Welcome to the sixth installment of A World with a Thousand Doors—a multi-part showcase of hitherto untranslated contemporary Indonesian writing. Curated by Norman Erikson Pasaribu and Tiffany Tsao, this series is a joint initiative between Asymptote and the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival. This week, Ratih Kumala, author of Cigarette Girl, spins a story in two voices—one belonging to a grieving widow and the other to her late husband’s grieving mistress. New to this series? Then do read installments one, two, three, four, and five. Stay tuned for more.
The first thought that entered my head when my husband gave up what remained of his ghost was how that woman might actually have felt more grief than me, his wife. At that moment, the clock hands shifted. It was three in the morning. My daughter sobbed, crying out for her Papa, her heartrending shrieks echoing down the hospital corridor. I wept quietly, while my son went very mute and cold.
I don’t know where she got the news, but suddenly here she is, standing outside the hospital room. Her face is darkened with grief. She attempts to enter, to approach my husband’s body, but I don’t let her in.
“Please. Have some respect for our family as we mourn,” I hiss. She stops short and looks at me for a while. Then she turns and walks away, probably crying as she goes.
We start making all the necessary arrangements for the cremation. We book the funeral home. Condolatory flowers sent by my husband’s colleagues start to arrive. Today his body will be washed and dressed before it is laid to rest. Seventeen years. Seventeen years! That’s how much time that woman has stolen from our thirty-eight years of marriage.
I mutter obscenities as I pick out the best jacket for my husband to wear. I’ve always known about it—how fond he was of sampling various women, not unlike his fondness for sampling dishes at different restaurants. (Our family never had a favorite place to eat; dinner was always in a different location whenever we ate out.) Oh I knew. And secretly I didn’t mind, as long as the women remained dishes and didn’t turn into dogs. If any of them took on the status of “dog,” it would mean she required upkeep. Sometimes I did get mad if I found out that he’d been out “snacking,” as they say, but really, deep down, I didn’t mind as long as he didn’t bring any snacks home. I had my own reasons for this.
He would usually use out-of-town business trips as an excuse, or working overtime into the early morning. And upon reaching this room, without even taking off his dress shirt, he’d fall asleep hugging his bolster, curled up like a prawn. Nevertheless he was still mine. He would always come home to me. At least until that whore, that stray, came into our lives: a singer at a jazz café, in her mid-twenties, complexion on the dark side, and slimmer than me (of course). I rummage through the closet searching for a tie to complete my husband’s outfit. There are a lot of them, but I still haven’t found it: the one I bought for him on a trip to Singapore.
My husband played the saxophone ever since he was a kid. There was a time when he wanted to become a musician, but his parents wouldn’t let him. So he laid the dream to rest—kept playing, but only as a hobby. Now I contemplate the saxophone case, bereft of its owner. I open it and the brass still gleams. My husband last cleaned it a few days before he was hospitalized. Now here it is, abandoned, lying mute in a box.
Jazz was the music of my husband’s soul. I’m a music lover myself, but no matter how hard I tried to appreciate it when he was alive, I never could. I prefer mellow pop—the music of the masses, non-exclusive, the kind that everybody can enjoy.
My attention turns once again to the closet, my eyes still searching for that tie. The woman probably started out as a dish, but she was the gourmet variety and my husband couldn’t help but get hooked. After a while, the dish must have transformed into a pet dog. For some reason, I start ransacking the closet, even the part where my clothes are kept, until the entire contents are strewn all over our bedroom floor.
My bed felt warm, as if more than one person were sleeping in it that night—the night that Bim passed away. And I’ve been lying here since nine o’clock, trying to will my eyes to shut, but they just won’t. One week ago Bim was hospitalized and I wasn’t allowed to see him (of course). Who was I, after all? An outsider and a home-wrecker. Sure, my love for him was as high as the sky and as deep as the ocean, but that made no difference. Especially given my status.
Bim came into my life seventeen years ago, when I was still performing nights at a jazz café. He showed up with a group of friends, and one of them he introduced as his wife. From all appearances, she wasn’t too fond of jazz. Yet I could see Bim really savored the songs we served up. Then, when the band was taking a break and the stage was empty, Bim suddenly stepped forward. With confidence, he took out his saxophone and asked permission to play. On the air there drifted the familiar strains of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” Just a few moments ago, I’d wanted to rest my voice, but now I felt drawn to sing, accompanied by Bim’s sax. I grabbed my microphone. Upon seeing us together, everyone in the café cheered.
