ENGLISH STORIES/ ESSAYS/ARTICLES/POEMS
The Piano Teacher, a short story published in Books Actually's Gold Standard Anthology 2016
THE PIANO TEACHER (*)
?(*) Published in Books Actually’s Gold Standard Anthology 2016
Even before the phone call, she already knew how the day would unfold.
“Juin?” says the voice on the other line.
When is she ever not ready?
“The car will be there in twenty minutes.”
“Give or take. Maybe twenty-five.”
“Wait. More like thirty. No, forty. Forty to be safe.”
“That OK? You OK?”
“OK. See you soon.”
It’s Jakarta and it’s a Friday afternoon after a giant tropical shower, so forty minutes sounds more like an hour and a half. This means she will actually have time for a proper bath, and heck, perhaps even one of those quick-fix pedicures now that she’s been ‘gifted’ with a kit. She looks at her chipped nails and can almost hear her own soft wail. She starts to put down the phone.
“Oh, Juin. Do you have a shawl?”
“Of course I have a shawl.”
“I mean, a real shawl.”
Juin considers this and does not answer. She looks at the clock. It’s 6 P.M.
“Look,” a deep sigh. “Don’t stress, OK? Forget I asked.”
“But I wasn’t …”
“I’ll find you something. OK? Bye now.”
And there it is, the click. She doesn’t even get to do that one simple thing.
The woman on the other end of the line is Indira. Loaded, paranoid, lonely Indira. At once filthy and low-key rich, fussy to a fault, and generous in that curious way: fetching and sending off less fortunate friends such as Juin like a proper lady, offering them her wardrobe to ensure that they fit in, yet also having the decency to keep mum about certain material indulgences so as not to offend others less prosperous. She may be a dime a dozen in the eye of her own set, and certainly, when you go to one of those ritzy shopping malls, say, or to a hip restaurant in Plaza Indonesia, you’ll feel you have seen her before everywhere. But not to Juin, never to Juin. She genuinely likes Indira. Besides, no one in her current constellation of ‘friends’ is the standard product.
The shawl thing is a bit much, true, but Indira has been rattling on about this family dinner every single day for about two weeks, about how Juin should join them, about how she should go out more and live. She’s been sending these soft admonitions Juin’s way as if Juin hadn’t been invited, and said yes, to every single life event of hers for the last seven years. It was also Indira who encouraged Juin to go out with that hideous, unmarried 54 year-old lawyer with the slicked-back oily hair, famous halitosis and anything-but-veiled Oedipus complex in a bid to shore up her worth in the dating market.
Since that relationship folded—spectacularly, as others helpfully put it—Indira has been on a mission, and Juin, never one to object, finds neither the need nor the means nor the energy to discourage her.
Juin walks to her father’s room, takes a quick peek. Her father is asleep. He is 85 and frail, and hasn’t spoken a word, other than a few garbled syllables, since the day of his stroke. Whenever one of the domestic help wheels him to the room where his sculptures slump and brood, he just stares past them. But even this doesn’t happen very often. To emulate him, the domestic help, too—there are two—tend to sleep at noon, and, lately, Juin notices that they don’t just sleep at noon—they also forget to dust, cook, and look after the garden. They put on make-up, they scrimp on salt and sugar. The family mutt, a stalwart at something like a hundred and eighty-three, recently died under these circumstances.
The image is hard to shake off: Toto’s lifeless body on the floor outside her bedroom, all shaggy sadness and unfinished business. His water bowl had been parched for days, as hollow as his last howls. She remembers how she cried when she fired one of the older helpers, who’d served her father and herself and her deceased mother for more than twenty years. She cried but she had no choice. And she cried because it wasn’t so much because she had let the mutt die, but because she hadn’t had the decency to remove Toto from her door the morning he died. She cried because the dog’s lifeless body reminded her of her own wasted life, of the possibility that she too might see her own life slipping away from her one day and she would be powerless to stop it.
Since Toto’s death, Juin has given up going to the sculpture room altogether. She is afraid of those sculptures; they seem to react to her as though her presence breathes evil air into their eyes and lungs. Nowadays people divide themselves and others into digital strivers and non-people; she, to her own credit, is neither, she is in fact utterly pre-historic, and the last thing she needs is to believe that even these dead, derelict sculptures could rob her of her own life, suddenly coming alive by sucking her blood for every drop of what her ancientness can give them. It is as if she has given them, once revived, the license to meet her eyes and tell her, you have no right to be here, we were here before and we were always the ones who matter.
She enters the bathroom. Runs the tap, disrobes, and waits. The water takes forever to heat up as the water heater is some distance away from the bathroom. But waiting is never a problem for Juin. There is something about running a bath that feels kind, not to mention exotic, and in the end these little things do matter. Especially if what you do is wait.
As she waits, she tries to think two, three days ahead. This week the Ravel-obsessed girl is only due on Friday—“This Thursday is the first anniversary of my mother’s death, so please, Ms. Juin, please let me reschedule just this once, it won’t happen again.” Sweet, frail Benny, in the meantime, will have to skip another week, as he hasn’t really recovered from a particularly dastardly case of dengue, whereas Linda has certainly recovered from dengue but is convinced, like most brokeback patients, that she is on the eve of a dastardly relapse. That means Juin has only five students to look forward to in the next three days and lo, she already feels good, life is good, she can go on for another week.
By 7.15 p.m., she is truly ready. She stares at herself in the mirror. The new purple shade she puts on her lids refuses to settle down and in the first few seconds of fluttery application threatens to run off like a Pollock dribble; she wonders whether to buy a sturdier applicator or would a new cleanser, the sort that will even out the skin around her eyes, be better? She can almost hear Fahira—“You’re so cute when you’re all dolled up, Juin,” as one would describe a mangy dog suddenly festooned with ribbons and a sparkly collar.
Fahira: well, there is her, too. Not Juin’s favorite person, but she will also be there, at the dinner party—the swan, the woman everybody desires, wildly attractive without ever needing to get all dolled up—and what can one do. Juin feels the familiar stirrings of deflation but is determined to knock it back. She gives herself another look-over, and the mirror as usual looks bored.
“What do you think, Toto?” she says out loud. It’s inevitable that she still thinks of Toto. Toto that shriveled up and died with an accusing look on his face. No, she still thinks of a Toto as opposed to Toto; a Toto to her Dorothy. Her own longing, dead Dorothy. A Toto that was dead even before he was carried off by the cyclone.
Even naming the mutt wasn’t difficult. The earth never moves for, much less tilt towards her.
Being spoilt for choices has never been her problem.
At 7.30 P.M. Juin is still at home. She is still ready, dolled up and ready, waiting for the golden carriage.
She is sitting on the piano stool with her back against the beast, including the blue guitar propped up next to it. A symbolist joke: a gift from a cackle of goggle-eyed fans for her songster mother who had no song left in her when she suddenly expired, after an alarming decline of only a few months, from breast cancer.
