Yoga A. Pratama
Outside Is Where the Empathy Is Not
The ticks of the clock on the back of the portico of Pondok Serena sounded so sonorous. It was quarter past ten in the morning. On the ground floor Mami Dawarsih, the hoary and tubby landlady, was gleaning the litter and sweeping the yard with the smooth rustle of her broom that sounded as strident as bush crickets in the heart of a forest. She was an old widow—her husband deceased peacefully in the fifth year of their marriage—and had never been endowed any children. By the little fish-pond in the middle area of the flat, as usual, Grace was contemplating in a snug seiza sitting while rolling her round, bulging eyeballs here and there keeping pace with the oscillating dry leaves that were floating on the water. Both of them were accustomed to the silence between themselves even though they were quite close and in the very same place.
The landlady ceased her sweeping as she heard light taps on the wrought-iron fence. She casted a look to the direction the sounds came. There was a 26-year-old glazy-faced bloke in a neat, plain white shirt with an elegant Exsport bag on his back smiling to her. Mami Dawarsih stepped towards the fence in curiosity while carrying the broom on her hand.
“Good morning,” his carefree voice greeted her first. “It’s Irvan—Irvan Askara, from The Companionship Service,” he showed her his card member.
Mami Dawarsih was enchanted by his amiable expression and said: “Ah, Helmi’s successor?”
“Yes, that’s right, Mam!”
She rested her broom on the wall and rummaged the pocket of her floral house dress to take out the key. She unlocked the padlock, opened the fence, and let him in. She was still more enthralled by his mannerism as the bloke kissed the back of her hand cordially.
“Grace!” she shouted, “Look, he’s your new befriender. He’s Irvan. Come here and greet him!”
Grace did not take any step to approach them; she merely stood up from her ascetic sitting so that her childlike figure emerged into conspicuousness as she was attired in a white t-shirt covered with dark-blue strapped overall, casted a smile to her new friend, and waved her hand saying “Hello!” in a playful manner.
Irvan himself was not so much vexed by this because he had known in advance that this sort of thing would soon be his novel ordinariness; in order to repay her greeting, he smiled and said “Hi!” in a still more playful manner. It was the first day for him to dedicate his social concern in the flat. He looked around, observed the pond and the main room, and upturned his head to glance at the second storey. He was fascinated by the deafening tranquillity of the building that sounded contradictory to his sanguine temperament and simultaneously felt so servile over this that he felt clumsy all of a sudden lest he would do something rudely outlandish in this noiseless place.
“Grace’s always like that,” Mami Dawarsih broke his reverie. “She loves to contemplate there, by the pond. She loves the fish and the water lilies. And I suggest you not to disturb her, really. Last year, the first year she came here, I approached her there to serve the lunch. Yes, she smiled and said ‘Thank you’, but soon she returned to her contemplation; and by the tone of her saying I felt I was disagreeable to her. Since then I never do that again. But, however, she’s a very talented little girl. She’s good at playing violin. We, I particularly, love to hear her play the violin in silent evenings. She plays it inside her room, but that smoothing sounds can be heard from afar; and the people here never complain about anything because the sounds are agreeable. She’s lovely. And I hoped you were fine with her unwillingness to greet you earlier.”
“Don’t worry, Mam. I know it would happen and I don’t get offended in the slightest. It’s okay. It’s my job. Besides, those sorts of people are sometimes adorable, and lovely, I agree with you.”
Mami Dawarsih painted an expression of relief on her face to be seen by her interlocutor and, as seemed to her, he therefore felt the relief too; but in her inward soul the expression was plainly flat because those preliminary words of her introducing Grace to him were but niceties. She beckoned to him to follow her ascending the staircase so as to greet other occupants. While stepping forward, she said something she nearly forgot to the new befriender: “Her full name is Grace Kristin Ambarsari, by the way.”
