I was in a flight en route to Banyuwangi for a year-end holiday in North of Bali, when I found myself on the brink of another mini panic attack. On my phone was George Michael's “Freedom! ‘90,” a hit song that came out before he was outed as a gay man. It was two hours earlier at an airport cafe that I had just read the news that the British singer had died peacefully at age 53.
Like many things that had inexplicably lost their innocent or intellectual appeals and become triggers of anxiety attacks (acidic and sugary sachet coffee, depressing movies about aging and Alzheimer, documentaries on climate change, articles on how digital technology is changing humanity), the upbeat song and George Michael’s husky voice began to activate the darker part of my mind. It is an inner conversation that would usually end with me taking deep breaths while doing the five-senses grounding exercise.
The year had done it again, taking one of the best people the world had to offer. The people who inhabited my youth.
I was introduced to George Michael’s music by my newly acquired best friend in the third year of middle school. For the sake of privacy, I’ll call her “D,” a leggie girl of French and West Javanese mix who had just returned from San Diego, where her family had been living for some time. She brought with her the easy air of America and a more advanced knowledge of 80’s pop culture. She told me about the locker system in schools and showed me her yearbook full of photos of smiling, racially diverse students. She had a boyfriend, a cute African American boy with a toothy wide grin, and she was obsessed with Madonna and Wham! It was George Michael that she was partial to, and, being a budding contrarian of sort at the time, I decided to prefer Andrew Ridgeley, though if you had asked me why I could not have told you.
D could draw very well. She made cool sketches of Madonna (in post-Like a Virgin phase) and the Wham! duo. I learned to sketch a little from her, mainly just copying whatever she drew. We would hang out at her house in the then gentrifying Kemang in South Jakarta, leafing through Seventeen. We talked about music, how she missed the US (and her plan to go back), our love for dancing. Sometimes we swam in her swimming pool and later had a simple meal of sayur asam (tamarind vegetable soup) and fried chicken that her mother cooked.
D later moved to Bandung for high school and a couple of years later I left to continue my second year of high school in the US. We only reunited once during my holiday. Years later, when I just returned from my studies in the US, I ran into her at a mall in South Jakarta. In my youthful prejudice, I saw that she had grown to become the type of girls I didn’t usually associate with: the girly-girl type. As we chatted briefly in front of a store, I was conscious of how different I looked from her: I was short, makeup-free and still slightly tomboyish.
And much later in our mid-30s, while getting a haircut in a South Jakarta salon, I heard her unmistakable lilting, Sundanese-accented voice. Through the mirror I saw her. She had crystallized into a person I would never become, carrying the air of a typical upper-middle-class woman: elaborately coiffed hair, hyper-feminine. A mother of two children, I thought, presumed, rather, daytime arisan with other ladies who lunch, chauffeured around in an SUV, once-a-week salon treatment. Ever the introvert, I took a moment to weigh the pros and cons of saying “hi” to her. And, ultimately, didn’t.
At a tender age when my body is showing signs of aging. When the metabolism has slowed, severe hangover makes heavy drinking unbearable, and the joints easily stiffen from sitting too long (not to mention those wrinkles and gray hair), life has grown even more fleeting. My futile attempts to slow it down feel like trying to fill water in cupped hands. Once you’ve passed a certain age, experience changes in quality. No more new experience, only a repeat of what has happened – with some refinement and adjustment here and there.
George Michael to me represented a time of innocence and curiosity. Of social and physical awkwardness (my growth spurt made me walk with a hunch to make the bumps on my chest less noticeable. Still, the boys continued to tease me for my growing boobs). I had kissed a boy at a much younger age than most Indonesian girls at the time – during the first year of middle school, with a much older boy (we started younger there in Sulawesi). But since moving to Jakarta in the second year of middle school, none of the boys I had a crush on seemed to find me attractive. So when D and I found refuge in each other, in our teenage awkwardness, it was reassuring. Here were two girls who couldn’t yet find the milieus they belonged to. She with her broken Indonesian littered with English words, I with a mind craving to leap from the obscurity of a brainy, but provincial new kid to the exclusive universe of the cool South Jakarta kids.
We escaped in the world of American pop culture. When someone from this world dies, it as if a part of me has died too.
In the flight to Surabaya, George Michael sang about hiding behind the clothes, and I thought about those times when my clothes were a vessel through which I channeled myself. The Madonna, the gothic, the hippy, the grunge phases. I thought about our “tiny tragedies,” the ways in which our lives remain unfulfilled, the people and the moments we had taken for granted.
A familiar panicky feeling arose. My chest was growing full, my heart pounding – breathlessness loomed. I contemplated grabbing the airsickness bag for emergency breaths of relief.
But then I thought of D and our days in her room, learning to draw, talking about where we would go for college. In the pool doing handstand under water. I remembered our connection. One never forgets connection. That moment which we will never repeat is precious.
Someday when I've gone senile, when dementia reduces my mind to flashes of random memories that force their way out without contextual purposes, I hope these moments of connection will be there to inhabit my failing mind. And for that, I thank George Michael, and other pop culture icons of my youth. Thank you for your gift of memory building.
Read Devi’s piece on how Indonesian women can learn from the US election and follow @dasmaran on Twitter.