Somebody is shouting on TV and then somebody else is pointing a gun at a bejeweled lady with violet lips and bad skin. A tune is playing in Juin’s mind—the ninth part of Poulenc’s L’histoire de Babar. It drowns the grating electronic tinkle that closes said TV episode, just like that; who knows how these things tick. Or maybe the Babar tune rises out of the tinkle and, upon realizing this, decides to swallow itself up out of shame.
Why the Babar, with all its sweet and shimmering notes, why the … but of course, it reminds her of the Ravel-obsessed girl. There is something wistful, and crystalline, and true, in that particular piece and it would suit the girl just fine. It’s a lullaby really—a lullaby even when it’s French, or perhaps because it’s French. A fair demesne of mother and child.
Juin quickly reaches for pen and paper, and jots down note for self: New piece for Ravel girl: L’Histoire de Babar. Afterwards, she just sits there, on the piano stool, staring into deep space, and finds herself thinking, why do I know these things and am not rewarded with a better life? Or held in higher regard by her peers?
Juin has only had one or two sips of the punch, too sour, too tepid, and already The Swan is on her case. Really, Juin, you need to try something stronger.
The Swan pronounces her name Huin. She dated a Mexican diplomat once, and whenever they met Juin, that smooth sonofabitch kept cracking up crazily while calling her Huinita, Hoo-ee-nee-ta Con-chee-ta, with a finger menacingly pointed to her face.
Why don’t you have this, Fahira says as she thrusts a glass of red wine into Juin’s hand. You know it’s good. It brings color to your skin.
Juin remembers she had looked up the word Conchita almost immediately, and she knew which meaning Fahira’s scumbag of a boyfriend had referred to. When he was said to have fled Jakarta due to some diplomatic tussle, plunging The Swan into a two-month coma, Juin downed a celebratory half bottle of tequila with loyal Toto looking on.
To be fair, Fahira herself is super-hot, almost gaudily beautiful; she is the family friend who wraps around, unbraids, and keeps them honest. After the Mexican episode, she’d bounced back, of course, taking up with a Swiss-German for a change of pace, and, after she grew bored with his steady Sprüngli-praline offerings and his childish obsession with the poetics of the reversed Swiss flag, half of the Jakarta-based British diplomatic corps.
And look at her now: sloshed, vulturine, still drop-dead gorgeous at 10:15. There’s one good thing about it—she seems to have decided that she no longer has use of Juin, not even as a dartboard, and soon staggers out of the room with a younger guy in tow.
No love lost there, Juin thinks with a not-too-inconspicuous smirk. And so she eases off, feeling safe on her side of the fence, from which she can peer quietly at everyone and everything from behind something – a glass, a vase, the soft shielding mist of her own eyes.
A red sparrow flits from green to green. White jalaks sing along the sill. A woman proclaims her daughter the flower of the future. Juin, meanwhile, knows she will always be the yellow breath that sits at the corner of the room. For this she thanks the Goddess Kwan Im, a lady of such alabaster perfection and good judgment no doubt, that she no longer has a mother to tell people otherwise and embarrass the both of them.
Indira’s family is one of those clannish ones, the kind always dressed for success and whose self-importance is in code, but about whom no one knows. They never make it into the news, nothing is known about how they came to money. Yet there are thousands like them, families who suddenly strike it rich because they either slave for the right people, work in the right governmental department (e.g. the customs or the taxation office), or broker for the most spectacularly corrupt parties.
They are undoubtedly a handsome family, each of their members carrying the latest smartphone in one hand and an iPad in the other and speaking in if not exactly flawless then sparklingly un-accented English. It is not quite known what their faiths, their politics, their real contribution to modern society are, but there are the cars, the prime location South Jakarta houses, the private music lessons. There is the laid-back confidence of admitting a few outsiders into their most intimate gatherings, having them stare down the same set of china, the same reflecting pool and the humungous cut flowers on the boudoir as though they were privy to some glorious, important secret. Their faces are too smooth to carry substantial history; yet they choose and make decisions as though the world is a fatuous, witless page and they the only quill.
And it was Juin they chose one wheezy day in a long distant May. It took place the moment a face, one of their own, popped up outside the window so high in room 16C, the room Juin had taught in for ten years, at the one and only music school she knows. The face was of a child, barely out of her chubby fat. It had the look of blue longing for something Juin thought she had—and for a while she believed she did—and that was it. In the split second it took between the passing of a thought and the eyes taking flight, Juin became it, a thing of use.
Maya, the owner of the face, is Indira’s daughter. She is no talent show, but her specialness has infused her ever since she was born. Juin has understood this early, and tried to stroke and massage it until it becomes ever more tender and wobbly, never mind that the little cherub pedals her way through the entire Baroque oeuvre, with a touching extra-consideration for Bach and Scarlatti, or waits almost two whole beats before bringing down the last note of a supposed chord as though Rachmaninov had conceived of his etudes entirely on Zoloft. “I thought classical music would be different, you know,” Indira told Juin sighingly, “Because everything else parents send their kids off to—Balinese dance, ballet, or, hell, Quran lessons—is so … God, depressing.”
“But local schools have no use for classical music,” Juin replied, not unaware of her own self-pitying tone. “At the end of the day, Maya would still be expected to play the angklung or the recorder, and worse, become good at them so as to be judged musical.”
“Yes, but a few years down the line who cares about this period in one’s life.” Indira had retorted, dismissively, almost disdainfully, as she turned her eyes onto her gleaming French nails, whereupon her smile returned. Suddenly she seemed to have experienced a flash of something, something that put a smile on her lips, after which she poked Juin playfully in her ribs. “Juin. Juiiiii—n. Why so serious?” she said, “By the way, you haven’t told me what happened in yesterday’s season finale of Loving You Till I Die. So. Did Karmila kill herself?”
For all of Indira’s mock timidity, such moments expose her for the bourgeois she is. Like her kind, she assumes too much. Worse, she assumes that everybody thinks like her, which is almost as offensive as her occasionally being too prone to pity, self-or otherwise.
On this matter, however, Juin mercifully has a defense. Folks might look down on her, the two words ‘piano teacher’ not making any sense to the most of them, both in cultural and economic terms, and as far as social status is concerned, let’s not even go there. Yet the way she structures her waking hours around soap opera has, she is adamant, nothing to do with her intelligence. After all, doesn’t she write more beautifully than Signet typeface, solve sums more quickly than all of her friends put together, and fix things around the house better than any man? Doesn’t she remember everything that has ever been told her, or not; doesn’t she connect the dots like a stargazer? So much so that it can almost be said that she watches soap opera for everything she isn’t?
