The Rooms Out Back

My husband and I always rise at 7:30 when the shadow of the cat crossing the tiled roof of our neighbor's house forms a silhouette on our bedroom curtain. Who can figure out why that cat, without any training, has made it his routine to cast his shadow on our curtains every morning but because that is what the cat does every morning, its silhouette has become for the two of us a kind of alarm.

I said we rise at 7:30 but we actually wake up at 4:30—before our baby's first cries and the morning call to prayer. After changing the baby's diaper, prayers, and pumping water into the bath tank, we usually try to sleep because we're often very tired. Neither my husband nor I go to bed until late. Being in the middle of writing my thesis, I often end up reading or typing three-quarters of the night. So too my husband who, in addition to helping me compile research data, is often writing an article or a news column to be sent off in the morning to the weekly tabloid that took him on as a freelance journalist.

The fact is, between 4:30 and 7:30 we usually don't get much sleep at all. Around dawn, our neighbors, the people who rent the rooms that abut each other in the gloomy warehouselike structure behind our place, are at the communal well out back, jostling for their turn to fill their water buckets. The boom of buckets in water and their shrill voices make it difficult to really fall asleep. For them, talking is screaming. Please don't ask what it's like when they fight!

Early morning finds Umi—that's what everyone calls our middle-aged neighbor whose husband divorced her over an alleged affair—in an argument with her son, a junior-high school student who seems to be a bit of a delinquent, is difficult to control, and never ever seems to listen to what his mother is saying.

Meanwhile, our other neighbors, a young couple with a daughter who has just begun primary school, are playing their tapedeck very loudly—no doubt to cover the sound of them screaming at each other, which can be heard even through the pounding rhythm of their cassettes. Teh Nining is grousing because her husband snores like a buffalo. Their kid is screaming that she doesn't want to take a bath.

Sometimes, too, Teh Nining is yelling about an argument she's had with with Umi or because her husband has belted her.

Teh Nining's husband often beats her, even for the tiniest of reasons, a habit that apparently worsened considerably after he was let go from the hotel where he worked. I don't know the reason for his dismissal; it happened just after we started to rent our place, a small detached unit of a larger house at the city's edge, three months previously. The things that we knew about our neighbors we'd gathered mostly from the older woman who owned both our place and the rooms out back and from Umi, a gossip if there ever was one, but whose information had to be be taken with a grain of salt.

We had chosen to move to this part of the city because it was relatively cheap. Our place was originally one fairly large main room which we divided with a bookshelf to form two rooms. The one room became our bedroom; the other, the living room. Back and to the side was a smaller room where the kitchen and bathroom were located. Despite its size, we had turned the place into a comfortable and efficient space.

At the far end of the kitchen was a door that led outside. If you opened it, you'd see a small terrace with four stairs leading down to the ground, facing the two rooms I referred to. At one time, they'd probably been a godown, a storage area. Both the rooms had hard-earth floors and looked to be dark and claustrophobic inside, with nary a direct ray of sunlight able to make its way within. Our place, standing in front of them and on higher ground, absorbed most of the light.

Because they had no kitchens of their own, Umi and Teh Nining stored their cookers and kitchen implements on the back terrace of our place. So when the two of them were cooking, the sound of their conversation or, occasionally, their fighting, was unavoidable.

It was always noisy out back. Fortunately, our baby appeared to have gotten used to it and most always behaved well. The racket never stopped until around ten, after the children had gone to school. Umi would take off at that time, too, wandering the kampong lanes, offering both laundry and massage services as well as the prepackaged herbal potions, balsam, beauty tools, and so on that she carried in a sling-basket on her back. Teh Nining, for her part, would be at the market buying the ingredients for the fried snacks that she sold in the evening, from around five until nine, from a pushcart she parked at a nearby intersection. More often than not, her husband would still be asleep from having come home both late and drunk the night before. If he happened to get up early and discover that his wife had left without first preparing his coffee, he'd get angry and start to swear, then stomp off in a frenzy after leaving the key to their place with me.

The sight of Teh Nining's husband often made me feel both frightened and disgusted. He didn't look healthy and was as filthy as a gutter rat. His face reminded me of a cobweb-filled room. He had a sick look in his eyes and all I could think of when he spoke was that his stomach was full of creepy cockroaches, rising in his throat to spread their smell when he opened his mouth to speak. He spent his days in idle behavior, either at cockfights or playing dominoes, with a group of other shiftless young men. He came home only to eat and if there was no food ready when he arrived, Teh Nining could expect his verbal or physical abuse.

