You’d better not think just because we’re married and middle-aged we’ve stopped fantasizing about other men. That’s what your friends say, and to fit in you laugh casually. But in truth you never fantasize about anyone, including your own husband, nor about sex of any kind—not revenge sex, kinky sex, or casual sex just to feel a warm body and pass the time.
You only think about three things.
One: Money (that you don’t have).
Two: Your only child (who’s already married and lives abroad).
Three: Your body and your brain (both growing more exhausted with every passing day).
Sometimes you think about your friend Dina. On her fiftieth birthday, Dina went all out on a ladies’ night. The guest star was Jojo Sifredi, a male stripper popular among young, rich housewives with too much free time.
“Jojo is extra special,” Dina had said, “because he’s real.”
“Real? What does that even mean?”
“He’s our age, he’s mature, not some stupid hot young guy.”
“Surely not all young hot guys are stupid?”
“And have you ever even been with one?”
You were annoyed because, as usual, she had made you look foolish, probably thinking, how could some uptight introvert like you have ever slept with some young stud? But you’ve got to admit, she’s right, you’ve really never been interested in younger men, and why would they be interested in you anyway? Isn’t what they’re looking for from a woman of your age just money? That, or the sexual expertise supposedly honed from years of copulation? Or, ideally, both money and sexual expertise—neither of which you have to offer.
Meanwhile, every time you think about Dina and her fiftieth birthday party, you remember your own. You celebrated with a slice of chocolate cake and three dozen long-stemmed roses that you bought yourself before dawn at the Rawa Belong Flower Market. While paying, you said to the flower seller, “Look at this, Pak, do I have a great husband or what? He told me to pick out my own flowers, whatever I wanted, however many, so I’d be sure not to hate my birthday gift.”
What was stupid was you told Dina about it.
“Yeah that’s normal, honey,” Dina said. “The older we get the more we have to take care of ourselves.”
You just nodded even though you weren’t sure whether Dina ever “had” to take care of herself. Did she even know how? And what’s more “normal,” really, your situation or Dina’s?
According to your husband the scholar, “normal” is a relatively novel concept. In the early nineteenth century, Belgian mathematician and sociologist Adolphe Quetelet developed his theory of “the average person,” and thus began the social construct: whatever fell outside the “average”—our child’s performance at school, our energy at work, our aptitude in bed—made us feel abnormal and filled us with self-doubt.
You were annoyed with your husband (lately, you’re always annoyed with your husband), so you weren’t willing to acknowledge the truth in what he said. The older you get, the less energy you have for taking bad advice and ignoring good advice, wherever it comes from, and your husband’s input was actually good advice. But you didn’t want to admit it.
You’re also no longer willing to waste your time feeling indebted to anyone or punishing yourself for the wrongs you have (or haven’t) committed. You’re no longer so eager to change the perspective of others or change yourself to make other people happy. As with sex, you don’t want to chase, fill, or urge anyone along. Nor do you wish to be filled, satisfied, or completed by anyone.
In fantasies about men who aren’t your husband—if you were to force them—you wouldn’t imagine what your friends imagine. You wouldn’t be sleeping with some stranger you met in a bar. You wouldn’t be stripped naked and handcuffed to the bed by Jojo Sifredi or some other young beefcakes whose gorgeous chiseled bodies bring tears of joy to your eyes, who last for hours, who know just where to touch you, who make you feel like a queen for the night. Even if you were rich, you wouldn’t squander millions of rupiah on a hot young gigolo or a dance instructor from overseas.
You would imagine something simpler: holding hands in the street, eating dinner in a restaurant, going to Rawa Belong and watching with delight as a man buys flowers and offers them to you. You would imagine the pleasure of talking about aspects of yourself that you haven’t shared with a man in so long—your first trip abroad, your favorite books when you were a teenager, the kind of music that makes your body move—and then feeling his caress on your shoulder.
But that will never happen, because you don’t have the energy for fantasy.
A few days later, you get the news from your daughter, Brenda, that she will be visiting from London. You haven’t seen each other in a long time. You and your husband have been living frugally for years; you can’t waste money traveling abroad unless it’s for something crucial. And even though you miss her half to death, you’ve been too proud to ask her to come, so now you are deeply moved. It turns out your child still cares.
Still, you flinch when Brenda announces she will come with Paul, an Englishman of Italian descent. (Whenever she says the word Italian, your daughter’s voice rises a little, as if that fact doubles his value.)
“He’s more than just a boyfriend,” she once told you. “He’s my partner. My life partner.”
