It's the rainy season, when Jakarta buckles under in putrid brown sludge. The canals are already flooding the lower lying neighbourhoods and people wait, heart in throat to see how much rain the saturated red earth can swallow. Clothes and valuables are packed into cheap plastic boxes, furniture balanced on top of each other and a watchful eye is kept pegged on the threshold.
But Iliyas can't think of rain, can't worry about his squalid rental house being inundated with brown garbage soup. His mind is filled to the brim with her.
In another world, another life, they could have been something.
But not in this.
They're building blocks of a pyramid, and he's a rickety one at the base while she towers there far above him, right at the top. Try to wedge a block lose or move it somewhere else and the whole structure will come tumbling down.
He picks her up from campus, just as he does everyday. Hungry eyes watching as she says goodbye to a group of friends before turning to walk towards the car. His hands sweaty, gripping onto the scorching hot plastic of the steering wheel. The grey, oppressive heat pressing down on his forehead promising rain. And within a few minutes of picking her up, fat oily drops start falling on his windscreen.
The walls between them, it's money, nothing else, he tells himself. Money stacked so high they kiss the sky. And he's a young man, he has brains and he has ambitions. He could dream of scaling that wall. But he doesn't, because a bagful of money could not rearrange the pyramid.
Instead he spies on a girl in the rear view mirror. Miffed that she has chosen to sit in the back today. Marking out the borders, crudely pointing out the limits.
You belong there - and I here.
Servants and masters, clinging to their roles. The comfort of knowing where they belong. And he's one of the invisibles. He chauffeurs her around day in, day out and she might never have seen him had she not lifted her eyes one day and met his in the rear-view mirror.
"Hi," she'd said, as if he hadn't been driving her around in her father's car for the last three years. "You look tired."
And that had been that. A little piece of the pyramid had crumbled and hit him in the head. In the heart. Distorting his world, making him believe conventions could be broken, walls could be scaled.
But not today. Today she is on the phone with her friends. She dials them one after another as if she's afraid of what will happen when silence settles and she's forced to meet his eyes in the mirror.
She orders him to drop her at a mall and he waits patiently in the basement with a group of other drivers. It's late when he finally hears the car-call for his name. As if he's a slave summoned by his master.
But this time she surprises him. She opens the front door and slides in next to him. The air colliding with his senses. Her fragrance. Not the gaudy cologne of the poor. Not a vulgar attempt at trying to cover up clothes left to rot in the humidity. He holds his breath because he can't take it. Can't take how unreachable she is.
It's raining hard now.
He's conscious of his trouser legs all of a sudden. There are holes where his clove tobacco has scattered and burnt through. His brown skin visible through the grey uniform fabric.
What he minds the most is the smell. The poverty that sheaths him like a second skin, isolating him from her. His poverty, the pathetic kind that falls just short of provoking sympathy but is enough to keep him firmly on his knees with his neck bent and his hand perpetually stretched out asking for alms. The mediocre stench of the under-privileged. A depressing combination of mould, mothballs and some foul cologne used to cover it all up.
Iliyas glances at her profile, her eyes downcast as she plays with her phone. Treating him like the servant that he is. Hates this. Her. Him. What they are. That's when she places her hand over his on the shift stick, giving it a timid squeeze.
"I want to…I don't want to go home yet."
She doesn't have to ask him twice. He takes the left lane so fast he almost hits a motorbike, makes a u-turn, changing their direction. Wondering how many times they can do this before they're caught.
He unbuttons the top of the driver's uniform her father, Pak Subagio makes him wear. Wants to discard it now and what it signifies, the limitations implied. Wants to wear nothing with her.
Bare skin the only equalizer.
He parks Pak Subagio's car up the street. The alley leading to his boarding house is already filling up with muddy water. Filthy and murky, vile things he'd rather not know about floating around in it. And he thinks she must really want him since she still rolls her jeans up and takes her fancy foreign shoes off. He lends her his rubber sandals and wades barefoot a few paces behind her. His bare feet trudging carefully. Watches how the rain drenches her hair, washing the salon primped hairstyle straight and sleek. Enjoys how the glossy exterior is dulled down. The varnish coming off.
They barely make it inside his door. There is a buzz of something ringing in his ears, in the air, everywhere. Something volatile and aggressive as she makes him crash backwards against the tiled wall. His head bouncing against the hard surface. He wants to say no. Put an end to it, once and for all.
"Maybe I should take you home. The roads might flood..."
"I don't care," she says, her fingers flicking the dumb uniform buttons open, yanking it down from his shoulders. And he might still have been able to stop it.
But the kiss ruins it all.
The unexpected sweetness of her lips dislodging something within. That chaste little kiss placed stealthily at the periphery of his mouth. The faint taste of coffee and the surprise of her dulcet tenderness. Ungluing him. Or perhaps it is the absurdly far-flung notion that his infatuation might just be – reciprocal.
