short story by Caroline Wong | translation by Dalih Sembiring | original Indonesian “Sarce, Pergi dan Menghilang” can be read here
MY SKIN is the color of lustrous ivory, with nose pointed and lips the shade of ruby.
Papa drinks and gambles to the extreme, for he is oblivious to our poverty. Mama holds her grudges although she is no better at providing anything. Her hands are lazy and never has she broken a sweat.
Dazzled is she still by the brilliance of her youth. The most beautiful girl in the entire village, struck by the misfortune of marrying a penniless goon. Lost is she now in the grips of her own imaginations. If only I had chosen my ex — oh that wealthy, wonderful man, she would whine. What curse had forced me to marry your Papa, I have no idea… She would say the same thing every evening while smoking her cigarettes.
I was born as their only child — a beauty manifested. At least Mama wasn’t lying when she said she was the loveliest flower of her time.
Papa’s greatest achievement, however, is that he frequently causes trouble among his somewhat more well-off siblings. Prawling around with a tough and menacing air, he would visit them and demand for alms.
They would respond, “We work dawn to dawn. Our bones ache and we know no aftenoon nap. The oveflowing content of our septic tanks isn’t going to become a treasure of gold for us to share around. Prestige didn’t bring us to where we are. So you’d better make some effort. For your daughter’s sake!”
But Papa would only hurl a curse at them: “Filthy rich people!” It seems to work, which only makes Papa look like a pig wallowing in a mudhole in comparison.
Growing up, I observe silently while drowning in a painfully dark pit of humiliation. I feel ashamed to even pass by the homes of my father’s brothers and sisters. I would hang my head every time I chanced upon my cousins, who would actually ask me if I’d like to play together.
That evening, I begged for five thousand rupiahs from his pocket. I had to buy something right that instant. I just had to!
Mama was lounging on her bed. Asking it from her would be useless. She’d only cry out how she didn’t deserve to live in this rickety excuse for a house. She could’ve married a royalty and had a huge diamond dangling proudly from her neck. Such rambling might be followed by her chiming out a line or two from songs by Betharia Sonata or Obbie Mesakh.
And so I looked for him here. Pressing my weight onto the door, I looked far into the room, as deeply as my eyes would allow me. With a frame too tiny and frail, I nearly escaped the sight of the betel-chewing old woman — the quiet guard of the gambling den.
“Ma’am, is my father here? I’m Bambang’s daughter. It’s important,” I softly said with unease.
The woman answered the question by calling out my father directly, as loudly as she could. “Bambang! Ooyyyy, Bambang! Your daughter’s here!” Some of her saliva, thick red and smelling of old age, landed everywhere on my cheeks.
Sounds of hurried, angry footsteps followed. Of flip-flops dragged across a coarse concrete floor.
I became more frightened. My eyes were brimming with hot tears, as I imagined the kind of horror that might come my way. If only magic spells were real, I wished for one that could make me disappear.
“What are you doing here? Go home! This place is for men!” He shoved my shoulder violently, throwing me two steps back.
“Papa, I need money. Five thousand rupiahs. I need to buy something, Pa.” I immediately sobbed. “Please, Papa, please… It’s only five thousand.”
His eyes bulged even more ominously, reddening, as he lifted his big hairy arm and threatened me. “You looking for a bruising, kid?!”
I knew it wasn’t a bluff. I could get hurt. The pains in my bones hadn’t gone away. A few days ago, both my parents took turns smacking me. All because I came home and complained that I was too hungry and there was no rice on the table.
I wasn’t looking for a bruising. I quickly turned and ran away toward home, with a growing pain that was ripping me from the inside. Obviously, not the right time to ask for five thousand rupiahs.
At home, I hastily folded several sheets of calendar paper and a used newspaper to form a long, thick envelope. My tears fell and caused several lines on the newspaper to blot. I was too naive to know any better.
That was the day that I entered womanhood, and I didn’t have any money to buy a menstrual pad.
Five years later, I happily ran away from home, while holding a cardboard box filled with my clothes and a piece of woven sarong that I had bought from the early market.
I hopped on a bus with the word “Liman” painted on its sides, headed for the province’s capital. From there I sailed on a ship, for one day and one night. I slept in one of the ship’s aisles, covering my body with the woven sarong. Finally, I arrived in this megapolitan city. I still had five hundred thousand rupiahs left in the plastic bag that I used in place of a purse. The most money I had ever had at the time.
The harsh old lady with the sputtering saliva, the guard of the gambling house, was the one who had given it to me.
“Leave. Don’t become a trash like your father,” she said sternly, as her wide gray eyes stared deeply into my face. “You’re beautiful and young. Be gone from this village. And don’t come back before you make it on your own!” she threatened me while chewing the betel clod that smudged her lips red. Her eyes seemed to hate everything that was painted on my face and my youth.
