His hair is a little shorter, but no one notices it aside from me. His shadow barely lights up any sense of acknowledgement from others. Red tie, the same one for weeks, for months, and finally it’s getting shrivelled up at the bottom edge. Second last stool at the bar is his favourite spot, even though the stools are barely occupied on most weeks aside from Friday night. He gets the best view of me. I get the best view of him. Even when my eyes are laid upon a bunch of single and married old aged men succumbed to the thought of escaping their void of loneliness and mess at home, I still see him. At the corner of my eyes, my hairs stand at the feeling of his sharp stare. He knows I know. We are aware of the coincidental relationship we bridged throughout the year, without even talking to each other.
Some nights I purposely wave off some requests for companion from desperate souls seeking for internal nourishment that they think can be retrieved for a couple of hundred ringgits. Some of them even think they own me. They will throw a childish tantrum and spew words that are supposed to put me down to my actual level. I will take the money, which carves a smile on their faces, then I wipe it away by placing it on the table and leave. I don’t know which side hurts more. Them, by me walking away or him letting me down by not making a move. No one knows who he is, and I don’t know what he wants. My jaw dropping red dress, my side slit long luster straight hair, some skin revealing, to even dragging my dignity down by announcing my intention to find a companion that night. Nothing works. He will always be seated there, which frustrates me.
Lili, my housemate, talks to him once in a while. She manages the drinks table. She says that she can feel him bullshitting every time she asks him something. Haris. If that’s even his real name. He owns a business a few blocks from here. Ran all the away from the north side to settle in the bustling city of Kuala Lumpur. Whenever Lili mention something about me, he looks down and just smiles. He will force his way through another topic. I try to push Lili further but she is not doing me anymore favour.
My curiosity grows bigger, because we have one thing in common. Since papa got involved with a road accident, which life spared him only two months before taking away the only person that I had left, I decided to run far away from the north too. I carried no traces of my past, and I even changed my name. Qualified with nothing but a voice that papa said I got from my late mother, I ended up in a road side bar that got me by with scrapes of ringgits enough to survive. That was when I met Mrs. Fong. She was standing in front of the bar with puffs of smoke in her mouth when she sees a drenched cold young girl, singing her heart out.
“Mam, just hire her lah. She’s thin and cold,” Lili, who back then had fringe on her forehead and the same freckles on her face rested her body against the white washed walls of the stairs. The wind greeted us violently by letting the freezing air slap across our bodies. Mrs.Fong bit her lip, confused by this young girl that didn’t understand the word no. I wanted to sing, but I didn’t where else I could go. I was denied twice. Both times left me either on the streets or some odd jobs that was occasionally I was lucky enough to find. She made me a hot herbal soup, and I slurped it down in one go with tears running down my face. It had been a while since i tasted anything hot and with flavour in it.
“Rose,” she said as she poured me more of the hot soup. I looked up at her, confused. “From now on, you’re Rose.”
The first few months terrified me. The gaze of men with intentional stares ate through every inch of my exposed skin, as I let out my voice through the dim, empty space above me. I heard the echoes of my voice, which sometimes I tried to convince myself the sound of mother hiding behind it. It was a comfort to me, a shield protecting me from my fears every night. Mrs. Fong took good care of us and brought us some home cooked meals once in a while. She treated us like her own children. She was a good woman. Sometimes, you just fall for the wrong man. And sometimes, cancer grows inside the wrong people. A few days after my twenty first birthday, I woke up with Lili crying on the stairs. Others stayed in their rooms and refused to talk to one another. I slouched on the floor and cried like the night I lost papa. We couldn’t leave work to see her. We didn’t even say goodbye. Eric, her only son, came to work the next few days and treated us like savages. For the first time in my life, I was treated badly enough, to not consider myself a human.
“Just give me anything you got Lili, I need to finally wet my throat,” I squeeze through a crowd of people. Haris seems startled. Lili gives me a gentle nod and slides me a glass. I sip on my drink slower than I ever did, and sit quietly enough to avoid making a conversation with others. My drink is finishing, and frustration is starting to build in me. I turn my face to him, and he quickly looks away. “Letting off some steam?” I ask, forcing myself to make eye contact. He chuckles.
“What’s so funny?”
“I just came to look for something,” he says.
“A companion, you mean?” I slightly slam my empty glass on the table.
“Not exactly. Just someone I know,” he replies.
“Well if it takes you so long to find her …-or him, chances are your luck is not so good.”
“Oh no. I found her,” he asks Lili to fill him another glass.
I stare at him, unsure what his eyes are trying to convey. “And share with me darling, who might that be?”
“I’m not sure if she is ready to know,” finishing his drink in one gulp, he nods and makes his way out of the door.
“Mystery guy. Your type?” Lili cleans his glass, raising her eyebrows at me. I slightly smile, partly confused and partly angry that he just left. “That was a peculiar conversation. When someone talks to me, I don’t usually go back alone,” I say, holding my head up with my hand and taking another gulp of the mocktail.
A few months after Eric took over, he started to harass the girls. Lili was his prime victim. Every night after he left I would sneak into her room, convincing her that no one else was going to hurt her. I would hug her tight and let curses and her screams fill the entire room. Sometimes her screams would last for hours and I found myself awake with my silent tears wetting her pillow. I was hurt for her. I wanted him to stop, but I couldn’t. Eric was ruthless. If you get in his way, you would either end up on the streets or have bruises on your body. Or both. He was an animal. I never stopped coming to her room every night, especially after the night when I saw her holding a knife to her stomach. Her eyes were red and her body was skinny from not eating. She tried to keep me away by hovering the knife in the air but I pushed her to the ground, and threw the knife away. She was begging me to let her end it. She wanted to end it. I cried and begged her not to leave me alone. “You’re the only sister that I have, Lili,” I said again and again, drowning in tears until both of us fell asleep.
