Alle C. Hall ~ American Mary

Bali in August was way hot­ter than I’d planned for. The bag­gage claim was out­side. A backpacker—could have been thir­ty and shaved his scalp or fifty and bald for real—lifted my pack off the rotate‑y thing. He said things like, “ … George,” “ … going to Kuta Beach?” “ … you come with me,” but there was no part of me in the decision—which wasn’t sup­posed to hap­pen any­more, once I was real­ly here instead of plan­ning Asia while my par­ents thought “Important East Coast University.” It hadn’t mat­tered which; it just had to be important.

George’s hand found mine. I froze the way I did when I was read­ing by lamp­light on my bed and I heard my father’s, “Ready for a good night kiss?” George slid his palm to my elbow, bent it gen­tly, pilot­ed us toward the taxis as if I were an out­board motor. Hadn’t I said, “No?”

A lady, prob­a­bly ten years old­er than me, stepped in from nowhere. A cig­a­rette dan­gled from her lips as she said, French accent, “Quit this punter,” what­ev­er that meant. She reached for one of the thick straps hang­ing off my pack, which George was car­ry­ing. She just took it back. I want­ed to be some­one who just took things back. She passed my pack to me with no inter­fer­ence from George, although he all but hissed, “Lesbian.”

Child moles­ter,” she tossed over a well-shaped shoul­der and strolled toward the local bus stop with a shake of thick auburn curls and run­away strands shot through by a sin­gle, strap-wide sec­tion of gray. When I caught up, she offered me a cig­a­rette. The design on the case was intri­cate: red, gold, and orange beads amongst turquoise ones made glossy by the morn­ing sun. It took me a moment to dis­cern a fox’s face in the teal. Then, “What? Ugh, no. A cig­a­rette? No.”

Double ugh; she was so cool, and I’d ugh’d, reveal­ing myself to be what I was, a sev­en­teen-year-old tum­bling girlie; sol­id scores but not good enough for a schol­ar­ship. I’d got­ten into Harvard on grades.

The cool lady said, “I am Lise. How do you call yourself?”

Mary.” Even my name was square.

Mary. From American, oui? I like this.” Then she glanced toward the taxi stand, where Punter Geroge still stood. I had no qualms about fol­low­ing Lise when she said, “We go togeth­er to Ubud, American Mary.”

We board­ed the local bus, no air-com. The inside smelled of diesel oil and corn, a strange-yet-pleas­ant com­bi­na­tion, and was half full: men in fad­ed but neat as can be short-sleeved but­ton-downs and straw cow­boy hats, a few tired-look­ing ladies trav­el­ing with a pas­sel of kids, live fowl, or both. A cou­ple, heat-flushed and wear­ing fish­ing hats, read aloud from their guide­book, a Lonely Planet “trav­el sur­vival kit.” In a flat, Midwestern accent, he said, “It says Ubud’s a pleas­ant city. Three hours away, it says.” She respond­ed, same accent, “I wan­na see a vol­cano.” Overhearing them was like singing with the radio, maybe that new song, wish­ing-well-kiss-and-tell, and notic­ing some­one in anoth­er car singing with the radio, then real­iz­ing that singing with the radio made you look idiotic.

Passing the fish­ing hats, Lise’s eyes went half-lid­ded. Afraid that she would sim­i­lar­ly dis­miss me, I said the first thing that dropped out of my mouth: “What’s a punter?”

A buy­er of sex, my petite American. That one will want them young. Unless he stalks anoth­er as fresh-emerged from the egg as you.”

It was as if her words bent my elbow. That mag­nif­i­cent mess of hair swayed to two bench seats, one in front of the oth­er. Choosing the in-front one, Lise tossed her pack to the win­dow side and took the aisle. She didn’t stop me when did the same, behind her, though she was look­ing out the win­dow already, wind­ing her gray streak around and around. The sil­ver of her chunky rings reached through the blur caused by the bent elbow feeling.

I sup­posed Lise thought I was star­ing at her sec­tion of gray because she turned her head to say, “I dye this.”


Young, pret­ty women have bad times being tak­en seri­ous­ly in academics.”

I mean, why just that lit­tle bit?”

The bus revved, a sound that echoed the sur­prised rel­ish that was Lise’s laugh. As the dri­ver guid­ed us with care through big-city streets, she rotat­ed so that she half-faced me—I bet sole­ly to be able to stretch those long legs into the aisle rather than to talk to me. Especially when she asked the most mun­dane, “You trav­el alone, American Mary?”