When Mami Dawarsih had stepped off the upmost stair, she brought Irvan to the door of room A, Silvia’s room. She knocked the door thrice and even shouted the occupant’s name because the door was never opened. When she doubted whether Silvia was inside or not, she continued the tour with Irvan.
“Ya, Mami!” shouted a voice. Mami Dawarsih slackened her step and turned her head. The door opened. Silvia, in wrinkled hair, blushingly acknowledged her apology of being late opening the door while fiddling with her lips which were smudged by her own waning lip gloss. She was in a grey shirt and long training pants with reddened eyes and bottled-up face; and in accordance with her appearance, Mami Dawarsih surmised that Silvia was just sobbing and hectic sweeping her tears aside when the landlady called her form the outside.
“You look sad, Sil,” the landlady worried. “What happened?”
“Nothing, Ma,” Silvia forced a smile, but however the smile did not seem pretentious. Mami Dawarsih soon intended not to offend her by compelling her to unburden her concealment.
“Here’s Irvan,” she said, “your new befriender. Irvan, this is Silvia Anya Delika. She’s a political science student. Call her Silvia.”
“Hello, Silvia” he greeted her; Silvia replied it by smiling shyly.
“Where’s Helmi, Mam?” the latter veered her glance to the landlady.
“He won’t be working here again. He said he’s just been accepted in a big company in Jakarta. And from now on you’ll be accompanied by Irvan,” she finished her explanation in an appeasing expression. “Ah, and don’t forget that tonight is the Camaraderie Night.” Silvia nodded. The landlady bade her goodbye and closed the door.
When the landlady and the befriender were walking slowly traversing the inhabited room B, she explained to him what the Camaraderie Night was. It was a night where all the occupants of Pondok Serena assembles in the main room to talk to and know each other, to share a story about their experiences and hometowns, or to discuss about a particular subject in an intimate way in order to unite them (Mami Dawarsih was so fond of calling it ‘melangsingkan jarak’) into duly togetherness.
At the door of room C, she stopped. The strains of sedative bossa nova piece of music from the inside sounded so soft yet smoothing even to her:
Is like a weapon
Is like a weapon
Against the present
Against the present
The present tense
She did not venture herself to knock the door; she just peeped through a wee space of the opened shutter. She saw Lidya, still in her baggy pyjamas and warmish socks, was dancing swiftly undulately in the same harmony to the music. She did not want to disturb her and thus was perplexed. “She’s quite weird,” she whispered to Irvan, “this morning, at dawn exactly, I came here to wake her up and offer the breakfast, and she was already up but still in her bed with the coverlet wrapping her slender body and a book on her hand, but she didn’t read it. She was daydreaming. And I asked her, ‘Hey, what are you doing? Why are you so dreamy?’; and she replied, ‘Be quiet , Ma! I’m hearing the footsteps down the alley and wondering where they go.’ And she loves to be alone just as the rest of the people here. I don’t know. I bet she can cope with people, but she chooses not to. She’s a difficult person.” Mami Dawarsih stepped to continue visiting another room and discouraged herself to knock the door again lest she would have Lidya embarrassed getting caught in action. “Her name is Lidya Laksamana Anindya,” she added, “a psychology student.”