“In Indonesia there are only two categories,” you replied. “Pacar atau suami—boyfriend or husband. There’s nothing in the middle. Partner is a professional term. If you introduce him here as your partner, people aren’t going to think oh, that’s the guy you’re shacking up with. They’re going to think you’re in business together.”
“But I don’t live in Indonesia, I live in England,” your daughter said, her voice rising. “And I work here. In England, domestic partnership is a legal bond.”
You sensed a tone of triumph in her voice, but you still kept at it. “In Indonesia, cohabitating is officially a crime,” you said. “And please keep this in mind, Brenda, as long as I’m your mother, you are still Indonesian. What should I say to my friends when they ask me whether I really don’t mind my child and her boyfriend fornicating in my own house?”
But now, since you miss your daughter so desperately, you don’t want to nag. It’s good she even wants to come and stay with you, not at a hotel like other vagabond millennial kids who have lost their roots and their ties to home—though secretly you’re worried it’s because your daughter’s partner is stingy or even worse, poor. Because really, how much could he be making as a community activist?
You decide to wait until your daughter is in Jakarta to give her a piece of your mind. You hope time will give you the wisdom to determine how you feel about your daughter’s partner.
You’ve met him only once, in London, when you attended their civil partnership ceremony, which to you was totally absurd: “vowing” to be domestic partners. You didn’t tell a single friend or family member, not even your younger sister Laura, because you couldn’t explain why you didn’t take a firmer position—like your husband, say. Your husband who’s so wise and understanding, because he’s a philosophy professor.
You flew to London alone after fighting with him for weeks. He refused to attend though he did give his blessing. You were disappointed in him because you thought he was being inconsistent: he clearly wasn’t comfortable with that kind of commitment—especially not for his only daughter—but, because he wanted to be seen as a liberal-minded intellectual, he wouldn’t forbid it.
“I’m not you,” your husband had said at that time, “who always cares too much about what people say. I would never sabotage my own child’s happiness to preserve my image in the eyes of the world.”
“May I remind you that from the very beginning, out of the two of us the one with the clear position has been me. Not once in the last three months since that god-awful FaceTime have I pretended to be bighearted and supportive of them, just so I can be seen as some sort of modern, cool parent. But at the end of the day, you’re the one without the courage to practice what you preach.”
“All I said was you care too much about what people say.”
“But ultimately, who’s going to board that plane tomorrow to be by our daughter’s side? It won’t be you, it will be me! Me! Even though I don’t agree with one word of all this bullshit!” Your voice was rising but you didn’t care. “And yet you say I’m willing to sabotage my own child’s happiness for my image. But perhaps it’s no surprise—after all, I’ve always been the primary parent.”
“You know what your problem is, Anna? The problem is you’re actually afraid of Brenda. You don’t realize that you’ve been colonized—by your own child!”
“You’re a hypocrite,” you said.
“And you love playing the martyr.”
Three months before you flew to London, your daughter had sent you and your husband a WhatsApp: Mama, Papa, can we FaceTime tomorrow morning Jakarta time? I have some happy news.
Your heart was pounding but as usual you replied with a put-on cheerfulness: Suuuuuure. What time? complete with a cheerful emoji at the end of the sentence—you could almost feel Brenda’s smirk as soon as you hit send.
The next day you and your husband were sitting impatiently in front of your respective laptop screens (you in the front room, your husband in his library) when your only, precious child appeared; someone you knew so well and at the same time didn’t know at all. Her hair was now cut to her shoulders, her accent sounded like English royalty, but she was just as she’d always been, pursing her lips every time she finished saying something serious, as if she wanted to make sure everyone fully understood what she meant.
She no longer appeared alone but with a young man—just as fresh-faced as your own daughter, the same youth who had been introduced through the same screen a few months ago (Ma, this is Paul). A youth whose arm was now wrapped around your daughter somewhat stiffly, seemingly unsure whether it would upset these middle-aged parents from some hamlet in the East.
You almost couldn’t look at his face, let alone search for what exactly in it had made your daughter willing to put her life in his hands, at the same age you had surrendered yours to your husband, twenty-six years ago—with all the burdens and pressures she didn’t have to endure because you’d freed her from them. You knew what you were going to hear, and you didn’t want to hear it. But you couldn’t just switch yourself off.
“Ma, Pa,” your daughter had said in a voice that sounded measuredly polite to you. “Paul and I are going to make our vows.”
