The year she turned eighteen, Devi became a cashier in the Food Halls at Parkson Grand, Malaysia’s first fine department store, in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur. Before that she’d lived with her family in their village in the north. She’d barely finished secondary school when Parkson Grand advertised around the country for a “Malaysian Rainbow.” They wanted to hire people who were Malay, Chinese, or Indian, like Devi was.
It wasn’t college (no one in her family had attended college), but it was a way to earn actual ringgit and a way to explore. She sent in an application; six weeks later, she climbed on a bus. Her mother wept outside the sputtering vehicle, shook her fist when it took off. That night Devi curled on top of the last bunk in a room already occupied by five other cashiers in a falling-down apartment building on the edge of the jet-black Parkson Grand parking lot.
A few days later, she stood at her cash register, her skin prickling in the A/C, her eyes aching in the fluorescent light. The store gleamed in front of her, its smallest starfruit wrapped in crisp plastic. She imagined herself standing in the clearing where her village’s outdoor market was held: she saw the spiders crawling over the imperfect produce; she heard the parrots squawking from the surrounding jungle. But now that was behind her.
As if approving of Devi’s new life, a white girl joined the end of Devi’s line. Devi sneezed into her hand. Wiping her fingers with her handkerchief, she thought that this was the first time a white person had approached her, and she felt curious. She tried to concentrate on her current customer, but she couldn’t help noticing that the girl had a mass of long, loose toffee-colored hair and that she wore a large hibiscus of a dress. Devi, too, dressed modestly in inexpensive Western clothes, but she would never drown herself in pink cotton like that.
Yet if the girl was American, her distance from her home expressed a bravery that Devi found touching. Perhaps she was a little like the person Devi admired most in the world, her cousin Vinita, who had brought down the wrath of Devi’s mother and aunt by moving away not only from their village, but also from Malaysia. Now Vinita lived in Singapore, where she worked in a handbag factory.
One thing that Devi knew for sure: the other cashiers’ lines were shorter. She felt pleased that the foreign girl had joined her line. And she had noticed it before: people were willing to wait so they could buy food items from her. She chalked her popularity up not to her prettiness, but to her English, which she spoke, almost declaimed, in musical tones.
For twelve years, at her village school, Devi had pored over any old book, magazine, or pamphlet, pronounced weird English words for fun just like her teacher, Mr. Rukmani, did. Meanwhile, the rainforest had thrummed all around them. Near her teacher, she had begun to know that one day she would flirt with a man. Still, she’d been a schoolgirl living in her parents’ home. She hadn’t flirted, or, at least, she thought she hadn’t.
Now the white girl stood across from her. Devi scanned her papaya and her chicken thighs. “Where are you from?” she asked.
“America,” the girl said.
Devi looked down as she worked, but she couldn’t resist a second question. “Do you live here?” she said.
“I’m a lecturer in English at the Malay college,” the girl said with a smile that was more open and friendly than the smiles Devi was used to.
Devi guessed that she was twenty-three or so. She slipped the girl’s fruit, her meat into separate bags. Her customer’s words expanded inside her. A teacher was a person of wisdom, a person who was granted respect. Devi had always wanted to teach, but, by coming to the city to work as a cashier, she had both expanded and contracted her identity. Her old ambitions were no longer worth mentioning.
“Prestigious. Very nice,” she said as kindly as she could. She handed over the girl’s shopping. Lightly, she shook her head.
The girl said thank you, yet she didn’t leave. She ran her free hand through her hair. “I’m Sloane,” she said.
Devi thought for a moment. “I’ve never heard that name before.”
“What’s your name?” Sloane asked.
Devi wondered if Parkson Grand would want her to answer. Then she thought, even here, she was still a person; why not? She said her name.
Sloane’s blue eyes shone. “Devi is the female aspect of the Divine in the Hindu religion,” she said. “I’m sure you know that.”
Devi was silent. Was the girl flattering her, hinting that she was like a goddess? Or was she trying to impress her.
“That’s true,” Devi said, and she glanced over at her next customer.
