Sun, 23 Jan 2000

A fatal joke

By Sunaryono Basuki Ks

Christmas reminded Tony of Mary. She could possibly be traveling around the world. She used to tell him about her dreams of making a long, long journey to every corner of the world.

"Guatemala must be a wonderful country. I've read some brochures and travel books about this marvelous country which is full of mysteries from the Inca civilization."

Tony could only look into her eyes that sparkled with excitement. He had not settled down yet. He was only a graduate student, while Mary was his junior. He could never imagine that he would be able to travel to Jakarta or Medan, or any town in Sulawesi, let alone traveling long distance to a vague country like Guatemala.

Mary was a wonderful girl and the most beautiful in her class. She was tall, slender, fair skinned and had tantalizing black eyes, pointed nose and black, healthy curly hair. Traveling was her dream.

"I'd like to live in a caravan, moving from one place to another," she once told Tony. He only smiled at her adventurous mind.

"You need to live in Europe or America, then," he commented.

"That's what I always want."

Again, Tony smiled and asked, "So, what would you do for a living?"

"Well, I can do many things. Work as a temporary secretary, earn a lot of money, and travel."

"And when you have spent all your money?"

"I'll stop in one city, find another job, earn some more money, and travel again."

"You are very optimistic!" Tony laughed.

"I am! Don't you already know that I'm always optimistic?"

"Oh, yes, you are. I know that."

"Nothing wrong with being optimistic, I suppose."

"Of course, not. That's very positive. But ... "

"But, you think, I mustn't be too optimistic?"

"It's not what I mean."

"So, what?"

"I don't know, Mary. You always have a very sophisticated mind, and I'm only a young simple countryman. I don't even know how to plan for my own life."

It had never come across Tony's mind to make Mary his girlfriend. She was adored by many, and already had a boyfriend. At least it was what Tony thought when seeing Mary riding along with Andre on his bike. Tony thought Andre was a very faithful boyfriend. He took Mary to campus in the morning, and picked her up in the afternoon. Andre himself studied at the School of Law at another university in the same town. Wherever they went, they went together. Until one day, when Tony got together with some friends at Mira's house to have a fruit salad party and Mary dropped by with another friend.

"Hello, Mary," Tony greeted her and caressed her beautiful long neck, while she only smiled, stood still and give it up to be caressed gently. Tony had never felt such tenderness and submission before. It was a strange intimacy for him, but it seemed to him that Mary took it casually. Possibly, there was nothing special about that.

Tony did not ask her after Andre. He only asked her if she would allow him to visit her sometime.

"Why not?" she smiled freshly.

Tony did not leave it long. He visited her the following Saturday evening. When he was at her door, she was already dressed beautifully and asked him, "Shall we go for a walk?"

"Good idea," Tony replied.

And, that was the beginning of the story. That day became the most important day ever for Tony. They walked hand in hand along the town's main street and went home. Friends Tony met could have thought that they were lovers. No. They were only friends. Tony enjoyed having a close friend like Mary, after Susy left him for his close friend.

Tony and Mary went to the movie together, but he never talked about love or being in love with this girl. Until, one night, arriving home, Mary held his arms and suddenly kissed him on the lips.

"I love you," Mary whispered. Tony did not say anything but responded with a kiss. He looked deep into her eyes.

"Say you love me, Tony."

"I do," said Tony.

They kissed intimately. After that they became close to each other and frequently longed for each other. Tony never said "I love you" to Mary because he felt it was not part of his culture, or even in his language, to do so. But Mary said it in English, and still, Tony never felt at home repeating the same sentence. It sounded like a scene in a western film, he thought. And love could be expressed not only in words, but also in the language of the eyes and in action. Did Mary think that kissing was only a game to play? Did she think he was not serious about the kiss?

They were together only for four very short months. Mary completed her undergraduate studies and moved to Padang to join her married sister. The distance made Tony lonely but he tried to kill the loneliness by working harder on his thesis and playing sport.

He wrote to Mary regularly, and the girl told him about the beauty of Teluk Bayur harbor.

"In fact, we live only a few hundred meters from the beach. Will you come and visit me? I will meet you at the harbor."

But Padang was very far away for Tony. He never imagined how he could save enough money to travel that far. Mary flew there from Jakarta and he had never been on board a plane!

All's well that ends well is only a title of a famous play, not a daily reality. All that was well did not always end well. One day, Tony received a shocking letter from Mary.

"Dear Tony, I think we should terminate our relationship at this point. I will find my own way, and you find yours. Best wishes, Mary."

Nothing had happened between them before Tony received the letter. They had never quarreled. Tony had never written her bad things and had never had any intentions of saying anything that could hurt her feelings. So, what could have had happened? Were the four months considered an insincere game? Was she still in love with Andre? Tony didn't know.

Mary told him that she had finished with Andre. She also told him about her another friend, who later became her unfaithful fiance. That man had an affair with his housemaid so she broke off the engagement. She returned the engagement ring and she wore the ring that was supposed to be worn by him.

