Higher

(This story was first published in Fixi Novo’s TRASH, part of the trio HEAT FLESH TRASH, Southeast Asian Urban Fiction anthologies).

(Versi bahasa Indonesia: “Puncak“)

 

THE WINDOW HASN’T been opened for days and the curtains haven’t been parted. The smell of clove and weed cigarettes dances in the air to the trance music that pumps the room. The thirty men and five women slouch on the floor or on the long sofa dappled with cigarette burns. Some bounce their heads, some chase the swirling light pattern inside the translucent coffee table. The view outside the window shows the dark buildings and blinking pale lights of northern Jakarta.

It’s Saturday evening, the last weekend before Ramadan, their last chance to cut loose before they have to restrict themselves for a whole month. Since Friday they have been moving in and out of this karaoke room, the rooftop dance floor, and a huge club next door. Some of them have been here since Wednesday, some went to work at eight and returned after five, some called in sick, some forgot they had jobs.

The two guys dancing on the coffee table know Patar from work, the guy passed out in the bed, in the concealed bedroom behind the bathroom, knows him from some party, Adisti and Risa have known him since high school. Patar is the glue holding all the people in the room together. He walks out of the bathroom, having showered and wearing fresh clothes, and announces that he has to leave the party and take his girlfriend to a movie. Whines and objections spiral up from around the room.

“Tar, you can’t leave. This is your thing.”

“Just tell her you’re sick.”

Everyone knows better than to suggest that Patar bring Lani, his girlfriend of six years, to the party. They understand Patar goes to her whenever he wants to be ‘good,’ and to the people in this room whenever he wants to be ‘bad.’ Adisti and Risa have slept with Patar on separate occasions—because it’s much safer to explore your desires with the people you trust—and whenever they meet Lani at weddings or outings, they chat lightly about fashion or the news.

“How the fuck are you gonna go to her and look sober?” asks Risa. The inside of her lips is bleeding, but she cannot feel it. She’s been grinding her teeth since Friday night, and she’s been out of chewing gum since this afternoon.

Patar isn’t worried. “Listen, I promised to take her out tonight before you all asked me to arrange this party. I’ve never canceled on her before. I’ll take her to the movies, drive her home, and come straight back here. All right?”

Adisti grabs his hand. “You can’t leave me here.”

“Ferdian’s still here,” says Patar, pointing to him. “He’ll watch out for you.”

Adisti isn’t really concerned, was just trying to make Patar stay. Three out of the five girls in the room have their boyfriends with them, so only she and Risa are theoretically available to be hit on—but Adisti trusts that no one in the room would dare bother her because she is a close friend of Patar and Ferdian.

With pronounced jawbones, long sideburns, and fierce wide eyes, Patar radiates the charisma needed to be the leader of their group. His next-in-command, Ferdian, is tall, although a bit chubby, with a round and clean-shaven face. Girls like him for his fair skin, unintimidating boyish look, and overall happy-go-lucky attitude about life. Adisti looks comfortable in a loose golden dress, accessorized with a black choker necklace and a rhinestone bracelet. She likes to paint and doesn’t like to think too much about her clothes, but she wants to look nice all the time, so she wears dresses everywhere. Risa, on the contrary, looks painfully immaculate in a tight-fitting black tube dress. Her face is made up as if she were going to a wedding, her hair falls in curls around her bare shoulders. She is an intern at a national newspaper, and she always struggles with deadlines. Usually she joins Patar’s parties only for a few hours. Adisti is surprised Risa has stayed for two days this time. Earlier, Adisti saw her talking to the club’s bathroom attendant, and security guard. She wonders if Risa is working on an assignment.

Adisti closes her eyes, and a shadow of a man drifts to her. Ikhsan. The last time she entered the club next door with him, a host of high-school-aged prostitutes flocked to him. The girls blocked their way before they even made it to the bar and started whispering in his ears. Ikhsan reached out to Adisti and brushed the length of her arm while apologizing to the girls. One of them pushed ahead and approached her.

“Excuse me, Miss, is he your boyfriend?”

“Yes, he is.”

“Sorry, we didn’t know,” the girl said, and led her friends away.

That was November last year. He left her in February. It is now September. Adisti still reaches for the memories of their times together whenever she needs something to make her smile. As she loses herself, he is with her again, and the time long gone becomes now again.

RISA FIRST ASKED to come to one of Patar’s parties in their junior year in college. Patar scanned her ankle-length skirt and round glasses and said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Risa had to chase him. “If you’re worried about the little-miss-perfect act, it’s just so my parents won’t ask questions. You of all people must know the importance of discretion, right?”

