Picture me: a girl of twenty. My name is A. I look at a mirror. Years later I would remember this to be a time I looked
into the mirror a lot. I was a late bloomer. I’d been a child for too long. For years people didn’t know whether I was a boy or a girl. Only recently have I let my hair take shape, barely past the shoulders. I’m starting to appreciate the
qualities and faults of my face. I start to draw the lines of my eyes and brows. I start to look at my body with wonder. Only now do I like the curve of my waist, feel fond of my breasts – hoping that both will grow further. (It’s impossible, and
you know it, except when everything else grows bigger too.) I’m no longer the tomboy who would’ve been better named B; Bagus the handsome. Now my name is A. The first letter. Before this moment, I never liked the body in the mirror this way. And
that feeling, this self-affection, is something new and strange.
Who am I, the seer? Who am I, the seen?
For a while I’ve known in theory that men like such bodies. A curvaceous body, like a guitar, with a damp tiny cave at its centre and a pair of fertile mounds ready to bewitch them with beautiful memories of infantile suckling. I know. But, the knowledge that I now have such a body creates a bizarre sensation. Yes, now. It wasn’t so before. This new body you now have shall raise desire in men. Knowing this is strange. And a pleasure. The more you think about it, the less you understand.
You feel knowledge. You enter into the clichés you have known as an outsider. You become a map, like people say, longing to be explored. You are the moist forest withholding a desire to be unveiled. You are treetops restless for the strike of lightning. You are tender shoots longing to be harvested. Your desire melts, unable to hide. That’s the feeling of knowledge.
I recall the Tree of Knowledge, a tree at the center of a heavenly garden, the fruit of which God forbade Adam and Eve to taste. “That tree of knowledge about good and evil, don’t you eat of its fruit. For when you taste it, you will immediately become mortal.” Ah, they tasted it just the same. They sampled a morsel of knowledge. An amazing sensation. A sensation that confuses you; who is the seer, who is the seen; where is the subject, where is the object: who is the knower, who is the known. A sensation that makes you shy and desire, all at once. The feeling of mortality.
It was not the mirror that cast a spell upon me. It was only a mirror, which repeated from without what was happening within me. That I had come to want this: to become an object--or a subject? To be the known--or the knower? To be an explored map, an electrocuted tip, an unveiled forest. At the age of twenty I decided to bring an end to my virginity.
I will open the gate and leave
After you’ve tasted the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, indeed you must leave the heavenly garden. Although there are no angels to banish you, other than yourself. It’s like this: After you experience a taste of knowledge… yes, those amazing sensations, the sensations that make you mortal… the garden will disappear on its own, like a sandcastle slowly blowing away in the wind.
Now you can only see it with your third eye: an illusory garden you long for deep down inside. A garden where you could be naked without desire or shame; because desire and shame come at once, despite you denying them.
I don’t want to call it sin. I want to call it sorrow. Yes, from that day I exchanged the word “sin” with “sorrow”. When you know yourself, you are uprooted from pure unknowing. This is sorrow. Knowledge tears you apart. Knowledge separates you, as the knower, from the known. But man cannot live on this earth without knowledge. It is so, reading the Holy Book back to front. If not understood with inverse causality; if we read it from the front to the back as usual, the Genesis would tell us that it is knowledge that causes man to leave heaven and live on earth. Earth; replete with dangers and difficulty. (Later I would come to believe, that a complete story requires symmetry so you can read it from both ways. Like a mirror.)
My heart had come to know. It was no longer a virgin. My body remained one, still.
But I will open the gates and leave the Garden. I will let myself face the risks. I have come to know myself. And I have long envisaged a man who also comes to know it.
Thus, once again, I decided to bring my virgin days to an end. But, who is to be the man?
I stepped outside the heavenly garden. I closed its silent gates. Then, when I was outside, I started to think. I really had no clear image of the man I wanted. I didn’t have any criteria. I had no awareness about the ideal man…
His name is Nik. The first man I came to know in this man-made Eden: The Universitas Indonesia campus in Depok. This was the
year the UI campuses began to move out from buildings sprawled around the old town of Jakarta to vast hectares of gardens at the edge of the city. Then, Depok was still quiet and calm. The new road to reach it was still white and chalky, as if to reach the
Eden you must pass through a dusty calciferous desert. In the middle of the garden there was no tree but a lake. The campuses to the north had a footpath towards the lake. Among them were the Faculty of Letters and the Faculty of Engineering, the two important
campuses in my life.
