The Hairbrush

The shadows just stayed there, looming in the corners of my bed.

She left her hairbrush in my room that morning. It was nothing fancy — a plain maroon one with large, thick spokes that ended in soft little balls. But it suited her personality. It suited her bushy hair. Dark, beautiful hair that had a weight that I could really feel in my palms.

I loved her hair. It was beautiful. It always smelled nice, too. How could she think I could possibly live without seeing that hair?

“This really is the last time, this time,” she told me as she hurriedly got dressed in front of my mirror.

I watched her lazily, still under the covers. I did not respond.

“He wants to propose soon,” she said. “I don’t want to keep lying to him after we get engaged.”

The rushed way she put on her clothes and make-up reminded me of those mornings after drunk one-night stands where each party became convinced what a horrible idea it had been.

Ours wasn’t a bad idea — at least I don’t think so. It definitely wasn’t a drunk one-night stand. We’d had this for months now. It was something. It had to be.

She left without much of a goodbye. Maybe she really did regret our little experimentation. Maybe she wasn’t anything like me, after all.

I picked up her hairbrush and held it up close. The scent of her hair filled me with an intoxicating mixture of love and longing.

After fixing myself a late breakfast I poured myself another glass of coffee and sat by the window. I checked my phone. Nothing. I ended up checking our last chat messages. I looked at her profile.

She was so different in her profile. So… religious. Her profile picture showed her already wearing a hijab, smiling happily next to a smiling future fiance — a man, unlike myself. Her status updates quoted religious verses in that typical bad grammar young people use.

If I only knew her from her social media profiles, I would hate her. There was no doubt about it.

And yet there she was, in front of me. A woman, with all the depth and complexity that predicate brings. A woman with her independence. Why did I have to lose her?

“I love him, you know,” she had told me one day. “I quit smoking and drinking because of him. I really felt that he could make me a better person. More on the right track of how to live as a woman. You know?”

I nodded, back then. I was never much for words, however much I hated hers. “You want to be a good wife,” I said.

She nodded. “And a good mother.”

She had no idea how much those words hurt me.

“And yet you’re still sleeping with me,” I said, almost defensively. And as soon as I did I regretted it right away: She looked almost in tears.

My eyes searched for something inside hers, but whatever it was, it kept averting me. I love you, I wanted to say to her. But I knew those words would hurt her more than it would soothe her.

So I just held her hand, and when she became calm enough I held the rest of her.

Who was I kidding? She had no business being with me. Ours would be a future of adventure and uncertainty, of breaking the rules. A future of fighting against customs and traditions, of betraying religions, of speaking up against families. An unnatural future. An illegal future, here in this country.

What I could give her was only a future of hurt. She had made it clear enough that she did not want that.

So I just held her instead until she was calm enough to sleep. To forget everything. To face her inevitable future: Being what every Indonesian woman should be in the books. A good wife. A good mother.

I put the covers over her, headed out to the balcony, and smoked a cigarette. I watched her among the fog. Her hair looked beautiful, even from this distance.

It was a beautiful darkness I would soon have to stop seeing.

Later on, during the night, I would wake up and think of her. I would take her hairbrush and hold it up close — to my breasts, to my face. Perhaps the sweet scent of her would seep into my dreams, silently, through my pores, like shadows of a long-forgotten past.

But it never did. The shadows just stayed there, looming in the corners of my bed, hinting at a darkness that would never be.

I have never felt so alone in my life.

This has been a short story by Bonni Rambatan, with photography by Iris Laurencio. For more stories like this, please follow Pleasure & Pain, our Medium publication that explore the complex intricacies of love, sex, and relationships. To write for us, simply tweet the editor at @bonni07.

If you like discussions on storytelling, check out Narrative Design, a podcast on art, literature, and critical theory hosted by the editor of this collection.