I nod­ded a care­ful yes. That awe­some cig­a­rette case reap­peared. She lit up, all the while exam­in­ing me as if I were a book she might check out. Long drag, longer exhale. Then, “Never again talk to those type of men, oui? I know a good los­man n Ubud.”

I couldn’t tell if Lise was speak­ing French or Balinese. I wished I smoked, though it was gross; at least I could do some­thing instead of try­ing to be less clue­less. Anyway, soon enough, the bus got onto a two-lane high­way, where the engine made too much rump-a-bump for con­ver­sa­tion. Out my win­dow, the city dwin­dled into store­fronts and two-sto­ried, gray-brown build­ings. Clouds gath­ered over green fields of wide-leafed bush­es, smudgy blue hills in the dis­tance. Despite abun­dant proof of new life, the bent elbow feel­ing lodged behind my eyes, Punter George plus now, prob­a­bly about to be jet­ti­soned by Lise for being an unsavvy traveler.

Signs told us that we were approach­ing Ubud. Two lanes became four and the build­ings squished togeth­er. Lise hopped us off the bus a five-minute walk from a wall paint­ed aqua. Inside the main gate was dream-like, bam­boo-roofed bun­ga­lows set among volup­tuous green­ery and blos­soms, organ­i­cal­ly under­scored by the to-do com­ing over the wall—toot-toot, vroom, birds and mom-like call­ing. If this was a los­men, sign me up. How did this boun­ty come in at a dol­lar-fifty a night? Breakfast includ­ed. It would be beyond hip, to break my fast in Ubud, on Bali, in Indonesia. I stowed my gear then dal­lied on my ter­ra­cot­ta porch,  half- believ­ing that the gar­den hid a wish­ing well.  Jumbo gold­fish in a tear-shaped pond roiled over each oth­er, kissy-kissy lips beg­ging for food.

Geckos skit­tered across the steps Lise was mosey­ing up. She car­ried nei­ther day­pack nor trav­el sur­vival kit. A cig­a­rette served her fine. A fold of green mate­r­i­al she hand­ed me turned out to be an emer­ald-col­ored sarung with yel­low out­lines of flow­ers. Flawlessly lived in, just like Lise’s, trip­py pineap­ples in flame col­ors against black. My kel­ly-green shorts had a pink belt, for God’s sake.

She said, “Until we buy yours.”

I’d made the cut.

After I changed, Lise adjust­ed the sup­ple fab­ric low­er on my hips, wider than hers, but she com­pli­ment­ed my waist. “We get togeth­er a lunch, American Mary.”

Lise’s water­ing hole was done up tiki-style, with the same ter­ra­cot­ta floors as my porch, geck­os includ­ed, and a juke box near the door play­ing U2. The place was emp­ty except for the bar­tender, an old­er man. As we took stools at the bar, he offered the lunch menu. Lise said, “Beer first, no?”

Tubmlie girls didn’t allow beer’s delin­quen­cy. Or the calories.

Two Bintang.” Lise’s shake of curls brought pink to grand­fa­ther­ly cheeks that might not have flushed in quite some time. Beer tast­ed like wet, metal­lic bread. At my puck­er, Lise’s eyes threat­ened to go to half-lid­ded, so I forced a few sips. Five min­utes of care­ful swal­lows on an emp­ty stom­ach and I was becom­ing the some­one I’d want­ed to be.

Lise and I quaffed a sec­ond round, me gig­gly, her—half-lidded? No. I kept check­ing as I shared the only non-book info I had about trav­el: Grandma left me some mon­ey. When half-lid­ded hap­pened, I felt the need to clar­i­fy, “Just three thou­sand dol­lars. It should last me the year, until I start”—

Teaching English. I didn’t want to say that out loud. The only rea­son my par­ents okayed this trip, and only for a year, was because they didn’t have a choice. My first-ever act of resis­tance. I nev­er want­ed to see them again.

Lise took over the con­ver­sa­tion, twirl-twirl-talk­ing Southeast Asian anthro­pol­o­gy and the month she was tak­ing off from her stud­ies. “To gath­er my brains. Pbbff.” The room filled with white guy travelers—bule, Lise called them—all with deep tans against fad­ed T‑shirts. Several sent over beers; hard, to keep the bent elbow stress from creep­ing back. Thankfully, Lise waved the drinks away.

Something over my shoul­der drew her atten­tion like a razor. Two guys. They gave off remark­ably sim­i­lar impres­sions, buff and look­ing good in per­fect­ly white T‑shirts and tight jeans, their onyx hair done up like James Dean’s.

Lise said, “You want to know why I don’t dye most of this hair.”