It wasn't strange then that Teh Nining had nothing but praise for my husband—that he was handsome, bright, and good of heart. Often, she'd exchange pleasantries with him when the two of them happened to be hanging out the washing to dry in front of our house at the same time. (Before going to work in the morning, my husband always did the laundry and bathed our baby who was then just four months old.) At times, the manner in which Teh Nining spoke with my husband seemed over the top—a strange combination of brazenness and coquetry. I didn't like to witness these displays. I suppose because I thought she was attractive. She was fair-featured, with a nice, full-figured body, and a sprightly gait. Unfortunately, the way she dressed and, even more so, her make-up, were often just not right for her. She was much prettier without all the makeup she wore, I thought. But she seemed to have been influenced by Umi from whom she bought her cosmetics.

When we first moved into our place, Umi had frequently offered her wares to me too. She plied me with her packaged herbal potions that had brand names I didn't recognize, all the while yammering about the efficacy of each one of them.

You must try this one! Especially for women…" she'd say coyly, as if mimicking a television advertisement, "…to keep your husband stuck fast to you! You just had a baby, didn't you? This one here holds the secret: keeps you tight and not overly wet. You know Enok, the seamstress, don't you? Why, her husband was going to divorce her—until I sold her the cure! And now, he's not going anywhere. Soft and just right, she said."

I smiled but wasn't in the least interested in Umi's wares. From my point of view, the heart plays a more important role in marital relations than any other organ. So as to not disappoint Umi and in the hope that she would then leave before the baby woke from its afternoon nap and I could finish some of my own work, I did buy some balsam from her. But Umi, it seemed, wasn't quite ready to go. Standing in the kitchen doorway, she raised one leg, placed her foot on the frame, and leaned back. Between taking drags on her cigarette and scratching the dry skin on her calf, she talked about her own situation since her husband had left.

"It's difficult now. Iwang's father used to take such good care of me that I was spoiled. He was only a watchman, but I really loved him. If he were still here, I wouldn't be working like this. He wouldn't even let me wash the dishes. He did all the work himself—except for cooking, that is. He said my cooking was the best. …And you must always remember that if the food a woman cooks is tasty, well, you know, that's going to be tasty too…!" Umi almost choked as she burst out in laughter.

What's the connection, I thought.

"Then why did you get divorced?" I was becoming curious.

Umi took the pestle that I was holding and began to grind the spices that I had prepared in a mortar. I pushed an ashtray toward her and she set her cigarette down.

"Well, you know… Men everywhere are all the same!" She stopped grinding momentarily to take another drag from her cigarette.

"Caught me by surprise! The secret chants my love-doctor taught me had always worked well before. My husband had always been so afraid of losing me—which is why he took such good care of me. But Maemunah, I guess, got hold of some spells even stronger than mine. And with them, that she-devil stole him from me. I saw them, with my very own eyes, kissing in my room. Here! Right here! Can you imagine!"

I wasn't completely convinced by Umi's story because I had heard otherwise. I had other reasons for not completely trusting her as well. She often offered to do my laundry but the one time when I did give her my laundry to wash, a number of items went missing. When I asked her about them, she swore—even used the name of God—that everything she'd been given had been washed, dried, folded, and returned to me, that nothing was missing. Later I learned Umi had offered to sell those very same items to neighbors in the kampong behind our place.

Another time, I let Umi give me a massage, not because I really wanted a massage—after all, my husband often gave me a massage and vice versa—but because she'd offered so many times that I finally got tired of refusing. Her massage technique was OK but throughout the process she never stopped talking. She talked about other neighbors, always adding a little spice to each tale: Mrs. A liked to call men to her house when her husband was gone; Mrs B's husband had caught syphilis from too many trips to the whorehouse; Mrs C was in trouble for not being able to pay back her loan from a moneylender, and so on. But the focus of most of her gossip was our mutual neighbor, Teh Nining.

Nining had been bad luck for her husband from the very start, Umi reported. Ever since Dadang, her husband, had married her, all his attempts at business had failed. Whether selling sundry items, shoes, or whatever, he never had any luck. And then, after he finally did get a job at a hotel, he had been dismissed. But no surprise there, Umi remarked, because when Dadang married Nining she was no longer a virgin. She should have considered herself lucky to have found him, but then what happened? After they married, she continued to flirt with other guys. A woman has to always be careful, Umi warned, because the devil of desire resides in all men's eyes. If Iwang's father, her own good husband, whom she had protected with spells, could be tempted by another woman, then pity the wife of a man who had no protection at all. When the wife of the breadman tried to throw hot oil in Nining's face, no one should have stopped her. After all, she had intended to steal the woman's husband.

