Short Story by Maggie Tiojakin (The Jakarta Post, December 18, 2017)
It was her thirty-seventh birthday today, and he — the husband — had taken her out for a romantic dinner at the Ritz, followed by an evening of rhythm and blues at their favorite café in Kemang.
A tall African-American performer stood on a corner stage, rendering Seal’sKiss From A Rose. The husband called for the waitress and asked for a bottle of champagne.
The waitress returned, moments later, bearing a tray of wine glasses and a silver bucket filled with ice to cool the liquor bottle. As she poured cold champagne into their glasses, the husband thanked her, and this was when the wife saw something ominous at the bottom of her glass.
You shouldn’t have, said the wife, fishing a golden necklace out of the glass with one hand, before laying it across a napkin to dry off, then handing it over to the husband, who diligently stood from his chair and walked around one half of the table to stand behind the wife.
Using both hands, the wife lifted her hair up to make room for her husband’s hands and sighed pleasantly when she saw the jewelry, coiled around her swan-like neck, glittering under the neon lights. The waitress, her face beaming with hope, smiled at this romantic gesture she rarely saw displayed in public, and took her leave just as the wife reached for the husband’s hand and patted it gently.
You shouldn’t have, the wife repeated herself, as the husband reclaimed his seat across from her. It must have cost you a fortune, she said. And, finally, a thank you, as she rose halfway off the chair, leaning forward and meeting his lips with her own.
The performer was now singing a birthday song, which the husband had also specifically asked for. The wife now reached for the husband’s hand across the table.
In bed, at at two-thirty in the morning, the husband stared closely at the even rows of square panels up on their bedroom ceiling. They had made love earlier in the evening with the necklace still attached to her neck. It was the kind of love-making that felt easy, comfortable and undemanding — for they knew what to expect: all the terrains of their bodies already discovered in the years they had been making love to each other, here in the same bed, which gradually helped them to appreciate sex in a way that would have been lost on them in their younger years.
The husband turned to look at his wife, the small of her back facing him, beckoning him to give it some space, and he felt compelled to relive their youths.
They had met as freshmen on campus, and again as juniors actively taking parts in a student organization. She was a psych major, he was a man of ideology. She called him a communist once, when she learned of his admiration toward Che Guevara. Over time, though, she began to understand why, and together they took a year off college to backpack across South America, hoping to find what Che had discovered decades ago.
The husband and wife weren’t communists, of course. They were merely in love with the vitality of Che’s writings, more than his ideas; amazed by his physical journey, more than his spiritual one. That same year, they discovered something else: companionship. Upon their return to Indonesia, they decided to tie the knot.
Determined to obtain their college degrees first, the two postponed their wedding until after graduation day. On campus, they worked part-time at the library — not for money (there was no money to be made, anyway) — for unlimited access to a world of various possibilities. They stayed up late, read to each other, debated on how the world should best be run, and went to sleep exhausted.
They also made plans for future travels, wrote a long list of places they had always wanted to visit: Monaco, Albania, Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia, etc. — it was a particularly long list.
I love Persia, she said to him one day in their favorite second-hand bookstore, as they went through stacks of old, dusty books. Wasn’t it once the greatest empire in the world? He smiled at her, pictured her walking the alleys of Tehran, bargaining for silk or souvenirs, donning a blue chador. He could see himself touching her face in these alleys, and wiping away the sweat from her face, the back of her neck, with his palm.
Then, he thought of the Persian King who was rumored to have had one-hundred-and-eighty-six wives: women who had given birth to over three-hundred heirs — all of them bearing the name Shah, all of them proud, though most of their mothers had been lowly women plucked out of society, forced to serve and satisfy the King’s insatiable desire. He didn’t tell her this.
Outside their bedroom window, the wind gently rustled the trees, and the husband thought he saw a face painted over the moon. As a child, he was told never to point a finger in the direction of the moon, lest his ear would be slashed by the gods and goddesses who served as guardians of the moon. He’d heard stories of other children who ignored the advice and how they ran home to their mothers, in tears, their ear bloodied and nearly severed. What did I tell you, the mothers responded later, what did I tell you not to do?
