Norman never knew why he was so bothered by his wife’s question. He paced the room, in his studio, unable to sleep. Lighting another cigarette, he glanced at the ashtray now full with cigarette butts, all standing upwards as if mocking him for his inability to calm down.
Just a few hours earlier, Norman and his wife, Dina, were having dinner in silence. Just the two of them. Their three cats slouched around the dining room, blissfully unaware of the tension.
“So, I hear that you have a secret down in your studio,” Dina said, her voice tight and cold.
Norman knew this question was coming. He chewed calmly.
“Who hasn’t got any?”
“Norman, I am asking you a question.”
Norman swallowed, then reached out for his glass of wine.
“My only secret is why I’m terribly good at what I do, Dina. And even I don’t know what it is,” he said, looking at Dina’s inquiring eyes.
Dina abruptly got on her feet, swept her dinner plate and his off the table, and stormed off into the kitchen. She threw the plates into the sink. The loud thuds made their cats jump and immediately seek refuge under the dining table.
She turned to him, a foreign look on her face — a look Norman had never seen in their almost 20 years of marriage.
“Tell me the truth, Norman. Who is she?” But it wasn’t really a question. She seemed certain there was somebody else.
Norman felt a trickle of sweat run down his spine. As long as I don’t sweat my forehead, my secret will be safe, he told himself. He stood up, took three steps to the left, where the breeze from the air conditioner blew at the back of his neck. Yes, this is good, he told himself, this won’t make me sweat.
“I am working on new sculptures, Dina. You know this. You’ve known this for years,” Norman tried to reason. Dina looked at the floor.
“Look, I’m not even away much, Dina. My studio is just a few meters away from here, in the same building, on the same floor. We even share the same electric bills. Don’t you think you’re a little bit […]”
Dina set her eyes on his. As soon as he saw the fire in her gaze, he knew he had misspoken.
“A little bit what, Norman? Overreacting? How dare you?” she hissed.
Norman raised both hands in the air, calling for a truce.
“Look, OK, forgive me. I am a bit distant lately, and it’s all because of all this work. Give me two more weeks, I promise I will […]” he let his voice trail off as he slowly approached Dina. He cupped her chin. She looked old and tired. But that was not what Norman saw.
“You know you’re the only one for me, right?”
“I don’t know anymore,” she said.
Cigarette smoke got into Norman’s eyes, bringing him into the present. He rubbed his eyes with his fingers, feeling someone’s warmth beside him. Althea. Norman knew she was there, beside him. He threw her a sideways glance, she smiled wryly. She stroked his back, gently, her soft fingers running up to his hair.
“What’s wrong?” she whispered.
“Dina knows about us,” Norman sighed. He took another drag and puffed lightly, turning his head away, avoiding Althea’s eyes.
Althea stroked Norman’s hair, inhaling his scent. She knew this day would come, and she had to let him go back where he belongs.
Norman stood up, walked slowly across the studio, carefully putting on his apron. He wanted so much to get as far away as possible from her, but he couldn’t.
“I’ll be damned if I know, Althea. She just does, I would be surprised if she doesn’t. I spend my days and nights here with you, of course she suspects something. Are you seriously asking me this?” he said, sounding impatient.
Althea shrugged. “I don’t know, Norman. I’m not questioning her intelligence, but I think it’s not that simple. I mean, look at us.”
Althea remembered that day well: the day she had been longing for. After weeks of feeling his touch all over her body, she could feel Norman starting to shape the most important part of her. She desperately wanted to see what kind of man shaped her. Her chest almost burst out with joy when her left eye finally allowed her the gift of sight.
Lean, dark-skinned, ruffled dark hair, Norman was not what she thought he’d look like. His piercing stare caught Althea’s attention more than anything else. Norman has the kind of eyes that could kill anyone trying to stare back. She wondered how Norman’s sculptor came up with such perfection. Is Norman as good a sculptor as the one who made him?
When Norman finally finished with her right eye, she could see him properly. She wanted him to give her a mouth, so she could thank him for the gift of sight. So she could thank him for his delicate touch.
And he did. He gave her a mouth, later that day after changing his mind several times. She could see him wince a few times before finally letting out a half sigh. Althea knew he was never really satisfied with the shape of her mouth, but she didn’t care.
“Hey,” she whispered.
Norman jumped back, knocking over his tools.
“Did you just whisper?”
Althea pointed to where her ears must be. He had yet to sculpt ears on her. The horror on Norman’s face was followed by a rushed job of sculpting her ear. Althea couldn’t hide her smile, Norman’s touch felt a bit rough this time.
“Can you hear me now?” Norman whispered with a shaky voice.