The next door was the last room in that row of rooms. It was Albar’s, room D. Mami Dawarsih knocked the door and as she heard a voice saying that the door was unlocked, she opened it herself. There was a glassy-eyed face of a bloke that baffled the sight of Irvan; and its white-coloured lineament did not seem to radiate brightness to the room’s atmosphere. Irvan therefore pitied him. The poor man was still in bed meditatively anxious. Since it seemed to her that the occupant was not in a good mood to converse, Mami Dawarsih just introduced the new befriender to him and reminded him that tonight was the Camaraderie Night. When the visitors were outside, while walking slowly across the floor reaching the room E, the landlady whispered a story to Irvan: “It’s difficult to describe him, really. He has a very complicated problem. His name is Albar—Albar Sawani. A second year student. He studies maths. He’s become so gloomy and depressed when he told me this story three months ago. Alya, his sister, who lives in Jogja together with her parents, has stopped going to the elementary school because her parents haven’t paid her five-month arrears. He said he was vexed by the condition and wanted to blame himself because he was the culprit. He spent nearly all his father’s money solely on his study in the outset. ‘Every time I call Alya,’ Albar once said, ‘she picks up the phone but she talks to me reluctantly. I think she hates me.’ I pity him. And every time I ask him if he’s okay, he always says he’s okay. But I know he lies. Because his face always tells me that he’s quite desperate in looking for solutions. He told me that he had applied for a job in eight cafés around here. ‘I owe her greatly,’ he said referring to his sister, ‘so I want a job. If not for taking her back to school, at least it’s for buying her any gift once a month.’ His wish never comes true. He hasn’t received any response from those cafés. He’s idle, sitting on his bed every time, without gaining any money. I can feel his sadness.”
Having heard this miserable story, Irvan shuddered a little and said: “My job seems harder now, Mam, because I should have him rid of his dreadful condition.”
They were already at the front door of Julia Susan’s room. The door was open. Julia was there sitting on the floor by herself again. Her hands were in pockets and head tilted on one side. Mami Dawarsih greeted her, but Julia replied coldly. The former introduced Irvan to her and informed that tonight was the monthly meeting night. The latter smiled a little and said cynically: “I will come. It sounds interesting.”
The visitors departed and stepped to the next room, but the landlady stopped by the railway. “She’s Julia Susan,” she began the story in a low voice. “She hardly talks. And she loves standing and contemplating by the railway, exactly right here,” she pointed. “One day, when I was peeping from my little room down there, I saw her walk up and down on this porch as if pondering over something. I wanted to rebuke her, but I didn’t want to make her embarrassed. So I just let her that way. When she was not satisfied enough with her contemplation upstairs, she went down the staircase and walked to the fence to get outside. And there in the outside, she let the raindrops hitting the palm of her hand. She smiled. She looked very pleased by that. I don’t know why. She had once told me it was hard to make friends so she never joined any committee or community; and she said she didn’t belong to anything in the outside—when she was outside she felt numb and had no appetite to do anything. She hates something outdoorsy. That’s painful. But the most interesting thing about her is this one: She once said to me, ‘Ma, I don’t even know how to start a conversation,’ and I just laughed and said: ‘Oh, poor Jul! You don’t need to think of anything to start a conversation. Just talk about the weather, the traffic jam, your relationship, your last holiday, your childhood, and such.’ And she replied: ‘I often keep myself in silence when I’m with my friends who are chatting about everything. I don’t get engaged in the chat, I just observe. I try to figure out how they start the subject and how the pattern of the conversation goes. I get it. I get it! But when I try to do it myself to a person, I just can’t. I’m sad.’ I just can’t help it, Van,” the landlady laughed almost voicelessly, “she’s difficult and simultaneously weird.”
Mami Dawarsih was at the moment talking on the porch of Grace’s room. As the occupant was not inside and still sitting ascetically by the pond down there, she asked Irvan to follow her. They traversed the inhabited room G; and as they arrived at the room H whose door was opened, they slightly saw the face of a little man leaning downward greatly absorbed to the screen of his laptop. He was smiling and even nearly laughing frantically; but when he was faced by the visitors’ presence, he guiltily ceased to smile and drew a unembellished lineament on his own countenance. “What’s up, Mam?” he said in a rather trembling voice. Mami Dawarsih said that there was nothing extraordinary but the introduction of the new befriender and the information about the monthly meeting. She bid him goodbye when the tasks had been done and departed.