All she had to do was cross those legs. The taller guy was cuter, if not by much. He intro­duced him­self as Ketut.Lise explained, “Balinese males have one of four names, to sig­ni­fy birth order. Wayan, Ma-de, Nyoman, Ketut. Am I right, boys?”

I couldn’t have tracked that infor­ma­tion sober. I did get that Ketut was way bet­ter at English than his broth­er, Ma-de, who spe­cial­ized in smooth­ing a lock of hair at the front that kept spring­ing from its James Dean shel­lac. It’d spring, he’d smooth it, and then flash movie-star teeth until it sprung again. Adorable. Nonetheless, Lise and Ketut got to gab, sound­ing like the birds ser­e­nad­ing our los­man. I still didn’t know which lan­guage was spo­ken in Bali. Why’d she take Ketut rather than spring andsmooth? More beer. She want­ed the bet­ter-look­ing, that’s why. We ordered lunch. Lise and I paid, even though the boys wolfed down most of it. She made sure we set­tled up at warp speed as the three of them joked about what could pos­si­bly be done to pass the time dur­ing the after­noon rain and—

Lise and Ketut were gone. I was good and drunk, so when Ma-de said, “You hair beautiful”—it was an unim­pres­sive brown—I had no oppo­si­tion in me, just ran with him to my bun­ga­low, fat drops splat­ter­ing us. Inside, Ma-de stripped off his not-that-damp shirt. Though air pressed like a warm, wet sponge against my skin, I was as cold as if I were wait­ing, sweat dry­ing while the judges scored my bars rou­tine. Ma-de took my hands to run them over his chest and abs—bent elbow, not only my elbow. My whole body.

When I didn’t take over feel­ing him up, Ma-de removed my hands from his pecs and pressed them between his, our faces inch­es apart. Beer-woozy over­took me and I leaned my fore­head into his shoul­der. I don’t know how long we stayed that way. I grew to under­stand that we were seat­ed on the bed, him stroking my check and neck with the back of his hand, and then kiss­ing there. Then real­ly kiss­ing me. It was good. Safe and good. I’d nev­er been kissed like this—wishing well—I heard a sound I’d nev­er heard, a par­tic­i­pa­to­ry Mmmm. He stopped kiss­ing to gaze at me, then pushed me flat onto the bed with a cry. In that sound was my father. “Suck it.” I always did.

When it end­ed, Ma-de dozed behind me, his body curved to mine, his hands fit­ting over my boobs as if they’d been sculpt­ed there. Time rolled in and out. A gecko drew my focus across the ceil­ing, across the floor. Ma-de got hard in his sleep. A steel rope, like for a Great White shark, hooked between my eyes. It pulled me ver­ti­cal. I had to escape or iron would yank my head off. Out the win­dow, the rain had stopped. I didn’t imag­ine Ma-de would take my things; any­way, what if he did? I left with­out even car­ing enough to snap on my fan­ny pack.

Outside, the streets were rained clean. North of town, pave­ment became dirt road. The wood­en build­ings lin­ing the road were replaced by fields the unbe­liev­able shade of Lime Jell‑O. I came to a cross­roads encir­cled by trees, branch­es thick with birds that looked like white flamin­gos, only small­er. It sound­ed like a kinder­garten up there—I fuck­ing sucked his cock. Why did I do that? Against the back­ground of the set­ting sun, more pearly birds flew. They land­ed with a huge flap­ping of wings and then vault­ed from tree to tree. Goddamnit, he didn’t even have to ask. A motor­cy­cle rolled care­ful­ly in front of me. The dri­ver wore Ma-de jeans and T‑shirt, his hair in the req­ui­site style, though he intro­duced him­self as Lompok.

Not one of Lise’s four names. I start­ed toward Ubud. Lompok fol­lowed on his bike, agree­ably inquir­ing where you from, where you go, where you hus­band. Having him pur­sue me, unas­sum­ing, per­sis­tent, felt like a sec­ond run to mount the bal­ance beam. Yet when he said, “I give you lift to los­men,” and any abil­i­ty to say, “No,” went the way of all birds. Ma-de was at that los­men, in my bed, yet I couldn’t make myself turn down this ride.

Lompok drove fast through the grow­ing dusk. I clung to him, my boobs against his back the whole way. By the time we reached the aqua wall, I could bare­ly say, “Um,” to a bar and a beer. Right then, my com­pa­tri­ots emerged from the gate. Lise and Ketut swung locked pinkies.

Mary! Where have you gone? Poor Ma-de!” Lise did not hes­i­tate to face Lompok square­ly. “Who is he?”

