Essay: Homecoming by Karisa Poedjirahardjo

It didn’t sink in until the grocery store, staring down a $9 jar of pickles. And it was only when I got to the candy aisle that I turned around and said, “I graduated!” out loud, defending the non-essential purchase. After that, I said “I graduated” to everything. Organic apple cider from Atkins, an extra bottle of Arizona, recipes from home via BooksActually’s free international delivery for any 3 local titles. 

The family Zoom celebration spiralled into politics: crackling voices fighting for the same cause, but to be louder about it. When the lack of a Premium plan ended the conversation at precisely 40 minutes, nobody was dismayed.

Immediately, another call announced itself on my phone screen. This time, just my parents. With difficulty, my mother switches to the front facing camera, pointed at a husky in the back porch, his once shiny fur greying with the tiles beneath him. Prince had started to grow weak, something about his liver but mostly his old age, I learned, that Thursday afternoon while procrastinating to pack and inhaling the last of an American Spring (in the safety of a 6 feet bubble, of course). 

The dog’s eyes were misty with cataracts, but he must have heard me because he lifted his head and took a few laps from the water bowl beside him, which had been ignored for days. The “Oh my God” that slipped from my mother’s lips dripped with miracle. 

When I woke up the next morning to catch my plane, he was gone. The world I purportedly “enter” after graduation already so full of grief, so unrelenting and yet so nonchalant in its destruction.

At the airport, I held my breath when anybody walked too close to me. Every time I lifted my mask to wipe the snot and tear solution dribbling down my face, I thought about the Corona particles waiting to ambush. The image of Prince’s limp body burned. I hoped for a big AirCon, wherever he was. Cold billowing through the bushy wheat stalks imitating fur on his body. I hoped his tongue hung out. 

If people found ways to cheat the system down here, I thought, swallowing a melatonin pill at my assigned aircraft seat, I’m sure they’ll do the same up there. I hoped Prince would be more discerning, and wondered why he ran away three years ago. What it was about the scent of garbage in a parking lot, three streets down that he could not ignore.

Maybe he would find Mbah Utie, even though she never liked him much. Always adjusting her kerudung to protect her from the sin that lived in his nose. Asking me to distract him while she ran into the house. Maybe he would find Akong. Taunt him with eye contact as he pees in places he knows he’s not supposed to. I hoped it would make Akong laugh, because I’ve begun to forget the sound of it – the midpoint between a cough and a cackle.

Turbulence punched right through the melatonin. My jaw hurt when I woke up, drool pooling in my mask. Again, I lifted the covering ever so slightly to wipe my mouth, but the scent of dried saliva, on top of the snot from earlier, remained trapped inside my mask. 12 hours remained.

I left Jakarta when I was old enough to remember everything that I loved, but too young to know how tightly I should have held on. I wish I had come back more. I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to realize I didn’t care about the glittering mirage of elsewhere.

I’m learning to hold my life more preciously. I’ve had some success: the pleasure of a late morning, for instance, turning in half-sleep with wordless requests for cuddles. Sometimes, I even feel guilty for putting cigarettes in my mouth, for not brushing my teeth, not exercising, not taking care of my stress until something hurts. I’ve got the guilt down but I haven’t quite figured out the other part.

When I stumbled off the plane – head spinning, the barrier of my mask punctured by an insistent humidity, an extra push of the diaphragm with every breath – a volley of masked airport attendants with their arms raised clustered at every turn to direct us. They pointed small white remotes at my forehead, and I wondered if they’d believe me if I said my head wasn’t hot from fever, but from crying. They checked my boarding pass. More temperature checks. Document checks again.

Through the bus window, I saw the city from an unfamiliar angle. The Helix, usually lit like a line of fireflies across the bay, was now invisible. The flyer looked more sculpture than kinetic. The giant lotus of the ArtScience, a mere silhouette.

We drove up Rochor Rd. The 24-hour Mcdonalds, where I would get supper after poetry readings at Blu Jaz on the rare occasion my iron-fisted mother let me stay out late as a teenager, had its light off. I saw a man asleep on a flight of stairs on the other side of the road. I thought back to those nights walking home. The streets were never so empty.

I wondered what the city will look like in July. When loitering teenagers will be allowed to fill the streets and parks again. If the cramp underground tunnels will have even less space, as hordes of stir-crazed families flock to their favourite stores again. I wondered which stores I will prioritize, which ones I will wait in line for and which ones I will bookmark for a later date. Will it be solemn or celebratory? Will we greet or suspect the people we walk past?

Author Bio

Karisa Poedjirahardjo, based in Singapore, has performed poetry on platforms such as SPEAK, Singapore Unbound, The Writer’s Club, the Esplanade, Speakeasy, and Destination:INK. As a literary organizer, she has worked with SingLitStation, and hopes to continue creating spaces to highlight local arts. She is interested in personal stories and how they converse with larger socio-political phenomenon.

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