All new students had to begin their university life with a state ideology indoctrination program called Penataran Pancasila. We were put in groups representing every faculty. I was allotted a place in Engineering.
It was an incredible day. I was no longer a high school student in uniform. I could wear what I wanted. I wore a long blue dress, which contrasted with my yellow blazer. I was proud of the blazer. All the new students were proud about our university blazer, the only university to bear the name Indonesia, full stop. The smell of cement and paint was still strong in every hallway and room. All new. Everything alien and exciting. I didn’t have any old friends. If I did, I hadn’t found them yet among the hundreds of youths in this group. It was fun, because it allowed me to leave my old self. I wanted to be the new me.
The hall was shaped like an amphitheatre. Because the lecture was likely to be boring, I chose a seat out the back, higher up. That’s where our eyes met. A young man with crew cut hair and wide shoulders. He smiled at me. I smiled at him. We were going towards the same row of seats. And we sat side by side. I saw the blue badge on his jacket. He saw the white badge on my jacket. He was in Engineering. I was in Letters. There was nothing more ideal in that era’s gender stereotyping.
Nik had a very nice smile. His lips were red and fresh. The whiskers above his lips were still so soft and virginal, but his eyebrows were solid. His teeth marched in a natural tidy line, small and well, on a strong jaw. One day I would come to know that he had five lower incisors, not four. He was good looking. One day I would find out that he remembers me as the pretty girl in blue dress with red fresh lips.
I hoped “Nik” was short for his christening name, like Nicholas. Or Nikodemus. I came from a devout Catholic family. My sister had a Muslim boyfriend and it caused a stir. I would be happier to have a boyfriend of the same religion. But I didn’t dare ask Nick that. I knew the question was impolite. As improper as thinking of a husband-to-be on the first day of being a university student. The afternoon arrived with the conclusion that we quietly enjoyed sitting side by side.
The following day we came to the same row, side by side again. On that day I found out that “Nik” was not an abbreviation of his Christian name. “Nik” was a nickname. But I liked him already. I didn’t care anymore what his religion was.
On the third morning we returned to the same seats again. On that day I wore a shirt with a rather low collar, causing the pendant on my golden chain to be revealed: a cross. After lunch break, Nick didn’t return to the chair next to me. I almost could not believe it, the chair was empty. He left it just like that. The lecturer appeared on the podium. He started teaching. The chair remained forsaken. I felt like a lover cast aside with no news, but I was embarrassed to acknowledge the feeling even to myself. Then I saw Nick a few rows away, further out the front. We looked at each other. He waved too, as if telling me he had found his high school mates and wanted to sit with old friends. He didn’t want to sit with me anymore.
Later I would find out, long after this happened, that Nick left me after seeing the cross on my chest. He was attracted to me. But I was Christian. So he left me. Later I would tell him that he was just like Dracula, afraid of crosses.
The chair next to me didn’t stay empty for long. On the same day, someone filled it. His name is Mat. Not short for Matthew, but for Matahari. Not a christening name; Mat came from a Muslim family too. But a lot more relaxed. He wasn’t like Dracula. He didn’t care about crosses. He was the leader of our group. He was a bit taller than Nick and a bit chubby. His cheeks showed remains of pimples. He had an open laugh; he was much more open and honest. From that day Mat was almost always with me, even during breaks.
I slowly came to forget Nick. I remembered him as one of the good looking guys, while burying deep the questions why he left me just like that. But there was this one time I saw him during a break. I was going to the toilet and I saw him enter the mushola. I didn’t really know what a mushola was before. Nick looked very familiar with the prayer room. He had rolled up his trousers and sleeves. His hair and face were wet. Droplets of water were still hanging onto his brow. Truly, he looked gorgeous. I looked into the mushola, through its brick breezeways. Surreptitiously, I watched him pray...
Translated by Kadek Krishna Adidharma