Lompok and Ma-de looked each oth­er up and down. I tried to form a clever remark, one Lise could have got­ten away with, but who was I kid­ding? I slunk toward the gate. At that, Lompok drew down his eye­brows and inched his scoot­er away. Lise shut­tled the four of us in the oppo­site direc­tion, her and Ketut in front of me and Ma-de, who did not take my hand.

Until he did. “Why you go? It not good?”

Lise called over her shoul­der, “It sound­ed good.”

Mother of God!” I halt­ed, so they halt­ed. The cob­bled street was not a busy one, open-doored store­fronts where old men crouched and smoked while women bus­tled this way and that, mak­ing things, buy­ing things. I hadn’t been here a full day and already I’d blown some guy and almost been picked up by an air­port punter. I had to stop being so green behind the ears.

Ma-de was say­ing, “No, no, okay,” as Ketut chipped in, “He always loud.” “Pbbff.” Lise’s cig­a­rette case mate­ri­al­ized. Ketut got one. Ma-de got one. Not me. Ma-de held out his.

I don’t smoke.”

Ma-de tucked the cig­a­rette behind his ear. His inde­pen­dent-mind­ed lock of hair sprung up as he asked his broth­er some­thing. Ketut said, “Stay with me and I nev­er be mad ever.”

Ma-de took both my hands. “Stay me and I ever be mad.”

I smoothed his hair.

With a sur­pris­ing­ly high-pitched excla­ma­tion, Lise linked her arm through mine. We led the parade to the bar. Two rounds, the right boy’s arms around the right girl’s shoul­ders became Lise’s arm through mine as soon as the broth­ers went to pee. It felt stiffer than the pre­vi­ous time she inter­laced us.

I don’t want to be hos­tile for less than only one day’s acquain­tance, Mary, but you don’t shame me that wayagain.”

It was not pos­si­ble that I’d heard cor­rect­ly. “Me shame you?”

Lise’s mouth dropped open, like she hadn’t imag­ined me capa­ble of dis­obey­ing orders: sarung! Beer! Sex! Certain of dis­missal, all I could do was fid­dle with my emp­ty beer bottle.

She sur­prised me, say­ing, “I’m sor­ry it was bad, Mary. Due to my affair gone sour, I trav­el now. The high­est pro­fes­sor of my department.”

Did his wife find out?”

Pbbff! We are French. Non, non.” Lise’s cig­a­rette case lay near the ash­tray. She tapped the fox face, sud­den­ly speak­ing quick­ly, as if relieved. “He obtained an under­grad­u­ate with no gray at all. Apparently, I am too pret­ty to take seri­ous­ly with­out gray, yet with, he choos­es three years younger than me. Pbbff! A Farsi lit­tle fatty.”

She said it so offhand­ed­ly that I felt like her remark was my fault. At her wink, the bar­tender brought two more Bintang. I straight­ened as if for a full twist dis­mount. “I can’t pay for them, Lise.”

My chick petite! You are destitute?”

Not the beer.” And I’d nev­er ask Ma-de for 75 cents to cov­er his share of the room. “But, their food?”

Given the dif­fer­ence in our eco­nom­ic sta­tus­es, how else can we spend time together?”

It’s whor­ing them out.”

Do not speak to me of whor­ing, Mary. My Ph. D. con­cerns the Asian sex trade with Westerners. And I know of real whoring.

Then, as if sens­ing a farmer near the hen­house she was raid­ing, Lise used both long arms to indi­cate a huge stom­ach. “Do you believe this, Monsieur Fatty-lik­er, he tears down my dis­ser­ta­tion with my com­mit­tee present. ‘I hope you don’t research too much this obvi­ous the­sis.’ To such a point that I no longer have the com­mit­tee.” A snap. “Out on the ass. White male pigs.”

I liked the sound of white male pigs. Comforted by my silence, I sup­pose, Lise dropped an arm around my shoulder.

Ketut and Ma-de chose this moment to return. Both looked sur­prised at the loca­tion of Lise’s arm. She gave Ketut a side­long glance that last­ed for the time it took her hand to slip under the table. He gave a lit­tle jump. Her cheek to his blush­ing one, she said, “His so-impor­tant spe­cial­ty is the love rit­u­als of The Ramayana enact­ed at Borobudur.”

Again, French or Balinese? Ketut tossed his var­nished hair with a, “Pbbff.” Not a strand moved. The bill came. Lise cov­ered the broth­ers. Right down to their cigarettes.

