January 07, 2016
Before Departure (or the Things We Hold Back from Ourselves)

An encounter that enthralls one person reopens the long-buried and shameful memory of the other.

by Sebastian Partogi
Culture
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2012
Asa


When I saw him for the first time, my heart stopped for three seconds. It was a casual encounter; we crossed paths while he was making his way to our office’s library on the second floor. I was a new kid on the block back then; I was surprised to find that there was someone as beautiful as him in my office. He had a cute face, like that of a child’s; he also looked intelligent. He wore glasses (I’ve always loved nerds. Nerds are sexy). His wavy hair added to the beauty of his kind face. His arms and chest looked strong but proportional, not like the bulging sack of muscles of a bodybuilder. His skin was bronze-colored.

He was one of a kind.

Agus

When I saw him for the first time, my heart stopped for three seconds. My colleague, Ratna, introduced me to him when we went out for a dinner one evening. He was a new journo. I tried to act cool while shaking his hands, but I was trembling inside. I thought I saw John’s apparition. He looked just like John: tall, handsome, fair-skinned, messy, uncombed hair. Upon closer inspection, I was able to calm myself down and became aware that this was somebody else. This was not John, although he could be his doppelganger.



Asa

Three months later, my colleague Ratna asked me to be her dinner company. Little did I know that Agus also joined us. It was the very first time that I engaged in a conversation with him, after watching him silently from the sidelines for too long. And sitting close to him like that, it just made me very nervous.

His presence stirred something within me, something that I dared not name. My body sat still that entire evening, but I started to sense violent seismic jolts within me, waiting to turn into an earthquake. Why this happened, I was not really sure.

I tried to act cool but that just intensified my nervousness. I tried to articulate cleverly thought-out words, but I stuttered instead. So I decided to shut my mouth and observed Agus and Ratna’s conversation and responded accordingly, while secretly observing his handsome face and taut muscles. My seismic jolts intensified and intensified…

Agus was confident that night, while I was the quiet one. My decision to stay silent so I could keep myself from saying really stupid things made me wonder, however, if he thought that I was arrogant.

After that dinner, a thought occurred to me: it must have been nice to have a boyfriend like him. Then I reacted abruptly. No, no, you must erase this dirty thought from your mind, if he could sense that you were sexually attracted to him, he would be disgusted by you and would hate you for the rest of his life! Because he’s straight!

Still, my attempt at scolding myself for having a dirty thought did not stop the seismic jolts that continued to rattle me. The tectonic plates inside my kundalini power station started to collide with each other, sending irresistible signals to my brain. Too meek to withstand this violent vibration, I decided to leave the office soon and ran across the road to reach my boarding house. When I arrived in my bedroom, the collision among the tectonic plates had just reached its peak.
My body had three little earthquakes.

Agus

I was flabbergasted when I knew that Ratna also took Asa along to eat dinner with us. Again, he was not completely identical to John, but spending three hours with what looked like the ghost of John was completely terrifying. I still feel really guilty for what I’ve done to John. I had tried to build concrete walls between me and my guilt so I didn’t have to face it, because it was just too painful. I had tried to act like it never happens. I had tried to justify what I did.

Still, my conscience continued to bother me. A lot of times, I’d been successful in shutting my conscience away, but now that John’s ghost is right in front of me, it’s twice as hard for me to turn off my guilt.

So, to survive the long and intense encounter with Asa that evening, I chose to put on my best defense mask, the one which has stood the test of time: the “Agus the Brave”. I kept talking and expressing my thoughts freely in spite of his presence, as if I was not daunted by the fact that he was there. But it was precisely because of his presence that I became talkative and confident. This is how I always overcome intense nervousness.

I was relieved because Asa didn’t say much that night, which meant I didn’t have to confront him,something which would make me scream bloody murder out of fear. But on the other hand, his silence also made me more restless: why did he talk so little? Did he not like me?
Of course he wouldn’t like me. Because he could probably sense that I was a homophobic. He could probably sense the homophobia that had killed my former best friend John.

I pretended that I was all right until I could not take it anymore. I lied to both Ratna and Asa that I needed to head home as soon as possible because I was feeling unwell. I ran across the canteen to reach the parking lot where my car was parked. I turned on the engine. It was 10 p.m.; the roads were pretty much empty. I raced home.

When I arrived home, I rushed straight to my bedroom.

“What happened?” My father asked. “Why are you in such a hurry?” 

“Stomach pain,” I told him. “Need to go to the toilet.” 

“See, I’ve told you: quit eating those spicy food,” he said, but I didn’t reply, nor stick around to hear what he had to stay. 

I closed the bathroom door and suddenly the memories began to rush out. John’s laughter. John’s wit. John’s handsome face. John’s bright future. John’s intellect. 

In no time, these rosy images faded to black. John’s embarrassment. John’s pain caused by my betrayal.