I was about to run downstairs to get some food, when I saw Eric thumping and kicking Lili’s door. He shouted in Chinese and punched the door so hard his fist was red. I stood still in fear. He looked at me and I knew what was going to happen. I ran towards the stairs but his pace was faster than mine. I shouted as he grabbed my arms and threw me onto the ground. I turned the table over until the glass top broke into pieces. I took a sharp piece and held it firm in front of me. Eric laughed.
“Be careful with that baby, you’re gonna hurt yourself.”
I spat at him. His face changed and he jumped at me, pinning my hand on the ground. The glass piece cut my palm. He pressed my legs down with his knees, and I laid there motionless. I’ll do this for Lili. Tears pooled down on the floor as I heard him laughing with pride. I looked at the hallway where Mrs. Fong first told me I would get a bed to sleep on. She wrapped a blanket around me and told me to get some rest before starting shift. I imagined her figure standing in the hallway, excitedly asking us to come out and have some hot bowls of soup.
“What is this?!” Uncle Danny, her husband, yelled. He pushed Eric away from me, and hit him with a magazine. He repeatedly hit him until Eric begged him to stop. He kicked Eric on the back until he began to cry. “I told you to take care of the business and this is what you do?!”
Uncle Danny took deep breaths of air and thumped himself onto the couch. He threw the magazine at his son with disgrace. I pushed myself up with my hands. “Are you hurt?”. I shook my head. He looked at me. “Go inside.”
I haven’t seen Haris for a week. Every night before the music starts to cue I scan around the room, to be delighted to see a figure sitting on his usual seat, but it’s not him. My thoughts wander away as I start to sing. I feel worried. Maybe because I was always certain of his presence and I always hoped something out of it. He makes me attached to his presence, in a way. Lili hasn’t served him in a while either. He left me hanging, and I still am. I sing without passion as I feel demotivated. Day after day, the room just feels gloomy and empty. I have nothing to look forward to.
The bar is closing, and I slouch on the bar stool waiting for Lili to finish clearing up. “Hana?”. A voice from behind startles me. “Hana?” a man slightly taller than me asks the question again. I slowly nod. No one has called me that in ages. He hands a piece of white envelope. “What is this?” I take it hesitantly. “I don’t know, I was just told to give you this,” he says before walking away. I look at Lili. Her forehead wrinkles as she looks at the envelope. “Open it.”
I tear the opening, and a letter falls out. Handwritten, with pretty italic writing. I trace the word one by one, and my hands start to shiver. “Rose?” Lili looks at me. I feel light headed and bursts into tears. She comes over and snatches the letter out of my head. She gasps and hug me tight, the way that i did the night before she tried to kill herself. “Oh my god, Rose.”
Months passed after Eric was replaced by another person. Uncle Danny made sure it was a woman. However, the night that he saved me, he was too late. Eric impregnated me. Eric didn’t want to be responsible. I didn’t even want him to. Uncle Danny was in a bad shape trying to figure out what to do. I had to choose whether to give the baby away, or leave. I didn’t know where I could go. I wasn’t capable of raising a child. I felt him kicking inside my tummy at nights, which would leave me in tears. I started to fall in love with having him. I wanted to keep him, but I couldn’t be selfish. Sometimes I would make myself feel better by naming him. Lili suggested Mikey, but I didn’t like it. I came up with Didi and Thahir. It was not until I was out at the usual nasi lemak stall tapau-ing some food for Lili and me until I heard a woman calling for her son. “Haris!” she shouted as he played with his younger brother. Haris. That name tattooed in me until the day he was born. It broke me to know that I was his mother, but I couldn’t even name my child.
A married couple with a booming business background requested to adopt the child. A day of happiness for them was a heart breaking, devastating day for me. The moment Haris slid out of my hand and into theirs, I knew that was the end of it. That child belonged to me, but no longer mine. I watched as he wrapped his tiny hands around their fingers. The wife held my arm, and mouthed thank you. I smiled, even though i wished I could turn back time. It was too late even if wanted to take him back. We made a deal, and I wanted him to have a great life. Not the son of a bar singer scraping her way through life.
“ ….- I was angry to know that you gave me away. That I was adopted. I spent years trying to find you. I just wanted to look at you. My flesh and blood. The night I saw you, I was speechless. I realized, we had the same birthmark on our arms. I couldn’t believe that I saw my own mother. The nurse that helped you to give birth to me was still working at the same hospital, so I met her. Mama still remembered her name. She was surprised to see me. I was desperate to know about you, and she told me everything. She said she never saw someone that loved her baby so much. You cried non-stop after mama and papa left. She told me, you sacrificed your love for me so I could have a better future. The nurse also suggested the name Haris to mama and papa, knowing that you wanted to name me that so much. I know you might feel what you do now is not good enough for me, but the night you talked to me, I felt it. I saw agony and honesty in your eyes. It’s time to leave that place, mother. Find me here,” Lili reads the letter and pull out a card at the bottom of the envelope. An address was written boldly on it.
“We’re free,” I laugh, my hands are terrible at camouflaging my cries. Lily nods as tears stream down her cheeks. “We’re doing this together. Come with me,” I say as we run out of the place where my youth was spent dry, the place where the word hope began to fade in our dictionary. We run and run non-stop, feel the cold wind gluing itself onto our bare skin and never look back.