Short Story by Latifa Sekarini (The Jakarta Post, September 18, 2017)
I had endured long, lonely nights like no one else had. Arriving at a hotel in Spain before the sun had risen and then spending a few hours at a meeting before finally hopping on a plane to Dubai for another meeting was something I expected. There was no time to complain or get caught in the moment. There will come a time when you realize that the world does not revolve around you, and there will also come a time when you realize that expensive habits will not benefit you in any way, especially when you’ve got a job like mine. What I had found unbearable was not the fact that I didn’t have enough time to explore or buy dumb souvenirs when I had nobody to give them to. It was the space in between that tinge of happiness and the sudden strike of unpleasantness that had reeled me in without my consent whenever the thought of home crossed my mind.
Stephanie Perkins had described home as “not a place, but a person.” But what if you were alone? What if you didn’t have a person to hold your hand as you walked through the empty avenues and dimly lit alleys as you scavenged through the unlocked bins?
No matter how much we want it to be there, the solid definition of the word home will never be there, because we all have a different idea of what home is. It could have been a tattered tent, underneath a flyover. It could have been a three-story mansion somewhere in the middle of America. It could have been those lips I had adored so much, those kisses that tasted like tangerines.
“Happy anniversary, to both of you!” I beam jovially. “How long has it been? Ten years?”
Gary nods. He is sitting across from me, stirring his hot chocolate, while my brother Greg is dipping his chips in barbecue sauce. The two of them are celebrating their ten-year anniversary at our favorite bar. Whenever there is a gap in my schedule, we would hang out here, drinking our troubles away.
Trying to talk over the band, which is beginning to play a song by Dandy Warhols, we immerse ourselves in a conversation about the New Year, and then Greg pauses mid-conversation and yells, “Are you going to drop by at Jo’s?”
“Jo’s?” I echo.
God knows how many years I haven’t set foot at Jo’s. After realizing that I’m not drunk enough to lose my ability to count, it’s nearly five, but who’s counting?
It’s been nearly five years since I have stopped walking out of my room and expect to see her making breakfast. It’s been nearly five years since my taxi dropped me at my doorstep and I have stopped wishing there was a way to tell her that I am home. It has been nearly five years since I laid in bed, hoping the aftermath of a heartbreak will be a little easier for me because it has been so long since my first heartbreak and it feels a little bit like being a child and watching your sandcastle fall apart as the waves wash over it.
“Come on, Gia,” Gary tells me. “You can’t avoid Jo forever.”
I can, but I don’t tell him that. Instead, I say, “It’s been a long time, Gary. I’ve moved on.”
I don’t tell him that it’s been a long time and I’ve done everything to avoid Jo, to avoid our daughter. It’s been a long time, and I have stopped listening to the Beatles, stopped listening to love songs. I don’t tell him about the nights I have spent flicking through the channels on TV, trying to look for a single show that possesses the ability to make me forget the way Jo laughs, or the way she tightens her grip on my fingers whenever she feels hopeful. I don’t tell him about the uncountable number of nights that I’ve spent wondering if they miss me, the way I’ve been missing them all this time.
Greg shakes his head at me, as if he has a special power that I have absolutely no knowledge of. Well, I suppose he does, because instead of going quiet like Gary, my brother just presses his lips together, which is what I do whenever I am on the verge of tears, and shakes his head again. “No, you haven’t, Gia. You haven’t forgotten either of them.”
I’ve stopped expecting Sainsbury’s to sell my favorite kind of instant noodles, because it’s just downright impossible for them to sell Indomie in five different flavors. After a meeting with the ambassador, I run down to the place in Piccadilly and on the way up the elevator, I bump into the last person I want to see on a day like this.
She says my name like it is a delicate object that must be treated with care, cradling it gently as she makes a promise not to break it into pieces, and I wonder how she can do such an excellent job at keeping my name safe yet fail to do the same thing with my heart.
Because the intangible substance called love that runs in her veins, and yours, is the thing that stops her.
And we know all too well how love knows no boundaries, no rules, no safety nets. No force on earth has the capability of stopping us from reaching toward each other, and now, no force on earth has the capability of making this feel right.
Tell me, Jo, what were we?
“Let me guess,” Jo says. “You’re getting your daily dose of Indonesian food?”
