Fiction / September 2010 (Issue 12)

On Fridays

by Robert Raymer

Caught in a torrential downpour, I hail a passing taxi. I have to run for it and I accidentally step into a puddle and splash myself. It's a share taxi and a Sikh already occupies the front seat, so I help myself to the empty one in the back. I struggle against the hard driving rain to close my umbrella, pull it inside, and close the door without getting thoroughly drenched. I'm surprised to find another backseat passenger—a young Malay woman reading a letter.

In her yellow baju kurung and matching headscarf, the woman looks no older than twenty. She has a subtle, innocent beauty, with a golden brown skin, lips that naturally pout, and lovely long eyelashes. Her eyes, I presume, are dark brown—if only she would look at me. She doesn't, which is a shame. A smile from a stranger can go a long way on a rainy day.

Despite the weather and the heavy traffic, the Malay driver is making good time. He's a Muslim and has Quranic verse stickers on both the glove compartment and the dashboard above where the radio is supposed to be. Someone has ripped it out. Jury-rigged beneath it, though, is a cassette player and spewing out is a medley of late 50s–early 60s English pop hits sung by the same two (though not the original) artists with a steady, monotonous, electronic beat in the background. As far as I can tell, this particular cassette is standard for all Malaysian taxis—I hear it in about every third one and rarely do I get the same taxi twice. I sit back and relax and soon find myself silently humming along with the music.

On Fridays I make this same sixteen-kilometer trip to George Town, on the island of Penang, to teach English. The teaching provides me with a little pocket money and a much-needed break from my painting, while the ride to town gives me an opportunity to observe the island. I find the tropical flora breathtaking—so different from back home in America, one of the reasons I came to Malaysia. I try to capture these impressions on canvas, which brings me back full circle.

The Sikh, whose turban nearly touches the ceiling, is chatting loudly with the driver. Half of their conversation is drowned out by the music. The driver laughs about something as he reaches over and turns on a small fan that is mounted on the dashboard midway between them. The fan makes a humming noise as it oscillates back and forth. Using a filthy rag, the driver wipes the fog off the front windshield. When it gets nearly impossible for him to see, he switches on the windshield wipers. After four swipes, he switches the wipers off—no doubt to save on his battery.

The driver suddenly slides across two lanes of traffic, narrowly missing a pair of rain-soaked motorcyclists and two cars, and then slams on his brakes to pick up a heavyset Indian woman. Normally when caught in this situation, I'd step out to let the two women sit together. But due to the rain and the speed at which this woman is charging for the door, I prudently slide across the seat to make room for her. She and her purple sari keep coming, so I keep inching closer and closer to the Malay woman until I'm hemmed in with just enough space to breathe, with the newcomer's dripping umbrella and equally soaked plastic bag of mangoes pressed against my left leg.

Throughout all of this, not once do the Malay woman's eyes stray from the pages of her letter. Since I'm practically sitting on top of her, I can't help but notice that she's crying. Maybe she's been crying all along and I just wasn't aware of it. I chastise myself for being so oblivious. Yet, what could I have done?

The woman grips both pages of the letter as if she's afraid to let go. What words, I wonder, are written on those blue pages to make her cry? Is the letter from a boyfriend? A fiancé? Is he breaking off their relationship? Or is it from a relative informing her of a death in the family? Large tears swim inside her eyes. The tears slowly trickle down her cheeks onto her pretty yellow outfit.

The more I look at this crying woman, the more I have the urge to reach out and touch her hand, to let her know that I sympathize with her plight, whatever it is. Perhaps I could offer my shoulder; everyone, now and then, needs a shoulder to cry on. No harm in that. Yet I refrain because, like the driver, she's Muslim. My making any advances toward her, even in good faith, may cause problems. Even if she didn't object, the driver may get the wrong idea. Outraging the modesty of a Malay woman can be a serious crime in Malaysia. I could get kicked out of the country or even go to jail. The newspapers are filled with court cases tried on scantier evidence. In the taxi there are three potentially hostile witnesses who could easily misconstrue my intentions. People in Malaysia just don't go around touching strangers of the opposite sex, particularly a woman who is a Muslim.

Still, I feel I should do something, even if it's just a small gesture, something to reassure this Malay woman that the whole world isn't all that bad.

Rain continues to beat down on the roof of the taxi. It's a steady beat, a percussive sound to accompany the pop beat from the cassette and the hum of the oscillating fan. We pass under flyovers that make convenient concrete umbrellas for dozens of motorcyclists parked underneath them, waiting out the rain. Meanwhile, the driver anxiously wipes at the windshield with his rag. He rolls down the window nearly all the way and pokes his head out to get a better view. Rain splashes into the taxi and onto the Malay woman's letter. She doesn't seem to notice. Finally, the driver remembers the windshield wipers and switches them on. Then back off again.

