Chapter 2. ​​A New Enigma

Stephanie met some clients of a similar socioeconomic background as Lila’s, and many of them could be grouped into one user persona—a common profile. 

If Lila’s family was lacking one of the family members, then Stephanie would take great care to avoid sorrowful topics from the conversation. That could wait until the second or third session. 

A Companion did not differ greatly from a dating partner. The initial awkwardness, the start of emotional opening, the common ground, the comfort zone, and finally the intimacy. 

She beamed when Lila came back carrying a tray, two teacups perched on top of it. The ceramics clunk when the lady of the house set them on the table. She winced. 

Stephanie hid her frown by lowering her gaze. Why would Lila wince when the cups made noise? The quiet aura made more sense now. Living alone for most of her two years, supposing her husband or child was no longer, a person could develop sensitivity towards auditory stimuli.

The guest and the hostess both settled now. Stephanie became the one who initiated the welcoming aura, but no words came out of Lila’s mouth. Nor a smile on her face.

Silence filled in the space. The client darted her eyes everywhere but the Companion’s face. Stephanie kept her gaze soft and welcoming. Not directly at the client’s eyes, to not signal hostility, she recalled her own manual. She waited, as timed silence was the best tool to open the locked space for someone else to become comfortable. No interruption, no pushy attitude. 

Lila opened her mouth slowly and Stephanie waited for the voice to catch up. No eager gesture, she reminded herself, otherwise, Lila would clam up again.

“How do—,” Lila timidly said, rubbing her palms against each other, “—we speak? What should I say?”

Typical first-timer. 

“It’s okay, take it easy, really. You can talk about anything, Lila.”

“But I don’t have any issues,” she jolted. Her eyes focused on Stephanie’s, her brows furrowed. A standard response when hiding something, but Stephanie played calmly. A safe space, she repeated her mantra.

“Well, this is not an investigative opportunity. As a speaking Companion, a comfortable talking session is what I’m here for. You can talk about your daily life while I’m listening attentively. You can do a lot of things while I’m sitting here, or you can ask me to do some activities. Heck, you can even ask me to help you in the kitchen. I helped some elderly clients this way, and that’s totally appropriate.”

Lila hesitated, “But here in your details you say the examples are playing board games, making tea, or watching series together. I’m not interested in any of those.”

The Companion chuckled and waved her hand. “It’s just a rough guide to indicate the decorum. In actuality, I can do a lot of things my clients ask me to within the corridor of propriety, obviously. You’ll be surprised by how relieving it is just to have a human’s presence around. Given the pandemic. So, yeah, each of the Companions was expected to write something on their profile page and I put those up. How about we start by you telling me how you found out about our service and we could go from there?”

A safe, gentle, start.  

“Youtube ad,” Lila found no difficulty in replying to that question. “I was watching a video when your ad popped up in the middle. Annoying, I know, but what caught my attention was your selling point. Yeah, I thought it was probably due to the video topic itself. I’ve been indulging myself in aesthetics, you know, with the ‘my daily minimalistic morning routine’ and such.” 

“Everything looks calming and peaceful, for videos that had been made before time. Very hard to stay positive during this awfully long stay at home. So knowing that everyone else is in the same situation and some Youtubers can still make banks based on this . . . I don’t know. The first impression was you running another fad of nonsensical therapy. But, it’s affordable and I’ll have people coming to talk to me. So, why not try?”

Seeing Stephanie only nodding, Lila abruptly added, “Not that I meant bad for your business.”

“No, I know you didn’t,” Stephanie dimpled, flashing a series of white teeth for casual sincerity. “I love talking to people. Probably focusing on positivity is the best option given that there are too many negative comments lying around on the internet.”

She knew. She knew the negativity that still spread around would say things like those Immune at shallow enterprises—meaning one of them was Prattle—utilised their potential by doing menial tasks with the lowest impact to make easy money from the Protected. Insecurity gnawing at her? Most likely.

Seeing other Immune still working at the port, some others at food supply, but she was here just busy arranging her merry band trying to help to uplift someone’s moods didn’t help her confidence. She was still surprised the negative trolls didn’t put her company up in the Top 10 wasteful businesses this month. 