Umi went on and on about Teh Nining's alleged shortcomings. And though her tone was convincing, I could not accept her tales at face value. In response to her accusations and innuendos, I merely smiled or said something meaningless, without letting her words really sink in. I wasn't the least bit interested in discussing matters where the facts were far from certain. I was sure that Teh Nining could not be as bad as Umi described. Even though her behavior with my husband might have seemed excessive, I was quite sure that she bore no malicious intent toward me. There are so many factors to consider in judging a person's character and I suspected Teh Nining acted as she did because she empathized with the way my husband treated me which, unfortunately, was completely different from the way her husband treated her.

And even if I sometimes didn't like the way Nining behaved, I wasn't going to rush to accuse her of anything. The fact is, I admired her, especially for her determination and hard work to support her family. In addition, unlike Umi, she wasn't one to gossip. The only thing that surprised me was why, as independent-minded and young as she was, she would allow her husband to treat her so miserably. About that, however, Umi had this to say: "It's too bad that's she separated from such a handsome man as Dadang. It's never nice, never good at all, to be a divorced woman…"

This morning we woke especially early, even before the silhouette of the cat appeared on the bedroom curtain. The hands of the alarm clock showed it to be a little past six a.m. We were awoken by the sound of our baby screaming. He had apparently been startled by the sound of glasses and plates being thrown and the string of foul words coming from one of the rooms out back. It seemed that Dadang, Teh Nining's husband, had come home.

As my husband and I calmed the baby, we tried to make out what was happening. There was a sickening sound, a heavy boom. We guessed that Dadang had grabbed Teh Nining by the hair and smacked her head against the wall. We heard Teh Nining screaming and their daughter crying. Then the breaking of glass, the slamming of a door, and footsteps. My husband and I stared at each other, then rose together to see what had happened. But then the baby started to cry again so I stayed in bed while my husband went out back.

Not long afterward he returned.

"Her door is locked," he reported.

All morning, until my husband left to cover a story, I fretted about Teh Nining. I knocked on her door several times but no one opened it. Umi's place was quiet, too, with no sign of where she had gone.

Around midday I heard a knock on the kitchen door. When I opened it, I saw a bruised face and swollen eyes.

"Teh Nining! Come in!"

She swayed somewhat as she entered the room.

"I'm sorry to disturb you, Ma'am…" she said slowly. (She always called me "Ma'am" even though I was about two years younger than she.)

"It's no problem. I'm glad you came to see me. I knocked on your door several times earlier…"

"I heard you but I just didn't feel well enough to get up. I feel a little dizzy; my body is out of sorts."

Obviously, she wanted to conceal her true condition.

"But your forehead is bruised. What happened?" I asked.

"Oh, I knocked it on something. It's nothing really…"

"Is it really nothing?"

She nodded then quickly stated her reason for coming to see me: she needed to borrow some money. She wanted to visit her brother in Cililin but didn't have enough money for fares. Though I had some questions, I quickly gave her the money she'd requested. After promising to pay back the money when she returned from Cililin, she left, again swaying as she walked toward her room. I followed her as far as the kitchen door.

Umi arrived home at the same time but the two women did not greet each another.

After Teh Nining had gone into her room, Umi rushed over to where I was standing, pushed me inside the house, and shut the door.

"What did Nining want?"

"Nothing."

"Did she tell about her husband beating her?"

"No."

"So…?"

"She needed to borrow some money."

"Of course she did. Her husband took all of her savings, even the money she used to buy stuff from the market. …All to be gambled away, no doubt."

"What?"

"But Nining deserves it. Her husband just found out that she's been seeing a cycle-for-hire driver. Of course he's going to blow up. What man wants to be treated like that?"

"Did her husband see them?"

"He didn't have to. I told him about it. Better he hear it from me than from someone else, right?"

"Well then did you see Teh Nining with that man?"

"You don't have to see yourself. Everybody knows!"

I didn't know whether to believe Umi or not. She might have been telling the truth, or perhaps not. And regardless of the truth, I still felt sorry for Teh Nining.

In the end Teh Nining went to Cililin, taking her daughter with her. A week passed and the rooms out back seemed eerily quiet without the blaring sound of music cassettes. Only an occasional scream from Umi broke the silence. She seemed at a loss, not having someone to fight with.

Umi's husband was rarely around. Sometimes, toward daybreak, we'd hear him come home, drunkenly talking to himself and retching outside their room.

I didn't know whether Teh Nining would come back but one day I saw a woman standing outside her room. At first I thought it was Teh Nining but then Umi told me who it was.

"That's Dadang's girlfriend. She's pregnant…"

I was speechless