Besides, the real reason she decided to accept Maya as her student, even when she was already five students over-quota was for the expression that both the girl and her mother held on their faces that very first time. When Maya bounded onto the bench, stood on her toes and peered at Juin from the rear window, there was so much energy in that moment that Juin had felt it as a degree of cold so bracing, like a sudden rush of ethereal breeze, that she had turned around.
And so mother and daughter waited for the session to finish as though they’d signed a virtual MOA with the smitten piano teacher. When they entered her room, smiled and shook Juin’s hand, they had her. When they said their names for the first time, with the quiet relish of a new discovery, they had her so completely.
“Poor darling,” sighs Imelda. She is in scarlet, as today is her birthday, and they are in some fancy new restaurant called Lady Café which is wall-to-wall bordello red and serves stuff called Spaghetti Marie Antoinette and Lady Godiva Super Chococake.
Since Imelda is the self-appointed tramp in the gang, she makes a big production of celebrating the restaurant’s philosophical flair (“the problem with women and pornography is that women never seize it for themselves.”) while everybody else makes the requisite effort to look scandalized.
“Oh come on,” says Gauri, with a wave of the hand. “Why can’t we, for once, not pity Juin? I mean, just for once. It can’t be nice, always being egged on to do this and that, as if her own opinions didn’t matter.”
“We don’t egg her on to do this and that. We just tell her to do this instead of that,” says Indira, who has appeared at the café with Maya in tow, and whose eyes are now darting worryingly at her daughter, at her milky, teenage paleness; is it possible she may be catching a cold again?
“She always looks so frumpy,” says Fahira, who cannot imagine anything worse. “I mean, really. There are structural problems, I agree—that jaw, for instance, one can’t do much about that except if we all chip in for a post cranial surgery—but surely there is a cheaper way. And then there’s all the obvious things, her disdain for make-up, that awful hair. Softer layers, perhaps?”
“Yes, but she’ll only feel all dolled up and unnatural, as if those things were not really meant for her. And then she’ll feel doubly bad about herself.” Gauri says.
Gauri is taut and athletic, her flab-free arms the envy of her friends on all continents as she now waves one at the waiter. The waiter himself is resolutely unimpressed, because where he comes from, most likely somewhere in rural central Java, he sees such arms every day, some even smaller, tauter. Who on earth can come to love fat anyhow? He seems to be thinking.
But for the moment Gauri reigns; her eyes, dark and hooded, light up when the waiter throws her an automatic smile as he takes down her order for another glass of sugarless lime squash. Her manner is brisk, her accent English public school with faint Bengali inflections. Her husband has taught at the Gandhi School for many years but has obviously come from money. They live in a nice leafy house in South Jakarta, with dogs and chauffeurs and maids in uniform who serve the crispiest pani puri and the sprightliest chaat out of dainty copper bowls.
“What I don’t understand,” Imelda says, “is why she has to be on this Bali trip. We can’t keep paying for her.”
Indira puts down her coffee cup. “OK,” she says, irritably, so this is always going to be my fault.”
The Bali trip was something inadvertent, almost whimsical; it began with Imelda getting an invitation to a fashion show from a beachside resort—one of those absurdly large ones with a reflecting pool and a Jacuzzi in every private villa—and the ease with which it became an open invitation to friends and relatives, with high priority status for BFFs, seemed almost a given. Sure, we’ll go, Fahira had said. Something in her eyes had hinted at wanting a single room; after all it was only fair, weren’t they grown women with kids and their own expense accounts and their own secret desires?
“Sure, but only if we can get free spa vouchers,” Gauri said.
“I might have to bring Maya along,” Indira said. “And Juin, of course.”
None of this is ideal, of course, and Indira knows it. Her friends can’t even manage looking at Juin without fussing, whereas Juin would sometimes wear the look of someone who’d rather eat poison than be in one room with them (Indira is an exception). Said exception is even more aware of this groaning gap as she watches her friends stab their forks reluctantly into their potato-less gado-gado, steamed leathery fish tossed in sambal, and salads so impossibly pared down they might as well be eating grass.
In fact, something about her almost neurotic devotion to Juin, she realizes, is iniquitous, almost gauche. Her friends know nothing of classical music, and yet she drags them to strange marbled mansions hosted by stranger people purporting to be parents of Juin’s pupils, people who tend to dress their brood in mini-tuxes and white gowns with puffy sleeves and clap and cackle excitedly even at bumped notes and untidy chords.
Juin, on the other hand, knows nothing about spas and resorts, let alone the difference between toro and maguro, and yet Indira knows, unassailably, that when she sees Juin’s pale, pinched face break into her smile at something she said, accentuating her slight cross bite even more, she, Indira, is responsible for the happiness of another human being.
It was Juin’s instant trust that had her. It stirred something in Indira whose few gifts do not quite include dismissing such feelings as trite. And later it was Juin’s constancy, in being around, in being on hand, which warmed the poor little rich girl’s life like the moving scale of a song. Indira is as unaccustomed to being appreciated as she is to the idea of a life of service to another, even for something as common as money. She has always done so-so in life, yet been rewarded too grandly: one European city after another on the eve of high school, a luxury car at nineteen, a two-storey house with a swimming pool in an upscale neighborhood after she and Jodi married in front of two thousand guests, three-quarters of whom she had never met in her life, in the swanky convention centre downtown, with sixty-seven glittering gold pins jutting out of her head.
She’s cleaned house of course—at least once a year, for about a week, ten days tops, at the end of the fasting month, when the maids are away. She knows the difference between just-a-life and a life freshly laundered. She’s tried her hand at private yoga sessions, at Thai cooking, at planting something in a pot and watering it for a week before she gives up for another stupefied spell in the company of pirated DVDs. At times she feels like a character in those soap operas Juin watches with such fervor, and she is ashamed of her walking stereotypeness. Looking after Juin makes her life feel somewhat redeemed.
Juin’s own mother died, Indira soon learned, when she was barely seventeen, and it was then that she finally learned that morning was not sun, house was not home and that you couldn’t choose your family, even if it chose you, all the time.
Indira respects Juin for all such things, and then some.
There’s something about Imelda that Juin distrusts. She always thinks of her as shallow, and in the worst possible way. Not that the rest of the gang fares any better with her. While she can just about tolerate Gauri for her spunk and her intelligence, she can’t stand her accent and slight air of superiority.
But Fahira—the Swan—she absolutely can’t stand.
Just the other day, at the intersection of Monginsidi and Gunawarman, as she was looking out the foggy window of her fifteen year old Peugeot, in the direction of an organic restaurant she had been meaning to try out but never gotten around to, she saw them, Fahira and a man, liplocked in a shiny army green Cherokee.
There’s nothing to tell, of course, except that ever since that moment, Juin has found that to pretend to disrespect the airhead is easier than to pretend to tolerate her. Somehow, it feels closer to the truth.
