Short Story by Rain Chudori (The Jakarta Post, February 27, 2017)
It was the way she rested her head on his shoulders. There are times when I would attempt to look away, but somehow, my gaze always returns in time to see the gentle landing of her temple on the blade of his shoulder. Almost like a dove. This gesture, so sincere and innocent, was done in secret every afternoon, between 14:05 and 14:06. Just for a minute. And then she would stand up, pick up her grocery bag, and walk away.
He would order a cold bottle of soymilk and wait for her from 13:30. She would come in at 14:00, holding a plastic bag filled with groceries in both hands, and sit next to him. When she left, he would sit quietly for a moment, sipping the bottle of soymilk. When he was finished, he would place the exact amount of change on the table, and return to work.
I had never seen him outside of the kopitiam. I knew that he was amá’s grandson who had come to help her with the shop after her stroke. He must have been 18, 19, in the summer between school and the army.
He was tall and hesitant, still unmade. There was nothing that separated him from the uniformed boys that you would see laughing and pushing each other every afternoon on the train.
The reason that they meet here, in this particular kopitiam, was because no one would come by at these hours. The owner was painfully quiet and did not concern himself with the matters of others. The uncles had reopened their kiosks, or food stalls, or tool shops, and the aunties had returned to their chores, and their children were in their last hours of school. Somehow, they did not consider my presence a threat to their carefully kept secret, and so I became a quiet companion during their afternoon trysts. I like the way she rested her head on his shoulders.
She lives on the sixth floor with her husband and daughter, a young, fresh-faced child. When you walked by their place, you could hear the faint sounds of an argument, which would always end with her leaving. Then you would see her and her daughter walk hand-in-hand around the neighborhood until the sun set.
The first encounter I had with her was brief. It was the first week after I had arrived and we were both waiting for the elevator. We went in the elevator and she pressed the sixth floor, where the flats were. When we arrived, she walked ahead of me to her flat at the end of the hall. Since then, she would offer a smile whenever she saw me, but she never bothered to stop for a conversation, like the other occupants did.
They say she was once beautiful, as all the housewives who lived in the row of flats once were too. Theirs was an antiquated beauty that had been hidden behind the bonds of marriage. It was difficult now to imagine them ever being in possession of youth, or poise, or dreams, but once in a while, in certain moments of solitude, they return to what they once were — an identity beyond love and servitude.
At this point, I will remove myself from this story because it is ultimately, theirs. The only part that I knew, that I was permitted to know, were their afternoons at the kopitiam. Everything else: how they met, how they fell in love, how they were discovered, how they parted, is assembled through rumors and speculation.
The talk was always about her, and not the boy, because that was what he really was, just a boy. It was full of malice and curiosity, as it commonly was with rumors, but in rare moments, there would be a trace of empathy. It always began with the blame. She was a hussy, she wanted the attention of all the men in the mansion. She, said the wife of the grocer, sometimes lingered in their shop because she “couldn’t decide what she wanted to make for dinner.” How callous.
Then the blame shifted to her husband. She had only been married for a few years. She was a little too beautiful to be left alone, really. Her husband was a drunk or a gambler, no one really knew for sure. Perhaps he courted a lot of women. He was a contractor and barely at home. But who in this flat didn’t have a similar story? They all complained to each other about their husbands, a bunch of drunks and gamblers and womanizers who were rarely at home.
“Where’s the other pair?” I imagined him asking her. He was lying shirtless on the cheap floral bedsheet in her flat. There was nothing but the sound of the fan whirring on the ceiling. She looked at him. “The other pair of the earring.”
“My mother lost it. She said she woke up one day and it wasn’t in the box. My grandmother was angry and scolded her for months. She said that it would bring bad luck to my household.”
“And did it?” He asked.
“I am the cause of my own happiness,” she said, laughing.
Everything began with the earring. She would take the earrings in its satin box, take the elevator down, enter amá’s pawnshop, and hand it across the counter without a word. At the end of the month, she would return to purchase it back. The earring spent more time in the storage than it did on her ear.
The earring had been passed down for generations between the women in her family. In a way, they were not the owners of the earring, but merely keepers. Somewhere along the line, one of the earrings was lost, perhaps misplaced or even stolen, and for the last six generations, there was only a single pair of earring to give. Still, the tradition continued and on her wedding day, she received the single pair of earring in the satin box.
