Vagabond Press

From Now On Everything Will Be Different

ALR Volume 26: Winter 2014

This time she burst into his world with her half-page profile in a Sunday newspaper in a section dedicated to emerging artists.

It was several weeks after the corrupt president had stepped down, and the first time Rizky had heard from Julita since they had graduated from high school four years earlier in 1994. Her photographs of the massive demonstrations and surrounding events gave life to the article: a protester ripping his shirt and baring his tattoo-covered chest before lines of riot police; a writer handing out photocopies of his banned book; five women covering their faces with the sign “Do Not Rape, Native Indonesian Muslim”; a student throwing paper airplanes from the top of the parliament building; an old lady jumping up from her wheelchair as the television broadcast the president’s resignation speech.

Rizky peered at each portrait – faces momentarily stopping whatever they were doing to beam their souls at the camera. How was it possible that these people, who a few months before would have censored their own children’s school reports for fear of drawing attention to themselves, now proudly showed themselves in these photographs? Where had they found the courage to protest, after three decades of silence and obedience and fear? These people were so used to submitting to fate. How had they decided that they could break the course of History? The protests impressed him profoundly as the first confirmation that one might indeed bring about change. He would never forget how, along with the sound of thousands of students marching, he had heard God whisper lovingly in his ear, ‘You too can change your life’s course.’

Rizky rifled his room for his high school yearbook, looked up Julita’s home

telephone and got her cell number from her parents.

‘Hello?’ She sounded freshly torn from sleep.

‘Hey, it’s Rizky!’


‘Riz-ky. From high school. I came to your house when you were suspended.’

He could hear her suspicion through the silence.

‘What do you want?’

‘Congratulations. I saw the article. I knew it, Jul, I’ve always known you could make it.’

‘Oh my God, it’s today.’

‘Where do you live? Let’s meet up. Please.’

When he saw a woman on a motorbike-taxi, wearing a lace dress with a plunging neckline, he hadn’t thought that it could be Julita. Even when she liberated her head from her helmet, he almost didn’t recognize her. She looked taller and more feminine in her short dress and high heels; her long hair fell in neat layers around her face.

She had picked the place – one of those trendy, roadside tent-cafés that many celebrities were opening at that time. The tent was furnished with recycled objects, and the tabletops were covered with funny, politically conscious, mural-style paintings. On the phone, Julita had said that it was one of the most creative cafés around, and she was happy that it had survived the riots unscathed, in spite of the owner’s Chinese descent.

Her wide eyes immediately found Rizky, sitting near the wooden cart that functioned as the café’s counter, and she glided towards him without breaking eye contact, her camera bag balanced on one hand and her helmet on the other.

The first time Rizky had noticed Julita was in the second year of high school, on Kartini Day. That day, as the custom was, girls showed up pretty in traditional dresses, but Julita felt that Kartini, the women’s emancipation figure, would be more honoured by girls being allowed to express their future ideals, and showed up wearing a paint-smeared dress with a beret, a paintbrush tucked behind one ear, and a camera slung around her neck. Girls sneered, boys whistled, and teachers were furious. Rizky was intrigued.

As he and the rest of the school’s band of bad boys had been caught smoking behind the school, they found themselves in the principal’s office with Julita. She was the only female. They were lectured at and then sent home. By the school gate Julita asked one of the boys to take her photo, and soon they were all striking silly, irreverent poses together.

After that the boys were friendly to her: she would let them copy her homework in the mornings, and they would invite her to watch their band rehearse after school. Soon she became the band’s unofficial photographer and the only girl who could hang out with the boys without becoming anyone’s girlfriend.

Then came the day when she plastered the school’s bulletin wall with her collection Human Delinquency: a teacher smacking a student with a shoe; a teenage couple kissing as a friend tried to pull the boy away, while scores of high school students clashed behind them; toddler-toting parents smoking as they lined up to buy lottery tickets; a banknote bearing the face of the corrupt president stuck on a dartboard.