“See you later,” they both said, Sloane speaking the words first.
The next Monday, Sloane dumped chicken, vegetables, fruit, soda bottles, and something called cookie dough in front of Devi. “It’s my birthday tomorrow,” she said. “I’m throwing a party for my students. Please join us. Why not?” And Devi had liked that question. She’d said yes, although she’d felt terrified that she was mistaking the nature of the invitation, that Sloane was asking her so that she could help with the food.
However, the next day, when Devi slipped through the gate into Sloane’s garden and knocked on her front door, Sloane hugged her in front of all her guests. She handed Devi an orchid, helped her weave it into her loose hair.
Eating cut vegetables out of her hand, Devi moved through Sloane’s sunken living room. The Malay boys didn’t seem to want to meet her eyes with their eyes, perhaps because she was a girl, or perhaps because she was Indian, or perhaps because she was both. She had to battle her sense that she shouldn’t speak. She longed to do something, but she refused to go into the kitchen. Bumping into Sloane, she grabbed her camera. “I’ll take a picture of you for your parents.”
“I haven’t seen my dad in three years,” Sloane said into her ear. But some of the boys had heard Devi, and they gathered around their teacher. In the crowd, Sloane beamed, put her hands up to her face, and then released them. The camera flashed. Moments later, the boys poured onto Sloane’s lawn, where they lit up Marlboros. Devi studied the goldfish circling a shallow pond through a sliding glass door. Sloane went into the kitchen. “I wonder why no girls came,” she called.
“The girls have to hold themselves back,” Devi replied. But she was busy wondering why Sloane hadn’t grabbed the camera to take a picture of her. If Sloane thought Devi was as important as she was, she would have snapped a photo of her, wouldn’t she?
The following Saturday, a scarf fell down the side of Sloane’s dress as she took items from her shopping basket. Devi touched the edge to let her know.
Sloane evened out the wrap, tossed the ends over her shoulders. “I’m a mess,” she said. But she could buy one hundred gauzy Indian scarves if she wanted. She could visit the country of Devi’s ancestors, also. She was getting steaks. “You know, I’d love for you to come over.”
Devi kept her expression mild. “I can’t eat that,” she said. Then she jumped. Maybe Sloane had no intention of cooking her dinner. But, walking out, Sloane saluted her with her usual big friendly wave.
The next week, Sloane came back. Laying the bills down for her ice cream, she asked Devi to go into KL for the Saturday market. Devi thought it was best to resist. “You’re my customer,” she said.
Sloane denied it. “We’re friends,” Sloane said. She made her head wobble from side to side like a traditional Indian woman. Then she yelped, brought her hand to her mouth. Devi laughed at Sloane’s silliness. Sloane was sweet, in a way.
At the market, Sloane ignored the ceramics from all over Asia, the cheap, Chinese-made clothes. On a C.D. case covered with pictures of Malaysian rock stars, the men sported long hair and glittering outfits. Sloane passed the case to Devi, and Devi touched the image of one man’s hair—it was long like hers. His folded arms flowed from muscular shoulders. The disruption pushed out between his legs. Acid rose in her throat at the sight of this man’s image. She didn’t like it, yet she felt that she could, and she knew that Sloane did, and she wondered if she could catch Sloane’s desires from her, and she felt that she wanted to do so.
But perhaps she should take Sloane into a more lovely part of KL. She mentioned an Indian lane she’d heard about at home, sure that she could find it. Speaking with her voice and her hands, she called up for Sloane the lane’s legendary storefronts, bright with colored powders, heavy with betrothal jewelry. In her old life, she had imagined that her mother would take her there one day.
Sloane bit her lip. “I’m not into fairy tales. You’re not either, are you?” She kept putting C.D.s down and picking up other ones.
“We should throw a party, don’t you think?”
Devi was silent.
One day, a friend of Devi’s father’s found her at Parkson and gave her the news: her youngest brother, Sudhit, had fallen from a coconut palm. The family needed money so they could take him to a clinic, maybe a hospital.