Tony cried in his heart, and for some time tried to muffle his weeping with a pillow. But in the letter he wrote to Mary he said he was happy to hear that news before it was too late. He tried to show her his lightness about the matter, but he was not Milan Kundera in his The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

"Let us be friends instead," proposed Tony, in the most bitter way that only he knew. After that, Mary never got to know that Tony was really shocked and upset. He almost lost faith in girls. He had long been faithful to Susy who had left him several times, only to try with a new boyfriend, even a fiance, but eventually always failed and returned to wait for Tony. Only when Susy invited him one day did Tony agree to it. Tony introduced her to Rob, a handsome friend who had inherited some estates, and Susy became very intimate with him.

Knowing about this, Tony did not want Susy to return to him. He decided not to become a spare lover anymore. He then wrote her a letter in coarse words, pretending he hated her. His bait was caught properly. Susy got very angry, and replied a in no less coarse manner. She probably hated him now. Tony only smiled and soon Rob married her, without even inviting him.

This incident taught Tony about trust. Should he trust a girl who had seriously whispered words of love in his ears? Should he accept kisses as genuine ones, not merely as lip service or even a lustful and not serious pretense?

Bearing this in mind, only a year after his graduation he got married to a girl whom he did not question anything about her faithfulness or whatever, before she possibly would leave him.

Tony got a job and his busy academic career took him traveling a lot, both in the country and abroad.


Years passed by. On one occasion, while taking part in an international seminar on children and language education at a luxurious hotel in Bali, Tony surprisingly met Mary in a dining room.

He had never thought he would see her again after so long. The last he heard she worked at an airline company in Jakarta. Then, from some friends, he also heard that she had moved to the United States and was working there with her husband. Possibly she already had realized her dream of traveling to Guatemala.

Mary was dressed in a sleeveless violet gown, the one color she loved, and the type of gown that he loved most. In the gown he could stare the beauty of Mary's arms and shoulders. Stunned, he approached the table and said in trembling voice, "Hello, Mary?"

Mary turned around, looked at him from top to toe. "She could be surprised with my gray hair and distended belly," Tony told himself.

Then she smiled, the same sweet and friendly smile as it used to be.

"Tony? You must be an important man now? Please meet my husband Peter," she said introducing a man who was sitting near her.

Mary and Peter stood from their seats. Tony shook Peter's hand first, then turned to Mary. He would be pleased to give Mary a hug but he thought possibly it was not considered proper by her husband. So, he only gave his hand and Mary took it warmly.

"Where have you been, Mary?"

"It's a long story. Now, please join us."

"A pleasure," said Tony, taking a seat for himself. Mary told about her family that moved from one country to another as she had always dreamed of. No indication that they had any children. Tony, in return, told them that he lived and worked in Surabaya, and had six children: three sons, three daughters and some grandchildren.

"A happy grandfather!" Mary commented with a big smile.

"I am!" said Tony proudly. "And you are here for a holiday?" He asked Mary.

"It's a shame, I have never been to this island before."

"Oh, you could have visited Bali when you worked in Jakarta."

"How do you know that once I worked in Jakarta, Tony?" Mary asked.

In her eyes Tony still could see the sparkle of love. Was she still in love with him? Tony tried to throw away the thought. He was now a happy grandfather, a happy father and husband. Mary was a woman of the past. Everything is history now he thought. But Tony was still tempted to know why Mary suddenly cut their relationship for no reason.

He now could feel a burning ache deep in his heart. They promised to see each other again and gave each other their room telephone numbers.

During the break, Tony could not stop calling Mary.

"Are you alone, Mary?" Tony asked.

"Yes. Peter is swimming down there."

"You must be happy now, Mary?"

"Me? Happy? I only try to conceal the secret of my life behind my smile."

Nothing was heard on the other side. Tony also did not say anything. He suspected something had happened to Mary.

"Mary." Tony said hesitantly. No reply. "Mary," he whispered again.

"Yes, Tony," Mary answered in the same trembling and soft voice as years ago when they were still together.

"I called just to say that I love you," whispered Tony. He heard her weeping. Then she asked,

"What made you wait so long?"

Tony was surprised to hear that. No, he had said it, but not in words.

"But why did you suddenly leave me, Mary? Why?"

"I did not, Tony. No, I did not?"

"But why the letter?"

After a long silence, he heard,

"I wrote to know to check whether you really loved me. But you gave me a different reply. I was only joking, but then I was confused. Silly, I never had the guts to say sorry."

Tony was startled. But immediately knew that it was all over.

"But you made a horrible joke, Mary. You had never done anything like that before," Tony replied.

It was the last day of the seminar, and Tony left early. He wanted to forget his past. He firmly returned to his own happy family, to his wife and children. Approaching his retirement he did not want an affair, even with the lovely and tender Mary. He did not leave his address for her, and he did not ask for hers either. When he left the front office, he realized that Christmas and New Year were near. The hall was decorated with a Christmas tree in a Balinese style. He lightly stepped into the taxi which would take him to the airport. The sun was already sliding down.