I was having a haircut at the local ‘mamak’ barber-shop a couple of months ago when Hussein plonked himself down on the chair next to mine. I could hardly believe the serendipity of the moment; I had only been thinking of him a few days prior: And there he was! When we were done with our haircuts, we quickly adjourned to he ‘mamak’ café next door for a ‘teh tarik’ session. There was a lot of catching-up to do.
After the usual banter and ribbing, we began discussing our pet topic: the merits (or otherwise) of the Kings’s Gambit opening in chess. Things got very animated very quickly, and not wanting to get embroiled in all out open warfare, I diplomatically changed to subject to books; a subject I was certain we both loved equally and, thus, was less likely to result in an altercation.
“And has Kinokuniya accepted your proposal of marriage?” I asked. Hussein is the only man I knew who wanted to marry a bookshop.
“Nah! She’s still thinking about it.” he replied, feigning a broken heart. When he broke into that infectious smile of his, I knew World War III had been averted. “But I’ve been rather promiscuous lately; just yesterday I was at Borders.” he continued.
“You what?!” I retorted in mock horror.
“I even bought a book from her.”
“Oh? What did you get?”
“I got this book by Harper Lee called –”
“I know that one!” I interjected. “Is it any good?”
Hussein looked at me squarely in the eyes. There was no denying the dejection he was feeling.
“It was the most disappointing purchase I have ever made. I am certain that I have been duped by Borders!” he declared.
“Huh? How so? And why you did you buy the damned book in the first place?”
“It came highly recommended by a very dear friend.” He smiled a smile I had not seen in a long time.
“So? What’s wrong with it?” I demanded.
“What’s wrong with it you ask? I bought the damned book expecting beautiful prose and emotions so tender they’d make Mike Tyson weep. But what did I get? Pictures! Pages upon pages of pictures! Of the same beautiful lady, I might add! I’ll admit she’s a knockout, though.” Hussein explained.
I laughed so hard that that I almost fell off my chair. After sufficiently recovering from my bout of mirth, I offered, “That’ll teach you check –”
I stopped myself mid-sentence. Hussein wasn’t one to make mistakes like that. Then, it finally hit me.
“Show me this book! If you have it on you, that is.” I challenged. He duly did. As I had suspected, there wasn’t a single picture in it, only page upon page of some of the most beautiful prose I had ever read.
“Have you lost your mind, Hussein? There isn’t a single picture in this book.” I tried to reason.
“None that you can see, my friend.” he said as he stood up to take his leave. Before he turned to go, he added, “And it isn’t my mind that I have lost…”
It was his heart.
As he disappeared into the crowd, I felt happy for him. At the same tie, I felt sorry fro him, too.
I was happy for him because I knew, deep in my bones, that it could just possibly be that he had finally found her: The One. Whoever she was, I was certain that she must have been extraordinary – extraordinary enough to be able to steal his heart; a heart he had buried so long ago, along with all the pain and heartache he had seen through the years. How he had worked-up the courage to even dare to feel again was beyond me. Words didn’t come cheap – not to someone like Hussein. But there he was, not a moment ago, with his heart on his sleeve, smiling like some idiotic love-sick teenager. I was happy for him.
But I was sorry for him, too. Despite how deeply he felt for her, (and I am guessing that she probably felt the same for him, too), there was no denying that they had perhaps met a tad too late. I knew him enough to know that if there was anything he could do to change that fact, he would. But as it was, given his circumstances, there was precious little left that was actually his to give. I also knew Hussein well enough to know that he was damned if he knew what he was going to do about all of this. It wasn’t going to be easy for either one of them. Though no one would have guessed it, knowing Hussein for as long as I have, I knew that he was bleeding more than he actually cared to say.
I drank the last of my ‘teh tarik’ and wished them both all the very best. Secretly, I also wished that Hussein would never ever be able to finish reading that book – that her face would forever prevent him from seeing the words of Harper Lee.