“Searching for Herman” by Dee Lestari

This translation was first published on Asymptote Blog on 2 October 2018. It was the first of a series of eight contemporary Indonesian translated works called A World of a Thousand Doors. Norman Erikson Pasaribu and I coedited the series.

There should be a wise saying that goes something like this: Never take two if you only want one. One brings completion—but two, oblivion. It may sound a little strange, but it’s the truth. Such sayings aren’t mere literary cotton candy—all fluff, no stuff. It takes bitter experience to formulate each one. It takes a person to practically perish paddling upstream before they can appreciate the serene swim to shore, as the old adage goes. Or to draw on yet another maxim—it takes someone to fall flat on her face, then have the ladder land on her as well. It takes an entire tureen of milk to prove a drop of ink will spoil the whole lot. In this case, it took a Hera who was searching for a Herman.

When she was thirteen, she was a favorite of everyone’s, myself included. Even though she was my friend’s little sister, not mine. Hera. So sweet, so eager to please. No turmoil in her life to speak of, really—she was a teenager devoted to her mother and father, to her country and religion.

Then came that evening. A bunch of us were sitting on the patio at her house, talking about the actor Herman Felany, his latest movie, which we’d just watched, and his marvelous moustache, which had started a competition among her brother and all his friends to see which of us could grow one like it first. Hera, who was listening in, innocently remarked out of the blue that she’d never had any friends named Herman. Her brother’s friends ignored her, except for me. I took the opportunity to whisper in her ear: There must be one at your school. You just have to look.

The next week, Hera came to me and reported that, as a matter of fact, there wasn’t anyone named Herman at her school, not even among the teachers. I was quite taken aback. Hundreds of students, dozens of teachers, and not one of them was named Herman? Lots of Budis, lots of Ahmads, even some Ludwigs, but none of them Herman. Then it occurred to me: I didn’t know anyone named Herman either.

Hera spread her wings, began searching for Herman around where she lived. She approached the leader of the local neighborhood association and her subdistrict head. Still no Hermans, neither old nor young. I offered my own neighborhood and subdistrict. The two of us went searching, but still we didn’t discover any Herman. Hera began questioning all her relatives and friends—did any of them know someone named Herman? The wonder of it was that nobody did. Several people had elements of Herman or a hermanesque quality to their names—Feri Hermansyah, Dudi Hermanto, Indra Hermadi, Hermawan Adi—but Hera remained unsatisfied. She wanted a bonafide Herman.

Naturally, she and I didn’t spend every day busying ourselves with the Herman search. Time passed, and Hera was about to graduate from high school. With ambitions of becoming a pediatrician, she took her leave and went to Jakarta to start university. I hope you meet Herman! That was the last thing I said to Hera before she boarded the train.

A few years later, my first child was born. I’d just started imagining our visits to pretty Doctor Hera when I suddenly heard that she had dropped out. Apparently the perfect little girl had undergone a transformation and she was only human now. Word had it that Hera’s string of boyfriends had gained her quite the reputation. Then came her downfall. She got pregnant—out of wedlock. The irony was that what she’d learned as a medical student had failed to help her use common sense. Scared of the wrath that would befall her, she went to see a dukun, who scraped and scoured her insides. No visible embryo emerged, only a blood clot, followed by more blood and permanent damage to her womb. Hera fell gravely ill and was forced to return home.

Hera was kept under confinement for ages. It was like she was under house arrest. The expression on her face, once so sweet, grew increasingly bitter over time. She was then shipped off to a few different religious boarding schools. Only after her parents considered her cured inside and out, body and soul, did they give her permission to have hopes and ambitions again.

And Hera decided to take wing. I met up with her just when she was about to leave for flight-attendant training. “Because you think you’ll find Herman in the sky?” I joked. Hera laughed, though I wasn’t sure if her reaction meant yes or no, or whether she was laughing out of scorn. It was as if the question I’d asked had immediately pigeonholed me: I belonged in a garbage bag labeled PAST and was to be left behind as soon as possible.

When we next met, Hera was already in uniform—she was a bonafide flight attendant. She looked beautiful. “How long do you plan to fly around for?” I asked. “Till you feel like getting hitched?”

Hera half-smiled, half-snorted. She shook her head pityingly. You’d think I’d asked her something dumb, like, “Does salt have to be salty?” I took her response for a “no.” Hera had undergone a metamorphosis. She was all grown up: a modern woman in an entirely different league.

I tried again. “Have you found Herman?”

This time, Hera’s laughter rang loud and clear. She then told me how she’d stopped searching about a year ago, and she’d especially given up scanning lists for his name—because that wasn’t what she wanted. She wanted to meet someone in the flesh, to shake his hand, to have him introduce himself. Herman, he’d say.

“You’re making this search even harder,” I told her.

“The more naturally it happens, the cooler it’ll be,” she promptly replied.

And she insisted on leaving me her number in case Nature had ordained that I be the one to find Herman on her behalf.

It goes without saying that I didn’t have Herman on the brain all the time. More often than not, I had Hera on my mind. One day my friend—her brother—told me she’d gotten involved with an older man: a pilot who already had five kids.

Was his name Herman?

I asked because if it was, I felt I might be able to understand.

But no, his name was Bajuri. And this pilot fellow named Bajuri was planning to divorce his wife for the sake of settling down with Hera.

