Leaves of Peace
by James Penha
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Halim hailed a pedicab and asked the teenaged driver to take him to the old bread factory. “What old bread factory?” the puzzled driver asked.
“Oh, I mean to say, Marissa’s.”
The driver smiled. “Marissa’s? There’s nothing old about Marissa’s. It’s the trendiest place in Batang Toru.”
The parking lot was crammed with motorbikes and cars in front of a colonial-style building looking fresher and friendlier than it did when the Dutch built it in the 1930s. “Welcome to Marissa’s,” the driver said as Halim stretched his legs out of the pedicab. The driver looked at his phone. “Hmm. It’s already after four — happy hour — half-price drinks with any purchase of a snack. I think I’ll have a biscotti and cappuccino myself.” The driver grabbed Halim’s crutches from the cab of the pedicab. “Let me show you the way.”
“It’s hard to imagine this is really Batang Toru,” Halim said to the driver.
“Friend,” said the driver, “it would be hard to imagine Batang Toru without Marissa’s.”
As they reached the entrance, a young man and woman, clad in fashionable batik sarongs opened wide a pair of double doors. Halim turned to the driver: “Funny these traditional costumes amidst all the neon.”
“Maybe, but the coffees and teas are all Indonesian, mostly from Sumatra.” A clutch of youngsters at a round table hailed the driver who checked to see that Halim was steady on his feet before telling him that he would be sitting with his friends. “Feel free to join us.”
Halim thanked him and asked if he knew where he could find Marissa herself.
“Of course, she is upstairs at the circular coffee bar, on the gold stool. She is the queen here, and that is her throne.” The driver reminded Halim that if he needed a ride later, he or one of his friends would be happy to provide one.
Halim looked at the circular stairway that led to Marissa’s upper floor. He moved his right crutch to join its mate under his left arm so he could grasp the handrail. He had ascended one step when a barista in batik leaped to confront him. “Please, sir, you can use our service elevator. It’s not pretty, but I think it will make your visit to Marissa’s more pleasant even so.”
The young woman led Halim to a door near the kitchen. She opened it and pressed a button. “Have a nice trip!” she said as a mechanical door slid shut, and the elevator moved confidently to the upper level where the door opened onto scenes of conviviality at the center of which was the circular bar and a preposterously ornate gold stool upholstered with purple cushions where, back to Halim, a grand personage draped in a rainbow-colored head scarf and a long black sarong laughed and gesticulated as she conversed with dozens at the bar.
Halim shuffled toward the figure and whispered when he had reached the golden stool, “Tomi?”
Marissa whirled around, her eyes wide and her brow wrinkled. “Tomi? Tomi?” she yelled angrily before her face relaxed in recognition of the man who called her, and she said, slowly and quietly, “Oh. My. God. Halim!”
Marissa stared, and Halim nodded once. “Tomi,” he said, “Yes, Tomi, I am Halim.”
Marissa saw that Halim sagged on crutches. “Well, you look like shit. You need a chair. Here, come with me.” She spun herself off the stool in a grand gesture, said loudly to her audience, “This fellow is one of my childhood friends, everybody. But he was, as you can see, a much older child than I.” She wrapped her right arm around Halim’s shoulders and led him to a banquette in a far corner of the café.
A skinny barista carried the creamy concoction Marissa had been drinking at the bar and placed it on the table before her. “Kiki, my friend needs one of the powerhouse juice drinks.” She turned to Halim beside her. “You do look like crap, Halim. I’m surprised I even recognized you.” Her voice dropped its divaness. “But how could I not? Hmm?”
“You,” Halim managed, “look amazing!” After noticing Marissa’s right eyebrow rise, he added, “Beautiful, actually.”
Marissa bowed in gratitude. “You know, Halim, it’s because of you that I look—” she raised her arms wide — “this wonderful way.”
“Remember that time you beat me up?”
“I do. That’s why I’m here.”
“To beat me up again? This time with crutches?”
“No, of course not, Tomi.” He paused to ask, “Is it okay if I call you Tomi?”
Marissa turned away for a moment before answering, “It hurts to hear it from you. To be reminded of... of how much I loved you. How much you hurt me.” She waved her hands, “But enough of that. Enough! The bruises are gone.