Later, when The Swan suddenly took to confiding in everyone including Juin about her hot affair with a certain Mr. Y, who was supposedly warm and fuzzy and tender and very married but “so unlike all the bastards” they’d met, all that Juin thought could think of was how lucky she herself was. For what was there to envy, she told Indira, in a stupid self-deluding slut like Fahira? Whereupon Indira would laugh this off, saying, surely, Juin, you of all people should reserve some compassion for these kinds of things: such a bright fire of raw feelings is so rare in these days of fast food and six-lane highways. (She was paraphrasing an ad.)
Whereupon Juin would reply that a) anything that she should reserve a feeling for will get her nowhere, let alone the things themselves, and b) why on earth should it be her concern, she of all people; why shouldn’t it be everybody’s concern, everybody in the world, at which point Indira would pause, think, then add, a little coquettishly, that she would never condemn anyone for deeds done in the name of love.
When the time comes, the Bali trip, which meant nothing to Juin at first, has now become a slowly unfolding nightmare. It feels like an endless series of spa visits and shopping and sitting around in cafes spying other people from Jakarta they purport to want to avoid in the first place.
Even if Indira keeps talking about the routine that entraps and grounds her winged souls, Juin takes some solace in watching her attend to Maya and to the essential-but-not always-visible-ordinariness of her own life, and the provisions she makes for both of them in the service of such an ordinariness, while her husband is, for the umpteenth time, cosmically out of reach. She silently watches Indira put on lipstick, shyly and almost always in strict deference to what she calls “the natural outline.” She watches her lying by the swimming pool with the towel over her naked legs, standing modestly outside some luxury brand store, not quite participating, as though a monument to her own primness. She watches this otherwise timid beauty telling her friends about the online relationship she’s been having with someone who’d glimpsed her from across a room, and then found her on Facebook. She watches her tell the story as though the boy hadn’t affected her despite that far-flung, non-seeing gaze: her sudden flushed smile swiftly swept away, the new spring in her gait.
Juin watches how her best friend comes to her rescue each time one of the girls becomes pedantic, or imperious, or sardonic. She watches how Indira never allows Juin to pay for any of her meals, or for anything Juin might fancy that the other girls don’t think twice about buying just because they can. She watches Indira’s eyes redden and water when the sun disappears behind a temple.
Now, halfway through the five-day trip, they are walking towards yet another temple in Ubud, a town of rivers, valleys and gold-tinted paddy fields up in the mountains, the place of choice for global bobos, artsy jetsetters, and the literati.
Gauri and Imelda, the smartest of the bunch, are bouncing off the steps of a breathtakingly beautiful ridge below which two rivers meet, trying to dodge a gaggle of monkeys while trying to get some serious smartphone camera action going. Because that’s what comes with travel; you take pictures, you upload them on Facebook or Instagram and you wait for comments on the likeability and unlikeability of your life to start pouring through the giant rumor mill.
Juin catches snippets of their conversation, how the temple at the far end of the ridge is “totally magical” and how what they are doing is not just inspired, it is in fact a “total revelation,” because it’s not as if they’re acting like big-city people who come to Bali and express fascination with things local folks actually live and die with. For aren’t they at a little-known temple, not those flashy ones with steamy sex scenes and carved lovers on every surface of stone? For aren’t they almost tragically alone, alone in the presence of the alone, alone as a stance, even to the point of offering themselves up as breakfast to these ugly, feral animals?
In fact, aren’t they ‘local’ enough—isn’t Indira supposed to be a fourth Balinese from her mother’s side and isn’t Imelda’s special shade of tan enough to qualify her as Balinese?—so as not to be seen in the same light as the Manhattanite who has never been to the Statue of Liberty? (Manhattan. Sigh. Juin has never been.)
For a moment, she is assailed by that familiar feeling of distaste mixed with envy and self-pity.
Now the women are giggling like schoolgirls. They talk to the monkeys who flank the steps to the temple ahead of them, in order to, might as well, level with them. Gauri, in particular, wants to make sure the monkeys see her in the proper light—she is the most cerebral of the higher primates, God damn it—and tosses words such as ‘antithesis,’ ‘sacralization’ and ‘cultural tourism’ with a little more than wild abandon. Juin waits for the word ‘flaneur’ but the blinding sun soon wears down all theoretical sass and quickly gives way to elemental slush.
“Ideally, you only want to start doing the vodka-based drinks around five,” Imelda suggests in between increasingly goggle-eyed H20 lifts, “But you can almost make a go of it now. I mean, it’s pushing noon and it is, after all, Bali.” Gauri, who by now has gone quiet, says, not without feeling, “Loving alcohol is like loving a pet. It doesn’t grow on you. You grow on it.”
All the while, Fahira has been lagging behind, somewhat at an angle with the ensuing racket, plugged into earphones that emit her own primal noise. There is something purposefully dreamy and theatrical about her withdrawal, her refusal to be part of the pack. Juin has no clue what to name such a streak—the spoken language is not one of her ready gifts.
She cannot help, however, but think back to that time in an open market in Singapore, on the fringes of Little India, when the Swan insisted on lingering at a fresh produce stall while the rest of the group was already barreling down the street in search of a cab. The wicked nymphet seemed absorbed by everything she saw, the history behind every fruit, the pain behind every story. Not ten minutes later, with bright pink cheeks, she breathlessly told her friends that the women in the stall had told her that the cerise mangoes they offered, which none of the other stalls had in their possession, were delivered, one gloriously dewy morning, by the Goddess Lakshmi herself. The goddess was disguised as an old lady in rags, they told The Swan, and her hands were calloused. But we knew who she was, they told her; after all, we were the chosen ones. You see, miss, the color of the mangoes, the colour of a starborn baby, they tell you as much.
Yet, after they’d stuffed about half a dozen of those tropical marvels in a plastic bag and offered it to her for the price of a half dozen ordinary mangoes, the Swan politely declined and walked away.
“Why did you not take them?” Indira had asked.
For a moment, the Swan seemed just as flummoxed by her question.
“Why should I?” was her answer as she rummaged through her bag, fishing for a green tea Kit Kat that at the time could only, naturally, be found in Japan.
So as Fahira now insists on inspecting every vivid, water-logged leaf, every subtle frieze, every hint of wantonness that others might have missed as she continues honing her bogus fringe instincts to the tune of Niyaz and Jose Padilla, Gauri and Imelda are engaged in an increasingly hostile exchange. “So you don’t like Julie’s riding on Julia’s fame to shore up her own?” Imelda says as she tries valiantly not to kick the frazzled ape nipping on her heel.
“I’m just saying she’s being opportunistic,” Gauri says irritably. She has bigger, more assured strides and seems somehow more intimidating to the primates.
“Yes but books speak to other books.”