The next day, we met them for what Lise called “a jaunt,” which meant tak­ing scoot­ers, boobs to back, up the long, curv­ing street called Monkey Forest Road. It cul­mi­nat­ed at a tem­ple of vine-crawled stone walls and columns and shrines, its pas­sage­ways over­run with small, sassy pri­mates. Ma-de asked Ketut some­thing, and then placed one point­er fin­ger against each of his incisors. His mouth over­worked say­ing, “Be care­ful, they bite.” As if we’d nev­er been togeth­er, I won­dered what that mouth would feel like, against mine. Come gecko time, though, I blew him reflex­ive­ly. And to get it over with.

The next morn­ing, we went to a water shrine. “Gunung Kawi,” Ma-de said, syl­la­ble by syl­la­ble, releas­ing an unan­tic­i­pat­ed heat into the low­est part of my pelvis. The four of us walked down a long-ago water-carved quar­ry, where 25-foot tall stat­ues of Hindu deities were set into 40-foot insets, with jun­gle foliage hang­ing lush over them. Through Ketut, Ma-de told me that Gunung Kawi was ded­i­cat­ed to Vishnu, God of Wisdom. I real­ly liked the way his over­work­ing mouth made my body taut. Following Lise and Ketut out of the tem­ple, I adopt­ed a bit of Lise’s saunter. Until gecko-time. The sen­sa­tion fled the hen­house. Later, drink­ing, drunk, I wished-well-kissed-tell to myself that our next out­ing would bring it back.

Day Three was a town that made flat, col­or­ful­ly paint­ed leather pup­pets, then anoth­er that offered sil­ver. Ma-de taught me the num­bers I need­ed to bar­gain for four chunky rings—five bucks. Still, I relied on geck­os to get through the indif­fer­ence that came with after­noon rain. Who knew why a Ph.D. would hang out with a sev­en­teen-year-old, except that there was no her/Ketut with­out a me/Ma-de. If I kept it to a blowjob and a vis­it to my birds, there wasn’t a round two. Not even at night. I made Ma-de match me beer for beer—300 calo­ries each, but get­ting enough alco­hol into him meant Ididn’t have to swing low until the next afternoon.

It is good now, Mary?” Lise asked our fourth morn­ing. We were seat­ed on her ter­ra­cot­ta porch. She was slid down in her chair, twirling away as she bit small, quick mouth­fuls of out the Indonesian break­fast stan­dard of but­tered toast with choco­late sprin­kles and licked the rim of her cup’s cof­fee with con­densed milk. Mine was black, no toast, fiery pok­ers behind my eyes. Wasn’t she ever hungover?

He tells Ketut he loves your giv­ing of head.”

I should have stormed away. Like, per­ma­nent­ly. Instead, I treat­ed her to a pla­gia­rized hair-toss. I still wasn’t sure what I brought to the par­ty, some stu­pid kid, but the more days stacked up and beer went down, the more she orga­nized next rounds and daytrips, the more dif­fi­cult it seemed to man­age Bali with­out my walk­ing Lonely Planet. Lectures through art muse­ums and open-air, evenings dance performances—the stage a tem­ple court­yard, mats for the melod­ic tings, plinks, and plunks of the gamel­on musi­cians. In Oleg Tamulilingan, Flower Attracts Male Bumblebee, dancers in gold-col­ored head­dress­es and shiny yel­low sarung gave the impres­sion of skat­ing rather than walk­ing, their move­ments regal, sub­tle, overt­ly erot­ic. The flower drew in her big pol­li­na­tor with bent knees held tight­ly togeth­er, shoul­ders off-cen­ter, spine curved. Could she get away with just a blowjob? Would she at least be able to talk with him, after? Lise saved her favorite per­for­mance for her last night in Ubud. “The Kecak. They enact a famous ancient mon­key fight from the Ramayana. Always there must be 50 but up to 100 male dancers. So many beau­ti­ful, brown, bare chests.”

She’d done it again. Again, it was my fault. I let myself be drawn into the show. The per­form­ers, some­thing like a hun­dred men, wore black-and-white check­ered sarung with red sash­es. They sat in con­cen­tric cir­cles, at the dead cen­ter of which was a tree-shaped can­dle­hold­er with flames lit along the branch­es. Like per­cus­sion and with­out stop­ping, the men chant­ed, “cak,” mov­ing their hands and arms, their tor­sos, even get­ting on their knees for cer­tain combinations.

