Not long after my Java-style shotgun wedding I returned to the States, and a few weeks later I paid a visit to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services in San Francisco. As I entered the building I could feel the air thicken with hope and desperation, even before I passed through the metal detectors and took a number to speak to one of the attendants stationed behind bulletproof glass. Forty-five minutes later, my number was called.
“It’ll take about two years,” said the female attendant when I asked about a residency visa for my Indonesian husband. “If he is granted one at all.”
“Two years?” I cried. “If?”
I told her that I was pregnant and couldn’t possibly wait two years for the father of my child to show up. The woman sighed as if she’d heard the same story a hundred times each day before taking her first cigarette break.
“The best scenario,” she explained without much conviction, “is to return to his country of origin and apply at the U.S. Embassy. They’ll need to verify that he’s not attempting to enter this country just to take advantage of our benefits.”
“Excuse me,” I said, trying hard not to raise my voice. “You did hear me say that I’m pregnant, didn’t you?”
“Yes, ma’am, I did.”
“If my husband was a white European, would you still insinuate that he made a child with me just so he could ‘take advantage of our benefits’?”
She looked at me through the heavy glass with an expression both intimate and sadistic. Making people squirm was probably the only real pleasure this woman derived from her job.
“Next in line,” she said, motioning to the person behind me.
“Bitch,” I muttered as I walked away.
Samino’s extended family of eleven invited me to share their little house with its woven bamboo walls, palm thatch roof and fastidiously swept dirt floor, their water drawn from a communal well, their evening conversations lit by tiny kerosene lanterns. Millions of women had spent their pregnancies in similar circumstances yet despite the generous offer I was reluctant to do the same. It wasn’t so much the simple lodgings as the lack of space for privacy and solitude. Privacy here was mostly symbolic: a batik cloth hung over a doorway; a well-timed glance away. Solitude was generally avoided.
I took some of my meager savings from my former job at the S.F. Art Institute and rented a house. Surely Samino and I would only need to live there a couple of months, the time I figured it would take to obtain his visa from the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta. In Java it was customary to pay a year’s rent upfront, so I gave the landlords the $300 they asked. My in-laws were shocked. “What a waste!” they cried, shaking their heads. They advised Samino to begin my immediate reeducation in practical economics, or there would be trouble in our marital future.
Our house sat off Pananjung Road. It was a secluded old stucco, u-shaped around a carp pond, with wild orchids spilling over the courtyard walls. From the Dutch colonizers the house had inherited its sharply peaked roof, its clay roof tiles and shuttered windows. There was a large main room, three small bedrooms, and a closet-sized kitchen in the back. The walls were whitewashed with lime bought from the market in chalky clumps. You’d add water, and it would bubble up like porridge. Once it had cooled you painted it on.
The house came with furniture crafted of bamboo, and kapok-filled mattresses to sleep on. A well near the pond supplied water for bathing, cleaning and cooking. Electricity was only recently available in the village, and though most people could not afford it, the landlord insisted he would have the house wired for us. I think he assumed that without electricity a white person would shrivel up and die. The wiring ended up looking dangerous, but I tried not to think about that.
Samino was out on the sea much of the time, and though I had made some friends in Java, I suffered the loneliness of a foreigner who was far away from her two small daughters. My days were structured by the movement of the sun– with most chores carried out before sunrise and naps taken during the heat of the day– and by the sounds made by others, not only the muezzin’s call to prayer, but those made by the roving snack sellers (called kaki lima, or “five feet”– two for the vendor, and three for the wheel and two legs of his cart). They would pass by my house every day, each with his own special noise announcing his presence. In the morning I’d hear the tok-tok-tok of the porridge man tapping a stick upon a piece of bamboo. At midday was the ting-ting-ting of the chicken soup man hitting a bowl with a spoon. In the afternoon the resonant strike of a bronze gamelan gong meant coconut ice cream was nearby, while in the evening the rat-a-tat-a-tat of a metal poker across an iron grill jump-started my salivary glands for barbecued chicken satay.
My favorite snack seller was the pecel lady. She didn’t have a sound, other than to call out, “Pecel! Pecel!” as she approached, a large bamboo basket strapped to her back. After I had stopped her a few times and happily eaten her wares, she’d come looking for me every day, usually in the early afternoon.
A well-prepared pecel is divine. A type of salad of lukewarm steamed vegetables such as cassava leaves, long beans and mung sprouts, it is often flavored with a fragrant, shredded flower called bunga turi, and dressed with a spicy peanut sauce. Street pecel is usually served on a piece of banana leaf, with a bamboo toothpick as a fork.
My pecel lady was a thousand years old, with branch-like limbs and eyes sunk deep into folds of skin, yet she smiled like a young girl, and had a voice to match. She’d sit on my porch in her faded sarung and compose my pecel, taking her time, offering me boiled water to drink from a chipped glass as I ate. She once told me she had no family– she was barren, she explained, and after her husband had left her for a fertile woman many years ago, she’d never married again.