After inviting her a few times to his karaoke parties, then alcohol parties, Patar finally invited Risa to drug parties. e rst time she visited the clubs in this area she got the idea to do an article on the people that worked there.

She wants to interview the bartender pouring her beer how he feels about dispensing haram drinks to people, especially now that Ramadan approaches. She wants to ask him if he enjoys his job, if he makes more money than his neighbors who work as couriers at offices or janitors at shopping malls, and if so, does his job earn him more respect in his neighborhood? She wants to ask the locker attendant how he feels every time an older man holding a teenage prostitute asks to get his bag – does he show up at work struggling with his conscience? Does he come home every morning to his wife and kids feeling proud to have fulled his obligation to provide for them? Does he tell himself ‘these people get earthly pleasures, I get heavenly bliss’? Is he completely desensitized?

They are a physical part of the world of the rich folk who come here to flush money down the toilet, but do they really feel they are a part of it? If not, how does it feel to be so close to a world without ever belonging to it? Also, when they witness celebrities, or state or military officials, doing scandalous things at the club, what keeps them from telling the tabloids or the police? Or posting their pictures anonymously on the net? Do they sense that they have the power to ruin the famous, the rich, and the powerful? Or is the sense of powerlessness so deeply ingrained within them?

Risa isn’t sure how to get these people to open up to her. So she figures she’ll just get high first. So far this is what she has: the attendant of the women’s bathroom has been working there for six years, the guy who sweeps the club’s floor is being paid Rp 400,000 a month, and the bartender is a Muslim who will be fasting when Ramadan comes.

Patar says something to Ferdian, who nods in reply, then Patar leaves the room.

“And he’s gone,” Ferdian says, sitting down next to Risa.

“Like you never did that,” says Risa.

Ferdian has a girlfriend too: a co-worker from West Java who wears the hijab. He has mentioned her to his parents in Padang, he told them that she was very kind and loving, and that she practiced Islamic values devoutly. Their reaction: “ That’s nice, son. But we would rather you marry a Padangnese girl.”

He runs his fingers across Risa’s palms. “Your hands are sweaty. Are you all right?”

“They’re always sweaty. Do you remember the last time we were here?”

Ferdian nods.

 

IT WAS A month earlier. Risa was trying to get away from an acquaintance of Patar, a cop, who had been after her all night. “I just got back from Palembang,” he said after he found her on the club’s main floor, in front of the DJ who spun his magic on a high silver pedestal. Behind him a one-eyed octopus spurted green and purple tentacles all over the room. “Caught a crook there and brought him back here. Hard work.”

“I imagine,” said Risa.

“You look so pretty. For a second I thought you were my ex- girlfriend.”

“Smooth.”

“No, seriously. If you need anything tonight, just let me know, OK? I can take you to any club you want, get us in, and get us free drinks all night. I’m the one who got us that space, you know.” He pointed to the largest balcony on the second floor where their party gathered.

At that time Risa thought she would rather be waterboarded right now than go anywhere with this one-man embodiment of everything that disgusted her about Indonesia. She racked her brain for a way to untangle herself from him without offending him. She feared for her safety.

Luckily Ferdian came. “Here’s water for you, Ris.”

“Are you guys an item?” asked the cop.

Risa quickly nodded.

“Aw, man.” The cop tapped Ferdian’s shoulder. “Sorry, Bro, I didn’t know. I’ll leave you two alone.”

Ferdian slipped his arms around Risa’s waist and whispered,

“You don’t mind, do you?”

She turned around and their lips found each other like metal and magnet. Their tongues made love in their mouths. Risa knew she should stop, but it felt so delicious, so right.

“You knew that I had a crush on you all through high school, didn’t you? That’s why you kept borrowing my notes, you knew I would always lend them to you,” said Risa.

“Really? I had no idea.”

“I would rewrite my notes so they would be neat and complete, and you returned them with cookie crumbs between the pages.”

“Why didn’t you tell me sooner? I never thought you would be interested in someone like me.”

They kissed again. Ferdian looked at his watch. It was seven in the morning. “I have a meeting with a client at nine. Can I take you home?”

“I’m still high. Can’t you cancel?”

“Unfortunately no.”

Risa knew Ferdian was not like Patar, who often said, “When I cheat, it’s only my body, my heart remains faithful to Lani.” Risa knew Ferdian would just drive her home and then shower, change, and meet his client. She would not even try to seduce him to have sex with her. Yet there was something in his voice that made her want to go with him, away from their group, away from that cop, from that man dancing by himself, his eyes all white as his pupils had rolled back so far inside his skull. Perhaps she should call it a night, sleep, and then ask Ferdian to dinner. See if he would leave his girlfriend for her.

