Farid Out At Sea

Farid carefully lifts the selfie stick, somewhere thirty centimetres over his head, making sure to place himself in the corner of the frame. The bulk of the image is a set of verdant flowers that he cannot name, but the name of the flowers is not important, it’s the messaging.

In every corner there is beauty
#flowers #thinkpositive #opportunity

         It’s his new hobby since moving to Marinajaya at his family’s suggestion. He chafes at not being able to go for a run, because the air in Marinajaya is bracing and the ocean winds are always blowing around the buildings. He chafes at having to sit in a wheelchair that needs batteries, navigating around corners where he would have once stepped over, calculating the power of his wheelchair’s motors to handle inclines.

         He supposes it could be worse, that he could still be in KL, where everything was so unnavigable, he was not even leaving the house except for family occasions, where he had to humiliatingly allow someone or another to handle his wheelchair, their well-meaning jostling and talking over his head. His only outlet had been the one chat server for “OKU,” a term he still hates. Farid Hisham is an entrepreneur, a businessman, a manager. He’s a man about town, a dancer, an exercise freak. He is not “kurang upaya.” And when he reminds himself of that, his new best friend’s words pop up in his head.

asyikmerenung: ofc u r
asyikmerenung: u think u special? lol

It doesn’t matter what Ashikin says. He is not. Ashikin may have given up already, to consider herself disabled, but Farid is not about to let himself be put into a category he does not think he belongs in.

         But still, KL had been hard to live in, and after months of sitting at home doing literally nothing but rant online to strangers, his family carefully suggested moving to the new township of Marinajaya, under the care of Hari, who works as some sort of low-level cleaner—a technician, they claim, to Farid’s dubious face.

And Marinajaya! It is a groundbreaking marvel of urban architecture and environmental engineering. It is a city that is built on water. It is made of the latest New Sustainable materials, whatever that means.

It is also, in Farid’s opinion, a monumental waste of taxpayer money and venture capital, if indeed it was even funded by venture capital. A so-called ‘epicenter of research,’ but to Farid, it’s just a vanity project by some scientists who study things that will not drive the economy or contribute to the nation’s GDP. Farid has high hopes for their medical research, because the city is otherwise a white elephant. A white elephant floating on the ocean surface.

But Hari loves living in Marinajaya, and Farid is polite. They live in a small apartment, but it is enough space for the both of them to keep to their rooms and not bump into each other much. They have a small kitchen, but Hari eats at work, and there is a little cafeteria downstairs with very good food, and very good workers who will deliver the food.

asyikmerenung: marinajaya? fuiyo

         Marinajaya is apparently an engineering feat, built on a platform with foundations that allow for the flexibility of the buildings to move with the waters instead of resisting the waves. Farid doesn’t much care about the details; all he knows is there is minimal wobbling, so no one gets seasick. Moreover, there are few roads, and the buildings are held together by steel cables that also serve as pathways, gently sloping here and there, with vines and trees grown in strategic places as further natural reinforcement.

         Farid hates it, because he hates nature except when he goes hiking. Animals belong in the forests where they are free to throw their leftover rotting food wherever they please, to piss and shit to mark their territories out of sight and mind of his delicate nose, to scream and chitter far away from his hurting ears. They should at least be contained properly, as they would be in zoos. Animals do not belong alongside humans, or at least, alongside Farid.  

       Yet here he is, waking up in the morning to the screeches of monkeys and the swallowing hoots of coels. Worse, one of the neighbours has chickens, and a rooster eager to remind everyone of his existence. This is mildly mitigated by free eggs. He tries to make the best of the situation, and takes a video of his window view, careful to make sure the cockerel’s cry is audible.

Another beautiful day, another opportunity for something new! #gratitude #rooster #urbanwildlife

         He contemplates hashtag #iwilleatyourchildren but decides it is too morbid for his carefully curated profile.

         “Are you doing anything today?” Hari asks as Farid pokes at his omelette.

         Farid shrugs.

         “You could go down to the basement at low tide. They opened it up for public access the other day, and not a lot of people know yet. Do it for your ’gram.”

         It’s not a bad idea. Farid needs new content. He has a modest, but growing, follower count, and while he’s not interested in being an “influencer,” he likes watching the number of hearts and followers grow. Also, he can’t stay home right now, because Ashikin is the only person he speaks to nowadays, and he does not want to talk to Ashikin.

