Who’s there, crouching like the moon behind the gray clouds?
Who’s there, writhing about like a pouncing thunderbolt?
Crawl out of the darkness, my child!
Called the Jungle, to the restless Hunchback.
Don’t you know? Darkness is my blood.
Howled the cursed Hunchback.
The Jungle cracked a smile, red and ripe.
Then you are my beloved.
The cold and salty ocean breeze caressed the face of the wavy-haired man sitting with his arms folded on the table. His gaze ran around the evening sky that veiled the universe. Neither the fizz of the waves crashing on the beach nor the drizzle of the rain filling the air could make him feel one with nature. He still felt like an outsider looking in. Forever a tourist on earth. A cactus in the snow. A bat in the daytime. An anomaly.
The voice interrupting his reverie belonged to Angga, a man of his peers sitting right across him. Adam shifted his gaze toward Angga, the stocky, dark-skinned 30-year-old sitting next to Farah, an exotic-looking woman whose cascade of jet-black hair fell over her brows.
“Where’s Gita?” he heard Angga asking.
Waving his cell phone, Adam let his friend know that he had sent Gita a text. “She’ll be here soon.” Adam turned back his gaze to the shore, a mere eight meters from the beach bar where he currently sat. A few foreign tourists were seen making their way around the pools of rainwater forming in the holes on the street. Some seemed to have been ahead of the game with their raincoats and umbrellas to anticipate the November weather of the 15-km2 island that lay at the center of the archipelago. The others didn’t even bother to cover themselves from the rain shower. Many of the women looked comfortable jogging and cycling in their everyday clothes, unprotected.
He heard Angga teasing him that it could be his last week to freely lay his eyes on the voluptuous bodies roaming the street in front of him. His friend’s remark made his stomach churn. In the same manner, he replied that it was exactly why he asked his fiancée to take her time coming after them to the bar.
“So, are you really ready or not?” he heard Angga asking him again after their laughter subsided.
“Well, I have to be,” said Adam before he drained his glass of light-green cocktail. He liked it when the ice cubes clinked and slid together toward his lips, surrendering to the control of his hand. The burning sensation from the vodka drink managed to dissolve the lump that had been blocking his throat.
“Why did you say it as if you don’t have a choice?” asked Angga. “You know what, Babe? I don’t think this boy is ready,” he added to his wife, Farah, with a conspiratorial sidelong glance. The wife seemed to agree with her husband’s hypothesis. Adam knew his best buddy was just teasing him as usual. He presumed that whatever he said would be quickly countered with a witty remark from his friend, which would further drive him into a corner. He believed the police characters in television series also used this trick to make their suspects slip up, become defensive, and finally look as guilty as criminals. He hated such characters. But of course he didn’t reveal this sentiment to his friend.
“Well, it’s no different than when you were getting married,” Adam retorted. He saw his friend’s face twitched in panic. On impulse, Angga tried to hide his horror by laughing. His voice sounded incredibly shrill when he replied, “I was the one who wanted to rush her into marriage! She may have been the one who felt forced to marry me!”
Adam laughed along with his friend, more because he was relieved that he’d been able to stop his friend’s fast train of jokes before it crashed through the hidden cavities of his soul, where creatures like anxiety, shame, and fear resided. These creatures were undetectable by the senses, but they continued to squirm. Pester. Crave, like a snake. Adam had always been reluctant to acknowledge their existence to anyone. Not even to his best friend, and especially not to his fiancée. To him, these bugs were like terribly embarrassing family members who deserved to be locked up behind walls, far away from the light of day, to be left alone until they died and rotted. But they never did. Hiding them seemed to have made them flourish. He could feel them starting to crawl out from his pores, from his eyeballs, from the mucous membrane of his throat and spill out of his lips. He feared his fear so much, but didn’t want to kill it instantly. He felt the fear was the one who had been shaping him, making him the way he was. He owed his life to his fear. He wanted to keep feeding them, and yet prayed for those creatures to choke on their own meal and die.
Adam ordered a bottle of tequila from the bar. He saw surprise in his friends’ faces when the gleaming bottle of the golden liquor, along with three shot glasses and a plateful of lime slices, landed on the wooden table by their elbows. Raising her eyebrows, Farah said, “Seriously?”