To get to our house we had to pass through the front yard belonging to another old woman. This one was stunted, with a lopsided hump that loomed over her left shoulder and an outsized attitude that appeared designed to make up for her odd form. Soon after we moved in, our neighbor came over to visit Samino and I. Like any decent Indonesian fisherman’s wife I served her some tea and we all sat and chatted in the front room. Then she got down to business, switching to Sundanese, a dialect I didn’t understand, though I could tell by the subtly strained quality of Samino’s smile that he was annoyed. Finally the old woman rose, grumbling under her breath as she walked out the door.
“What did she say?” I asked.
“She wants us to let her hook up a line so she can siphon electricity from us.”
“It probably wouldn’t cost much, would it?” I said.
“That old grandma sees white skin and thinks free cash. If we say yes to that, she’ll be asking for favors every day. Better to cut her off from the beginning.” He made a chopping gesture.
As a Western expat living in a “developing” country, I had run into this before. My assumed wealth sometimes weighed down my relationships, saddling them with desire and resentment, guilt and confusion.
After the visit from our elderly neighbor, whenever we’d pass by her house we’d see her sitting on her front porch as rigid as a sentry. Once she’d caught sight of us, her face would screw up in disgust and she’d rant to herself, just loud enough for us to hear her. “Aduh! This house is too dark! These old eyes can’t see a thing. Any day now I will fall down and break a bone.” Or, “A woman this old shouldn’t have to live without a fan. Who will carry my body out once I’ve died from this heat?” We took to calling her Nenek Listrik, or “Grandma Electricity”.
“Maybe we could help her out a little,” I said to Samino.
“She lived her whole life without light bulbs or fans,” said Samino. “She’s just trying to shame us into giving in.”
Our house was surrounded by trees: a giant mango that fruited gloriously once each year; papayas that had germinated from seeds tossed out a window; bananas whose withered carcasses spawned babies to continue their lineage. A banana tree takes nine to twelve months to grow from tender sprout to mature tree so heavy with fruit that it doubles over and must be staked. A large bunch of Pisang Raja (“King of Bananas”) could have hundreds of fruits. Bananas were a staple food during my pregnancy, easy to digest during the sweltering days when I had little appetite. There was one lovely spiraled bunch in our yard drawing close to ripeness, and every day Samino and I would discuss its progress, anticipating the harvest. Like everyone else we knew, we had very little. During my time in Java I’d discovered that food had a heightened significance, revered almost like a deity. A freshly caught fish, a gift of a bubblegum-flavored jackfruit, a young coconut carried down from the top of a palm– food was a reason for celebration, for sharing the satisfaction of simple abundance.
One afternoon we returned from an errand to find that our banana tree had been butchered of its long-coveted bounty.
“Anjing!” Samino swore.
Of course we suspected Nenek Listrik, but couldn’t prove anything. For several days after the banana snatcheroo, we’d return home to find her on her porch as usual, her misshapen body languorously stretched out on a straw mat like a sultan’s favorite concubine. As if on cue she would reach over to a fruit bowl conveniently placed at her side, pluck a banana and peel it slowly with her stubby fingers. After a pause, she’d gum the fruit in her toothless mouth as unadulterated evil frolicked in her eyes, causing my husband to silently tremble with rage.
Samino had discouraged me from eating a banana in this way. It was not polite (in other words, too sexually suggestive) for a woman to eat a penis-shaped object in public. Better to break off bites, or fry it beyond recognition. Old women were exempt: aging had drained their desirability, earning them the curious freedom to do all the things frowned upon during their youth: flagrantly munch on bananas, puff on kretek stogies, cackle like demons, let their breasts hang out for all the world to see. Javanese men, of course, were free to do as they pleased from the moment they were born, a gender inequity for which I’d occasionally feel the urge to compensate. Sometimes if I was really pissed at Samino I’d eat a banana on the street, making a big show of it, watching his eyes narrow and his face stiffen as every nearby male gawked at me and laughed.
One day we came home from visiting friends to find a humongous boulder sitting smack in the middle of the path that passed through the old woman’s yard.
“Gobloke,” Samino muttered. With effort he heaved the boulder over to the side.
Later that night we discussed just how Nenek Listrik could have gotten the boulder to the path. We agreed that she didn’t do it herself, and that it was much too heavy to have been transported by becak.
“Who would want to push that rock to her house?” I asked.
“Somebody who is jealous,” Samino said.
He meant somebody who was jealous of him for his marriage to a bule, who in the minds of many was simply a ticket to the West and success.
A few days later we came home with produce from the market to discover a newly planted plumeria tree in the path where the boulder had previously rested. The tree’s fragrant, creamy buds were just beginning to open. There was no way a becak could maneuver around it and we were forced to haul our groceries from the road.
Samino’s face turned to stone, a bad sign.
“Just talk to her,” I said, but he ignored me.
Indonesians generally don’t like confrontation. Tidak apa apa (“no problem”) is their default motto, and it works most of the time; people cool down and back off. Occasionally a person will boil over. That husband of mine had a temper that made your average bad-ass Javanese fisherman look like a quivering jellyfish.