         When Hari is safely gone, Farid sighs and packs for his outing: a sandwich, some towels, a paper book in case he gets bored or finds a nice stopping point, and two water bottles. Marinajaya has a lot of water fountains, but they have yet to perfect their filtration systems, so there is always a taste of… something. Probably monkey piss. Farid is not willing to take the risk. Hari lectures him on the safety measures designed to mimick natural systems as much as possible, but Farid only ever wants to know when the water will taste normal.

asyikmerenung: ur so spoiled
asyikmerenung: in the city meant to be THE new model for better urban life
asyikmerenung: but all u do is complain abt it

         Ashikin doesn’t understand. Farid is in the most scientific city of the nation to be in line for developments in cybernetic prosthetics. He will throw money at the first seller who can guarantee feeling back in his legs and the ability to walk and run and dance once more. Ashikin, on the other hand, has lived with some mystery condition for decades and, in Farid’s estimation, has given up.

         Whatever. Farid fishes his housekeys from a bowl on a side table next to the door—a humiliating setup, when he could have helped Hari set up a set of wall hooks. Hari insists that the bowl was just fine, a long-time concession to ADHD, which Farid also doesn’t believe in.

         The city’s winding walkways are, admittedly, very beautiful. Here and there are carved meranti seats and wakafs, and everywhere there are vines of jasmine, akar dani, telang, and more flowers that Farid cannot name. He takes multiple selfies, deciding that it is a day of flowers. After each selfie, satisfied that it looks casual, not overly-posed, and properly humble next to nature, he sends it off into the wilds of the internet. Then he carries on.

         Marinajaya, he has to admit, is easy to traverse. The walkways are built for pedestrians, far above the cars on the ground level, and they are meant to intuitively lead to community centers like libraries, parks, and gardens. Hari has a mini-kebun (Farid uses #growyourownfood when posting about it), with the beans and kangkung that make the bulk of their diet. Somewhere, there is a rice-growing facility that aims to produce enough for all the inhabitants of Marinajaya. The idea is to be a self-sustaining city with vertical farms and local livestock.

         Farid doesn’t see the point, when the city is doomed to get washed under the next big typhoon anyway, but it’s not his business. He decides to go down to the basement as Hari suggested. Thus far the basement level had been limited to loading bays, but as time passes, fewer and fewer shipments need to come in, and more and more of the bays are left empty with little use. Hari says that some of the basement bays are research stations, and claims there are fish, even suggesting that the two of them go fishing together sometime. Farid cannot imagine a more boring activity, but Hari is trying to be a good host and sibling.

         The public elevators don’t all go down to the same floors, and it takes Farid some time to find an elevator that does reach a publicly-accessible basement bay. As it descends, Farid pulls out his phone to take a video—“checking out Marinajaya’s new basement parks today… it took forever to find this elevator, but if you head to Sector A1-21, you’ll find one that goes right down to the water. And as you see, there’s the ocean under the city!”—and thinks he sees the silver-grey of fish in the water nearby.

         The basement bay is… nothing much. It’s as bare as a warehouse, and the ground simply inclines down to the water at such a slight degree it is barely noticeable until hitting the water. Farid stops his wheelchair right at the edge of the water, and looks out. There is no marvellous vista, just the large walls and pillars and buoys that make the foundation of the city, and glimpses of the sky and horizon beyond the large door which provide some light, albeit dim, as the weather is graying.

          It is peaceful, and Farid leans back in his wheelchair to listen to the eddying of the sea.

          Hashtag #zen, he thinks.

          Ashikin would like this, he thinks next, and immediately his mood sours.

       No, she wouldn’t be able to appreciate it. Ashikin is too stuck to her bed and her computer. She says it is due to her chronic condition, but Farid thinks she really needs to try harder. 

         He checks his apps, to see if she has sent him a message. Even if she’s still mad. Sometimes she messages when she’s still mad at him, to pick up the fight where they left off.

asyikmerenung: kalau u mampus dlm laut xpayah msg
F2dMAX: ala janganlah merajuk aish
F2xMAX: you know I’m right

His last message is followed by the tell-tale blue checkmarks: seen, but no reply. It’s somehow disconcerting to see nothing from his usually-chatty friend, full of thoughts and opinions despite being bedridden. Seen, but not heard. Seen, but disregarded.

