The Jakarta Post
As he was eyeing the fine ridges and canyons of the paint, a woman — the woman — stepped into the room. (JP/Budhi Button)
He stood in the room of the art museum — the first of its kind in the city — and gazed at the paintings he’d spent his entire life writing about. The names of each painter were hastily scribbled onto a piece of paper beside each canvas, most likely by an underpaid intern or, worse, an unpaid volunteer. The text was illegible.
In person, the paintings were unassuming — boring, even. He was surprised by his dismay, and wondered how his professors would react if they knew he was entertaining such blasphemous thoughts. He had studied them for so long that they had ballooned in his imagination — he’d come to believe that they were giants, and revered their enormous and terrifying power. For years, those paintings had filled the crevices of his thoughts until there was no space left for daydreaming about good food, or snacks, or late-night trips to bars. There was no space left for books, either. He had not read a book in eight years.
The man glanced around the room. The guard was missing; he was alone in the hall. He leaned into the canvas and sniffed the painting. His nose brushed against the canvas, but it came away dry.
As he was eyeing the fine ridges and canyons of the paint, a woman — the woman — stepped into the room. She walked with purpose, heels clicking on the pristine, faux-wooden floor of the museum. Today, like every other day he had seen her, and touched her, and known her, she was beautiful.
He pretended not to see her. The sun offered him little consolation, and the wool coat he’d worn to impress no one in particular suddenly felt dry and scratchy. The air conditioner was broken, and so the fierce and full force of the monsoon summer forced him to reconsider all of the choices he’d made that led him to that exact point, standing in the near-empty room of an unpopular modern museum, waiting for something terrible to arrive.
People spoke of paintings and the way they consumed the white silence of a room as if they were earthquakes, capable of shifting the ground beneath a person and changing everything they believed about the world. Years of theoretical analysis about paintings had led him to believe, sincerely and without question, in their purity. But as he stood before the painting that he’d written his dissertation on, he felt nothing. Instead, he thought back to the street cart seller he’d bought the fried cassava from earlier that day.
“What do you do, boy?”
“I study art, uncle. Fine art.”
A few hours ago, he’d felt insulted. But now that he was standing in front of the paintings that he had paid too much money to see, he understood why no one appreciated his major or his dissertation, even though it had won fine awards abroad. Nothing he did intersected with the real world. He could not eat the dissertation. He could not eat the medals from the awards, which were raking dust alongside all of the other trinkets he stored inside his sister’s half-broken cabinet. Unlike the woman standing across the room, he had not done anything useful.
“Your world is not mine,” she’d said once.
It was the morning after a heady night of touching and of unpeeling layers of clothing as if they were flimsy paper gift wraps. They had made love until 11 in the morning and checked out from the hotel 30 minutes after. Though they’d spent the night in one of the lounges of the finest hotels in the city, the luxury had not transformed their relationship. There was no new glamour or excitement — the night had simply served as a temporary end to their unreasonable desire.
“I cannot join you there. I could never be happy.”
“Do you want to go get some breakfast?”
“I’ll eat at home, but thank you.”
“Well, all right then. I’ll call you.”
“You don’t have to.”
His essays about paintings had also won awards internationally.
“So beautiful,” critics said. “The most wonderful essay I’ve ever read, about the most wonderful painting I’ve had the privilege of seeing.”
He had been proud of seeing that particular essay in print, and even though no one he knew in real life recognized his work, he appreciated the accolades and listed them all on his personal website.
“Moving prose,” one had written.
“If you are to read something today, then let this be it.”
“The next great voice of our generation.”
One night, after visiting the local fountain, they sat on plastic stools and ordered gulai tikungan.
“Why do you spend time with me if you don’t like my work?”
“I enjoy my time with you.”
“But my work is a part of me.”
“And that’s why I can never give you the love you need. I don’t understand your work. It confuses me. And because of that, I will never know you.”
“But can’t you even try?”
A rat ran past their feet and skittered into the gutter.
“That’s the problem. I already have.”
They’d met for the first time between mango trees. Not a single speck of orange was visible on the branches, but he imagined that one day, they would return to pluck the fruit. They would return on some distant sunny day to bite into a mango, the juice dribbling down onto their chins and they’d wipe the residue with a smile off each other’s faces.
She had been wearing a white dress that had looked more like a cooking apron. Her hair looked like a birds’ nest on top of her head, and he found it endearing.