She stayed at the club.  The next day Ferdian called her. He’d never called her out of the blue before. They talked about how she had made sure that Adisti got home safe, about when they would all go partying again. After he hung up, Risa decided: he called because he wanted to see if there would be problems between them, there was no way he called to ask her out, just the two of them, because last night’s kisses had meant something to him. Guys don’t make girls like her their real girlfriends. On the phone she had assured him that there would be no problems, they could forget about what happened. Easy. She had done the right thing.

“Patar’s screwed,” Ferdian says. “Lani is growing more and more suspicious.”

“Really?” says Risa.

“Do you know her father’s a cop? And her mom teaches Sunday school? I can’t even imagine what will happen to Patar – and to us – if she ever finds out and tells mommy and daddy.”

Around 9 p.m. Ferdian feels his cell-phone vibrate in his pants pocket. He, Risa, and Adisti are dancing on the club’s main stage. The octopus’s green tentacles caress their faces.

Ferdian slams his phone to his ear. “What’s up, Tar?”

“The movie’s over, but Lani doesn’t want to go home. She insists on meeting you guys.”

Ferdian presses his phone even closer to his ear. “What did you tell her?”

“I have to cut the night short because I promised to meet some friends. Can’t some of you go to that ice cream place that opens late in Senayan? I can pretend that’s where I’m meeting you guys. We’ll chat for half an hour and then I’ll drive her home and you’ll go back to the club.”

“I don’t think we can do that. We can meet her at the café on the club’s first oor.”

“I am not taking her to the club!”

“Then?”

“Go back to the room. See if anyone’s willing to meet me at Senayan.”

“Goddamn it, Tar!” Ferdian hangs up and pulls Risa’s and

Adisti’s arms. “We’ve got to go back.”

Just like that, Adisti is yanked out of her reverie. She was just making out with Ikhsan on this very dance floor. Confused and disoriented, she moves along with Ferdian, who is leading her and Risa out of the club. Outside, the smoke-ridden air gives way to fresher breeze with hints of garbage stench. Men approach them offering taxis, little children swarm to them cupping their hands. Among them Adisti notices a plump woman with grey hair spun behind her head and a baby held to her chest by a fading batik scarf. The woman moves toward her and says, “Miss, please give.”

Adisti almost laughs. This woman is always here every time Adisti visits this club. Always with a baby in her scarf. The baby has never seemed to grow since the last time Adisti was here with Ikhsan. She wonders if before the woman goes out begging she picks a baby who looks sickest and most fragile.

“Miss, have pity.”

Adisti shakes her hand loose from Ferdian’s and reaches for her purse.

The children cheer behind the woman. “Come here, come here, this one’s gonna give.”

Adisti remembers the last time she was here with Ikhsan he gave this woman Rp 10,000. She looks for a Rp 10,000 bill in her wallet, but she only sees Rp 50,000 notes. She feels angry. “Sorry.”

“But Miss—”

“Sorry, I’m not Ikhsan! If I were Ikhsan, I’d give it to you.” Adisti runs away from the woman and the children.

This club, this street, this city conceals landmines of their memories together. Every time she sees the beggar with the baby, or their favorite pizza restaurant, or the kiosk where they bought their beer, the past would explode and engulf the present.

One evening Ikhsan sat by an orange bus stop near Risa’s office waiting for her. She was going to tell him something funny – something she preferred not to say via text message. His face brightened as he caught sight of her walking out of her office building. It was last November, but Adisti still sees him there every evening, drinking from his water bottle, waiting for her to tell him the funny news.

Ikhsan is a humanitarian worker and he doesn’t make much. Sometimes when they went out Adisti paid the check. Last time they went here Ikhsan bought her a pill. Later in the night he asked for his money back.

“Are you serious?”

“Yes, please. I’m out of cash. I need to buy some water.”

Still, he always gave to beggars who approached him. After he left her, Adisti started giving to beggars too. And when she does he is there with her. She can see his arm reaching out to pass the Rp 10,000 bill. He is there through her. And the world lights up all around her – as it did whenever she was with him – as if the stars suddenly drop from the sky and hover just a meter above their heads.

Adisti stares at her rhinestone bracelet. Once Ikhsan asked her if she didn’t like to wear jewelry.

“I like simplicity,” she said.

“I bet you look great with a simple necklace and perhaps earrings.”