Another monkey, younger-looking, is staring at Gauri. It is locked in a single left lift all the way past the shoulder and is starting to make rude faces at her, as though to drive the insult home. Juin notices that its tail is nearly as long as its body and that it functions as an extra hand. She then casts a quick look at Fahira, at all those slender limbs and impossibly narrow hands, not knowing whether to laugh or cry at the ready precedent laid out specially for her benefit. Meanwhile, Gauri seems more irritated that such a profound line about books speaking to other books should have come out of Imelda’s mouth and not hers. She is now on the other side of a steep mud path and is so rattled that she doesn’t bother to inspect the damage on her two million rupiah silver-sequined sandals. “There are different ways of doing it. Not so literally is one way.”
“The way I see it,” Imelda retorts, “you take the recipes of a legendary woman, you cook them in your home for a whole year, you write about the experience every day. What is so literal about that? I think … you know what … I think it’s honest.”
“There are subtler ways of doing it is what I meant.” Gauri offers, a little desperately, “By the way, an original does not exist, it is itself a translation.” For a while, she seems to have forgotten where she got that line from, which philosopher or critic, in what context, how it is argued out or supposed to be argued out, and this internal struggle contorts her face into a reptile-like expression. “Translation of, err, something in our consciousness. Our consciousness being … not this one thing.”
“Yes, but you’re the one who always yaks on about food being like an art performance. That it is never the same each time you recreate it.”
By now Gauri is just under boiling point; her nostrils are flaring all funny. She is the reader in the pack, the one with the wall-to-wall bookshelves and titles you’ve either heard about all your lives or those you’ve never heard of; whose authors are either dead or are on the New York Times Bestsellers lists, and whose names are often unpronounceable. What’s more, she actually picks some of those books up, reads and thinks about them, and later tortures her friends with her mental notes. It is quite plain that her ego is bruised.
“So maybe Julie should come up with her own recipes and be famous for being Julie Powell,” she says, somewhat unoriginally, “Instead of a Julie Powell who becomes famous for reading Julia Child. The whole premise of the book is so lazy and opportunistic. But of course people buy into that. That’s what people buy, all the time.”
“I absolutely disagree,” Imelda says. “I think you’re just jealous of her success.”
Meanwhile, Indira’s voice drones in the background. This temple dates back to the 8th century, she says like a schoolteacher, with Maya walking vacantly next to her in an effort to look accordingly enlightened. “Do you feel how much light there is, how much embedded light?”
“Mum,” Maya sighs, “It’s cold and damp. There is, like, so much water in the air.”
Indira lights up like a Christmas tree at this observation, which she must think quite precocious and brilliant, and she goes on talking about the fact that the temple was built as a meditation retreat of sorts by a holy sage from Java who had earlier built the holy temple of Bekasih, and how a walking track leading north will open up beyond the temple, with open rice fields sloping away on either side like the dawn of a new beginning. “Yes, baby, and isn’t that amazing? You get this feeling that everything around us is … weighted down by water.”
For her part, Maya seems happy enough to have caused such a surge of good feeling and is now touching everything she encounters with more deference.
Meanwhile, Indira drones on. This feeling is inescapable, she says, because the temple is a tribute to Dewi Danu, the water goddess of Lake Batur, no less than the source of water of all of Ubud.
They are now filing slowly out of the inner courtyard, with the monkeys seated placidly on stones, on tree branches, looking on. Even they seem worn down by the garrulous incoherence of the human defile before them. Juin enjoys how the thick moisture settles on and around her like a great sweet mama. She enjoys how she has arrived at this feeling long before the official touristy narrative intruded. She turns around.
Meanwhile, it’s Imelda’s turn now to be knocked out by something in the air, and she just stands there stupidly, as though only realizing that a holiday with friends is a serious commitment and you’re expected to keep so much together on so little ground. She seems to be grappling for a quote, a thought, the metaphorical dish, anything that would summon up the ridiculousness of thinking of the tried-and-true as a recipe for success. But her mind draws blank and she grows morose. Oi, she says, loudly. Shouldn’t we be thinking of heading back?
It’s not yet 9 p.m. that same evening, and Imelda and Fahira have had more than six cocktails between since sundown. Then one a half bottles of wine between them at dinner.
Now they are draped across the beach chairs in the sandy rim of the restaurant with at least four men closing in. Two of them, both Eurasians, look as though they are not old enough to leave high school.
“They’re the jock types,” Gauri says, “See their swagger? As if they own the place? Well, that’s how they act at school. Like they own it. And see those guys there, the ones with the mohawk and the loafers? At 15:00? Like I told you, they never walk alone: jocks always have friends.”
Since Gauri is the only one with kids in an international school she should know. She’s also had just enough drink so as to be magnanimous without tipping over into the kind of maudlin women her age get into when so much darkness and disappointments are kept under the surface. “My boys,” she continues, “I can’t stand the way they dress. They wear a wifebeater to school to make it look like they’re just about to work out, and the shorts they wear, they’re always at least three inches above their knees. And wait until UN Day or Spirit Week Cross-Dress Day: they deliberately dress up like girls to show they’re man enough to do so.”
“And the girls?” Indira inquires politely, “Is there such a thing as a girl jock?” Here Gauri seems less assured, for she only has those two boys. “They wear teeny-tiny shorts to school? They wear teeny-tiny shorts for training? They talk about ugly tan lines from these teeny-tiny shorts?”
“Are girl jocks the same as social butterflies?” Juin offers, with an edge, gazing over at her so-called friends lounging on their beach chairs.
“No, those are the party animals. They are a slightly different breed. These girls are too chichi and mainstream. They prefer to eat at Sushi Tei than at Sari Kebab, and they don’t mind eating junk. They will die for these Black Label moments—“ Gauri nods at the beach proceedings before them, her forehead knitted slightly at the sight of Imelda about to disrobe.
“Aren’t the days of beach restaurants numbered?” Indira says, as she sets down her very mild coffee-liquor drink on the table, flushed but not too flushed. Contrary to their varying demeanors, at heart they are all seasoned drinkers, these women. “You remember Bali in the days of Double-Six and then Kudeta ten years on? The world acting as though beachside restaurants were a novel invention? Yet I’d been going to Sanur Beach, that glorious stretch between Jimmy Pandi’s enchanted house and the Sanur Hyatt, with their strange-tasting yet addictive spicy shrimp a la Beach Market and their cocktails that all tasted like watered down arak, pretty much since I was old enough to walk. Same people, same resilience whatever the hardship. Newer and swankier establishments, two bomb attacks, deep recession. Yet pasty-faced Germans and sunburned Aussie beach bums are not the threat anymore. Now it’s earthquakes and tornados. And God knows soon tsunamis. And still, these people, with their strength, their optimism, rise every morning with a smile.”
“There are no tsunamis in Sanur,” Gauri protests. She meets no resistance.
