It was two days and thirteen hours before the New Hampshire primary, where back home Donald Trump, the Republican frontrunner, was inciting Americans to turn out and vote for him like it was their destiny. But halfway around the world, in the ethnically Chinese enclave of Malacca, people were met with a different kind of providence: the Lunar New Year.
For weeks, paper lanterns with golden stalks lined the crowded streets in and out of the city. Grass jelly and chilled longan juice were sold from large fish tanks at corner stalls. A troupe of young men, wearing gold pants tiered with white foil like a wedding cake donned a lion costume and lit firecrackers in front of freshly-swept storefronts, all while amassing red envelopes.
Rajendra, Sebastian, and I drove down from Kuala Lumpur by taxi, a journey of two hours and almost 100 miles. In retrospect, it would have been vastly more economical to have taken a bus, but none of us, in nearly a week of journeying together, had carved out a particularly strong reputation for advance planning.
Sebastian stepped out of the passenger seat where he had been asleep for the last hour and stretched out his arms. “I can only sleep like that when I’m exhausted,” he professed, shaking his head, “and I haven’t slept well in weeks.”
Rajendra and I, meanwhile, had been talking nearly the entire time since we left KL – uncharacteristic, given my own propensity for sleeping in cars. But the conversation centered on couples and relationships, and whether or not we believed in the concept of fate.
Shortly after we got out of the taxi, we passed a Malaysian man sitting on a low stool in front of a shuttered jazz bar. By his ankles was a striped Taby so small it couldn’t have been more than a week old.
“Can I hold it?” Rajendra asked of the tiny kitten, her breath heavy with anticipation. The man shook his head sympathetically, a rueful smile across his face. Instead, he handed each of us an orange, carefully wrapped in wax paper that he picked from a heap by his side.
“For the New Year,” he said, with a grin. “It will bring you good luck.” I clutched the tiny orange in my hand, the same hue and only slightly smaller than the cat. For someone who endorsed the idea of good luck, I had remarkably little trust in fate.
“I don’t believe that there’s one person out there for each of us,” I said, picking up where our conversation in the car had left off. “It sets society up for failure by fixating on this idea of a soulmate.”
We were walking by a canal with water that was a muddy brown. A small ferry was guiding passengers around the narrow bends and allowing them to dock at points along the shore. I watched the people sitting out on window balconies and verandas and tried to imagine Malacca as Asia’s answer to Venice, a city I had seen in photographs but had never visited.
Rajendra and Sebastian, by contrast, had spent considerable time in Italy, and joked that they knew their way around Europe the way I did Asia, as if each were a neighborhood one could inure in a day. Rajendra was about my age, and like me, was also in a relationship. Sebastian was nearly a decade her junior, and had been referred to by strangers interchangeably as both Rajendra’s boyfriend and brother. While I imagined us more as a polyandrous trio, I saw their point; I found myself wanting to hold Rajendra almost as much as I did protect her.
“I think there’s a time and place for a soulmate,” Sebastian said, not looking up from his phone, which he had used to switch Tinder to Discovery mode. “I’m just not quite there yet.”
Southeast Asia, as the epicenter of global sex tourism, presented no shortage of temptations. Within minutes, we had walked past a rent-by-the-hour hotel called “Fingers Crossed” and a half-dozen foot massage parlors moonlighting as brothels. At night in KL, it was not uncommon to be accosted by a woman with a plunging neckline and stiletto heels, all too eager to talk. For some, it was enough to override their defenses: the flash of skin under an anonymous guise.
“I don’t necessarily believe in a soulmate,” Rajendra said, taking a sip from a whole coconut she bought off the street. “But I do think you’re with who you’re with for a reason.” Her skin, a light mahogany, appeared immune to the scorching midday sun. She was wearing a dress with an open back like a well that if you stared at too long you might fall in.
“But how will you know if they’re the right one?” Sebastian asked, looking her in the face. Rajendra paused for a moment.
“You’ll just know,” she said, darting her eyelashes at the sky. “Everything happens for a reason.”
It took the better part of the afternoon before we realized we had no way of getting home. At the tourist center in the town square, we booted up Internet Explorer on a Windows 2000 desktop with a scotch-taped sign that warned “NO BROWSING ADULT CONTENT.” But no matter which booking website we tried, every ticket to Kuala Lumpur was sold out.
“It’s the New Year,” I muttered glumly. “Taxis won’t want to make the trip to KL at night.” I looked up at the large sun-bleached city map that hung from the wall like a scarecrow. “Our best bet is to go to the bus station in person.”
Our driver was in his mid-40s, a Malaysian man with graying hair and a touch of whiskers, but who maintained the rugged handsomeness of youth.
“Work or play?” Talib asked on the way to the station, like they were two choices on a menu. He spoke with an American accent so impeccable I thought for a moment that he was imitating.