“And that’s my point. To cover the bruises you gave my face, I used my mother’s make-up. And I liked what that did for me. My family, my friends didn’t make fun because they accepted my rationale, the need to look... normal. Ironic, eh? And so, little by little, cosmetic by cosmetic, jewel by jewel, and blouse by gown, Marissa developed and ultimately thrived. And Marissa has you, Halim, to thank for it all. Well, not all; the broken ribs were quite nasty bits Marissa could have done without.”
“But... but can you can forgive me for my brutality that day?”
“Halim, I forgave you a long time ago. We were both fucked-up kids trying to understand who we were. Forgiveness came with understanding.”
“Then I am damned and damned again.”
“Because I forgave you?”
“Because I don’t know who else to ask for forgiveness.”
“Hello? Can we make a little sense here?”
Halim narrated his story from the onset of the cancer to its ransacking of his body to the helplessness of his doctor to the confidence of a magician in leaves and forgiveness. “The worst sin I ever committed in my life, Tomi, was beating you that day. I was sure that if you granted me forgiveness, I would be able finally to die.” He collapsed into his own lap.
Marissa leaned over him and held on to his shoulders, her face against his back. “Do you need the patch again now?”
“I need to die!” Halim moaned.
“Halim, when we were children... Did you love... Tomi?”
“I did, Tomi. So much. But...” Halim sat up again and looked into Marissa’s eyes. “but I was so afraid of such a love, I wanted to beat it out of myself. And instead I tried to beat it out of you. Can you really forgive me for that? Tomi, have you really forgiven me?”
“Halim, I have. But don’t you see: you need to forgive yourself. What is worse than denying love? What sin is worse than that? Can you forgive yourself, Halim?”
“I... don’t know... if I can.”
“Halim, let me take you back to Sibolga. It will make me happy to help an old friend, and maybe then you will feel you have atoned for an old, old sin.”
Halim said nothing.
“Come, let me get you to the elevator and downstairs. Wait for me at the entrance to the café. I need to freshen up a bit, and then I’ll pick you up in front. Okay?”
Halim allowed himself to be helped to the elevator where Marissa instructed a barista to care for her guest.
* * *
In fewer than twenty minutes, a white BMW sedan pulled up to the café, and the barista helped Halim, his backpack, and crutches into the back seat. When the driver moved the car forward, Halim reminded him they had to wait for Marissa. The driver laughed, stopped the car, turned around and said, “Marissa is already here, Halim. I thought it would be too difficult for you to explain her to your wife and daughter. So I dug out my old Guess jeans and shirt. They still fit Tomi!”
Tomi had scrubbed his face free of cosmetics and combed his black bob in a manly fashion. Halim was moved by the lengths to which his friend was willing to go to help him, and he was reminded, despite the years and the scars, of just how beautiful Tomi was in his looks and in his soul. It had not been wrong to love him, Halim thought.
Halfway to Sibolga, Halim felt the need to replace the fentanyl patch. And he thought to call his wife and Tirta to tell them they should be ready with the kelor again that night.
It was past midnight by the time Halim lay naked on his bed, this time in the presence of his wife and Tomi as well as Tirta who had a pail full of kelor leaves between her and her client. “Okay, then.” Tirta looked at Andri sitting with her husband’s hand in hers on the other side of the bed, “You have forgiven this man for all his sins?”
“He has done nothing to require my forgiveness,” Halim’s wife replied.
“Good. Good.” She turned to Tomi, sitting next to Halim’s wife, his hand gently patting his old friend’s knee. “And you?”
“Halim is forgiven.“ Tomi gripped the knee and looked directly at Halim. “You are forgiven. Isn’t that so?”
“It is so,” Halim said, slowly blinking his eyes. “It is so. I love you both.”
“And me?” joked Tirta. “No love for me? The one who lugged a bucket of wet leaves here?” Her face and voice softened. “The one who will now bring you peace?”
“May God be willing,” Tirta said, and she bathed Halim everywhere with the kelor leaves. When she was done and Halim lay green and quiet, she listened for his breath. “Call the doctor. He will need to confirm the death.” Already, Halim’s body was turning pale. “In the meantime, Andri, we can prepare Halim’s body for burial with the ritual bath.”
Andri said, “Not us. According to Islamic law, a man’s body can be bathed only by another man.” She turned to Tomi. “Bapak, are you ready and willing to offer this last gift to my husband?”
“Ibu Andri, I came her for this very purpose, for this honor. Indeed, I dressed for the occasion.”
Copyright © 2020 by James Penha