         There is no more appreciating the quietness of the bay now. Farid wants to see people all of a sudden. He has been avoiding the public because of his wheelchair, its awkwardness, its inhuman noises, but this quietude is a bit too much. He taps the remote to reverse.

         Nothing happens.

         He tries again, and leans forward to check the controls, in case a wire has been knocked out of place. Everything is as it should be. But the chair will not move.

         The battery.

         Farid is first embarrassed. How could he have forgotten his battery pack’s limitations? He has never been this far before, and never gone so long in between charges. Marinajaya also has stations for such ports everywhere, for pedestrian scooters and even scooter chairs for the elderly, wandering the neighbourhoods at their leisure. But Farid would not be caught dead near any of them—those zipping scooters are annoying, and he did not want to be trapped chatting with old retirees full of questions for his lack of legs, full of praise at how vigorous and healthy he seems otherwise.

         Then Farid panicks. It is an awkward time of day when very few people are around. No maintenance men nor security officers are coming downstairs, and why would they? The basement bays have just opened and they do not fear delinquents nor graffiti artists. Farid is alone, for the first time—well and truly alone. And he hates it.

         He pulls out his phone again, this time to call Hari. But phone reception is not good down here—he will have to send a message, since there is city-wide WiFi, but Hari does not check messages while working, so who knows when Farid will hear back.

        And there is another problem.

F2dMAX: aish I’m stuck in a basement and my phone is running out of battery can you call Hari for me

        It’s a long shot, of course. Ashikin is online very often, but irregularly responds. The checkmark appears, gray in transit.

        Because things cannot happen one small incident at a time, thunder rumbles in the distance, and a downpour begins.

        Farid sighs and sinks into the cushion of his wheelchair. The day had started so well. The weather forecast had said nothing about this rain. And he is stuck for who-knows-how-long. He decides to save his battery life and wait it out. The lights are still on, at least, so he can read his book.

        Which goes well—the book is a riproaring thriller, with an excellently-written car chase—until Farid feels his trousers getting wet. Too into his book, he has not noticed the water rising. He didn’t think the tide would come in at this time—Hari goes on and on about the tide times because there are certain art installations around the city which are visible only at high or low tides—and he certainly did not expect the water to get this high.

        He is going to drown at this rate.

        And Farid considers it. He considers swimming out to sea and bouncing with the waves, uncaring if they wash over his head. He tries to recall the last time he went swimming in the sea, or even gone to a beach. The wait for new legs would be over. He would no longer be a burden on his family, and would no longer feel the shame and resentment that sits in him from going from active and fit to legless and obese. Suddenly, a conversation with Ashikin pops into his mind.

F2dMAX: why do u talk about dying so easily
asyikmerenung: bc it feels like that?
asyikmerenung: it’s easier to live when u accept death and mortality
F2dMAX: it’s like ur inviting death tho??
asyikmerenung: haha u sound so kiasi
asyikmerenung: now who’s got the attitude problem

        Farid did not think then, nor does he think now, that he has an attitude problem. What reasonable person does not fear death? But then, what unreasonable person ignores how difficult it is to live disabled? Ashikin has not left her house for decades—how can she live? Why does she want to live her half-life, locked in her bedroom, with only her computer for company? How can she? Farid would rather die. How did Ashikin arrive at this philosophical stance?

         The water is at his waist now. The motors of his wheelchair would be waterlogged by now; he has never had to repair his wheelchair before, being properly conscientious about maintenance. If he is going to swim out to sea, it’s now or never. He shoves himself out of his chair into a swell of water, less a splash than a plop, and he’s surprised at how easy it is to swim.

         Something in him thrums, because he’s never swum out to sea before, and certainly never during a thunderstorm, and definitely not since his accident. He performs a basic breaststroke and is surprised at how much distance he can cover. Of course.  It is only his legs which are broken, not the rest of him. He is almost at the edge of the door. It feels like a new adventure. It feels like unexplored terrain. The rain stings his face and he is bobbing in the waves but it is thrilling. If only he had his goggles! He would try diving. Hari is always going on about the view underwater, where he mops down lab floors, but Farid would rather be in the water itself, not hiding beyond glass in a fishbowl.