“Yes, I can hear you.”
Norman stared at her in amazement. “You’re alive, Althea. I cannot believe this.”
Norman was sheepish for a minute. He’d been calling his new sculpture Althea, mostly under his breath, in his own head. He couldn’t believe he was talking to her.
Norman spent too much time in his studio with Althea. He could not tell time anymore. Sun rays never lit up his studio anymore, as the drapes were always closed. He was afraid Althea’s ability to move like a human being would be seen by others. Norman worked under the cold fluorescent light, day in and day out.
“Why are you doing this, not wanting me to be seen? I miss the sunlight, Norman.”
Norman touched her shoulders, he kissed her neck from behind, and she felt the warmth of his breath when he spoke, “Why would I want anyone to see you?”
Althea turned her head slowly, she could smell the intoxicating coconut scent in his hair.
“I thought you sculpted me for an exhibition. Wouldn’t I be seen by people then?”
He kissed her lips, slowly, just as he always did whenever he didn’t feel like answering her questions. Althea didn’t want it to end, but she wanted an explanation, so she pulled away. Norman looked annoyed.
“Althea, you’re not going to the exhibition. They will,” he pointed out to other lifeless sculptures around the studio.
“You told me I’m your masterpiece, Norman,” Althea walked over to the window, she peeked through the drapes.
“Don’t do that. You’re risking yourself to be seen, Althea,” Norman said, his voice stiff.
Althea turned to him, angry.
“What am I, then, really?”
Norman covered his face with his palms, “Here we go again. You know, Althea, if you were human, it would be easier. But you’re not. You’re a sculpture. I made you.”
“Yes, but I demand to be seen. I want people to see your work on me,” Althea said, her voice rising.
Norman shook his head. He already made up his mind weeks ago, when he discovered Althea was alive. He was consumed by her, he wanted to make her his, and his only. What if she fell in love with a curator? What if a collector bought her? No. She was his masterpiece and she should stay where she belonged. Here, inside his studio.
“Althea, I may sound crazy to everyone else, but I am deeply in love with you. And therefore I cannot let you be seen by collectors who may want to buy you. You’re mine.”
And at that moment, Althea understood. She’d been in love with Norman for far too long. From the first time she could feel, see and hear her sculptor. She didn’t want to leave him, because she too would be miserable.
“OK, Norman. I’ll be your secret,” she said softly.
Norman looked at Althea. “So what do we do now?”
Althea shrugged — a new ability she learned from Norman just days earlier, “Tell her the truth?”
Norman stopped working on his new sculpture.
“Ah, that is a great idea. While we do that, why don’t we hold a press conference as well and say world-renowned artist Norman Panjaitan is in love with his sculpture? You’re insane, Althea. Come on, I thought we’ve been through this several times?”
Althea put her arms around Norman, “Forgive me, I didn’t mean to upset you, Norman.”
They spent the night together, sprawled on a dirty mattress in his studio because Dina wanted Norman out of the house. Althea couldn’t bear to see Norman miserable like this. He was still asleep when she sneaked into his cupboard of tools just at the back of the studio. She pulled out something Norman had always said for her not to play around with as it is very dangerous.
Norman woke up to Althea’s soft nudge on his shoulder. He opened his eyes dreamily, and saw Althea at the end of the mattress.
“Althea put that down!” Norman was near hysterical. “I told you thousands of times never to touch that sledgehammer. What is wrong with you?” he cried. Althea is a fragile clay sculpture. What was she thinking playing around with a sledgehammer like that? I have to get rid of that, Norman made a mental note.
“Do it, Norman. Destroy me. Do it. If this is what living is like, I don’t want to anymore,” Althea said in a quiet voice. She was ready to disappear.
Norman could feel blood rising to his face. How dare she make me choose, he thought angrily.
“Give. Me. The. Sledgehammer.”
Althea’s hand was shaky as she handed Norman the sledgehammer. She asked for one last kiss, but he refused. He stormed out of the studio, his fingers wrapped around the sledgehammer’s wooden handle.
Althea didn’t hear from him for the next two days.
Norman entered the studio that day with a strange look on his face, the sledgehammer still swinging lightly in his hand. Althea did not come up to him like she used to. She was afraid of what might happen. She still wanted that one last kiss, before he smashed her into a million pieces. She still wanted that human warmth next to her.
“Go on, Norman. I’m ready now,” she whispered, closing her eyes.
Norman sat beside her.
“I couldn’t do it to you,” his voice was soft. “Never to you.”
Althea opened her eyes, bewildered, “What do you mean?”
“I did it.”
Asmara Wreksono is a writer, painter and editor. She is also the managing editor of Life at The Jakarta Post.