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.