A Wedding in Uluwatu
by Gauraa Shekhar
Look, I’m not going to lie. I was twenty-four—actually just two weeks shy of my twenty-fifth birthday—and I was living in the waxy basement of a Russian painter’s house. Her being Russian has nothing to do with the story but, you know, these types of details seem to matter to the people back home. And while I’m at it, I might as well clarify that this was Bed-Stuy, and Bed-Stuy in 2010, before the fucking art school kids moved in, before Yasmine’s Hair Braiding had given way to Gnostic Yoga and Tattoo. Before there were ‘coffee bars’ where the impoverished elite left their tabs open for five-dollar lattes. Around this time, I used to get mugged at knife-point, which was funny in a pathetic little way, because all I had on me was a bag from the dollar-store which sold off-brand Pop Tarts—Toast ‘Em Pop Ups, I believe they were called—and a bunch of bananas. It was all I could afford back then, so I thought twice before handing over the black plastic bag. Can you believe that? I was willing to risk death for Toast ‘Em Pop Ups!
I was living a shell of a life, and what little money I made from a string of sketchy Craigslist jobs—auditions didn’t pay, you see—would go towards rent. But I had just played a Syrian refugee in a play I’m told Jessica Chastain came to see, and it felt like a break was just around the corner. It was beginning to seem like I hadn’t dropped out of med school for nothing.
The days preceding my twenty-fifth birthday, my boyfriend Timothy took me out to an upscale bistro for dinner. I told him how bad my living situation was getting and he, very casually, offered for me to move in with him. I accepted. Timothy was Catholic and Singaporean—for those of you concerned—so while my parents weren’t giddy with happiness, this was one of my few decisions they weren’t completely bamboozled by. Timothy made short films and had a studio in Alphabet City where, predictably, he hung a Pulp Fiction poster over his living room sofa. His walls were IKEA white and there was a framed John Waters quote —Fiction is the truth, fool!— that rested neatly on his kitchen counter.
If you think that that should have been a red flag, wait till you hear this: Timothy’s films featured a recurring theme which I was evidently impervious to. The protagonists—always male, always uncannily like him—dumped their girlfriends at the lowest point of their careers. It shouldn’t have been a real ha-ha-surprise! moment for me when he decided to kick me out. But it was. The only real gig I’d nicked that month had been an ad for a Chinese e-commerce retail business. And bam! Just like that I was on the streets.
Okay, so I wasn’t literally homeless, but I had to put all my shit—which happened to fit in two measly suitcases—in storage, and crash on a friend’s couch. Unfortunately, by then, I had fallen victim to couplehood, and all my friends happened to be Timothy’s. They were happy to let me crash on their couch, though. And so, I did. But you know how couch-crashing in New York goes. I mean, there’s barely any space for the one person originally and then you cram another whole person in and, well, things can get…difficult, let’s just say.
Living at Krista’s was fine. She was sweet. Really, she was. I would sleep on her couch, and in the mornings, at least initially, she would aero-press us medium-roast coffee. She’d take milk in hers and was surprised to find I took mine black. I told her I was from Java and had been taking my coffee black since I was nine. She seemed disproportionately alarmed by this, which was understandable. Most white people are. Krista wore one of those ‘The Future is Female’ t-shirts and handed me my coffee in a mug with a 50s stock image of a silhouetted woman in a high chignon. It was captioned ‘I’m suffering from PMS, Putting up with Men’s Shit’. Krista was nice. She was. But she was also a whimsical illustrator and had many whimsical illustrator friends who made cutesy advice planners that appeared on holiday gift guides. They would be over a lot and they would do lines of coke and drink vaguely esoteric things like “boffee,” which was, as once explained to me, part beer, part coffee, served in a boot with some Excedrin PM.
Since I wasn’t able to get any sleep at Krista’s, what with the whimsy and the boffee and the coke, I would be forced to get my sleep during the day, which, as you know, is the time when auditions usually take place. I missed all of them. Every. Single. One. Krista referred me to one of her whimsical friends who, in turn, referred me to a therapist named Rebekah. Her clinic was all the way uptown, but she accepted my insurance, so I kept seeing her.
Rebekah listened to me. She really did. She was brown, which I know, is surprising given her name, but she was, and all my troubles really seemed to resonate with her. She would tell me stories about her growing up as an immigrant, which I’m not sure therapists are supposed to do, but she did anyway. I enjoyed the anecdotes, but I’m not sure they did anything for me. I was still homeless and unemployed; my boyfriend had dumped me and all my shit was still in storage. She’d begun to feel sorry for me. Unprofessionally so. I could tell because when February rolled around, she gave me a gift card to Kmart.