Devi’s hands jumped at the delivery of the information. She felt responsible. I can’t manage this, she thought. I’ll call Vinita in Singapore. Five days a week, her cousin stitched the seams of a French brand of handbag. On a trip home, she’d passed a blue one around at a family dinner. Devi had never seen anything so impressive. Vinita was the one person she knew well who might have cash to spare.
“I can get you money in a month,” her cousin said over the phone. “I’m sorry to say I don’t have any at the moment. I try to save, but rent, clothes, food, subway, it all costs a lot here. I make more, but I spend more. It’s the way it is.”
Devi sat on the chair inside the phone booth at the post office. She, too, was learning how expensive cities could be. Poor Sudhit. She tried to chat with Vinita. “Do you still like it there?” she asked, but her mouth felt limp as she moved it.
Of course, Sloane had money. But Devi couldn’t ask her for any, could she? Then again, Sloane was a foreigner. Was there anything Americans wouldn’t consider? Devi walked to the super-nice neighborhood across from Parkson she had visited once before. Sloane’s house was the last one down the last lane, and, this time, Devi studied it. It was glittering white. Orange trees wept petals on the lawn. Devi let herself inside the big gate. She took a breath, walked up, rang the bell. In a T-shirt and sarong, Sloane opened the door. “Hi,” she said, looking surprised. “Are you all right?” She ushered Devi in, offered Devi a seat, but Devi wanted to stand. Among Sloane’s batik wall hangings, Devi told her: Sudhit had fallen, slammed his head, one wrist had swollen, one eye oozed, and he was talking but not making sense.
On the edge of a black recliner, Sloane listened. “How awful. I’m sorry, but, can I ask, why are you telling me this? Are you hoping I might do something?”
Devi bit her lip. “My family needs money. Sudhit needs to be admitted to a clinic, maybe a hospital.”
Sloane’s gaze was soft. “Would it be a loan or a gift?”
Sweat prickled under Devi’s arms. “A loan, of course.”
“I have to ask,” Sloane said. “Money can create complications, can’t it? I wouldn’t want that to happen to us.” She went upstairs, came back with two hundred dollars. “My emergency fund. Is that enough?” Devi smiled but said nothing. On one hand, she couldn’t believe Sloane kept this much cash around. On the other, Sudhit might need more. In an agony of uncertainty, she said nothing. Sloane did a double-take. “I have extra in my sock drawer.” She went back upstairs, brought down another hundred, and offered it to Devi, who hugged her. “I will never forget this,” Devi said. Gazing at Sloane, she backed away.
A week later, Sudhit was released from the clinic. Devi and Sloane started to meet fairly often. Mostly, they got together for supper at a banana leaf restaurant around the corner from Parkson, where the food was delicious. One evening, after they’d eaten, Sloane told Devi a story. Not long after she’d arrived in Malaysia, she’d flown to Dubai to spend a weekend with a man she’d met on the flight over. He was very nice, Sloane insisted, but Devi was speechless. She thought Sloane had been crazy to stay with a man she didn’t know. She could have been killed or worse.
Yet she didn’t want to judge Sloane in a harsh way; she was fond of Sloane, who had helped her family. She continued to see Sloane for dinner. Each girl paid for her own food. And Devi made twenty-dollar payments against the loan for Sudhit, slipping envelopes into the slot by her gate, hoping she’d be able to pay off the whole amount. One evening Sloane told a new story. She’d met a guy downtown. He’d studied at the college where she taught. He had a degree in accounting but hadn’t been able to get a professional job, so he collected tickets at the KL cinema. “He’s really intelligent.”
We’ll see how smart he is, Devi thought. She paused. “What has passed between you?” This boy was a local person, so Devi had a right to ask. She slowly opened her packet made from a dark, green leaf, studied her rice and curry. She sipped from her iced coffee.
“You know, sometimes you sound so British.” Sloane opened her own leaf packet too fast. Steam blew up in her face. Devi felt offended by Sloane’s tone. “Normal stuff happened,” Sloane said. “We started talking—his English is great. I complimented him on that. He took me for a ride on his moped, showed me his apartment. I met his roommate. He was quiet, unemployed.”
