A Good Life
Class had just ended. The students of A-2 were packing their things and leaving. Their teacher, Professor Faisal had subjected them to a 2-hour-long lesson on exposition in script writing, and unlike the other times, this time he didn’t give his students a chance to breathe. He just went on and on like a preaching parent. Naturally the students found this ordeal exhausting, and so they left the class without even a nod to the professor, who was trying to get a look of reassurance from them as they made their exit. As he was scanning their faces, he settled on one at the back of the class.
“Kimi!” The professor called out.
“Yes Prof?” Kimi replied. He was packing up at the last row of seats.
“Come,” The professor said. “Take a seat.”
As he made his way to the front of the class, Kimi was smiling like a 5-year-old boy who had discovered a beetle for the first time. “You read my scripts?”
“How was it?” Kimi asked, still wearing a smile.
“It was good” The professor said, his head nodding like one of those toys you put on your dashboard with the wobbly head, but he wasn’t smiling.
“Is there a but?”
The professor chuckled, “Yes. There is, unfortunately.”
Kimi let out a chuckle as well. Somehow he felt more relaxed. But he didn’t say anything.
“Now, you don’t have to worry too much. It’s not a serious problem. I suppose there is something to your story, Tujuh. It’s a very interesting story. I like it.” The professor said. Kimi kept his eyes on him.
“But this is the final semester Kimi. Every time you have an idea for a movie you have to think about the funds. That’s the most important thing. The funds. All movies need funding, and to get that you need to persuade investors. How are you gonna get investors to part with their money? That should be the guiding principle when you write a screenplay. Some people think it’s selling out, but you don’t think like that Kimi. Don’t be like Lisa or Tony. They don’t want to admit it, but that’s how the film industry works.”
“I did consider that Prof,” Kimi interjected. “I agree that Tujuh is unconventional, but it’s also tried and tested. Superhero movies make the most ROI. And Tujuh has just enough difference to be something worth doing. It’s about Malaysian superheroes who are regular nine to fivers. Malaysians would love that ”
“I know that Kimi. Your superheroes are different. But are they different in the right way? I do like the originality. I like your superheroes, especially the one who can make his enemies believe something happened when it actually didn’t. What’s his name again? Zen? Something Z… Oh right, Zain! Really original. My concern here is that none of your seven superheroes have powers that give a SPECTACLE. Spectacles are important. That’s what most people go to the cinema for. They wanna see things explode. They wanna see cities crumble. Your story doesn’t have that. It’s very psychological, which most people don’t like. They say they do, but they don’t.”
Kimi couldn’t help but nod to that. He knew the professor had a point. But he also knew his story had a point. He wanted to say something — he felt there was a reply somewhere deep within him, begging to be brought out, but he just didn’t have the tools to do it. He didn’t know what to say. So he just nodded.
“Now… you still have time if you work hard enough. I want you to add some spectacles to Tujuh. Maybe change one character’s superpower to super strength? Okay? Okay, you can give it to me Friday next week, no problem. That’s all Kimi.”
Kimi said his thanks and walked out of the class. When he reached the cafeteria, he looked for his classmates, but they weren’t there. Oh well, they probably went somewhere already, he thought. Kimi wasn’t the type to be bothered by things like that. He enjoyed the company of his classmates, and he often reminisced on their weird adventures together when he was alone — their unfunny jokes, their weird ways of being a person, their loudness that he couldn’t mimic but adored. But he never minded when he got left out now and then. He enjoyed break time alone too, because it meant he could go to an air conditioned restaurant somewhere and continue watching the movie he had left off the day before.
When Kimi reached the campus gate, he stopped for a second to think about his lunch options. He remembered there was a Burger King about 5 minutes walking distance, and he decided to go there. He took out his signature maroon beanie from his bag, wrapped it over his head, and started walking across the road. Whopper or Mushroom Swiss? He asked himself.
“KIMI!” a voice screamed from behind him. It was loud but it sounded like it slipped out.
