(This story is featured in Ducts, Summer 2016 issue. Click here to read the entire story. The story was then read to an audience by Deedle Rodriguez-Tomlinson on June 11 at the famous KGB Bar Lit in New York City, as part of Ducts‘ Trumpet Fiction issue launch party.)
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.
(Please read the entire story here. It was the Fiction Highlight of Ducts‘ summer 2016 issue).