Friday, as the clock struck six and the week turned into weekend, work into play, sunlight into shadows, I arrived at the novelist’s house in a taxi with a man who had introduced himself to me three weeks earlier as “a famous poet.” Also with us were Indonesia’s foremost newspaper columnist and a daughter of one of the country’s richest businessmen. We were there for a party celebrating the novelist’s birthday. A man and a woman, possibly searching for the privacy to flirt far from the crowd inside, opened the gate for us. Across the front yard, the door opened into a library supported by columns of shelves stocked to the ceiling with books, journals, and browning newspapers languishing on the edges of the shelves like satisfied women in an orgy painting. Under a window overlooking the backyard was the novelist’s desk—a terraced field of open books held down by a laptop. How odd that she let strangers walk right into her study as if it were an exhibition, not an innermost sanctuary where she could feel safe enough to attempt secret magic. Soon I realized it had to be her intention.
The back door transported us to a yard with a makeshift stage on the right. A band was playing dangdut songs to a crowd of a dozen men and women, writhing and waving their punches to the melody. A beauty in a purple tanktop and an orange handkerchief skirt floated over to greet us.
“Happy birthday, lovely!” said the columnist. The rest of us echoed.
The poet introduced me as an editor in a publishing house.
“Hello. I’ve enjoyed reading your work.” My nerves took the better of me: “How young are you now?”
“Oh, that information is classified.” The novelist winked and glided away.
I wandered around the property. The wet soil of the backyard gave way to an open kitchen guarded by a hardwood table laden with profiteroles, croquettes, fried cassavas, and colorful bottles with ribbons and a happy-birthday card hanging around their necks.
The poet picked up a croquette, dipped it in a bowl of chili sauce, and stuffed it in his mouth. “Come, I want to show you something.” He led me through an open door to the right of the kitchen, which brought us into the bedroom. “Don’t worry, I want to show you some photos,” he said. The sheets were crumpled, a nightdress was folded over the foot of the bed. Photographs of the novelist were hanging on the wall: naked, smeared with trickles of blood.
“Her own menstrual blood,” the poet told me. “She intends to take a nude photograph of herself every year to record the changing of her body—the Female Body, you see, emphasized by the blood—until eventually there will be no more blood.”
It hit me like a solid right hook: Will beauty vanish along with the blood? Is blood necessary for beauty, for sex?
On our way out we passed a group of bright-eyed teenagers who rushed in to take selfies beside the novelist’s bed.
I saw the columnist sitting by himself by the snacks table. In his dirty grey T-shirt he looked like a scraggy old bump. I separated myself from the poet and sat down beside the columnist. “I’ve been meaning to tell you all evening, it is an honor to meet you.”
He waved me off. The gleam in his eyes told me he enjoyed the compliment, though. I started talking about his recent column that I had analyzed in preparation for this opportunity. When the poet invited me to this party, I had suspected that the columnist, a close friend of the novelist, was going to be there too. I was zeroing in on a specific point that he’d made when he said, “You look awfully pretty.”
It depresses me to silence.
Now left alone, I pouted before the snacks table like a bulimic nerd who had been abandoned by her prom date, wondering if my opinions had been so dull, if my approach had been so tactless, if the columnist simply didn’t want to discuss his writing past work hours. After all, there was a party going on.
The bulimic nerd gave up and dipped her fingers into a plate of greasy croquettes, catching the fluttering end of her blue bell-shaped sleeves to keep it from getting oil. The band was playing louder and the vortex of dancing people was spinning faster. I watched the novelist shake her ass in the eye of the vortex before it spit out two sore-thumbs in the form of white men—one in his early forties, skinny, serious, bespectacled, and the other in his fifties with a body like a teapot. Speaking French, they wound up at the end of the snacks table. The teapot made a superficially flattering comment on my fuckability.
“I speak French,” I said halfway at them.
The teapot moved closer.
I sighed with regret.
He told me they were geologists, or cartographers, or something like that, and they were going to explore Kalimantan the following week, but would be back in Jakarta the week after that.
“Where do you live?”
“I’m staying in Hotel P—, that’s very close to Kuningan. I can give you a ride home.”
If I were trying to pick up a girl I wouldn’t mention that I was staying in that crummy place. “No, thanks.”
“What’s your name?”
“Lolita,” I said.
He considered my response, finally got it, and walked away muttering curses.
“I hate to see old Western men embarrassing themselves after young Indonesian girls,” his colleague said.
“Yeah, that was annoying,” I said.
“I myself have a wife and daughter back in France, whom I cherish very much. I don’t want to disrespect them by sleeping around.”
“Good for you.” I was going to ask him how he and his colleague got invited to the party when something stopped my breath.
