Short Storyby Maggie Tiojakin (The Jakarta Post, June 12, 2017)
For weeks I had told Rora—my roommate—that I didn’t want to go to the stupid Christmas party, which her boyfriend, Taher, insisted on throwing despite reports of a possible snowstorm some time in the next few days.
“He’s not my boyfriend,” said Rora.
“He’d like to be, though,” I said.
“You’re reading it all wrong.”
“You’re blinder than a bat.”
“We’re going,” said Rora.
“Why is he celebrating Christmas, anyway? He’s not even Christian.”
“It’s not that kind of Christmas party.”
“What other kind is there?”
“It’s a party.”
“Well, whatever it is, I’m not going.”
Rora was driving me to work. We went over the Charles and through Storrow Drive toward the harbor. Traffic was lighter than usual; and I pointed this out to her when we got off on State Street.
The roads were dark and wet after last night’s freezing rain. A tinge of sunlight came down in patches here and there. The city was paler than I remembered it to be.
Joni Mitchell was playing on the radio: she sang about pretty people reading fancy magazines in the sun in California.
I had never been to California. I had never been anywhere else outside of Massachusetts in a very long time. I had not seen the sea the way I used to marvel at it from the shores of Kuta, Bali.
“You can’t not go,” said Rora. I watched her from the passenger’s seat and thought about how beautiful she looked against the winter sky outside.
From time to time I would notice the little things that made Rora good and lovable—and afterward a surge of envy would come over me. She was the only American I knew who didn’t mind eating rice with her hands.
“If you’re not going, then I’m not going,” she went on.
“You can’t make me,” I said.
“Please, Ruth. It would look really bad if neither of us went.”
My name isn’t Ruth. No one in America had ever pronounced my name right, so I settled for Ruth. I was Ruth when I met Rora. I was Ruth when I introduced Taher and Rora to each other. And at the Indonesian restaurant where I worked my name tag said R-u-t-h.
Taher came to America last year on some prestigious scholarship. He wanted to be an ichthyologist. He was particularly attracted to fish.
It was spring when he came into the restaurant and asked for food recommendations. I told him to try our rendang sapi. I also told him he might like a small plate of fried bananas covered in chocolate syrup and sprinkled with grated cheese for dessert. Then he started coming in regularly. He liked chicken satay. He didn’t like sweet and sour shrimp. He loved nasi uduk.
“My father had this romantic notion of your country being the love child between India and some magical continent,” said Taher during one of his visits. “He used to tell me stories about faraway kingdoms in faraway lands where the sun never sets.”
“I assure you—where I come from—the sun always sets at around six, six-thirty in the early evening,” I said.
“A man can dream, can’t he?”
“Of course, as often as possible.”
“You’re mocking me.”
“In good spirit.”
One day, Taher told me about his science project. He was researching small, decorative fish. He wanted to know the root of human fascination for them. I asked him if he would like to study sharks and whales; but Taher said he wasn’t interested in big fish.
I confided in him the fact that he was the first—and only—scientist I had ever known. An ichthyologist, he corrected me.
“I am the guy you see about fish,” he said.
I bent my head down so he wouldn’t see me blush. I liked the way he inadvertently made the assumption that I would see him about anything at all. It made my heart jump a little. I asked him what was so special about fish and he said at the beginning of creation we had all been fish.
“That’s the craziest thing anyone’s ever said to me,” I said.
“Science is nothing if not a little mad,” he said.
“Be that as it may,” I said. “We’re not fish.”
In the summer, I invited Taher to the apartment for dinner. I was making sayur asam, but without chili and shrimp paste. I used brown sugar and black pepper as substitutes. Rora bought drinks and dessert on her way home from work. It was the first time the two had met. Later, when we opened the second bottle of wine, Taher mentioned the fish theory to Rora—who thought it was the greatest thing she had ever heard.
On Christmas Eve, Rora and I took the train to Salem. We didn’t talk on our way over because I had had my eyes closed the whole time, pretending to be asleep. It was beginning to snow outside. According to the weather report, we should have expected at least a foot of snow covering the entire region by morning. To kill time, Rora flipped through the pages of a week-old newspaper someone had left on the empty seat across from us.
