“A Subtle Degree of Restraint”, by Karina Bahrin
KARINA BAHRIN explores urban Malaysian life and society through the prism of weight loss, love and friendship
ON ENTERING THE RESTAURANT, she saw it. A large fuchsia orb that occupied the room with its gaudy hue, holding a generous spray of elegant brown willow twigs. The vase was probably imported from Vietnam, with a cracked lacquered surface intended to lend it an antique effect.
All through lunch, her eyes strayed to its bulbous presence. Everything else in the restaurant faded in subservience. The delicate, lithe backs of the dining chairs, the demureness of the cream carpet, the jade-coloured chopstick rests that perched four, sometimes six, to a table.
Until that day, nothing had stood out. Now, the vase colonised the room.
“So how come you still don’t have babies?” Badariah asked.
Elena had not expected this, especially not from the childhood friend who wasn’t even married. After high school, Badariah had gone to college and pursued a successful career in the United States. Now she was back after a ten-year absence. The last time they saw each other, they were eighteen. Elena remembered the moment well. They shared a thirty-scoop sundae in Swensen’s, their schoolgirl laughter fanning their indulgence.
“Maybe it just isn’t time yet,” Elena said. “Tak ada rezeki.” No luck. Except it didn’t just mean luck in Malay. It was a combination of things—destiny, fate, a blessing from God. But fate alone was never enough. One had to put in some effort. Just like she did to secure a husband. Azman would never have given her a second glance if she looked like her old self—plump and soft around the middle, ruled by her appetite and her tongue.
“Are you going to eat that?” Badariah reached across the table.
Elena didn’t have to reply. The unagi was already in pieces, its neat, uneaten half pried apart by Badariah’s deftly held chopsticks.
By now, two years into her marriage, Elena no longer noticed her own ravenous hunger. The bitter taste of bile that constantly hung in the back of her mouth was often masked with sugar-free mints. The sour festering of the walls of her empty stomach had travelled up her spine, permanently pinching her face into a pained expression. Those looking thought she was a harried woman when in fact she was just plain married, a lady of leisure who had little to do with her days except fill them to her fancy.
Fancy, she now knew, was a dangerous thing. It led to thoughts of cream horns and yard-long beer towers, fat dripping from ribs barbecued with honey, birthday cakes and babies. Babies. The plump, doughy ones with big pools for eyes looked good enough to eat. Slow-roasted on a rotisserie, until all their cuteness caramelised into gooey skins encasing juicy, tender meat. She imagined they tasted like lamb, only sweeter.
But the thought of subjecting herself once more to the assault of slimming centres was enough to keep her fancies at bay, even if the whims sometimes kicked their heels against the echoing chambers of her stomach. Before the wedding, between graduating from college and meeting Azman, her life was a disappearing act. An erasing of her superfluous kilos that were steamed, massaged and freeze-dried off her bones. The Iron Chefs of human bodies presided over her, poaching her belly in rare herbs, sloughing the puckered skin of her thighs until the cellulite retreated in terror, binding the peasantry of her waggling upper arms in searing linen ribbons so they emerged dainty and taut when she raised her hand to wave.
Even after the last wedding reception (there had been six in all), her uncorsetted waist did not expand to its former liberal self, restrained by her throat that constricted against all manner of deliciousness. She forgot the taste of real food, her tongue easily pacified with the insipid mulch of power juices in the morning, Jewish crackers and canned tuna for lunch, a snack of an apple or handful of nuts in between. The only time she ate with her husband was at dinner, when she would have a few frugal spoonfuls of brown rice and minute helpings of yogurt-based curries, lean chicken breasts or vegetables flash-fried in water instead of oil.
If Azman noticed anything, he never mentioned the absence of food on her plate. Talk turned, instead, to bigger things. How his secretary was going on maternity leave, the Chinese contractor’s Rolex (real, not fake), the Government, the protesters who unloaded cows and chickens and goats in front of the State Secretariat and how the Indonesians were planning to invade Malaysia with machetes and bamboo spears.
Later, as they both stretched limbs around pillows and claimed their own piece of the shared duvet, he kissed her goodnight, sometimes a hand brushing her breast, murmuring, “Sleep well, mother of my children-to-be.” Then, even though he slumbered with his face turned to her, he draped his arm around a soft, yielding pillow, fingers digging gently into its pliant depths, pulling it closer to his chest.
“So, do you even want babies?” Badariah wiped her generous lips. Her trunk-like hand reached out for a mochi, hesitating between the green and the white.
“Some tea would be good with that,” Elena said and summoned a waiter with her practised wave.
“Sure, thanks. Food’s good. Nice restaurant,” Badariah said, munching her mochi. She had decided on the green one.
“I know,” Elena, head turned, a slight tilt backwards, watched the waiter return with a fresh pot. “It used to be nicer.”
Badariah frowned. “How so?”
“The décor. I don’t know why they put that thing in the middle of the room.”
