Monday, April 02, 2007

SAMBAL AND SALSA

By Rumaizah Abu Bakar

Carlos stepped into the elevator. He nearly did not see her standing still in the corner, looking very demure in her light yellow baju kurung and matching tudung. The bright colour complemented her fair complexion. "Happy Monday Morning!" she beamed at him. Her smile lit up her face. He ran his fingers through his dark blonde hair. "Morning, Dr Salina!" he replied with a forced smile, trying to hide the cringe in his chest.

"It's about time you stopped calling me doctor," she protested sweetly. She looked at him for a while. "Hmm...That is a nice tie." "Thank you." He struggled with another polite smile. He felt his forehead starting to sweat.

He breathed a sigh of relief when the door opened on the fifth floor. "Catch you later," he quickly stepped out and strode to his office. A petite young woman in a light pink blouse and black skirt was arranging the papers in the trays on his desk. "Morning, boss," she chirped. "Shall I get you a cup of coffee?" He looked at her, straight shoulder length hair framing her fair oval face. All of a sudden, Dr Salina's image appeared on his secretary's face.

He shook his head, he must be hallucinating. She stared at him. "Are you okay, boss?" she studied him for a while. "Whaaaa..what?" he stared at her, still trying to regain his focus. "You looked like you have just seen a ghost. I have never seen your green eyes so shiny before." She joked, not sure whether to laugh or to be concern.

She realized that he has not responded to her remark. "Boss?" now she was getting worried. He shook his head again. He blinked his eyes and tried to focus on the movements of her lips. "Perhaps you should rest for a while?" she pulled the chair behind the desk and motioned for him to sit down. He sat, put his elbows on the desk and cupped his chin.

"You do not seem too well. Shall I make an appointment with Dr Salina?" she asked him. "Whoa! No!" he jumped up from his chair. She shrieked. "What's the matter, Boss?" "No, I am fine. No need to see the doctor."

He tugged his collar to loosen up his dark green tie a bit. "What meetings do I have today?" he deliberately put on his most authoritative tone. She took out his appointment book. "I have arranged a meeting with Ms Tan of GVH Sdn Bhd in 30 minutes time. She is sharing a new Human Resource development software." She continued going through his appointments for the day.

Her phone rang. She picked up the phone on his desk and pressed a button to take on the call. "Yes. Oh, she is early. Do me a favour and take her to the conference room, dear? Thanks." She hung up. "Ms Tan is already here. Shall I ask her to wait in the conference room?" "No, no, I can see her now." He said. He opened the door of the room. "Ms Tan, hello, nice meeting you," he held his hand. "I'm Carlos. Thank you for coming." "Thank you for giving me a chance to share our latest software," she said. They shook hands.

She pushed her round glasses further up the tip of her nose. Ms Tan was dressed in a smart black jacket and matching short skirt. She had her hair neatly tied up in a bun. She switched on her laptop and adjusted it to face both of them. "If it is okay with you, I shall do a short presentation and then I can clarify any query you may have," she looked at him. "Sure. Sounds good to me," he nodded.

"This is the latest tool that every Human Resource manager should have," she went through the slides, pausing now and then to make sure that he followed her. He nodded impatiently, eager to get to the last slide to know the cost of the software.

When they reached the fifth slide, suddenly she stopped. "Oh, it is hot in here. If you don't mind, I'd like to take off my jacket. He shrugged, "Sure, go ahead." She got up, took off her glasses and then slowly removed her jacket. He struggled to hide his impatience.

She hung the jacket on the back of her chair. His eyes nearly popped out. Underneath the formal top was a very low cut black dress. The material was so sheer and it clung to her body so tightly that he could clearly see the outline of her bra and the g-string that she was wearing.

To his amazement, she swiftly let down her hair, twirled it slowly with her fingers and batted her eyelids at him,

She took a few steps closer, her eyes never left his face. "Hey, Latin Lover. Hmm… Carlos is a Mexican name. You are Mexican, isn't it?" She pressed her body against his.

His eyes fluttered. He felt his heart speeding like the LRT train on the track. "What the…" he muttered under his breath.

"I love to Salsa," she moved her body seductively up and down. Then she swayed her hips to imaginary rhythm, her eyes burned with passion.