Maybe the workers she met when she boarded on that bus were just being polite, as in no need to kick the hornet’s nest of other professions when they were just fellow travellers. But behind closed doors, or being huddled with their mates, they poured out their hatred towards Stephanie and her likes.

She quickly slammed her mental spiral and got herself together. Another day at work, another client deserving her respect and concentration. “So, yeah, here I am. Hopeful to be a Companion worthy of your time and money,” she smiled genuinely.

“Why are you so positive? Because you’re Immune? I only met other Protected, well, maybe just on-screen. My husband is also an Immune. He works at a telecommunication centre downtown, he’s not that happy, though. Always annoyed at me,” she huffed, giving off a sombre mood.

“Oh?” Stephanie angled her head to see the wedding photograph better. 

A flash change of expression subtly marred the smile of her client, and an unshakable feeling gradually planted its claws inside Stephanie, like a fibrous root trying to make passages deep in the soil.

A photograph, however large it may be, shows the traits that the person wanted us to see, not what they did not want us to see. Someone did a curation for what outfit to be worn, what expression to display, and which posture to act. The best memory preservation. Censorship of some degree. 

What Harari said in his book crossed Stephanie’s mind again. Two parts of a human self, namely the experiencing and the narrating self. The experiencing self went through minute-by-minute of life. The narrating self only remembered the peak and the end of the experience. How biased oneself could be, how convenient it was, shaved off the flares of pain from memories. 

And pictures people took in their lifetime justified the narrating self only.

Stephanie didn’t know whether the man in the picture was a good or a bad man. His podgy body stood beside Lila’s curvy one. Her tiara-adorned head leaned on a broad shoulder of his, a brawny arm covered by a black suit rested atop Lila’s pale shoulder. The Companion took a polite look at the picture and then glanced at the lady before her. Lila’s posture and torso didn’t change much over the years, only the facial features did. Oh, and her hair was dyed auburn, a shade lighter than the deep brown in the picture.

She dismissed Lila’s comment of her husband being an annoyance as a minor inconvenience, the sort of bicker an old-married couple had. She couldn’t deduce it from a single photograph. Alas, there was no heart entirely black or white, as the absolute evil was no man. 

She asked in quiet curiosity about how long their marriage had been and threw an assumption that her husband was Immune and now he was out there doing good for humanity, not only for this country.

“Damar and I have been married for eighteen years. As a member of the Council, he’s one of the heroes who still maintain the functioning society for the rest of us, I know. A lot of people say that on the internet.” That agreed with Stephanie’s assumption about their marriage had been for a long time, judging from the youthful faces the couple presented in the photo.

A Council member? Stephanie felt a brick fall in her stomach. She was doing service to a government member’s wife?

What a slim chance to be in contact with one of them of the ivory tower. It still made a bit sense since her clients consisted of people who could afford an extra courtesy in their life, but this was new. She always threw a blanketed assumption that nobody in the Council actually favoured her cause.

An all-out government with bells and whistles were deemed nonessential. Only brilliant and functional people—totally not the likes of Stephanie— could be listed in the service. Each of them did multitasking anyway. In Jakarta, the number of departments was downsized significantly to only the basic necessities. With the unified global government in Den Haag, every remaining country big enough to maintain the Council of their own rather racked their collective mind power to sustain themselves than complain about sovereignty. 

Stephanie for one wasn’t sure whether the black drones or choppers had jurisdiction limitation of what it could or could not do. Or whether it was from the regional or the country’s Council.

“Is he in the Communication department? I’m sorry but I’m not well-versed in who is in charge of which now,” she replied sheepishly. When in doubt, throw a random guess. People would love to prove her wrong.

“Yes, managing the internet and all. I’m not even sure myself what he’s doing but I know he’s a contributing member.”

That she called a lucky guess. “He’s a hero, indeed. Many of the current business practices rely solely on the internet connection.”

“Including the black choppers.”

Stephanie fell silent. In the sessions with other clients, none of them ever uttered even the vaguest sentiment towards the monitoring tools of the functioning government, especially the birds. They didn’t discuss the shootings, the recordings, or the constant surveillance. No one said anything about it. 