You don’t step out without a coat in February, she said. I’m wearing a thick sweater, I said.
Then I took the card.
I mean, I had to. I was cold.
On the long walk back to Krista’s one day in February—I had a coat now, I wasn’t just going to blow my money on the train—I received a call from Siska. I couldn’t afford to accept an international call, so I stopped by a Starbucks and used their Wi-Fi to FaceTime her back. She asked me if I would be attending her wedding. She even offered to pay for my plane ticket. She was my childhood best friend, you see, so I couldn’t not go. The wedding was in Bali, and my parents had struck up a deal with me when I dropped out of med school. We’re not going to sponsor your childishness, they’d said. But if you ever choose to come back to Indonesia, we’ll book you on the next flight home.
I had been cold for so many months, that it didn’t take long to warm up to the thought of Bali. I know you’re thinking I should’ve been most excited to see my childhood friend walk down the aisle, but you would understand if you had shivered like I had that year. It was brutal. Besides, Siska and I weren’t as close anymore. I had chosen a different life and the slightness of my rebellion had offended the groupists back home, who were too subsumed by soft openings and family empires to make their own decisions. Either way, that day I told Siska I would see her at the wedding.
Krista couldn’t have been happier to see me go. She even had her whimsical artiste friends drop me off to JFK.
No one showed up to receive me at the airport in Bali. I was struck by this at first, but reasoned that my friend was busy with preparations. I scoured the streets outside the terminal building for an ojek and finally spotted a driver who gave me an up-marketed price on the ride. I tried to tell him I wasn’t an orang asing, but alas, I hadn’t been home in years and my Indonesian was rusty. We met halfway. I sat behind him on the bike and watched the cascading rice fields billow in the wind.
My Airbnb was a small, rustic, seven-dollars-a-night bed-and-breakfast in Ubud, the central foothills of the island. The listing claimed David Bowie spent his honeymoon there, though I wasn’t entirely sold on this. I changed out of my airplane clothes, showered, and dabbed free lemongrass oil on my pulse points. Despite getting close to no sleep on the flight, I felt fiery, and awake. I put on my flowy Salvation Army summer dress and made way to the clifftop of Uluwatu for the ceremony.
When Siska mentioned she’d be having the ceremony in Bali, part of me was impressed. She’s going to have a small affair on the beach, I thought. It was refreshing, truly, to be as wealthy as her, and to smirk in the direction of the regular run-of-the-mill Chinese-Indonesian wedding obscenities. Siska seemed to have turned down a photoshoot at Versailles, which, believe it or not, was a nationwide trend among the upper-class. The wealthy loved their French wedding photoshoots. They loved holding each other close against the backdrop of the Eiffel tower. I mean, it’s just ridiculous. Most of the times, with those pictures, you can’t even make out their faces. They might as well have stayed home and Photoshopped them in.
But when I got to the wedding venue, I was fucking astonished. Like, my jaw hit the fucking floor. Siska had booked the whole clifftop, it seemed, and dressed it up in varying shades of lilac and lavender. Some girl mentioned in passing that the bride’s family had the sous chef from the Beverly Wilshire come down for the affair. There were waiters in tuxedos running around, serving soft-shell crabs and things doused in truffle vinaigrette. I mean, God, I was wearing a flowy beach dress from the Salvation Army on Nostrand!
At the reception, Siska had sat me next to Janice and Darren. At first, I thought maybe she had done this on purpose, but I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt. Maybe Siska didn’t remember Darren and I were a Thing in high school. It was so long ago. But Janice had her hand on Darren’s the whole time. And I don’t know much about carats—I couldn’t even afford a winter coat, if you remember—but I could tell she was wearing a very big and very expensive rock on her finger.
One of the tuxedoed waiters brought a plate of pepes ikan kapap to the table and I spent most of the reception staring at the waxy lesions of the snapper in disgust. It was charred but for an eye staring back at me from under a smearing of thick red chili paste. Janice kept talking at me while I tossed the vegetables back and forth, folding the banana leaf over to cover up the poor dead fish’s eye. Siska made zero provisions for vegetarians, it seemed. You could just tell that everyone here thought vegetarianism was a silly trope perpetuated by white yoga teachers.
