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Babe (by Linda Christanty)

Posted in Fiction by Linda Christanty on 05/20/2015

Babe, I loved your dark skin. I like black. Perhaps in Durban, the town you mentioned many times and I always wrongly thought it was Johannesburg, you were still sleeping in your bedroom hotel, so tired that you had no time to read these words on your laptop. You were asleep before reading my first sentence about your body, where the soul is hidding. 

The matches of FIFA World Cup would rock the town within two months. The streets would be crowded. The air would be constricted. The hotels, restaurants, and cafes would transform into new cities of the world. There would be a lot of human races, genders, tastes, diffusion scents of socks, underwear, bras, nightgowns, jeans, pants, scarves, handkerchiefs, tablecloth, sheets, and pillow case, all in our dirty clothes hampers. And you might be busy too. Going here and there, looking tired and dizzy. I worked on some project, you told me without being asked. And I didn’t urge you to explain more; what project, how much you will get? I let you had the freedom of keeping some secrets.

Perhaps you were manager of one of the football teams. You used to be a football player, the star of your club, the most talented player, finally had to retire because of horrendous leg injury. You once had given up, and then recovered again in God’s will. You tended to correlate everything with God’s will. You also believed there were invisible hands that made us met, bringing people together, saving the dying ones. When I said I loved you devotedly, you seemed less than impressed. Loving with the heart would be eternal, that was your first preach. You kept wanting to show me your injuries, but I always refused. I couldn’t stand seeing broken things, let alone your leg. That wasn’t an affront at all, Babe. I didn’t have a gut to watch people wasted everything given by God—your opponent. I began to imitate your way of thinking, involving God in every problem.

Suddenly you had arrived in Durban. A surprise, you said. Meanwhile I—a lonely wife—was left and still right here. But I wasn’t angry with you. Instead I was glad to know about your intention buying me a pair of new shoes—though I could buy the same things on my own desire. Babe, I didn’t like glistened crystal shoes, or the gold ones, or with the famous brands that caught the eyes. I loved shoes with simple and classy styles, simple lines, dark or light colors resembling winter or fall. I preferred the shoes which designer labels were hidden inside so I could step on it. What was it like? Durban, I supposed. I had never been there. Some big city, but not as big as Johannesburg, that was the way you described cities, as though those were watermelons in a store. I still couldn’t imagine that city. The air was hot, you added. Babe, the place where I stayed now was hot, too. If only there had been no air conditioners, I probably slept without clothes at all. One time in London, you had been feeling so cold, and I wasn’t there with you.

Few months ago, I read from newspapers and watched on TV, it was extreme cold in entire Europe and some regions in America. A lot of flights delayed. Some people died from the blizzard. A friend of mine sent an e-mail, telling me how he had to go to the office wearing great coat on a pair of skis. He worked at a DC government office. Meanwhile, here in my town, the water from the river and public drains flooded the streets during rainy season, Babe. You lived alone in your apartment, feeling nearly frozen, you said over and over. I neither believed nor envied that.

We’re a married couple living apart so long and our only son had disappeared when he was three. You had been looking for him everywhere, and so did I. Once you called me at midnight, told me that you’d reported to FBI and urged CNN to broadcast the kidnapping. A witness claimed having seen our son with a Japanese woman wearing a kimono around the Buddha statue, Daibutsu, in Kamakura. It was about one hour from Tokyo by train. That time our son was also wearing a kimono. His skin wasn’t dark like yours anymore. Perhaps the kidnapper had smeared whitening cream all over our son’s body, and pulled each corner of his eyes and held it with stick papers all of the time. You just laughed when I said that. You never took my words seriously. Until I sent you pictures of our son and the kidnap suspect, taken by a stranger who sent it to my mailbox out of nowhere. This person might be one of the kidnappers trying to trick us. It was like a deep hole, dark and cold, every time we remembered our son. What was his name? I thought his full name was Jan Ahmad.

You sometimes forgot my name, too. You called me with your female friends’ names. I didn’t care. I just laughed aloud. Recalling it again, those names were actually my own. You didn’t betray me at all, Babe.