A cou­ple entered the cir­cle. “Sita and Rama,” Lise whis­pered. They were resplen­dent in gold-col­ored face­masks and crowns and gleam­ing turquoise sarung with god belts. Next, the mon­key char­ac­ter entered the—“Hanuman”—fought with a bad guy in a red robe, a name I couldn’t process because the relent­less “Cak-a-cak” was becom­ing a male ruckus that felt like com­ing-for-you; all inter­wo­ven Lise prac­ti­cal­ly drool­ing over one hun­dred bare chests. I couldn’t do any­thing about my over­whelm until we met up with Ma-de and Ketut, when I downed half a Bintang in a gulp. I was more drunk than Lise by the time she dropped her arm around my shoulders.

American Mary, we leave Ubud togeth­er, oui?”

When some­one as with-it as Lise asked you along, it was flat­ter­ing. In the morn­ing, she bid Ketut a breezy good­bye. I had no idea how to strap on her cheery balls, so I hoist­ed my back­pack. “Bye”—vexing myself as well as Ma-de. I didn’t under­stand what else there was to do. Like, mar­ry him?

A week of north­bound bus­es. Lise replaced Ma-de and Ketut. Our first after­noon. A Wayan to her new Ma-de. I was a white flamin­go: land, vault, land. Twirl, twirl; curls every­where, Lise made me known as “American Mary,” which Wayan called me through­out. Our first time, I got way drunk and so couldn’t stop the real sex. Probably the reverse. Couldn’t gecko out; kept think­ing about hav­ing noth­ing but a “Bye” for Ma-de.

Wayan sweat­ed and grunt­ed on top of me. Do not speak to me of whor­ing. I pushed Wayan’s chest. You were bounced from your pro­gram, bitch.

Wayan rolled off me, his chin lift­ed in aston­ish­ment. I went down faster than I’d ever gone down, and every­thing revert­ed to nor­mal: morn­ing adven­ture, Bintang lunch. Afternoon oral, walk. It would soon be, “Bye.” Wayan and Lise’s Ma-de lived on Bali. Bali was an island. Ocean was inevitable.

We left Bali by overnight fer­ry to Java, the next island north in the Indonesian arch­i­pel­ago. Boarding as dusk hint­ed, I want­ed to head direct­ly to the bar. Lise, how­ev­er, made me traipse the top deck, bow to stern. I had to hand it to her. In front of us stretched the Bali Straight and all around was wind and wind and wind, var­i­ous gath­er­ing of deck chairs, and wind. Before we set sail, a crew of local boys clam­bered onto the rail­ings. I said, “Christ, they’re going to jump.”

You watch,” Lise said. It looked as if I was the only one not in the know because, with­in moments, every­one on the deck was toss­ing loose change into pure, teal water. Shouting with the enjoy­ment of it, the kids leapt to catch the coins, div­ing for the ones they missed, call­ing for us to throw more. Then Lise said, “Bule incoming.”

Indeed, three white guys, shag­gy back­pack­ers, were com­ing up port-side. As soon as the hottest one said, “If you’re here, who’s run­ning heav­en, eh?” Lise found her­self a deck chair. She crossed her legs with irri­ta­tion as she smoked, even­tu­al­ly to swan away. Up ‘til then, all things male had been above my pay grade. Tonight, she and I were shar­ing a cab­in. There would be no sex, so I didn’t mind flirt­ing. The Canadians vied to buy me a beer. I was usure if I was the coin, flung to be caught, or the child div­ing for gold.

Lise was more vig­i­lant about her goal. In the morn­ing, she pre­sent­ed Budi, a Balinese man who, aside from wear­ing endear­ing John Lennon specs, was straight-up SOP. Budi had a friend. Komang. He was per­fect for me: good-natured and a tad shy. Not as good at English as Budi was. Naturellement. I could have slapped her.

Why, not a Wayan, Made, Nyoman, or Ketut in sight.”

Lise said, “Komang is the same as Nyoman.”

Everyone but me was smok­ing throat-killing clove cig­a­rettes. Budi set about explain­ing Bali’s com­plex nam­ing sys­tem. I cut him off with a hip-jut­ted-out turn to Lise.

The four stan­dard names are for boys as well as girls. Each kid usu­al­ly has a nick­name because, my God, not every­one can run around being ‘Ma-de.’ They can have a Hindu name, too, which can have its own nickname.”

Lise blew a peev­ed stream of smoke. I couldn’t resist say­ing, “I didn’t spend every moment with Wayan on my knees.”

It start­ed slow, Lise’s laugh. As I swung my hip to the oth­er side and Budi pushed his glass­es up his nose, it blos­somed full throt­tle across the Bali Straight. This time, she could be the out­board motor.

