The wet stamp of purple lips on a clove cigarette. Ashes tumble onto the steel table-top, then tumble away, taken by wind whistling through window shutters. This cigarette is my secret; its smoke, my taboo. I am a woman of a thousand disquietudes.
We were once echoes that answered each other.
I swallowed the bitter swirl in my throat. Tobacco is meant to taste sweet, you’d told me. You rolled me one, especially–dried herbs in a dried banana leaf–and laughed when I refused.
“This is healthy! Organic! Not poison like the chemical cocktail you’re sucking!” And I choked, as if agreeing. You laughed some more. I retaliated by pinching your tummy. Your middle was all solid muscle.
It was a tiny rented room. You’d been there a year. It was always hazy, inside, and it smelled like smoked wet grass, even with the door always open. It shared a narrow corridor balcony with identical rooms, identically tiny. It was a kostan house—a three-storey building of rented rooms, and a single small yard for motorcycles. Like a school dorm, but more adult, I thought.
The country where I am from, the concept of a kostan house seems bizarre, unbecoming. I tried explaining it to my mother, over and over—but the stuffy lady could not understand. She understood apartments, whole rented houses: a living room, a kitchen, bedrooms. Servants for cleaning, and servants for cooking.
“Maids are cheap over there, aren’t they?” she said to me. “Maybe, when you come back, you can bring one with you.” How terrible, her ignorant sense of superiority. She would never know the joy of sleeping with her door open, the midnight breeze whispering in. Of never worrying about burglars, because of course there was nothing worth stealing. Here, on the third floor–even mosquitos did not come here.
Of the friendly kampung folk, who loved us, all us students. There were patrols, every night. We would still be awake–those of us up studying, anyway–and the skullcapped uncles with their wavering flashlights would yell: “Hoi!”
And we would answer: “Hoi!” And then sink deep into our textbooks, once more, and fill ourselves with dead Greek.
Run, desire, run.
I tossed the Venereology lecture handouts onto the bed. I could not face another clinical diagram of human genitalia, male or female. Neither kenti nor meki got me nepsong, really. You were tickled, how I slipped into queer slang whenever I got annoyed. You leaned against my door and asked me to go out with you, to the night bazaar.
“I’ll hold your hand when we walk between the banyans,” you said to me.
In the south square, by the Sultan’s palace grounds, there stood two tall, towering banyan trees. Thousands of years old, maybe. People said that if you made a wish, then walked in a straight line between them, eyes closed, your wish would come true. I was never superstitious, but I was never shy of challenges, either.
And I never got tired of the bazaar’s pushcarts, all the fried snacks they sold. The square made a large roundabout; the banyans grew in its exact middle. Youths our age with Beatles mops busied themselves with DSLRs. They photographed everything. It was Yogyakarta. Nothing was uninteresting.
With our fill of fried foods, stifled by the growing crowd, we left the square for the roadside stall in front of Tugu Station. I jumped off your bike, seduced by the aroma: a charcoal fire in a clay stove. It was a pledge, a promise of paradise—treats; jasmine tea; and, most importantly, joss coffee.
I watched them beat the black coffee into a glass mug. And then—jossssss! A hot coal, dunked into the cup. It bubbled, and roiled, and then subsided. I grabbed two small rice packets and a plate of tempe to accompany our drinks. Swayed towards where you were on the bamboo mat. You followed me with your eyes, a grin on your lips. That grin. Oh, it drove me crazy.
I sat by your side. I threaded fingers through your hair, tugged at it. You drove me crazy.
There was a loud, long horn sound—a train, leaving the station. The railway connected us to Malioboro town. Its “flower” markets, its evening women. Its malls, its fast-food outlets. Here, there was less. Enough. Here, there was you and me—the one vital thing.
Crickets chorus the deepening night. I pray my light catches no neighbor’s eye. I do not need to worry, really. Nobody here cares. It is already midnight. Everybody is asleep. Kuala Lumpur is a working city; everybody sets their alarms early. Either you get a head-start—or you get stuck, cursing, in morning traffic.
Me? I have to leave the house is half an hour’s time. Where I live, it is fifteen minutes to the hospital. The perks of life in a gated community: everything is just a stone’s throw away.
The perks of being unable to fall asleep at night. I remember. I remember things about you. I am dazzled by the sun, when I nod off in the daytime.
