What can't be said
She glances over to where Adam is sitting alone, looking older and depleted all of a sudden. His fists clenched so hard the knuckles are white. Nerves tense and hard, jaw stiff, showing in a twitching muscle in his cheek. He doesn't even as much as glance at her. She must look a mess herself but she can't even think about that now. Rice fields rushing by outside the dirty train windows. Java's lush countryside, like a green house. Everything can grow here, renewable, resilient. Not like the two of them, a barren desire between them. Something that can never bear fruit, can't be allowed to blossom.
"Have you thought this through, Dibah?"
"Yes." No. Not one bit. She's acting blindly, the terror driving her along. Fear sits like a lump of cement in throat. Away, leave, run. Doesn't see how it could be any other way.
And that's all they say. Sitting there, silently, eyes glued on the seats in front of them, staring ahead. And they don't know where they are going. She doesn't even understand what he's doing here with her. She's not his. Will never be.
Startled by his warm hand sliding over hers, covering it entirely. Dirty cuts and dried blood on them. The tenderness from him, all the more poignant with the vision still fresh on her mind. His fists pounding another man's face into a bloody mush.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. But it is. And there is no going back, not for her.
"We'll be fine…" he says in a way that makes her think they won't. They won't ever be fine again.
They reach Jakarta around noon. A sweltering porridge of pollution, vehicles and people. High-rise buildings sticking their noses up next to downtrodden slums.
He doesn't talk, says nothing of his plans. Shrugs when she asks, pretends he hasn't heard when she tries to discuss it.
She waits outside the highly guarded compound of the U.S. Embassy as he goes inside to arrange with his passport. She sits at a little food stall at the side of the trafficked road, sweat streaming down her back, panic building inside. Wants to ask him how long. How many days, how many minutes before he leaves her. Inevitable as it seems, she can't shape the words, can't face the thought of only goodbyes remaining for them. They never had a chance and she can never go back. Has no home to go to.
They spend a few nights in a sleazy low-budget hotel. The room smells of mould and mothballs and the sheets are soggy from the humidity. She shares it with him, but not the bed. The line sharply drawn. He might have almost killed another man for her sake, but that doesn't make her his. She never was. She's not the type that can be had. There is nothing of substance within her. Like an empty container with it's lid locked. Can never be filled. Certainly not worth fighting for.
Those first days in Jakarta, Adam is invisible, comes and goes like a ghost. Days of waiting, their lives suspended in the air. Just waiting, and she's not even sure for what. She misses him even when he's right there beside her. She's hardly able to breathe when she thinks that this is it. Soon it will be over and she'll be alone in this strange city where the air so hot and humid it blurs the vision, melts down who you are. A sullen, dirty heat that makes you liquid, fluid, invisible. Insignificant.
She accompanies him to the airport. A strained tension in the cab as they snake their way through the dense soup of vehicles, the metallic taste of exhaust fumes in her mouth. Can't take another goodbye. Suppresses a childish urge to do something dramatic like opening up the car door and throwing herself out. He sits next to her crammed into the backseat with his big old duffel bag in his lap. His thigh is solid against hers. But he says nothing, doesn't look at her. As if he's already left.
She watches as he gets his ticket and documents out to go through the security check. She can't come with, forlorn and abandoned like a stray puppy. Never more alone than this. He comes back to stand next to her, his upper arm brushing by her shoulder. He's silent as if he's waiting for her to do all the work, to say the goodbyes he can't muster up.
"Just go…" She doesn't want any farewell hugs from him, wants no tearful embrace. Wants him to walk away as fast as possible. Fast. Without looking back. Any which way, it'll hurt.
"I'm not going," he says as if it's just been decided and that is that.
She pretends she isn't surprised when he takes her hand and leads her out into the blasting heat to wave down another taxi. His palm clammy and hot against hers, holding on so hard it hurts. Saying what can't be said.
You and me.
Back to the disgusting little hotel with its seventies style interior and its soiled linen. And as if a mute agreement has been made, they sink down on the bed together. He kicks the grimy bedcover off with his feet. She's exhausted though it's barely past noon. The old air condition whirring, a high-pitched enervating noise that echoes in her heart. Hands find their way under clothes, fabrics are peeled off at a frightening speed. A desperation, a senseless longing that has to be quenched. And she doesn't ask why, just takes what he gives. Opening up, unfurling, embracing him with the thirst of one who has been denied too long.
