* This short story was translated by the author from Bahasa Indonesia. The original version appears in Kompas, July 17, 2004 and short story collection Sihir Perempuan (2005). Please do not copy or distribute without the author's permission. Email her at email@example.com.
Read her backwards and you will find me.
We come from the same place, narrow, dark, wet, red. But she doesn’t want me because she thought I suckled from a wolf mother.
I never wanted to be a secretary. When people asked me what I wanted to be as a child, I used to say I wanted to be a doctor, just like thousands of other kids would. But as I grew up my mother noticed that I was diligent and well-organized. I liked making schedules, allowance budget, and shopping list. I was crazy about categorization. In my room there were special boxes for cassettes with different kinds of music. I even knew what I wanted to wear on Friday in the next two weeks. My mother said, “You’d be better off being a secretary rather than a doctor.”
So after graduating from High School I went to a school for secretary. Partly because I wanted to make the most of my potential, and partly because to be a doctor you need to like biology. The only topic I liked about it was the classification of plants and animals. In the end I realized that my choice of study was not wrong because I graduated with excellent grades.
I live in night’s murky caves, blanketed by gray fog, not acquainted with morning and dew. I have no courage to face the light because I’m not like all of you. I’m obsessed by red. The river-flooding red that smells like fresh fish.
I am the black buterfly with velvet wings, flying into tunnels, sucked up into the night’s vortex. She doesn’t know my pain, my moan, my desire. She closes all windows to shun me, who creeps in thirst.
Now I’m working in a consulting agency. I aways iron my blazer and skirt until they look tidy and match with the cool mahogany floor and light brown walls of my office. Brown is a classic that looks elegant. Want to look more professional? Wear brown or black. Funny, I thought dark colors stood for evil as bright colors for goodness.
Sometimes I search for rats or dogs or anything. I’m to weak to open my eyes. I can’t endure, I’m too thirsty. Oh, if only I could trade my soul with
I work as a secretary for a marketing manager. My table is neatly arranged right outside my boss’s room. His name is Irwan. He’s young, good-looking, rich, smart. Of course he has one weakness: a wife. For him this is a weakness because he has to conceal his affairs with some women (that’s what I heard on my first day here). For me this is also a weakness because I have to keep my distance. My interaction with him is too intense, and that’s dangerous. I’ve heard about sexual behavior in the office, but I don’t have any appetite to transgress ethics and norms.
Irwan was born from a wealthy family, so I understand why he loves playing with power. He assigns me jobs beyond my responsibilities, such as writing proposals for projects outside work. I once had to leave to the office only to pay for his credit card bill. I know I have the right to protest, but at this point I choose to remain silent and see how unprofessional he can be.
“Do you have anything to do after work?”
I raise my head. Today Irwan is wearing a red tie underneath his conservative black suit. There’s something really wrong about the tie. Perhaps the color is too bright, not suitable with the atmosphere of an office dominated by cold colors.
Red discharges heat. Red sometimes clots thickly and gets stuck like gums. Red demands confession, it doesn’t suspend, it doesn’t flow through the drainage.
I shake my head.
“Then come with me for a coffee.”
If we work for somebody, we are accustomed to imperatives.
I try to decipher another meaning of having coffee. He must be thinking about being in an air-conditioned room while enjoying a cup of coffee – without grounds at the bottom -- and not a glass of tubruk coffee in warung. He is thinking about a certain class, with a certain aim, perhaps building relations or networking. It’s interesting for my career, but let me reaffirm that I’m not attracted to have an affair with a married man.
Is there a logical consequence if I resist?
She wants him but doesn’t want to be the first to blame.
“Our director wants a special report due tomorrow,” he says. “This is an extra work for me, so I hope you can help.”
Irwan seems to read my doubts and tries to emphasize that his intention is rational and professional, not sensual or sexual. I ponder, then I decide to go with him.
Oh! Oh! I am the sister with whom you share warmth in that narrow red space. I knew that in high school you read a cheap porn book about a secretary who came to her boss’s room without underwear. You
Rage! Aren’t you longing for all the bestial inside your civilized skirt?
Then off we go to a café playing jazz music from the 50s. Under a dim light, we are sitting in a red velvet sofa, so huge that it drowns me. If there’s no coffee I might feel drowsy. Why did he choose this place to talk about work?
A brothel –
A butterfly like me likes haze, shadows, hallucination. A merry house in the forest of all wolf. You won’t know anything before you get in.
We talk for two hours, switching from cappuccino to espresso. For half an hour he discusses his special report. Ella Fitzgerald lures with her siren voice, but I listen and take notes as any professional secretary would. Then I hear him posing this question,
“Do you still live with your parents?”
I remain quiet for a while, then I tell him that I live alone. My parents are in another town. I’m an only child. He says he is too.
Then the dangerous ritual begins: a cliché about an unhappy marriage. That his wife is busy chasing her ambition and that no children bind the two.
I have to end all this. He’s looking for prey.
So am I. Anyone willing to sacrifice their soul?
“I have to go back,” I decide.
The night’s still young, but Irwan wants to take me home. I tell him he doesn’t need to, but he insists.
Okay, ‘till outside the fence.
The man knows you live alone.
You and I are lonely creatures. I am the eater and the sucker of life, dying because red is almost finished, terminated, consummated, a full stop.
He asks me if he could use the toilet. So I let him in.
Welcome, welcome inside the fence, you thieves. Let’s jump, don’t sneak. Look what you can taste in the fruit garden. I’ll follow you because I am too, a thief, the thief of life and death, and I will make you
Then he sits on my conventional rattan chair, drinking a glass of water. He unbuttons his collar and loosens his tie – the extremely wrong tie.
See the man’s neck. Do you like vanilla ice cream? Nibble its iciness with your tongue and it will melt in your mouth.
I hear him calling my name. He seems to murmur, but I can catch his last words,
“We all know what’s going on.”
I shiver. Suddenly I realize my biggest fear has come true. I’ve imagined it before, but since I am very professional I know I have to push him back, ask him to leave my house when necessary.
But I feel his body closer to mine. I can smell his perfume fused with cigarette aroma on his neatly trimmed hair. I feel like ---
Being sucked up?
On top of the ice cream is a round shiny cherry. Tempting fruit, attracting danger. Will I ever fall? But I want it so bad. I am the eater and the sucker of life.
His neck is so beautiful. And I hunger
6:30 in the morning. The phone rings.
“Hello, Saras?” a woman’s voice. “Don’t forget to remind your boss about the 11 o’clock meeting with the client. We need to have the presentation materials ready. He asked you to prepare them, didn’t he?”
“He’s not going for work today.”
Read her backwards and you will find me.