(This is an excerpt of a story published in BooksActually’s Gold Standard anthology, 2016. Order your copy here.)
To attend my graduation from middle school, Dad flew from Jakarta to Jogja, where I lived with Mom. He stayed in the room Mom had reserved for him in our house since their separation five years earlier. A week after Dad returned to Jakarta would have been my parents’ sixteenth wedding anniversary had they still been together. Mom bought a fancy white cake after work and cooked an elaborate dinner. As we sat down to eat she called Dad. She tried four times, but he didn’t pick up. She suggested we use my phone.
“He’ll answer if it’s you,” she said. The golden band that she’d never taken off her finger gleamed in the candlelight.
“Why are you doing this again?”
She told me the same things she had said many times: God shows you how good a woman you are by the husband He chooses for you; if your husband has left you, it means you must’ve done something wrong, either to God or to your parents or to your child. She was only trying to make things right.
“I can’t take it any more, Mom! Why can’t you just find another man?”
She looked at me as if I were one of her enemies. “I’m not like your dad. I won’t abandon my family.”
“Then it’s your own fault you’re miserable all the time.”
That was the first time she slapped me.
After dinner I packed my bags, sneaked out the window and got on the sleeper train to Jakarta. I tried not to think about how Mom might feel in the morning, finding my note in my empty room, realizing that after all those years of devoting herself to me, I’d left to become one of those sluts that had stolen her husband!
I lived with Dad in his apartment for two years. At first it was great. He enrolled me in the best high school. He made me lunch before going to work. He bought me everything I ever asked for and introduced me to sophisticated women—women who made music, built houses, and managed aid projects like he did. I was in love with him and he was in love with me. On Sundays we’d go to brunch at nice cafes or to the movies. On weekends he’d go out with women, or they would come over. Once I sneaked out of my room and eavesdropped on a conversation. Dad was saying, “When she wasn’t living here, I’d miss her and wish she were here, but now that she is living here, I wish she wasn’t, you know?”
One night when I thought Dad was sleeping at his girlfriend’s, he returned home and caught me naked on the couch with a boy. He punched me in the face and I moved back in with Mom. She met me at the airport, arms spread wide and face heavy with concern, but her embrace stank of gloating.
The next time I saw Dad again, he came to my high school graduation in Jogja. A week earlier I had announced to Mom that I was moving to Bali to live with my boyfriend and I didn’t give a fuck if she thought I was a sinner. She called Dad to come and stop me. He sat with Mom at the graduation ceremony and followed us home. When he walked towards me, something in me still wanted to flee.
The whole time I was packing, Mom cried and begged Dad to do something.
“At least let us drive you to the airport,” he said, sitting on the edge of my bed, looking old and helpless as he watched me zip my suitcases.
At the departure gate he slipped me an envelope of cash. I had never heard Dad say ‘I love you’ or ‘I’m sorry’ in my eighteen years of life, so the cash felt like love and apologies and acceptance. I was too proud and vengeful to hug him goodbye, but I held the envelope close between my fingers like a beloved’s hand all through the flight.