Short Story by Andrieta Rafaela Arifin (The Jakarta Post, May 28, 2018)
Daylight was drowsily on its way to breaking — pale light streams crawled through the window’s blinds, only to eventually flop down onto my bed sheets.
It was a Saturday morning after all — I would’ve remained in bed and woken at a later time to the sight of the fully risen sun, had my mother not decided to turn the air conditioner off and persistently demand me to throw my blankets aside at six.
She reasoned that it was a good idea to go on a morning walk while I had the chance, because my study streak for next week’s exam was something she deemed unhealthy.
As she was insistent on having me come with her and because I was slightly remorseful that she had normally gone on these walks alone, I slipped into a pair of sport shoes and began strolling the streets of a neighborhood I grew up pacing back and forth in.
“You know,” she began after several minutes of silence. “Exercise is said to relieve stress. And with the weather being this cool, I’m sure you’d stay refreshed throughout the rest of the day.”
There was, indeed, something admittedly pleasant in the way the air felt — it was like taking a fresh breath in a place foreign from the heat of daily demands and frantic routines, gently coursed through by soft winds capable of quieting a feverish spirit.
It was as though for the first time in my life, the chirping of birds and the sound of their fluttering from one tree to another were the only things I heard for a full few seconds without interruption. All this occurred beneath the canopy of a placid horizon, its blue tint gradually dissolving into lighter shades from the sun’s increasing brightness.
“How’s the second semester of law school, Alma?”
“Good, ma. How are things at work?”
My mother was a secretary at a renowned property development group based in South Jakarta.
“Both good and busy, as usual.”
Our footsteps, no less mute than our discontinued dialogue, had led us to pass the neighborhood playground, which was located on a grassy mound encircled by various-shaped houses. The grass sometimes served as a rug for children to leave their slippers on and rub their feet against, as it surrounded a low-platform circular space bordered by a short layer of concrete, where thick piles of sand were scattered beneath a swing set, slide and plastic play house.
It was probably a year ago when I last sat on one of the swings with the same woman I was walking with now, the movement of my knees letting the half-tire which dangled through two chains to go back and forth in a leisurely momentum. She had asked me to go on a walk with her, and for the same reasons I had today, I sat swinging beside her with brown grains stuck to the soles of my feet, eyes busily roaming a sky that was on its way to turning pink, then orange, dark blue and eventually black – but until nighttime would actually arrive, we were simply gazing at the approaching golden hour, occasionally contributing dialogue and some of our thoughts.
“Ma,” I said at one point in that evening. “I’m thinking about majoring in law later on.”
My mother remained silent for a while, until a soft sigh left the narrowing gaps between her lips.
“You know what, Alma?”
She turned to face me, and I saw a sort of placidness gleaming in her eyes — a still river with close to no ripples painlessly reflecting a subtle glow from the moon.
“That’s not important to talk about right now. I want to hear about something else.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
She smiled. “Tell me about anything […] other than your plans for university or work.”
“Well […]” I mumbled. I repeated the word again, stalling to think of something proper to say.
“Alright, I’ll go first,” my mother said. “Do you know our new neighbors, the Koreans living across our street?”
I shook my head. “I didn’t even know Koreans lived across our street.”
“When I went on an evening stroll a couple of days ago, I heard one of the Korean boys saying with profound amazement that you could apparently feel like you walked faster if you did so while looking up at the sky.”
I wanted to ask her about when she started to care about what a little boy had to say about craning your head upward to obtain the illusion that you are walking faster, but of course, I ended up inquiring that only to myself.
Of all the mostly hazy details from childhood, I could still recall with great clarity the dinners prepared then shared with my housekeeper alone, and the days-long vexation my mother displayed when the water I brought for her upon her arrival home from work accidentally spilled on some of her documents instead.
What was even harder to forget was how she disappeared into the dark obscurity of the night for longer hours ever since she and my father decided to split. I could only understand why she did the last part when I eventually participated in more after-school activities — I needed anything to keep me distracted and productive, the latter point existing to compensate for the first. This went on for such a period of time, until I would almost forget how this was something I started merely as a form of escape.