Suddenly, the door swung opened. She stopped in her track. In stepped Melissa. "Sorry to interrupt. If you don't mind, I would like to learn about the new software too." He nodded at her and smiled appreciatively.

She sat next to Ms Tan and took out her notepad. "Sure," replied Ms Tan, her face wrinkled like the back of an orange. Carlos and Melissa both pretended not to notice the piercing look she gave Melissa. She put on her jacket and quickly went through the rest of the presentation. Shortly after, she was done and was out of the room. They looked at each other with rounded eyes.

"What has just happened in there?" he raised his eyebrows at his secretary. "Sorry boss, I thought I checked out her background thoroughly already. I must have missed something," she apologized. "That's okay, Melissa. You have done a fantastic job of screening my appointments so far, almost like the CIA," he teased. They laughed.

They adjourned to his office. "How did your date go on Friday, boss? She winked at him. The feeling of faint returned. His head started to throb. He rubbed his temple. "Boss, you have just turned pale again," she looked at him worriedly. He tried to relax and spoke calmly, "Oh, it was good. Dr Salina and I went to Nelayan for buka puasa. The food was delicious, spicy, just the way I like it. The Sambal Belacan was fantastic!" "Oh, you enjoyed her company then?" she enquired. Was there a hint of jealousy he heard in her voice? He was not sure.

Her phone rang. She picked it up from his line again. "Hello. Yes, Dr Salina. Let me see whether he is free. Just one minute." "You want to take this call?" She mouthed silently to him. He shook his head. She gave him a quizzical look. "I'm sorry Dr Salina. He is engaged in a discussion. May I take a message?" She paused for a while. "Okay, will do. Bye". She hung up. "Dr Salina asked if you could kindly return her call." He nodded. She arranged the papers in a pile and stacked them against her arms. "Anything else, boss?" "No, that's it for now. Please close the door on your way out. Thanks." He massaged his temple again.

There was a knock at his door. "Carlos, it's me," he heard the rough voice. "Yes, Brian, do come in." Oh no! What does his boss want this early in the day? The door opened and he caught the sight of the 6' British man's bald head first. Brian was wearing a charcoal grey pin stripe suit. He entered and sat on the chair across from him. "You have a minute?" Carlos started quivering. His arrogant boss actually asking permission to take his time indicated that he has unpleasant news.

"So, how's everything?" Brian smiled broadly. "I see that you have done great work. Everything moves like clockwork here." Oh no! If he was being generous with praises, then he has some really, really bad news. Carlos nodded. He stared blankly at his boss' plain light grey tie. As far as Brian was concern, ties only came in two colours, grey and blue. He shivered, anxiously waiting for the other man to speak up. He toyed with the pencil in his hands.

"I was going to ask you for lunch but I just remembered that it is Ramadan and you are fasting," Brian let out a laugh. Carlos pretended to laugh too. Stupid Mat Salleh, after ten years of working in Kuala Lumpur, he was still ignorant to the Malaysian culture and also to Muslims' religious observations. "Hey listen, I have an opportunity for you," finally he got to the point. "The Human Resource Manager in Qatar has just resigned. We thought that this would be a great chance to tap into your strength, good to further develop your Middle East exposure. Your being a Muslim would help a lot too."

Carlos pressed his fingers together under the desk. So, that was what he wanted to share. He resisted the urge to yell his head off. Qatar was bad news! There was nothing there. No friends, no entertainment, no social life. It would be like hell on earth for a swinging bachelor like him.

He took a deep breath and looked directly into Brian's eyes. "How long?" That was his main concern. Brian paused for a while and cleared his throat. "Emm…we are not sure yet. Maybe three weeks at the least. It depends, may last until three to six months if the situation does not improve." Carlos sighed loudly, not realizing that the pencil in his hands has broken into two pieces.

Then, came his next question, "What happen to the onsite workers there?" He maintained his gaze. "Oh, nothing much, just a tiny misunderstanding with the new Dutch Project Manager," Brian laughed nervously. "What kind of misunderstanding?" he persisted. "Our new guy is only starting to familiarize himself with the local culture, what with fasting and all. It is a small matter, really. He just needs to understand that he can not expect the same volume and hours during Ramadan. That's it. Simple solution!"