The school tore down her photos, summoned her parents and threatened to expel her. But then her parents made a large contribution to the school, paid in cash to the faculty members. The boys also got into trouble because there were photos of them drinking and watching porn. The leader of the group approached Julita. His punch stopped an inch away from her nose. ‘Too bad you’re a girl,’ he said.

Rizky went to her house one afternoon during her suspension. When he arrived she had just finished painting her bedroom walls with a trickling blood pattern. Spotting him through the window, she was startled, but Rizky quickly told her that he only wanted to talk. They ended up sitting on her front porch, smoking and munching fried tofu.

‘Why don’t you just transfer to another school?’ he asked. His mouth was greasy and fiery because of the green chillies.

‘My parents didn’t want our relatives to hear that their daughter had been expelled. Besides, I’ll top the final exams, so they’ll have to give me awards. You wait and see.’

‘Is that what you want to be eventually? A photographer?’

‘Taking photos is expensive, but I just like how the camera . . . can reveal something that often escapes our attention . . . And then I can ponder it over and over . . . What about you?’

She studied him, but when he met her gaze she quickly looked down.

‘My parents want me to go to med. school. Being a doctor, that’s my mother’s biggest dream. Her father died when she was only fifteen, and she had to work to help send her brothers to college. So she did the next best thing: she married a doctor. My father came from a long line of doctors.’ He was surprised that he could open himself up to a girl – this girl – who was so far from his type. He usually liked the feminine girls with long legs and light skin; Julita was tall, but her legs looked as if she played football, her skin was the colour of burnt caramel, and, other than on Kartini Day, he had never seen her in anything but baggy white-and-grey school uniform and, at that moment, a T-shirt and shorts with drips of red paint all over them.

‘But what do you like to do?’

‘I don’t know. I guess I like making up stories and acting them out. I’m in the drama club and I’ve been trying to write lyrics for the band.’

‘Oh God.’ She brushed her upper arms. ‘It was so stupid of me, Riz. I was just so proud of my work. I thought everyone would see that we all had our vices and . . . Oh God. Please tell the boys I’m so sorry.’

But Rizky never even told the boys that he had gone to see her. He knew they would consider him a traitor if he did. When Julita passed them in school they would call her names, and one morning they waited for her by the school gate, jammed side-by-side to form a fence of leering, spitting monsters. They blocked her way and shoved her back when she tried to pass, even grabbing her breasts. Rizky stood at the farthest end of the line, watching everything. The first time, she caught his eye to ask for help, but he looked down. The next time she looked at him with anger; and then she stopped looking at him at all.

Still, he watched her from a distance. From time to time he tried to communicate with her through his actions – when her photograph was chosen as Photo of the Month by a photography magazine, he responded by winning first prize for lead actor in the Jakarta High School Theatre Festival; when an arrogant state official’s son called her a slut, Rizky scratched the boy’s car with a rusty nail. Julita graduated with perfect grades for Math and English, and Rizky graduated with perfect grades for Indonesian and History. The teachers handed them trophies in front of the entire school.

‘You did it,’ he whispered to her as they came down from the stage with their diplomas. ‘Congratulations.’

Rizky couldn’t remember whether she’d even replied. Driving to the café he doubted that she had forgiven him, but when he saw her walking in, he thought she had wanted to impress him.

They shook hands. She sat down and put her camera bag on the old trunk that served as a table.

‘You were the first to congratulate me,’ she said.

‘I always knew you could make it, Juli. You’ve proved that people like us could really make it in this world.’

‘Are you still friends with the boys from high school?’

‘No,’ he lied.

‘So what did you mean by “us”?’

He looked around for inspiration. ‘I just meant people like you and me, “troublemaker kids” or whatever.’

She reached inside her bag and fanned the photos on the trunk. ‘So what do you think?’ She leaned forward.

He knew if he looked down he’d see inside her dress. He took the invitation. ‘I like them.’