Every now and then, we would make the effort to occupy other spaces of the house apart from our separate rooms, or to go out someplace without fixating ourselves too much on our phones or individual thoughts. Alas, neither the actions nor the effects would go on perpetually. Was this somehow related to her providing a seemingly arbitrary sentence?
“Cool,” I decided to respond. “Maybe I’ll try that later on.”
A pause extended itself through the suddenly broad space which surrounded us. Her somewhat awkwardly uttered words eventually stumbled after the pause to stop it from lengthening further. “At times, Alma, something as simple a child wholeheartedly singing a song they are fond of has its own way of warming another person.”
“I don’t know, ma. That sounds like something that would annoy me.”
A small laugh parted my mother’s lips. “Okay. I suppose you could also equate that to […] a passionate artist who patiently puts details to his paintings on the side of Jakarta’s bustling street where almost everyone thinks they’re too busy to stop. What about that?”
“Generally, you are referring to any act done out of […] sincerity, and perhaps […] love?”
She nodded. “I suppose that could sum things up.”
“When did you start thinking about these things? It’s unlike you or either of us, really, to suddenly do that.”
“I […] I don’t know.” She stared ahead with an indecipherable expression. “Seeing these things just make me feel a certain way, and it is only until we have this conversation that I finally tried to word this feeling into a thought.”
A wind ruffled through the gaps between the rustling tree leaves, then silently through my mother’s wavy black hair, lightly lifting the strands from her narrow shoulders while my locks remained stubbornly tied in a pony tail.
There was a long silence before she hastily decided it was time for us to return home, and I quickly got up in agreement.
“Ma.” I was slightly surprised to find that the sun was not setting in the last minutes of evening, and that the park was no longer in sight. “Did you by any chance say something earlier?”
“No. Why do you ask?”
This same feeling from one year ago was slowly recurring itself today — I was even relieved to find that we were only halfway through circling the neighborhood. Sooner or later, it would seem almost inevitable that she would disappear behind her bright rectangular screen, and I behind my own as if they were portals that led to two completely different worlds.
With my academic demands, current organizational activities and my involvement in debate competitions — a passion I had been long committed to — the lack of proper connection between my mother and I would barely resurface itself to mind, and I feared that it would reach the extent where it would not even bother me yet again.
That was more or less what happened when we returned from that walk, on an evening that seemed so breathtaking at one point, then insignificant when we hid away in the closed boxes of our routines. Surely, I could not be the only person who felt this way — but based on how plenty of my friends talked about spending their weekends loitering malls with their lovers or the people they significantly cherished, I felt as I was mostly alone in this.
“Nothing […]” I quickly said when I realized I had not given a reply. “I was just thinking about something, so I might’ve spaced out.”
My mother slowed down when we were walking past a particular porch to our left where a wizened man and a boy in a tiny green t-shirt were entertaining themselves with a makeshift drum set, consisting of spoons and flipped plastic buckets. After my mother and I watched them for several seconds, a woman came out of the house’s open door and offered a clap towards their recital.
“You know, mom,” I found myself admitting as we presumed our former pace. “Sometimes […] sometimes I wish we didn’t only do things for the sake of productivity, if you understand what I mean.”
“I know, Alma. So do I. Sometimes, the presence of these seemingly pointless but loving acts lead me to question if we truly have better things to do with our time.”
“I don’t know, ma. Do you think we do?”
“Well […]” She said with a somewhat sheepish smile. “I’d like to think that we’ve tried to make more time for these things, and that we can always try again as long as we have the desire to.”
After a few turns, the roof, then the rest of our house’s parts were eventually visible again.
When we had reached the driveway, my mother cleared her throat. “Let’s try to go on more walks together from now on. What do you say about that?”
A rush of relief unknowingly flowed into my chest, the acknowledgment of this clambering itself to pull the two corners of my lips upward into a smile. “Yes, let’s. But if we were to walk during the weekends, let’s please go on evenings instead.” ***
The writer is a law student at one of the most prestigious universities in the country. She is also the alumni of a Creative Writing Workshop at The Jakarta Post Writing Center.