You tried to smile, because isn’t that what all children want when they are eager for their parents to let them go? But the pounding of your heart drowned everything else out. You could barely hear your husband jumping in: “Well, well, this is extraordinarily good news! Quite unexpected, but, congratulations!”
You didn’t say anything at first, because you didn’t feel the news was worthy of congratulations, let alone something extraordinary. You weren’t happy, and more than that, you didn’t appreciate how your daughter had seen nothing wrong in making an announcement like that without first asking for your blessing. You had literally bowed down before your parents all those many years ago to beg their permission to marry your husband, who turned out to be nothing but a pretentious coward.
After you found your voice, you asked, “So when is it planned for? When will you two come home?”
“Oh, Ma,” your daughter said carefully, trying to soften her rebuke. “Remember, we’re not getting married. We’re going to make our vows in a persatuan sipil—a civil union.”
“Oh,” you said.
In the following minutes, as your husband droned on, dominating the conversation, you weren’t sure whether you were relieved your daughter wouldn’t be getting married and surrendering her life and her future to this young man you barely knew, or resentful that your child was so far from her own culture (from your culture, from you) that she was desecrating the values and traditions of her ancestors—and didn’t even care! You were also furious with your husband because he was so spineless, so lacking in authority, as if you both still had a colonial mentality and were proud of your new rise in status now that your child had snagged a white man.
When a few weeks later your daughter told you they had set a date for the civil ceremony, you didn’t ask whether she truly thought that not marrying would strengthen their bond, whether she truly believed that their love would be more honest without all the trappings of the institution to weigh it down.
Because, secretly, you were afraid she might be right.
The entire week in London, you were as if sleepwalking, unsure whether the fog before your eyes was a product of the weather or your scrambled brain. Every time you were in the same room with Paul, it was as if a veil immediately unfurled between you. You didn’t know how to act—as an in-law, in-law-ish, or as a friend? You still couldn’t even remember his face, the details of his eyes, nose, and mouth or the color of his hair or skin, even though you had spoken to him numerous times. You only registered how his impressive frame filled the space.
When you sat with his parents—were they family, family-ish, or friends?—in the front row of that stiff and cold room, you wanted to cry. You were all witness to that formal and informal bond, but you didn’t know each other, and you were there alone. You felt like the third wheel. You didn’t know whether your child had really left you of her own accord, whether their child had stolen her from you, or whether it was all just an act. You also wanted to cry when they called you one of the guests, as if giving your daughter away wasn’t your birthright, as if being there alone made you and your identity as her mother also somehow unofficial. But you didn’t shed any tears. You didn’t actually know if you were sad or happy. You didn’t know whether you should feel abandoned or liberated. You had been released from the prison, relieved of the biggest gift of your life: being a mother.
You only finally, truly saw him—your daughter’s partner—when he took a half day off work to drive you to the airport. It was late morning, and your daughter wasn’t there because she couldn’t get away from the office. You’re not sure exactly when the moment came, but you know that when you looked over at him—maybe as he was fiddling with the heater or searching for a song on his playlist—you were struck all of a sudden by how very handsome he was. You could imagine him twenty-five years from now, at your age: his Latin jaw, his lively blue eyes, his wavy black hair gone salt-and-pepper.
Hugging goodbye at immigration, before you went your separate ways, you caught the scent of vetiver and patchouli on his neck, with hints of orange and pine.
In the airplane, on the journey home to Jakarta, you felt like a bird who had just been recaptured and locked back in its cage.
When the time comes—when Brenda and Paul arrive at your house, more like guests than family—you’re nervous and cannot meet Paul’s eyes. You keep stealing glances at your husband, afraid he sees the change in your behavior. But you quickly realize your husband wouldn’t give a shit even if you dyed your hair blue and lay down naked beside him, or a gaping hole opened up right at his feet and you disappeared into the abyss forever. Something about his ongoing sanctimony makes you want to appear modern and egalitarian, so when your driver asks where he should put Miss Brenda’s suitcases, you answer, don’t bother, don’t bother, they can take them to the room themselves. You know your daughter considers live-in household help a form of outdated feudalism that should be eradicated, and as soon as your driver leaves the room, you whisper to your daughter, okay, you two, you’ll sleep in the guest room, alright?
That night, when your husband and child are chatting in the sitting room, you embolden yourself to join your daughter’s partner, who is smoking on the terrace. Paul still calls you Anna, not Tante, or Mrs. Effendi. You try to make small talk, and you two briefly exchange banalities: the airplane food, his impressions of Jakarta traffic, his deeply fulfilling, idealistic work. You keep yourself from asking, so, how much do you make a month? You’re sure he can sense the bizarre awkwardness of the situation, but you catch that scent whenever he leans forward, patchouli and vetiver and something foreign yet familiar—maybe it’s his sweat rising in the heat, mingling with the tropical humidity—and it makes your heart go wobbly.