Adam dismissed her with a wave of his hand. He asked the two to consider tonight as the substitute for his bachelor party. The only difference was that he would pay for everything, on the condition that they finished any drink he ordered from the bar.
“So, apparently last night wasn’t enough, huh?” asked Farah in a complete disbelief. Adam knew exactly what the woman was implying, though he couldn’t recall most of what had happened the night before. And when she said ‘night’, she was referring to the hours between 2 and 7 a.m. this morning. Or what Adam believed was 7 a.m. for the sun was glaring right on his eyes and roasting his entire body.
He vaguely remembered how his body felt like it was shrouded in suffocating fumes. He was sweltering in his own skin.
I wish I could skin myself. Adam groaned to himself that morning, tottering to the side of the street, aiming for the shade next to a pile of garbage. Like a vampire desperately seeking refuge from the sun’s deadly lick.
He could feel the two hands on his shoulders, catching him from an ungainly nose dive. He heard Angga saying “Let’s go home, let’s go home” repeatedly like a mantra, while he was helping him maneuver down the street, avoiding several menacing-looking men in front of a pub where the four city boys and girls spent their time the night before. Angga’s unsettled voice sounded ludicrous to his ears. Maybe because he never saw his friend that nervous in all the years he’d known him. Through the hundreds of fluttering wings playing tricks on his eyes, he managed to catch a glimpse of Farah and Gita hurriedly walking past him. Wrapped in an ethnic printed cloth, each of his fiancée’s strides looked determined and intense, as if wanting to leave her alcohol-reeking husband-to-be as quickly as possible. Farah put her arm around her friend and gave her a gentle squeeze to send her an unspoken ‘everything will be alright’ message. A phrase that, to Adam, made everyone who said it end up becoming liars.
Adam looked down at the knuckles of his hands, which were red and swollen. The sting he felt served as a reminder of what he did a few hours ago. Fragments of what had happened that night and early in the morning flashed inside his head like dim images projected to a dark wall.
He remembered that bit in the morning, when he rubbed his face with all his might in front of the mirror above the sink to get rid of the annoying twitches that were suddenly invading his facial muscles. He let the water rush from the open tap, hoping that the sound of it going down the drain could help slow down the pounding of his heart, which—based on the sluggish feeling he was suffering from—seemed to have betrayed his body and transformed into a blood-sucking organ. He also wished that the hard rub could somehow scrape off the face of the stranger looking back at him from the mirror a few minutes ago. The face was as white as a limestone, with red vines of veins creeping its eyes, making them look infected. When he lowered his hands, the face in the mirror was still there. That pair of red eyes were still watching him. He knew that no matter how hard he rubbed, the face wouldn’t go anywhere because it had now become his.
Angga’s voice snapped his soul back to the body that had been sitting in the bar on the remote island, thousands of miles away from his life in the capital city. The life that was about to make him vow that he would love only his wife, accept all her shortcomings, and listen to her troubles. Every morning. Every night. Every day. For as long as they both shall live until death do them part. Just thinking how a promise, which was meant to be a mere ritual, could bind him as tight as the piece of metal that would adorn his ring finger one week from now, was reason enough for him to pour the golden yellow liquid from the bottle to the shot glass and drain it in one swift series of movements.
This fluent act was countered with a protest from Angga and Farah, the kind that was usually exclaimed in unison by passengers in a car when the driver drove too fast or when the car was in a near miss following a sharp turn.
Farah asked him if he thought alcohol was a good idea, especially after what happened that morning. Adam dismissed her criticism by saying that they both overreacted. That he wasn’t someone who would fall in the same hole a few hours after the first. Truth be told, Adam didn’t believe a word he said either.
Both Angga and Farah looked like they were witnessing something abnormal and right away, Angga asked him the predicted and much dreaded question.
“What’s really happening, Adam?”
Adam could feel the creatures inside him stirred to life, as if awakened by a mantra. The scaled, egg-shaped head looked up, hissed, getting ready to tighten its twist around his heart, which was now pounding industriously. But Adam, like the billions of people in the world, knew that the answer to the question was more than simple. It was an auto-reply. “Nothing,” Adam responded as calmly as on the days when he spoke the truth. Seemed like those days would soon be forever history for him.