For her part, Indira has sent Maya back to the hotel with the driver, for that’s what you do if you’re a responsible mother of a teenager. Soon enough, her expression changes. She seems to be reliving an episode from her own growing pains, a moment like this one perhaps, when she once imagined herself the queen bee of the universe and everything else that moved around her were male drones that existed only to impregnate her, and that somehow all this, all this vast expanse of sand, sky and water with vertical structures of swaying green, would one day be hers. How stark is this private lull in her mind’s eye, it is almost too beautiful to behold.
A few minutes of this, and Juin finds herself nodding off. Suddenly Indira is startled.
“Juin,” she says.
Juin stirs. Indira takes her hand and squeezes it.
“You poor darling.”
“You must be hating all this horrendous music. I mean, you must be, what, comatose or something!”
Juin tries to think about this thought, just how comatose she is, but it isn’t the word that comes to mind. The music hardly even registers with her, a Café Ibiza compilation most likely, or Buddha Bar, she can’t tell which is which, but one that neither rattles nor dazzles. Her friends still think that just because she sets her students on a diet of Beyer, Duvernoy, and Czerny, and, after they’ve proven their worth, rewards them with an easy piece by Khachaturian, or even a second movement of a Beethoven sonata, that she hemorrhages on other types of music. They also think that just because she teaches part time at a place called Vienna Music School, she still has Strauss sightings even when she’s sober (piano teachers are too sad to be drunk, so goes the myth). And just because she doesn’t carry an iPod the way her friends do, which means they can’t bond with her over shared playlists, they automatically think she can’t possibly have heard of Adele, Lifehouse, or even fucking God Keith Jarrett, much less have a favourite Diabate (Toumani by miles), known Dewa’s lyrics by heart (Larut is her favourite), or thought, like Fahira but unlike Gauri of the Indian blood, that A.R. Rachman is God.
But no, she’s through with explaining what she cannot explain, and it’s not as though any of these women will lose sleep over whatever it is she may succeed in conveying. She might as well court sleep herself. She smiles at Indira, pats her hand reassuringly like a spinster aunt.
Soon Juin’s gaze relaxes. The sound of waves recedes, becomes hypnotic and silken. Words from the giant loudspeakers in the restaurant blur as waiters start dismantling the buffet tables and hauling the half-eaten lobsters away. Amazing, she thinks, how even then she can still catch the lyrics. She can even tell her Rocket to the Moon from her The Calling. Listen to those lines: Case closed, I’m not here anymore, I’m not scared anymore. Of course, they’re from “I’ll Be Your Sunset.” Solid, anodyne stuff. She’ll gladly part with a million rupiah if anybody else in her merry band of super-information highway friends knows what that song is. She’ll gladly hand them the key to her room and camp out here. She’ll gladly camp out here forever just as long as she doesn’t have to make small talk with them ever again. Except Indira, of course.
Another song, also familiar, plays in the background. She smiles. She finds she doesn’t just know this song, she also enjoys it. Sure, it’s all synth action and steady drumbeat. Mad oscillations, sweet pain. In other words, nothing that elevates it slightly from the usual teen vampire fare. But that isn’t the point. The point is: she knows what the song is, indeed can name it right to the very S because it has that piano counterpoint that distinguishes it from all the other songs. Hah. Those bubble-headed sophisticates wouldn’t know their counterpoint from their counterfeit even if they tried.
Sleep turns out to be a baby’s reverie, balmy and a tad dribbly. Her mind wanders. I’ll be Your Sunset. How can anyone be someone else’s sunset? What does it even mean? Does it mean you’ll bring an end to someone else’s career? Does it mean you’ll be sending someone off to his death? Does it mean you’ll take care of someone until the end of his life? Case closed, I’m not here anymore, I’m not scared anymore. Or are you supposed to be dead together, you and your sunsetee, which is really the whole point of growing old? But wait. I’ll be your sunset, you’ll be my silhouette. Which one is deader? Doesn’t sunset mean a sinking, a fading, a parting, whereas a silhouette is a shadowed contour, a darkness brought out by surrounding light, a non-presence?
Imagine being someone’s silhouette. How can anyone be someone else’s silhouette?
Something about this jolts Juin. Something about it rings true. Maybe that’s what she has been all along. A silhouette. A silhouette and a sunset, because everything about her life seems to be a long and continuous sinking. Only it is a sinking from a nothingness, a non-happening, which makes it even worse.
Something is stirring. She swears she can see, through her closed eyes, a squiggly shape flicking on and off. Is it blue, or is it violet, everything a little grainy.
Suddenly, she senses movement close to her skin. She opens her eyes.
A man in a light purple t-shirt is sitting next to her, on the beach chair. He is handsome. And he is looking at her. He is handsome and he is young and he is looking at her, looking at her with intent, with his face close to hers, which makes him twice the type of man she never even dreams of encountering.
“Some sleep that was,”
“Uh …” she straightens herself up. Has she been dribbling? She tries valiantly to lick the corners of her mouth with her tongue without drawing attention to it.
“Are you alone?”
Again she mumbles inanely, wondering how long she’s been asleep, whether her breath stinks. She shoots a look at the coffee table next to her lazy chair. Where is her drink? She frantically tries to remember what Indira ordered for her before she dozed off. A chocolate martini—that’s a no-brainer—or was it something more daring, like a jalapeno martini? Either would have the same effect on her post-sleep breath. She tries not to stare. But she realizes he’s not one of those Eurasian jocks who had been all over those slut friends of Indira’s. Something lifts in her.
“Would you like some company?” he asks, his teeth too white, too even.
Too like in the movies.
“I, I, well, sure. I was with some friends though.” She looks around, right, left, behind her. Ahead there is only the sound of the ocean and darkness rising.
“Your friends have left you I’m afraid,” he laughs, “They have all left you so meanly in the lurch.”
“Surely someone is coming back for me.”
Where is Indira? She might have left her for a while, to attend to Maya most probably, but she will never not come back for her.
“I don’t think anyone will,” he says.
Juin is in full alert now, her back straightening.
Indeed, who will come back for her? Fahira and Imelda certainly won’t, no love lost there whatsoever. And who knows about Gauri? She always plays the intellectual, wanting to be seen with books nobody has ever heard of, with titles either so Bolshie (The Case of Comrade Tulayev) or so absurd it has to be profound (Why Zebras Don’t Have Ulcers). But then again, you never know with the likes of Gauri, someone who despite her self-assurance, believes a little too much in the power of the image. After all, in order for her posturing to be successful she will need to be assured of her specialness. For that she has to have an audience. Today, especially, she will need an audience, because she has on this low-cut silk tank top and the meanest, shortest short jeans that bring out every inch of that taut, sinewy body of hers.
But Indira—Indira will surely come back for her.
“Looks like you’re stuck with me,” the man says again.