An epiphany in the flesh: six feet something, cropped blond hair, late twenties, in powder blue shirt, loose jeans, and a rope necklace. He was walking towards the kitchen. At the threshold between grass and concrete he consulted his sidekick, a dark-haired and green-eyed boy about the same age, and then he seemed to address me.
“You look very bored.”
Somehow I recovered my wits. “That man was bothering me.” I pointed at my scapegoat.
Epiphany and Sidekick exchanged another glance.
“Do you mind if we talk to you?” Epiphany said, producing a box of cigarettes out of his shirt pocket.
“Of course we can talk.” Again I felt like that bulimic nerd, but this time the prom king was asking her to dance. I told them that I’d heard the novelist didn’t like people smoking in her kitchen, so I led them to the yard.
We stood in a triangle, Sidekick and I on the kitchen steps, while Epiphany had the good sense to keep his feet on the ground. He offered me a cigarette. I didn’t like his brand, but my hand needed something to hold, so I took it.
They told me their names, I told them mine.
“May I call you Za?”
“People usually shorten my name to Liz.”
“Liz is so common. Za is special.”
“Alright, you can call me Za. It’s not like your name is so special.” Here I’m going to call him Adam—the first man’s name for my first love.
“I spell it with two d’s.”
As we stood there chatting, the younger Frenchman waltzed by and whispered, “You said you didn’t like white men picking up Indonesian women…”
“But they’re my age!” I shouted, hoping Addam and Sidekick—let’s call him Robin—understand French. I rolled my eyes in case they didn’t.
Addam told me he had been living and working as a volunteer in Aceh for a year, escorting local human rights activists, conducting peace workshops for both the Free Aceh Movement members and the Indonesian military, and buying beer in milk cartons. He was on vacation in Jakarta and visiting his best friend Robin who had been living there on a Fulbright grant to research contemporary Indonesian literature. Addam told me where he came from, and I quoted Dylan Thomas’s most famous lines.
“I can’t believe you know that. You’re the first girl I talked to in Indonesia who knows about Wales. Everyone else thought it was New South Wales.”
I stopped myself from curtsying, a little too late. “I studied world literature in college,” I explained, “I just got back to Jakarta four months ago.”
“Did you study in the US? You’ve got an East Coast accent,” said Robin. “I’m from California, doing my PhD at Berkeley.”
“I lived in Jakarta until I was fourteen, and then in a boarding school in Central Java, after that I went to college in Connecticut.”
“What do you do now?” asked Addam.
“A month ago I got a job in a publishing house as acquisitions editor. A feminist journal recently offered me an assignment to do interviews with Acehnese women about their love life and how they see their position in it,” I said, “but they don’t provide me with anything, no money for travel and accommodations, no connections on the ground to help find women who would speak to me, so…”
My phone beeped. A text message from the poet arrived, asking me if I would like to leave. I caught his brooding figure across the yard. “Just go without me,” I shouted.
He didn’t seem to hear me and sent me another text, this time telling me that the businessman’s daughter had got herself very tipsy and needed him to escort her home.
Go ahead, go without me, I wrote back.
“Sorry,” I said to Addam, who was laughing with Robin. “Tell me more about life in Sharia-land.”
Before Addam could answer, the poet came over and asked me if I really wouldn’t like to go home, because he really needed to go. “I’m not going to wait for you. It’s difficult to get a taxi in this neighborhood.”
“I’m serious, please go without me. I’ll be fine. I’ll call for a taxi,” I said.
His face turned sour before he turned around, but I was happy to show everyone in this party that we didn’t have anything to do with each other. I’d heard rumors that he liked to ‘mentor’ young female writers. I heard he’d even deflowered one, left her, and turned the experience into a song. Her reputation was ruined, but everyone in the literary community seemed to think it was very funny.
“So, Sharia-land?” I said.
“Yeah. There are a lot of restrictions, but people are really nice,” said Addam. “Safety-wise, I think Jakarta’s streets are much more dangerous. I don’t like the food so much, but my organization rents a house for its volunteers and we employ a lady to cook for us, we get to tell her what we like to eat. There’s only one bar in the entire province, it’s in the UN building, but there is plenty, I mean plenty, of weed.”
“It’s unfortunate that the rest of the country is ignorant of what is going on there,” Addam continued. “It’s also frustrating that people there seem to have no interest in anything other than religion.”
“I want to see it for myself. Do you think you can help me find women to interview?”
“Maybe. It will be difficult, though. I don’t think they will open up to a stranger.”
“Well, I don’t want to have to put a veil over my head anyway. Maybe you should take up the assignment.”
“I wouldn’t know how to begin to discuss such an intimate, but important, issue. My field is law, so…”
“Are you a lawyer?”
