Short Story by Maggie Tiojakin (The Jakarta Post, 13 February 2017)

Smokescreen ilustration Budhi Button - The Jakarta Post
Smokescreen ilustration Budhi Button/The Jakarta Post

It’s late.

When Henry’s flight finally touches down at Changi Airport, it is already past ten in the evening and all the shops and cafés and restaurants inside the terminal are closed for the night. Except for fast food establishments. Burger King and McDonald’s are doing good business at this hour.

He shuffles through the exiting crowd and wheels his carryon bag across the carpeted floor toward the glass door. The person ahead of Henry holds the door open for him, so he says thanks and, in return, holds it open for someone else. Henry finds a restroom and leaves his bag standing on end next to the urinal while he relieves himself.

Then he washes his hands and splashes water onto his face. He looks at his reflection in the bathroom mirror and notices the bags under his eyes. He hasn’t been sleeping well.

Minutes later, he hops onto the travelator and stands aside to let other users walk past him. The travelator ends at a section inside the terminal that is surrounded by more shops and cafés and restaurants. Starbucks is closed. The bookstore is closed. A media center next to the information booth has four computers hooked up to a DSL line. Henry checks his emails. Facebook. Twitter. No messages. For fun, he googles his name and discovers there are over 6,000 results on the Web with his initials. Articles. Reviews. Bits and pieces of unfinished thoughts. Random notes.

He rides the escalator down to the ground floor, fills out a form and walks toward the immigration line. The immigration officer says nothing while scrutinizing his passport, and when it’s done she offers Henry a bowl of fruit-flavored candy. He passes through the glass doors with the green light where it says he has nothing to declare. He stands in line at Burger King and orders a double cheese burger with fries. And a funnel cake. And iced tea. When he is done with dinner, he goes to the taxi stand and asks to be taken to a hotel on Bencoleen Street.

“First time in Singapore?” asks the driver. He is Indian and wears a pink turban. The radio is playing classical music, which sounds awful because the speakers are broken. Mozart over frequency static. A strong scent permeates the air inside the car that Henry suspects comes from burning incense, yet he can’t quite figure out what the scent is. Sandalwood, maybe.

“No,” says Henry, staring out of the window. The streets are empty and almost all the buildings look dead on a night like this. In the distance, he can see where land meets the ocean and a new piece of architecture that sparkles in the moonlight. “It’s not my first time.”

“Where are you from?” asks the driver, who watches him in the rearview mirror. Henry has a clear view of the driver’s eyes, dark and curious, and some of his teeth — yellow and uneven. “Malaysia?”

“Indonesia.”

“In-do-ne-sia!”

The driver seems happy to hear it. A little too happy, perhaps. Henry reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out his cellular phone. He had forgotten to turn it back on. Still no messages. He slips it back into his pocket. The sky is dark and starless; the streets are flooded with fluorescent orange light emanating from the lampposts. Road signs have bright silver writing that reflects in the dark. The driver makes a few turns and heads straight for the freeway. The harbor is to their left, the stockyard not too far from it. Piles of cargo are waiting to be unpacked.

Henry yawns. He looks at his watch. If it is ten-something in Jakarta — he winds the tiny button on his watch — he just lost an hour. He yawns again.

“So what are you doing in Singapore?”

“Work.”

“What kind of work?”

“I write.”

“Ooooh,” the driver smiles, fixes his mirror so he can get a better look at his passenger in the back. “What do you write?” “Stories.” “Are they any good?” Henry rummages through the front pocket of his carry-on bag, looking for mints. He finds a pack of cigarettes, instead. “I hope so.”

“Serious stories?”

“Sometimes.”

“A journalist!”

“Columnist,” says Henry.

“What’s the difference?”

“The paper pays me to say whatever bad things I want.” It isn’t true, but what the hell. Henry’s in no mood to explain himself.

“You have a lot of bad things to say?”

“About as much as anyone else does.”

“How old are you?”

“Twenty-six.”

“Married?”

“Committed.”

“That’s good,” says the driver. “It’s good to be committed.”

When they arrive at the hotel, a concierge offers to carry his bag. Henry pays the driver. The driver says “Salamat malam,” so he returns the greeting.

At the reception desk, Henry confirms his booking and asks for a smoking room. Single or double? Whatever you have. The manager gives him three breakfast coupons to be used during his stay at the hotel and then hands over a magnetic card. The concierge rides in the elevator with him and starts a conversation about how hot it has been in Singapore lately. Henry hasn’t even noticed the weather. His body hurts everywhere. He could use a massage.

He tips the concierge for wheeling his carry-on bag and showing him where the room is. They part ways at the door.

Henry slides the magnetic card in and out of a slot in the door. There’s a beeping noise and one of the three small buttons under the door handle blinks green. He pushes his way in, shoulder first.

It is a medium-sized room. Two single beds. A writing desk. A closet. Two end tables. In the bathroom there’s a small packet containing a toothbrush and a plain tube of toothpaste. The water pressure isn’t great, but at least the water is warm.

Henry fills up a glass with tap water and chugs it down. He stores his carry-on bag in the closet. There is a complimentary set of instant coffee and tea bags next to a kettle on the writing desk. He goes into the bathroom and fills the kettle with tap water and plugs it into a socket above the desk. He turns on the television and stops at a channel that is screening a Korean modern dance program. He doesn’t have a clue what they’re saying to each other. The girls sure are pretty, though. He stirs coffee mix into the hot water he has poured into a porcelain cup. It smells like the kind of coffee you get at airports and bus stations. Henry lights up a cigarette and sits on the bed. He leaves the coffee on the night stand. He looks around.

There is something impersonal yet beautiful about all of this. It doesn’t matter where he’s from or what he does or whether it is his first time or last time in this city. It doesn’t matter what is being shown on television or whether he is married or single or committed or uncommitted. The room has everything he will ever need in life. He can build something here, out of nothing. He could live here forever. Ensconced in the comfort of a room so generic in nature that it had no personal imprints of the people who had inhabited it — Henry feels oddly at ease with life. Right here, right now: he can take anything. Bring it on. He takes a quick sip of the coffee. Then he finishes his cigarette and watches young Korean girls in short skirts dance to Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous.” God, it is late. Enshrouded in cigarette smoke, Henry pulls out his notebook and flips to an empty page. Dear Muse, he begins to write. Help.

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