After a week of living together he finally realized that she was not intentionally, poetically messy, but she simply never brushed her hair. He rummaged inside her backpack when she wasn’t looking — she had no purse for him to sneak through — and saw tiny bits of paper, and beautiful notes and pictures, but no hairbrush. Not even a pocket comb.
He smelled like cigarette smoke and sweat-soaked wool. When he first sat beside her that day under the trees, the breeze was soft and gentle, and he was sure that she, like all the women in his dreams, smelled of nectar and fragrance. The grass forgave their feet and somewhere in the air was hope that they could be both beautiful and everlasting, and that their affair could one day bloom into something called love.
It wasn’t until they first slept together that he realized how strongly she smelled of armpit sweat and cheap Miniso perfume.
“You want me to be someone I cannot be,” she said.
They’d spent the afternoon in his room, which was cluttered with broken keyboards, stacks of printed facsimiles of paintings and wrinkled delivery pamphlets that were stained from old take-out cartons.
“I adore you. I adore everything about you. I have never asked you to change.”
He was never sure where she got her fanciful ideas from or why she was so convinced that he wanted her to become someone else. He simply wanted to be appreciated. Everyone else said that he was worthy and handsome and loyal — why couldn’t she see it and love him as well?
“I love you,” he continued.
She looked away. Her dark curls drooped in front of her face and he forced himself to remain still. He wanted to reach over to her and cradle her arms in his hands and push the strands of hair away from her eyes and cheeks.
She was not looking at him. She was looking at the window, where the darkness was brooding in silence.
Neither of them spoke.
He pushed one of his broken keyboards away with a socked foot and laid back down on the mattress, which sat directly on the floorboards. She sighed and leaned into him, and they touched each other with heartbreaking fervor. As she pressed a bite into his lips, he wished that her heart could be as loyal and passionate as her body.
By the time the balcony filled with morning light, she was gone. She’d left after their coupling and knew to slink out while he lay catatonic in his stupor so that he could not beg her to stay, for just another hour or two.
She left no trace of herself except for the faint smell of the curry she’d made the afternoon before coming to his apartment and her signature odd scent. As always, she cleaned up impeccably. There was no forgotten notebook or beloved pen that he could use as his excuse to contact her again.
“I love you,” she’d said once.
She was not interested in his newest essay, which had been published online in one of the finest publications on the planet. Instead, she was drawing the shop-house across the street.
He thought that, as an interior designer, she would appreciate the way he studied art and parsed each painter’s thoughts, delved so deeply into their minds that his fans swore he was a reincarnated master.
But she never aspired to anything and had never even heard of the journal.
“Why did you study interior design?” he asked in response.
“I want to fill my house with beautiful things,” she said.
“Will I be a part of the house?”
She did know how to humor him. But she did this sparingly and only when she wanted something from him.
That day, it was an impromptu trip to the used furniture store. The sofas were ugly and old, and their threads were coming apart. He couldn’t understand why she enjoyed that store so much. But because she was willing to lie to him for the sake of their excursion, he acquiesced, and they got in the car.
His fingers were trembling as he pulled the small box out of his coat pocket. She knew the point he was trying to make before his knee hit the ground and turned away.
“We’re already married,” she said. “This is our marriage.”
“I want to go to the civil clerk and get it registered.”
“We don’t need to do that. We can live like this forever.”
“But I love you.”
“And I love you. Can you hear the morning prayers? They’re one of the most beautiful things about this country.”
“Why are you changing the topic?”
“Let’s just stay this way for the rest of the morning. Let’s stay in love like this forever and watch time float before us. This is already the best marriage I have ever known.”
He had hoped the ring would change her mind, but she remained petulant. She watched the children play on the jungle gym in the garden across the street. They were separated by the chain link fence, worn and rusty after years of guarding the station.
It was at that moment that she realized she would never have children with him. They would never walk their baby to the playground together. Her rejection was a gift — the only way to protect him from his dangerous, hapless obsession.
“We were made for each other,” he insisted. “You said eternity could be ours forever. I want that to be real.”
She looked over her shoulder at the train that was slowly chugging into the station, and the relief was clearly visible, a matted sheen on her dry cheeks.
“I can never be one of your paintings,” she said. “I was not made for you.”
Theodora Sarah Abigail is a content strategist and poet who lives in Jakarta. She is the author of In the Hands of a Mischievous God (KPG, 2017).
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