Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Ugly Girl

I've been attending a short course for creative writing. This piece was prompted by the video below:

Usual disclaimer: Fictitious depiction of fictitious people, not related to anyone living or dead etc etc. And no, I've never been to New York City.



Charlie was nibbling my toes, working his way up my right leg, paying attention to a most delicious spot on the back of my knees before repeating with my left leg. Then suddenly, he started lavishing attention on my chin. Come on, Charlie, that’s not an erogenous zone for me, you know that.

I woke up to Percy’s rough tongue cleaning the drool off my chin; I could barely breathe thanks to his 15 pounds bulk on my chest. Gently, I pushed him off of me and wiped my chin with the sheet. The watery light of early summer penetrated the gauzy curtains of my loft windows, illuminating the mess I made when I tossed out the remainder of Charlie’s things. I missed Charlie when I was horny; although he’s such a pontificating prick, he’s really one of the best lovers I’ve had. Generous to a fault; that’s Charlie. Must be his left wing tendencies.

I stretched until my shoulder joints popped before heading to the kitchen to get Percy his kibble. My kitchen was like Mother Hubbard’s cupboard, thanks to the long hours I had been putting in since last month to complete the new ad project for Givenchy. The art director was a pain in the ass, but he’s a mad genius at crafting images that make people open their wallets and demand that you take their money. He not only worked crazy hours, he worked at ALL hours. Thank God that bastard was no longer my problem. The client seemed happy with the results, so I can expect a fat bonus in my paycheque this month. I made a mental note to swing by Kate Spade to see if the purple patent leather stilettos that I eyed last month were still available in size 6.

Percy twined his sinuous body around my ankles, purring at the sound of the can opener. I bent to pour his food into his dish, ruffling his Angora-soft fur around the ruff of his neck, not covered by the jewelled collar I got from Bloomingdale’s. I sipped my first java of the day while idly scrolling through my diary app. Oh shit. I’m supposed to have Ellora, Jimmy, Devon and Trey over for dinner tonight. The only thing edible in my apartment (apart from Percy’s prime organic kibble) was a slice of Gruyere and a suspect-looking bagel in the fridge. I slid the bagel with the Gruyere on it into the toaster and sat at the counter to plan the dinner menu.

After completing my shopping list, I hit the shower and dressed to go to Piscary’s, my favourite whole-foods grocer on West 67th. I had a look at my reflection in the hallway mirror before leaving, with a last pat to smooth my artless braid that made me look like a Teutonic model gone farm chic, I locked my door.

Piscary’s was still deserted at this relatively early hour. I snagged a shopping cart and begun grabbing the things I needed to make dinner. I know I don’t look it, but I am actually an excellent chef. The three months I spent in Paris after high school were not all about making goo goo eyes at cute French boys. I was considering the truffle oil from Tuscany when I heard a familiar voice.

For an instant I flashbacked to this morning’s dream, before I was rudely woken by Percy. Before I could enact a strategic retreat, his familiar lanky figure appeared around the end of the aisle, pushing a half full cart. There was a woman beside him, but I only had eyes for Charlie. His hair was the familiar, shiny mop that I secretly envied, the torso toned by rock climbing carelessly sheathed in an old college ball team tee. His cargo shorts exposed muscular calves lightly dusted with dark hair, his size twelve feet shod in the flip flops he bought when we were in Rio last summer. Jerking myself out of my paralysis, I pulled my cart to execute a neat three point turn in the other direction when I heard, “Ashlee?”
Busted. I pretended to just notice him and faked a start. “Charlie? Hi!” My lips curved in a wide, semi-sincere smile. He was close enough that I could smell his after shave, the Davidoff I bought for him last Christmas. He still smelled as good as ever, the rat bastard. 

His dark eyes crinkled at the corner as he grinned at me. It looked like he wasn’t as broken hearted as I had hoped when I kicked him out of my life. He even had a fresh tan, for God’s sake, clearly he had gone somewhere outdoorsy for a good time, not moping in his apartment crying his eyes out over me. He grabbed his companion’s hand to pull her closer to me, a long arm curved around her body for a cuddle.

“You look just as good as ever, doll. Hey, I want you to meet someone. Jay, this is Ashlee, my ex. Ashlee, this is Jay,” he beamed. Really, does this man not know the etiquette of introducing his more gorgeous ex to his current girlfriend? Where was the expected awkwardness? The longing glances to gorgeous ex (i.e. me), with undercurrents of “Take me back, Ashlee!” to enhance the moment?
“Hi, Ashlee. I’m Jay. Nice to meet you,” said Charlie’s companion, her voice a mellow alto with a slight smoker’s rasp. I took a good look at her, studying my replacement.

In a word, she was round. Big, round, brown eyes behind John Lennon-style glasses in a round face that topped a round body. Her boobs stretched a t-shirt that said, “No Child Left Behind” with a background of some white plane and little children running away. Probably some hipster political statement, but whatever. Her HUGE hips were accentuated by the pleated, ankle length gauzy skirt, the peach clashing with the grey of her t-shirt. The chartreuse paint on her toes was chipped; my God doesn’t this woman know to get a pedicure? Judging by her haphazard curly hair and dressing, she’d probably be appalled to pay for a decent mani pedi; it looked like a lousy home done paint job.

