I’d rather be asleep.
I’d rather have ignored your request at my door, small and pleading and moist with youth. I’d rather the song of your furtive feet retreating as quickly as they’d come had been a stray breeze in the night, or the cackling melody of mating geckos. I’d rather have curled deeper into the naked mattress that carves brutal shapes into my spine, because sleep is something I don’t get enough of.
Yet here I am, groping for a light switch in a kitchen that I spend more time inside than my own head. Slumber clings to my face like a thick, waxen mask; I lean against the sink for a few indulgent heartbeats while my eyes adjust to the light and I wait for the mask to melt. It’s your request, not the consequences of ignoring them, that persuades my fingers to curl around a saucepan on the drying rack and move it to the stovetop. It’s knowing you are at the mercy of a belligerent stomach in your bedroom upstairs that gives me the strength to push aside my needs and my rights as I twist the knob to summon a fire. It’s a hungry fire, one that licks at the metal sides of the saucepan with ravenous orange swipes; I know you are hungry as well because the dinner plate I’d washed a few hours ago had held a half-eaten mound of rice drowning in greasy curry.
It’s not my cooking you hate, but circumstance. Your mother, who does not pay me enough, loves to sort your fragile world into locker-sized compartments, their walls as cold as they are rigid. You are to join her for dinner at six-thirty sharp every day, regardless of how hungry you are, or aren’t. You are a picky eater, folded arms and pouty lips, but I forgive you because you are only acting your age. I was a child once too, a few eternities ago, but this comparison ends where it begins. We hail from different worlds, you and I, cleft apart by the razor-sharp edge of a bank note. My job is to serve, and yours is to flash your porcelain teeth and giggle.
But even the pickiest of eaters, such as yourself, cannot resist what I am about to prepare. I feed water to the saucepan, then move to a cabinet while I wait for it to birth bubbles. I take a mental note of our supplies so I know what needs replenishing the next time your mother sends me to the grocer’s with a wad of cash and a warning. There was a time when I was caught in a daze in the sauce aisle, surrounded by rows upon rows of glass bottles filled with kecap manis—soy sauce thickened with palm sugar, sweet and syrupy and as Indonesian as it gets. I glared daggers at the elegant writing on the piece of paper in my hand; for people like your mother, dinner should only be a few ink strokes away, because there is unnecessary exertion in carrying a shopping bag and hoping there aren’t any pickpockets on the bus ride home. I am expendable, somewhere between a human and a commodity; I could have fled to my village in the middle of nowhere and taken the money with me, but I didn’t. I needed to see you fed, and still do.
There are exactly thirteen white plastic packs in the cupboard, stacked neatly against one another like books on a shelf. I retrieve one; it is rectangular and firm, with a photoshopped image of caramel-brown noodles crawling across a plate, complete with a side of fried egg and vegetables. I scoff. No sane person on the planet eats this with their veggies. The quadruple digits next to the “recommended daily intake” of sodium typed out on the back is a good indication this isn’t something you eat if you want to live long. And yet, eating the stuff makes me feel alive. It’s like cigarettes; three packs a day, because I’m addicted.
By now the water froths and frolics, so I snap the pack open, pull out the compact block of brittle yellow noodles, and feed it to the water. Two minutes until they soften. I squeeze out the other half of the magic into a fresh bowl: seasoning powder, chili sauce, sweet soy sauce, and vegetable oil infused with fragrant spices, all bound in their own sachets that come conveniently with the noodles. Little dimensions of flavor, each with their own story to tell to the human palate. I set one sachet aside, whose contents you prefer to be added last.
While the noodles soften and unwind, I introduce a wok to a second hungry flame. It heats rapidly; the cooking oil shrieks in ecstasy as soon as I pour some in. I crack an egg and watch the white bubble and stretch into soft clouds while the yolk cooks at a gentle pace. There is only one way to fry an egg: rich, runny yolk and a crispy browned underside. Minutes away from perfection.
The noodles have relaxed into limp ribbons, so I pour the contents of the saucepan into a strainer. I jostle them until they’re rid of excess moisture, because water dilutes flavor and I will not have you go to sleep unsatisfied. Then I heap them into the bowl with the sauce and seasoning, and proceed to toss until each strand is coated in a uniform layer of greasy goodness. It’s only now that I garnish with the contents of the final sachet: crunchy fried shallots, a divine textural contrast to tender noodles.
As the egg finishes I tilt the wok and spoon scorching hot oil over the top, just to create a firm outer layer for you to break open. That way, you can relish the spectacle of glistening, golden yolk spilling over noodles like lava. When the egg is done, I lay it over your meal like a blanket.
“Intoxicating” doesn’t even begin to describe the aroma in the kitchen, and I suspect someone fasting during Ramadan wouldn’t be able to resist. You must forgive me in advance; I pluck a single strand from your bowl and drape it over my waiting, salivating tongue. It’s a crescendo of flavor, fine-tuned by a corporate giant to perfection: sharp, brothy, MSG-fuelled bliss, mellowed out by subtly smoky, sweet soy sauce, and a suggestion of spice to give it that final Indonesian touch. Mie goreng. Fried noodles. But what makes me truly happy is knowing you are about to experience this, too.
I set the bowl on a serving tray with a spoon and fork. The house does not protest under my footfalls, but I tread light as a cockroach anyway because to give myself away is to give you away. You’ve already had dinner, remember? And you’re most certainly asleep, not seeking out my room in the garage to request a midnight meal. Your mother knows this, the same way your mother knows you want to be a music teacher when you grow up. I know you actually want to be a princess.
As I knock gently on your door, I wonder why you allow me to cross the boundary between my world and yours so often. Is it because your mother is cold and I am the only warm alternative? Is there something magical about the way food appears at your door minutes after you make the request? Or are you simply too young to see the boundary?
I find the answers on your face when you open the door, nestled into the dimples that form as you smile. I smile back. Your tender hands grab the bowl. It is a wordless exchange, and yet it speaks volumes. I don’t need to remind you to hide your tracks using a few squeezes of a lavender air freshener, because we’ve done this countless times. Our little dance on that thin boundary.
Your smile lingers after you close the door. For now, knowing someone appreciates the things my callused, overworked hands manage to cobble together is enough.