He tastes bittersweet, but he smells - like coming home.
He holds her in a rigid grip afterwards, arms locked around her back, not allowing her to pull away. As if he's scared she'll go up in smoke. A hint of shame over it all, the two of them entwined like this. Gusts of wind from the air conditioning making her shiver now. The indignity of wanting one another. How easily they give in to this, her skin against his. When she isn't his to have.
The words scratching at the inside of her mouth, wanting out. Big, cumbersome words, too angular, too difficult to disperse of. She won't say it. Can't.
They rent a little house in a 'kampung'. A neighborhood teetering on the brink of being a shanty town, saved only by the resilience of its residents and their tireless, pointless fight against the poverty around them. A quiet rebellion, refusing to let destitution take over.
The way the women are up at dawn sweeping the miserable, pot-holed pavements clean of debris and garbage, grandmothers and mothers scrubbing the doorsteps squeaky clean. How everyone who has a second floor moves upstairs during the rainy season, piling up furniture and belongings on top of one another. The way they sit patiently, waiting out the monsoon as the street below floods, stinking brown water seeping in, inundating their rickety little houses.
The way the husbands burn the household trash in small pyres at night. The smell of burning paper, food and plastic a strangely pleasant sensation. Little girls cleaning up the ashes in the morning, sweeping them up with small bamboo brooms. The way parents walk through the obvious dearth around them, bringing their children to school, a painstaking pursuit of a better future. Children meticulously and lovingly tended to, their red and white uniforms ironed in sharp crisp edges, hair water-combed, slicked to their heads. Rubber sandals on their feet, spotless white socks and treasured black shoes carried in hands not to sully them in the mud.
An inexplicable generosity in spite of their meager surroundings, a resistance to all things squalid that is comforting. How Dibah and Adam find their place in this tight-knitted little community. Neighbors embracing them, undeservedly too it might seem. They are unwillingly, reluctantly drawn in - unable to escape the warmth, the unrestrained friendliness of the people living around them. And the two of them, two people who have never really had a family, find themselves included in a kindness that is so overwhelming it makes them consider moving somewhere else. But they stay. And slowly, all that was new, frightening and dauntingly foreign becomes familiar.
They both get an unwanted crash-course in intimacy, flunking it miserably. Their fights heated, childish, silent wars that can go on for days, never ending in an adult conversation, never in a resolution. Because there is none to be had. Instead, the fiery making up, making love. Frenzied and tender, all nerve-endings exposed. That's all they know.
That's how they are. Never speaking the words, never saying what they both most fear. How they shouldn't be here, both belonging to different lives. Hers that she ran from, refusing to accept her lot, and his - still awaiting him somewhere else. With someone else. She fears the day he'll come to realize that she's a dead end.
Only once does he ask. Sitting on the bed drinking her morning coffee. Her guilty pleasure. He swoops by on his way to the shower, jeans low on his hips, dipping down quick as sin as he passes her. A hand lifting her hair, sniffing, his warm lips on her neck. "We're okay aren't we?"
She's taken completely off guard, mug resting against her crossed legs where she sits perched on the bed. His voice like the sweltering Jakarta air bearing down on her. An almost physical pressure felt across her chest.
"What?" She's distracted his fingers swooping over the nape of her neck, his breath behind her ear.
"This isn't so bad, right? You and me... Here, I mean," he says and it isn't really a question. A simple statement. She smiles at him as he saunters on towards the bathroom, a self conscious kind of shuffle. He knows she's looking at him, biting back the words. What they both know. What can't be said.
Until that evening, running down the flooded alley to their little rental house, brown putrid water, trash floating in it, splashing against their legs as they run. The rain beating down as the Adhan call for evening prayer floods the air, spilling out like a brook of crisp clean water into Jakarta's polluted watery haze. The wailing beauty of the prayer call echoing around them, enough to make the hair stand up on her neck. That's when she catches his wrist. Perhaps it's to slow him down or maybe because one of them has to say something. And she doesn't even know she's saying it before the words are out. Irreversibly dropped, like a sacrifice by his feet. For him to trample on, should he choose to.