Juin feels her eyes squinting. Isn’t this where she has to break into a joke—something both knowing and self-ironical and at once sexy? Something like, be careful, young man, you don’t know what you’re in for. But she can’t think of any line. Instead she says, “Why would you want to be stuck with me?”
As soon as she says it, she thinks of Fahira leaping into sight, saying nooo, noooo, never show insecurity in front of a man. Show him what you’ve got. But what does she have that she can possibly show him?
Yet what she’s just said in earnest has somehow, inexplicably, struck the man as witty, or charming, whereupon he lets out a lovely loose laugh, and fixes those bold, bodacious, brown eyes on her again. She feels her body curling back, but not without some frisson. Then she pauses. Is that moist heat she feels in her loins?
“You’re funny,” the man says warmly. “My name is Tommy. May I know yours?”
She tells him. She also emphasizes it isn’t the short version of anything.
“As for you,” she says, “It’s from Thomas is it? Thomas Aquinas? Or is it Tomasso, because am I detecting a Latin blood there somewhere?”
Or are you really Tomato, the original Tomato, because your folks must have a sense of humor, having created such a ridiculously perfect, ripe, red-hot offspring?
Then, to her horror, she suddenly finds herself babbling on the way she does with her students, or her fellow teachers at the music school—people who have no choice but to listen to her. She knows she’s hopeless, but she can’t help herself, and, miraculously, everything that comes out from her stupid mouth seems to enchant him.
“And so—“ she says, “—It’s really not true that classical music should all be dreary or elitist, or that it is so divorced from our traditional musical forms that it simply doesn’t speak to the average person.”
His eyes are still on her, his teeth like two rows of perfect Xylitol imprints, even if his gaze seems to have traveled a little, perhaps all the better to see. And yet he nods, and nods, and no one, not even her pupils, have ever nodded quite so much to something she says. So he must have cared, he must have cared to be listening so intently to this very important thing about what she does in her life, without so much as a blink or an interjection, with his eyes on her and his choppers so white and so unblemished and so like in the movies.
“And you do realize all art aspires to the condition of music, yes?” she says, just to be absolutely sure. The man still has his eyes on her, but this time he seems to be looking at her through something, an invisible wall, a veil. “That it is surely the most universal …”
“Do you play yourself?” he asks, his tone somewhat more urgent, as is his bending towards her, wanting to be closer to her. She can smell his breath, like clear, light water. She is about to say, well, of course, she would never sound like Argerich, or Horowitz, as nobody but Argerich and Horowitz sound like Argerich and Horowitz, and it is for that reason the two giants of piano aren’t teaching scales and arpeggios and getting their students to listen to other pianists’ recordings except the Great and the Dead. Instead, she says, “Yes, but I’m not great. I’m just OK.” And, because his eyes are still on her, she adds, “I guess.”
Sure, she can play a Chopin etude or two, a Berceuse, one half of a Barcarolle, and about half a dozen second movements of a Beethoven and Haydn sonata she can belt out at will. On the very rare occasion she is called to perform as though she is practicing—nonchalantly that is, with the hiccups very much part of the performance, because pianists practice, and they are allowed to flaunt their faults until they become beautiful—she would go so far as to show off with a second movement of a piano concerto, and not just any piano concerto but a major one, like Rach 2 or 3, Schumann or Grieg, the entire Ravel in G. But she would never say to anyone that she “plays.” Only real concert pianists ever say they do.
If there is a slight change in the brown of Tommy’s eyes, the color of a man’s desire, she ignores it, because surely he is interested in her life, her soul, for she has not much of a face to look at, not even a nice nose or an agreeable mouth. As for her eyes, they are small, not sexy but plain small, and even her hair is a limp mousy fuzz, more offshoot than hair.
She suddenly realizes his hand is on her knee. It isn’t an impertinent gesture; it is there only ever so slightly, his touch is gentle, almost a tiptoeing over some hallowed ground. Like a cat’s graceful digitigrade. She lets his fingers linger there, doing its polite dance, while she squeezes her brains trying to figure out what to say next.
“Do you play?” she asks stupidly.
“Shit, no. I’d die.” He says with a laugh. She decides to laugh along, long and hard, because he is doing the same thing, and he really cares.
“Right,” she says. “Of course. But some people can pick it up just like that, you know. They hear a song, they sit at the piano, they tinkle around a bit, suddenly voila, they can recreate a tune.”
She wonders whether to tell Tommy about the Ravel girl, or the Schubert boy, who are indeed such creatures, though there is a curious aspect about them, something raw and unfinished.
“You have beautiful eyes.”
What was that?
“What did you say?”
“You have beautiful eyes,” he repeats, with the same sincerity, “Not too big, not too small. Just right.”
Just right. She tries to remember where she’s heard that line, or in which book she’s read it, why it is so familiar. She blushes in spite of herself.
“They are very non-descript.”
“Aah, but that’s why they are beautiful. Non-descriptness can be beautiful.”
His eyes are far away again, as though trying to memorize, or remember something. Then they light up, those beautiful brown eyes, as though he had just dashed out of the house to buy a last minute gift and come home with a blinking Christmas tree.
“I prefer to call it subtle. Also—“ he seems to remember something else, “Small is beautiful.”
Just right. Isn’t that what Goldilocks says after polishing off Baby Bear’s porridge?
“Small is—“ she stops. So her eyes are small. And where has she heard that line before? Small is beautiful.
She tries to think of something clever to say about how beautiful he is, but it is hard after all the things he’s said about her. All of it, including the bits he hasn’t said. And so when he nods and extends his hand to her, as if she is a princess about to be escorted to a ball, she just picks herself up. Everything from that point on is a nice blur; the elevator looks like that nifty transporter pod in Star Trek which can zap you anywhere you like, and as they zoom upstairs, all glassed up, exposed, and oh-so-70s, she isn’t even holding on to the railings. Her life is about to change. No more talking to Toto, telling him to stay, to not stay. Scarecrows don’t talk, they rock. They are the pumpkins that are meant to turn into princesses.
Except, of course, the ballroom is her own hotel room, and the joke turns out to be on her.
But she doesn’t yet know this; not in the beginning in any case. It all seems natural to end up in her bed, or, rather, on it; her clothes also very much on, his as well, under the halogen light by the bed that makes her eyes sting. There is nothing grasping in him, she realizes, and at one point she wonders whether to offer him coffee, because she is proud of the fact that her hotel room is expensive enough to afford a Nespresso and looks nothing like the hotel rooms she’s seen in movies in which this kind of scene often takes place. None of those faded curtains, frayed bedspread, dank sheets—the mise-en-scene of random conceptions.
