“Hei! Wake up!”
There was a voice from afar that seemed to call me. But I was much too tired to respond. For god’s sake, couldn’t it tell that I was busy sleeping?
“Wake up or I’ll charge you extra for making me wait!”
“Wait, I’m up now!” The voice, as it turned out, belonged to the taxi driver that had attempted to extort me for money. As if I’d let you do that, I silently spoke to myself in triumph as I handed him the exact amount of cash, sans tip. No need to waste my money on inefficient methods of gratitude.
I brushed aside the driver’s menacing glare – not my fault that he didn’t get any extras – as I stepped out of the cab and faced the Chinese restaurant in front of me. Samudra was one of the oldest seafood restaurants in the city, and probably the only one that Mom would dare to visit.
The restaurant hadn’t changed a bit. Narrow but long like a castle corridor and as gaudy as ever with bright red carpets and pale peach walls. Circular tables covered with white sheets were lined in neat, yet spacious rows, surrounded by cushion-backed metal chairs. Chinese-style decorations adorned the place, from framed calligraphic art to porcelain plates precariously hung.
Knowing Mom, she would always demand the table furthest away from the main entrance – and I had been right all along. There she was, sitting calmly in her chair as she spoke to my brother.
“You’re late! We couldn’t start ordering because of you!” she exclaimed in her usual tone – it was always set to ‘pissed off’ for some reason – when she saw me coming in. I tried not to look too guilty as I occupied the seat as far away from her as physically possible.
“It’s great to see you too, Mom,” I muttered quietly after settling down, offering a half-hearted apology. My brother sat to her right with his arms folded and a slight frown adorning his face.
In between listening to Mom’s lecture about tardiness, I shot Miki an apologetic smile. No one else knew how much pain my brother felt when he had to listen to Mom talk endlessly about how I was the ‘naughty child’ and he, as the ‘good older brother’, should set an example for me.
“So, how is everything, Mom?” I asked after she stopped talking for a brief moment.
“The usual,” she answered after a beat, “besides the clients who think that I don’t have a life besides the one in my office, the ‘associates’ that just sit around doing nothing while they squander resources on coffee beans, and the new intern that keeps on messing up the schedules, there’s nothing new.”
As if on cue, a black-suited waiter came after the end of Mom’s short rant with a fresh pot of jasmine tea and three menus to look at. Mom took the first one on the small stack and gave back the other two to the man, who was obviously confused at her actions. Miki and I, however, only looked at each other and nodded silently at the waiter.
After Mom’s divorce with Mr. Salim, we used to come here every weekend without fail. Theoretically, I would have enjoyed this lunch because I was convinced that the cooking gods resided in Samudra’s little kitchen. However, what I wanted to order didn’t mean that it would be the dish that Mom wanted to order. In fact, since our first visit with Mom, there had never been a day when she didn’t order then things both Miki and I hated the most: spicy, torturous red-hued dishes that burnt my tongue and throat. Mom once mentioned in passing that Mr. Salim also hated that particular taste, and we were just unlucky to have his food preferences as well.
Neither of us had ever dared to order anything else in her presence. We tried for the first few visits and discovered that no, she will not hesitate to hit you in front of the servers and yes, no one cared about Mom hitting two poor defenceless children because she didn’t care either. And so, with a heavy heart, I let Mom do the ordering while I took a sip or two of my bitter drink.
While Mom fussily recited a list of her favourite dishes to our server, my mind began to drift elsewhere. It was at this moment that Miki decided to talk to me.
“James,” he whispered uncertainly, “should we try to do something about this?”
My ears picked up bits and pieces of Mom’s hellish orders as I whispered back, “Sichuan this, Sichuan that…who orders pork in a seafood restaurant anyway…and no, I don’t want to get beaten up.”
“Be reasonable; we’re practically adults already,” he hissed so seriously that I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. “We could, maybe…you know, suggest something else?”
