into orbit around a hazy future. But we both knew that one morning she would wake up and it would all be gone, her young men departed, leaving her with only the company of an ageing face and a half-life. She never truly existed, hiding behind so many names and identities that I felt she had forgotten who she really was. I could never place her into the neat boxes that I had grown up with, certainly she was not a typical Malay or Chinese or Indian girl. I just didn’t know who or what she was. Within a few years I would believe that I had dreamt the last few months up in a fevered dream, that she never existed at all, instead born from the hallucinations of the television screen.

You were in love with Max, weren’t you? I ventured to ask, inhaling the stale air-conditioning and the sickly smell of sweat and dust.

I was just a girl then, she says at last, he was the kind of boy that my mother had warned me about. We ran away one night for the coast. He taught me everything that I needed to know, all the tricks I needed to survive. All those tricks and that recklessness in his eyes…I’ve been seeing traces of him everywhere. I have a feeling that one day he’ll show up again, perhaps even tonight when we’re up on the KL Tower, looking down on this huge, sprawling city below us. And then we’ll talk to each other and go our separate ways.

I think back to the first night I was out with her, it was in Georgetown amongst the winding alleyways of the restored houses. In those streets Sun Yat-Sen had once plotted revolution against a crumbling dynasty, and Arab traders far from the gulf traded between two worlds. She had stopped under a streetlight in her red dress, gazing out at the invisible sea. I just watched her as she wistfully lit a kretek, pausing for a moment as if she could almost see someone else there. But it was a split-second reminiscence, the next we were rifling through the hostels where the Canadian and British tourists laughed at too many drinks, and we were joining their conversations and laughing at their jokes, feeling our way for pockets of weaknesses which we could convert into funds for the next long-haul trip down the peninsula.

*

                So, looks like it’s the revolving restaurant then?

I suppose so. I can wait a few more days for yam baskets and shark fin soup.

The manager’s probably gone to call the cops. This is a good time to call it a day.

Suitcases in hand, we stroll out and into the nearest fire escape. She is glamourous behind her shades and under her sun hat, and I try my best to keep up as we step out into the alleyway, pausing as a police car draws up at the front of the Hilton, weary officers exiting their vehicle in pursuit of us, always a few steps behind. Our suitcases are light as we join the rush of the crowd. How long before we go our separate ways? I try not to think as we disappear into the sea of people in this city, swimming with noise and colour and anticipation.

How nice it would be if nothing changed, she said longingly. If only this city, this moment, could stay the way it is, I would never run again.

I know, I say, I know.

William Tham. Image credit: Danny Lim

William Tham is currently the creative nonfiction editor of the Vancouver-based Ricepaper magazine, whose first novel, Kings of Petaling Street, was published by Fixi London in 2017. Several of his stories have appeared in various places including Fixi Novo’s anthologies, Anak Sastera, Calibre, New Asian Writing, and Looseleaf magazine.

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