Neither did Stephanie, because she believed in every means necessary to sustain lives and suppress the civil unrest so that the economy could keep going. Wasn’t that the purpose of having institutions to regulate how they lived? To ensure the backbone system could still run and mouths can still be fed.

Sensing her wariness, Lila shifted in her seat and added, “The Immune are heroes. So are you, since you help people by becoming a Companion.”

For once, her client made her nervous. Was this a test so Lila could find any spots on her and report this Companion to the people who controlled black choppers? 

She remarked her best response, “Not that. Because everyone—”

“Has their own place in society? What good am I now staying at home doing the bare minimum? I can’t work because I used to be a manager at a supermarket. When this took us by storm, of course, I was laid off. Only husband can go out and I’m no more than just complementary furniture in this place.”

This was exactly what the mental health experts warned her and other Companions about the collective depression tendency that swept across many countries. Depression was a silent killer. It was not the first time she encountered such a bottled-up toxic self-image projected by her clients. She knew this yearning for acceptance could not just be soothed by video calls with a ladies’ friend group or merely chats with the Protected therapists. 

“I will not say I understand because we’re sailing in different predicaments. But your feelings, your thoughts, you, are valid.”

Perhaps, it was due to her trying to be empathetic, or her soothing voice, but when confronted with the validity statement, not only did the clients calm down after acknowledging the acceptance, but they also would get to open up more. The reticence flew away like migrating geese.

“May I see your ID?” Lila enquired.

Stephanie produced hers out of her wallet and intended to hold it up for Lila to see. But a second thought flashed by, so she ended up clamping her ID card in the space between her thumbs and index fingers. A gesture that became rare, almost lost, within just over months due to not many people relying on having face-to-face meetings anymore. No more business cards were exchanged, so the respectful gesture—often accompanied by slightly bowing down the head—flew away from human culture.

Lila accepted it reverently. She held it up almost in the same hands’ position as Stephanie’s, but now it was in her eye level to observe. 

“So this is it, I never touched a real card other than his. The prized possession. How do you feel about having it? Empowered?” Stephanie could detect the sting in Lila’s words.

Not the first time she faced full-blown jealousy from her clients, either. On the one hand, this job could sound like an angelic task, a total benevolent attempt to restore faith in the community where people cared for each other. People could not live just by basic sustenance, electricity, water, and a roof over their heads. The social needs should not be neglected, and that was where the Companions came in, however shallow the jealousy accused them of. 

On the other hand, with certain types of clientele, this felt like a straight out bullying of her privilege. A privilege she never flaunted but was almost always hated for. 

“No, not that. The card just served as a motivational card for me to reach more people who are in need of company. That’s my privilege, true because it allows me to enter someone’s property without them fearing that I might transmit disease. I was also made redundant almost three years ago when the mortality rate started ramping up and no more jobs like mine—a finance analyst for a design house—was allowed. An unessential job, it was. Also, we had to talk to people every single day. Couldn’t do my job anyway, could I?”

She sipped the hot jasmine tea, savouring the little things in life, then continued smoothly, “When the mass test result stated me as Immune, my family and friends, well, the remaining of them, knew. Their immediate response was to ask me to their homes because they just wanted to have guests to chat with and kill time. Did that regularly. Got sustenance in exchange. I could also shower at theirs rather than borrow their money to pay off my overdue water bill. Or, if I got some money from this service, I could pay back to the families I lived with. I’ve to admit that the idea of founding Prattle came from this. I’m really sorry if this comes across as abusing my privilege.”

Lila shook her head daintily. “You didn’t do it for money, I know. What makes you tick?”

“Something personal.”

Lila didn’t press her for an answer, as Stephanie wriggled her toes subconsciously. 

She pursed her lips before saying, “I felt lonely, too.”

That was not the whole truth. But at least, in this first session, Lila didn’t need to know that. 

“I see,” she still didn’t push. “But what if you grew attached? Would you keep coming back for that client like finding a friend?”

“Probably.”

“And what if it’s the other way around? Say, if we don’t find comfort in each other. Maybe I won’t like you after this. Will my deposit for five sessions be refunded?”