"I think I'm... I might love you."
He doesn't look at her, doesn't answer. The regret is instantaneous. It's a mistake to tell him. She has wrecked their fragile balance. His face is grim as he fumbles with the lock on their door, its ugly veneer peeling off. He gives it a little push with his shoulder, the wood having swelled in during the rainy season. His hand on the small of her back, shoving her inside.
But there inside their sanctuary, inside their ugly little house, he loses no time. He's all over her. His answer. Because that's what they do. That's how they speak, skin on skin, with hands and lips, quickening pulses, in silence. Rain pounding on their tin roof. He, uncharacteristically tender and cautious, hands smoothing out kinks, caressing away uncertainty. Careful not to hurt her rounded belly. Sweat and rain and muddy feet, limbs entangled, the sheets stained red from Jakarta's rich soil. They don't care. It's monumental. It's more frightening than anything.
What can't be said, he says it with every breath, every movement. And though she still isn't his to be had, they're a little bit closer, a little bit less foreign. A little less scared.
As her stomach grows, he pulls back. Observes her when he thinks she's not noticing. A distrustful look as if she has betrayed him. It scares her, makes her fear waking up alone one morning. She pictures coming home to their simple rental house, finding he and his things gone. His insecurity getting the better of him. And however much she wishes she could, she can't reach out. Can't bridge the gap.
The creature in her belly. Like an enemy amongst them, pushing them apart, widening the breach. He hardly touches her anymore, and when he does, it's always with a sense of losing control, of falling into something he doesn't want. Unwillingly, as if she has misled him, has tricked him into this.
She gives birth alone.
She knows there is no other way. But he's not even there, not even hovering outside, on the little porch serving as a waiting room for all the nervous, expectant fathers. Because he isn't one of them. He isn't an expectant father and this child is nothing to him. Just a reminder of what they've left behind.
The dread as she takes the red, wrinkly little thing from the midwife. Realizing for the first time that as a mother, you are always alone. Especially she. The midwife is brisk, all business. There is nothing sentimental about this. This is what women do. What she was born to do. Frowns at the frivolity of it when Dibah cries too loud during the prolonged labor. It doesn't do to whine and cry. Nothing special to give birth. What women do here everyday, with far less help than she has. Buck up and bear it.
She gets to rest until evening falls. The midwife is clearly anxious to free up the space for another customer. And it's not as if she can afford to stay another night. Prepares to get out of bed and pack, to gather up her things, soreness in every muscle and most of all down there. Would weep if it weren't for the stern look she gets from the midwife.
And there he is. Bewildering. How he stands outside the midwife's door. A baby blue blanket across his arm and a dull, sheepish expression on his face.
"Came to get you home…" He says home as if that's what it is to them.
"Okay." Afraid her voice will break if she says more. Wants to cry, the relief if seeing him there, her hormones crashing. Her breasts already aching, the milk coming in quickly.
"It's blue." Pointing out the obvious, dumbly handing her the blanket.
"It doesn't matter."
She carries her child. Hers. Only hers. Pressed to her chest, a feeling of trepidation so great she can't see straight. A fierce protectiveness she can't explain except perhaps this is what it's like to be a mother. Watchful of him, walking in front of her down the alley with her things. Stepping carefully, trying to keep up in spite of the soreness between her legs, the way all her muscles ache. Her heart too.
He waits up for her, an impatient, clumsy kind of thoughtfulness. He's prepared the bed, cleaned the sheets and tucked them in. Perfectly. He bundles her in there with the baby and disappears. Leaves her alone as she tries nursing. He abandons her where she is, struggling with this alien concept, with her own ignorance. Overwhelming, the responsibility of a human being. Heavy like a stone around her neck and she can hardly breathe.
This, she'd though it would come naturally, but it doesn't. The tears, she can't hold them back any longer. Her baby crying herself crimson red, unable to take the breast, rejecting her, fighting her. She can't seem to find the right angle or the right position. She can't do this. Can't.