The whole evening Janice kept raising her penciled-in eyebrows at me. She chewed off the last half of my name and prodded me with silly questions. This irked me so much, and I knew she was only doing it out of spite, because she kept calling me ‘Hell’. She kept asking the table, do you know Hell is kind of a selebriti in New York? Do you know Hell is doing it all on her own? Hell this, Hell that. She really bothered me, and honestly, she always had. Back in school, her parents actually had to hire someone to fill out college applications for her. If you think that’s shitty, here’s the real kicker: by the time she got to King’s College, she’d actually started believing she’d earned it. I always thought she would maybe, eventually—one day perhaps—mature into a half-decent adult. But we’re talking about a political science major who thinks every black man she sees bears a striking resemblance to Usher. I mean, her Instagram bio literally reads ‘Princess of Asia’.
And here she was, all these years later, belaboring how she’d gotten engaged to my high school boyfriend, and was about to become very, very rich. Good for her, I thought. She can enjoy her Milgrain wedding band and her Bottega Veneta hand-stitched Italian whatever. Even in my flowy Salvation Army beach dress, you see, I was trying to be big about it. And I’d like to think I was. I had created a life for myself outside of their perfect Indoor-nesian refrigerated malls. It wasn’t three-hundred-thread count luxury, I know, and sometimes I really, truly feared for my life—but at least when I went out with people, I could think things like, “she had been with someone who had been inside Taylor Swift.” My life was weird and interesting and full. Or it had been at some point, at least.
I looked over at the bridal table and saw Siska floating in cornsilk over a sea of peach bridesmaids. She looked beautiful. I’ll give her that. She looked absolutely fucking beautiful. It was precious. She was thinner than she had ever been and her hair was upbraided, sprayed to stiff perfection. She looked so beautiful it was almost sad, I thought. To be a part of a culture that celebrates the wedding and not the marriage. She belonged in a fucking catalog.
Siska had Anna sitting next to her husband. God, it felt so weird to be calling him her ‘husband,’ but that’s what he was now, wasn’t he? Her husband? I have to say, it also felt really weird to see Anna there. Can you imagine? To be at your best friend’s wedding, staring at her maid of honor? I’m the one who crammed for Chemistry exams with Siska, I thought. I watched House, M.D. with her after school. Not Anna. I mean, I flew all the way down from New York for her! Siska didn’t have to have me in her wedding. But she could have at least sat me down somewhere else. Instead she sat me down with the Princess of Asia.
Siska had her Yorkshire Terrier, Mischka, sat on the chair next to her, which was adorable, I admit. Mischka had ribbons in her hair and the photographer kept taking pictures of her, and I wanted to hate this so much, but it’s hard to hate dogs.
The whole affair left me exhausted and obliterated. It’s sad, isn’t it? That no matter how much money you put into a wedding, they’re just really boring affairs with sappy music and sticky conversation. I had so much wine that day I must have told Janice off. I don’t remember saying anything to her specifically, but these days she makes a conscious effort to avoid me in social situations. I can tell.
Anyway, the couple danced, the crowd went crazy. Janice took a lot of pictures from a centerpiece Polaroid. At one point, Siska’s mother came up to the new bride, interrupting the dance, and Siska burst into tears. I couldn’t quite make out what was going on, but someone told me later that Mischka had fallen off the cliff. How awful! But I mean it’s a little funny, right? It’s a little funny.
I left the wedding early. They were doling out champagne like water and it hit me pretty hard, I’m not going to lie. I took an ojek back to my bed-and-breakfast in Ubud. The rest of the guests went back to their fancy hotel villa, a spot where Heath Ledger had allegedly overdosed, but mine had a free breakfast. Did I mention it was seven dollars a night?
The A/C unit had been leaking and the faucet ran murky black water and I couldn’t stop thinking about how the only real possession I owned over the last four years was a cheap stereo system with only one working speaker. I felt like it gave me airplane ears— barotrauma, they called it in med school. I called mother up that night and told her I wanted to come back home, to Jakarta, and stay for a bit.
She was lukewarm about it, really. She didn’t say much. She had her assistant book a flight back home for me and said she would pick me up at the airport. I told her I barely had any of my things on me. My stuff was still in storage, you see. She said she had a spare toothbrush in the cabinet. The maids would get the rest.
Gauraa Shekhar received her MFA from Columbia University. Her work has appeared in Nimrod Journal, Sonora Review, Contrary, Literary Hub, The Toast, and elsewhere. A founding editor of No Contact, she lives in Manhattan with her husband and young dachshund. More at gauraashekhar.com.
Photo original: Amarnath Tade/Unsplash