Stephanie was also okay with T&C talks. Better to be frank upfront. “I still suggest that you continue with another Companion. You can rate me in the app after today’s session ends. On that page, you can leave a comment on your request for the next session, whether you still want it with me or someone else. That’s totally fine. We’re humans, personalities can still clash, perhaps you find my words are subpar, or I’m awkward. You can always ask for someone else and no one will hold it against you personally. We want our clients to feel less lonely.”

“Good, then. More tea?”

For a little while, the silence was split asunder by the crunching noise of the day’s snack. Stephanie tried to chew on her gnetum crackers quietly, but it was as impossible as expecting the city to not have a single spot of flood the whole year. Time stretched with uneasy muted biting until Lila began.

“I dreamed— well, may I share things like these? A dream? That doesn’t count as a useful activity to spend this session?” Lila had this knack of changing the course of her thought process mid-sentence, Stephanie noticed.

Stephanie caught on to the comfort level of her client. “Why, yes. A hundred per cent yes. You may share about anything and I will be your friend here. Talk to me.” A paid friend, Stephanie chided herself.

Hesitance reared its ugly head when Lila furrowed her brows. She seemed like a high-class lady who saw specks of dust covering her vase collection after the maid had forgotten to give it a quick wipe. 

“But, then, it’s not worth your time. Never mind,” she cut her off.

“No, Lila,” Stephanie coaxed. “I’m not a censorship authority here. If you need to be heard, I’d listen to you. And that’s not just because of my job, but first and foremost because I’m a human, too. I want to be listened to, so do you.” She bobbed her head, lifting her cup of tea and inhaling the steam that smells of jasmine. Feeling instantly relaxed, she hoped her body language transmitted to the lady of the house. That in turn, becoming contagious.

“Well, if I may . . .” Lila tucked some hair behind her ear and started talking.

“I dreamed of a bird this morning. It was this morning, not last night, as I’ve got this habit of dozing off for a bit after hitting the snooze button. My husband usually wakes up an hour after my second nap finishes off, so I knew I still had time. During that negligible period of sleeping, it turned out that the dreamscape had its own universe. Time ran much faster there, so, within the span of slightly shorter than thirty minutes, I dreamed of events that stretched across a few hours, or even days. What I know is there was a time-hopping ability I gained there.”

Stephanie’s calming black tea was soon forgotten. The clinking sound of the spoon touching the saucer felt like a muffled sound from another room altogether. Like a plastic tarp laid down over a pool, it blocked all the underwater gurgling return streams. She snapped out of it and quickly took stock of her environment, breath slowing down with more questions of how the past came back.

The spoon still lay on the beige minimalistic table, half of its body on the saucer. Eerily similar to how time had warped itself inside her mind despite not even five seconds having passed after Lila stopped.

“That’s true. In dreams, our mind creates and recreates its own world, free from expectations. It’s not limited by gravity or other forces of nature, not even time,” Stephanie composed herself then added.

Lila blushed and looked downwards. Stephanie followed it, too, diverting her attention now at a doily upon which a wooden trinket stood. 

“Yeah, but I . . . I’m sorry, I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I’m afraid this becomes a therapy session and you’re analysing me from my dream.”

Stephanie didn’t know what to say apart from encouraging her to keep going; this could be as boring or interesting as how they made it to be. The part where the client didn’t even know what to talk about broke her heart as if humanity had lost its natural survival instinct, which was to form a social bond with other people.

“If you’re not comfortable talking about this, then we can always do something else. If you don’t want me to talk, then I’ll stay silent, replying only when you want me to. I’ll try to be anything you need now.”

Upon hearing her Companion’s answer, Lila brightened up. “Need? What do I need?”

Stephanie nodded vigorously, assuring Lila that she needed not be afraid to express it.

“May I ask you to do something? I would like you to brush my hair, please.”

In Lila’s tired eyes, Stephanie saw gleaming unshed tears like two transparent curtains veiling the world beyond. What lay beyond, she did not dare to reach, like secrets stacked together in a Jenga tower. Her proverbial mouth watered to pull one block out to see the structure keel, or worse, scatter on the ground. But at what cost?

“Which one at what cost?”

She just realised she murmured it almost inaudibly, and Lila caught it.

“Um, no, sorry. My mind keeps doing that, thinking out loud of other things. Do you have a hairbrush?” Stephanie asked the hostess.