We first met in a town where you had stayed earlier in that country. Have you ever gone through any discrimination? Why did you leave South Africa? Were your parents still living there? I hadn’t met them until now. You couldn’t answer those questions that time and changed the topic by asking about my job, which I answered ‘writer’. You chuckled at that. Writer wasn’t a job, it’s just a hobby, you said. You really insulted writer’s pride. You didn’t know how dangerous writing could be to a government. In some countries, people could be sentenced to death because of their writings; even some journalists had been hung or killed. Sometimes punishment for a writer was harder than a grenade thrower or a corrupt politician. When I took my turn to give this kind of speech, you immediately changed the topic. You hated topics as gloom and gray as winter.

You said that your job was selling household furnishings. After that you asked me out on a date in Hong Kong. I surely accepted it, though my responses—that describing my anxiety—had surprised you; Babe, people sell and buy weapons over there. Are you involved in weapons trading for rebellions at some countries? You silenced for a moment, maybe totally shocked, and then asked how much I knew about weapons. Truthfully, I knew nothing about them. In a small café in Hong Kong, I watched my friend read a poem in front of more than 25 people. After that I went shopping. So I knew it just from hearsay. You laughed and soon after that day, we got married.

Once you asked me if I had affairs when you weren’t at home. Of course, I said honestly. I saw no reason lying to my own husband. You wanted to know their names and home addresses. There were four of them, Babe. A sixty year old rock guitarist. An old house keeper who also took care of two horses in a country. A seaman. And a director of an environmental organization—unsure of having affair but just couldn’t leave me. They were from around the world. But I knew you wouldn’t do anything to them. About the guitarist, he had sunken eyes and long crooked nose. I was fascinated by the time I saw his picture on my laptop screen. Like people said, he had nothing left because of card roulette. My affair with him was out of pity. His previous lover was just like him—old, wrinkled, lonely—and only sent him thousands of greeting cards, including Hello Kitty ones. I was different, so that he paid more attention to me; the younger woman who didn’t depend my life on him, didn’t need a status—because I was no more a single woman. But later on I realized that this man liked to talk to guitar strings more than to his lover, so he was lack of words. He asked and answered everything shortly. I named our conversation as ‘memo.’ He played music since young, performing at night clubs. He had several albums. He liked Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and Deep Purple, old enough to my age. He got many tattoos on his arms. Once he showed one tattoo on his stomach. It was like the tattoo’s pattern of suku anak dalam -- a term for tribes in hinterland -- from Mentawai, Sumatra. He was so amused to see my reaction that he wanted to show another tattoo under his stomach but I refused it. I let it to be only a secret of his, because the more I knew about him, he seemed less attractive for me. I believed we had a long last relationship because I didn’t know all about you. We only made love once, Babe, on his soft bed, in his room with all kind of guitars hanging on its wall. But I didn’t like old people because of one thing; their odors like a deer among the scents of Chanel or Hermes. Was it the scent of death?

Billy, the old housekeeper was actually my first affair before the old guitarist. But he was weird and unaggressive. Billy looked wonderful on the profile picture, but totally bad on some other ones when he ran some errands; taking care of the horse, standing in front of a bathroom mirror, cooking in the kitchen. He had an asymmetrical head like the ghosts in Howl's Moving Castle movie, a film about true love between a hat-maker girl and a winged wizard, the thing that we couldn’t see on his profile picture. On the other pictures, he proved himself growing from a baby long time ago coming to the world from his mom’s womb with such difficulty, before the nurses had to suggest an operation in this critical situation and having his birth as a healthy baby without ruining his mom’s vagina. I never made love with Billy. He didn’t have any interest with people. As if he had been a jellyfish and I had been some other species. One day, he suddenly disappeared. The reason? Still a mystery. I had a suspicion that there was a cruise-ship seaman who sent me hot postcards in Tagged and made everyone thought that I was the only one for him. At least Billy had a bit jealousy, a sign that we really had an affair. The last time we met Billy told me about annoying cats fight at the house yard. He knew nothing about cat’s habit. For him, cats only made the same bad noise either when they quarreled or made love. He ever sent me an animation card of singing and dancing cats. They moved their paws and necks like toddlers perform in kindergarten. Billy actually had a soft heart, but still, he was a bit weird. He lived alone, taking care of two horses, and surrounded by a lot of cats. I had never met anyone like Billy. He neither liked reading nor having neighbors. I wondered if he was actually a serial murderer or a psychopath. But still, I liked him. His cool and unaggressive temperament suited with my ill-temper and recklessness.