“What? The vase? I think it’s lovely! Don’t you like it? It’s so—”
“Vulgar,” Elena interrupted. “It’s too … round.”
The word fell out of her mouth like a giant marble, clacking onto the table, clinking against Badariah’s teacup.
“Maybe that’s why I like it.” Badariah laughed, eyebrows raised, patting the soft bulge of her belly. “I’m a skinny girl in a bodacious body. Just like that vase. Inside, I’m thin. See those willows?”
“You know,” Badariah continued in a whisper, “they say that sometimes you can’t be too skinny if you want to have babies.”
Elena mentally calculated how much Badariah weighed. Pushing eighty kilos probably, judging from the spillage of thighs over the edges of the delicate dining chair. Almost twice the size of Elena, whose own limbs stayed neatly within the boundaries of her seat. No extra flesh oozing over the lip of the chair’s bottom. No deep lines on the back of her thighs where the wood cut into her skin. She wanted to grab the chair from beneath Badariah, force her to stand up.
Instead, she said, “Skinny women have babies all the time. Look at all those supermodels.”
Badariah cackled. “Darling, they pay people to make them skinny again. Nobody stays thin when they’re pregnant. It’d be like starving your baby!”
Elena wanted to pick up the vase and hurl it against a wall. She would buy the restaurant a replacement. A tall, slim crystal receptacle that shimmered light from its bevelled edges, matching the willowy reach of its contents. She wished she could heave her friend out the window. The glass would shatter with a spectacular crash.
“You can never eat too much if you’re pregnant,” Badariah muttered, reaching for the last mochi. Lips together, she stretched her lower jaw, her face momentarily bulging in places where her tongue rolled around her mouth.
Elena watched her friend chew, imagining the soft elasticity of the white ball in her own mouth, its pliant dough sticking to the teeth. The crunch of finely ground peanuts bursting salty amidst the sweetness. She wanted that last mochi. But Badariah had devoured it without asking.
“Azman likes those, too.” Elena swallowed, her saliva sour from the cups of green tea.
“I always think dessert should be eaten first, you know?” Badariah said, staring at the now empty plate. “That way you get to eat what you like best, as much as you want.”
That was why dessert always came at the end of a meal, Elena thought. A means for convention to force a subtle degree of restraint.
Badariah erupted into a coughing fit, banging her chest. “Oh, God,” she wheezed. “Mochi, stuck. I-I need the toilet.” She stumbled towards the washroom, waving an arm behind her back, signalling for her friend not to follow.
When Badariah reappeared, her eyes were bloodshot. A thin stream of mucus ran down her nose. She sipped a warm cup of tea, cradling it between both hands.
“One mochi too many?” asked Elena.
Badariah stared into her teacup. Then, lifting her gaze, said, “I’m pregnant. He’s Malay. Fancy that?”
All these years, Elena assumed Badariah didn’t have a love life. The protective instinct of men who felt threatened by a woman larger than them. Malaysian men were modestly built, unlike the monstrous American football players.
But somehow, Badariah had managed. Elena felt a hunger build, gnawing the pit of her stomach. “But when—who married you?”
Badariah leaned back in her chair. She drew in a long breath, nostrils narrowing. “You silly bitch,” she said with a wry smile. “Not everyone has to starve themselves to get a man. Mine actually likes me this way.” She rose, tossing a clutch of ringgit on the table. “That should take care of the whole lot. After all, you hardly touched your food.”
Alone, Elena beckoned the waiter. She ordered another plate of mochi. A trio of rotund, bite-sized spheres. Green, white and pink. All hers.
By the time she finished them it was four p.m. The waiters were on their break. Only the brazen vase stood watch.
Elena left the cash on the table and walked towards the restaurant’s entrance. The florid, pinkish vessel loomed steadfast in her path.
She reached out and pushed it with the palm of her hand. It rocked left, right, and then settled on its flat base. The willows were askew, bunched now on one side.
She tried again, giving the vase a shove. This time, it tipped, scattering its contents across the table. It rolled around, bumping over the willow stalks, its empty mouth a hollow black “O”.
She gave it one final push. It spun off the table and careened across the carpeted floor.
Elena opened the restaurant door. She watched the orb roll out into the sunlight, down the gravel path that cut through the Zen garden, past the swaying bamboos, finally settling beneath a bush.
In the gloom of the undergrowth, the vase looked less menacing.
Elena wiped her palms down the front of her blouse. Hitching her handbag strap higher on her slim shoulder, she walked towards her car.
KARINA BAHRIN is a seasoned writer of fact and a novice writer of fiction. She divides her time between her day job as a communications consultant and pursuing her dream of running a bed and breakfast in Langkawi. In between, she indulges the characters that live in her head. “A Subtle Degree of Restraint” is her second piece of published fiction.
Reproduced from A Subtle Degree of Restraint and Other Stories, a collection of stories published by MPH Group Publishing