I loved my brother to bits, but he can be ridiculously timid at times. I remember back in his last years of high school when Mom used to ground him for a stupid reason like ‘forgetting to wash the dishes’ or ‘taking out the Monday trash on Tuesday’. He never protested; nor did he raise a query about Mom’s decisions, so she never retaliated. She would, however, smack me in the face, because I used to be that middle school motor-mouthed idiot who clung to his brother like glue and tried to vouch for his innocence. It continued for almost a year until she finally realised that grounding someone for months will indefinitely ruin one’s social life. She released him from his misfortune, and that was the end of her reign of terror. At least for a while.
But that wasn’t important anymore. Because in the present time, when the orders were placed on our table, I found myself face-to-face with things out of my worst nightmares.
Seeing my shell-shocked expression. Mom quickly found yet another reason to berate me “James, what are you waiting for? The food will get cold if you don’t eat it now! Are you trying to starve yourself?”
Why do I put up with her incessant nagging, I wondered, as I opened my mouth for an automatic reply. Upon hearing Mom’s words, the 'motor-mouth me’ from years ago was dangerously close to escaping.
She pointed at Miki, who smartly avoided her glance, and continued, “See your brother there? He doesn’t waste time, so he doesn’t waste food! He doesn’t waste food, so he doesn’t waste money!”
The talk about money made me remember that she was the one paying my school fees, so I snapped my mouth closed and tried not to groan as my chopsticks reluctantly attacked the food and dumped them in front of me. While I silently lamented my fate, Mom ignored me in favour of eating, but at least Miki had the decency to offer me a sympathetic look as he, too, struggled to swallow his food without crying.
It took me all my willpower to pick up the smallest piece of pork and chew off a piece of it. I braced myself for a world of flames and…nothing. First bite, second or third: it made absolutely no difference. At first, I wondered if it was one of those delayed backlashes when dealing with extremely fiery foods – eat first, then wait a few seconds for the spiciness to kick in. Or, perhaps, I’ve finally gotten used to spicy foods, which was a blessing unto itself. But that didn't explain why, when I chewed on a whole piece of chilli pepper, I couldn’t taste a thing.
“James? Why aren’t you eating? Stop gawking at your food!” Mom’s words shocked me out of my mind. I hadn’t even realised that I had been lost in thought, chopsticks still dangling near my open mouth. “And put that down! It’s embarrassing!”
“Oy, James? You alright?” Miki chimed in with barely a whisper, trying not to attract Mom’s attention.
I looked at Mom in a daze, and then at Miki. I put away my chopsticks and grabbed my cup of already cold tea and downed it in one go. Did I just drink water? I questioned myself after I finished drinking. Because it doesn’t taste like tea at all.
“Uh…I think I broke my tongue,” was the most intelligent reason I could come up with.
Chirping crickets seemed to fill the area around us as Mom and Miki stared mutely at me. I could feel a blush rising up my cheeks as I slowly grasped the idiocy behind those words. I swallowed a nervous gulp and rephrased my sentence: “I mean, my taste buds aren’t working…wait, my taste buds aren’t working!”
Something was wrong. Very wrong, I decided, because my tongue had essentially become as taste-sensitive as a slab of metal. Yet, in the corner of my eyes, I could already spot Mom’s usual ‘shrug-it-off’ motion, which meant that she was trying her best at overlooking my outburst. Correction: it came naturally to her, so she didn’t even have to try.
Since there was no way she would listen to me any longer, I pleaded with my eyes to Miki: Please let Mom realise that there was something wrong with me. He made a small nod and told Mom in the smallest, most downcast voice I’d ever heard him use: “This might be something serious, Mom. Didn’t you see him eat that chilli and didn’t react at all? He’s –“
“He’s probably just burnt his tongue drinking the hot tea or something,” she said, cutting short my only chance of salvation. Then, turning away from me, she called a nearby waiter and shouted for the bill.
All other attempts to convince her about the potentially dangerous illness went unheeded, even with the combined effort of two people. I attempted to express my dissatisfaction by grumbling loudly, but I hastily shut up when Mom shot me a cold, piercing look that sent shivers through my spine. Finally, without being able to understand, let alone solve the case of my missing taste buds, Mom paid the restaurant and led us to our next destination.
Hopefully this won’t be a permanent thing, I encouraged myself as I finished my newly-refilled cup of tea and followed Mom and Miki’s trail, feeling like the most helpless little puppy in the world.