Brian lowered his gaze to his hands. "And…?" Carlos pressed on. "Okay, okay. Rumours had it that they were planning to murder him on Thursday. So we need to fly somebody there fast!" Brian finally spilled it out. Carlos swore under his breath and hit his fist on the desk, "Wonderful!" he yelled. Typical egoistic expatriate tale!

Melissa came running in. "You called me, boss?" she panted. Brian quickly stood up. "I'm done. We can talk about this later." He stomped out of the room.

Melissa leaned at the edge of the desk. "Bad news?" she asked him. Carlos frowned. "Yes. I'm being seconded to Qatar." "What? You can't go!" the crisp in his secretary's voice startled Carlos. "What did you say?" "You can't go, boss. I mean this place needs you. You brighten up the office. You motivate everybody here to work hard."

Tears were welling in her eyes. Carlos was surprise. He did not see that coming. "Oh! We are still talking about it. It's not final yet," he tried to console her. "Don't worry, I'm sure we can resolve this somehow."

After Melissa left his office, he walked across the room to the large window panes and looked outside. It was a hot day; in fact, it had not rained for days now. He saw a purple Mercedes parked two lots away from his silver BMW. He looked at the plate number. Dr Salina's car! What was she doing parking at their staffs' lot? The other tenants of the building have a separate parking lot on the other side.

His thoughts flew to the incidence during the weekend. He received a bouquet of red roses from an unknown woman on his birthday recently. He did not care at first. Secret admirers were not his cup of tea. He preferred bold and direct women. However, being a curious and nosy bunch, his staffs did a bit of detective work and tracked down the sender. It was a doctor from the clinic on the tenth floor. He has not noticed her when he did his occasional medical check-ups.

Nevertheless, he called her and invited her to join him for break fast later that day. He did not like dining alone anyway. They agreed to meet at the Nelayan Restaurant at 6.30pm. Wearing a comfortable blue Hawaiian shirt paired with three quarter pants, he chose a table outside overlooking the tranquil lake. It was a cool and breezy evening.

He nastily imagined shocking the doctor by wolfing a large helping of oysters, prawns and a dozen types of other unhealthy food. Top that with chain smoking and a huge amount of liquor. He chuckled quietly to himself.

When she arrived, the graceful lady was ushered to his table. She looked elegant and yet at leisure in a white Indian print blouse and matching pants. So, this was the mysterious Dr Salina! He was surprised to learn that she wore tudung.

They ordered the express East Coast break fast set. 20 minutes later, the waiter arrived with a large round silver dulang filled with assorted dates and kuih as well as Nasi Kerabu and several curry and vegetable dishes. He asked for Sambal Belacan, she was amused. "Hmm…you like spicy food?" "Yes, Sambal is my favourite." He smiled. "Oh, you are mixed…Mexican-Malay right?" she smiled back. He nodded. "My father is Malay-Arab. My mother is Mexican." "Oh! That explained the green eyes," she exclaimed. "If your father had been Malay, you would end up with brown or black eyes and nothing else," she teased. They laughed.

"Why do you wear tudung?" he finally asked after they were done with their meal. "Why? You don't like women with tudung?" she challenged lightly. "No, I don't!" He did not even hesitate to keep his thoughts to himself. Let's see how she would react to that statement.

She was calm though. "Okay, you are entitled to your opinion," she replied coolly. They continued conversing for a few hours. He found out that she was an intelligent woman from a family of overachievers. Both of her parents were professors and all her siblings were medical doctors. Surprisingly, he also realized that he enjoyed her company very much.

After dinner, they decided to adjourn to the lounge nearby to listen to the live band. She excused herself for a while and he waited at the sofa. He ordered a glass of white wine for himself and a fresh orange for her. She returned ten minutes later and he was shocked to see that she had removed her tudung. He gasped as she sat next to him on the sofa. Her long straight hair fell softly on her shoulders. She looked angelic, a perfect picture of innocence.