Adisti can’t bring herself to wear earrings, but after he’d left her she bought some necklaces and bracelets, and now she wears them everywhere, as if saying to him: these are the marks you left on me. Here is who I’ve become since you. Do you think by leaving me you can remove your traces from around me? And within me? Do you really think staying away will erase you from my memory? I may no longer hold your body, but your image I’ll hold forever. When you first told me about yourself under the Hanuman statue, high on his arch at Pancoran, you sealed my romantic fate: I knew every man after you would be a stand-in for you, a partial substitute. I will look for pieces of you in them – the humanitarian worker, the one who wears rope necklaces, the one with a saw scar on his left hand, the one with a first-class law degree, the one who came from that small town in the northern part of Java, the one who opens himself up to me with such intensity since the first evening we met, the one with excellent memory and Mentos scent in his breath, who always ends his text messages with ‘kisses’… Maybe if I gather each of these pieces, from each of those men, somehow I will recover you. Or I can go on giving to beggars and relive you, relive us. I am your lover, your victim, your curse. I will take your image and paint it on my canvas, on the city’s walls, again and again, until I get it right. Maybe then, knowing you will never vanish, I can set you aside. Because if you were to vanish, Ikhsan, if I forget you, like they tell me to, then a slice of myself will vanish with you. And I will no longer be able to explain who I am.

 

“IF YOU DON’T trust me, why did you say yes when I proposed?” Patar says as he and Lani walk out of the movie theater in Senayan, South Jakarta. Long purple neon lights illuminate a staircase ahead of them. Upset, Patar dashes down the stairs, but then he realizes they may be too steep for Lani on high heels, so he climbs back up to help her.

“It’s not that I don’t trust you, I just want to meet your friends. You see them every other weekend, yet I only ever met Ferdian, Adisti, and Risa.”

“I don’t think they’re gonna show up.” They reach the parking lot where two attendants in orange uniform are busy pushing cars to make way for ones that want to get out. “Let’s go home.”

Lani jerks her arm free. “No! Show me you have nothing to hide or we’re done.”

“Are you insane?”

Lani takes her car keys from Patar’s hand and climbs into the driver’s seat.

For a moment Patar imagines taking his girlfriend to the room where thirty-five of his friends greet her with their eyes bulging out and teeth clanging. How is he to explain why the party is held at a dodgy karaoke place next to an infamous drug club? What will he say? What should he do?

He walks away from the car and calls Ferdian. “Hey. Is anyone going to meet us at that ice cream place?”

Across the city, in the karaoke room, Ferdian shakes his head. “Sorry, Tar. Not gonna happen.”

Patar curses out loud. “Then I have to take her there.”

“Are you out of your mind?”

“She insists, all right? What am I supposed to do?”

“Is that Patar?” A guy beside Ferdian shouts. “When is he coming back?”

“If he’s coming back, he’s gonna bring Lani,” says Ferdian.

“What?” Everyone in the room objects almost in unison. “No!”

“Tar, you know what, you don’t have to come back,” shouts one.

“Don’t sacrifice us for your girlfriend. Her father’s a cop, for god’s sake,” says another.

“Yeah, we’re not coming down for her.”

In the parking lot Patar is fuming. “Fuck you all. I planned the party for you!”

A guy sitting beside Ferdian grabs the phone and says, “Listen, can’t you slip her something? With luck she’ll just pass out on the way.”

“That’s actually a good idea.” Patar glances at Lani in the car.

She’s giving him the evil eye.

“OK, tell everyone we’re coming.” He opens the car door on Lani’s side. “Fine, I’ll take you to see my friends. But I’m hungry. Can we have something to eat first?” Lani hugs him, whispers thanks, and slides to the passenger’s seat.

As Patar turns on the engine, he feels a small bag of powder in his pocket.

 

A LITTLE PAST ten o’clock Ferdian receives a message from Patar that they are close. He shouts, “Listen everyone, Patar and Lani are almost here!”

A loud “Fuuuuuuccckkkkk” rumbles through the room.

Some people scurry to the bathroom to wash their faces, a guy runs out to buy more gum, a couple guys wearing shades decide to check out to the club next door, or the rooftop dance floor, a girl splashes water on the bathroom’s floor to wash away the vomit. Ferdian walks around the room telling the people dancing on the coffee table to sit down, and taps the shoulders of the couple making out too passionately. Risa collects the empty water bottles on the floor. Adisti sprays air freshener around the room, turns on the television, and switches the machine’s mode from trance to karaoke.

Several minutes later there is a knock on the door.

Everyone sits tensely, looking at the door. Adisti, Risa, and a few others stand before the door like football players anticipating a free kick.

“Ready?” says Ferdian. He signals to everyone and opens the door, revealing Patar and Lani by the doorframe.