The burgeoning crowd at the morning market in Jelutong has spilled onto the main road. Some hawkers on pedal-driven food stalls are backing up traffic by merging without looking, without caring, because they know if they wait, they'll never get an opening. Taking advantage of the slowdown in traffic and adding to the overall congestion, pedestrians on both sides ignore the recently built footbridge and cross the street. Umbrellas follow them like shadows.

The first to get off in George Town is the Indian woman. She nearly leaves her plastic bag of mangoes behind until I call after her. I start to slide over and the Malay woman looks at me. Her brown eyes—they are brown—hold me back. Her gaze drops down to my hand, barely an inch away from hers. Again she looks at me with those same pleading eyes.

I sit tight.

If there's ever a proper time to hold a stranger's hand, now is it. Yet I hesitate, unsure of myself. The longer I vacillate, the harder it becomes for me to do anything—my well-meaning gesture has become too premeditated. No longer is it natural, spontaneous. I look for more reassurance. A movement in her left hand perhaps, or even a smile. Oh, why doesn't she just reach out and touch me!

When the Sikh gets out on Lebuh Pantai, the driver glances over his shoulder and asks me if it's all right if he goes to the jetty first. I nod and glance at the time; already I'm running late, with barely enough time to grab lunch before I have to start teaching.

The driver, also in a hurry, starts to take the curves hard. Twice the woman and I bump into each other. Yet her gaze remains fixed on those two pages, and the tears continue to fall.

I glance down at her left hand, so close to my own, and wonder, why don't I just touch it? Why don't I take the chance? Then I remind myself again that I am a foreigner here, a guest of this country. If she were Chinese or Indian or a Eurasian, it would be different. Or if her clothes were less conservative—if she were wearing a T-shirt and jeans. But a Malay, wearing a baju kurung and a public? In a taxi? If only we were alone; if only I had more time so I could talk to her to make sure she's all right. But what if she doesn't understand my language? As the taxi nears the jetty, my heart cries out for her. I search for words to express my feelings, but they elude me. I do wish the driver would change cassettes—I can't stop humming that music!

At the jetty, the Malay woman pays the driver two ringgit and reaches for the door. I want to stop her, but I do nothing.

She steps out, and as she closes the door, she peers back at me.

I press my face to the window as the woman walks away, clutching that letter. I pray for her to look at me again. The taxi, which is boxed in, tries to maneuver around another car without hitting it.

"Stop!" I tell the driver.

The driver slams on his brakes and looks over his shoulder at me.

"Wait," I say, and hurry out of the taxi. "I'll be right back."

I chase after the woman. Despite the constraints of her baju kurung, her steps are brisk. She merges with the crowd. Unable to see her, I glance back at the taxi. The driver takes in two more passengers. If I lose that taxi, it could take me fifteen minutes to find another one. Twice my boss has warned me about being late. Finding another part-time job without a work permit wouldn't be easy; it took me months to find this one. I berate myself for not acting when I had the chance. Reluctantly, I return to the taxi.

My afternoon teaching English is shot. I can't concentrate—every face I see, male or female, regardless of age or race, I see in it the Malay woman's almond-shaped eyes, and those tears. When the telephone rings in the office or the door opens, even though I know it can't be, I think it's her.

The following Friday I stand at the roadside and peer into each passing taxi, hoping to catch another glimpse of her. I find myself leaving earlier and earlier on Fridays so I can spend more time searching for this woman. More than once I have gone to the jetty, hoping to catch her there.

Whenever it rains and I'm struggling to close my umbrella to get inside another taxi, I fully expect to see her in the backseat reading that letter. Oh, the disappointment that comes over me when I realize it's someone else, or there's no one at all.

One morning while running errands on Lebuh Pantai, I spot the Sikh who was sitting in the front seat of the taxi that day. I hurry across the street to ask him if he knows anything about the woman, only to stop a few steps behind him. Why should he know anything more about her than me? He was just another passenger. Even if he had seen where the driver had picked her up, surely he would've forgotten it by now. Still, I keep an eye out for the driver. Maybe he has picked her up more than once. Maybe he knows where she lives.

As the Fridays drift by, I desperately try to put her out of my mind. But every time it rains I think of her. Each passing taxi reminds me of her. Each time I hear that music I yearn for her, and I realize how lonely I've become.

The woman now dominates my paintings.

Initially she appeared only in the background, leaning against a tree, reading her letter. Her image has gradually become larger and more detailed. The gorgeous landscape I had set out to capture has become merely a backdrop, a way of framing this Malay woman.

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