The Old Man*

Have you called your parents today?

*Published in The Jakarta Post, October 9, 2017

I glanced at my phone. Two missed calls. The clock showed it was 2 a.m. Yet, I was barely able to sleep — thanks to the old man who lived in apartment 1401 on the 5th floor. An apartment opposite my building whose windows weren’t curtained and faced right onto my apartment.

Every 2 a.m. until sunrise, that old man would turn on his ridiculously bright lamp. He had been doing that for a week now. I was unable to get to sleep after working at night. Or suddenly it would disturb my sleep.

I tried to put up a curtain, but it didn’t work. The light was too bright. It shone through my apartment window and reached my bed. To make matters worse, every night with his light turned on he would stand near the window. His shadow made it even harder for me to sleep.

One day I took a peek from behind my curtain. I saw him stand near his apartment window with a phone in his hand, as usual. He was wearing a suit. Yes, a suit. It seemed like he couldn’t take his eyes away from his phone. I had no idea what he was doing. Wearing a suit in the middle of the night wasn’t just unusual; it was strange. I thought he might have lost his mind or something. But my friend, Don, who apparently knew him, said there was nothing wrong with him.

Don lived in the apartment unit downstairs. I ran into him in the laundry room some days ago and asked him whether he too was having trouble sleeping. Don said he had no trouble sleeping.

I told Don about the old man across from our apartment building and his annoying habit of turning on the lamp during the night. Don said the light didn’t get through to his apartment unit and therefore it didn’t bother him. He also told me the old man had been living in the apartment building across from us for decades. So far, he said, the old man had never caused anyone any trouble.

“Just wear a sleep mask,” Don advised. “Put up a bulkier curtain, or just move your bed,” he offered some other solutions.

I nodded my head but my mind was full of doubt. Wearing a sleep mask and getting a bulkier curtain would waste my time and money. They wouldn’t work. The lamp was too bright. Moving the bed wasn’t an option either. I didn’t have much space in my small apartment unit. Not to mention my books and my papers that were scattered all over the floor. So I told Don I would give the old man some time. But if nothing changed within a week, I would talk to the old man.

However, after almost two weeks, nothing changed. I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to talk to him. I was losing more and more sleep. I couldn’t think clearly in the afternoon. I felt like a zombie every time I went to work. And even coffee didn’t help. I begged Don to give me the entrance code to the old man’s building. I knew he had it because he once had a crush on a girl who used to live in the same building as the old man. Don tried to stop me.

“He’s old, man. He must have a reason,” he argued.

But I didn’t care. I was not going to take it anymore. That night, I visited the old man’s apartment unit. I rang the bell. After a while, he answered the door.

“Yes?” said the old man.

Don was right. He was very old. He was surprised to find me there.

“Hi, sorry to bother you. I live in the apartment unit on level 4, in the opposite building. Every night I can’t sleep because you, Sir, have been turning on a very bright lamp until sunrise,” I said frankly.

He seemed stunned and opened his mouth to say something but I didn’t give him a chance.

“So, could you please stop doing that? I haven’t been able to sleep properly these last two weeks and my career is at stake because of that. I hope you understand,” I added, firmly.

“Oh, okay,” he said.

“Thank you,” I said, then walked away.

For the following two nights, the old man kept his light switch off. I was beginning to catch up on my sleep. And then one night, as I had just finished writing my report, the lamp came on again. The old man stood near the window with a cell phone in his hand. I tried to ignore it. Maybe he forgot he had to turn it off. He was very old. Yet the next night, he forgot again. I couldn’t sit still and do nothing.

I rang his bell again. Several times. Then the door opened:

“Ah, I knew you would come. Come in, there’s something I want to tell you.”

I followed him with hesitation. His apartment was very much like mine: a studio apartment with no bedroom. There was only a bathroom and a kitchen on the left side, and a corridor that led to the main room with windows. This main room was used as a bedroom as well as a reading room with a sofa, table and bookshelf. I could see the culprit of my recent sleeping problem, the bright lamp, was seated on the table. I restrained myself not to take it and throw it away.

He allowed me to sit on the only sofa in that room, while he sat on the edge of his bed. Then he took something from his pocket and handed it to me. It was a picture of a young man with a short lady and a toddler, maybe around two years old. This time, I was the one who was stunned. I didn’t get it. What did this picture have to do with my sleeping problem?

“He’s my son,” he said, pointing at the picture of the young man.

Then the old man told me that his son had been living out of the country for quite some time. It had been almost two months they weren’t in contact. He said that his son once complained about how difficult it was to contact him because the old man couldn’t work out a video call or a web-call. So last month he decided to buy a smartphone. Hoping that it would be easier for him to talk to his son.

“I know he’s busy. And I don’t want to annoy him. I just want to say hello,” he added.

The old man later explained that every child, once they’ve become adults, deserves to lead their own lives. But a father would always be a father. He still wanted to hear from his son. Maybe twice a month, or even once a month is fine. That was why he had gotten up late in the last three weeks. He was trying to reach his son who lived in a different part of the world, the part where days and nights were all reversed. And the old man was trying to work the new phone with the help of the lamp.

“You can see there isn’t much space in my apartment,” he argued.

I didn’t know what to say. I was furious at first. But now I felt sorry for the old man instead.

“What about you? You call your dad often?” asked the old man, out of the blue.

I opened my mouth but nothing came out. I didn’t even know how long I hadn’t been in touch with my father. I missed or even ignored his calls most of the time. Sometimes he texted me, but my replies were curt. I felt like I had no time for chitchat. My time was always occupied with work.

My sister was the one who did me a favour when she visited me. She gave our father some updates, sent him pictures and things like that. But I hardly contacted him by myself. Even on the weekends. I didn’t know what to talk about. I wasn’t good at making conversation while my father was so quiet.

“You know what, sometimes listening to your son’s voice is enough,” said the old man.

I couldn’t find the right words to say. I returned the picture to him and excused myself. “I think I should go,” I said at last. “I’ll get someone to put up the curtain tomorrow,” he added before I left. “Thanks,” I said quietly. I rushed back to my apartment.


It was 2 a.m. And just like the nights before, something disturbed my sleep. The light was back on. The old man was pacing around, as usual, near the window. I wasn’t angry, though. Instead, I felt a smile coming onto my face. I looked at my phone screen. There were several missed calls. I redialled the number.


“Hello. Dad?” I replied.

No answer. I could only hear him breathing a sigh of relief.


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