Devi batted her hand in front of her eyes. “You need to be much more careful.”
“Why?” Sloane said. “We’re both in our twenties.”
“Noor’s a Muslim name. His age doesn’t matter. He isn’t supposed to spend time alone with women. And, if he does, it has to be with another Muslim, or a girl who wants to convert to Islam. It has to be a girl he wants to marry A.S.A.P.”
“A.S.A.P.” Sloane burst out laughing. “I taught you that.” At a nearby table, men in white turned. A ceiling fan turned so slowly it made no difference. “I think Noor’s open-minded.”
“It’s not a question of being open-minded. Muslims have to follow their religion or they can be arrested. They don’t have a lot of choice in the matter.”
Sloane yawned. “Noor’s Muslim, you’re Hindu, and I’m nothing. We know all that. But it’s 1999. I think how he feels has something to do with it.”
Devi felt her brows shoot up. She was glad she didn’t have the luxury of liking someone for no reason. Sloane had another luxury, too, that of not really having to worry about how people felt about her. Sloane acted needy, but she didn’t need anyone.
“Take a taxi into the city with me on Saturday,” Sloane said. “We’ll stop by the cinema.” Devi looked away. She didn’t want to help Sloane track down a Malay man. And Sloane was being bossy. But she did want to see the man Sloane liked and to observe all the signs of how he felt about her.
At the Odeon Cinema, Sloane led Devi through a horde of guys waiting for a film about fighting. Inside, a bunch of Chinese girls with silky hair sold concessions. There was glamour in KL, like in magazines. Sloane wove in the direction of a young man with large, tobacco-colored eyes and a broad face, lightly speckled with acne scars.
Sloane stood off to the side, hunched her shoulders, waved. Noor waved back, but the look on his face was vague. Guys filed into the cinema, and he had to take their tickets.
The two girls waited. “Maybe we should see the movie,” Devi said, feeling a little wicked.
Sloane crumpled her pale forehead. “That’s not why we’re here.” Devi smiled just a little.
After ten minutes, all the guys had disappeared into the theater, and Noor walked up and shook Sloane’s hand. Sloane’s mouth turned down and her eyes got beady as she introduced him to Devi. Noor looked somehow familiar. “You’re like my brothers,” Devi said, hearing the note of surprise in her voice. The Malay man offered her his hand as if she were American. She blushed. Accepting it, she felt a shock, but she didn’t know if it was because the sensation was strange, or because Noor seemed familiar.
He asked Devi where she was from, and she named her village. He said he’d been born in one nearby. “But now I’m a city guy.”
“I’m still learning my way.”
“The best way is on a moped,” he said. “I’ll show you around sometime.”
Sloane lifted her hands to her hips. “Now, now,” she said in a sing-song voice “I doubt you have time to hang out with both of us.”
Devi thought Sloane was insulting them. “We’re talking about sightseeing.”
Sloane lowered her hands. “Well, sure, I guess.”
Devi looked away.
Noor started laughing. “Don’t worry. I’m not such a fabulous guy. I’d be lucky to hang out with Sloane. I can practice my English.”
“Yes, you can.” Sloane’s tone was sweet.
“My English is also excellent,” Devi said.
He winked at her. “We have to humor the American.” His eyes lingered.
Devi watched him. Did he like her? She blushed as she wondered about it.
Sloane’s nostrils flared. “Can I meet you tomorrow?” He paused, then agreed. She gave him a light hug, touching his shoulders.
When she released him, he flicked his tickets with his fingers.
Devi caught his eye as she walked out. “Until later,” he said.
Devi nodded. In that moment, her desire to correct Sloane merged with the strange sensation that she could correct her, as well as with her attraction to Noor.
“Noor’s Muslim,” she said under her breath as Sloane caught up.
“You keep thinking I don’t understand that.”
They stepped into the street. “Can I take your picture?” Sloane said. She acted as if she wasn’t angry. “The light’s amazing.”