Nobody gave them their blessing. Myself included—for the simple reason that the guy was called Bajuri and not Herman.

I found myself thinking about Hera more and more. I heard she suffered two miscarriages, and finally couldn’t get pregnant at all. Before long, Mr. Pilot and Hera got a divorce. Or maybe they just broke up. I wasn’t sure which. Hera, who’d already made the sacrifice of switching employers, suddenly found herself jobless when her new company went belly up.

So where was Hera now?

I asked my friend. In Jakarta somewhere, he said. She never came home. She was probably too ashamed. Since moving in with that fossil of a pilot, she hadn’t dared to pay her respects to their mom and dad. So went my friend’s reply. Oh well, he said. She got what was coming to her—after all, no one in the family approved.

Who’d have guessed that I’d run into Hera not long afterwards? It turned out her family was feigning ignorance, but they knew exactly where she was. She was peddling batik cloth door to door, and occasionally moonlighting as an electronics sales assistant. Her face was drawn and the light in her eyes had disappeared, sapped away by heartache. She spent a whole hour crying, and several more sighing and grumbling. It had been a long time since anyone had heard her out. Hera said she was fed up with life. Life was unjust. Life was cruel. Life this, life that . . . until finally, her words were spent. That’s when I seized my chance to speak. I told her that I’d found Herman for her.

It must have been the first piece of good news she’d received in years. Without a second thought, Hera came with me to meet a friend of my in-laws: a Mrs. Herman. Herman was her husband’s name. Pure “Herman,” unadulterated by “-to” or “-syah” or any other suffix. As ordered, it was an all-natural discovery. No consulting a phone book, or a subdistrict register.

But the Mrs. Herman I’d met a month ago had changed—no longer chatty, no longer all smiles. Mr. Herman had passed away a week ago, leaving behind a wife without anyone else in the world, leaving behind Hera without ever shaking her by the hand and introducing himself by saying: Herman. Mrs. Herman wept. Hera wept. I felt glum too. It was as if he’d left two widows in his wake.

On the way back, I didn’t say much. I spoke only once before we parted ways: “I couldn’t even find a Herman for you. I’ve failed.”

Hera bowed her head and I heard her say in a near whisper: “You’ve always looked out for me—only you, ever since I was little. And I’ve always adored you, but it’s like you’re blind. Please, don’t look for Herman anymore. Don’t ask about Herman anymore. Because I don’t need Herman. I need someone like you.”

I didn’t understand what she meant right away, but when Hera pulled my face closer to hers and reached for my lips, I reflexively pushed her back. Something was wrong. I’d always thought of Hera as searching for Herman, not searching for me. Everything was wrong on that day. My steps were quick as I walked away from her, as I faintly heard her calling my name.

After that, I tried to stop thinking about Hera. It wasn’t easy. Not at all. I was so used to thinking about her. Whenever Herman Felany would make the occasional appearance on TV, or I read the name “Herman” in the newspaper, or I came across anything to do with Hera, once again I would hear her voice that afternoon, calling my name. And however much I yearned to turn back, I knew it was better to keep on walking. Just keep on walking.

Now I find myself asking, what if I’d persisted in searching for Herman, although it wasn’t really him she was searching for? Would everything have turned out differently if I’d had the courage to face Hera and what she felt in her heart? What if I’d been brave enough to admit that the search for Herman was merely an excuse to spend time with her? That if I’d relied more on my heart than my head, instead of pushing her away that day, I would have pulled her close?

It’s the hundredth day today. I slip the copy of the Surat Yasin into my bag—they printed them out for all the guests. I exchange greetings with my friend and his family as if for the final time because I sense I won’t have the strength to return. Not for the one-year or two-year ceremonies, or the final ceremony after that. Every night for the past hundred days, my eyes have been wet—ever since my friend broke the news to me about Hera, how she left one day and didn’t come back.

The friend who was with Hera on that last night said that they had been approached by a man. He’d been drawn to Hera’s beautiful face and asked if she wanted to be a model for an ad. Hera wasn’t the least bit interested. She accepted the business card he gave her with indifference. But then, after some time, she seemed to realize something. To be precise, it was when she took a closer look at the business card. She ran after him and never returned.

Hera’s body was found two days later, tied up, at the bottom of a ravine. It had been tossed out of a car with a Surabaya police license plate, according to one eyewitness account. I read the news in a tabloid where the story was printed on the front page, in the bottom right corner.

My friend even showed me a copy of the business card that became the key to figuring out Hera’s disappearance. Upon reading the name printed on it, I instantly felt Hera’s feet running as fast as they could, chasing the one dream ever to take distinct shape in that life of hers, dripping in disappointment and sorrow, asking the man who’d given her his card if they could start over and introduce themselves—all so she could hear, however briefly, that name: Herman.

I imagined her pretty face lighting up.

Herman Suherman.

Hera’s happiness must have increased twofold upon discovering a Herman squared. She didn’t know a single Herman was all she needed to complete her lifelong quest—that a double Herman would leave her dead.

I didn’t know either. No one did. There was no saying to serve as our guide. For at least if I’d found a Herman before she did, Hera would still be alive. Maybe she’d even be here, in this house, keeping me company into my old age. And I wouldn’t have to speculate anymore about what life would have been like, if I’d had two loves. One has completed me, but would two have destroyed me? Now I will never know.

For Fanny,

who is searching for Herman