It was all caused by that fateful office durian party and his resulting binge. And the worst thing is that Ong himself had come up with the idea, inspired by the arrival of June and hoping to cheer up his coworkers, their palates plunged in sorrow and longing for vanished flavors.
The arrival of the king of fruits is always an occasion of joy, but in this year of culinary deprivation, Penang’s favorite delicacy has become manna in a desert of monotony and isolation. That’s why, when Ong showed up this morning with those disposable plastic packages of durian — well-wrapped, well-sealed, no smell on the bus, no smell — his coworkers had greeted him with eager cries.
His few coworkers who were still there, that is — many had asked for indefinite unpaid leave to avoid infection or because of the political instability, who knows. But now is one of the most joyful periods of the year, and they gathered round a couple of tables — eight feet apart, disinfecting every package, not passing anything along — and enjoy the savory, sweet, creamy fruit, its smell permeating the air, attaching to their hair, their clothing, and their souls. Durian, like love, is meant to be shared. With so few left to share with, though, Ong ended up gorging himself, entranced by the irresistible seduction of that fruit fatal.
Even in this rare moment of bliss, Ong couldn’t resist complaining. What misery, what misery it has been for his taste buds. And his coworkers are going through the same suffering: nobody knows how to cook, what’s the point? They live in a culinary mecca where buying food crafted by a specialist is cheaper and quicker than getting tangled up with pots and pans at home. A colleague, mouth full of durian, heart full of desperation, recommended a brand of frozen dim sum which is quite edible when boiled at home, don’t be close-minded, it does the job, and they laughed at this perversity, and each returned to his job.
Ong, mesmerized by the demands of his belly, can’t get his favorite dim sum restaurant out of his head all afternoon and hasn’t done diddly squat. What’s it been, eight, ten weeks now? Without being able to sit in a restaurant. Now they do let you, but with contact tracing and social distancing, and eating out means being immersed in a viral paranoia that clouds and dizzies you, and it’s impossible to enjoy anything.
He sits there, in that grey building in an office park in the Free Industrial Zone, gawking foolishly at his computer, caught in an obsessive spiral in which all he can focus on is tasting one of his favorite culinary treats again. But first, he has to send invoices in English, dim, record the last air freight of the day, sum, authorize the departure of a shipload in Malay, dim, negotiate prices in Hokkien for transport on passenger-free commercial flights, sum, explain in Mandarin to a Singapore importer the problems of meeting the voracious demand with the current meager supply, dim, because, if not, the shelves of the supermarkets will be empty, sum, and he will not be responsible for such an atrocity.
With difficulty, he wraps everything up and leaves once and for all, no longer able to resist the urging of his insatiable stomach, which, though already full of durian, insists on tasting dim sum. Although his mind may tell him that a bland slop is all that awaits him for dinner, his stomach prevails by projecting mirages before his mind, of laden carts groaning under a dizzying array of neatly-arranged plates amidst a halo of light, surrounded by the dingy colonial charm of the colorful shophouses of central Georgetown, where the best dim sum in the country is eaten.
Ong feels feverish, but suspects that the sensation is fruit of the visceral gluttony that is whipping him with psychosomatic fury. It can’t be anything else; as usual, this morning, before he had been allowed into the office, they had taken his temperature, invited him (invited him, ha!) to apply an anti-bacterial gel and check in at the entrance, with his name, ID, hour, minute and second of arrival, exact temperature and practically his brand of underwear. And, anyway, well, he doesn’t have a fever. Neither he nor anyone else. He touches his forehead and perhaps there is a slight burning, but nothing, nothing. There’s no virus whatsoever. This is all just a result of culinary nostalgia, no doubt. He grabs his things with a calmness grounded in his own conviction that all is well. He shuts all his paranoia in that scrawl-filled notebook which he puts away in his briefcase with all his fears and locks up, suffocating the panic behind the lock.
He goes out into the street, and the humid 90 degrees pack more of a punch than ever. There’s absolutely nothing wrong. It’s rush hour and prices on Grab are sky high, so, since he’s feeling so well, he heads to the bus stop and unsheathes the weapon he needs for such an inexplicable whim: patience. He’ll take the bus to Komtar and then continue in a taxi. There is a very long line, which at first intimidates him, because it reminds him of the lines that formed when they shut down the city a few weeks ago, and people began to pile up in front of the police stations to apply for the necessary permits to make interstate trips. Then chaos had seized dominion little by little, with police checkpoints on every road and those government edicts that even their enforcers did not understand, and nobody sure how to behave. The emergency alerts issued by the government, which were pushed to all cell phones in Malay only, with shrill alarms that seemed to announce a nuclear strike, not only spread panic but also deliberately excluded two thirds of the island’s population. It was during those days that he realized that this time it wouldn’t be like the SARS and MERS scares, that this was something huge, which in recent weeks had already wrought radical consequences on the economy, on freedom of movement, on Malaysian politics, on his nerves.
But this line can be blamed only on rush hour and the embarrassing scarcity of 301 buses. Wait, wait, he’s starting to sweat. Is the fire from within or without? He rubs his face against the cold glass of the shelter, slowly, with a cat-like gesture that he hopes nobody sees. At least the street is awash with the sweet smell of durian; despite the virus, it seems like every trunk is loaded with the fruit, and stalls have sprouted up overnight along the side of the road. He focuses on that fragrance as a survival method while cooling his forehead.
Finally the bus arrives and he ends up last to board, because he doesn’t like crowds, much less of contagious people (like him?). Before climbing the stairs, he gathers his strength and puts on his best “I don’t have a fever” face. The driver takes his temperature once, frowns, once again. Ong smiles grimly (as if his mouth were visible through his mask) get in, c’mon, get in, it’s only a few tenths of degrees, and acknowledges the favor with a terima kasih that is more like a sigh.
