Short Story by Teguh Affandi (The Jakarta Post, February 06, 2017)
From the 18th floor, the vehicles down below looked like Lego pieces adorned with glittering glass ornaments. I chose to live in an apartment building because it offers the sort of practicality I have always desired. Moreover, living in an apartment building means I don’t have to make nice with my neighbors. We don’t have to be in each other’s face all the time, no matter who’s spending the night at my unit or what’s going on inside my space.
Before Jena, I could come home whenever I wanted and eat any frozen meal I picked up at the minimart on the ground floor. Once a week, I’d call in two cleaning service agents to clean the apartment and I’d wait for them to finish their work while I sipped my coffee and ate my breakfast in the lobby area. However, little by little, Jena forced me to accept the fact that my breasts were created to feed her, the baby I had been waiting for for a very long time.
That evening, I had a bellyache, as if a strange hand had reached inside my stomach and squeezed my intestines. Jena was screaming to be fed, yet I chose to tend to my bellyache rather than her need to suckle on my breast. “Jena, be quiet for a moment! Mommy is in pain,” I said. Jena, as most infants would, did nothing to signal her acceptance of this fact.
There was a knock on the door. I staggered toward the door and opened it slightly. A woman in gray pajamas whose hair was curled back using several rollers appeared behind the door. There were lines across her neck that showed her age. She smiled and I cringed.
“I’m sorry, I heard a baby wailing. Is your daughter ill?”
I shook my head. “I’m ill. Jena is hungry and I don’t have the strength to feed her,” I leaned against the door. She reached for my body and carried me inside.
“You should have prepared some medicines,” she said as she took a closer look at the first aid box near the empty fridge.
I nodded in silence. The woman approached Jena and reached inside her top pajama before pulling out her breast. Jena quickly reached for it, unaware the breast she was holding was not her mother’s. She was hungry and the woman had food.
After she was full, Jena went quiet. Now the woman ran her hand over my aching belly ever so gently.
“Hold on, let me get you some medicines,” the woman left after boiling some water on the stove, although I had no idea what it was for.
Moments later, the woman returned with a complete first aid box. She gave me painkillers and poured the warm water into a used glass bottle. Then she used the water to wet a piece of cloth and pressed the warm cloth against my belly. I felt the warmth all over my belly before it spread across my chest.
“You don’t have anything to eat in the fridge,” said the woman, while inspecting the inside of my fridge. “There’s only leftover tofu and chicken breast,” she mumbled to herself. She then cooked me a simple porridge using leftover rice and other ingredients she found in the fridge.
“Now, eat. This will soothe the pain a little,” she said softly, feeding me carefully. She treated me as if I was her daughter and she was more of a mother to me than I had been to Jena. It didn’t take long for me to finish the bowl of warm porridge.
“Here’s my number. I live next door. Feel free to knock on my door if you need anything,” she said, writing her phone number down on a pink post-it and left it hanging on the door of the fridge. “It so happens that my child is about the same age as Jena. So I know how to stop them from crying when they’re hungry.”
Before the woman disappeared behind the door, she turned to me one more time. “My name is Seruni,” she said. I nodded.
The next morning, I decided to take the day off from work so I could go see the doctor. I put Jena inside a stroller and pushed it across the apartment building’s hallway. As I walked past Seruni’s unit, I heard, faintly, the sound of a woman’s voice singing “Little Stars.” It wasn’t the best voice, but it was a mother’s voice that had the capacity to soothe any child.
Jena enjoyed her playdate with Timmy, Seruni’s son. While they played, I would talk to Seruni and occasionally she would teach me how to cook a smooth porridge mixed with vegetables and shredded meat.
In my mind, I thought Seruni represented all good mothers in the world. She spent all her energy and time for her family. No wonder Timmy was always so happy and such a good eater.
Every time I went to her apartment unit, I felt like a sponge left to rot in the corner of the sink — watching Seruni navigate herself through a series of household chores, her two hands seemingly moving at the speed of light and elastically reaching out to every corner of the apartment unit. She was so quick. She would be conversing with me, answering every question and commenting on every remark, while soothing Timmy who nearly cried because Jena had taken away his Lego toys, before turning down the heat on the stove, cracking a few eggs into a cooking pan and turning off the washing machine. I swallowed hard. This was unbelievable to me.
“Any plans to enroll Jena in school?” asked Seruni. I shook my head. “There’s a wonderful playgroup on the ground floor, which is also a daycare. They just opened, but it’s meant to serve the children in this apartment building.”
“That’s a brilliant idea. I’m sure there’s a lot of working moms in this building,” I said.
“You can leave Jena with me while you work,” said Seruni, which I was secretly grateful for.
It was generous of her to offer to watch Jena after her daycare session had concluded, with me still toiling away at the office. This went on until Jena was 4 and Seruni had never complained once about it. She continued to look after both of us as a mother would her children. Seruni, Timmy, Jena and our apartment units, which stood next to each other, became my sanctuary.