We walked from the train stop to the house. Rora wasn’t talking to me, and I appreciated the silence.
Taher smiled when he saw us at the door and quickly escorted us inside.
“So glad you guys made it!” he said.
Some guy with a turban wrapped around his head offered to get us drinks. Scotch for Rora, plain water for me.
“I hope you’re hungry. I made a lamb dish you both love,” said Taher.
The living room buzzed with early conversations: some appeared to be repeat guests of other parties Taher had frequented. The host gently confiscated our coats and disappeared into one of the bedrooms to put them away. Rora noticed the grin on my face.
“What now,” she said.
“I hate lamb,” I said, holding the glass of water with two hands. “I hate the way it smells. Everyone knows I hate lamb.”
“Apparently not everyone,” she said. “What’s the big deal, anyway? Don’t eat it if you don’t like it.”
“Do you like lamb?”
I didn’t feel like mingling, so I took refuge in the bedroom. I laid down on the bed and stared at the ceiling until my eyes burned. I never liked parties; I had always felt either underdressed or overdressed and I didn’t care for small talks. I usually just sat in the corner of a room, any room, and pretended as though I was observing everything that was going on around me—like I was a sponge and all the chaos just got sucked into me; like I had been given the ringside seat to the ultimate social match and all I had to do was watch.
The party was getting louder. I could hear Al Green singing about trees and red roses; and—through surprisingly thin walls—I overheard Rora defending Taher’s fish theory against those who thought it was the most ridiculous idea that had ever been conceived.
Fish are extremely agile creatures, Taher once told me. They have a complex evolutionary history that involves several genetic mutations; and their lineage may have more things in common with humans than anticipated. All living species, Taher said, can be traced to a single evolutionary history based on the concept of relatedness.
“I think fish are extraordinary creatures,” he said some time ago. “They appear simple, but they’re really quite complicated.”
An hour later, I exited Taher’s bedroom and rejoined the party. Snow was coming down pretty hard outside. I went for a glass of piña colada and accidentally caught Taher and Rora in the kitchen, locked in a deep kiss — their hands all over each other. I froze in the doorway like an idiot; and for a minute I was overwhelmed by the potential of a life-changing discovery.
Suddenly, everything Taher had said to me made perfect sense. My body was lighter and I sensed a fleeting transformation that was simultaneously painful and pleasurable.
I dumped my drink into the sink and startled the new couple. Taher had a noticeable erection, which he tried to hide by hunching his shoulders forward. Rora pouted her lips and looked as though I was about to steal something from her.
“I thought I should let you know that I’m thinking of getting a fish,” I said.
Presently, Taher stepped back and stood behind the kitchen counter. “That’s nice,” he said, straightening his shoulders — his erection completely out of view. “Congratulations.”
“Is that all?” asked Rora.
“Yes,” I said.
“You’re not here to complain about the lamb?”
“What about the lamb?” asked Taher.
“The lamb is fine,” I said.
“Unbelievable,” said Rora.
“I don’t have a problem with the lamb.”
“You did, too!”
Rora and I went into a staring contest for a while, then I turned my attention back to Taher, who obviously wished he were elsewhere.
“I’m thinking maybe Koi. I hear they bring good luck,” I said.
“They do,” said Taher. “They’re wonderful.”
Rora growled and reached for Taher’s hand. “You’re impossible,” she said to me. “Come on. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
As the two rushed past me, I called out: “You’re still the guy I see about fish, right?”
Taher turned to me as he was about to disappear into a crowd of chattering guests and mouthed: “I’m the fish guy.”
And it was good enough for me.
I thought of what it would be like to live in a glass bowl, constantly staring out at some other life I could never be a part of. I thought of Taher holding scalpels and drawing incisions across my chest to inspect the tiny heart that is strung among other minuscule organs inside me, weighing it in his hands and wondering how something so appallingly small could have sustained a life, any life.
Perhaps it’s true that we had all come from fish. Maybe if I tried hard enough I could develop gills to help me breathe underwater and let my skin grow scales.
Wouldn’t that be extraordinary?
The world would be my ocean.
Another version of this story has appeared in Maggie’s story collection, As Long As We Are Lost In Space (2013).