She edges the waist band of the trousers down over his hipbones, forcing him to grab her hands. He bends down. Kisses her there, on the inside of her wrist, tries to quiet the urgency. Tries to catch up.
How did it come to this? When? And he's not sure. Not sure he can now.
She rips her arm away from his grip, fingers pushing through the hair on his neck, rousing a sleeping fever that makes him brittle. And he wants to give in. He wants to but he's all cleaned out. She's already stolen everything and what she gives back is never enough.
"Crap..." he whispers. "I've been waiting... for this."
He's hardly aware that he's said it out loud until he notices the words. Unable to take them back. Bright, ruby red and honest hanging in the air above them. The arrogance of her smile against his lips.
The soaking wet fabric of her clothes sticking to her skin as he pulls and tugs at it. His pulse pounds, ear-splittingly loud, relentlessly. You. You, you, you youyouyou. Accelerating. The rip-tide of her, and he knuckles under, yields to the silent murmur of her heart, promising everything. Giving nothing.
"You…" Her soft susurration against his mouth as if she can hear it too. Her clammy shirt bunched up into a ball and chucked on the bathroom floor. The metallic smell of Jakarta's polluted rainwater on her. And he doesn't care that he's on the brink of ruin, that she will bleed him dry. The you, you, you, hammering down all rationality.
Fast, fast, fast, before reason catches up, grabs him by his ankles and hauls him back. Her and him. Could never be. He's all tapped out. One foot out the window, and she never had hers inside in the first place.
But she's there, pressed up against him as if trying to fuse her chest to his. The cruelty of her warm hands on his back, in his hair, on his face. The humming of her skin against his. Fizzy and inebriating. An energy that vibrates, overflows, makes him yank at her jeans. The buttons impossible to flick open with his shaking, impatient fingers.
Fast, fast, fast. Before sanity gains on him, leaping up behind taking long panicky strides. It isn't perfect. But her lips are warm and open, her tongue sweet and needy and he gets caught in the undertow. It drags him under. Her breath on his face inundates him completely. He has to get up. Has to shatter the surface, break through the torrent around him.
"We can't do this... No more."
"No …" But the words mean nothing because he is falling. No. Not falling. Plunging - like a boulder rolling off the edge of a ravine. The concept spreading like a catastrophic oil spill within, touching everything, staining everything. Thick and viscous liquid swamping and inundating him. It will be hard to get rid of. Lodged in the most inaccessible places.
Too real. You. You. Make it better. The heat spreading in the trail of her. The gasps for air. His or hers? Who knows, who cares? The painfully hesitant yearning replaced by something else.
A breathless desire simmering under the surface amassing, expanding, accumulating. It spills out, a trickle first. Building up, impelling itself forward, outwards, increasing with an alarming force. Bursting the dam wide open. It surges forward, pushing itself out in the open, all elbows and brawniness. Guttural and raw, unrelenting. Refuses to remain under wraps. Ignored, denied and held back for too long.
There is no place to hide. It's there. All around. Everywhere. And there is no place left for reason. She's a map of nectar and honey. A map that wants to be followed. Soft, warm and not for him.
He's careful not to snag himself on the sharp edges of reason. Can't think of that now. His ugly driver's uniform is on the floor and all that matters is this - his thumbs digging into her hipbones.
He hates to think of the inevitable end, the hasty goodbye, the avoiding her eyes, shunning the rear-view mirror. Because he can't, and because she can't. They have to remain where they are. Have to keep the structure intact. But for a moment, just for an instant, he wants to imagine how it'd feel. To have her.
And there, in his room the walls crumble. She's a different girl without her expensive clothes and he is just a man without his ugly uniform. Just for a little while he lets go, moulds himself to her, so that no one can tell where he ends and where she begins. Imperfect and perfect together. Only not close enough. Never close enough.
He wakes up to a crashing wave of brown, flushing through the room. The canal wall must have been breeched, water rushing, flooding the house and as he grabs her by the hand to pull her up the stairs, up to the safety of the second floor.
He hates himself. Hates her. This.
They are an anomaly, not something that can work. Still here she is. Irresistible like reaching for a socket with wet fingers. Knowing it will hurt like hell but unable to keep from touching. She is not for him. She's just the deluge sweeping him under.
His arm around her shoulders as if he has any right to hold her like that. They look out over the city through the little grimy window. Down there, on the street, her father's car is visible, water almost covering its rooftop completely. He thinks she might feel cold, the way she shivers under his arm but when he peers down at her he sees it. The horror spreading on her face as she realizes she won't be able to go home tonight. She is stuck here with him.
In another place, another time, another life - they could have been something. But not here. Not here.
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