But of course the human couple in front of him would never stop firing him with questions. As if trying to string together a limerick, Angga shot him with the second stanza. “Is everything alright with Gita?”
Adam responded in a similar manner, this time more agile, like a spontaneous exclamation. Or the opposite: a rehearsed exclamation. Hearing the artificial response spilling out of his own mouth made him want to roar, vomit, and cry at the same time. He felt like a hollow shell covering a vacuum. There were no traces of a civilized human inside. No conscience, no courage, no guilt.
But like bubbles that formed as water started to boil, a splinter of truth escaped from his mouth: I guess she’s still mad, Adam admitted. His two friends made sympathetic faces. Angga asked if Adam had tried apologizing to his fiancée. Trying hard not to lose his temper, he replied: Of course I have. Instantly, his body felt like it was tied to a time machine that brought him back to his hotel room.
The image that materialized before him right at that moment was of his own two hands clasping as if in a prayer. The view of the gold band encircling his left ring finger sent the contents of his stomach to his throat. The sight of the wood grain motif of the vinyl behind his fingers made him realize that he was staring down so intensely, as if trying to turn the floor into a door that would take him to another world. Anywhere but this room.
The floor never turned into a door. And his two hands were not clasping in a prayer. They were clutching each other to keep his body from disintegrating.
Maybe it’s better if I cease to exist.
The raw pain of his swollen hands not only reminded him that life had not left his body, but also confirmed his conviction that the world would never grant miracles to a cursed man like him. Miracles were given only to divine saints, who lived thousands of years ago.
Like a rat hiding from the snake’s pursuit, Adam looked up in terror. The screen of the tube TV that was now glowing luminously before him displayed a show host naming and shaming local celebrities in a great dedication. But Adam couldn’t hear a word out of it because the words that were nestling against his eardrums were of his own disgrace, screamed by Gita.
“I’m not like my mother or my father, who you can fool into thinking that you’re the most pious, gentle, and obedient human being.”
“I know what’s really behind your mask. Just another spoiled man, a hypocrite, who acts like a righteous person.”
“If you’re not ready to tie the knot and you still want to fool around, be a man about it and just say it to my face and to my parents.”
“Besides, you’ve got nothing to lose if we cancel our wedding. You don’t even spend a dime.”
“Don’t you dare try and calm me down. When you made a scene last night at the bar, you weren’t even listening to me.”
On autopilot, Adam grabbed the glass bottle in front of him and poured the tequila into his shot glass. He jerked his head backwards and gulped it down. The fire spreading along his throat instantly brought his soul back to the body that had been sitting in the beachside bar with Angga and Farah.
“I think you’d better give Gita a call,” he heard Angga saying.
Adam replied that he had called her before they arrived at the bar. Farah, who could smell a lie from kilometers away like a vulture, looked incredulous. She stared at him for a moment before saying, “That was an hour ago. Why don’t I call her?”
“No,” said Adam, a bit too abrupt to sound like a polite turndown he intended. Seeing the alarmed faces of his friends, he quickly added “Let me call her” in what he hoped was a calm tone. He dialed his fiancée’s number and pressed the cell phone to his ear.
Without much delay, he was already talking to Gita. Words came out of his mouth in rapid succession, as if communicating with his wife-to-be was as painful as standing barefoot on shards of glass. In less than two minutes, he’d already said what he had to say: Hey. Are you coming or not? We’ve been here for an hour. How much longer? OK, let me know when you’re on your way.
Adam ended the conversation and told his two friends that Gita was working on a sudden assignment from her office and would be on her way as soon as she wrapped things up.
“How much longer?” asked Farah.
“Dunno,” replied Adam, once again pouring the alcohol into his shot glass. “She just got it on her email. She’d probably need some time. You’re sure you don’t want any more food or drinks?”
Almost in unison, both Angga and Farah told him that they were sure. For a while, none of them spoke. The crashing waves, less than ten meters away from where they were sitting, now sounded ten times farther. The loud party music that usually gripped their heads like the tentacles of an octopus now sounded as forgettable as the background music at shopping centers. Conversations, which were usually up, close, and personal, transformed into nothing more than pantomimes.