Bim became a regular at the jazz café. At first, he’d always come with his friends (and sometimes his wife). Over time, fewer friends joined him, until finally he would usually come alone. On his seventh solo visit, he stayed until two in the morning, when the café closed. He offered me a lift home. At that point I knew beyond a doubt that it was me he kept coming to see. We didn’t go home right away—he asked if I wanted to grab a late-night bite to eat. At that hour, the only restaurant still open and pleasant enough for a chat was a place in a fancy hotel. We talked about music. That was how I came to know that he was a Louis Armstrong fan. How similar our tastes were! That’s what sparked it. The night ended with us checking in.
“But your wife. She won’t wonder where you are?”
“She knows I often work late.”
We checked out at five a.m. He took me back to the boarding house where I was staying at the time. I continued my slumbers in blissful contentment. Great sex, I thought. He won’t show up again, now that he’s gotten what he wanted. I never thought that night would be the beginning of a relationship lasting seventeen years. Until God took him away.
I got used to sleeping in a cold bed. He’d go home to his wife and only come to my place when he was supposedly out of town on business. Or he’d stop by at lunchtime. Not just for post-lunch sex; it was more than that. He’d even come over just to eat my cooking. Such was our life—tiptoeing around. But that night, the night God took him, my bed felt warm. I could smell his scent everywhere. On the pillows, the blanket, the bolster. He always looked like a millipede when he slept, curled up, hugging that bolster to his chest. I could even taste the lingering aroma of our lovemaking in the air. I stared at his cologne on my dressing table and the pair of his shorts hanging on the back of the door—they were just a few of the things that he would keep at my place.
Even though I hadn’t visited him, I knew which hospital he was in. I had to see him, I said to myself. I just had to.
I never would have guessed that my husband would die before me. Kidney failure had long threatened my life, holding me at knifepoint like a thug on a street corner. At any moment I expected it to slice open my throat and pry out my soul. I spent years undergoing dialysis, and years searching for a kidney donor. Each of my two children offered me one of theirs, but I refused. Better to be on dialysis my whole life than potentially cut their own lives short. And when I finally managed to find a kidney in India, it was my husband who suddenly wound up in a coma instead. Death really does get a kick out of toying around with our lives. Anyhow, my condition was why I secretly didn’t mind my husband’s “snacking” ways.
The funeral home is starting to fill up. I never succeeded in finding that tie. He looks so handsome in his Armani suit. I sigh inwardly, thinking how I should have asked that he wear a turtleneck too. It would have looked great paired with that jacket, and given him a younger look. What was the point of choosing a collared shirt for him since the tie I wanted was nowhere to be found?
And as for that woman, that stray, that whore—I knew full well my husband always went over to her place whenever I spent a long time in the hospital or had to go for medical treatments abroad. The maid was the one who’d report him. “The whole time you’ve been gone, he hasn’t been home,” she’d say. The children were more mindful of my feelings. They didn’t like to bring things like this up—things that would only make me sad.
Yet I knew that my husband still loved me. Not in a romantic way, not anymore. But he did love me nonetheless, and when I fell sick for a long time, he was clearly depressed. Sometimes he’d bring me my favorite foods. I couldn’t eat them—doctor’s orders. But in any case, his thoughtfulness was enough to make me happy. So when the maid would make her reports, and even though I’d get mad (though, to be honest, I lacked the strength to get genuinely angry), deep down I was grateful that someone else was seeing to him, tending to his needs. All the better if it was that woman, since she could engage him in intelligent conversation about jazz, which I never understood. Was she really nothing but a gold digger? It couldn’t be, I thought. If so, how could their relationship have lasted for so long?
Only the day after my husband died could I comprehend my tears—that they flowed not for a husband, but the father of my newly orphaned children (though they were already full-fledged adults). The fact was, I didn’t feel that kind of grief, because even though he was mine, he’d never been mine to hold tight. Just look at the long list of his other women! Perhaps I wasn’t a very good wife. If I was, then he’d never have started snacking around, much less kept a pet dog on the sly.