        He can do this. He can swim out into the unconquerable sea. He can—

         “What are you doing?” a voice crackles over the PA system right above his head as he passes under the edge.

         “Pardon?” he asks, astonished. At the volume of the voice, or that he can hear her, or that someone even noticed, he’s not sure.  

         “You punya otak dah patah ke? I ingat you punya kaki yang tak berguna.”

         “Who… are you…?”

         “Ni dah nak mati lemas tapi masih nak tau sapeni.”

         The acerbic tone is familiar, even though he has only ever seen it in text, and never heard it. She never wanted to go on video chat for some reason. “Ashikin?”

         “Who else? Get to the elevator, bongok!”

         “But—my wheelchair—it’ll get lost—”

         “Oh, now you care.”

         She’s right; he did leave the wheelchair behind. With a mix of trepidation and relief, he begins swimming back to the loading bay. The incline down to the water is now completely submerged, and the water has risen high enough that he can swim right up to the elevator doors, hitting the button as he reaches it. “Boleh buka ke?”


         As if to prove her point, the doors slide open, and the water sweeps Farid into the relative safety of the elevator. The doors firmly shut before he can accidentally, or purposefully, bob back out into what is now ocean. The elevator drains out as it rises, and Farid watches the little waterfall gushing down from the glass wall in fascination. Without thinking, he reaches into his pocket for his phone.

         It is lost, as his wheelchair has been lost. It must have fallen out of his pocket as he swam out.

         “You and your stupid content! You almost died just now!” Ashikin’s voice crackles through the tinny speaker of the elevator.

         “Before you yell at me some more,” he says, holding up a finger at the speaker, since he’s not sure where the camera is, “what the hell?” He gesticulates.

         “What? I’m a security monitor.”

         “You’re a what?”

         As the elevator makes its way up, Ashikin patiently explains that despite her chronic illness, she can work, albeit remotely, and from a setup around her bed. Marinajaya employers seek people who can do a range of remote work in order to round out their workforce. Farid doesn’t really get it—workers should always be on-site, in his opinion. But Ashikin’s boss made a decision that got Farid out of being pickled in the sea, so Farid doesn’t have much of an argument, either.

         “So how long have you been working here? I mean, not here-here, but for here.”

         “Oh, long time already. Before I got into security detail, I did logistics for construction.”

         “You were working all this time, and never told me?”

         “Why would I tell you? It’s not like it ever came up.”

         “Is that why you never wanted to FaceTime? Because you were on the clock whenever we talked?”

         Ashikin sucks on her teeth in annoyance. “No, because I look terrible, okay? You’re always going on and on about how fat you are, simply because you’re in a wheelchair. You’re not even that fat! You already nag, lagi worse if you actually saw me.”

         Farid’s cheeks grow hot, hearing the underlying criticism of his superficiality. He has always taken pride in his appearance. Thirst traps used to be a major percentage of his content.

         “So what hashtag were you going to use? Hashtag hampirhanyut? Hashtag ILookLikeADrownedRat?” Ashikin cackles. “Hashtag inadvertent scuba.”

         Farid groans, but Ashikin continues to list down terrible potential tags that he would never use. Except maybe one or two.

         When the elevator doors open, Hari bursts in. “’Bang! You okay?”

         “I’m fine,” Farid mutters under his breath, embarrassed at being seen like this, prone on the floor, without his wheelchair. “Sorry I lost the wheelchair. I know you spent a lot to get it for me.”

         “It’s fine! There are others. Ong is your size, so he said you could borrow his for a while.”

         “Ong? Ong who? How come he can let me have his chair?”

         “Ong Boon Tay. You know. Your tour guide.”

         Farid remembers now. Boon Tay was one of several wheelchair users who lived in Marinajaya, and had proudly demonstrated all the OKU features of the city to Farid. Farid had been skeptical at the time, but he cannot deny that those little things have made his life convenient.

         Except, of course, this major inconvenience. Which was no one else’s but Farid’s fault, because every building is equipped with charging stations for various technical equipment used around the city, including wheelchairs and other machines used by the disabled. Marinajaya has developed technologies to help with chronic comorbidities—while researchers have yet to find cures, they have created and maintained standards of ease of use for their machines, and the city is a testing ground for them before they are sent out to the wider international market.

