Cinta Touch n’ Go*

“Two ringgit please,” said the toll booth operator, her gentle voice floating above the rumbling engines of neighbouring cars and almost out of earshot. He fumbled with the new coins, shiny from lack of use. He hated these plasticky, new token-y things.

The coins’ insubstantial quality robbed him of his ability to gauge exactly how much money he was holding just by touch.

This fumbling – and what he imagined was a growing line of impatient motorists behind him, boring holes into his car boot with their hateful stares – made him feel more awkward.

This was really bad, because he had a huge crush on the toll booth operator. True enough, out of sheer embarrassment he sped away without so much as a glance as soon as the boomgate lifted.

Natasha, says the blue plastic sliding thing, manned the third lane from the left – the ‘Tunai & TnG’ lane – at the Bukit Kiara toll plaza on the Sprint highway. She took the evening shift which coincided with his drive home towards Section 14.

He could not remember when he started to find her so… interesting. It was probably when she thanked him and smiled genuinely. Toll booth operators never smile. Service providers never smile. Malaysians never smile. What’s wrong with her?

“Why are you such a bloody pessimist? Face like ham chim peng*, no wonder people don’t smile back at you!” his sister chided him.

He must have liked it subconsciously though. It never occurred to him to get a Touch ‘n Go card, after all.

What began as a fascination turned into wonder… and eventually affection.

He started to wonder if she smiled at everyone, or only him. Or did she smile more sweetly at him? It was hard to tell; the first 22 times after he became aware of his feelings, he would hand her exact change and speed off. This was before the new coins came into circulation, of course.

Exactly two months to the day of his… awakening, he decided to make a move. “Thank you!” she chirped. “Thanks and good night!” he burbled.

This progressed to “Thanks Natasha!”. The words slowed from gale-force speeds to just short of Soon, their exchanges progressed to more specific pleasantries and one-liners on the weather and traffic. It was like Twitter, except that it was limited by time and topic, and it cost him two ringgit per chat.

Best deal ever!

He had to make a ballsier move. He had to do something memorable. Something sweet and romantic. So, he had his sister fold two one ringgit notes into flowers and kept them in his car’s cup holder. One of the flowers contained a white sheet of paper scrawled with his name, handphone number and a plaintive ‘call me?’.

At 6.14pm that Wednesday he paid her in origami flowers and stared hard at the toll booth wall.

Her tight smile as she struggled to unfold the notes quickly made him cringe. Her eyes widened about 3mm, by his estimates, when she saw the sheet of paper. It was her turn to avert her eyes and mumble a quick “Safe journey!”. He put on his best poker face and drove off, trying not to go too fast so as to not look embarrassed, or frightened, or upset.

He stopped going through her lane so often. At work, just before it was time to go home, he would roll a dice to determine which lane he would use. Then he would spend another 10 minutes agonising over what he really wanted to do anyway.

The few times he plucked up the courage to go to the third lane, she acted as courteous as ever. It scared him.

One day, she stopped manning the booths. He would drive 18 times through her former lane – once a day either in the morning or evening, then once every three days for the next two weeks – before he accepted the fact that she was gone.

Then he bought a Smart Tag*.

It was in that strange pockmarks of time left by this missing ritual that he remembered an ancient Chinese belief his sister had told him.

It goes like this – Everybody reincarnates. Throughout their various lifetimes, they form bonds with different souls.  The bonds may stretch over several different lifetimes, and the longer the souls know one another, the greater the karma.

The karma accumulated between each soul determines the nature of their relationship in the future. That lady in the pink sari who crossed your path this afternoon (do you even remember her?) – probably knew you for a few hundred years.

That colleague in finance you meet every few months? Many hundreds of years at best.

Course mates? You’re looking at the low thousands.

Your BFF from secondary school? Several thousand years at least.

Lovers, family and the like? A mindblowing number of years, for sure.

There is no going rate for a pre-destined one-minute date with a toll booth operator, but he estimated it at about seven lifetimes of bumping into each other.

So much effort, so many years go into one chance meeting. How many years went into his meeting with Natasha? Did she take his daily visits as nothing more than just another car going past?

Maybe… he invested more karma into this meeting with her than Natasha did.

Maybe… he spent many lifetimes longingly gazing at her from a distance, and this was as far as fate would bring him. He would never know.

By JW Lam.

*Cinta is the malay word for Love. Touch n’ Go is a concession card used at toll booths in Malaysia.

*Ham Chim Peng is a chinese savoury pastry that is flat and round.

* Smart Tag is a a automatic payment device used in the Malaysian toll networks.