The silence made Adam feel like he was in the spotlight. Scrutinized. Talked about. He took another gulp of his drink, letting the ethanol dissolve in his blood, control his mind, whisper its satanic propositions. Gradually, everything felt easier. Nothing to worry about. He believed that what had happened could no longer be changed, and what had not happened was only a figment of his imagination.
Adam could see that Farah was restless. She mumbled to her husband, loud enough for Adam to hear: “I’m going to the ladies’ room,” then left their table.
Even in his not-too-sober state, Adam could accurately read that Farah didn’t really need to go. She wanted to call her bestie, who was supposedly finishing up an urgent assignment in her hotel room, and most likely would ask her the same questions Adam did three minutes ago by phone.
What a waste of time, Adam thought wryly. But he knew that his friends started to doubt every word that came out of his mouth tonight. Adam felt the outer layer of his skin, which had been shielding his body, started to wrinkle, shed, and die, revealing the shivering exposed glands. But he couldn’t do anything. He could only hope that the pillars of this earth would soon collapse so that he could be buried underneath.
“Are you two going back tomorrow?” he heard his friend asking, to fill the void. He replied, “We hope so.” The man in front of him was saying that they, his fiancée and he, should not have traveled—especially together—this close to their wedding day because the bride-to-be was supposed to be in seclusion. “People say it’s prohibited—pamali!” explained Angga.
“You sound like my future in-laws,” Adam retorted. “Didn’t you two travel to the UK a week before you were supposed to marry?”
Angga chuckled. “But we didn’t have a quarrel like you.”
Adam dismissed the fact by blaming it on the “pre-wedding jitters”. Angga responded to the empty words with a ceremonious laugh before saying, “I think you should go get her. She’s probably still angry.”
Once again, Adam attempted to dismiss his friend’s advice. “You know her. If she says she’s coming, she’s coming.” Besides, thought Adam, fetching her at the hotel would be a waste of energy. And he felt his energy had been drained because of that incident. That incident, which happened this afternoon.
Adam shifted his gaze to where the waves met the shore, not too far from where he was. Every inch of the horizon was now painted in thick black ink, making the island seem like it was in the eye of a storm. At that moment, the waves no longer sounded like crashing to him. They sounded gushing.
His eyes were suddenly raw. He wiped them with his two wet hands. He looked down and was startled to find the ceramic sink that was placed before him. The ivory-white sink seemed overflowing. A black rubber plug was seen at the bottom of the sink. Motionless, like a tadpole trapped in a trench. Dead. Forgotten.
A pair of red eyes staring back at him when he looked up made him jolt in surprise. It took him a while to realize that he was back at the hotel bathroom. And that the red-eyed creature staring defiantly at him from the mirror was himself. His self, who only appeared when the whole world was not looking.
Adam gripped the edges of the sink, as if trying to push back the urge to drown himself in it. A ridiculous notion, he knew. But Gita’s insulting words were floating in the air, permeating into the locked bathroom like a toxic gas, making him want to drown himself in the water.
“You don’t need to apologize. Had our wedding plan been important to you, you wouldn’t have behaved like that. You just never respect me as your fiancée.”
“I’m grateful that I got to see your true nature now. I don’t want somebody like you to be my husband.”
“Congratulations. From now on, you can drink all you want, do drugs, and fool around with any woman. Here’s your ring. Send my regards to your family.”
“Wait.” Adam tried to counter her, but his hoarse voice was drowned by the gushing sound of the water from the tap that echoed through the whole bathroom. He turned toward the door. The swing of his hand knocked a plastic bottle off the edge of the sink. The Clonazepam-labeled bottle took a plunge into the pool of water forming on the floor. Some of the white pills flew out, dancing in the ripples.
“Gita, wait!” Adam called her again, half running to the door, almost slipped, but managed to grab the door handle and pull it open. He left a trail of wet footprints in the hall of the 43-m2 room. He observed the room like a bat flying across the bed, the desk, the porch, and the pair of lounge chairs. There was no Gita there. At once, Adam ran toward the front door and stepped outside. He called his fiancée’s name, this time louder than before. Every corner of the floor’s corridor echoed his call but, like he’d expected, there was no reply.
