“You think I should get a perm?”
“A perm? Not sure la. Those youngsters like their hair like k-pop star, right? Long and straight.” Wing Lin daubs blue along her eyelids, a shimmer of amber. Despite her suggestions, her own hair, thick even in the last years of her sixties, is set with paisley-patterned curlers.
“Aiyo. If you perm your hair, it look thicker la. You want to look old in front of him ah?” Abigail makes a face, sipping from her tea cup, the black ceramic veined in gold. “Hai. I told him. I told him la. I wouldn’t like this tisane, tisane thing.”
I glance over, grateful for the diversion. I should have known better than to expect transparency from my eldest, should have clarified the parameters of this blind date, cross-checked her candidate’s credentials. Instead, I let her talk me into compliance. Typical. “What are you talking about?”
“This la.” Abigail set her cup down hard, voice quavering. The break room is small and styled to the tastes of six women, every one of us grandmothers or grandmothers adjunct. “Toffee apple tea. Limited edition. Straight from England, he said. Damn good. But hai—I don’t know how to drink la. So sweet, for what? He should have just bought me what I want.”
“I’m sure he just wanted to surprise—”
“Surprise for what? I’m his mother. He should just listen to me. I ask for Da Hong Pao, he should get me Da Hong Bao. Plus, we just save South China Sea. AGAIN. Two of them kaiju this time, some more. Don’t I deserve some respect? Hai. Kids these days la. No respect.”
Siti’s voice crackles over neural feed, impatient. “Ingat apa ini? Kita soldiers of fortune ah? This is what you call civic duty. Don’t think ini piloting business makes you into a celebrity. Faham or not?”
“Faham.” Abigail rolls her eyes, anyway.
I check my reflection. Of the six—five, I mean; it’s so easy to forget, her ghost is still here—of us, I’ve always been the slowest to reconstitute, to abscind from our twinned consciousness. I flex my fingers, slow, tell myself again that it is rib and ligament beneath my skin, not piston and alloyed framing.
Caution is a compulsion these days. Carelessness kills, after all. Has killed. Hundreds. Thousands. I remember a plaza, drenched with bodies. We cupped their corpses in a palm. From where we stood in the chassis, six-strong, they looked like they might have been sleeping, heads bent, spines curled, twisted, shattered—
“Wei, Ah Eng. So, what are you going to do ah?”
I shake myself free. Wing Lin’s presence is a hummingbird’s heartbeat, a gilding of blue-greens, always impatient to go; we each manifest differently, Siti is our bones, Abigail our throat, and Bai Ling was the sky, the synaptic lightning between thoughts. I miss her. We all miss her. At the thought of her, the other four turn. Even the ones still nestled in HQ, Siti and Rebecca, both of them raising like heads like hounds with the smell of red blood in their lungs. No one speaks for a second and that tick of the clock hands feel like a single brass note coaxed from the throat of a saxophone.
“I’m fine.” I lie and they allow me. Sisters do that for each other, sometimes. I look over the break room, repeat the exercises that the therapist had taught me.
“That’s not what I asked.”
“I know. But I’m fine.”
We were always intended to go deep, our thoughts tessellating, instincts woven into a single intention, but it is possible to work yourself too far into the fibres. I try not to think about the way that Bai Ling went out. I was with her when she died, her soul simplified into a howl, a scream like she’d been turned inside out, and she wouldn’t stop no matter what we did, wouldn’t stop until Siti leaned over, blood drooling from the concave mess of her cheekbone, and shot Bai Ling in the head.
I shudder. I pull up my RSS feed and read the dates in succession, roll them across my tongue like they were rosary beads in my grip, hardwood surfaces rubbed smooth by grief.
“I’m fine.” I run my fingers across my mug, the ceramic textured just so. I count the seconds between inhalation and release, measure the expansion of my ribs, the cold ache of the air as I force the breath too far. The exercises go on for a minute, two, three, four. My therapist had been clear. Don’t stop until the world clicks back into position. Sky above, earth below. Flesh threaded along calcium. Nerves and sinew, thews and thighs, the gravity of viscera and old scars, six decades’ worth.
“I’m fine.” I squeeze the last knuckle on my right hand until the bones, shattered in my twenties, eat into the meat beneath my skin. “I said I’m fine. I’m fine. I mean it.”
I can feel them. Tinctures seeping into my vision, every color of dopamine-compelled affection. Four, when there should have been five. I press down. Harder. I push the others away, scaffold my consciousness with algorithms intended to divert, dilute any emotional depth to communication, audiovisual or neural. Like valium popped straight into the brain stem, our operator had joked. I’m glad for it now.
“You can’t keep using that.”