“Hi,” I replied without enthusiasm. This must be his rebound girlfriend, that’s why Charlie wasn’t so discriminating. A floozy with no style was the best that he could do? Hah.

“Jay and I were picking up a few things to take to Mom’s.”

To take to his Mom? That witch hated me with the intensity of a thousand suns and the feeling was mutual. I’ve only ever gone to her house ONCE for Thanksgiving and it was hell.

“Yeah, it’s Kennedy’s birthday and I promised that I’d make her lunch and cake,” the way that woman smiled up to Charlie was positively sickening. I could feel my hands curling around the shopping cart handle to stop me from clawing her eyes out. I couldn’t believe that Charlie’s bratty niece had taken a shine to her. I bought that kid the latest Bratz doll for Christmas and she sniffed at me with a barely audible thank you; but she liked this woman enough to ask her to cook her birthday treat?

“How nice,” I commented with syrupy sweet insincerity. God, I need to get away from these two. If I didn’t need the stuff in my cart for the dinner tonight, I would’ve dumped it and walked away right now. This must be Hell.

“I saw that you were looking at Perrini’s truffle oil? You should give Alligheri’s a try; they’re a little cheaper but the truffle scent is more intense,” Jay offered. Like I would take her advice for anything. I would ignore her cries for me to stop, drop and roll even if I were on fire.

“It’s okay, I’ve used Perrini’s before and it won me blue ribbon three years in a row at the gourmand festival in the Village,” I snarked back.

“Really? That’s fabulous. Charlie told me what a great cook you are. Me, I just stick to the staples,” she laughed self-deprecatingly.

“I think we better make a move, Jay. The party is supposed to start at two,” Charlie darted an uneasy glance at me. I guess he finally felt the undercurrents.

“Yeah, you’re right, hon. Have to let the beer batter breathe before we fry the chicken anyway. It’s been great meeting you, Ashlee,” she smiled and extended her hand.

I would rather pick up an angry cobra than her hand but my Mama had instilled lady-like qualities in her only daughter so I reached across to give it a half-hearted pump. Her palms were warm and slightly calloused; God, didn’t the woman ever moisturise?

“Likewise. See you around, Charlie, Jay …” I managed a smile. With a wave, they left the aisle, having added a bottle of extra virgin olive oil to their cart they headed to the checkout counter. I don’t think Charlie’s ever had his arms around my waist quite so protectively the way he did with that woman’s thick waist, back fat undulating gently above her skirt’s waistband.

I sniffed back the tears that unexpectedly welled. Charlie Westen wasn’t the richest or the best looking boyfriend I’ve had, but he was one of the sweetest and gentlest. Sometimes his gentleness made me grit my teeth, the way he’d let people over take him on the road, or letting an old man cut in front of him in the line. He was a genuinely kind person and was possibly one of the best men I’ve ever known (and I’ve known quite a lot, biblically and otherwise). But I don’t think I’m meant to end up with a boy scout, especially one who’s very vocal about his loss of faith in Obama.

But the rogue tears did not fall, and I refuse to mourn for Charlie any more. I have broken up with him, and I will move ON. Jimmy promised that he’d try to bring his squash partner that I’ve eyed a few times along to dinner tonight and even if he didn’t make my heart flutter, but at least he should have the stamina to make things interesting between the sheets.

I pushed my cart towards the frozen goods aisle. Time to pick up the ingredients for my to die-for crème brulee. I have guests to impress and no time to ponder over what ifs. I firmly pushed any and all thoughts of Charlie and his new girlfriend to the back of my mind and determinedly continued my food shopping.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Ramadhan Karim!

Tomorrow is the first day of the fasting month for Muslims in Malaysia. In other parts of the world, some would have started today already or even the day after. This is all because of the elusive moon; with the air pollutants these days, it is quite likely that with the naked eye, one could mistake a low orbiting satellite for the much anticipated sliver of the moon.

Ramadhan marks the month where Muslims are expected to abstain from food and drink and sex from dawn to sunset. Luckily for us in the equator, the duration of the day is pretty the same year round and takes roughly 13.5 hours.  It pays to be in the Antarctica for this Ramadhan season rather than Alaska, let me tell you. For those in the northern hemisphere, Ramadhan falls during the peak of summer this year; eighteen hours of daylight is no walk in the park to go without water and sustenance, not to mention the scorching heat. It is a good thing that the Islamic calendar is a lunar one; at least you can experience fasting during spring, summer, fall and winter. Imagine if Ramadhan is stuck in summer only ... oh wait. It would be kind of like the Aussies and Kiwis knowing nothing but summery Christmas, yeah?

Nonetheless, we are expected to suck it up and demonstrate the strength of our faith. I started fasting when I was seven in Primary One, though with some cheating ("What are you doing in the bathroom?" "Just peeing," and I swallowed the deliciously cold tap water in a hurry.). Unlike the parents of most my peers, mine did not believe in monetary reward for adhering to the edicts of our faith, so there were no dollar a day for complete fast. 