“While I’m in the city.” I glance at a happy couple on the opposite elevator, gushing over their photo strips from the photo booth. At least two out of the four of us are happy. “What about you?”
Jo hesitates before answering, but I find absolutely no hesitation in her answer. “Rindu.”
Rindu means longing. Longing for what? I want to ask.
She takes my hand, mostly out of habit more than anything, and the two of us step off the escalator with our fingers intertwined.
PKL, short for pedagang kaki lima, meaning “street vendor,” is not a crowded restaurant located by the Thames. It is not part of a mall either, unlike my favorite Vietnamese restaurant. It is a small corner with three picnic benches crammed into it, and a small corner for cooking and serving.
Because of the limited amount of seats, we end up sitting at the same table. Jo’s eyes trace the tips of my fingers as I spoon rice into my mouth and tear into the piece of chicken on my plate vigorously as if I have not eaten for a week, and I force myself to stare at her shoes: the same, scuffed Converse that I gave her on her birthday. The last birthday we had celebrated together, as a couple.
“When are you leaving?”
“It’s Christmas Eve.”
“There’s this party in Jakarta,” words slip out of my mouth.
“Let me guess.” She rolls a toothpick between her forefinger and her thumb. “Cute girls?”
I shoot her a horrified look. “No! My boss wants us all to come, that’s all.”
“What are you planning to wear?” she leans forward, the words playing on her lips flirtatiously. “I don’t suppose you’re planning to steal some kisses at the after party?”
“Do Indonesians even know the concept of an after party?” I laugh. “Jo! My boss is married! His kid is, like, eighteen years old or something, and if his age is not enough to let me know that I’m out of my league, then I don’t know what you’d call out of my league.”
“You still haven’t told me what you’re going to wear.”
“There’s this gorgeous dress from Biyan that I bought last week before I got here, but if the thing I ordered online has finally made an appearance at my mother’s place, I might consider trying it out.”
Jo lets out a loud laugh, full of life, and coincidentally, the woman sitting at the other table begins to hum an Elvis Presley song. I begin to laugh, and Jo steals a glance as I take a swig from my cup of tea.
That was a song that we’d danced to on the last Halloween we’d spent together. Because I forgot to tell Jo what costumes she was supposed to pick up, she had gone and come back with the wrong costumes. She’d borrowed my blue heels and made the most of her dress, while Amara looked absolutely thrilled with her pink dress. I’d plucked a rose from Mrs. Mackie’s garden to go with the yellow dress I’d worn all night.
A couple with a red Ferrari were playing that song loudly and were making out inside the car. Jo handed her phone over to Amara, who began to take a video of us dancing on the sidewalk. She’d kissed me too, until I forgot where my lips ended and hers began.
Did you ever do this, you think back on all the times you’ve had with someone and you just replay it in your head over and over again and you look for those first signs of trouble?
Before I know it, Jo is pulling me into an embrace that makes me feel as if I am made of glass, and she is saying goodbye and letting go of my hand. Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye. She looks at me once, her eyes tracing the tips of my fingers and the crinkles in my dress, as if she is planning to draw it from memory. And then she steps away, eventually consumed by the crowd.
Was this what I wanted?
Was this all that we would get?
Was this all that love could give us?
A few months ago, I had written a letter to Jo, saying if someone had made a list full of her flaws, I would have set the list on fire, I would have torn it to shreds, I would have bottled it and thrown it into the Pacific Ocean for it to sink and never be seen again. And then I would run into her arms, because Shakespeare once said, “love looks not with the eyes but with the mind, and therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.”
That was what I had promised. But it wasn’t what I did.
And I am tearing through the streets, rushing past the crowds, trying to catch my breath. I don’t need to check the map to see where I am going, just several glances at the station signs are enough to let me know where I am. When I exit the tube station, I am on fire, and I am running through the streets again like a wild animal, squeezing my way past crying infants and their mothers, past the charity shop where I bought these boots, past the record store and the bakery. I walk into an alley and wonder if it will lead to a certain block of flats. My heart does a little dance of relief when I catch sight of the sign that says Nightingale House.
Reaching out hesitantly, I rap the door using my knuckles, and add, “Ho! Ho! Ho!” for good measure.
Latifa Sekarini is an Indonesian writer and high school student. Her stories have previously appeared in The Jakarta Post.
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