“Honeymoon, actually,” I replied, trying my best to keep a straight face. He lifted his sunglasses and looked over at me before inspecting Rajendra and Sebastian through the rearview mirror.
“He’s lying,” Rajendra said, before Talib had a chance to respond. “We’re just traveling.”
Travel. The word reverberated in my head like a siren. For a moment, I remembered my first time in Malaysia, an age of daring impulses and lower stakes, when every day was a new adventure. A part of me still longed for that feeling, the desire to quit everything and set off on my own, to regain something from my past that was lost. But for the rest of me, travel also served as a reminder of my worst fears about myself – that I am restless, that I can’t stay in one place for too long, that I will always wonder about what could have been.
As we rounded the corner, I noticed that we had left Chinatown and were driving through a progressively more Muslim neighborhood. I thought about the women we had seen in airless massage parlor windows and smoky Western bars. It was a marked contrast to many of the Muslim women – a majority in the country – who were covered from head to toe in hijab, as if Malaysia had taken extra precaution to safeguard some of its own.
“A woman with one man is difficult enough,” Talib said, noticing my gaze, “but two is just crazy.” He shot a smile at Rajendra and pointed outside the window at the women in the street. “The woman is expected to be faithful. But she also gets blamed for when the man steps out of line.”
I thought about the reasons for why men stray, and how so often the onus falls on the woman—that she didn’t love him enough or that she should have been more understanding. Western religion has historically painted women as temptations, and men, by extension, as slaves to desire, helpless to resist even in the face of moral discord. But most of the debate today still centers on the woman’s role—the best strategies for keeping a man or how she can downplay her sexuality in public. In all the talking, the discussion seems to neglect the more serious issue at hand: why do men cheat, and is there anything that can be done about it?
At the bus station, we scoured our way around the ticket booths. They were arranged in a tight circle, like the nucleus of a cell, each nearly identical save for the company name on the awning and the teller sitting behind the glass. Radiating out from them in every direction was a corresponding gate where queues of people were lined up to board buses to Johor, Terengganu, Seremban. Everyone in the station was flitting from one ticket booth to the next, trying to outrun the signs in the glass windows showing which routes were already sold out.
“Last three tickets,” Sebastian said, noticeably out of breath. He had done a few loops before finding a booth that still sold tickets to KL. “I had to fight off another group of tourists behind me.” He handed them gingerly to Rajendra like he was smuggling contraband. “Unfortunately, they didn’t have anything later than 6.”
I checked my watch; we only had a few hours before we would need to be back at the station. I started peering in and out of the other booths, somehow convinced that even though we had barely bought these tickets in time, that there might still be later ones for sale.
“I think it’s this idea that something better is going to come along,” I said to no one in particular. Infidelity stemmed from a kind of anxiousness, I reasoned, of never being satisfied. There is always a false hope that the next person who comes around will be the last.
“What?” Sebastian asked, shooting me a look of sheer bafflement. I shook my head, releasing my nervousness in streaks through my hair. I pointed at the tickets in Rajendra’s hands, wondering what would have happened if we hadn’t found them.
“Think about it,” I said. “Don’t you ever wonder what other directions your lives could have gone?”
Sebastian fanned open the top of his polka-dot shirt, damp with sweat. “I try not to have any regrets,” he said, though I suspected he was still too young for them. Rajendra walked her sandals in front of her and tugged at the straps of her dress.
“It’s not an easy question,” she said, searching the room. Her lips formed the beginnings of a smile, black hair framing high cheekbones. “At some point you just have to be content.” She looked right at me, her eyes bristling at the ends. “I guess you have to trust a little in fate.”
I thought about where I had come from – how being in a relationship had brought me back to the states from Asia – and how, in a strange way, living in the states had now led me back. Maybe Rajendra was right: that everything happens for a reason. That we are standing at the crossroads of exactly where we need to be.
For the next three hours, we went back into town, and by 5:30, we were in the same position as we were before: desperate to get to the bus station. Only this time, it was rush hour, and there wasn’t a taxi in sight. The street was mired in traffic, and it seemed like the whole city had grinded to a halt. We started walking quickly in the direction of the station, snaking past the lanes of idle cars, and reached a small clearing near an intersection.
By some miracle, a taxi approached with a gleaming red “empty” sign lit up against the windshield. When I hopped in the passenger seat, it took a moment for me to register. Without his sunglasses, he had looked like someone else, but it was Talib, the very same driver we had had on our first trip to the bus station.
“I can’t believe it,” I exclaimed, swiveling around to look at Rajendra and Sebastian in the backseat. “This must be a sign.” Talib laughed, pulling the car out into the street.
“Yes, it must,” he said, his eyes trained on the road in front of him. “Something like destiny.”