The message popped up out of the blue as I was taking the obligatory phone break from bearing witness to an all-transwoman pageant spectacle. I was also sitting next to Kyle, the guy I was deeply enamoured of and continued to pine for, despite an increasingly grimmer outlook for our impending romance.
We had gone on a group vacation to Bali, and although I had hoped that it would seal the deal for us, we barely spent time together; he had come a day later and decided to stay in a hotel instead of the boarding house that the rest of us were staying in. Later on I found out that he was in the hotel with another guy – he even made a casual, offhanded remark to one of our friends about getting a blowjob the morning after his arrival. Before receiving the text, I had also remarked to him how one of the girls on stage eerily resembled the ex-girlfriend of another guy I fell for some five years earlier. He simply chuckled.
“Wait, no! Why? How? What happened?” was my response to the text.
“I’m not sure. I’m still waiting for the other guys to confirm. They’re in the hospital with Ronny right now,” so said the reply. She was one of the very few people from high school whom I remain close friends with. The “guys” she referred to were Ronny’s closest friends, our mutual friends from high school whom I also remain close with to some degree. She also knew all about my history with Ronny.
Ronny and I met in the tenth grade. He was three years older than me: he had entered school later than most of the kids his age and he had once failed to resume to the higher grade. I was shy and mostly depressive and stuck with the small circle of friends that I had. I was not even aware of a lot of the people in my class, including him.
One day a teacher made me sing in front of the class. Perplexed, I instinctively went for one of the very few songs I had memorized in mind: Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn”. As I was doing my little singing, in the corner of my eye I saw him all perked up, mouthing every word. It’s one of those moments that you knew you were understood. I felt understood, and he might not have seen it, but inside I smiled.
We never spoke much afterwards until we moved to the eleventh grade. I had gotten hold of his number and I had this crazy idea to text him while pretending to be someone else. I had recently come out to my circle of friends and I was curious if he might be, in fact, playing for the same team as I was.
Looking back, it seemed ludicrous, but at that time, it was utterly thrilling and heart-palpitating. I feigned being a French-Canadian guy named François who lived in the capital sending a text to the wrong number but wanted to get to know the wrong person anyway. Surprisingly, it went on longer than expected: a good full month had passed until my cover was busted. He came up to me one afternoon and asked if it had been me pranking him all along (I had unwittingly blown up my cover by responding to his inquiry about François’ birthday with his own birthday – that’s what gave everything away).
“Yes. And you’ve been a fool,” I said between my grins.
I didn’t even bother to look up to him and carried on with drawing. Right then and there, I wished I could have retracted those words. But it didn’t matter because that’s what brought us closer.
We began texting each other frequently before it turned into all-night phone calls. We would share each other’s deepest desires, sordid pasts and anxieties for the future. He would tell me about the boys he had his eyes on, the dates he went on and his reservation about coming out to his family (“I don’t have a good relationship with my dad and my mum is a conservative nut job,” he would say.) I would divulge my obsession with the drummer of a British rock band and my wish to escape the country and live somewhere else... be it Darwin or Berlin or Paris or New Orleans. High school would not last very long anyway, so we had to devise our grand, grown-up plans. And my plan was always to leave. To which he would respond, “I don’t know, I like being here. Maybe I’ll go somewhere later on.”
This practice went on for about a year, during which we became increasingly closer to each other and I would constantly feel like our relationship had exceeded beyond friendship, at least at an emotional level. I would light up – in all my giddiness – at the thought of seeing him. I would flinch at the mention of his name. And it terrified me.
“No way,” I thought. “I want my first boyfriend to be some cute, blonde-haired, blue-eyed white boy. Not some local boy next door!”
Problem was, there was no blonde-haired, blue-eyed white boy around. But there was Ronny. He was the only other guy who also liked other guys I knew. So I had no other option but to keep hanging out with him, against my will. I remember him making a phone call to me in the middle of a school event (at this point, I was very much a homebody and wanted to stay out of obligatory school activities as much as possible).
“I wish you were here,” his voice cut through the uproar. “It gets lonely sometimes for people like us...”
“People like you,” I quickly interjected.
“Yeah, people like me.”
I don’t remember the rest of our conversation but I remember detecting a slight dejection in his voice after my remarks. To this day, I still wish I hadn’t been so defensive. I could have just shut up and kept it to myself instead.
The following months saw us slowly but surely drifting apart. He began befriending other people, and so did I. Secretly, I was beating myself up and feeling very much betrayed. I was losing my best friend, and I was also losing somebody that I had all these deep, profound feelings for. It felt like a double loss.
It did not help that we had mutual friends so our circles would frequently come across one another. I remember feeling relieved upon finding out that we were once again assigned to different classes in the final year of high school. I couldn’t imagine being in the same room with him, day-in, day-out, for one full year.
As it turns out, he became best friends with another guy in his class that I went to middle school with (and briefly developed a crush on) and even dated one of my best friends at that time – a girl – “out of pity”, as he would put it later on after we graduated, when I eventually mustered up enough courage to talk to him again.
I saw them together at a mall unexpectedly and to say that I was acting strange around them would put it mildly. I had told her that I had a thing with Ronny a couple of years back (and even apologized for it, as I’m inclined to do for anything that’s actually not my fault), she was taken aback (“I don’t want this to ruin our friendship,” so were my desperate cries for her) but went on with it anyway. I never bothered to ask if she ever confronted him on the matter; but if she did, they resolved it. They looked happy together.
I was trembling inside and quickly excused myself. It was a long way back home. There was no chance at rekindling. Clearly, he had moved on. I also moved to another town just a few months before high school ended and that limited our chance for any further encounter. We had drifted apart, it seemed, for good.
It was a scorching hot day and I was waiting for my train to return home. My phone rang. An unknown number. Out of reluctance, I picked up.