One afternoon, she had come to purchase her earring back, but instead, found a crowd around the locked shop. Someone told her that amá had collapsed and had been brought to the hospital. She fell asleep that night while thinking of the earrings that were waiting for her in the dark. It was only a week later that the pawnshop reopened. She saw amá sleeping on a chair with her head resting on a pillow. Her grandson was sitting by the counter, watching TV on low volume. She returned to the flat. That night, she dreamt of her earrings again.
She returned to the pawnshop the next day. Amá was sleeping on the same chair with a pillow under her head. He was there too, still watching the small portable television, fixed to his seat. He looked up when she came in. She slid the receipt and the money across the counter. He took the receipt and left to the storage. She looked at amá. The small, rotating fan was blowing the edge of her old floral dress. She was suddenly grateful for this quiet, old woman who had never made her feel shameful. He returned soon after with the satin box in his hand. She took it without a word and left.
It became a routine – the television, the sleeping amà, the folded receipt, the satin box, the silence. They never spoke. They did not know each other’s names.
They did not acknowledge each other in other parts of the mansion. They only met once a month when she would return for her earrings. It was in this quiet, unassuming exchange of secrets that they fell in love.
There were months when she would not return for the earring. He would only see her whenever she passed the pawnshop, and even then, there were only fragments of her.
Sometimes he saw her when he was sent to buy groceries by amá, and she would linger over the vegetables, unlike the other housewives who knew what they came for and what price they wanted. Sometimes he saw her on the rooftop when amá sent him to water her orchids, and she would be there, hanging up her bedsheets.
He had seen her one afternoon, washing a handful of bok choy in a bowl in the communal kitchen. He watched her hands move under the cold tap water while he made tea for amá. He wanted to speak to her, to display the politeness that had been instilled in him since he was a child, but he sensed her appreciation for the border that existed between them. When she was finished, she wiped her hands on her apron, smiled at him, and left.
“I lost it.” I imagined her telling him. She was in the slip, the infamous slip, on the cheap floral bedsheets in amá’s flat. There was nothing but the sound of the fan whirring on the ceiling. He looked at her. “The other pair of the earring.”
“I took it from the satin box when I was 11. I wanted to try it on but I dropped it while I was playing in the park. I looked for it for hours. I never told anyone.”
“It’s okay,” he said, sitting up next to her.
“I am the cause of my own happiness,” she said, laughing.
In a strange way, the housewives were grateful for her. They couldn’t even consider the existence of such a kind of love in this building. Those who lived here were resigned to a fate of routines and responsibility, which took apart anything considered unnecessary. It was strange to imagine this woman’s bold courage, to hope for anything else beyond marriage, children, chores, and to actually reach out for it.
The scenes they imagined were much more provocative than anything she actually did. According to the rumors, she would bring him to the flat in the afternoon when it was empty. She, undressing him, this boy who smelled of sweat and soy milk. She, on top of him, on the bed she shared with her husband. She, holding him to her breast, like a mother. She must have taken him in every room. It’s a wonder that she still had time to finish her errands. She hid everything well. Her husband never caught them, never found anything in the flat out of place, never suspected her. If only amá had lived. She was holding amá’s body when the ambulance arrived. He was dressed. He must have done this as he ran out for help. She was in a slip, a silk white slip with lace embroideries around the waist.
Through numerous retellings, the slip that she had worn became even more luxurious than it really was. In truth, it was an old, fading slip that had been washed repeatedly throughout the years.
This is how I know they were grateful for her: no one had told her husband. Everyone knew, but because he was barely home and only exchanged the briefest of nods to the residents, he never found out.
She must have told a lie, a small, careful lie that he believed so that on the closing day of the pawnshop, it was him who lined up along with the other residents, slid the receipt and money across the counter, and took back his wife’s earring.
We saw her sometimes. Lingering at the grocers’, washing vegetables at the communal kitchen, hanging up her laundry on the rooftop, taking her daughter home from school.
Although she still wore her usual floral dresses, they said that she was still wearing the slip underneath. She had never even washed it. She didn’t smile, barely spoke, almost like a mirage. She was even more unapproachable than before.
And the strangest thing. Every day from 14:05 to 14:06, she would sit in the kopitiam, order a bottle of soymilk, take a few sips, and leave.
Rain Chudori is an Indonesian writer and filmmaker. Her book, Monsoon Tiger and Other Stories, was published in 2015 by KPG.