Samino pedaled over to a little petrol shack near the market, bought two liters and ferried them home in the bike basket. He sat in the house with the glass bottles on the floor next to him, waiting. He waited until the holy hour of maghreb, when people would be praying in the mesjid, and then he went out to do his unholy deed. There was no way I could stop him, so I followed him. I watched him douse the plumeria with petrol and toss a lit match. Together we listened to the tree hiss and pop as its fresh young cell walls exploded. It felt violent and sad.
The next day I went out in the front yard and noticed that a white line had been drawn on the ground with powdered lime, marking the boundary between our property and Nenek Listrik’s. Something about that invisible border and how it had suddenly become visible made me feel ashamed. I had never seen such a distinct boundary mark in the village before. In Java, most boundaries–whether between people or their physical spaces– were permeable.
I grew to hate walking through Nenek Listrik’s yard. I felt like a trespasser, someone who didn’t belong and never would. I went out less, just to avoid feeling her glare on my skin. I became more isolated, and more lonely.
Not long after the tree burning incident, Nenek Listrik summoned recruits, a couple of young male relatives who hung around her house for several days. Their long hair, tee shirts with the sleeves cut off and old batik rags tied around their heads made them look like pirates, and they’d sit around on the porch, smoking, swigging arak and talking trash. I expected them to haul out some big knives and meticulously hone them, but the most aggressive thing I ever saw them do was a weightlifting routine, using a primitive version of a lat pulldown machine: a giant rock had been tied to one end of a heavy rope looped over a tree branch, with a stick tied to the other end with which they’d heave the rock from ground, exhaling with that universal grunt dating back to the Pleistocene epoch. Mostly they just sat around. Whenever we passed by they would flash the customary polite smile, while their eyes flared with a contempt that Samino returned in double measure. I was fascinated by just how much hatred could be transmitted in a smile.
One evening I was alone in the house while Samino was out night-fishing. I heard a noise on the front porch, and thought maybe he had come home early; perhaps there was a problem with the boat. I opened the door to see a shadowy figure run from the yard. I switched on the light and there on the window was the perfect greasy imprint of a person’s features, as if he had coated his face in coconut oil and pressed it upon the glass. Its creepiness was enhanced by the burgeoning hormones of a seven months’ pregnant woman who would burst into tears over just about anything, and which she did right then.
When Samino returned home the next morning– barefoot, sandy, stinking of fish– I was waiting for him. “No more feuds with the neighbor,” I said as he stumbled, exhausted, into the house. I didn’t demand that we give her electricity, but I insisted that we were friendly every time we met her.
Nenek Listrik still glowered at us when we passed, but her frown lacked commitment, as if she, too, was weary of being angry. For a while things were calm between us.
It was around this time that I noticed that the pecel lady had not been by for more than a week. One afternoon I asked the chicken soup man if he knew why she hadn’t come around. “She’s sick,” he said. “She’s in the hospital.”
I went to see her, filled with dread. A village hospital was no place for a sick person. When I entered the building, I realized that I didn’t know the pecel lady’s name. I’d always called her ‘Bu, which is like “Missus.” I found her lying on a thin, dirty mattress in the section of the hospital reserved for people who had no money. Her body had deteriorated to an old piece of skin draped over some bones, but when she saw me her eyes lit up. I told her my name, and asked for hers. She smiled weakly but didn’t answer. I sat and held her hand for a long time, until she fell asleep. The next day I returned, and was told she had died. When I asked where she would be buried, the nurse waved me away as if the idea was silly.
One afternoon, I heard a voice call from the road. “Pecel! Pecel!” I ran out to see. There was a young girl with a basket strapped to her back, just like my beloved pecel lady. I motioned for her to come over. As the girl walked toward me, I saw Nenek Listrik watching from her porch. I called out to her, inviting her to eat with me– in Java it was customary to invite whomever was nearby to share one’s food, though the invited one would usually decline. I was surprised when she got up from her mat, walked into my yard, and sat down on my porch next to me.
The old woman was just inches away, and for the first time I saw that the hump on her back was large and cumbersome. It occurred to me that she rarely had visitors. We were both outsiders, each of our own lonely stripe. I was suddenly curious: What had her life been like? I wanted to know her name.
“Pecel, ‘Bu?” I asked her, and the old woman nodded in reply.
The pecel girl was no more than thirteen, in a faded dress and flip-flops. She took out her bowls and utensils and set them neatly on the tile, then folded a banana leaf and sliced it in half. On each leaf plate she forked ingredients and spooned sauce she had made earlier that morning in her small abode somewhere, long before the sun had come up. She tossed the pecel with a precision and grace that caused a trickle up my spine. Did my neighbor feel it too? She and I ate together under a sky growing heavy with clouds. We could hear thunder in the distance, and within the hour we would both have to run to take our laundry down from the line, but for now we enjoyed a delicious snack, relaxed in the company of women.