When she was outside reaching the staircase to go downstairs, she told a story about him. “I pity him, but he’s funny. He’s a sort of man who can only smile when he was on social media. In the previous meeting, he always kept himself in silence when I asked him to speak. Ah, here’s the funny thing: He once said to me, ‘With Facebook and Twitter, I feel so alive. I can smile with my old friends,’ I didn’t know then how to react; and he continued: ‘but, please, Ma, don’t tell anyone about it! I can’t cope with people in my university at the present. When I was outside, I feel like I was a walking corpse. It’s worthless. But it’s me, it’s who I am. A man who hides alone in his bedroom talking to a laptop when the big family gathering is held every Lebaran Day. But, please, don’t tell anyone, Ma.’ And sometimes he’s being silly—no, he’s certainly silly. One day a few months ago he ran to my room and knocked the door shyly. When I asked him what had happened to him, he said: ‘Ma, please help me do my homework,’ I laughed very hard. He studies agriculture. And then I said: ‘Why on earth do you ask me to assist you? I don’t know anything about your study. Why don’t you try to get help from Grace? She might have a better knowledge of your work even though she’s not in the same major as you’; unfortunately he said: ‘Who’s Grace, Ma?’ I was vexed by that remark and then I surmised if anyone here doesn’t know each other. That’s sad, Van. It’s your job now.”
“That sounds challenging, Mam,” Irvan replied when they had tramped the ground floor. “But I’ll try my best, with all my might. What’s his name, Mam?”
“Ah, I nearly forgot. He’s Angga—Angga Dhawaki.”
“Okay, noted,” he memorised the name.
When this session was over, the new befriender was enmeshed in the amazement of the complexity of the life here. He fell in love with the landlady’s storytelling even though it was quite blabbering. He had no choice: he had to listen to all the story in his first day in Pondok Serena or else he would have no idea what he had to prepare in his next visits.
“Don’t forget! The Camarederie Night. At eight. You are invited,” Mami Dawarsih reminded him. He bid the landlady goodbye, said that he would come, and departed with a more animated, impressive thought in his head.
The occupants of Pondok Serena but Silvia were already sitting on the sofa in the main room. Under the sombre yet warmish yellow light of the big chandelier they were lolling and stretching out their legs; but there were no utterances whatsoever could be heard. They were inevitably captivated by the luxury of silence within themselves. The only sounds audible were the thuds of Mami Dawarsih’s china cups of tea and plates of light-food that were stowed onto the table conscientiously as she served the snacks for them. Irvan was sitting on a recliner while leafing through his papers and ostentatiously thinking about something.
Silvia came descending the staircase and was sobbing. Her sniffles were distinctly perceptible from afar. All the heads in the main room turned. She came nearer and took a seat on the right side of Lidya but maintaining the distance.
“What happened, Sil?” Mami Dawarsih leaning her head to her.
Silvia could not answer; she was still sobbing greatly. In order to obtain a story from her, Mami Dawarsih stood up’ and attempted to console her. In a few minutes’ time, her sobs ceased. In a reddened countenance and glassy eyes, she tried to explain, but she hesitated.
“This world is cruel,” she started, in a quivering voice, still sobbing with one hand covering her mouth. “Fucking cruel! I wanna be frank right now. And I guess it’s the right moment. I’ll tell you a story, but please don’t shun me. I need friends. I know I’m mean and contemptible. But, please, you all are my last hopes.” She was bending her head downward.
“Okay, Silvia,” said the landlady, “just tell us what has made you sad.”
“It’s not sadness, Ma! Not as simple as that. It’s about…I don’t fucking know. It’s sort of meanness. It feels like you’ve done something wrong that cannot be forgiven. It’s an unforgivable sin.” The audience were impatient to hear what it really was. She continued in a miserable, gloomy voice: “The people in the campus are very cruel. They bullied me yesterday. They’ve just found out that I’m working in prostitution.” Everybody was dumbfounded. Their eyes were bugging out. “Yes, I’m a prostitute! I’m abject. I’m miserable. I know. I’ll soon go to hell. But please don’t shun me. I need friends. They who bullied me don’t know how I feel. And I beg you all to know how I feel. It’s complicated. Everyone has their own skeleton in their cupboard. And please imagine yourself how does it feel when the skeleton is discovered by other people and then they soon judge you no matter what because you’ve long concealed that fucking skeleton in your cupboard.