Suddenly, your hand clutches a tissue that you find in your pants pocket. You approach and wipe the perspiration from his neck.
“I’m afraid it’s true what they say, Jakarta really is quite hot.” You feel him shift sideways just a bit, but you don’t move away. “And humid.”
Even though you can tell he was a little startled, once you step back and the moment has passed he doesn’t look too embarrassed. He just smiles and says, “Sure.”
Meanwhile, you’re internally rationalizing your behavior. Listen, Anna. You’re his mother-in-law. In the cosmology of male-female relationships, you absolutely have the right to wipe away his sweat. Don’t be so small-minded.
You two last on the terrace five more minutes, drawing out your small talk. As you chat about the must-see tourist spots, you sense an intimacy in his gaze.
Then, in the middle of the night, you cross paths again in the kitchen, without meaning to. The house is still.
“Hi,” you say. Your voice sounds odd—high-pitched, almost shrill.
“Hi, Anna,” he says. Your own name sounds strange in your ears. Only your husband and close friends call you that.
“What do you need, Paul?”
“I’m thirsty. I was just going to get some water . . .”
“Oh, didn’t I put a jug of water in your room?”
“Yes, but it’s already empty.”
For a moment you stand face-to-face, as if fate had brought you together. In the dim glow emanating from the water dispenser, you see the gentle movement of his taut stomach underneath his white T-shirt, rising and falling with his breath. You can’t speak. You let him fill his glass without interruption.
There’s a rustle and a lizard jumps out from behind the trash can. You’re both startled: the youth because he’s spent his whole life in a temperate climate and is not used to seeing reptiles inside the house, you because out of nowhere you’re like a woman possessed by the devil.
Paul clears his throat.
“Good night, Anna,” he says, then starts to walk back toward his room, where your daughter is waiting, maybe full of anticipation, maybe without any clothes on. Your heart starts pounding again, but this time with a pain that stabs into your gut. You don’t know what you’re thinking, but those two words, good night, sound so gentle and so loving, and out of some madness, you grab his arm to hold him there. Then you lean into him, your kiss landing on the left corner of his mouth.
For a moment, you both freeze. Panic courses like an electric shock through your whole body up to the crown of your head.
“Sorry,” you gulp, though there’s no need to apologize for a kiss goodnight, you should just laugh because it missed the mark—ha ha, it happens. Your daughter has often told you that if you make a mistake you have to just own it, and people will forgive you. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, she’d say, as long as you take control of the narrative.
But in the moment, that isn’t what you do. And you keep hold of his arm.
Paul jumps back, as if he’s been stung by a bee, letting out an unintelligible murmur. His expression is unreadable as he maneuvers out of your grasp. He doesn’t say anything, but when you try to approach him, he holds up his hand to keep you away.
“Good night, Paul,” you say in defeat, watching him return to his room without reply.
The next morning, when you enter the kitchen, Brenda is eating breakfast alone. Her face looks a bit strange, as if holding something back. You think to yourself: if there was ever a time for surrender, it’s now.
“Ma, there’s something I want to tell you.”
You steel yourself.
“Paul should be here too, but he’s sorry, he’s not feeling well.”
You’re still holding your breath.
“Ma, I’ve been meaning to tell you,” she says again. “Aku hamil.”
You don’t understand.
Or maybe you weren’t really listening. You’re a bit disoriented as Brenda walks toward you, both arms tentatively outstretched. Then you realize. Your daughter wants—and needs—a maternal embrace, your embrace. She’s pregnant—well, she says she is, and it’s not the sort of thing you joke about. It’s moments like this that make a mother.
You hug. “Congratulations, darling,” you say hoarsely. “I’m so happy for you!”
You try to remember when you last held her like this. Was it three years ago, the last time she came home to Jakarta? Or two years ago, when you managed to visit her in London, after borrowing whatever you could? Why had the child waited so long to tell you?
But, what good would it do to reopen old wounds? Soon you will be a grandmother, and as long as you live you won’t be able to erase the fact that you’ve kissed the father of your future grandchild in a way that could never be mistaken for grandmotherly.
“How far along are you?”
“Around three months, Ma. At first we were thinking we would tell you and Dad tonight, when we were at dinner. We wanted to surprise you!”