Finally, a picture of her. Devi saw herself in a shiny square with KL wrapped around her like a scarf. She walked over to a temple painted red and gold, its garden dotted with geraniums in coffee tins, and turned, arranging her legs so her toes pointed out.
While Sloane moved the camera around, Devi let out a big breath. Noor had liked her—more than he liked Sloane. And, in front of the camera, she was sure Noor’s liking meant something to her. She’d keep this photo until she was old.
But the next day she remembered Sloane had saved Sudhit. She’d made his eye open, his broken arm straighten. She’d made Devi’s family’s terrible weakness—their poverty—retreat. Devi didn’t know if she could ever do that.
Devi should show Sloane how nice she was by not waiting for her to come by Parkson, but by dropping by to see her. And in a segment of her mind where it was almost impossible to shine light, she hoped Noor might be there.
And when she arrived, he was at Sloane’s front door. “Sloane’s not here,” he said when she clanked the gate behind her. She felt her mind go blank. “Let’s sit in the back and wait,” he added. She tried to consider this, but could only feel joy.
They sat on plastic chairs on Sloane’s handkerchief of lawn and watched the sun set over the neighborhood below, its tiny houses roofed with sheets of corrugated tin. A man sang in the prayer tower. When he stopped, boys ran into the dusty streets with tires, sticks, toy cars. A woman in a headscarf slipped outside to a table, brought a knife down on the neck of a naked chicken. She cut the chicken into parts, dropped the parts in a bucket and went back in the house.
Noor slouched. “You didn’t pray,” Devi said.
He inspected his nails “Five times a day …”
“There’s always something else to do,” Devi said. “Like chase American girls.”
He smiled. “Just once or twice.”
“What happened between you?” In her new life, Devi asked amazing questions.
He shrugged. “Chasing each other around. Joking. Laughing. Like an American actor and his woman.” He laughed a short laugh.
Devi made a face.
In the valley, a dog barked. “It wasn’t the right thing,” Noor said. “Do you dislike me?”
Devi thought about it. “No.”
“Tell me about your brothers.”
She shook her head. “They’re good. They’re not city people.”
“The city’s not a bad place. I wish I could take you out.”
“You’re Malay, and I’m Indian. We’re not supposed to go out together.”
Noor frowned. “And that’s stupid, isn’t it? What if you put your hair up in my helmet? We’ll drop the visor over your face, and I’ll drive us to a quiet place. When we’re on the road, no one will know that you’re not Malay, that you’re not my sister.”
Devi flinched. She didn’t want to be a sister now, but a woman in the city.
They walked around the house, and he put his helmet on her. When she pulled the visor down, she felt like a warrior. She got on the moped behind him and he turned on the motor. They took off down the lanes toward KL, along the roadway centers planted with illuminated flowering bushes. Palms rustled in the air, and the evening looked black from behind the visor, but Devi knew it was purple.
As they picked up speed, a vision of her mother floated in front of her, shouting Devi’s name, running unevenly after them. Devi scrunched her face against the coming night, and her heart beat hard in her thin body. They turned into a roundabout and she hung on tighter. It was new to her, the feeling of a man’s hips in her grasp. Noor passed everyone—a huge truck with its back bearing a trunk, minibuses coughing smoke, families in cars and on bikes. Devi didn’t know what she liked more—a man’s nearness or the sensation of moving so fast through the city it was as if they were eating it.
Noor turned and started burrowing deeper into KL. Finally, they turned into a parking lot lit by a generator. An older Indian woman was frying something. When Devi pulled her helmet off, the woman caught her eye. Devi sat on a stool, and Noor pulled close. For a moment, her hands shook under the table. The woman put food in front of them that was blazing hot. Kebabs of chicken in a peppery sauce, rice, sour mango chutney heavy with chilies. Because of its spiciness, it was food that Sloane could never eat.
“I’m being bad,” Devi announced as Noor ate with his hand.
She frowned. “I shouldn’t be here.”
“I’ll take you home, then.”
She paused. “I’m getting comfortable.” She didn’t laugh. After a while, she said, “Sloane told me you had trouble getting a professional job.”
“I have a good job, anyway.”