“I have a Master’s degree in human rights law, but I’m not a lawyer, technically speaking. I can’t appear in a courtroom, for example.”
“Do you want to be a lawyer?”
“I like what I’m doing now, but…”
“If you could do anything in the world, what would it be?”
“I’d like to combine human rights education with football.”
I don’t remember much of what Robin said, even though I suppose he was standing beside us all along.
* * *
As the vortex was thinning out to only a handful of dancers, Addam introduced me to his posse: a Gothic human-rights activist with a witch-pale complexion and nightmare-dark hair, her tattoo-covered graphic artist Indonesian boyfriend, a bearded German activist, and his honey-haired English-teacher girlfriend. The German guy, let’s call him Markus, suggested we move to a club.
“Do you know a good place to go?” asked Robin.
“I’m as new to this city as you and more clueless,” I said.
They decided to go to their usual place.
We squeezed into two taxis and headed to the said club. The cars charged confidently into the maze of Jakarta post-midnight: turning this way and that until we were out of the crammed neighborhood and then speeding through the sleepy highways, now arching, now plunging. Above us ghostly demigoddesses stared down from their dark billboards. I felt I was being ferried to a mysterious shore—the covert side of the city, which I had always suspected was there but had never seen. It was the reason I went home after graduation, this desire to see that covert side. As a teenager all I wanted was to leave, I felt I didn’t belong in this city, in this country. In college, after I gained the perspective that Jakarta was more diverse than my family or schools had made me believe, I decided to see if I could make room for myself in Jakarta, in Indonesia.
The taxis dropped us off in the back of some mall, but I kept my faith and followed my new friends through the mall’s back door until we found The Cave. The place was glittering with glass shelves studded with vodka bottles and cocktail glasses. In the center of the dance floor stood a high and bright O-shaped altar, on it women were dancing, their stilettos clacking amid martini glasses filled with liquid rainbow. The music was plastic buds of desire blooming and bursting all over the room. Behind the bar on the right a bartender flambéed a pyramid of drinks.
I was right, places like this existed in my city. When I saw scenes like this in movies, I’d always felt that this was what my life would look like once I gained the courage to live.
As we elbowed our way to the bar, girls tickled Addam’s chin with their cherry-glazed fingernails, stroke his shield-like chest, pushed a girlfriend towards him. He shook his head at each offer. He bought me a bottle of Bintang, the house’s cheapest beer. Since he had mentioned earlier how little he was making on his volunteer’s stipend, I offered to pay him back. He said it was OK. I didn’t really like beer, but I was happy, so I drank it.
We danced near the altar. The music was cajoling us to drop all cares and Just Fly Away. Every time Addam lifted his arm the Playboy bunny on the band of his briefs peeped out. Just Fly Away. I was desperate to separate us from the posse, only one-on-one could I feel at ease. Just Fly Away. I stepped up onto an ottoman to whisper in his ears. Just Fly Away. He bought me another beer, but he never tried to hold my hand or kiss me. Just Fly Away. Two by two the group thinned out. Just Fly Away. A sofa at the back of the cave emptied, and we sat down—Robin, Addam, and me. Just Fly Away. Before leaving, Robin asked for my number, he said he would like to keep in touch with editors. Just Fly Away. Addam and I were alone.
“How old are you?” he asked.
I made a two and a four with my fingers. “You?”
“Twenty-eight. What’s your religion?”
I sensed he was interviewing me for a position—or several—but I wanted the position(s). “I’m an agnostic.”
“Hell, I’m an atheist.”
We bumped our bottles and talked some more, but he stayed frustratingly an arm’s length away from me. When I looked into his eyes, he smiled, launching sweet tributaries from the corners of his eyes, which I attributed to his smoking habit. I wondered if he thought Jakarta was not much different from Aceh where Sharia police would jump up from behind the sofas and arrest him the moment he tried to kiss me.
At 4 a.m. the club closed. In the taxi I told the driver to head to Kuningan.
“Wait,” said Addam, “would you like to come home with me?”
“You don’t have to if you don’t want to. Of course, you know that.”
“I do. OK, let’s go to your place.” Right away I wondered if I shouldn’t have appeared at least a little hesitating.
“You really don’t have to.”
“No, but it can be dangerous going home alone this time of night,” I said. I was going to add: ‘After all, it’s my first time being out this late in Jakarta,’ but didn’t. I didn’t want him to think that it was my first-time going home with a man.
“OK then. I’m staying in Pasar Minggu.” He redirected the driver.