10 Years Later
“Before we start, I have to lay out the ground rules first. There’s only one rule here, and that is — don’t hold back. Eat as much as you want!” Shafiq Nazmi said as he stood at the head of his long decorated table, his arm stretched out in front of him holding his champagne. Around the table sat Shafiq’s wife and colleagues — actors and actresses who he was close with, together with his manager and the director of his latest movie. On the table was a colourful and aromatic selection of dishes; tomahawks, foie gras, and a wide variety of hors d’oeuvres.
“You’re too kind Shafiq,” said one actor, “WE should be the ones treating you to all this. Not the other way around.”
Everyone nodded and laughed. The dinner was celebrating Shafiq’s big win at Anugerah Berita Harian the day before. He had won Best Male Lead for his role as Zain in a film titled Tujuh.
“Nonsense. I’m grateful to have you all in my life. I wouldn’t be where I am if it wasn’t for all of you.” Shafiq replied.
One of the actresses said “Shouldn’t you be saying that to your wife? We hardly did anything.” and everyone roared. Shafiq’s wife grinned with her slightly flushed face.
“Of course. You especially, sayang. I owe you my life.” Shafiq gave his wife a peck on the lips. His guests awww-ed at the display.
“But I meant what I said. Thank you for believing in me and supporting me. Especially to these two right here.” and he gestured towards his manager, a businesslike lady named Eliza, and his director, Kimi. “Here’s to the two greatest individuals I have come across. I wouldn’t be the person that I am today, wouldn’t have the success that I have, if it wasn’t for you. Thank you.” The others clapped for Kimi and Shafiq’s manager. They both looked at each other and shared a smile.
Kimi was at the balcony, enjoying a smoke and the view of the KL skyline. Shafiq’s apartment had a nice distant view of things. You could see all the important buildings in the city, and most of the roads, but you couldn’t see the people. Precisely because of this the view always gave his visitors, which consisted of big names in film, a small feeling of calm.
“I see you’ve discovered the best part of this apartment” came a voice behind him. He turned around to look. It was Shafiq’s manager, Eliza.
“I don’t know. It’s too early to say.” Kimi replied.
“Fancy one of those actresses do you?” Eliza replied as she took out a cigarette from the inner pocket of her off-white blazer. Kimi couldn’t help but look — as he had looked at her all those times she was by Shafiq’s side when they were working on Tujuh. He had talked to her a few times and had enjoyed it but for some reason he couldn’t remember what their conversations were about. Kimi liked how she wore her off-white Fuiko Kudama blazer over an ivory white turtleneck. It made her look graceful. And he liked her face too, she looked like one of those girls that all her guy friends secretly like.
“God no. I’m not Weinstein.” Kimi replied. “And I should really be asking you that. They’re all into you. Even the girls.”
Eliza shook her head animatedly and laughed. “They’re not! They’re just really nice people.”
“Well… I’d be nice too, if I was talking to you.” Kimi said.
“So you’re saying you’re NOT a nice person?” Eliza replied.
Kimi stumbled, “Um..” and tried to think of a reply. His mind went to a sort of frenzy as he looked for witticisms he could use, his ego rumbling through the warehouse of his mind — tossing things about looking for that one right reply, and after a few seconds, he stole a quick glance at Eliza, who was still waiting for his reply. Somehow this made him see himself reflected through her eyes — how silly he was, and how hard he was trying to be clever and how unimportant it was in the grand scheme of things, and Eliza seemed to realize this too, because they both laughed. No, Kimi thought to himself, the view isn’t the best part of the apartment.
Eliza and Kimi were sitting on Eliza’s L-shaped sofa in front of the TV. The screen was flashing the closing credits of Mulholland Drive, its eerie soundtrack humming in the background.
“What….” Eliza said. “What was that?” She looked disappointed.
Kimi let out a big grin. “I didn’t get it either…. at first. I had to watch an explainer video. Lucky for you, I am your explainer video.”