‘You took pictures of individuals. Other photographers showed burning buildings, the marching army, massed students – their photos looked like stills from an epic film. You showed the people behind it all, you made it clear this was not just about toppling a government: this was about us coming out of hiding, our chance to take control of our lives.’

‘Do you want to see more?’

‘Do you want to show me more?’

She swept her photos off the table and put them back in her bag. She picked it up, but only to move it to a chair next to her. ‘Maybe later. What about you? What have you been busy with?’

Rizky pretended his back was sore and he was straightening up. ‘Preparing for graduation, of course. I’m done with exams – my GPA is almost perfect – but there is a ton of university stuff. It’s my own fault for taking the job as class president.’

‘Wow, you must have a lot of responsibilities.’

‘When you took photos on my campus, you must’ve seen the stage we built. We held open-mike events and performed one-act plays. That was my idea,’ he gushed.

Their exuberance swelled as they discussed how from then on people were able to voice their views, however controversial; artists no longer had to fear censorship or persecution; and previously forbidden subject matter could be explored to the full. Just when it was their time to create real work, a gate of new opportunity had been kicked open before them. Julita said she wanted to publish her photos as a book and apply for a grant to take pictures all over the world. Anything seemed possible. She was excited, he was excited, and their excitement was amplified a thousand fold by the excitement of the time.

When it started to rain he offered to drive her home. He let her fidget with her cell phone before she finally agreed, saying she couldn’t go with her regular motorbike-taxi because of the rain, and she was uncomfortable taking taxis because of the recent reports of robberies in taxis.

In the car his cell phone kept beeping with incoming text messages.

‘Still Mr. Popular, huh?’ Julita said.

He tossed her his phone. ‘Reply for me, will you? I’m out of fake excuses.’

Julita saw messages from Intan, Puti, Vera . . . It’s really cold out. I could use some warming up. Interested? wrote one of them.

‘How about you, Juli? Any boyfriend?’

‘Me? Boyfriend?’ She scoffed. ‘But if you mean the occasional man, well . . .’

Rizky burst out laughing. ‘I knew it.’

‘You knew what?’

‘That you would. Do it.’

‘And how did you know?’

‘You just seemed that kind of girl.’

‘The slutty kind?’

‘No. The kind that – I don’t know – doesn’t measure her value by . . . I’m sorry, I didn’t mean –’

‘Relax, I’m just teasing.’

‘Was it a hard decision, though?’

‘You mean the first time?’

This time he just felt stupid. ‘I didn’t mean to pry – I just – this girl I knew, she said she wanted to die afterwards.’

‘Maybe I did feel a little sinful,’ she said, ‘but I wanted to do it. I was so angry at the time. I wanted to break with this society completely, so I thought it was the thing to do.’ She became quiet for a while, as if looking into herself. ‘I felt a bit disoriented afterwards, like I was suddenly all alone . . . But I had wanted to do it, so . . .’

His discomfort went away. Outside the rain was pouring so densely that the whole world seemed to be melting, and he felt snug inside the car with her, protected from the grey torrents outside.

‘That girl I mentioned, she was my first. I was so drunk when it happened and afterwards I just lay there staring at the ceiling. She had already dozed off. Everything I’d been taught in life told me that what I’d done was wrong. When she woke up, she saw me staring into space like an idiot, and then like a bigger idiot I told her that it was my first time. But she said she couldn’t tell that I was a first-timer, and that cheered me up a bit. Then she told me about her own first time, how she thought she’d ruined her chances of marriage and family, and she couldn’t get out of bed for a week. But one morning she’d woken up and realized she didn’t have to follow other people’s rules anymore – she could find people who would accept her for who she really is. Then she got dressed and said goodbye. I never saw her again, but no one had better tell me our encounter was meaningless.’

‘I said, “Thank you,” to the guy after my first time.’

‘You what? You’re insane! Did he ask, “Thanks for what?” Then what would you have said?’

