I Need to Go to India
4. I Need to Go to India (2019)
edited by Nigel Barley
At that dinner I met the wife of an ambassador from one of the Scandinavian countries. She was of Chinese descent but lived in England and had graduated from some Ivy League college. Her name was Jolene. Not an Indonesian. Her small body gleamed with an intelligence that made her, in a way, striking. I shamelessly admitted to myself that I had trouble following her conversation because her English was too fast. However, I'm the kind of person who nods and pays attention to what people say out of respect regardless of my cluelessness. This attitude may have become ingrained in me as I spent several years as a waiter in various restaurants. If only I could simply be my true self, I wouldjust ignore people and what they’re saying. But that would hurt them, and I am not a big fan of hurting someone.
Speaking of which, we talked about poetry that night, something I wasn't very interested in because I just don’t get it. She showed me a poem she had written and, instead of trying to get the meaning of it, I asked if she had written the poem for someone. People become more excited if we want to know the motivation behind their work. I hoped she didn't realize that I was really just fucking dodging the obligation to give my opinion. She bought it though. She then told me about this guy that she had met and liked, how he turned out to be gay and all. That killed me. I like that kind of story.
Then suddenly she asked if I had a lover.
"I'm dating someone, their name is Single," I replied casually despite being surprised. She laughed. She seemed to understand that I have a rather broad sense of humour, but she appreciated it.
"No lah. My face and what’s in my pockets won't get me any lovers," I went on as her eyes narrowed.
"No, you're not like that." She rejected the idea outright and perhaps began to sense that my humour was just an attempt to hide my true self. She glared and pursed her lips. "Come on, you're a writer, you must have another reason?”
“You mean like I spent too much time in the Sahara, messing about with camels so that I eventually forgot how human relationships actually work?”
“No I didn’t.”
She laughed. “I told you that I read your book and it's very good? Very provocative without trying to be provocative."
"Very much obliged," I answered sincerely but she was still staring at me.
I turned away to the people who were chatting while chewing their food or holding glasses of alcohol in their hands. I saw Eliot. He was at the end of the room by the wall and he was smiling. I wanted to ask whether he had already eaten anything. I didn’t want him to get hungry. This dinner party tonight and this room were pretty warm unlike my usual haunts in the wartegs.
"There may be two reasons: Maybe it’s because I feel too much hatred for myself, or maybe I love myself to the extent that I can’t love anything else. Very likely the former.”
Jolene smiled, she wanted to hear an answer like that. Big time philosophical stuff.
"I’d like to introduce my friend to you. He's a musician." She looked very pleased with herself as she said that.
"He? It’s a man?"
I shook my head. I didn't.
“Here, have a look of his picture." A man smiled at me from her phone.
The reason I didn't mind was because of the absurdity of what was happening and because Jolene was very likely a nice person. I fall easily for nice people. Maybe I liked Jolene and wanted to see her again even though she was someone else's wife.
"Can I have your phone number, then?" she pleaded. I nodded. She handed me an expensive fountain pen, that gave me lots of trouble as I wrote my number in the small fancy book she was also carrying.
Eliot then came over with a very polite grin on his face and asked. “Would you like to leave? I got us a lift.”
I looked at Jolene and all the people in the room and gave Eliot a brief nod. We hitched a ride with one of the richest guests and the driver drove us to a budget hotel as it was too late to go home and that’s all we could afford. A bloody budget hotel room.
Two days later, my publisher called me saying that Jolene had bought 30 copies of my novel and wanted me to sign them. So that same day I left for Jakarta to fulfill that noble request.
“Hey, thanks for buying up to a hundred copies.” I texted her.
“No problem. I didn’t want to bother you with a small purchase,” she replied quickly.
“I’m heading for Jakarta now, on the bus,” I told her.
“Perfect, that guy and I will meet you somewhere,” she said as if we had arranged to meet.
“Cool,” I replied.
Two hours after that, after scribbling on the first pages of 24 ordered novels with my jerky handwriting at the publisher’s, I went to the café where Jolene had asked me to meet her. I came by ojek, my back was wet with sweat and my shirt was actually sticking to my skin. Jakarta is like that, when it’s not flooded and ravaged by mosquitos, it’s inevitably hot as hell. If you have an oily face, it’s a really bad location for you. Trust me.
Jolene wasn’t there yet, but there was a man waiting. That must be the person I supposed to be meeting. One Jolene arranged for me. He came and shook my hand in a jittery way. He was shorter than me. From his unbuttoned casual jacket, his belly stuck out like the sun going down. He seemed like an important guy. He had the aura of a man who thinks he is someone. We sat down and I ordered a glass of iced black coffee with an air of confidence and, he then told me about his future plans. I thought it was quite strange, supposing we were supposed to tell each other about ourselves, that he just talked about other things. But maybe that was the way that he established that we had things in common and the basis for a future relationship. A carefully laid plan. He told me that he was composing an important musical work. He might have been thinking that if we talked about books, it would exert a fatal attraction. I listened to him sympathetically. Obviously I was putting it on.