“Ma, forgive me!” she turned her head to the landlady. The audience were as yet astonished; Irvan attempted to dissemble his astonishment by writing the notes of what Silvia had been speaking. “Please forgive me because I’ve lied to you. I’m not working in a pet shop. How on earth can I work in a pet shop? I hate cats!” This explanation sounded funny to some of the audience, but none of them dare to laugh at it. “Ma, forgive me! You are as merciful as an angel.”
“Okay, it’s okay,” the landlady spoke in complexity. “Yes, Silvia, I know how you feel now. I forgive you—
“Thank you very much, Ma.”
“—but please tell me how can you work in such a place?—But, well, okay, you don’t’ need to explain that. You need consolation now. Let me—“
“Doesn’t matter,” Silvia chimed in. “I’ll explain it. But, first, thanks for your forgiveness. It means a lot. It’s hard to explain, actually. I have to work in such a place because I had no choice—“
At this point, Albar was compelled to say something but eventually discouraged himself to do so. “No choice?” he thought, “Choices are everywhere. I’ve applied for a job in some cafés without being responded at all. But I think it’s better to be idle and impoverished rather than obtaining money in such an abject way.”
“—my dad had passed away two years ago and since then I worked in that mean place. But, I have no choice. My mum works selling cookies, but the money won’t suffice for my little sister education in the high-school. So, I felt I was responsible for that. My sister is now in the final year in the high-school; and she wants to go here, to study in the same campus as me. I try to fulfil her wish by working in this prostitution. But, you know, this word is unfair. I work there for something noble, but people judge me. ‘You miserable whore! This campus is for educated people, not for you, slut!’ they say. It feels awful, Ma.” She bent her head downward again for a while, fiddling with her fingernails, sobbing, and fearing the possible insulting judgements from her audience.
The audience were still in silence; but the content of their silence was now a little bit different: they no longer felt that luxurious and personal tranquillity, but the difficulties on conveying anything to that unusual subject. As for Irvan, today had been so awfully unpredictable; in the first day of his work, he had been faced by those funny stories in the morning and now this heavy subject.
“But, thank you for your attention,” Silvia added, “I feel more relieved now even though this miserableness cannot be erased. It’s not the matter. Please, go on! I just want to say something. And I’ve done it. Forget what I’ve said. Pretend it never happened. Pretend the story was fiction.” She was still sobbing there on the corner of the sofa.
Mami Dawarsih turned her head to Irvan who was brooding. She poked her and made him say a word or two to open the meeting. “Okay,” he said awkwardly, “this is my first day here and it has been amazing. It seems more challenging to me. You all have a very diverse personality. Okay,” his hands quivered, “I want to be straight. So, this is the list of my job here,” he showed a paper and then read it himself. “First, to build your sense of self-confidence and self-worth. Second, to build your capacity to cope with new experiences. Third, to enable you to reflect on the decisions you make in your life and to consider the influences that have an impact on your decisions. Four, to support you to actively change an aspect of your lifestyle that you feel is detrimental and that you wish to change. Five, to enable the you to develop the confidence to form and maintain positive relationships with others in the neighbourhood. From now on, I want you all to know each other, at least to know who’s next door. Mami had told me many stories. And from them I concluded that you are all very isolated. There are two factors: internal and external. The external one, for example, is that Silvia’s case. The internal one is very hard to be detected, it’s so very personal. Sometimes you choose to be alone because you want to. But that’s not a good idea. I read news yesterday on the paper, ‘Social isolation is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.’ So, I want you all to know what the real meaning of social life is. Social means that you have to connect to other people. And since you don’t connect to each other, and don’t even know each other, your life is useless and incomplete now. I want to unite you all.”
“Wait, what?” Lidya chime in.