Devi understood. She felt grateful for her work. She never forgot the poor Indian women, the lowest of the low in Malaysia, who worked on the roads. Sloane always seemed shocked to see them in their old saris in the sun, digging up the black with pick-axes.
But that’s how it was.
“Do you have dreams for the future?” Noor asked.
“Like clouds. I’m not sure.”
Months ago, she would have said, yes. But knowing Sloane, witnessing her strange aloneness, had changed the way Devi wanted to speak about her future. “Possibly,” she said.
When they got up, Noor asked if they could ride around. Devi said it was all right, and they took off, the older woman waving as if they were an acceptable couple.
Off the bike, they wavered some distance from a village. The moon was high, and the low cries of frogs and trilling of insects made Devi want to shout. Noor took her hand and led her into the woods. She didn’t really know him, but she felt unafraid, comfortable, perhaps complacent.
Under a coconut tree, she saw a vision of Sudhit shimmying up it. She heard something rustle and thought of her brothers’ soccer ball rolling to a stop under some palm fronds.
Noor stopped walking, set a hand on her shoulder. Devi came back to reality. She looked in his face. She liked his eyes, broad cheeks, even the acne scars. He leaned over to kiss her, entering her mouth with his tongue. She knew this would happen, but it shocked her a little. She put her hand on his back, moved it up the spaced bones, and started to kiss him back. Then Noor touched her breast, surprising her, but she didn’t step back.
Yet a few moments later, her mind was flooded again with an image of her oldest brother, Sid, who was Noor’s height, Noor’s shape. She let Noor kiss her one more time. He used his tongue again, and she felt an unvisited part of her body contract and expand inside her.
But then she imagined all five of her brothers, running through these woods, getting closer. In her mind, they arrived and rested their forearms on their thighs, panting. Then they stood up, hugged her, and kissed her cheek, getting sweat on her face. They saw Noor and greeted him as if nothing significant was happening. He was a village boy, just like them.
Riding back, Noor and Devi traveled for a while beside a Malay family on a motorbike. Devi admired the woman with her red lipstick and long flowered skirt that blew back. Her husband steered with one arm around the ribs of a little boy. The family was traditional, and Devi knew for the first time she didn’t want that.
She thought of Sloane and her mysterious man in Dubai, imagined his naked body and the X between his legs. Inside Devi, something stirred. She could imagine what had happened between the man from Dubai and her friend. But was the vision of these two people something that Sloane had created or was it something that was inside Devi?
The next evening, Devi stopped by Sloane’s house. Sloane opened her door in a robe. Devi looked at her face. It was a sheet.
“Yes,” Sloane said in a hoarse voice. “When you guys were here yesterday, I was home. I heard Noor ring the bell. I was in bed when you were out back. I could hear you chit-chatting.”
“You should have shouted.”
“I was too weak.” Sloane gestured for Devi to come in. “Some kind of stomach virus. It’s really kicking my butt. Did you have a nice evening?” She arched one eyebrow.
“Yes,” Devi said. “We went into the city. It was fun to ride on the moped.”
Sloane flopped on the fabric couch, and a small cloud of mosquitoes flew up. Clay incense burners dotted the floor unlit. The burners were holy, but Sloane bought them because she liked them. A can of Diet Pepsi sat on the coffee table.
Sloane’s hair lay flat, and her lips looked swollen. “Quite an evening for a village girl.”
Devi took a small step toward her. “What?”
“Devi, you were my friend, and Noor was my friend. I’m sorry if I sound self-centered. But at least I’m honest—unlike some.”
“It was just one evening,” Devi said. “Besides, you aren’t even serious about him.”
“How would you know?” Sloane said.
“Because you aren’t serious about anything.”
Sloane stood and let her hands float up. “Is that so? Excuse me. I have to go back to bed.” She wavered on her feet, walked around Devi.
Devi watched Sloane make her way up the stairs. She wanted to make sure she wasn’t going to fall. But, then again, she didn’t care if she did. For a moment, Devi imagined that she and Noor would get together and that they would hate Sloane. She imagined them sharing this powerful emotion, how it would bring them closer together. And she knew the hate they felt for Sloane, no matter how strong, would be more acceptable to almost everyone they knew than the warmth and interest they had felt for each other.
