In the morning of Mom’s birthday, the beginning of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony greeted me like a slap on the face. It blasted in my right ear through my cell phone’s tiny speakers and promptly shook me awake. Where was I and when was I? I wondered for a brief moment, still close-eyed as I grabbed the phone and punched in a few buttons randomly without looking and hoped it would shut up. It didn’t.
The tune managed to ring for a few more musical bars before I successfully turned it off. I made a mental note to change my ringtone into something less heart stopping as I rubbed my bleary eyes and dumped my phone somewhere on the bed.
I am James Warouw, a second-year Universitas Indonesia student stuck in the Biochemistry department. Likes money. Hates wasting money. Must not be late for Mom’s birthday lunch at 12 PM. After gathering up my scattered thoughts, I peered at the clock on the adjacent white wall and supressed the urge to smack myself. James will be late for Mom’s birthday lunch because he ignored his alarm and it is now 11 AM, I mused as I forced myself off my comfort zone and rushed around the room in a struggle to get ready for the day.
Mom, the aforementioned birthday girl – also known as Shilla Warouw or ‘that woman you never want to cross’ – was a beautiful black-haired, brown-eyed employee of a consulting company in her early forties that almost always had the temper of a raging bull and the facial expression of someone who just ate a sour grape. Fortunately, I had all of her looks but none of her temperaments; our family would turn into a warzone even if I only had one of her traits. Speaking of which, Mr. Salim, our former father, was probably the first casualty in our family as a result of Mom’s ‘shoot first, think later’ policy, since he had decided to leave us seven years ago. Despite all her flaws, though, I still cared for Mom, the glorious bitch that she was and still is. Not that I’d ever admit that to anyone – especially not to the person herself.
Just as I finished tying up my left sneakers, my phone bleeped twice to notify me of an incoming message and shook around the bed, trying in vain to escape the sheets that swallowed it whole. I grabbed it without a second thought and zoomed down the stairs of my dorm building towards the exit, only finding the time to read a reminder about today’s plans from my older brother, Miki.
And mentioning my brother: If Shilla Warouw was a raging bull, then Miki Warouw was the gentlest buffalo you’d ever set eyes upon. He also looked like Mom, but was the complete opposite of her in terms of personality. In my twenty years of living, I could count with my fingers the number of times I’ve seen him enraged, although we do bicker a lot. He was around five years older than me, with a solid occupation in some big-shot company. Even so, we somehow ended up living in the same city, so I sometimes go and visit him at his apartment. Once in a while, when stacks of paperwork or days of endless research didn’t tie both of us down, we would find the time to have lunch or dinner together. Most siblings would have gone on their separate ways, but Miki and I somehow stuck with each other to this very day.
The Warouws, excluding Mr. Salim, have lived in Jakarta, our country’s metropolitan capital since – well, forever. As always, whenever I decided to step out of my humble abode located in the Central District, the city would greet me first with its sticky humid air and stinging heat of its tropical sun, accompanied by the smoke-polluted air that made it hard to breathe. If you weren’t used to it, then you might want to wear a facemask.
Next came the blares of car horns and the unsightly traffic on dull grey asphalt. Since I lived right in front of a highly used roadway, this would be the first thing I hear and see everyday, without fail. Prolonged exposure has taught me to ignore them by simply minding your own business.
And finally, the most annoying thing that Jakarta dished out to its inhabitants was the wicked smell. God knows how many times I’ve walked on the streets and smelt either the scent of rotting trash, shit-infested sewers, or a deadly combination of both. Even as I reached my destination, a green-and-white domed bus stop, I couldn’t get rid of the foul stench. It was so bad that it was capable of leaving a taste both bitter and sour in my mouth.
The itinerary for today, according to Miki’s message: 12 PM birthday lunch, 2 PM birthday gift hunting, and 6 PM birthday show. As I waited for the tardy bus to roll around the corner, I checked my phone for the time and promptly swore at it to bits.
One swift decision and ten minutes later, I was on a taxi.