I confronted her once—requested that she leave our family alone. And for a little while, my husband actually did spend more time around the house. He’d come straight home after work, but it didn’t last very long. I couldn’t see what was going on with my own two eyes, but I knew they were growing closer. And then I found out he’d secretly bought her a house and car. I went to the jazz café to find her, itching to give her a piece of my mind, but they told me that she wasn’t working there anymore.
I wasn’t able to see my beloved Bim that night—the night God called him away. I came home with an empty heart and cried to myself in my empty bed, which had turned cold. I hugged Bim’s bolster, hoping to find some trace of his scent. Oh, Bim, if you only knew how much I miss you—more than that wife of yours. You, who were mine and yet never really mine to hold tight. Damn you! Thanks to you, I’m too old to get married anymore. And thanks to you, I made an effort not to get pregnant. I didn’t want to cause you any problems since that’s what you called me getting pregnant—a problem. Thanks to you, now I’m all alone. Damn you, Bim! Curse you to hell!
There were times when I demanded that Bim choose between me and his wife. He’d always say he wouldn’t divorce her—it was against his religion. You could only wed once, and once you were married, it was for life. And I didn’t want to be wife number two, though my religious beliefs permitted polygamy.
“Just annul the marriage,” I protested.
“It’s not an easy process,” he reasoned. “It takes years.”
So let it take years. I’ll wait for you.
And yet, Bim never tried to have it annulled. Religion wasn’t really the reason, if you ask me. He still loved her. Yes, he did—he loved her. It became plain when his wife’s health took a turn for the worse. Bim said his wife had to go for dialysis twice a week. I couldn’t help but indulge in wishful thinking: a little while longer and we’d be husband and wife. A little while longer and it’d be game over for her. But I was wrong.
Even though Bim would stay at my place when she had to get medical treatments overseas, he still wouldn’t stop talking about her: the memories they shared, what it was like when they first got married, and how they’d had to start together from scratch (experiences I knew nothing about)—and how scared he was that she was dying. I was jealous. Green with envy. And even more so when talking about jazz failed to interest him anymore. Then one day, when Bim had been staying at my place for two weeks while his wife was undergoing treatment, and I was just beginning to feel that he was mine through and through, that he’d never have to go back to that other house again, he received a phone call. He was positively ecstatic. He told me excitedly, “They’ve found a kidney! They’ve found one!” In his joy, he kissed me on the cheek.
Inwardly I swore, furious with God. How could He play around with me like this? My hopes and dreams, my contentment at having Bim in the house, all uprooted and dashed to the ground. I came back to my senses: Bim had never been mine, and probably never would be.
Bim’s obituary came out in this morning’s paper, telling me where his body’s been laid out. He’s still my beloved, even though he’s no longer alive. And although nothing has the power to change the situation, much less my status, I can’t help but still love him—as high as the sky and as deep as the ocean. I’ll drive slowly, to give me time to tank up on courage on the way. I have to see Bim—to pay my final respects before all there’s left of him is ash.
She’s shown up again, that stray. She must have seen the obituary in the newspaper. That was the risk of it: that she might find out. People watch her as she enters. Some are whispering. They obviously know who she is—and what. She approaches me, the mangy mutt. Doesn’t she realize? I’ll pounce on her like a tiger and rip her to shreds.
“Please, take this. It’s Bim’s favorite tie. I thought he’d like to wear it.”
Speechless, I stare at the neatly folded bundle. I’ve spent the last two days searching for this tie. It never occurred to me that my husband would keep it at her place. Some of his other things must be there—personal possessions of his that suddenly went missing. Now I understand. To my husband, this woman’s home was his home too. Or maybe I’ve always known, but tried to deny it. I accept the offered tie.
She speaks. “May I—”
“Please, do,” I reply.
And for some reason, I feel at peace. Even as I watch her kiss my husband—my husband, who looks even handsomer now that he’s wearing that tie.
Ratih Kumala is a fiction and screenplay writer. Her first novel, Tabula Rasa, was awarded a Jakarta Arts Council Prize in 2004. Her other works of fiction include the short story collections Larutan Senja (The Potion of Twilight) and Bastian Dan Jamur Ajaib, the novels Kronik Betawi and Gadis Kretek (Cigarette Girl), and most recently the novella Wesel Pos. She writes for television, advertisements, digital media, and film. Her screenplay for the TV drama miniseries Single and Hopefully Happy was awarded the 2015 Indonesian Broadcasting Commission Prize for Drama.