He pretends to sit tranquilly, collapsing next to an old woman who doesn’t seem like she can see her hand in front of her face, so she probably won’t be judgmental about Ong’s sweat. He presses his face to the cold glass again, his relief only spoiled by his own thoughts: he grows even hotter at the thought of that devious coup d’état supported by the sultan himself and orchestrated to take advantage of the COVID outbreak and seize power from Mahathir after instituting confinement, even though this is still a democracy, right? even if they didn’t vote for the new prime minister, even if now Muhyiddin has consolidated power, even if it doesn’t matter anymore, because you have coronavirus and that’s that, admit it, Ong, death is kissing the back of your neck, you will disappear from the face of the Earth and leave the living to squabble over freedom.
Don’t cough, don’t cough, watch an episode of Normal People on your phone and relax. But he can’t lose himself in the show and is obsessed with the idea of not coughing, and although he doesn’t really need to, he starts coughing like a Sabah coal miner, and the old woman asks him if he is all right while she edges away and pulls out two tiny plastic battery-operated fans to try to push the virus away. The ingenuity and the futility of this gesture somehow seems adorable in that moment. Ong has an urge to lay his head on the woman’s shoulder, but he holds back, and his stomach starts screaming “dim sum, dim sum!” as if he weren’t teetering on the edge of his grave. The young man is so moved by the etymological origin of that term — “to gently caress the heart” — that his stomach triumphs once and for all in the internal debate between dying while eating or dying in bed.
His favorite restaurant is far away and, as the fever continues to rise, it begins to seem more and more irresponsible to go; besides, it’s more than ten kilometers from his house, so legally it’s not even permitted, even though he’s already done it twice by dodging the police, Admittedly, he didn’t have coronavirus back then.
He should just go home directly, but that recommendation of frozen dim sum from his co-worker pops into his head. Since he is going to die anyway, it is worth one final effort, on a smaller scale, even if it is for frozen dim sum. He will get off in a couple of stops and go to the supermarket, that’s it, in and out, without infecting anyone, without talking, without looking at anyone. At home, the only thing he has to eat is his plants — and he would never do that to his babies. This specter which is haunting him will not deprive him of one last culinary pleasure, no way. He’d kill for that delight.
As he passes from the icebox of the bus into the sauna of the outdoors, his glasses fog up, and the blur makes him feel even dizzier, so he buys a teh tarik with extra ice from a street vendor who shouldn’t be there, but he is and, well, he looks healthy, and Ong pays without infecting him. He waits in line at the AEON — it’s short, there’s no longer so much precautionary hoarding — something he would never subject himself to if this weren’t his last meal, because he hates lines, he hates them, but he manages to lose track of time thinking about what he would give to see the Kek Lok Si temple or the mangrove backwaters of Balik Pulau once again, to go walking with his ang mo friends along touristy Chulia Street and introduce them to the world of curry mee (without telling them that in Penang it’s served with pig’s blood), to take another walk through the jungle to the beach, even to have his food stolen by monkeys again… But above all, he would love to ride his bike along the trail of durian orchards, bathing in that pungent smell that brings him back to his childhood. Once more, just once more. His eyes flood with liquid memories as he sticks the cold plastic bag to his forehead, what pleasure, what delight, what relief, and tears, sweat, and condensation mix on his face.
When his turn comes, he downs his tea in one gulp, dries himself with his sleeve, and enters the supermarket, all in a single movement, and the combined coolness of ice and air conditioning courses through his body in a chill that leaves him terrified and reminds him that the icy hand of death is still clutching at his skin, but he is convinced: he will fulfill this Dim Sum Mission if it is his last act on Earth.
At the entrance, he carefully puts on his “neither hot nor cold” face, and the guard scans the temperature of that forehead frozen from street drinking, no problem, enter, enter, the lie sticks. The guard asks him to fit his mask tight, tight, tight, puts a sticky, disinfecting mixture of soap and water and spray on his hands, sticks a number on his body that he will have to display at checkout and makes him register with a QR code to monitor the time he spends in the store: fifteen minutes, not-one-sec-ond-more. He beelines to the frozen food section, grabs a bag, pays — but doesn’t anybody respect safe distances in this line either? — exits and presses dim sum glaciers to his forehead of virus and fire. A blink of an eye: that’s how long he takes.
Now all he has to do is get a taxi, a Grab, a MyCar, a trishaw, whatever. Soon he will arrive home and kiss his mother, his sister, and his plants one last time. It’s sad, but what luck to be able to see them all.
Two drivers kick him out without explanation as soon as he gets in the car. That’s it, it is obvious to everyone that he has coronavirus, and he has become a pariah. He bites open the bag, tries to eat a frozen dumpling. That’s it, his time has come, there’s no doubt about it: nobody in their right mind would put that in their mouth, what a shitty last meal. He spits it out. The third driver also rejects him, but at least gives him a reason, gesturing to the sign on the headrest with a crossed-out durian, familiar in public transport across the Malay peninsula. In the enclosed space, every surface and fabric would be impregnated with the powerful smell.
In that blessed instant, Ong suddenly realizes that he reeks of the cursed fruit and recalls the indigestion and fever that has always punished him for overindulgence in his beloved durian. It first happened when he was a little boy, but with panic in the air, he hadn’t even thought to blame his suffering on gluttony. His face floods with joy, and he uses the entire remainder of his anti-bacterial gel to wash his hands and mouth thoroughly and conceal the odor.
He gets into the fourth taxi, relaxed in his fever, leaving behind the stress and anxiety caused by pondering these totalitarian times and the uncertainty of the future. His conquest of the false coronavirus fills him with assurance, and he immerses himself in the happiness of this moment by resting his forehead against the icy-cool window until he drifts into sleep.