But then one day, things began to change somewhat. It turned out that Seruni, like the image of most stay-at-home moms I had carved in my mind, was very keen on talking about other people. She disclosed to me the most “problematic” units in the building. This unit was occupied by a woman who was involved with a married government official; that unit was occupied by a woman whose husband had died from a drug overdose; some other unit was occupied by a famous writer whose identity had remained mysterious; and other units were occupied by a celebrity who loved to throw midnight orgies, or an old woman who was often caught hiring an escort service.
“I don’t want to know these things,” I said. If only Seruni understood — and I’m sure she did: I wasn’t very happy with all the things she had to report.
“That’s because you never spend time here.”
I turned to Jena, who was about to chew on the leg of a plastic doll. This incident saved me from an argument with Seruni. I carried Jena in my arms and sat on the windowsill, staring at the roads below us, which featured a chain of vehicles lit up like a giant Christmas tree.
“There’s one thing I’ve always wanted to ask you,” Seruni approached me, holding Timmy in her arms.
“What is it? I think we’ve known each other enough by now. Our children have just started pre-school,” I said.
“I’ve never seen Jena’s father around. Does he work out of town?”
I felt as though a toxic arrow had pierced my throat. My initial reaction was to slap her, but because Jena and Timmy were there with us, laughing with each other, I hesitated.
“He’s gone,” I said. She then belted a long and musical “Oooohhhh …. ”
The comfort I used to feel whenever Seruni was around was no longer there. The searing pain I once felt, which I thought I had successfully buried deep inside me, was now back on the surface, thanks to her. I was certain, more than anything else, that what I said would travel around the building, from unit to unit, mouth to mouth, pillow talk to pillow talk. I took a deep breath as I stepped inside my own unit.
“Jena, let’s not go to Tante Seruni’s apartment tomorrow,” I said. “I will come pick you up after you’re done with school.”
Jena’s jaw dropped slightly. She was probably surprised by the ultimatum, but then she bounced in excitement.
The next day, I nearly forgot that Jena’s pre-school session ended at half past one, right after lunch time. I began to cut back on the time I spent with Seruni and Timmy. By three in the afternoon, I received a text message from Seruni saying that Jena had had to play with Timmy because I was nowhere to be found. I couldn’t help but to curse myself for not paying enough attention to the time.
I went to pick up Jena at five and she was fast asleep.
“She’s tired. She spent the whole day playing with Timmy and Robi, Bu Laksmi’s son,” said Seruni. I lifted Jena into my arms. She smelled sweet and innocent, but my mind wandered to that few hours between the time when pre-school session ended and now — enough time to fill Jena’s head with nonsense. Bu Laksmi was Seruni’s new best friend and the fact that Jena’s father was not in the picture would surely make an interesting conversation starter. I quickly left Seruni’s apartment unit.
Just as I lay her down in bed, Jena stirred in her sleep. She cried. I kissed her cheek. Then she smiled and giggled.
“What would you like to eat, Jena? I think maybe we should make a nice pot of mushroom soup sprinkled with white tofu,” I said.
“Can you cook me spaghetti, Ma?”
“Not today,” I said. “Today we’ll eat rice.”
Jena nodded, then her little feet followed me into the kitchen. “Ma, do I have a father?” The knife I was holding nearly slipped out of my hand and cut my other thumb. There was a pang in my chest. The question could not have come out of the child’s own curiosity, not unless someone had put it in her mind. Now what do I say? She would not understand the choices I had had to make, including the decision to become a single parent and to live here in an apartment building.
“Your father’s far and away,” I said.
“How far away? When will he be home, Ma? I’d like to kiss his moustache, like my friends kiss their fathers. Like Timmy kisses his father.”
I stopped what I was doing and approached Jena, whose eyes quickly searched into mine for answers. I ran my fingers through her soft hair and kissed her forehead. “When you’re a big girl, your father will come. Now, I get to have you all to myself. I love you more than anything in the world, you know that.”
Jena nodded. She then walked into the living room and turned on the television. I had to lean against the kitchen counter to catch my own breath. I had been preparing myself for this moment, but I never thought the moment would be now. Not when she was still a toddler! She didn’t even know what a father does around the house. This must be Seruni’s big mouth! That monstrous woman had lips like a fake news channel — never ceasing to deliver updates sprinkled with all kinds of seasonings.
“Ma, this afternoon Tante Seruni said my father’s in heaven. Jena should always pray for him,” said my daughter. She wouldn’t lie about these things. She couldn’t have. Dear God.
Seruni had definitely outdone herself. Tomorrow, it was likely that every woman (and man, for that matter) on the 25th floor of the apartment building would turn me into a caricature of their own making — a singlewoman raising a daughter on her own without a man by her side. The walls, roof, doors and trash bags carry inside them news of my past, present and future. It doesn’t matter whether or not they are true. It only matters that they have enough kick to travel at a certain speed. The air vents in the building are tiny, but rumors travel fast and without much care — they can travel through even the smallest cracks. Seruni! I suddenly developed the desire to turn her into a Lego piece and toss her from the apartment window, down into the street below.
Teguh Affandi is an award-winning short story writer whose works have appeared in Femina, Republika, and other publications.