A week later, Sloane was better. She came into Parkson, looking thinner, elegant. She bought shrimp, cabbage, rice. “I’m making dinner for a friend.” She paused. Her eyes widened. Then she said, “You know, you think your life is harder than mine. And you think that makes you better. That’s why you thought poaching Noor was just fine.”
Stuck on Sloane’s first statement, Devi stopped scanning items. Her life was harder. How could this white girl deny it?
“I want to tell you something,” Sloane said. “I’d love to have a family, a village. Two parents, a mother who tried to keep me home, the things you have.”
“But you’re making it sound easy,” Devi said.
“And my life is?” Sloane said.
“Devi,” a coworker called in a low voice from the next register.
But Devi didn’t care about Parkson in this moment. “You’re just having an adventure,” she said.
“And then I’ll go home, right?” Sloane said. “But what home would that be? This place means as much to me as any. Can you imagine?”
This was an interesting question. Devi thought about it. “Yes,” she said, but she blushed.
Sloane narrowed her eyes. “Oh, really? “ She paused. You tried to make me feel so inappropriate for being interested in Noor. Then you went after him.” She let her head fall to one side.
“Noor and I both come from a village,” Devi said. “We have more in common. I can go out with him without taking advantage.”
“Can you?” With a deft movement, Sloane picked up her bag. “I’m not sure he would see it that way.” She stopped. “By the way, how’s Sudhit doing?”
Devi’s face got hot. “Better, thank you.”
“I’m glad,” Sloane said. “And I will need all my money. Don’t forget, please.”
At this, Devi’s hands trembled. Since her night with Noor, she’d been able to put off thinking about her debt. She’d only paid back sixty dollars. “I’ll put the next payment in your mailbox tomorrow.”
“Fine,” Sloane said.
Her face in flames, Devi turned to her next customer.
About a week later, Devi spotted Noor in someone else’s line buying a small bottle of water. No one except a foreigner would do that.
She remembered getting off his moped, her legs trembling. She gave back the helmet, but its heaviness stayed with her. He asked when she would be free, and she just looked at him. His eyes turned wild. “You don’t want to see me?”
Her lips opened and then closed. Her feet itched in her sandals.
He slammed the tank of the moped. “Why?” He took off, and she just stood there, surprised at the person she was becoming.
But now Noor headed in her direction. He was the first man she’d touched. Could they be friends? She said his name, extended her fingers. He turned his head, his glance hard. She felt her hands curl into fists. Perhaps he was angry that an Indian girl had rejected him. She fought back the urge to shout at him. He left.
That evening, she walked into the banana leaf place. It was filled with men in white. One glared at her—for being a mere Indian girl out in the dark, she thought. Sloane was there, talking and talking, while Noor sat at her side, tall with a straight back, his face inexpressive.
The men in white huddled close together. Sloane wore a long-sleeved tunic and floor-length skirt in a blue flowered print. It was an outfit a Malay woman would wear. There was no good reason for Sloane to be dressed like that. For sure, the men in white had their reasons for distrusting her. And Devi thought Noor was a fool for spending more time with her.
Devi ordered, handed over a few coins, and took her plastic bag, with its hot, live heart of food. She heard the screen door slam behind her, started walking. The moon was nowhere. The parking lot seethed with cars. A man she couldn’t see chattered like a mad bird in her direction. As soon as she’d paid back the money for Sudhit, she’d put herself on a bus for Singapore. She wouldn’t say anything to anyone. She’d just go.
Lesley Heiser won the 2012 Maine Literary Award in Short Fiction for “Malaysian Rainbow.” Her work has appeared in The Puerto del Sol 40th Anniversary Anthology, Ms. Magazine, The Maryland Poetry Review, The William and Mary Review, The Baltimore Sun, and The Silk Road Review. She received an M.F.A. in fiction from Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine and is currently completing her first novel, Girl in a Tree.