         And Farid has ruined one of the machines. He feels stupid, having taken everything in Marinajaya for granted all this time.

         “Boon Tay doesn’t mind this? Really?”

         “Yeah, he has several spare wheelchairs anyway. Apparently this happens all the time.”

         “People getting washed out at sea?”

         “No!” Hari frowns at Farid in annoyance, and Farid feels a pang of shame. “Running out of battery charge. Or wheelchairs breaking down. Or whatever. He’s a machinist, you know. Also in R&D. He gets to play with all the fun toys.”

         “Isn’t it expensive to have spare wheelchairs?”

         “Well… yes. But Ong has been collecting them for years. He fixes old ones. The bandaraya subsidizes his shop.”

         What place is Marinajaya, Farid wonders, that it is so prosperous to do that?

         “The country is prosperous, ’bang,” Hari replies, and Farid, startled into realising he has spoken out loud, stops his chair. “The whole country can feed everyone, house everyone, even provide proper healthcare for everyone, and then some.” Hari gently presses Farid’s navigation panel to propel the wheelchair forward. “Marinajaya is a big experiment to show what the country can do for everyone of all the cronies in power stop hoarding and distribute the national wealth properly.”

         This is not an unusual explanation out of Hari, and ordinarily Farid would sneer and roll his eyes. But not today. Not because it takes energy to be negative—Farid mocks by nature and it’s his ’gram’s cheery content that’s hard to keep up—but because he can’t muster a response that won’t make himself sound the self-centered child he must have been all this time.

         It takes time for them to return to Hari’s apartment, Farid stewing silently while shivering in the quilt Hari has wrapped around him. He mentally composes his next ’gram to document his experience. It will have to wait until he can get a new phone, of course, and Hari says it will take a couple of days. What will he do until then?

         He supposes he can use the computer station Hari has set up for him, which he barely uses, unable to read old work emails and well-wishes from friends of a former life he can no longer enjoy. He can send a message to Ong Boon Tay, thanking him for the wheelchair and coordinating a way to return it. He can, maybe, check out the local wheelchair groups for company during the next big basement adventure. Maybe finally use #marinajaya and admit where he lives. 

        He can log onto the chat server and find Ashikin. He can apologize.

Sometimes, you find out that you are wrong, and that you’ve been a butt to people who are important to you

About the WORK

“Farid Out At Sea” is set in a fictional city based on the principles of universal design, a concept of designing buildings, products, and environments around being accessible to all users. Marinajaya is a reaction to urban design that is hostile towards people with disabilities, and a proposal that a place that is pleasant for the people with disabilities will also be pleasant for its non-disabled residents. It also proposes that a city can also be ecologically designed for wildlife to co-exist with humans, adding to the beauty of the environment.

Farid, its titular character, exemplifies the middle-class, able-bodied man still in denial over his recently-disabled status. The story explores his emotional state and his difficulty empathizing with people who lack his privileged experiences. Able-bodied people have the bad habit of catastrophizing disability, assuming that it is better to be dead than disabled; Marinajaya is instead a place where the most precarious and vulnerable populations are prioritized. Discomfited by the conveniences of Marinajaya, Farid uses toxic positivity as a band-aid over his internal dissonance.

Illustration by Max Loh.

See related references for this work:

Primer on the 7 Principles of Universal Design

Is There a Place for Animals in a Strong Town?

Victor Pineda, urbanist and disability activist, on designing smart cities

About the Creative

Jaymee Goh is a Malaysian-Chinese writer, reviewer, editor, and essayist of speculative fiction. Her work has been published in a number of magazines and anthologies, such as Lightspeed Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color, and reprinted in LeVar Burton Reads and Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy. Her reviews and nonfiction have appeared on Tor.com, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Strange Horizons. She co-edited The Sea Is Ours: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia (Rosarium 2015), and edited The WisCon Chronicles Vol. 11: Trials by Whiteness (Aqueduct 2017). A graduate from the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Workshop in 2016, she received her PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Riverside, where she dissertated in science fiction studies and critical race theory. She is an editor for Tachyon Publications.

Find Jaymee on www.jaymeegoh.com


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