I sug­gest­ed a liq­uid break­fast. It didn’t take that much to get us drunk. I was a bit high from tak­ing her down a peg. She repeat­ed­ly called me, “my American mignonne” and dropped her arm around my shoul­der, caus­ing Budi to push his glass­es up his nose and Komang to regard me with extra inter­est. Lise announced, “It means cutie. You are my lit­tle cutie!” She swooped, a seag­ull, to kiss my cheek. Budi flushed. Komang’s atten­tion, how­ev­er, deep­ened. Later, his crin­kled face defined dis­sat­is­fac­tion when we tracked down the los­man Lise remem­bered and she asked for two bun­ga­lows. I went down on him so fast that I bare­ly need­ed to seek relief in the geck­os. That night, maybe I was super-smashed, but I could have sworn I caught sight of my father’s lux­u­ri­ous dark hair in the crowd of a low-end bar.

Nah. And should he ever stum­ble onto my Lonely Planet, he wouldn’t rec­og­nize his Harvard-bound with the prep­py pink belt in a sarung, her hair short in the back and chin-length in front.


Lise asked me if she could choose the style and col­or toward the begin­ning of our sec­ond week on Java, in the clear few hours between Budi and Komang’s depar­ture and whomev­er would take their places as soon as the booz­ing began. In the beau­ty par­lor, wear­ing the plas­tic drape that gave me a dou­ble chin, I acknowl­edged to my fat-faced self that she was right when she declared, post-hair­do, “You now are chic and sexy, alors.” The mir­ror tried to trick me into think­ing it, too. But I was too fat.

It was ear­ly evening. Lise’s arm came toward me in the cun­ning way it did way back when she groped Ketut under the table. I felt that three-weeks old weight behind my eyes. She was going to kiss me. Seemed the next log­i­cal step in this itin­er­ant bacchanal

Instead, we turned the cor­ner. A scent—muted, pun­gent, well-known, unnamable—drew us to a neigh­bor­hood tem­ple. I breathed in the only inti­ma­cy I knew: incense. We passed through stone gates and took our places with the old peo­ple, only old peo­ple, in front of a stone shrine laden with bowls of fruit, flow­ers; long, marigold-col­ored can­dles, and fig­urines of women and gods. As if every evening to this well of seren­i­ty came two red­heads of the bule vari­ety, the elders made room for us with­out expres­sion. The priest was heavy­set, with a curly black beard, swathed in a white wrap. He dipped long flower petals into sil­ver ves­sels to sprin­kle bless­ings over us, and shirt­less old women passed incense with­out a blush about their sag­gy, naked boobs. They glowed with every­day sat­is­fac­tion. I could have kissed Lise for this gift.

After the cer­e­mo­ny, the con­gre­gants dis­ap­peared with­out sur­round­ing us with where are you from, where are you going, where are your hus­bands. Lise and I strolled in sim­i­lar silence until we arrived at the bar she was look­ing for. Seated and drink­ing, she began, “Until 1597, when Dutch explor­ers arrived in Bali, the only Balinese women who wore shirts were sex work­ers. The Dutch, of course, thought the oppo­site.” After sev­er­al rounds, I was cer­tain I did not say, They raped those women. I only imag­ined Lise agree­ing, “Pigs.”

Geckos could not assuage this real­i­ty. The only relief came from our night­ly vis­its to the local tem­ples that we sought out as we pro­gressed toward cen­tral Java, where Lise promised to show me Borobudur, the largest Buddhist tem­ple com­plex in the world. The intense­ly hot after­noon we arrived, stone stat­ues of the Buddha three times Lise’s height scat­tered the first of what she told me were eight lev­els of blueish-gray vol­canic stone. Each would decrease in size. The ground lev­el clocked in at 401 by 401 feet. We start­ed climb­ing. I ran my hand along the scratchy bas-relief on the walls of the stairs to the sec­ond lev­el, my veins pump­ing life in a way I’d nev­er expe­ri­enced. Although I was total­ly sober, I said, “I can’t tell what’s stone and what’s not.”

Lise tossed her curls with a notable lack of sen­su­al­i­ty. She said, “My friend.”

Friends.” I reached to hold hands but dropped my arm before Lise could see. Even so, our doofy grins remained, up the third lev­el, fourth, fifth. On the eighth sat a dome with a tow­er. We climbed as far up as they let peo­ple go. No; my hair was allur­ing but I wasn’t sexy. I just gave good head. Thank good­ness for the three vol­ca­noes ris­ing above the dim­ming hori­zon, for all of Borobudur at sun­set, glow­ing like pink and gold Lego the way I thought heav­en would, when I was a kid.