Eliza looked at him, her eyebrows still furrowed.
“Okay so the thing is…” and Kimi went on explaining. Mulholland Drive was his favourite movie in the world. So he loved explaining every bit of it to her, who kept shooting him questions about this and that. Kimi never minded questions about movies he loved. He was himself the most when he was talking about them.
“Shit!” Eliza said when everything finally clicked. “What an insane movie.” she continued, her eyes in awe. Kimi laughed.
They continued talking into the night, going over the details of the movie, then going over the explanation again, before going off on tangents to talk about how the movie related to their lives. At one point, as Kimi was talking about something, he noticed how different Eliza was looking at him. Her eyes looked brighter. Even when he had finished talking, she kept her radiant gaze on him, and it seemed to pull him in like gravity. He felt himself moving closer to her, very slightly at first, but when he saw her eyes again, and how bright they were, he moved all the way in, until she moved in too and touched her lips to his. They moved their hands on each other, and slowly took one step further and further, as the noise outside grew quieter and quieter. At one point, Kimi thought he heard his name being called, but when he looked around and there was no one, he let it slide without a second thought.
“Ma, I have to go to the toilet” Eliza whispered to her right. Her mom gave a slight nod. When she felt Eliza’s gaze still on her, her eyes flashed. OH. “You didn’t expect it?” she asked.
“You know how it is.” Eliza replied, finally making preparations to leave the long table.
“I’ll come with.” said her mother.
“No need. Kimi will come.” Eliza turned to her left and whispered in Kimi’s ears. Kimi nodded.
“Za, it can’t be the two of you. This is YOUR night.” Her mom whispered as both of them rose up from their chairs. Eliza ignored her and led Kimi out of the banquet hall. He turned back towards Eliza’s mother and gave her an innocent shrug. I can’t help it, it said.
The door closed behind them. “Didn’t you just finish your period a few days ago?” Kimi asked. Eliza grinned and nodded. “Then?” Kimi looked blankly at her. She just smiled at him. Then, something clicked in him. “Oh! you scheming little devil.” Kimi said, chuckling. They then rushed towards one of the exits. When they got out, Kimi took out a Winston light pack and handed one stick to Eliza and one to himself. They lit their cigarettes and shared their observations about the guests,
“Did you see the old-man in the velvet suit? That’s Uncle Rizal.”
“Who are those serious looking men at Table 46? You don’t know either?”
“They saw us coming out? How did they look?”
“Oh, she was my assistant at one point. She looks at everyone that way.”
As they puffed out their clouds of smoke, they took care to blow it away from their outfits, Kimi away from his satin white Baju Melayu, and Eliza away from her long white gown.
Kimi was sitting in an armchair, his head thrown back, his eyes lightly shut. A sentence flashed in his mind:
“They should’ve sent a poet.”
It’s a line from Carl Sagan’s novel, Contact. The protagonist said it the first time she saw the earth from outside. Ever since he read the book, the line had occasionally popped up unsolicited, whenever he was really enjoying something. It came up when he first tasted the infamous Popeye’s Chicken Sandwich, and when he first saw the numinous northern lights in New Zealand, and whenever he listened to Bill Evan’s Peace Piece, and it came up when he first laid eyes on Eliza, sweet, intelligent, Eliza, out of her clothes for the first time, and it came up too in moments like he was having right now.
Kimi opened his eyes and looked down. Eliza caught his eyes and smiled with a mouth that was full of a part of him. He groaned and closed his eyes again. He pictured all the moments he had seen her naked — — when she came out of the shower, when she sat at her vanity, that time they did it by the lakeside, all the times he helped her pick which outfits to go with. All those images flashed on his mind in full colour. He opened his eyes and sneaked a peek at Eliza below him. He thought about how great love was.
Reaching in 2 hours, the GPS said.
Kimi was driving his black Model S Tesla on the highway leading home. Eliza was beside him, answering the occasional question from their daughters at the back. The first one was eight-year-old Petra, the second, six-year-old Sofia. Kimi had his focus on the road completely, until he heard Sofia calling him.
