Short Story by Andrieta RA (The Jakarta Post, August 14, 2017)
It must be impossible for the dawn and dusk of your days to be a very, very long dream. My fingers lightly perched on the keyboard as I paused to draw a breath in.
But everything perhaps feels too confusing to be real.
I assured myself there was no need for an extra amount of pressure; I was only doing this for me, because there was no way the office would take in a piece like this. Though I could imagine myself sharing the tale of this peculiar incident with a few people.
In crude summary, I was still incredulous to find myself intact after standing amid a heavy stream of rolling transportations — no less confused about the events following my near-death experience. So I did the best and least I could do;
Or at least, I tried to.
The sensation of being dazed had already begun for as long as I could remember. But this particular occurrence had only taken place a few hours ago, just around two in the afternoon.
During that time, I was standing on a sidewalk. The gray slab of concrete was as it normally was, teeming with people who varied in clothes, professions, and stories. Things would’ve ended up differently if I turned left and walked up to a mall. Continue right, and I would most likely suffer from the rather high possibilities of getting run over. I remained still, standing next to an old man who sat with his legs folded and exposed through a pair of drab shorts. He kept my face shy from his gaze, which lead to the conscious realization of how I was in taut trousers and a grid shirt, while I should’ve been wearing boxers and a singlet at home for calling in ‘sick’. This emaciated person returned to the sight of a blurred city.
Metaphorically speaking, I wasn’t completely lying when I told the office that I was ill. In fact, I still needed a longer or even permanent leave from this job. When one is split in half, they’re supposed to be dead — so how could they even show up for work at all? Too bad this didn’t count if you were only disturbed mentally. I trudged straight on as an ordinary citizen, feeling less and less like a common settler and a journalist.
Lacking destination, my feet had somehow halted next to a pushcart resting beneath a lifeless lamp. I would’ve arrived at smaller mall if I strolled farther north past a little roundabout, and it would be no task to cross as the area was less driven past. The owner of the pushcart — a rather amp-looking man — offered to whip up some fried rice in exchange for a ten thousand Rupiah bill. I could not tell if he spoke in English or Indonesian.
“Do you work nearby?” he asked — in Indonesian — as he saw me narrow my distance toward him. This amiable-looking seller did not have a particular accent.
“To tell you the truth, I can’t remember how I ended up here in the first place. Are we in Central Jakarta?” I replied in the same tongue.
Another yellow drop trickled into the crackling pool of oil. The man looked at me with wide-open eyes, his irises round and unconcealed by his eyelids. “Does it hurt when you pinch yourself?”
I sighed. “I’ve considered the possibility that I am dreaming already. I keep losing the tracks of my train of thoughts. I often don’t know how I arrive here then there. I can’t get a grip on my notebook or pen, and everything just slips through my eyes like a movie. But I’ve been counting my fingers for days, and still I don’t know.”
What was I thinking to convey all this to such a person? Although that didn’t matter considering how we would almost impossibly cross paths a second time.
There was a faint sizzling sound brewing in the air, followed by a waft of garlic scent. I captured the vision of two black objects, and my perception identified them as a set of tires.
“It’s either that,” the man spoke. “Or… you are in denial of how things are.”
The rather rusty-looking wok shook, a hand steadily maintaining a grip by its right handle. Its contents were now a mixture of ingredients, on its way to becoming an attractive meal for the greedy palette and an empty stomach. I licked my chapped lips and said, “Well, it’s not every day that I find someone who sells fried rice and also talks about… about these… things.”
A wooden spatula vehemently stirred the food. “I wouldn’t know… if it’s that uncommon, sir.” He hastily wiped a dribble of his sweat using the sleeve of his T-shirt. “Aside from not running into police officers, I try to avoid a person who also sells fried rice. I don’t need the competition.”
As the edible components were intensely folded and spread, I registered the occurring events: the racket of frying and the sound of a growl from somewhere deep within. Flawed silence and the boisterous lamentations of a head that was detaching its tether to my anchored limbs — tirelessly trying to bulldoze reality’s boundaries with a bruised imagination. And then, an arbitrary question at the tip of my tongue.
“Have you ever felt the same way before?”
He displayed a rather puzzled mien — it occurred to me that I had inquired this in a language foreign to him. I translated my phrase.
“What way?” he asked in Indonesian.
“Like you’re stuck in a crossfire between your reveries and this… perplexing reality.”
The cooking process stopped. Tailed by the dense strands of smoke, the meal rolled into the inside of a Styrofoam food box, a plastic padding the bottom side.
“Sometimes,” the man answered. “But that only happens when I have a hard time accepting how hard reality is, which would be, in nature, understandable. You see, I wasn’t born with a choice — I just know I have to stay alive. Perhaps I am a product of my own poor mind, yes. But I am also the result of the system’s structure. But, anyway, the bigger truth is that reality’s inevitable and gray, so it’s not a hundred per cent bad. Here I am, talking to you as a man who makes more fried rice than money, and feeling better than OK. I still have limited options or opportunities, but I at least have my decisions. And I know that it’s not all my fault I am the way I am, as it is also not my complete responsibility to make sure that life… comes with wonders… beyond the power of my sole perception.”
He did not take the pay or the tip, and he did not hand me the fried rice. “We function in similar but also, very different ways,” he continued. “See, I can make good food; people can dream of and build good scrapers, which is something that exceeds the ability of my mind alone.”
What a man, and what a thought.
“So you’re saying that reality is a combination of all our human thoughts, actions, and miseries then.”
“Well, that’s one way to look at it. Yeah, sometimes I gaze at the sky, and I see—”
“Of course you see, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to gaze—”
“Though yes, we’ve done the horizon damage with our lights and pollution, there’s a reason it isn’t falling even when we do anything but hold it up — this is my take on reality, and I am grateful for it. The Greek mythology believes our sky is on the shoulders of the titan Atlas, and some believe in a singular God being in control of the stars. Some believe in magic, or that things just happen because they do. Bottom line, we should really stop punishing ourselves for everything, and accept that bad happens, good happens. We happen, other things happen. So stop fighting against what we do not have full control over.”
I blinked in fatigue, staring at the surreal passion the man spoke in. Without looking down, I counted my fingers. Five, six? The man quickly opened his mouth again.
“Tired of the bleak side of reality? Then remember the fact that there’s still good in the air we breathe, and it is not just the doing of you or I.” He slipped all the money into his pocket, and handed me the tepid white box. “The sky is still the limit, the sun still shines above us and the moon still glows. There are universes existing outside ours. Reality comes with things that exceed the greatest of our innovations, and… imagination.” He uttered the last word in unrefined English.
“Yeah, I don’t know. Maybe you’re right. Though I just… I just feel like I need a break from writing about reality sometimes.”
But the man had, to my utter surprise, disappeared — so did the cart, roundabout, and mall.
I came to re-register the occurring events:
The snapping of someone’s fingers in the back of my head.
My hands clutching an empty styrofoam box.
A sense of shock to discover my feet glued to the middle of a busy street, where the red traffic lights cannot control the flow of life in this city.
The writer’s poem has previously appeared in The Jakarta Post. She also participated in The Jakarta Post Writing Center’s creative writing course: The Novel.