“Look, don’t. Don’t even start. We’ve talked about this.” I look up. Blood flowers in the underside of the skin on my right hand. I constrict my fingers into a fist. “I’m not addicted. I don’t use it anywhere—”
“I know la.” Abigail sets her cup down. “But still not good for you.”
Siti’s voice over the comlink: “It wasn’t your fault.”
No, I think into that black space that’s still mine. It was yours.
“Ah Eng, if you’re not sure about this—”
“Don’t la.” Wing Lin puts a hand on the knob of my wrist. I tense at the contact but I don’t push her away. We are in a café, the establishment styled to flatter the ex-colonial crowd. Above, ceiling fans cut the blue evening light into knives. The air is hot and it reeks of sugar. Despite the hour, everyone’s ordered a non-traditional cream tea, our table included. In front of me sits a pageantry of silver platters, all stacked with miniature everything, the truffles wilting in the humid equatorial air. “You know she’s scared already la. Why you want to make it worse?”
“Aiyo.” Abigail slices her scone in half, spreads goat butter thickly across both cross-sections. The jam—lingonberry because what is the point if you can’t maximize the exoticism quotient?—comes next, pulpy and dark. Clotted cream. Chocolate syrup because generations of Occidentals have made a punchline of our food, and because Southeast Asian palates worship debauchery. “Just being a good friend la. Why you don’t understand that? You pujuk her like that, what’s the point? Right now, what Ah Eng need is some tough love. You understand or not?”
I move my arm and slant a look towards the door, Siti and Rebecca murmuring in the com-link, the latter discreetly pulling up cortisol readings and last year’s health report, as though to caution against further stress. Somewhere, a string quartet nervously strums through a toccata they’re ill-equipped to play. “Maybe this was a bad idea.”
Abigail rolls her eyes. Her scone is an abomination. “Now you say is a bad idea—”
“What is wrong with you la—”
I let their bickering fade to white noise, let my eyes travel. I’m amazed anew by the restoration work they’ve done. You think it’d be harder. Putting this back together, jigsawing normalcy from the debris of the city. Six months ago, Kuala Lumpur was a calamity of concrete, its roads slick with corpses, fluorescent with kaiju blood. It had burned like a star.
But you wouldn’t know that now, wouldn’t be able to see the scars if you didn’t know where to look. Kuala Lumpur, like all metropolises, is a consummate liar.
I crack. “Okay la. You were right. What was I thinking? I bet he’s one of those paparazzi types—”
“Or, maybe a pilot bunny,” Rebecca drawls, her voice a crackle of static. In spite of everything, I laugh. He wouldn’t be the first. Power, even when decocted into bodies too worn to be coveted, is an aphrodisiac.
“Maybe, la.” I study the photo that my daughter had sent. My ‘date’—what a word to use at my age—is lean, languidly handsome, with a tanned complexion and a smile like a checklist of broken hearts. Not excessively young, thank the nine hells. But still young enough to yield a scandal. Nonetheless, there’s something in that lidded stare, a challenge, and I guess I can wait until he walks through the door before I exit his life. “I don’t know.”
“Why your daughter choose someone so young for you la?” Abigail sighs gustily, pouring three cups of Earl Grey. For all of her lamentations, she somehow remains the most enthused about Western teas and avant-garde floral blends too rich for the rest of us. A memento of her first husband’s, maybe, dead now for two decades. “How you want to go out with him le?”
“Aiya, you really think people going to care meh?” Wing Lin counters, all indignant idealism. “How many times we save Asia ah?”
“Save Asia, so what? Still old lady what. You think people care meh? Hai. No respect for old people la. If they see young man and old woman, they’ll still think the same thing—”
“It’s just a dinner.”
“Tea.” Wing Lin corrects unhelpfully, grimacing as she sips from her cup. “What is this Earl Grey thing? So weak flavor wan. I tell you. Next time, just order Ti Kun Yam—”
“Haiyo. This isn’t Chinese restaurant. Why you think got that kind of tea la?”
“Because we’re in Asia mah.” Wing Lin sets her drink down, eyes rolled with adolescent vigour. The sunset deepens, gold thinning to fault lines on the horizon; a murmuration of birds—crows, most likely, the ecosystem has lately gutted of beauty, after all—rising to fragment the sky. “Of course, they should have some decent—”
I ignore them, haunted again by the thought of what comes next for us. If there is a next to anticipate, what with the atrophication that follows middle age, the dissolution of thought and body, the alphabet of cancers, the heart conditions, the funerals, every new week a fresh and expected tragedy. Maybe the man had a fetish, or an overly generous preconception of what pilots make. Maybe.