Adam knew he had to run after his fiancée. Proclaim varieties of the word ‘sorry’ to her. Hold her. Kiss her. Kneel at her feet. He would play any role to stop her from canceling their wedding. He couldn’t bear to think of the whispering, the scandal, and the questions that would surely be directed at him when he got back to the city once the news spread. His stomach tightened when he pictured himself having to return to his cramped apartment, cruising the streets in his old car, missing the opportunity to flaunt the joyful moment in front of everyone who’d ever known him, and being made a subject of water cooler gossip among his colleagues.
Adam was yanking open the wardrobe beside the door, looking for the shoes he kept there earlier, when his eyes zeroed in on something at the bottom of the wardrobe.
He crouched down in front of the open wardrobe to examine the thing closer. It was a bright red leather bag with gold-plated zipper, slightly open. He knew for sure it was Gita’s handbag.
He assumed that she may have been too preoccupied with anger, that she accidentally left her bag. But he frowned when his fingers found a purse containing his fiancée’s ID card, credit cards, and some money. He also found a rectangular object wrapped in a silicone casing that he recognized as Gita’s cell phone.
A sudden laugh escaped his mouth when he pictured his fiancée walking back to the hotel, grumpily saying she accidentally left her bag. Like a cheesy rom-com, Adam would reply that it was not only her bag that she left, but also her heart. In his mind’s eye, he saw Gita couldn’t help but smile. He would then cup her oval face with his hands. To her, he would apologize for the hundredth time, promising to be the husband she’d always dreamed of. Gita would stare deep into his eyes with conviction. Then they would hold each other close, forgetting everything that had happened. The vision was so real, he believed that everything would be just fine in no time.
The flow of water that tickled his soles shifted his gaze downward. Ripples of water had seeped out of the bathroom door, like a severe case of bleeding that couldn’t be stopped. He quickly stood up to go and turn off the tap but stopped abruptly when he caught something from the corner of his eye that he had missed before.
An orange suitcase was standing still next to the wooden cabinet. The light from the setting sun that was filtered through the porch window made the scene look like an old photograph.
From the handle that had been pulled up and the zipper sliders that were in their locked position, he could see that the suitcase was ready to go.
But it hadn’t gone anywhere.
Adam walked over to the suitcase, each step accompanied by a splash as his feet came into contact with water. He lifted the suitcase with both hands. Heavy. He knew Gita’s stuff must be inside.
His vision suddenly began to blur. The entire room felt like it melted, colors blended into one another. He massaged his temples until his eyesight recovered, but he couldn’t get rid of the waves of nausea that were rising inside his body. He knew something was not right, but he couldn’t quite pin it down. It made him want to bang his head against a rock, hoping that an explanation, a sliver of a story, or a chip of a memory would bounce out of the void inside his head.
All of her stuff was still here. Adam tried to deduce what had happened from the scene in front of him. She already said she would go this afternoon, yet her stuff was still here.
Surely she wouldn’t be able to go home without her ID card. Adam kept racking his brains. He also knew she would never leave the room without her handbag, let alone her cell phone.
But she was also not in this room.
The water had now flooded the entire room. He could feel the weak, wet current caressing his ankles. It started to seep into the table legs and creep up the corners of the bed sheet and the comforter that touched the floor.
He shot his eyes back to the wardrobe across the bathroom. The side with its door open still showed Gita’s leather bag, which was now surrounded by water. The door to the other side was still shut. He remembered that his fiancée usually hung some of her clothes there. It should have been empty now because all her clothes were neatly folded inside the orange suitcase in front of him.
Should have been.
His mind started to generate ideas that bewildered him. The only defense he had against those revolting images was a scornful laugh at himself, no matter how artificial it sounded in his head.
For how much longer will you live like this? Adam jeered at himself. You’re a thirty-year-old man getting married in a week. It’s time to stop living inside your head.
The self-rebuke managed to ignite a little courage buried in the pit of his soul. He took a deep breath and a step forward, reaching for the wardrobe handle and yanked it open. The wooden door easily folded out, roughly slapping the air, its hinges screeched, revealing to Adam the secrets it had been hiding.