He comes back in, grimfaced and terse, his eyes avoiding hers. Sets down a little tray with hot tea and noodles next to the bed. Almost drops it there, spoon falling to the floor with a clang as he slumps down on the bed next to her. Her, wiping at her face. She doesn't want him to see her like this.
Unanticipated gentleness, and the more startling for it. How he tugs her near, arms around her in an awkward embrace, baby squealing in between them. His lips against her ear and that smell of him, the spicy clove cigarettes he smokes.
"You can do this, girl." And maybe she can.
Maybe they can.
Dibah wonders when he'll leave. The pain of seeing the other's face on the baby, knowing that she belongs to another. But the days pass and he's there, doesn't budge. Stubbornly standing by her though it isn't perfect, far from it. The baby is only hers. He is disinterested, distant, stays out of her way and leaves her to it. But there are times, fleeting moments when she catches him watching her nurse. An expression she doesn't recognize, quickly hidden behind a leer and a nod towards her swollen breasts.
"They're bigger now."
"Just shut up Adam…" But she senses a door opening. Something changing, grudgingly and unwillingly, but changing nonetheless.
"Just an observation." Faked smugness, a quick lift of the chin before he disappears.
She wonders if he wishes the child were his. The way he slides by her as she unbuttons her shirt to nurse, pretending to have an errand in the kitchen. A swift, almost brusque sweeping across her cheek, fingertips barely brushing by the baby's delicate skull. As if it's an accident. An awkward caress and he moves on saying nothing.
One morning, hearing the baby crying, knowing he won't pick her up, he never does. Coming through the door, toothbrush in her mouth, stops there, breathless. His tone gruff and irritable. But she knows him. An uncomfortable warmth beyond the feigned annoyance. He leans down over the crib. His shoulders rounded as he reaches for her. Angry red-faced wailing slowing down surprisingly quick to hiccupy sniveling.
"Don't blame you for crying. Your father was an ugly sod as well."
Watching them hidden behind the doorpost. Thinking, they might still make it. Something real, just out of reach, waiting around the corner. Something beautiful.
They change after that. Slowly, hardly noticeably, minute little steps in a new direction. Quieter, calmer, gentler. Fights that don't require days of brooding, can be stilled, can be pacified with a kiss and mumbled apology. The passion that burns slower, steadier. It all changes. The unfamiliar sensation of feeling safe. With him. Doesn't know when it starts but somewhere along the line, he claims her. The child of the other man.
He'll strut proudly through the narrow alleys of the neighborhood. Will pass by the dilapidated sheds and shacks, the streets teeming with life, with the little girl on his arm. Will glare at anyone who dares say she looks funny or comment on her bald little head, her ears like batwings. He'll stop to talk to the men at the tobacco kiosk, will grin and noticeably stretch his back.
She starts walking, getting into everything, impossible to lift your eyes off her for two seconds, he scolds her with a patience exceeds hers by far.
"Yeah, your father was the same, getting his nose into everybody's business too."
Always talks of the other man as 'father'. A man he'd beaten to a pulp back then, left half dead in an alley in Yogyakarta.
The way he'll curtly remove the child's hands from whatever business she's trying to get them into. Draws the chubby little fingers down, away only to see them reach straight back again. The cycle repeated a thousand times. Never losing his patience with her. A tender kind of love that he does his best to hide behind that grouchy exterior. The way he touches the child's hairless head when he thinks no one's watching.
But she watches them. Watches them, no longer with her heart in her throat. Sometimes, he'll catch her eyes across the room. What can't be said, he says it now, every day, with every little act of kindness. With the way he holds the other man's child, the way he embraces her at night. With the way his eyes are warmly possessive now.
He'll flash her a grin above the child's head, hurl his smile across the room at her. Might mouth the words, shaping his lips with an unnecessary precision around vowels and consonants, half a smirk curling up the corners of of his mouth. And though no sound can ever be heard, what he says reverberates through their shabby little home, penetrates the strange peacefulness in their house. Everything about them ugly, insufficient, volatile and still here they are. The two of them; imperfect, ugly, petty, but just like the city - fizzing, swarming with life.
He says it now.
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