Short Story by Latifa Sekarini (The Jakarta Post, February 26, 2018)
My father’s first love had been a woman who carried the ocean inside her. He had told us many tales of how she sang to the sea and held hands with the moon when the entire world was asleep.
The last time he had seen her was at his high school graduation ceremony when she had stood at the podium, bearing the honor of being the school’s valedictorian. And while my father spent the next few months after finishing high school dreaming about sharing kisses under the moon, she had gone on to pursue her dreams, tirelessly traveling from one country to another. Her restless heart had wanted more than what her hometown could offer.
“Did you love her more than you loved Mother? Did she love you back?”
“She loved the ocean more than anything else,” my father replied. “She’d left my heart on the shore and told the tide to carry it away.”
I thought of the two of them standing by the edge of the water, staring out at the horizon stretched out before them, the glimmering water beckoning them to wade in. I thought of the way her long hair would tickle his face, of the way she would fall asleep to the sound of his heart beating, just a few feet away from the crumbling sandcastles they had built on the beach, and the pile of shells my father kept in a broken bucket.
They had chased the ice cream van and skinned their knees on the pavement, their lemon popsicles dripping down their hands as they talked about the people they wished to become, of the places they wished to go.
“So, where did she go?” Zoe looked up at him, wide-eyed. “Did you ever see her again?”
“Sometimes I think the ocean carried her away,” he said.
He’d kiss us good night and flick off the light switch, leaving us wide awake in the dark to wonder about our father’s first love.
No matter how many cans of Red Bull or coffee you try to gulp down in one night, staying up until half past one and looking through year books and trying to trace some nameless woman through the internet is never a good idea — especially if you have plans to go out. After canceling on brunch, Wendy and I settled for dinner at seven o’clock at our favorite diner.
“So I’m assuming your father has absolutely no idea at all about this brilliant plan of yours to reunite him with his supposedly nameless high school sweetheart?” Wendy squinted at me in the golden glow of the coffee shop.
“Don’t be daft. She must have had a name,” I rolled my eyes and swatted her hand as she reached for the last fry.
Wendy raised an eyebrow, amused.
Our fathers had introduced us to each other at a soirée held by one of their mutual friends, and although my father had made a fuss about the excessive amount of eyeliner I’d been wearing, which he thought was remarkably unattractive, Wendy had managed to ingratiate her way into my father’s heart.
By the end of the night, we managed to escape the intoxicating heat radiating off of people’s voices, their words bouncing off us as they talked about which of their children would most likely inherit the companies they were currently running, or potential rivals, whose names would be highlighted with a bright yellow pen to remind them of the possibility of a ruined legacy.
She had stolen glances at me as the conversation began to spiral into shape, and I understood what my father had meant by dreaming of kissing someone underneath the wing of the moon.
Perhaps it was the small doses of soju we were consuming out of tiny shot glasses, or just the party that had gotten to my head — but as our conversation progressed, it began to uncover layer after layer of our guarded souls as we both struggled to suppress our hopes to catch a glimpse of something that neither of us had experienced before.
Sunday dinner was the only thing I’d been looking forward to after a strenuous week of school, and Bessie’s burgers and two tall glasses of root beer were the perfect solution to our ceaseless complaints, which, most of the time, were about the excessive amount of homework from school.
While Wendy filled me in on the possibility of several new students joining her class, I told her about my plan to find the woman who had broken and healed my father’s heart at the same time.
“Don’t you think it’s a little odd?”
“Why are you so determined to find her?”
I shrugged, suddenly feeling deflated. “I don’t know,” I retorted flatly.
“Your father must have loved her,” Wendy said wistfully. “Maybe she would have loved him back.”
“What if she did?”
“Is there any point in knowing if she did?” she raised an eyebrow. “Would it change anything?”
Despite the fact that we bickered constantly, there were a lot of things that we had in common. We were both motherless, and we were quite petulant as children. We had found comfort in the darkness that we had kept hidden beneath the polished facade we held up like shields; and inside that sense of comfort, something else began to blossom.
“Did I tell you what I found?” she said, rummaging in her pocket.
“What did you find?”
I eyed the plate of fries that the waitress had delivered to our table. “Go on, then,” she nodded.
Abruptly, I stood up. “I should get going.”
“You have somewhere you need to be?”