Oh well. Bribery is bad, right?

There was a cartoon by Lat that I remembered fondly about fasting. Sadly, I couldn't source it, but it portrayed Epit, one of his Kampung Boy characters, who was not fasting because he was still a small child. As such, he was not allowed to join the breaking of the fast meal and had to wait below the house (traditional Malay houses were built on stilts) for charity from his siblings, commonly in the form of a banana smuggled through the window.

Before I attended boarding school in my secondary years, I never thought that boys would cheat during the fasting month. I have always thought of how lucky the males are to not menstruate and having to replace the missed days of fasting. During the tarawih prayer one evening, the prayer leader, who was an Islamic Studies teacher and warden at the male dormitory, made a comment about scenting instant noodle cooking in the boys' corridor. Unlike Epit, these big boys could partake the breaking of fast meal in the cafeteria, pretending virtuousness of a complete day of fasting.

The fasting month also marks the time when the evening traffic will be snarled to road rage-inciting insanity, thanks to food markets, called pasar Ramadhan, catering specifically for the breaking of fast meal.

Stolen from
These markets usually starts operating at about 3 pm and are usually located around high traffic concentration areas. They would offer all kind of delicacies, ranging from appetisers to main course to desserts, and a plethora of cold drinks that only makes its appearance during the Ramadhan. As much as these markets cause the traffic to seize, its presence is highly looked forward to by foodies to source for their evening meal. I am rather meh about them; there had been many instances that I would walk home from the pasar Ramadhan empty-handed, not having seen anything that I would actually pay money to consume. I think this is the bane of cooking at home. You would look at something and think:

"I could make that thing myself, and for that price, I could make enough for ten people to eat."

...or ...

"So obvious that they cheated with the coconut ... looks like leftover after the coconut milk has been extracted ..."

... or ...

"Is that supposed to be appetising? That chicken looked like it's been recycled from yesterday's dinner service."

... and so on.

It is ironic that the month for people to rein in their base desires and train their bodies for self control is also the month where people abuse their body with food and drink. Some people seem to think that just because they skipped lunch and second breakfast and tea, they can mentekedarah (eat everything in sight) when dusk arrive. Malaccans use the word mencekik to describe this, which literally means to strangle or eat until you can't breathe anymore.

So you have people over eating, or worse, wasting food. The pasar Ramadhan offers one avenue for waste; when hungry people go food shopping, they tend to over estimate how much they can eat and end up buying too much. The other one are the buffet offers, that range from a modest RM 26.90++ per pax to ridiculous RM 139.90++ and even more at high end hotels. If you had to fork out that much to eat at the buffet, won't you over stuff yourself just to justify the amount that you've paid?

However, I do miss the McDonald's Ramadhan buffet. Once upon a time, the stand along McDonalds (not the ones in shopping malls) would offer Ramadhan buffets; the more people you bring along, the cheaper it was. I think this would have been the few times that McDonalds may not make the kind of return they usually expect; people who come to eat at this buffet tend to be serious about putting away their food.

The McDonalds buffet is the only one that I have ever gone to that you don't really see people wasting food. It was probably because the time for you to get the food is limited (from 7 pm to 8.30 pm only) and you have to queue at the counter to order before you can get your food. So you are not going past an array of food from which you fill your plate (which would cause the primitive part of your brain to maniacally pile food on your plate) and you are limited by the number of stuff you can put on your plastic brown tray.

I've been to it twice, once with my Assunta girlfriends and another time with my uni mates. The trick to making the most of this buffet is drinking nothing but hot tea, sans sugar and creamer. Cold drinks will make you drink too much and you won't have much space to stuff your gullet. We were evil enough to bring large bags to smuggle extras home to the gang in the house. One of the guys from uni actually put two quarter pounder patties together into one gigantic burger, smushed it to a more manageable thickness and ate the whole thing. On top of the Big Mac, fries and assorted other stuff that went down his throat.

Good times.

The thing is, Ramadhan is about reminding you about the good things that you do have. The blessing of water when you are thirsty, the food when you are hungry. Around the world, millions of people go to bed hungry on a daily basis. Many die from malnutrition and even starvation. It is ironic that as the waistline of the world kept growing, there are still sections of the population who still do not have enough to eat. We are supposed to reflect on what it is like to be without, and to be more charitable to those who are in need.

I hope to do better this Ramadhan, to subdue my base instincts and cultivate better habits (I'm not holding my breath, though). This is a jihad, a struggle, to become better, and Allah in His Infinite Kindness, rewards us for doing something that we should be doing for ourselves. Done properly, fasting can help you regulate your metabolism and lose some inches (although how long the inches remain lost vary with your effort). One tends to sleep earlier to wake up for sahur (the morning meal), which can correct any previous sleep deprivation. One tends to be more mindful of one's speech, avoiding inane chatter and cursing, which would be good for developing a more pleasant personality.

All in all, I am looking forward to enjoying myself this Ramadhan! I hope it will be a great one for you too!