As they approached her building, Rizky wondered if Julita was going to invite him in. But she simply thanked him and ran inside clutching her camera bag to her chest. He realized he was disappointed. But then in the rear-view mirror he spotted Julita’s helmet wobbling on the back seat like a laughing head.

Shaking his head, he drove off immediately. When Julita called, he would demand a ransom for her helmet: introducing him to theatre people.

The next day he ignored her call twice and then picked up on the third time.

Before hanging up he finally mustered the courage to say, ‘By the way,

do you think you can introduce me to some theatre people? It’s not a big deal or anything, but I’ve really missed acting since I got into med. school.’

‘I’m going to a party next weekend for an actor friend of mine from art school. Why don’t you come with me?’

When Rizky and Julita arrived, a burly man with shoulder-length hair wearing a leather jacket separated himself from a small circle of smokers in front of the house and opened the taxi door for them. Julita emerged and kissed him on both cheeks. ‘Happy birthday.’

He spotted Rizky and said, ‘New guy?’

‘Hush. This is my friend Rizky. He won first prize for lead actor at Jakarta High School Theatre Festival in 1994.’

‘Really? Are you with any group? Come, I’ll introduce you.’

Rizky followed him to the smokers’ circle. From the fence Julita sent him a wink before disappearing inside.

Everything seemed enchanted that night: the band covering dangdut songs in the backyard, the director who told him that the most important requirement for joining their group was a commitment to read a play or a book per week, and the purple-haired cellist he flirted with while stealing glances at Julita, who was dancing with the host and stealing glances at him too. How sexy she looked, wearing only a long piece of white cloth – on which she had spray-painted the demands of the students – which she wrapped around her body to form a tube dress with a flowing over-theshoulder scarf.

Rizky sat on the grass drinking traditional sweet, reddish beer and thinking of the hours he had spent almost entirely by himself, studying for university entrance exam, campaigning for class presidency, planning activities for his fellow students, and after all that not once did Mother say, ‘That’s great, Riz. I’m proud of you.’

‘Enough,’ he thought. ‘From now on I will do what I want with my life.’

Pleasantly tipsy on the taxi ride home, he asked Julita if he could see her place.


It was almost three in the morning when they got out of the taxi, but a group of neighbourhood men were still watching a live World Cup match on a fourteen-inch screen in the night-guard’s post, cheering and sighing with the players’ every move.

Julita led him through the dim corridor of the house, passing a communal kitchen that smelled like anchovies, and then up the stairs. Rizky noticed a mix of women’s and men’s shoes before some of the doors

– he knew that Julita would live in a co-ed, “liberal” building where the gate was open 24 hours and the residents were allowed to bring overnight guests.

When they reached her room, she turned on the lights and sat on the bed. He followed her in and was transfixed by the images covering every inch of her walls: reproductions of photographs or paintings, postcards, magazine covers, even advertisements. As he walked around the room he recognized reproductions of Affandi’s self-portraits with the sun; a painting of twin women with exposed hearts held together by a bleeding vein; photos of a woman as different characters in black-and-white film stills; couples in various bedrooms looking forlorn after lovemaking . . .

Above the table beside the bed were three corkboards covered with sketches, schedules, and inspirational quotes from people that Rizky assumed were great artists. Opposite the bed a full-length mirror was mounted on an easel. A rush of expectation coursed through him.

He sat beside her and caressed the back of her neck. He felt her twitching to his touch.

‘Do you want some coffee?’ She jumped off towards the shelves and turned on the water-heater.

‘Why not?’ Rizky said. ‘Listen, I’ve always wanted to thank you. It was your winning Photo of the Month that spurred me to take part in that theatre competition.’

‘Riz, why didn’t you defend me when the boys were harassing me?’

He felt a sharp pain in his stomach. ‘Come on, Jul, that was a long time ago.’

‘You came to my house; you said you were my friend, and then you watched them push me around. You got a kick out of that?’

‘Do we have to talk about it now?’