Lila shot a frowned stare then stood up, beckoning the Companion to follow. Hesitantly, Stephanie raised and followed her to a room, possibly the master bedroom. A queen-sized mattress covered by a teal-cream bed sheet stood in the sepia-toned room. Lila led her Companion to a dresser, above which a large rectangular mirror hung on the wall. Plopping herself down on a plush blue round chair, her shaking hand offered the hairbrush to Stephanie.

So she ran the brown plastic vented hairbrush through Lila’s hair. Each strand of light hair demanded her attention. She reached a meditative state her solitude could not provide. When brushing someone’s hair, it was as if the universe ceased to exist and only the recipient and she were at the moment. 

“The background noise,” Lila whispered.

Stephanie paused the movement of her wrist above Lila’s crown.

“The background noise of your mind seems to have its own pace. Well, mine’s too. But on the days like this, in solitude, it’s not just noise. It’s a roar. And it scolds me for having chickened out for so long.”

Stephanie didn’t try to analyse her words. A psychologist in her team kept reminding everyone that they should listen more to understand than to reply. This was one of those times where she could do good by keeping it quiet but her ears open.

“Damar is rarely home. But when he is, we fight. A lot. Sometimes I ask myself the dreaded what-ifs and if-only sentences. Idiot, I know, because he’s the reason I’m still alive. Nobody could ride this crisis alone.”

Stephanie gulped. This nobody’s town actually had at least one person population, which was her.

Lila caught her eyes on the reflection in the mirror. “It feels lonelier and scarier, though, when you’re in the lockdown with the wrong person. We’re just two physical bodies occupying the same space.”

“I’m sorry.” Stephanie never knew what to say. Heck, even after a year of getting in and out of people’s places she still came across situations where everything she could say would still sound inadequate.

Lila tilted her head and shook it. “I’m sorry for having asked you to brush my hair. It’s pathetic. But I love the feeling of someone else brushing it. Like, someone really cares for me. Why did God put us in this world only to die alone?”

Stephanie didn’t know which information to lay bare, Lila’s craving for the caress or her helpless question. The first months she had been in this business, she knew someone would eventually ask this rhetorically. Not until when she was seasoned enough, apparently.

“Are you a religious person?” Lila probed again. Her head now tilted as if pushing the brush in Stephanie’s hand away. She noticed the cue, so she lowered it.

“I’d like to think so, but perhaps, I’m more spiritual than religious now.”

“Does it really matter?”

Stephanie left the question unanswered, and Lila didn’t ask further. 

Stephanie picked up the brush again to shake off the uncomfortable silence. “If that works with you, I’ll brush your hair every time I’m here.”

The reaction elicited by Lila warmed Stephanie’s heart, even a smile curled up on her lips. Lila covered her mouth with her hand, her head nodding once. 

It had been an hour, time for Stephanie to wrap up the session.

Lila’s unwavering gaze bore deep into hers, her fingers rounded her wrist.

“I don’t want you to go home with the wrong idea. There is nothing wrong with him, okay, with us. Him and me. Nothing’s wrong. We’re just incompatible. He’s angry with me several times, but I can understand. It could be just me. That’s why you’re here. Please be my friend.”

Stephanie assured her of their tenet of privacy before asking, “Did he ever hurt you?”

Her grips on Stephanie’s wrists grew tighter if that was even possible. “No, never. Also, not a breath of this, yeah. He’s a member of the functional Council. We don’t do anything to rock the boat, okay?”

Outside, the buzzing high-pitch noises of the cicadas signalled them that the world was still running like wheels on oiled axles. 

When she reached the bus stop, she replayed the session in her head. A Companionship session always worked two ways. Lila might have found talking to Stephanie easy, she saw the five-star rating on her notification. But what did she think about this new client? 

The last-minute response, the rushing stream of consciousness, always bleeds the truth more than the thoughtful answers, her ex’s voice helpfully supplied the memory. Why did he even come back to the front of her mind?

The last-minute response of Lila, the change of her relatively guarded persona, alluded to there was something more than met the eye. A thing she couldn’t pin down. Yet. 

Play by the book, she might. Or risk it all to fail again. Just like the last time.

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