They listened quietly to the R&B medleys played by a Pilipino duo. Shortly later, their drinks arrived. She looked at his wine. "Hey, you are drinking. I want one too." Amused, he ordered a bottle of Chardonnay. The waiter returned with the wine and two tall glasses. They sipped their drink slowly and started to relax further. It was not long before he felt her reaching for his hands. Oh boy! This is going to be a long night, he thought.

They chatted while she held and caressed his hands. After a few glasses of liquor, she became more and more mellow. He nearly jumped out of his skin when he heard her saying, "I love you." He looked at her in disbelieve. "I love you," she repeated the words again. "Don't worry, I'll take care of you."

Suddenly he felt hot and started to sweat. Is the air conditioning not functioning properly? He wiped his face and neck with the back of his hands. "What's the matter, darling?" she looked at him affectionately. "Nothing, it is just hot in here. I need to take a shower when I get home," he told her. "Don't worry, I'll take care of you. I'll bathe you," she smiled sweetly, a little bit creepily too. Whoa! What is happening here?

"It's getting late!" He immediately stood up. "We better make a move. Need to wake up early tomorrow." "Oh!" She looked surprised and slowly got up too. They dropped by at the cashier counter and he took out his American Express card. He settled the bill and then walked her to her purple Mercedes parked in front of the building. He waved to her and then proceeded to his car on the other side of the parking lot.

It was already 1.00am when he pulled his BMW into the parking lot at his apartment in Stulang Laut. He took the elevator up to his unit on the 8th floor. He pulled the key out of his pocket and pushed it into the key hole. "Hey, Carlos," he heard a high pitched voice calling him. This is eerie. He must be imagining things.

"Carlos, you live here?" the familiar voice again. He turned around in a fright. "Dr Salina! What are you doing here?" His heart was in his mouth. "I live here too, on the 12th floor. I saw your car parked downstairs and went to see your unit number printed on the parking lot," she grinned. "What a coincidence! Now we can visit each other anytime," she cooed.

She tilted her head to one side and continued smiling at him. Her long hair flowed softly in the evening breeze. Was she glowing in the dark?

He pushed the door open. "Nice meeting you again. I need to go in and get some sleep, early start tomorrow. Catch you some other time," he quickly stepped in. "Sure. Good night and sweet dreams," she blew him a kiss. He closed the door behind him, double locked it and pushed the latch. He leaned on the wall and breathed a sigh of relief. It was only when he took off his damp clothes that he realized how much he had been sweating all night.

"Boss, phone call for you," Melissa voice startled him and brought him back to the present. He blinked his eyes and turned away from the window. "Who is it?" he asked her. "It's Dr Salina again," she winked at him. "Oh, tell her I am busy," he waved his right arm to dismiss her. She raised her eyebrows. "If you say so, boss," she turned around and strode out of his room

He felt faint. He walked back to his desk and sat on his chair. He leaned his head on the back of the chair. He was really tired. He did not have much rest during the weekend.

After the date from hell encounter on Friday night, it took him a while to fall asleep. The next morning, he was rudely woken up by the sound of his door bell, ringing non-stop. He looked at his clock, it was only 6.00am. Was it an emergency? Swearing under his breath and wondering who would be bothering him at that godforsaken time of the day, he got off his bed. Wearing only his pyjama bottom, he dragged his feet sleepily to open the door. He yawned several times and rubbed his eyes.

"Hey sleepy head!" the feminine voice jolted him wide awake. "Dr Salina! What are you doing here so early?" he yelped. It was still dark outside. He swiftly hugged his naked body. "Oh, it's a beautiful day; let's go brisk walking in the park before the sun rise. Early bird catches the worm." Looking all perky in her red track suit with her long hair neatly tied up in a pony tail, she gave him that chilling smile again. He mumbled a quick apology and gave an excuse about missing sahur and being tired before shutting the door in her face.

That was not the end of it. Later in the evening, she dropped by again to invite him to break fast at her place. Naturally, he declined. On Sunday evening, he nearly screamed hysterically when she brought over a deck of Nyonya six-tier Tiffin and a basket of plates and cutleries. She said the Tiffin compartments were filled with rice and all her specialty dishes for breaking fast for two. Apparently, she had been slaving in the kitchen all afternoon, pounding out her old family recipes.