“What?” the befriender rejoined.
“You’re so fucking nosey, mate.”
“I’m not nosey, I care about you.”
“Oh, come on! I always hate group-ish things.”
“If you form a connection with your team, you might be stressed, but not isolated.” 
“Okay, I know you sympathies with me, with us, mate, but I’ll tell you, sympathy is never enough.”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
“Ah, for fuck’s sake!” she flung her back to the sofa. “Look, mate,” she said, “like Silvia said, everyone has their own skeleton in their cupboard. That’s their privacy. And you can’t immerse yourself into somebody else’s privacy. I’ve been here for three years and I’ve met about four or five befrienders. And what’s the result? Nothing. They’re useless. Why are they useless? Because they never see problems through our own eyes. They’re incapable of it. What we call ‘privacy’, they call it something else. What I mean about ‘privacy’ here is that there so many, many problems, internal problems, that cannot be conveyed publicly to somebody else and they choose to hide it deeply in the recesses of their heart instead. And those dumbass befrienders never detect it, and will never be able to. They can’t do it. And we ourselves will never convey it to you. Because it’s called privacy. You cannot put someone else in your principle of life, in your standard. You just can’t! In this age of our life, silence, privacy, and aloneness are luxury to some people. They can be happy being alone even though you might think it’s really mad. ‘We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone,’ said Orson Welles. You’re not alone in feeling lonely and you’re not lonely in the loneliness.”
“But, come on!” Irvan refused to be won over. “Don’t you get bored living here every day, every minutes, every second? Living at home all the time is as same as living in prison. Do you know how does it feel living in prison? So fucking dull! My friend tells me it feels like stitching the roads to our death. The clock on the wall of the prison, he said, seems to be talking: ‘I’m eternal, you’ll be dead.’”
“I don’t fucking care. Now you talk about something outdoorsy. No, thanks! That’s the thing you fools cannot detect. You don’t know our points of view of the outside life. It looks enchanting to you sanguine people; but it doesn’t look the same to us. For some people like us, sometimes outside is where you know where you’re wrong, while you’re really not; outside is where you admit your incapability of coping with society, but we have our own way of coping with people and you just don’t know how; outside is where you make unpardonable sins, but when we’re alone we feel like we’re in heaven because we’ve never done any sin, because we’re innocent. With people outside in the society, you feel so social; but when we’re alone, we feel so alive. That’s just fucking different.”
Irvan did not seem to surrender but he found no words to encounter that smarting explanation. The audience felt enthralled by what one of their neighbours had elaborated. When Lidya was speaking of it, nearly all of them were interested to engage on what was being discussed. When she spoke of those words, they felt like they were on the side of the orator. By her oration, they felt as if they had suddenly united by the sense of belonging of people who loved. It looked like it was the first time for them to be integrated as neighbours.
Mami Dawarsih herself could not say a single word. Irvan stood up acknowledging his being a loser. He ushered the landlady to depart the meeting for a little while and go to the fence. The landlady begged for apology for this because it was the first time that this kind of thing happened in Pondok Serena. The interlocutor said that it was fine even though he could not efface the poignancy of Lidya’s words. His fate of working here was on the hand of the landlady. She said that she would decide it tomorrow day because she needed to sleep. The befriender bid her goodbye and departed bent-headed from his new workplace accompanied by the silence of the night in the neighbourhood.
Those numbers (1-7) are meant to lead the readers to a more detailed explanation and resource, but unfortunately I have no time to write down all those notes because the deadline is getting closer. My apologies for this silly failure.
The Casual Vacancy by J. K . Rowling
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
“Lonely Girls” by Suede
“Sylvia” by Pulp
“Inside Susan” by Pulp
“Big Julie” by Jarvis Cocker
“Decks Dark” by Radiohead
“Present Tense” by Radiohead
“Ingenue” by Atoms for Peace
“Grace” by U2
“Grace” by Supergrass
Word count: 4849