On impulse, I dial my erstwhile daughter, her avatar manifesting atop my visual overlay. Today, it is a yin-yang symbol comprised inexplicably of a cat and mouse, their expressions peculiarly fond as they gaze at each other from over the cliff of a shoulder. The others recede to allow me privacy.
Almost immediately, my girl—Alexandra once, and now Alex forever—picks up. Her avatar warps into a portraiture of idle mischief: round face bracketed by tousled black hair, hacked into an unkempt bob, the tips soaked in lime, a smirk already armed. She cocks her head.
//Ma! Why are you calling me instead of talking to your date?//
//He’s not here yet—//
//Still, you should be preparing for his arrival. You know, just hyping yourself up for the possibility of sweet summer romance.// Her voice is all sleek, unrepentant delight. A waiter circles to our table, refreshes the supply of hot water. Both Abigail and Wing Lin study his retreat with brazen interest, mesmerized by his loping gait and the flex of his hips.
//Summer romance.// I click my teeth. //About that. You didn’t tell me that he was so young.//
Her laughter throbs like an old heartache. //You didn’t ask.//
//Ma, you would have said no. I know you. You’d have just noped straight out of there—// Alex’s voice abandons its playfulness. I can see her wringing her hands. The camera gyres and judders with the motion. Behind her, midnight and neon street signs, an ocean of sharp-dressed people, and the moon like a slit throat.
I tap a fingertip against the tabletop. Bai Ling would have known what to do, would have known what to say, but she isn’t here anymore, and I breathe against the pain laddering down my ribs. //That’s not fair to say. Besides, no matter how you look at it, he’s still too young for me.//
//Exactly. See what I mean? There. Right there. That’s what I didn’t want.//
She flutters a hand. //You. You’re always complaining about something or the other. He’s too tall. He’s too short. He’s not rich enough. He had a wife. He didn’t have a wife. None of these men are ever right.//
//Well.// I pause. A table vacates, a table is colonized. Save for us, the clientele is predominantly comprised of soft-featured expatriates, half in bargain-bin batik, half with too-small shirts anointed with stylized caricatures of the KL Tower. The door opens again. I glance over, grazing a disinterested look over a family of bedraggled tourists. //They’re not.//
//You’re too picky.//
//You so are.// Alex leans into the camera, so close that I can see the circuitry whirring inside her pupils. It amazes me as how anachronistic her collection of technology is, a mad jigsaw of prosthetics and paraphernalia, all without continuity. Children will break your heart with how quickly they become strangers. //Just … give this a shot, will you?//
//Why are you so obsessed with this?//
//Because I don’t remember the last time you were happy.//
I freeze. Abigail and Wing Lin both turn, alerted by chemical fluctuations, the latter’s fingertip frozen along the handle of her teacup. I flap a hand at them, dismissive, and transition to subvocalization, wishing the whole time that bodies permitted encryption.
//You haven’t let yourself be happy in years, Ma.// Of my two girls, Alex has always been the one less likely to cry, less likely to admit vulnerability. But now, her eyes—gods, the sight of them is a fish hook curled in my throat. //I love you. But you got to move on.//
//That whole thing with Bai Ling? Pa? Lucinda? Tanjung Ara? This wasn’t your fault. Ma, you can’t just drown yourself in there. You’re not a machine and you shouldn’t pretend you are.//
//What are you—Stop. We’re done here.//
//You think I don’t know? You think they haven’t been sending back reports? I know what you’ve—// Alex jerks her head up, stares into the distance. Her expression empties of its grief and that trademark smile of hers, every last bit of it her father’s, carves across her face anew. //Oh. Looks like he’s here. Tell me everything, okay?//
“Wait!” I shout.
The restaurant stills at my exclamation. My date—there has to be a better word for this—freezes at the door, his head cocked like a dog’s. He rakes his gaze over me as a waiter hurries to my side, palms pressed around mumbled platitudes. Wing Lin intercepts him, whispers something. I can’t tell what. My attention is riveted. My date, my man, my companion, my evening entertainment—I test out phrases to the thundering of my heart—slinks towards us, thumbs in his pocket.
I freeze. In the periphery of my awareness, I take note of how Wing Lin’s fingers stray to her holster, the revolver belted to her thigh, how Abigail clenches her teeth, data packets poured into the internet. In the liminality between idea and invocation, I trace Rebecca’s concern, Siti’s curiosity, and find—yes, there she is—Bai Ling’s apparition seated on the edge of an armrest, the light falling on her just so.
My sisters. I’d die for them.
But maybe, I could learn to live for something else too.
“Hallo,” tsks Abigail. “Some respect please, can ah? Call her Officer Thu at least, la.”
Wing Ling wags her head, expression disapproving. “Ya loh. You youngsters this days. No respect for—”
“Hello.” I whisper, and his answering smile breaks like the dawn.