Melissa walking back into his room interrupted his deep thoughts. She passed him a piece of paper. "Message from Dr Salina," she told him. He read it: Carlos, I have good news! My parents will be in town this weekend. I am arranging a buka puasa dinner so that they can meet you.

He sighed and leaned back in is chair. He knew he had to do something and he needed to think fast.

There was a loud knock at his door. "Carlos!" It was Brian again. "Yes, please come in," he said. When he saw the bald Caucasian man, suddenly he knew what he had to do. "Brian, have a seat. We need to talk," he said. Brian pulled the chair across his desk and sat down. Carlos seemed to be in a much better mood than this morning. "What's the matter?" "I have been thinking about our conversation just now. I agree that it is a good opportunity for me to go to Qatar." He could not believe those words were coming out of his mouth. Neither did his boss.

"I beg your pardon?" Brian looked at him as if he was mad. "No, it is a good time for me to handle another overseas assignment. I'm sure it would just be for a few months, right?" he put on his most convincing tone. "Well, I don't know what to say. That is good news!" Brian was obviously delighted. They talked a bit more, joked and laughed out loudly. Half an hour later, Brian left his office in good spirit and he went back to work.

"Boss?" Melissa was perching at his desk. He did not notice her returning. "Mr Brian said you have agreed to go to Qatar," her voice was so soft that he had to strain to hear her. Oh no! He had forgotten their conversation. "It will only be for a few months. Don't worry, I am still in charge of the Human Resource matters here," he tried to pacify her. "It won't be the same," she nearly wailed. He looked at her carefully. Her eyes seemed red, swollen. Had she been crying? "Are you okay?" he asked her gently. She nodded. "Hey, we can still correspond through the phone, emails and video conference if need be. I would be back before you know it," he assured her. She was still quiet.

She then went out to take a few boxes and placed them on the floor next to his books cabinet. She took out his books one by one and started to pack them in the boxes. She seemed troubled.

A twinge of guilt swept over him. "Melissa, if you are not doing anything later, let's have coffee at Starbucks downstairs, shall we?" She gave him a half smile and nodded.

Three hours later, they sat facing each other at a table located at a secluded corner of Starbucks. He sipped his decaf late while she stirred syrup into her iced lemon tea. "I'm sorry to drop this bombshell on you," he began. "But I can assure you that this is only temporary. I won't be there forever." "I know, boss. I understand," she said unexpectedly.

Her smile suddenly became wider and her eyes twinkled mischievously. She put both her elbows on the table and stared at him for a moment. "Boss, I have something to tell you."

"Ok...," he nodded encouragingly and waited; question marks were dancing in his mind. What now?

"I just spoke to Mr Brian. He said you could use a secretary there and with your increased portfolio, you can benefit from having someone who is already familiar with your working style." She beamed at him. "So, he has agreed to let me follow you to Qatar," she finished. She paused to observe his reaction. He stroked his chin, "Well, this is a surprise."

He was silent for a while, trying to digest the news. He was not sure whether Melissa going along would benefit him. In fact, he was worried about her safety, a single young woman in the Middle East. What was Brian thinking? Why was he not consulted on a crucial matter like this? Something was not right with that picture.

"And there's more," her eyes sparkled again. "Yes?" He was getting to be nervous now. "Mr Brian said I could stay in the apartment unit next to yours. The company's driver can take us to the office. I'll take care of you, boss. We'll make a great team," she purred. Her words kept on repeating in his ears. "I'll take care of you."

To his horror, the image of Dr Salina flashed on Melissa's face. Her long, straight hair was flowing softly. Her face shone. Was that a halo around the top of her head? Her lips mouthed, "I'll take care of you."

He saw the room spinning very quickly. The furniture twirled around them. Then, everything went blank.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hope you don't mind me saying this, Rumaizah, but I find this story really confusing. Rather disjointed, I'm afraid. Zu

Sassy Jam said...

i think the story as rather amusing and a fun read all together..

Rumaizah said...

Thanks for your thoughts. That was my first attemp at writing from a man's point of view - inspired by Raman's class:)
BTW Sassy, I checked out your blog, an interesting read:)

zairi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
zairi said...

Thanks Rumaizah,

It's well-written, nice flow, you paced the punches very well.

Very good!