When We Are Young

An excerpt from In The Hands of a Mischievous God by Theodora Abigail. The book is part of the Self-Portraits series, a collection of personal essays by women that explores their work, relationship, ideas, and lives. Available here


Nearly all the stories I read nowadays are about love. Love of another, of the forbidden, or of the self—any thing in the world, no matter how odd or abhorrent, is capable of being loved. When we are young we love our parents, sometimes because we really do love them and more times because we are expected to. And then we get older and we begin to love other people, other things. The memories we amass and the relationships, forged by sharing common trials, by passing around mutual hatred like glasses of wine. Clink clink. I, too, had a problem with love and the keeping of it, the sustaining of such an exhausting endeavor. Even hate is simply the love of oneself and the desire to protect that beloved ego and the belief that what is loved (ourselves) is better.

I learned this in Jakarta, which I suppose is not the first place you'd think of when thinking about love and dreams and hope for the future, of plants aching by the window and clean sheets, clean air. Some of you would have preferred Berlin, or Paris, cities old and widely acknowledged to be lovely. Cities that have already been installed within people’s imaginations as vessels full of dreams and romance.

Someone said to me once, “Oh, you. You can't possibly be a writer if you only write about Jakarta.” As if she is only a sterile white surface, clean of cultures. I wonder if they have ever sat down on the curbs to eat dinner with the tukang gerobak. Even I, a girl who is just passing by, can see the paradoxical splendor of Jakarta.

She is a city that longs to jump forward but whose feet remain glued in the rat trap of tradition and posterity. There are countless people living and dying within her boundaries, a whole horde of lives who will never cross into a different city. All they have ever known is the dirty, poor, and wild simplicity of an overcrowded street.

I have dreams sometimes. In them I am standing at the edge of a cliff. My long hair is billowing forward and flying into my face. I want to spit it all out as this raging wild feeling grows inside my breast. Then, out of nowhere, I am holding a massive pair of shears—the kind you'd use to chop up a wild animal before you cook it. The kind that you'd use to separate the ribs of a pig. I am simultaneously myself and out of myself. My left hand, gripping those shears, draws closer and closer to my face until finally I begin grabbing my hair in chunks and cutting them off. I grab at any strand I can grasp in my trembling, painful fist and the shears rip through them, so easy. My hair falls into the roaring waves, which are churning the same way as the bile in my throat. The sea, so hungry, pressing against the rock like a spiteful lover. The dream is always the same. I wake up and look out the window, at the cars passing back and forth below. I wonder about them. Are they going to meet a lover? To run some errands at Superindo? Maybe they've run out of kecap manis, or eggs, and they are going to buy some for dinner. Do they have dreams, too, these little people with their little lives? I watch as the satpam wave people through the gate while pretending to checking the passenger seat of their cars. And across the street, a row of brightly-polished Avanza stretches out for half a kilometer, waiting and hoping that they will be the one to accept the next Grab or Go-car or Uber order. What are they doing? Why, after spending millions of rupiah going to school, do they become supir? I ask them about their stories and they say, because we love—we love the wife at home with our child, we love the child who wants to go to a good school, we love the better wage, we love to wake up at eleven in the morning, we love—always. Always the story is about love.

If you look closer, however, and inspect the deep lines engrained in the words, you may find that the story is also about home.