Hey, Lise. Do you believe in God?”

In my “hey,” was a inti­ma­cy as blueish-gray as Borobudur stone. Lise peered into me the way she had the morn­ing we left Ubud.

I pre­fer what peo­ple do to prove their belief.”

Then what’s with the tem­ple rituals?”

Lise brought out her bead­ed cig­a­rette case. She stayed qui­et for the time it would have tak­en to light up, inhale, and blow smoke. At last, she said, “In every holy place, I see the sooth­ing of this pain in you I feel. It becomes log­i­cal to pon­der the kar­ma of sleep­ing with anoth­er woman’s husband.”

Lise stroked her bedi­zened case. As if chang­ing the sub­ject, she threw it. Eight lev­els down.

Lise winked the way she did at white guys when she had no inten­tion beyond bum­ming a cig. On the way down, eight whole lev­els, I steamed like a vol­cano from our near call at some­thing real. That evening, on the overnight train to Java’s cap­i­tal, Jakarta, we were fin­ish­ing our Bintang and noo­dles. I’d ordered the mii goreng, proud of even my mea­ger Bahasa, when Lise just had to, didn’t she? She said, “Use please first. Tolong mii goreng.

When the train stopped at a sta­tion, two white back­pack­ers got on. I knew the drill: ignore them. If they approached, toy with them; Lise allowed bule men that con­ces­sion. I was pok­ing at rather than eat­ing my god­damn tolong mii goreng when, after the quick­est look at the guys to estab­lish eye-con­tact, Lise leaned in and flicked her tongue against my cheek.

The bule all but hur­dled to the seats across from us. Beer was three times as expen­sive on the train. They bought us sev­er­al. When Lise led the more hand­some to the plat­form between cars—how come she got to change the rules?—the antic­i­pa­tion in his gait brought back my father’s hur­ry to my bed.


One more week. Northern Java, Southern Malaysia. Temples bule beer blowjob. It real­ly did get eas­i­er. The night before Lise flew home, she insist­ed I have my first whiskey. Macallan shots in a fan­cy place. It went down burn­ing smooth. More than a third of a bot­tle disappeared—I was sure most­ly into her, but heard myself beg­ging, “No men tonight, ’k?”

’K, my chick petite, all alone from now. How long goes your trip, after me?”

Oh, I’ll trav­el, sur­vival kit. The Lonely Planet says peo­ple teach English—”

You have only three thou­sand. Mary. If you real­ly want to make mon­ey, you do this

Lise ges­tured to a table. Well-dressed white girls sat with Asian men. Lise said that posh bars hired pret­ty bule to pour their drinks. No Pbbff. They even lent out clothes. It didn’t give the impres­sion of being entire­ly dif­fer­ent than my M.O. of the last—how long? Except I wouldn’t have to suck dick.”

We appeared to be hav­ing this as an actu­al con­ver­sa­tion because I asked, “You don’t have to, do you?”

Depends on how much I want­ed to earn.”

I sat with this new real­iza­tion about her. Ultimately, I came to, “It nev­er got eas­i­er. Do you know that? Never.”

Lise cud­dled me by the shoul­ders. That didn’t stop her, not much lat­er, her and whichev­er man—but she’d promised—from pour­ing me into bed, just me and the upside-down geck­os. I was scared they would fall off the ceil­ing. Lise once told me they had sticky feet. We hung on, me and the geck­os. I could hear Lise and her guy through the wall. It’d nev­er occurred to me to be drunk alone in my room instead of drunk with some­one. I crawled off my bed so that I didn’t have to listen.

Mom!” I heard some­one caw. “Mommy.” Mom float­ed into my room, curled up with me on the ter­ra­cot­ta floor. I stared at the ceil­ing, some­times down from it. In the morn­ing, Lise bequeathed me the Macallan and accom­pa­nied me to the tran­sit ter­mi­nal. We passed street stalls. The homey smell of fry­ing eggs. I would eat those.

Right before send­ing me up the steps to the bus, I read­ied to vault, no idea where I’d land. I want­ed Lise to hug me. Instead, with well-rehearsed dash of ele­gance, she said, “Stay price­less­ly American, Mary.” My head pound­ed with a com­bi­na­tion of hang­over, fury, and what was I going to do with­out her.


With an excerpt from it recent­ly award­ed final­ist for The Lascaux Prize, Alle C. Hall’s first nov­el will pub­lish in March, 2023. Also a win­ner of The Richard Hugo House New Works Competition, Hall’s fic­tion and non- appear in Evergreen Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Litro, and Hobart, among others.