I realized, she had stolen the money from the gamblers who were too overcome by intoxication, and was kind enough to share the sins with me.
I left no time to ponder what I would do next. As soon as I stepped out of the port’s gates, I walked to a coffee shop that was crowded with customers. I offered my help to the woman who owned the place, asking her if she needed a maid or a waiter. I’m ready to work, I said, I need a place to stay, and I am an honest soul!
For a full five months, I dedicated my service in that coffee shop. Dusting, sweeping, mopping, washing all the dirty cups and saucers, cleaning and scrubbing the kitchen floor, taking out the garbage, as well as preparing the coffee and serving any snacks and drinks to all the tables. I did it all with sincerity, for I was grateful for the roof over my head and the comfortable bed for me to sleep in. The lady also paid me well, and was too kind to provide me with sweet-smelling soap bars and Viva face powder.
Love Coffee Shop, that’s how I refer to the place. The fair-skinned lady who owns it has a face so fierce no one realized she had the heart of an angel: Mrs. Love. She was glad I had found her. Mrs. Love would readily give a threatening look to any flirts who dared to ask me to sit next to them.
Until one cold morning, when the shop had just opened to what remained of the previous night’s rain, a handsome man with a tired look on his face walked in. The young, brown-haired, white male dropped his humangous backpack onto the floor. He was clearly a traveler from afar — a Westerner.
“Well, tell our guest to sit down, and ask him what he’d like to drink. You can speak English, can’t you?” ordered Mrs. Love in a slightly pressing tone. I did tell Mrs. Love once that I spoke a little English. Ever since I was in second grade, English was taught to us by a legendary teacher by the name of Mrs. Dendang. The subject was something of a novelty. It was 1987.
I didn’t have to tell him to sit down. He had already pulled up a chair, before staring deeply into my eyes. “Black coffee without sugar, please.”
I froze and did nothing but stand before him, floating. Tens of brightly tinted brown windows open widely inside those eyes. They mesmerized me and made me feel ashamed of myself. For I longed for those windows.
Mrs. Love plonked the tin cup she had just used to scoop hot water out of the pot in the harshest and noisiest way possible, pitting it against the long wooden table where we prepared the coffee. I quickly came to my senses, walked back and turned around.
I was truly embarassed. The Caucasian boy, wherever he was from, smiled in an even more charming way when I finally returned to his table and put down the cup of hot, black, thick, sugarless coffee. This silly girl, of course, spilled a little bit of the liquid onto the saucer. It was enough to make me want to cry.
But he caught my right hand. “Tanganmu dingin. Kamu takut kepadaku?”
I was taken by surprise and laughed. Then I nearly cried, but then I laughed it off again. “You speak Indonesian?” I said as I pulled my hand from his warm grasp. I was convinced that my cheeks were blushing to a shade so red and bright it might as well be the garish color of Mrs. Love’s lipstick whenever she was about to go to a party.
“Why of course. My mother is Indonesian — Javanese. She’s very beautiful.”
The days that followed were happy ones. Mrs. Love seemed even happier than I was. She was delighted that she could experience a romantic story involving herself — if only as a supporting character.
The morning sunshine’s name was Mathias, who had planned on staying in Surabaya only for a night, before taking a bus ride to Denpasar the next morning. But the travel plans were immediately changed.
He had only graduated college, from a hotel management major, and was planning on a solo adventure to explore Bali and Lombok before diving into a world of career. “I love your country — my mother’s country. The sun is always warm here,” he said with a slightly envious air on his face. I was flattered.
“Bali can wait, because I know you’ll be gone if I leave,” he said with conviction. “Please tell me everything about you,” he said, and the bewitching windows reappeared and swallowed me into a world inside of those eyes.
“I ran away from home,” I said calmly. “I do not wish to return, and I will always be away.”
He looked transfixed. “Would you like to follow me wherever I go? My mother will be so happy to see me bring you home.”
I remained silent. Slowly, images of Papa’s wretched face, the reflection of Mama’s smile on the cracked mirror, the sinister gray eyes of the old lady at the gambling house’s door… they filled my eyes and bounced around inside.
“I can’t. I should stay,” I finally replied.
He looked at me for a long time. A tumult inside his bright brown eyes. “I’m sorry. Did I say anything wrong or impolite?”
“No, you didn’t do anything wrong. It’s just that… I haven’t made it on my own.”
I am Sarce. You can judge me however you please, although it would be wise to not overindulge in your assessment. For I shall never return, until I die. Even if a diamond pendant may dangle from my neck and I finally see before my very eyes the beautiful brightly-lit windows that look out into the old town of Antwerpen.
Writer’s note: Composed in the light of a story related to me by a real person.