Aunt Emma would tell me the story of the day she lost her appetite again and again.
It was the love story of her life. And although it ended sadly, it remained a perfect fragment of time in its own right. I have always loved this story because it helps me remember that when my heart splintered and everything turned ugly nothing could change the light filled years I spent with you. They exist untouchable as long as I have a heart and a mind. No pain or anguish thereafter will transform them.
That is what I have decided. That is what aunt Emma’s story taught me.
Hot air whipping over young skin as we drive on your motorbike through the heat, the glaze of light on all the surfaces, dusty villages, seaside whirling past, the flank of a volcano on our right.
I know of the jungle behind its peak, the black volcanic sand glittering on the shore below. I hold on to your waist, your hair thrashing against my teeth as saliva flees from my parted, laughing lips. I kiss the dark skin of your ear; fluttering happiness fills my guts, my lungs, my nostrils.
I am old enough to know that this will pass. The pure happiness and every sadness that will come, every pain. I feel the delicious pain in the beauty when I lie next to you that night. Skin glistening, sweaty in yellow lamplight. A ventilator rumbles above us, mixing the sticky night air. The sound of ocean washes against my ear.
Nostalgia weaves its way through all these moments of perfection.
The moment we realise we are utterly happy, the happiness is instantly tinged with sadness. My fingertips hover over you. I feel your warmth. I hardly dare to place them on you as not to disturb your slumber. You open your eyes and my breath halters through the sight of them.
I think you are so beautiful.
You smile and then you silently cry. It startles me but then you explain that you too feel the beauty of this moment and its preciousness through its decay with every second. I am astonished because I never show, nor speak of feelings like this. I would feel stupid. As if I were stealing lines from a movie.
Once, in an argument with a boyfriend, I smashed a wineglass on the pavement in front of our house. I wanted to make a point. We both laughed and I decided passion and drama didn’t suit me, neither did romance and poetic.
You made me reconsider. Movies steal from you and me. They try to provoke with many words and music, light and angle the feeling that thickens the air around us, fills the room and our entire existence. I speak to you softly, hesitant at first and then I learn to speak loudly and happily of my great love. I don’t hesitate any longer to tell you.
I love you.
The day I lost my appetite.
I loved the bittersweet taste of aunt Emma’s words, the silence in between sentences. The day I lost my appetite, she would usually begin. I have seen it. She will eat because it is a necessity, but she will talk and smoke and swallow the food with mouthfuls of wine, not caring for its texture and taste.
The story really began when aunt Emma visited my mother in Indonesia many years ago. She fell in love with a tall Indonesian man with soft skin and wavy hair. They bought a gallery together and lived together in a small house. She taught English at the local village school and he would paint and sit in the café next to the gallery.
The school children were scared of her because she was white and tall and it was within the Javanese tradition to tell a child if it misbehaved: watch out, or the white women will come and get you.
He would taunt her for this, wrap his long arms around her and gently press his lips against her ear whispering, my beautiful white woman. Goosebumps and smiles in Indonesian sunlight, that is what I saw when she spoke.
One year passed and then another. Aunt Emma was happy in these years. She loved the simple village life, the language, the wild, thrashing ocean and wide, black beaches. And most of all she loved Asmuni, the tall beautiful artist. He was soft and calm and tender with her. Everything was always okay as long as he was near. Life felt simple and easy, fresh and light.
And then the day on which she lost her appetite arrived.
Aunt Emma overheard a conversation of two village men. The context confused her and she didn’t understand. She stopped them and asked what they meant. Who is married, who is having another child? Asmuni, they hesitatingly said.
She walked home, swaying slightly, all senses empty, nothing to feel or think. She sat for a while at the kitchen table, staring at the straw mats on the floor, the gap between ceiling and wall. She had heard this before. She had always believed they meant to say another name, a mistake, a blunder of words.
It was impossible. He lived with her. They shared a bed every night apart from his business trips when he travelled the country visiting galleries, exhibiting and inviting artists. These were occasional, every few weeks. A heavy feeling crawled into her limbs. A nausea filled her intestines. She showered to clear her head and then set about preparing dinner.
When he came home from the gallery he would explain, she thought. It will all be okay. When he comes home everything will be okay.
Asmuni did not come home that night, or the next.
The first days she just waited, then time sped up, the truth dug into her flesh, days past swiftly; she asked for him in the houses of friends, searched in the eateries where he could normally be found, in the gallery and the café next door.
His friends stayed silent to her questions, to her screams, to her insults. They shook their heads and patiently said, sorry we cannot help. The frantic first week of impulse and action turned into helplessness. The following weeks became a vast stretch of days and painful trickle of hours, minutes of limp waiting in the café, in the gallery, at home and back at the cafe.
In the dark she would see him entering the yard, she would sit up and realise it was a brush of wind, a stray cat, a dream. She lay awake, her thoughts running, her head pounding with pain, eyes swollen, throat dry. She yearned for his arms and his heartbeat, his breath and warmth.
Occasionally, fevers grabbed her body. She lay shivering in her sweat on the hard mattress. The mornings were too bright so she covered her eyes with a cloth, her lips chipped from the fevers. She drifted in and out of sleep waiting for his return. Months passed in which she just waited.
Thin, with dark shadows around her eyes and dry skin, she sat in the café, day after day waiting. Finally a friend of Asmuni sat down next to her and passed her a piece of paper.
What is this, she asked feebly. Her eyes had lost their shine, a constant headache made her frown. She sat and smoked and waited.
This is his address, Asmuni’s friend told her. Why is he not here, she asked lifting her head slightly. I don’t know. You do know but you won’t tell me, she said bitter with tears in her throat. Why can you not tell me, why can he not be here to explain? Anything would be better then this. What did I do to deserve this? No one deserves this. He needs to explain. I need answers, comfort, compassion. Why has my love become my enemy…the tears prevented her from any further words. Asmuni’s friend pointed at the piece of paper, stood up and left.
Aunt Emma took a local bus to a village only 10 kilometres away. She walked down a small road, asked for directions, disturbed chickens pecking the dirt. She stood in front of a small traditional mud house. The roof was straw, similar to her own just a few kilometres away. She knocked and waited. Her heart thumping, her eyes glazed. She felt her legs wobble. She was too weak.
Footsteps approached and a young Indonesian woman opened the door. She wore an apron, her belly was big and round and a small child appeared behind her skirt peering at the tall, white stranger with big eyes. The two women looked at each other. The Indonesian woman did not ask anything. They both understood.
Aunt Emma gave Asmuni’s wife a faint smile and nod and turned away. She had seen enough. The door closed and that was it. She would never see Asmuni again nor would her appetite ever return.
Aunt Emma finished her story with a sigh. And his name will not be forgotten, she would say. And I would sit and silently wait for more, although I already knew there was no more, no answers and no happy end.
That’s how it was. And yet aunt Emma was not unhappy. In fact I felt gratitude fill the room through her words despite the way it all ended. She spoke his name tenderly and all the pain and unanswered questions did not extinguish the short but beautiful life she had led with him.
I admired that and decided that rain today will not let me forget the warmth of the sun yesterday.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Chiara Cremaschi/Flickr