John’s death.

John’s death.

John’s death.

I simply couldn’t hold back my tears anymore. In the shower I wailed softly for five minutes. And then I stopped crying, thinking I had been
relieved of this grief. 

John’s Death.

And even as I walked in the valleys on the shadows of Death, I would fear no evil.
And I would dwell in the House of the Lord forever.

Soon the waterworks were switched on again. This time it gushed out so strongly that it felt as if my dam was broken. I cried hysterically inside the bathroom. I was safe. Mom and Dad would not be able to tell that I was crying inside the bathroom with the shower was on..

***

2009
Agus


That evening, John forgot to lock his rented room. It turned out to be the biggest mistake of his life.

I, his best friend, opened the door to his room casually, unaware that I was about to open a Pandora’s Box that would subsequently unleash diseases and other calamities.

“Wait a minute, Gus, I can explain all this,” said John, who, along with his male partner, was naked to waist in his rented room.
No explanations could undo my shifted perception. I hated homosexuals. They disgusted me.

“No need to explain anything. I am no longer your friend. I don’t want to make friends with somebody with AIDS, or also known as anally injected death sentence!” I talked loudly without knowing exactly what I was saying. Vicious words of bigotry and ignorance. Vicious words I would spend a lifetime to atone.

“You can forget me, now John, to me you are dead!” that was my last sentence to him.

***

“John is Dead.”

“Oh, no! Can I believe what I hear? Why? Was he sick?”

“He committed suicide last night”

That telephone conversation reverberates forever in my mind.

After receiving that phone call from Tommy, all of a sudden, John Taylor’s song Fire and Rain played in my head:

Just yesterday morning, they let me know you were gone

Seems like the plans they made put an end to you

I woke up this morning, and I wrote down this song

I just couldn’t remember who to send it to

I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain

I’ve seen sunny times that I thought would never end

I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend

But I’ve always thought that I’ll see you again

I’ll never see John, my best friend who I could always rely on and who has accompanied me through the thick and thin. For the rest of my life. And the thing I said to him was: you can forget me now John, to me you are dead.

I could feel only numbness. Was it possible that my betrayal had caused his depression and subsequent suicide?

Since then, every day I always recite the Lord’s Prayer and Hail Mary in front of John’s photograph. May he forgive me for what I did to him….

***

2012

Asa
“Asa, I love you. Would you like to accompany me while I am studying in the United States?” Agus asked.

“What are you thinking? I haven’t won any scholarships to the US, neither do I have a job there. What on earth am I going to do there? What’s happened to you, boy? Don’t tell me you’ve been brainwashed by these trashy romance novels! You’re way too smart for that!” Asa said.

“Don’t worry, my uncle is working at a research firm there. I will try to contact him and asked him to use his connections to place a job for you there. But I’m begging you to come with me. There’s nothing more I want in this world than your company,” he said.

Then, spontaneously, he embraced me. I drew myself closer to him in response. He fastened his clutches on my body and so did I. Faint but bold enough, I was able to feel the warmth of his touch, the waves of his compassion coming out of his whole body encapsulating mine. I stroked his hair and marveling in its softness while being intoxicated by his body odor. 

Although I’ve absolutely never met him or his resemblance my whole life, his body felt strangely familiar. His love and compassion felt familiar. They felt like home.

And here I was, immersing in my bliss. He was my destiny. I would follow him my whole life. We would complement each other. We would be there for each other. We would spark each other’s intellectual growth. This was it.

I woke up that morning and realized that this was NOT it. This was just a scene from some trashy romantic novels or disgusting soap operas, where things were unrealistically sweet, lovely and easy. Going to the United States without any jobs or scholarships? Bullshit. Total bullshit.

But we all want to believe in something. We all want to have fantasies that could lift us up from our unfulfilled desires and I am not immune to this. I am no fan of romance novels or soap operas; I am a book and film snob. But my dream was nonetheless penetrated by them.

This was not a romance novel. If this was a romance novel, then my love would be reciprocated. But that would never happen because Agus was straight. And he would never be my friend either because he was soon going to America. I brushed my foolish fantasy from my brain and continued with my morning routines. Got out of bed. Took a bath. Brushed my teeth. Got dressed. Went to work.

***

Agus
I will never have the chance to become friends with Asa again in order to redeem my wrongdoing towards John. I’ve tried so many times to become his friend, but Asa is very cold. He sets barriers against me. And I dare not break that barrier.
I am ready to board my plane and leave Jakarta, but the thoughts about Asa and John as well as the sin I know I will never atone will never leave me. This regret, this void, they will continue to haunt me. I hope NOT until I die, but I really don’t know how to resolve it.

THE END

September 3, 2015, 10:25 p.m.

Sebastian Partogi is a feminist writer living in Jakarta.