It was him.
“Wow, this is a surprise. What’s up?”
“Nothing. I just missed you.”
My heart skipped a bit.
Between the crowd noise, the bad connection and my own distracted mind, I couldn’t quite catch the rest of what he said. I was lost to that one, simple admission: he missed me. We hadn’t spoken in a year and truth be told, I had more or less put any thought of him to rest. I freaked out again.
He probably asked to “meet up sometime”, but as far as I can recall, that was the last of our interaction until four years later at another high school friend’s wedding. Being around all my former friends, it felt as if the intervening five years had never happened, as if we had just graduated a week before. And there I was, once again all giddy at the thought of seeing him. So I did.
He looked exactly the same as I remembered him to be, perhaps even better. All the old fires were burning again. We exchanged numbers and pleasantries, and this silly little thought crossed my mind: maybe we could have a go at it again. I had scored my first real job, which I actually liked and enjoyed. For the first time, I felt like an actual grown up. I was ready for everything that adulthood had to offer, including rekindling an old flame with a high school paramour.
We texted a couple of times, I even asked him out but he seemed disinterested. Then it dawned on me: karma is here to bite me in the ass. I felt the sting, but I took it willingly. This was the price I had to pay. One night I couldn’t sleep thinking about everything that went on between us up to that point.
I texted him: “We had dreams but we had to fall apart. I had to get it together, you had to live your life.”
As expected, there was no reply. I understood and I moved on.
“So, who’s your boyfriend now?”
That was the last question he asked me the last time I saw him. This was two years later, at yet another high school’s friend wedding. I didn’t expect him to come, but he did. And I still couldn’t help myself with my giddiness with him around. But that question left me agape.
By then, I had attempted to make a boyfriend out of a number of guys, to no avail. I wanted to tell him that I fell for a guy with a similar name to his a couple of years earlier, but he decided to stick with his girlfriend and left everything between us to dry just as we were getting closer, but I thought it was too elaborate of a story to recount. I was slowly getting over him anyway. It didn’t matter as much as it used to.
“Um, no one. Not that there was ever one anyway.”
He gave a faint smile.
“Let’s hang out sometime,” he said.
“Sure. You still use the same number, don’t you?”
“Yep. See you around.”
Suffice to say, I never did see him again.
“My ex-boyfriend just passed,” I told another friend sitting next to me.
“Wait, what? When did you ever have a boyfriend?” she said, clearly puzzled.
I only gave her a smile. I didn’t know what to say. Despite my outness, I have somewhat of a reputation as a prude. A friend (and a former crush) even called me The Jakartan Virgin Queen, which I have no issue with. But when it comes to Ronny, it was always too intense to simply refer to him as a “friend.” He was never just a friend to me. He was always something more than a friend even if nothing physical ever transpired between us.
In many ways, the dynamics of our relationship were the harbinger of all the relationships I came close to having, including with Kyle. I would tend to feel like the lesser one because I would feel like I wasn’t (insert adjective here) enough. With Ronny, I would feel like I wasn’t as well-off as he was and since I was younger than him, I would feel starkly inexperienced in life compared to him. I would feel like I had much less freedom to go out and explore things the way that he did (he had his own car and could drive).
The first time I went out with him, I had a bag full of “feminine” clothes that I intended to wear once we arrived at the venue and my sister had assumed I was attempting to run away, she called me up just as we were waiting for the bus to take us uptown, all enraged, ordering me to go back home. Which I did, much to his disappointment.
“I’m sorry I come from a fucked-up family and I’m not as free as you,” I said, holding back my tears.
He told me it was okay. It started to rain as I was heading home.
I was standing at Ronny’s grave with a couple of other friends. It had been drizzling for a while and we were nearly an hour late from our initial schedule to pay our final respects to him. It had been a month since his passing, and I was still caught in disbelief that he was no longer around.
It wasn’t as much the sense of loss as it was just the difficulty to acknowledge and grasp the fact that somebody is not physically there anymore. You take comfort in knowing that they are there, even if your lives no longer intersect with one another. But he’s gone. And he was so young—he was only 28.
“We’re sorry that this is the way we had to see you the last time we said ‘see you later’,” said one of my friends. The wedding a couple of years prior was the last time any of us saw him. And as was the case back then, I still had no boyfriend to speak of. Once we left, it started to rain hard. Maybe Ronny was expecting us and didn’t want us to get all wet. I smirked at the coincidence.
Shortly before Ronny’s passing, I often pondered on the history of my love life – or lack thereof. There I was, madly infatuated with Kyle, but it became increasingly apparent that I was going to be reduced to my usual role as the jilted lover. It had been five years since I fell for someone and it had been ten since my relationship with Ronny. I was five when I first realized I was attracted to boys. Five years later, I harboured a massive crush on a classmate named Jimmy. I nearly asked him to be my boyfriend. But of course I never did. And all the other boys that came after only ever said the many reiterations of “no.”
But I never had to ask Ronny anything. Somehow, things fell into place and we just rolled with it. Once, though, he did say to me, “You’ll go down in history when I think of high school in years to come.”
Back then, I couldn’t help but be irked by the declaration. In hindsight, my insecurities and my ideals of what my first boyfriend should be or look like got the best of me. Like most people, I was constantly seeking something outside of me when all I was looking for was probably already there for the taking.
It took me more than a decade filled with many a failed attempt at romance and Ronny’s passing to finally acknowledge the error of my ways. Maybe late is better than never. Either way, Ronny has gone down in my history. And now I miss him too.
Fajar Zakhri is a music lover, pop culture connoisseur, intense feeler, deep thinker and queer whatever. A Jakarta native since birth, he works as a linguistic consultant and is also on his way to rockstardom.