“Daddy.” Sofia said.
“Yes?” Kimi replied as dads do to their daughters.
“Knock knock.” she said.
Kimi smiled and looked in the rearview mirror. She was looking at him. “Who’s there?”
“Moo.” she replied.
“Moo-who?” Kimi replied.
“Mommy, why is a sad cow dwiving the cawr?” Sofia said. She couldn’t pronounce R.
They all laughed. Sofia beamed like an adorable supernova.
“Daddy knock knock.” Petra said when their laughter faded.
“Who’s there?” Kimi said, his tone revealing his amusement.
The car was silent. The radio continued humming in the background. No reply came. Puzzled, Kimi turned back to look at Petra. She was looking at him seriously, her eyes magnified in a caricature. He looked at her blankly for a while, and then he laughed. Petra laughed too.
Sofia looked puzzled. “I don’t get it.” she whined.
“If you don’t get it, you just don’t get it.” Petra casually replied.
“But it’s not faiwww.” Sofia whined again. Petra chuckled.
Kimi looked at Sofia in the mirror, “Okay honey, why don’t you tell us another joke?”
Sofia returned the look expectantly. “Okay. Why did the giwaffe come to the pawty?” she said.
He tried to remember if he had heard this one before or not. “I don’t know. Why?”
“Because the pawty had high ceilings” Sofia replied.
“Because the party had what?” Kimi asked.
“Because the pawty had high ceilings.” she said again, grinning.
“Oh. Um..” Kimi gave as honest a laugh as he could. Eliza turned her face towards the window, hiding her laugh.
Petra replied with a smile, “That’s really funny Sof. It’s a good joke.” and Sofia glowed triumphantly.
Kimi couldn’t keep himself from smiling.
As the kids and Eliza settled in, Kimi sat at the living room couch. He took Haruki Murakami’s 1Q94 from the table and continued reading where he left off. One of the protagonists, a girl named Aomame, was leaving her cab on the expressway because the road was congested and she was rushing to meet a client. She was planning to take the emergency staircase downstairs, at the suggestion of her driver. After Aomame paid him, the driver says:
“And also,” the driver said, facing the mirror, “please remember: things are not what they seem.”
Things are not what they seem, Aomame repeated mentally. “What do you mean by that?” she asked with knitted brows.
The driver chose his words carefully: “It’s just that you’re about to do something out of the ordinary. Am I right? People do not ordinarily climb down the emergency stairs of the Metropolitan Expressway in the middle of the day — especially women.”
“I suppose you’re right.”
“Right. And after you do something like that, the everyday look of things might seem to change a little. Things may look different to you than they did before. I’ve had that experience myself. But don’t let appearances fool you. There’s always only one reality.”
Kimi’s eyes widened on this passage. This was exactly why he loved Haruki Murakami. The author had a special gift for discovering mystery in reality. Kimi had always been a logical person; he liked to deconstruct the world and see all its parts. If the world was a forest, Kimi was familiar with the insects and trees inside it, he saw them in detail. Murakami was the antithesis to this side of Kimi. It was a fog that shrouded the forest in mystery again. He continued reading the story, getting more and more absorbed by its strange magic.
After a while, the sound of footsteps trailed down the stairs behind him. “Are you coming up?” Eliza said as she laid her hands on Kimi’s shoulders. His attention came back to the present. “What time is it?”
“1:30” she replied.
He looked up at her and squeezed her hand. “I’ll be up in a bit. Just finishing this.”
Eliza squeezed his shoulders and strolled back upstairs. He continued reading until the page finished. Then he placed the book back on the table and reoriented himself. His gaze fell on his TV screen in front. He stared at it, thinking nothing. Then he noticed something. The TV was upside down. His eyebrows furrowed. He took the remote control and clicked “On”. The screen played as usual. Huh, he thought. He changed the channels. Click. Click. Click. Click. The orientation was undisturbed. He got up and walked to the TV. He took a look at the back wires. He traced his hands on the frame. It’s upside down all right. He sat back on the couch and let out a sigh. “Why is it upside down?” he mumbled. Then when he got no answers, he reached out for the pack inside his pants.