‘Why do you think I invited you here?’

‘You’re joking, right?’

‘Do you think I’m so desperate to sleep with you that I’ve forgotten

what you did to me?’ Boiling water gurgled behind her. Rizky started pacing around the room. ‘You think I don’t feel awful?

I hated myself so much I burned my arm with a cigarette!’ He showed her

a round burn-mark on his inner elbow.

‘Then why did you – ?’

The images staring at him from the walls were making him dizzy. ‘You know what, I don’t need this.’ He went for the door, but the knob seemed to be stuck. He massaged his throbbing temple. ‘Juli, I didn’t know they were going to do that. We were just sitting around, and when they saw you coming the boys just got this idea. I’d told them, “Let it go, it’s been a long time,” but nobody’d listened.’

‘You could’ve held them back.’

‘And let them beat me up? Fine if that was all. But when the teachers saw us fighting, do you think they would’ve given me a free pass? They threatened to expel me too, Juli. It’s all because of your photos!’

‘I’ve apologized for that.’

‘You knew it was too close to graduation to transfer to a different school. My family isn’t like your family, willing to cough up bribe money.’

‘Hey, that was my dad’s decision! There was nothing I could do to stop him. At least I became a photographer and you – ’

‘Fuck you! What do you want me to say? That what I did was cowardly? It was. I wanted to stand up for you, but . . .’

‘But you wanted to keep hanging out with the popular boys.’

He rested his forehead on the wall. ‘You know, when that boy called you a slut, I – ’ Rizky shook his head. ‘I can’t talk any more.’ Again he tried opening the door, but it was still stuck. He jiggled the knob violently. ‘Fuck!’ He had to kick the door twice before it finally sprang open.

He could hear her giggling and then shouting at him from the doorframe: ‘I should’ve photographed your face in the taxi. The same grin I saw when I walked into that tent wearing that laced dress. You thought you were such a god. How are you feeling now?’

He wanted to walk back and punch her door, but he kept on going, leaving a trail of curses in his wake. He was so humiliated that he never did join the theatre group. He imagined Julita telling everyone how she’d made a fool of him, how he’d been such a coward in high school, and then they’d all laugh until they fell over and spilled their beer.

After weeks of troubled sleep, regret overcame his anger. As he walked in a toga to receive his diploma, he promised himself that he would give the theatre director a call. But when Mother told him that he would continue his studies until he earned his M.D., Rizky didn’t dare protest.

Towards the end of the year, during the Extraordinary Meeting of the People’s Representatives, students again poured onto the streets and Rizky volunteered in the hospital every day, tending to fellow students who’d been wounded, beaten, or shot. Some nights he wandered around the wards and corridors hoping to see Julita among the photographers immortalizing the heroes and victims of the struggle. But it was in vain.

Weeks turned into months. Rizky saw the nation amending the constitution and holding the first free election; Indonesian filmmakers started making films again; some of his friends were even going back to school to pursue new dreams. Only Rizky was still stuck in a life chosen for him by someone else. He went out drinking to drown his shame, but the glasses of vodka only reflected it back at him.

Several weeks before the celebration of the new millennium, Julita burst back into his world with a poster, plastered on a bulletin board on campus, for her first exhibition: From Now On Everything Will Be Different. Some of her photos were shown: a student carrying the Red-and-White flag leading a late night protest in Semanggi; individuals dressed in striking costumes, campaigning for their parties on the streets; a couple of teenagers high-fiving in the air in front of an election booth. Rizky was struck by the promises the photos implied: liberation, redemption, transformation.

He noted the place and time of the opening, but he doubted he would go. In seven months he would graduate from med. school. Then, he vowed, he would leave his parents’ home and join a theatre group. After that, perhaps, he’d call her. Invite her to see his play. Maybe then he’d have the guts. After all, it’d be a whole new millennium, a clean slate.


From Now On Everything Will Be Different will be published in September 2015 by Vagabond Press.

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