“My father’s office.” I stopped to brush the crumbs off my skirt. “Wait, you never told me what you were going to say.”
“No, it doesn’t matter anymore.” She paused. “Do you want me to walk you there?”
“It’s alright, I’ll just call an Uber to pick me up.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’ll be fine,” I said.
Sighing reluctantly, she nodded. Although I felt a little odd to be leaving early, she stayed behind to watch me walk down the street before eventually disappearing from my peripheral vision.
As expected, my father’s office was in complete disarray, his books were stacked messily in the corners, along with a pile of newspapers dating back to November 2011. A bunch of photo albums were spread out across the floor, lined up in a chronological order — photos scattered randomly at my feet. Cans of instant coffee were lined up by the trash bin, their varying colors glinting at me in the dim light. He must have been in the toilet, because I could hear the tap running.
I bent over to inspect the framed photograph on his desk. The four of us, dressed in matching yellow ponchos, huddling underneath a massive umbrella, smiling half-heartedly at the camera as the rain dripped onto our backs.
When was this? I thought to myself. Obviously before our mother got sick.
Feeling something crunching underneath my boot, I picked up one of the photos. It was a photo of a young man and woman with their arms around each other, dressed in matching graduation togas, the same kind of smiles plastered across their faces. The camera flash illuminated their faces and their happiness had leapt off the glossy photograph to greet me.
“That was my high school sweetheart. My first love.”
My father stood in the doorway, a sad smile on his face.
“This was your first love.”
“Yes, she was.”
“Where did she go? What happened to her? You never told me the end of the story.”
“You don’t remember?”
“What is there to remember?”
“I didn’t come to your sister’s piano recital and she gave me a hard time for it.”
“Seeing her was a mistake?”
My father paused before shaking his head. “It was, but it might as well have been the best mistake I made.”
Snippets of memories began to flood in: the smell of powder and perfume wafting in the air. My sister stood as still as a statue, watching carefully as my mother painted her lips scarlet and tied the ribbon on the back of her satin dress. It was the same color of the moon, and at the end of the night, it had been stained by tears of disappointment.
“She told me to turn around and forget about that night.” My father sighed. “It was one of the best nights of my life and it would have been one of the best nights of her life too.”
“Was it too late?”
“Much too late.”
“Did she… have a family?”
He paused. “Her only daughter… was Wendy.”
Our love had folded in on itself after my father’s confession, the way a gingerbread house doused in milk would crumble and eventually dissolve. Her hands were warm, just like the soufflé we had for dessert, meanwhile my hands no longer craved the touch of hers. This time, we had held each other at arm’s length, careful to leave gaps in between our shoulders and while the soles of our feet scoured the city and everything in it, our hands stayed safe in our pockets.
Sitting cross legged on the sand, the two of us let the wind ruffle our hair as we spoke, a hint of tenderness dripping off our voices. The same tenderness which her mother had possessed, the same tenderness which wasn’t there before. There was no hostility in her eyes, just a tinge of unhappiness that might or might not have been directed at me.
We had made small talk about the weather, and then about her part-time job. There seemed to be millions of things to talk about, yet every single subject felt like foreign territory, unexplored and strange to our wandering minds, although the two of us had been capable of discussing the formation of the universe.
We appeared as though we were two distant planets, anticipating destruction and whatever would come after it. We were waiting for the end of the world, for annihilation. For everything that we had not seen coming.
“Is this it?” she drew a sharp breath. “Is this how it ends?”
“This is how it ends,” I whispered, my words disappearing in the dark as I tried hard not to cry.
“I should be the one crying,” she told me. There was a pause. “Did you find her?”
“Was it worth the risk?”
“So you found her.”
“You were right, I suppose. He did love your mother.”
Wendy turned away from me to wipe away her tears. “I wish I could have saved her.”
Of course, I had run out of apologies by this time, and all I had to offer was a hug, and choked sobs. She melted into the shadows after a while, leaving me to mourn on my own.
A part of me wondered whether the choices I had made in the past few days would be the exact same choices I would live to regret.
She was old enough to know how it ends, but not old enough to know what the aftermath feels like; and she was old enough to know what pain is supposed to taste like.
Latifa Sekarini is an Indonesian writer. Her stories have appeared in The Jakarta Post.
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