I met Ferdinand, a director of an environmental organization, at ‘New York Chat Room.’ That time I used false identity and address. You knew I had many false name. I walked in the room without anyone noticing. I used ‘Sonia’ that day. Ferdinand thought I was an Indian woman. When he wanted to know me; I told him that I just looked for a friend, not a date. Besides, I couldn’t cook Indian curry. That moment I remembered you, Babe. I had been engaged. This man was also seeking a new friend. He had a wife and a daughter. I thought I needed a friend to discuss real things, something that we never could do for so long. So I walked into another empty room with Ferdinand, though I was still curious about him. Why should a serious man like him browsing on websites about coitus as an introduction, and replaced ‘hello’ with ‘do you like sex phone call?’? I went along with him, from east to west. Ferdinand invited me to attend some conferences about climate changing and global warming effect. He often said that he missed me and wanted to meet. Finally he revealed his real mission. His wife was weak, but he never tried to seek another woman. I laughed at that. I told him that I was weak too. When he wanted to prove it, I left him and back to our peaceful marriage.

I had a trouble to contact you at the day. I called your name. You never answered it, days and months. Where are you, Babe? I missed you. You didn’t have to look for our son, Jan Ahmad, anymore. I was sad to imagine that having to seek any information about Jan in the police office was your excuse for not coming home. We probably couldn’t recognize our son if we found him, though. He maybe had been a stranger who could ruin our relationship. Then I met the seaman accidentally in ‘Melbourne Chat Room.’ He looked for a friend and also a date. He told me about the savings he had spent to build his parents house in Jamaica. The bigger he built the house, the more the villagers respected him. He also gave more money to his sibling to buy wall paints for their house’s finishing. He was such a good son. I rarely heard stories about people working hard to earn money and then spend it in the name of love. All my friends got the money easily and spend it so little for anybody else. When I was hungry and too lazy to reheat the food in microwave, this guy would cheer me up with a story about goat meat soup for people who made condolence visits. In his country, a grieving family would serve goat meat meals. Imagining dead body in the coffin, my hunger was gone at the moment. Later on he called me ‘Babe’, just like I called you, my husband. And then we were out together. He promised to continue his study, though he had to sell his car and home. I was touched, but got anxious, and left, returning to our house.

Babe, maybe I felt so lonely, but at the same time I didn’t really want anybody always stay by my side. This morning I woke up on the bed, mesmerized by loneliness and suddenly felt so wonderful for being completely alone along the night. I always missed you, but never had a thought that we lived together. We met by chance in a chat room which name I already forgot. Maybe New York, Idaho, United Kingdom, or else. Four months ago.

We married in that chat room, then having kids, sleeping and eating together, creating our own values and rules, creating our own history—like a couple been married for 20 years—even though your God was still taking a part, too.

Now I had to wear make up, put on a dress, and go to my book launching. My boyfriend had been waiting me at the hall of this apartment. We would go together. He didn’t know that I was married, and I would keep him in the dark. He wasn’t that important. Boyfriends could come and go, though the process was complicated sometimes. Those men could do whatever they want, but I couldn’t dump them easily.

Yesterday, again you asked me to come to Durban, joining you. You said, just come here; don’t think too much, in this life you just have to do anything you want, thinking is for philosophers. And I eluded it by saying that I had to check my schedules first.

I didn’t know how long we could keep this challenging marriage. Sometimes I wanted to take a break as your wife and a mother of our lost son. You surely didn’t mind about that. You let me to be a single and without kid again with one condition, not remarrying. I ever left you because of boredom, but then went home again. And you still welcomed me warmly and missed me. Once you thought that I had been a man. You said I could decide so fast, meanwhile women usually took things into consideration slowly. Oh, oh, oh, I could’ve divorced you for being so unfair. Hey, Babe, what was your name once again? I really had forgotten it. Your real name surely couldn’t be Sea Lion, could it?***

2009


*Translated from the Indonesian by Rini Nurul Badariah. Edited by Edward J. Bloom.




Linda Christanty is an author and journalist. Her writing has been recognized by various awards including the national literary award in Indonesia (Khatulistiwa Literary Award 2004 and 2010), award from the Language Center of the Ministry of National Education (2010 and 2013), and The Best Short Stories version by Kompas daily (1989). Her essay "Militarism and Violence in East Timor" won a Human Rights Award for Best Essay in 1998. She has also written script for plays on conflict, disaster and peace transformation in Aceh. It was performed in the World P.E.N Forum (P.E.N Japan and P.E.N International Forum) in Tokyo, Japan (2008). She received the Southeast Asian writers award, S.E.A Write Award, in 2013.

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