It must have been swift, whatever passes or doesn’t pass between them, because the only thing she can feel right now is the aftermath, a distending, like the thick lull before a closure. She wonders whether to keep quiet or say something as stupid as Don’t go. She realizes he is standing up, and it seems so wrong, for they haven’t really done anything. Shyness arrests her, though she isn’t sure why; all of a sudden she thinks of looking under the bed for an imaginary pin, or pretending to inspect the bedside table for a lost earring, anything to hide her sudden blush. She wishes he would sit down again and talk to her the way he did earlier on the beach. But he is just standing there, in the middle of her room, all twitchy and nervous, as though it is he who has lost, or left something behind. And that something is not her.
She thinks of asking him to stay, for she does have one of the best views in the hotel; Indira made sure of that. Look straight down, and she has a bird’s eye-view of the beach, all the lovers, the ripples on the water, every bruised fruit in the banquet basket. Tomorrow, after breakfast, if he stayed that is, they might have a leisurely swim, all the better to show him off to the girls, and then they can go back to the room to do more of what they obviously haven’t begun, after which he can stand there just by the window, in all of his glossy, brown-eyed gloriousness, looking straight down, at all the other lovers, the ripples on the water, every bruised fruit in the banquet basket, with his new lover lounging happily in bed.
But he is different. He is not quite the Tommy that not long ago, the Tommy of no more than a brace of a few minutes, the Tommy who had said all those things that sounded like music in her ears. He is acting polite. Which is different from being polite. And now her realization is looking back at her, straight through the mirror. It ages her by at least a decade, at which she lets off a mousy squeal. He looks at her sadly, almost pitifully, and then he says it—“I have to go,”—and suddenly the heaviness is lifted from her, replaced by something that hollows her stomach out.
After it becomes clear to her that he isn’t coming back, she thinks of running a bath. But she is far too etiolated already; she can’t bear the thought of crumbling at the touch of something as banal as water, and all she wants is to creep into the bed and die. She does exactly that.
Once tucked in, she switches on the TV, flicks through the channels. All is a blur, a noisy nuisance. In one titleless movie a middle-aged woman in a battered old car rolls into a petrol station, sticks out her heavily made-up face and orders the attendant to fill up her tank. She leaves rolls of dust in her wake; from her get-up she is either thrice-divorced or she’s just killed her old husband. The woman wears the same shade of pink Juin is wearing and yet when the tears finally drop, and seep through her blouse like a frazzled infant missing her errant mother, Juin knows she is worse in every which way than that woman can ever be.
She swings around, picks up the phone on the bedside table and tries to remember Indira’s room number. As soon as she remembers it, 942, she realizes it is late and that Maya must be asleep. Indira nurses secrets, that much she knows; but they are small secrets, tender and crepuscular, like moth. Like mother. Not like this. Not like this.
Juin feels her eyes filming again, and something sinking in her chest like a stone. Who is she to be thinking of children, or the fact that she doesn’t have any? She can’t even hold on to a man, a man who had invited himself in, for more than ten minutes; surely children, in whatever form, is a frippery to be cast as far away as possible from the mind. She puts down the phone and switches all the lights. She tries to ignore the pale yellow shimmer the moon casts on the dark wall and hug herself away from the red and the green and heavens knows what else of her own bile.
It is the next morning and there is no phone call. She turns towards the window, hoping to find him returned, sleek and scrubbed in a crisp Polo shirt, like in some dumb, delirious dream. Instead, there are broken shadows amid the speckled light cast on the wall. Has everybody vanished? Has everybody died? Where is Indira?
As a rule, she rises earlier than most people, but then again she is not like most people. But today nothing is normal, and like the night before, she is still resistant to taking a bath. The mere idea, of cleansing, of purification, sounds just about as soothing as Pol Pot, or Stalin, or Suharto. She can’t stomach kindness anymore than she can suffer the slightest malice. Right now, nothing should require an effort, for she’s earned the right to that feeling.
Soon, even the sound of her own breathing is too much to bear. She thinks of not surfacing at all. But to lock herself in all day, while a tempting thought, is even more unthinkable; it is Bali, after all, a land of easy smile and fragrant rice, where people are supposed to go out, smile, and make up, anything but fret and blur. Besides, Indira will come for her soon enough.
She feels herself faltering again, and catches herself. Pull yourself together, she tells herself. And with that she drags herself into the bathroom. She cleans her teeth, lets the dullness of water wash over her face. She gets dressed. This last activity takes her longer than it should, going from white to pale blue to a pink paler than what she had on the night before and the air is now drunk with his absence. Feeling stupid and attenuated, she finally hauls herself towards the door and peers outside. Where the fuck is Indira? Where the fuck is everybody?
The corridor is trembling with the trail of people’s movements. She tries to remember Indira’s room number again, 942, and realizes it is just opposite her room, three doors to the left. She glances at her watch, 7.45 am, and thinks of knocking. Maya must be awake by now; she is a schoolgirl, after all, schooled in the art of rising early.
But no, she will call first. That’s what you do when you’re in a crisis. You distance yourself from others. You do not grovel. Instead, you hint at your desolation by making yourself scarce.
Just as she is about to close the door behind her, she hears another open quietly, its timid screech like the sound made by a child trying to escape the obligatory afternoon nap, and something about this makes her double back.
How extraordinary, then, when she realizes that it is he, Tommy, a little disheveled (was that a stubble developed overnight?) but unmistakably Tommy, tight-fleshed, tight-butted, pearl-toothed, purple shirt like a second skin, who has just left the room, the room next to 924—926 it must be, yes, it is 926—the man who didn’t think twice about taking her back to her chamber, a man so randy and at once so tender, but who at the last minute collapsed from the impossibility of his twin motives. What is he doing in a room so close to hers? Why is he still wearing the same shirt as he did when he left her? Then her blood runs cold.
Following him not a minute later is Indira, an Indira so graphic, her mouth a swollen fuchsia gash, her eyes a pair of glazed beignets held by twin black twinkling stars, her breath short and giddy. She vanishes into the next door room as quickly as she leaves the other, the next door room where Juin instantly understands Maya patiently and self-sufficiently awaits, for isn’t the girl, after all, only all of fourteen?
Mother and daughter, infinite as one. And where did she read that before? Why, on Indira’s Facebook wall of course.
Juin holds her stomach tightly; there is a bird fluttering inside. She closes the door and walks slowly towards the window. She tries to summon a tone—E flat, E, B, the saddest notes in the world—yet, try as she might, she can’t slap them onto Indira’s face.
The morning light casts bird figures on the carpet. The breakfast buffet has been laid out on the gardens, and somewhere near the frangipani tree a hamper has too much fruity redness in it. Another line flashes in her mind: A good apple is better than an insipid peach. Something her dead, cancer-ridden mother has left her with, knowing, perhaps, that she is neither apple nor peach, performance nor pretension, that she’s just the Girl with No Story—the dolled-up droll who picks out a tune, and is accordingly fed on, and is alone again before she knows it, gazing off at the apples and the peaches that fill the world with the only colors she knows.