When Jolene arrived ten minutes later, I felt relieved. I can’t be alone for a long time with a stranger unless I really like them. It’s something that irritates me. It really is. It’s also very hard for me to focus when I am not really interested, that’s pretty basic but I have to be polite anyway. With Jolene there, I could just let them do the talking while I chimed in every now and then.
Nothing was really wrong with that guy. Jolene and him were music enthusiasts. They were the kind of people who got their degrees abroad and were used to making friends with high-class musicians in penguin-like tuxedos. I don’t really understand classical music and see people involved in it as a bit odd. They have this air of sticking their noses up in the air and walking without making the slightest sound as if being noisy were a sin.
After a couple hours of light gossip about Jakarta’s music scene, I told them that I had to leave for another place. I suggested they should go on for the evening without me. However, Jolene decided to leave after I’d paid for my own coffee. She rushed off with her very own chauffer who was waiting for her in the parking lot. Not long after that she sent me a text message, saying that she had a marvelous time spending it with me and saw the sort of clarity in my gaze that proved I wasn’t just trying to be nice. But that clarity was perhaps only from the caffeine. I still blushed.
The guy that I had been fixed up with asked my permission to smoke as he stood next to me while I was waiting for my ojek ride to turn up. I had an appointment at the Goethe Institute.
“Why do you have to leave so soon? I want to spend more time with you. Talking,” he quickly added. His boldness surprised me, even though I knew it had to come.
“Yes, a pleasure to meet you and nice to talk to you too. I learned a lot. Music, very enriching,” I said. Hopefully I didn’t sound too full of bullshit. But the point was that if you say something in a serious manner and manage not to smile at all, people will buy it even if you’re lying. Though I have the feel that when you say ‘a pleasure to meet you’ it is possibly not always genuine.
“I’m happy to know you,” he responded, sounding very honest and as if he hoped that his feelings would come across.
“Yes, same here. Let’s talk again sometime,” I replied, sweet and phony, just to make him happy.
“Where do you live?” he asked.
“Outside of Jakarta. Karawaci, to be precise.”
“Oh,” he said. “That’s a good area.”
I gave a little snort. I bet he lived in some very elite area and expected me to ask about it.
“When are you coming back here?” he asked again.
“I am not sure. Only if someone invites me or I have some other reason to come here. I belong to wherever the invitation is.”
“Why don’t you come more often?”
“It’s too far from where I am, and I couldn’t stand the traffic. I don’t like the choking fumes in my throat,” I said.
“You don’t mind me smoking like this? Does it bother you?” he asked again very concerned.
“No, no, don’t worry. I smoke too,” I answered. But smoking for me is a very personal thing, so I rarely do it in front of people.
“Let’s go to the Cikini area next time? There are cute cafes to hang out in.”
I wanted to get the hell out of there as soon as I heard him putting ‘cute’ and ‘hang out’ in same sentence.
“Oh, I’m not crazy about those places,” I said.
“What do you mean? Those places are just the same. Like this one,” he pointed. “Not too cute.”
I looked back to the café and saw that it wasn’t that packed out. But the baristas and waiters seemed very polite and the customers were too clean. I felt like I was the dirtiest person there. It was the kind of café where people do code-switching when talking or just babble in English all the time.
This guy thought I didn’t like crowded places, ones swarming with youngsters taking selfies and gossiping. Maybe he thought that, because I was a writer I needed some mysterious arty farty space with a bit of local colour. Not something ‘cute’ like he described.
“I don’t like this one either,” I said still looking at it.
“Too fancy,” I replied with a smirk. I thought these cafes were only right if you had a meeting where you were talking about tax or the collapse of your business, anything but a place to just waste time and have coffee for the sake of it.
He was taken aback by my answer which sounded very idealistic and anti-capitalist. He would never have thought my real reason was that I was poor and those coffees were too expensive. And how could I drink that 50-thousand-rupiah coffee when it could buy me three meals?
“If that’s how it is, we can hang out at some other place, one of the regular ones. You choose. How about next week?” he changed direction so fast just to please me that that made me want to puke even more.
“Oh, I need to go to India,” I answered flatly.
“India! I love India. How vibrant—“
He had to stop there. He had no more chance because my ojek arrived. I smiled though I could see disappointment in his eyes. He then got in the huge car he belonged in while my ojek drove off.
I didn’t mind being fixed up with someone. But I didn’t like having my coffee here. This place and that person made me a bit depressed. Everything about the weather made me feel depressed, also Jolene and her chauffer.
So, on the ojek I thought about that night in the hotel. Eliot and his big toe peeking through the hole of his black sock. Things like that keep you going. Going with life, I mean. Eliot.
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