Along the way the driver kept staring at us from the rearview mirror—aching to confirm all his suspicions about bules and their ‘local’ dates? If we were alone in the car, would Addam have done something to soften the punch? Put his arm around me, or kiss me, before inviting me to go home with him? He sat near the door to the left and I sat near the door to the right, as if we were bracing ourselves to jump out of the car the moment something went wrong. Then again, maybe he liked straightforward women, I told myself, those who were truthful to their desires. He sounded like someone who would grant radical equality of the sexes, and in my mind I made him up to be just that.
“My mom wanted me to become a Porsche-driving lawyer in London,” Addam broke the silence, “but after I’d graduated uni I went travelling for three years, teaching English in South Korea, New Guinea, and finally India. I volunteered at a hospital, and what I saw inspired me. I went back to the UK, got a master’s degree, and gained a placement with an organization here. After I’ve learned about Indonesia and the amount of work that could be done, I decided that I should stay here.”
Was he trying to impress me? “Why Indonesia?”
“It’s the placement I got. After this year is up I can move to another country, but then I’d have to start from the beginning again—learn the language, volunteer, climb the ladder from the bottom again. I’d rather commit. I’d do as meaningful work here as I would anywhere else.”
We were passing the purple neon signs of Izzi Pizza, across the road from the soaring bow-shaped pedestal of the great Hanoman statue, and I thought I loved the way Addam lived his life, his commitment to my country, and I even started loving that silly, stubborn extra d in his name. There, under Hanoman’s ass, I was falling for this man.
“What about you? Why did you choose to return?”
“I don’t know. I just want to see what it’s like living in Jakarta on my own.”
“Do you like it?”
“I do now,” I said. “I had a full scholarship in college. I thought I should mention it so you wouldn’t think I was a spoiled princess or something like that.”
“I wasn’t thinking that.”
Addam finally told the driver to pull over by a small street blocked by a steel bar. He paid the fare and told me we had to walk a block. The moment I opened the car door I heard a mosque calling for dawn prayer.
“Oh no, I promised myself I wouldn’t come home after dawn again.” Addam swung his legs over the bar. I walked around it.
“I’m sorry this is awkward,” he said, “and to make things even more awkward, I don’t have a key.” He had to phone Markus, who came all red-eyed to the gate, acknowledging me with a sly nod. The three of us walked painfully upstairs.
Addam led me into a room with a large bed under a cone of mosquito net and an en suite bathroom. The owner of the room was away climbing mountains in Papua or somewhere, Addam told me. As he was very audibly brushing his teeth, I observed pictures of the puffy blond owner of the room, which were tacked to the walls forming a band around the room: him in clubs, him with both arms around four Indonesian-looking girls, him on mountaintops and trails.
Addam returned and asked if I wanted a T-shirt.
He opened a drawer and tossed me a grey T-shirt with his organization’s logo.
“I’m just gonna…” I retreated backwards to the bathroom, “…put this on.” I closed the door, got out of my blouse and skirt, and slipped into the oversized T-shirt. After some hesitation I took off my bra as well.
Back in the bedroom I found him already lying in bed with only a white undershirt and his Playboy briefs. After finding the opening of the mosquito net, I lay down beside him. For a while we simply lay side-by-side regarding the lacy pattern of the eye of the cone, and then he turned towards me. “Listen, my second name is L—, my last name is R—. I was born and raised in the working-class B— district. I have one sibling, his name is G—. He works as a ticket-ripper on trains, but he’s getting his license as a train-driver. He’s thirty-one and married with one daughter, L—-A—. He’s actually expecting another child, a son, he’ll arrive in a couple of months. I myself can’t imagine being thirty-one and having two kids, but I suppose I can be the cool uncle who brings them gifts from all over the world.”
This move alarmed me. My mind combatted the thought that the reason he was telling me his life story—when I was already lying next to him in bed in this darkened room, naked but for a thin layer of cotton and having consented to go home with him—was that he actually liked me. Whatever grasp I felt I had on the situation slipped away. I had not set out to like somebody as much as I liked him. My confusion and alarm soon turned to fear. I felt with every cell on my skin my disadvantaged situation: I was the woman and he was the man, I was Asian and he was white, I was just another local girl and he was the dashing coveted foreigner, I was younger, less experienced, less beautiful, and I probably liked him much more than he liked me. I was afraid if I let myself believe that he also liked me, if I let down my guard and let slip that I really liked him by, for example, telling him my life story in return, I would be doubly vulnerable. I would be at real risk of getting hurt. I decided to regard his move as an attempt to relax me before bedding me.
The decision calmed me. Emboldened me.
He went on talking about the district where he grew up, and all the while I watched his lips open and close, and the moment they came to rest, I kissed him, I straddled him, we tossed away all pretense of modesty, and as soon as the condom came on I took him inside me.