Everyone stops breathing.

Risa and Adisti stretch out their arms. “Yeeennniii, nice to see you!”

Lani falls into Adisti’s embrace. “Nice to see you too.” She hugs Risa next. “It’s been so long.”

Behind her, Risa exchanges relieved glances with Adisti. Lani seems more trashed than either of them.

Adisti leads Lani to the sofa. She asks if she wants to sing, if she is tired. Lani puts her head on Adisti’s shoulder. Adisti signals to the guy near the switch to dim the lights.

Sometimes she feels sorry for Lani. Sometimes she thinks Lani refuses to see signs of Patar’s secret activities. Adisti feels an urge to slap her cheeks and shout, ‘Wake up. Look around you. Girls like you are bound to be fooled. You need to see the world. The man you think loves you can just drug you or leave you for no reason. You can wake up one morning and find that he is not who you thought he was, that everything is not what you thought it was. Why should I feel sorry for you when there are mothers with babies begging outside this building?’

Ten minutes later Lani passes out on the sofa.

 

ELEVEN O’CLOCK. A guy is singing a house version of a popular song, several others are dancing around him. On the sofa Adisti stares into her cell phone. A message from Ikhsan: Hi, Dis. Holy fasting month is coming. Let it be a fresh start for both of us. Please forgive me for all the pain I might have caused you.

Adisti thinks: If I ever was going to forgive him, the time is now, Allah will not forgive those who cannot forgive their fellow men. She types: I forgive you. Please forgive me too.

On the other end of the sofa, Risa mutters to Ferdian, “Fuck my project. I tried talking to the guy who sweeps the club’s floor. I totally expected him to be nice to me, but he was very rude. ‘Why you wanna know?’ he barked.”

“Why should he be nice to you?”

“Eh, I noticed he existed, unlike everyone else?”

“But you flush one million easy to mess your brain for one night, and he has to clean your shit for a whole month and not make as much.”

“You’re right. Are you not seeing your girlfriend this weekend?”

“She’s in Bandung with her parents.” Then: “Talk to the cleaning ladies before you leave. Didn’t you say they like to eat breakfast in the supply closet in the women’s bathroom?”

“Yeah. Around seven usually. Girls are puking their guts out in the sinks and those women just sit there eating nasi uduk.”

“Tell them you’re hungry, but don’t want to order food from the club because it’s too expensive. Ask them to buy you nasi uduk too, give them a large enough bill, tell them to keep the change. Once you have your nasi, you’ll have to hide with them in the supply closet, and you can talk to them.”

“That’s a great idea, Ferdi. Thanks.”

“Sure.” He rests his head on her shoulder. Once, after they kissed a month earlier, Ferdian wondered what it would be like to date Risa. But he could imagine what Risa would say if he asked her out. He knew she knew what she had to do.

Out there, there are obligations to meet, family expectations to fulfill. Out there we live in the hours, rowing our boat on a river of cause and effect that flows mercilessly onward, but in rooms like this we can do what we like with the hours, spray the past into the present, encase the present in a bubble, shove the future out the window and draw the curtains. In rooms like this Ferdian and Risa can hold each other’s hands.

 

PATAR COMES OUT of the bathroom and sits on the sofa next to Lani. His face is wet. He kisses her hair. Patar doesn’t smoke, so when the smell of nicotine or clove suffocates him, he likes to seek refuge in Lani’s hair. It smells like a field of strawberries. He whispers, “Baby, we have to go home. It’s almost midnight. Your parents will be worried.”

Lani circles her arms around his shoulders without opening her eyes.

“It’s OK. Just sleep. I’ll wake you up when we’re close.” He slowly lifts her up in his arms like a bride. “Say bye to Adisti, Ferdian, and Risa.”

Still with her eyes closed Lani waves her hand. Adisti, Risa, and Ferdian get up and wave back.

Everyone holds their breath as Patar heads for the door. When it finally closes behind him, the room reanimates. People shout out their joy, they resume dancing, necking, lighting up cigarettes. Adisti, Risa, and Ferdian exhale in relief.

“Well done,” Ferdian says.

“Up?” says Risa.

They cheer with excitement. Ferdian reaches into his pocket and presents three white pills on his palm. Each swallows one and grabs a bottle of water. Holding each other’s hands, the three walk out of the room and take the stairs to the rooftop dance floor. They can see flashes of blue from up ahead, the music booms louder and louder, they answer its call faster and faster, with each step up and up, higher and higher.

***

(Get your copy of HEAT FLESH TRASH here.)

(Versi bahasa Indonesia: “Puncak“)

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