The perks of eating my green vegetables. It is surely because of the Vitamin K in my haemoglobin that blood so quickly blots the letters I knit into my thighs—the letters that spell your name.
I keep the butts of my clove cigarettes in a candy tin. I pound it shut, hide it away. So it stays a secret. At the foot of my bed hangs a black T-shirt. I used it last night, and I’ll use it again. I wipe it, dab it on my skin. So no stain of red remains. Then I put on two pairs of panties, one over the other. Then I wear my dress.
I am nearly late for work. I cannot be late; I have many responsibilities. The sewing needles I used as my tjanting, I throw out the window. The ground outside must be mud from last evening’s rain, and will swallow the evidence of my pain.
Velvet-lined high heels turned grotty in the mud. It did not discourage their spirits any. The Ess Pee Gees: Sales Promoter Girls. They sold their forced smiles with complimentary lighters. I was uninterested. The cigarettes they sold were menthols – yeck!
“Ora, mbak,” I said. The girl was pale skin in a weird black dress. A green origami-like thing climbed her shoulders from where it sprung, out of her breast.
You touched my elbow. “This isn’t my hometown. Don’t use ‘ora’. Use ‘mboten’, instead. More refined,” you said, reproaching me. The salesgirls were smiling at my crude Indonesian.
And then you asked me permission. You wanted a pack of clove cigarettes. Just one pack! A pack of twenty! I grumbled. Why not the dozen? The twenty-pack was a set—it came with a complimentary cup and lighter, blazoned with the logo of that damned tobacco brand. No no, you needed the twenty. There was something you wanted to show me.
Nothing was left of our hot joss coffees now, except a single wet piece of coal in each glass, and the black dregs. You carefully scraped some of that sediment with your teaspoon, and collected it in a saucer.
“Not quite thick enough, but it should be okay. Do you know want I’m going to do, with this?”
I shook my head. You tore a scrap of newsprint—it’d wrapped our rice packets, before – and blotted it in the coffee splotch. The bits were rough, and dark, very black: a sign this coffee was ground by hand, and not store-bought. Good coffee. The newspaper soaked the wet from it.
You pulled a toothpick out of your wallet. “In Tulungagung,” you explained, “this kind of coffee sediment is called ‘cethu.’ What I’m going to do now, the designs I’m going to draw on the paper of these cigarettes, is called ‘nyethu.’” Your eyes shone, round and brightly. Your index finger traced curves out of the stain.
That night, in your room, in a haze formed from the smoke of cigarettes and the daze of ganja, your fingers traced the similar patterns on the sacred yoni.
You licked your finger, then invited me to do the same. “Tastes of milk,” you said, sniggering. Yes, a little condensed milk is needed, so the cethu adheres, and makes the most delicate patterns. That thick creamy taste—it made me addicted to you.
You spun your toothpick in the cethu. And, that night, you danced fingers in yourself. It was coitus, it was climax. We blared Maynard on the laptop, to drown the storm of our own sighs. How the distorted guitars accompanied the writhe of your body, curved so in such stimulation.
With the point of your toothpick, with ink from the coffee, you scratched such dark strokes on white cigarette paper. You drew wings; long lines, and short; you dotted out tumbling streams. Beautiful cethu. Beautiful you. My tongue tried to follow your lines, and spun on your stomach, over your breasts: long lines, and short; dots and dots and dots. I drew wings on the nape of your neck.
You were a woman of a thousand wonders.
I arrive at the hospital. It is obvious I am too early. The streets of the midnight city were empty, and Uncle Mat, our family driver—he knows the way to my workplace too well. There is a small ache, in the wound I made. I decide I shall smoke.
Uncle Mat is gone already; I shooed him home. I walk a ways from the hospital entrance, down the long slope. I sit alone in the lonely, empty car park. It is dark. I pull off my headscarf, let it fall around my shoulders, so that the smell of cloves does not adhere to it, and aggravate the patients I’ll be treating.
This is my last clove cigarette. After this one, I will quit smoking. For good.
I imagine that the smell of coffee lingers in the twenty-pack I hold in my hands. I crush it flat in my fist. I ball it up, as small as I can, and I pitch it into the bushes.
There are still wings—the stained shape of them—etched on the paper of this stick. It is stale; I’ve kept it too long. I suck the dregs of a sworn love, that you scratched so deep. Let it enter my breast, the veins of my body. A final spell of all that we shared.
Originally published in Kopi (Buku Fixi, 2012)