As usual, you don’t say much because you are afraid of being judged, especially by your own daughter, so you just smile. You reach out your hand and stroke her stomach, which still feels flat; it has never not felt flat. Even though twenty years have passed since the last time you rubbed Brenda’s tummy, when she was in pain from appendicitis, it’s one of your clearest memories.
And so, you spend the morning with your daughter, who together with her partner has graciously flown so far from the north, sacrificing their brief, precious, one-week holiday to look in on her parents.
Later that day, when you go down to the sitting room, you don’t see Brenda or Paul. Bu Yani, your housemaid, says they just left for the closest mall. “They said they wanted lunch,” she pouts, because she wore herself out cooking Brenda’s favorite foods and feels staggeringly disregarded. You remember how often, when she was a child, you would remind Brenda to always eat what had already been served, to always say goodbye before departing.
A few hours later, your cell phone rings.
“Ma,” Brenda says in a serious tone, “The source we’ve been chasing for months suddenly wants to meet. This person is penting banget, really important, for our project. You won’t mind if we skip dinner tonight, will you?”
You’re not given the opportunity to reply.
“I’m sorry, Ma. Ma’af ya. I hope you understand. The important thing is that Papa’s heard the good news, right?”
Your throat feels dry. For a moment you can’t remember what good news your daughter is talking about. And besides, when’s the last time she saw you chatting with her father?
“Oh, and after that, maybe we’ll go out with friends. So we might get home a bit late, but you’re okay with that, right Ma?”
For a moment you have the urge to say something childish, like: But we haven’t seen each other for two years, and you’re only here for a week! Your time really can’t be prioritized for your parents? Or: Since when are your friends more important than your mother?
But, yet again you just mumble. “Of course, darling. Have fun.”
A week passes so quickly. It turns out you can only spend a very small amount of time with your daughter, who’s always busy, and her partner, who always seems to be feeling unwell.
On their last morning in your house, once again you find Brenda eating breakfast alone. Her face looks a little peaked, like it used to when she would go out clubbing and come home in the wee hours.
“Papa left earlier than usual,” she said. “But I already pamit. I said my goodbyes.”
You nod. You don’t tell Brenda that in fact you purposefully urged him to leave early, though his meeting at the university didn’t start until nine. You wanted to be alone in your turmoil today, you needed every inch of your house to yourself.
“Paul’s still not feeling great, Ma,” Brenda continues, though you didn’t ask. “And we still have to pack.”
You don’t answer. While you pretend to check the refrigerator, you remind her that the car will be ready at 3:30 to drive them to the airport.
“Today you’ll be staying here at home, right, Mama?” Brenda asks. For a moment her voice sounds like a child’s, like she’s still five years old. You’re a little surprised, and moved, because you wouldn’t have imagined she would care whether you were at home or not. And because her calling you Mama is still the most beautiful sound in the world.
“I’m not sure,” you say a bit shakily. “I might have to meet Aunt Laura around 2:30.” Of course you’re lying because Laura isn’t even in Jakarta. But you don’t want to be home when they return from the mall. Or when they leave for the airport.
Suddenly your tears spill over onto your cheeks. You embrace your daughter and stroke her hair, allowing yourself this brief moment.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart,” you whisper.
Brenda looks at you in amusement, as if you’ve lost your marbles.
That afternoon, at around 2:45, you go to the mall near your house (not the mall where they’re eating lunch) and send Brenda a WhatsApp message: I won’t be meeting Aunt Laura until 3:30. I’m so sorry. I don’t think I’ll make it in time to say goodbye.
You wait expectantly, a little disappointed that Brenda doesn’t seem disappointed enough to phone you right away. Fifteen minutes later, you see the word typing appear on the upper left of your cell phone screen. At least there’s something she wants to say.
I’ll miss you.
That night, around 7:45, two hours after you get up the courage to go home, there’s a message from Brenda.
Taking off in five. Thank you for everything, Mama.
Your chest feels tight, but you don’t want to be the one to send the last message.
Three or four minutes later, she sends another message: PS Salam dari Paul.
Greetings from Paul. This time written in Indonesian, a language that your daughter’s partner doesn’t speak, by your daughter, who now speaks it so little, and who clearly doesn’t know anything—at least, not yet.
Suddenly you feel so depraved, so utterly beyond redemption. You’ll have to wait so long before you can cuddle and croon and rock your grandchild, as its mother and father look on.
And you know that none of it will be up to you.
“Anna dan Partner Anaknya” © Laksmi Pamuntjak. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2023 by Annie Tucker. All rights reserved.