Both the husband and wife had donned a set of matching pajamas. This was her idea, which struck her quite spontaneously while they were out shopping for bed sheets. Wouldn’t it be nice to get a cute set of matching PJs? He shrugged. I can sleep naked, if that’s an option. She tenderly, playfully slapped him on the chest. He loved this about her. I’m taking two sets, she said. Okay, he replied. He preferred to sleep naked, perhaps because of the heat, but mostly because it would be easier for him to seduce her in bed, to let her feel him in the dark. Yet her strict religious upbringing forbade this, though she didn’t know exactly why. It’s just not done, she told him: It’s obscene to flaunt yourself like that.
Turning away from her, the husband looked at the room they occupied. For a master bedroom, it was sadly monotone, sparsely furnished, with bits and pieces of memorabilia from their travels nailed to the wall, whose paint was beginning to chip from the constant heat. There were pictures of them on the nightstand, on top of the bureau, on her make-up table — in Peru, Mexico, Brazil — one arm around the other’s shoulders, laughing, pouting, holding a dead fish in a market full of dead fish.
They’d never been anywhere else, though they often said they would visit other places, and every year was a reminder of the things they failed to realize. So, they thought of that year they had gone to South America the way most people think of moments in the past they know they can’t get back. What a wonderful time, she would say to him, we’re very lucky to have that to remember.
They were a childless couple. For years, they had gone to see different specialists, who told them to adopt this and that strategy, administered this and that treatment, until they all came to the same conclusion: The couple was doomed to never have children of their own. Why, the husband asked the doctors. They shook their heads: It is God’s will.
The wife cried and cried until her husband thought she would shrink into the size of a pea from all that crying; yet as much as the husband tried to comfort her, he knew there was nothing he could do to interfere with God’s will. Was it him, or was it her — the doctors couldn’t tell. Their medical records were fine, and in test tubes and on petri dishes his sperms and her eggs were reacting normally. The doctors suggested they conceive the child inside the womb of another woman, but the wife couldn’t bear it — she needed to carry her own child: it was either that or not at all. Be patient, advised the doctors. Perhaps God has other plans. That plan, the husband thought, was for them to grow old bitter and alone.
Childless, their existence became trivial. Spared from the financial burden of supporting a child’s life, they were free to spend as much as their monthly wages allowed. They spent most of their time apart and inside office cubicles, working on spreadsheets and going in and out of meeting rooms. When they could, they would dine at fancy restaurants, buy front-row tickets to sold-out concerts, and occasionally stay at five-star hotels on the weekends to avoid boredom.
They stopped socializing with people they had become friends with throughout their lives, pained at the thought of having to hear them marvel about their children. So they created a new circle almost entirely comprised of single men and women — people whose lives they needn’t envy, whose achievements are not remarkable, and whose eternal search for the right life partner gives them solace in the fact that they, at least, had found each other.
Of course, there were women the wife never knew about, women who had been the husband’s clients and colleagues, whose perfume often lingered on him hours after they had left the cheap and obscure small motel room, where he would pretend he was living the life of another man — someone with greater courage, kinder dispositions and more of a man than his pathetic self. In that way, the husband wondered whether she too had had other men he never knew about, men who made love to her the way he’d never dared to, who worshipped her body the way he always thought would be improper between husbands and wives, who made her come again and again as if the moment would never end.
There was an ocean between this side of the bed and the place where she lay night after night. He could cross that ocean with one swing of his leg, and it would be so easy for him to reach out an arm and pull her close to his side — but he wouldn’t do that. It would inconvenience her and make him feel awkward. The thought saddened him.
Later, in the early light of dawn, the husband hesitantly — and then with determination — drew himself closer to his wife’s body, closing the gap between them, and rested his forehead against her back. He held her like that for what seemed to be forever, the hours rolling past them, minutes and seconds going in and out of them, while he waited for her dreams to end and for them to start again.
Maggie Tiojakin is an Indonesian writer, translator and the managing director of The Jakarta Post Writing Center.
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