The sun was bright in the room. Petra and Sofia were sitting on his sides on the sofa. “Did you stay up to do work again?” Petra asked.
“Um.. no.” Kimi replied with a polite smile. “I was… thinking.”
“A new movie!” Sofia replied.
“No, not a new movie. I’ve just… Never mind.” He replied as he cleaned up the ashes scattered on the table in front. He could feel Petra looking at him.
“What movie?” Sofia asked.
“Daddy, are you okay?” Petra asked.
He looked at the screen. It was playing an episode of Reckless Drivers.
“Daddy. You can talk to us.” Petra said.
“Yeah Daddy, tell us. Is Shafiq gonna be in this new one too?” Sofia asked.
He sat back and held his two daughters. “Do you notice anything weird about our TV?” He asked them, pointing in front.
“It’s gonna have a cawr chase!” Sofia exclaimed, her excitement intense like a sun beam. Petra looked at the TV for a while, then she asked “Weird how?”
“The frame’s upside down.”
“You mean the buttons are at the top?”
“Yeah that. It’s weird isn’t it, that the visuals aren’t upside down too?”
“I don’t get it Daddy. It’s always been like that.”
Kimi turned to look at Petra “It was always like that? Why didn’t mommy return it?”
“Why wouldn’t Mommy return what?” came Eliza’s voice from behind. She was all dressed up. Loose white shirt, denim jeans, hair tied to the back. “You fell asleep” She asked him.
“Yeah I — ” Kimi replied “Has our TV always been upside down like that?”
“Of course it has. How old are you, 70?” Eliza grinned as she joined them on the sofa. When she sat down a deviant sun ray shone on her, and it made her hair glisten like chocolate gold.
“God, you’re stunning.” Kimi said.
She slanted her head a little and smiled with an open mouth. Then she leaned in on him and whispered “Then fuck me.”
Kimi chuckled. Suddenly the weird problem with the TV didn’t seem to matter. “Come. I’ll send you girls.” he said as he helped his wife and daughters up.
“KIMI!” a voice shouted from somewhere in the living room.
He turned around. There was no one in the house.
“What’s wrong?” Eliza asked.
“Did you hear that?” Kimi replied.
“KIMI!” the voice shouted again.
“That!” He eyed every corner of the room. “That voice calling my name.”
“Are you okay?” Eliza asked. “I don’t hear any voice.” His daughters were staring at him.
“KIMI!!” came the voice again.
It’s coming from… the TV. He looks at it. “Yes?” he replied.
“Oh thank god! Kimi! Wake up!”
Kimi was lying down on a rough surface. The sky was bright blue and clear. He felt strangely peaceful. Am I at a beach? He asked himself. Slowly he started to hear muffled voices from every corner of his sky. He tried to turn his head to look but he couldn’t seem to do it. All he could see was the wide sky in all its blue grandeur.
A head popped up from his periphery, looking down at him. It was Professor Faisal. “Oh god, Kimi. I shouldn’t have delayed you like that. I’m so so sorry.” Professor said. He was holding Kimi’s maroon beanie in his hand.
“What… where am I?” Kimi asked, still in a bit of a daze.
“You’re in front of the gate. A car hit you from behind. Drunk driver. Jason from A-4 said he called out to you to watch out, but the driver was too fast. How are you feeling?” The Professor replied.
Kimi’s ears finally adjusted to the muffled voices around him. He could hear snaps of a camera, vague whispers, concealed laughters, and multiple people saying his name in a sentence. He looked at the Professor, “Where is Eliza?”
“Eliza?” the Professor asked as he mulled over the question. Then, turning back to Kimi he asked “Who’s Eliza?”