Short Story by Eric Musa Piliang (The Jakarta Post, December 17, 2018)
HER BIG SMILE somehow eclipsed her small and slouching figure as she extended a greeting hand: “My name is Rose. I’ll be your neighbor.”
We could not have asked for a warmer welcome after a long and tiring journey as we were to begin a new life far away from home.
Rose was in her mid-60s, a little younger than both our mothers back home.
The second-floor apartment, where we would live for the next 10 months, shared a landing with Rose’s. It was late in the evening. My wife and I were struggling to move four big heavy suitcases up the two flights of stairs. She must have heard the commotion before she came out to greet us in the dimly lit corridor.
“How do you do?”
We gave her our names, going through one syllable at a time to make sure she would be able to pronounce them correctly. She got them right the second time. I was impressed.
“We’re from Indonesia.”
Her facial expression changed. She squinted and gave each one of us a probing look.
“I know your people,” she said, a crooked point finger raised like a professor.
If she knew something about Indonesia, it could not have been good.
“They’ll kill me in your country,” she said, her left hand moving right to left at neck level.
Why would we want to cut the neck of such a sweet old lady? I kept silent, waiting for what was to come next.
“I’m reading this,” suddenly she shoved a thick hardcover book at us, seemingly out of nowhere.
I had not read Jessica Stern’s Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill, but I was familiar with the newly released book because terrorism was the theme of my research for the coming year at the university here in this town.
Stern, the Harvard University expert on terrorism, had included in her book the 2002 bombings in Indonesia’s Bali island as part of a Al Qaeda terror campaign that began with the 9-11 attacks in the United States a year earlier.
“Yes, we have our share of terrorists,” I said, nodding to acknowledge that I knew what the book was all about.
“But I can guarantee, you’ll be safe in Indonesia,” I added, not so much to convince her, but more out of my sense of wounded national pride. We’re not all a bunch of terrorists.
“Why would anyone want to kill you anyway?” I asked.
“I am Jewish.” Rose said.
Before I could say anything, she turned and went back inside her apartment. “Good night.”
We were too tired to be upset by this short encounter. We finished moving the suitcases and went inside our apartment for the first time. We quickly found our way around: the bedroom, living room, kitchen and bathroom. Tiny compared to our home, but fully furnished and it looked cozy. We had rented it from the university where I would do my research for the coming year.
Good to know this early we’d have a neighbor with an attitude. But this is America, the land of individualism. You don’t really need to know your neighbors. We knew, however, that bumping into Rose would be inevitable since our front doors were adjacent to one another. We told ourselves to be cordial whenever that happened.
A few days later, she surprised us by inviting us to late afternoon tea. We gladly accepted.
Knowing we had come from a warm climate, she showed us her wardrobe and offered my wife her collection of winter clothes, including some overcoats with frills.
“Thank you, but I am all right, Rose. We already bought our winter clothes,” my wife said in broken English.
A little lie. We had planned to buy them before winter came. This was still August. I knew from my wife’s expression though that she was struggling to suppress her laughter. She would not want to be seen dead in those clothes.
“Wheeled shopping bag? I have two of these. You can use one.”
Again my wife said no, thank you. From our long stay in the United States five years earlier, we knew that only grannies use these carts. My wife was not quite there yet. Although this offer became a talking point later every time we struggled with 10 shopping bags each for the 30-minute walk home from Market Basket where we would do our weekly grocery shopping.
“How about these swimsuits?”
I knew then we would have a big laugh when we get home later.
“You’re sweet. But thank you,” I intervened.
We learned Rose was all alone in this world. She had never been married and was an only child. Her mother, a Holocaust survivor who moved from Poland after World War II, passed away a few years earlier. Rose had been a librarian in this university town, which explained the wide ranging topics of books she read, including the ongoing global war on terror.
Our conversation inevitably came to religion.
“Are you good Muslims?” Rose asked, after confirming what our faith was.
The effect of Stern’s book had obviously worn off. She had moved on to another book and another topic.
“We pray and observe the rituals, if that’s what you are asking. What about you?”
“Oh, I stopped believing in God. Can’t remember the last time I visited a synagogue.”
There was no guilt or remorse in her remarks. Like many Americans I came to know, they believed in something, but just not in organized religions. They’d keep their religious identity though.
“Saying prayers every now and then wouldn’t hurt,” I said. She seemed to ignore it.
Our friendship grew nevertheless. I made the mistake of remarking how much I loved her home-made potato latkes. Every week, she would bring a plateful of the Jewish pancake. It reminded me of the time I complimented my mother-in-law, just one week into my marriage, for her fried chili eggplant. After that, it was eggplant dishes every other night.
We’d invite Rose to dinner to our place occasionally, although she never really went for spicy food. We made sure whenever we had her over for dinner to go easy on the spices.
Rose surprised us in December when she revealed that she had been rethinking about her own faith since we had our conversation.
“I have started going to the synagogue again. Every day, actually. They gave me a job at the day-care center. I will be celebrating Hanukkah again.”
There were sparks in her eyes.
“Good for you,” I said. She seemed a lot livelier than when we first met her.
One day at the start of spring, I came home to find her with my wife in the living room of our apartment, looking scornfully.
“You’re a bad husband,” said Rose.
I turned to my wife, who only gave me a puzzled look.
“You should never leave your wife alone when she’s sick,” Rose said.
“It’s only a cold,” I said in my defense. “She only needs to rest in bed and she’ll be all right”
“Tsk, tsk, tsk. You should stay beside her.”
I learned later from my wife that Rose had made chicken soup and spoon-fed her.
I was never privy to the conversations my wife had with Rose, but they were certainly bonding closer and closer through the regular afternoon teas.
Rose no longer had any qualms befriending people who she had assumed would kill her because of her origin. Like most Indonesian Muslims, we too had grown up with a stereotypical view of Jews. That changed in the months we came to know Rose.
One day, I made a national TV appearance to comment on the visit of President George W. Bush to Indonesia. When I returned from the TV station, Rose greeted me at the stairway.
“My hero. Oh, I am so proud of you. You were good on TV.” She gave me a big hug.
Rose would make someone a great mother. My wife later told me she had been waiting for my return all day.
And then came what killed whatever remaining suspicions we had of one another. This was in May and we only had a few more months before heading back home.
My wife informed me she had been asked to go to Rose’s apartment that morning. Explaining that she was going to have surgery, Rose showed us a wall safe where she had kept all her valuable possessions, including jewelry, the title to her apartment and bank documents.
“In case anything happens to me, you will look after these,” Rose said, as related by my wife. There were no further instructions.
“I have no one else. You’re the only one person I know and love,” Rose told my wife.
To our relief, Rose returned from the hospital a few days later. We wouldn’t have had a clue what to do if the operation had not gone well. She recovered and was soon back on her feet going about her routine chores, including her day-care job.
All good things must come to an end. When we had to fly home at the end of my research work, so ended also our friendship with Rose built over 10 months.
The separation broke her heart as it did ours.
“Don’t say good bye and don’t look back,” said Rose.
But at least we left knowing that she would not be all alone again as we had found her. ***
Eric Musa Piliang is an Indonesian writer and editor.