I've been told I have a freakish ability to remember conversations from a long time ago. Maybe that's true. Maybe it's just that I have very memorable conversations, like this one from yesterday.
So I turn up at the auto workshop.
The mechanic walks into the office while the receptionist is handing me the invoice for my little dented friend's routine service.
I can see he's slightly uncomfortable. Maybe he's not used to fixing these old cans, I think. After all, there isn't another compact car within sight, nor another non-luxury marque, let alone another 14-year-old hatchback with oxidised sports rims and charming body scars from past hailstorms.
"So, there's bad news and there's good news," he says.
I think, "Well, you've already told me the bad news, over the phone. Yes, so the alternator's gone. But I don't have the money to pay for you to change it right now, so don't give me the same bad news again. I don't really enjoy encores of negative things."
"Part of the bad news you already know..."
"Oh, that's... good?"
"Yeah, so the alternator's shot, as I told you over the phone. But you said not to fix that so I've left it for now, just bring it in when you're ready. It isn't too much of a problem because your car doesn't run on a lot of electronics. The other part of the bad news is..."
I steel myself for the worst, and certain parts of my life flash before my eyes.
I have had a car stall on me with a completely flat battery, right on the curve of the Jalan Gasing roundabout in PJ, at 5pm on a Friday. If you have ever lived and driven in the Klang Valley, you know the implications of that innocuous sentence. I can still see the fists waving, hear the angry shouts in a collage of languages.
I have also had a car (incidentally, the same one) lose a tire while I was driving at 80. The tire didn't fall off, neither did it dissolve. It exploded. At 80 kilometres per hour. And my best friend (all categories) and I lived to tell the tale.
I am on a car-abuse story roll here. I have also seen a car (why yes, the same one. How could you tell?) overheat after a short journey, and spew boiling water and steam all over my poor dad who'd lifted the hood to investigate. By some miracle my dad still has his dashing good looks, but by now you should know that I have quite a dossier of car mishaps.
So, I think while absently gazing at a speck on the 1970s Formica counter, how bad can the bad news be?
"So we washed your car..."
"You washed my car? You... but you didn't have to. That's so nice of you. [The car really needed it because, you know, I park on the street and there are these trees and where there are trees there are birds, and I don't have access to a water source out there...] Thank you!"
The receptionist chips in with, "Don't worry, it gets worse."
Yes, I was worried that he was just pretending, but you've done very well to reassure me now that something bad has indeed happened. Thank you!
"... so we didn't realise that the door wasn't closed all the way, and the seat got soaked."
Another file from that dossier gets pulled up. In it, I am 21, driving to uni for a final paper in my final semester. My best friend (uni category) is in the passenger seat. It's pouring. And the right leg of my jeans is completely soaked, and I feel as though I'm driving one of those inner-tube things from a water theme park to school. My dutiful passenger is handing me tissues, one at a time, that I am stuffing into the door frame in the hopes that they'll channel the rainwater, which is flowing uninhibited through where the rubber seal used to be, straight down to the floor instead of having it drip onto me. I'm cold. I'm soaked. And it's all because of the car, I think, none too charitably.
Present-day me, the one who has lived through that time and far worse ones, knows that on the grander scale of things, soaked car seats are not worth fluffing one's feathers over. Especially when one has no feathers. Especially after a week like I've had.
"But that's OK. It's not a big deal."
"I mean really drenched."
"I really don't mind. It's fine. It'll dry out after a few..."
"So we thought we'd get a hair dryer to dry it off."
"Oh, come on, it's really not that big a deal. You don't have to do that."
"But that's what we did."
"Oh, right. You've done it. Well, thanks! You didn't have to. I mean, you didn't even have to wash my car in the first place, and then you didn't have to dry the seat. So it's all dry now?"
(Where is the bad news he kept referring to earlier? So far I have heard that my car was hand-washed when I wasn't expecting it; my formerly soaked seats have been dried... this isn't exactly Pompeii, folks.)
"I haven't finished. So we got out the hair dryer and dried the seat, and the thing melted a big hole right in the middle of the seat."
So that's what all the song and dance was about.
"Oh, is that it? Well, never mind. It's just a car seat. I can live with it having a hole."
"Oh no you can't." "But I-"
"So we went out and got you some seat covers to put over them."
"You can't drive around with a big hole in your seat. We had to do something."
We walk out to my car and I can see, in the dim fluorescent lighting of the workshop's expansive interior, that my seats are now covered in blue nylon tweed.
"If you don't like the colour we can always get it changed. Just let me know."
By this time, I'm laughing out of control, because it has been such an insane week and if I were roti dough being stretched, I would be at the point where elongated holes are forming.
I stand there, looking at my sparkling car with its dressed-up seats that completely clash with the rest of the interior, and that doesn't even matter because after what's happened in the past few weeks, it's going to take so much more than clashing car seats to floor me.
It's all crashing through a funnel now, the news about our family home and the news about my ketchup sister's cancer and dozens of other, smaller barbs that have sunk in over the past 20 days, and like so many rocks in some insane mental avalanche they tumble right on top of this ridiculous situation in which I drove into an auto workshop this morning with a dirty, beat-up car running on old oil and I'm leaving with a clean, beat-up car with fresh oil and new car seats.
I laugh and cry all the way home.