PROUD WITH A BROKEN UMBRELLA
Egypt! To Ms. Yayuk
Widyani Kertanegara, Egypt—principally Cairo and Alexandria—meant something altogether
different from what it meant to her beloved. Egypt meant privacy. After three months of
having to share Sebastian Lazarus with his friends, colleagues, and, worst of all, his
former sweethearts, Yayuk finally had the undivided attention of her bachelor companion.
In Egypt, she and he both were out of context, strangers to every other soul except their
own. In Egypt, their travelers' anonymity cloaked an illicit intimacy as effectively as
any veil—of which they had seen many; Yayuk's Muslim counterparts peered through
thin black curtains drawn against masculine impudence and a hypercritical world.
"Like his," she had insisted of the Market-Street barber back
in San Francisco, who obligingly applied the clippers to Yayuk's scalp in turn,
replicating the close-cropped haircut just given to Sebastian. Had she known then that
short hair, in Egypt, signified male, and that her impish figure, diminutive
stature, and Indonesian features would further confuse the locals (men and women alike),
she might have reconsidered. Yet, as vexing as it was to be mistaken for her lover's
son (their ages—his forty-six, hers twenty-nine—another factor), the kinship Yayuk felt
while shedding her near-ebony locks, watching them topple, mingle with Sebastian's
even longer grayish-blond ones, and her subsequent delight in stroking the fuzzy upshot,
hers no less of a bristle brush than his, was compensation enough for the stares she now
"Stupid, these Arabs! Why they think Im a boy?"
Heads, for the umpteenth time, had swiveled in the mixed couple's
wake, on their promenade along the break wall, arm in arm, skirting the ancient
harbor's stone crescent, with Qait Bey Fort anchoring the northwestern tip like a
sand-colored lunch box... an early October sunset dimming the Alexandrian skyline into
silhouette... horse-drawn carriages, quaintly anachronistic amid the 21st century traffic,
clip-clopping street side, Yayuk choosing to stroll atop the soot-smudged division
between walkway and sea, regally, summoning her aristocratic blood in highfalutin empathy
with Queen Cleopatra—who had committed suicide in this once most-literate capital of the
"Life!" Yayuk rhapsodized with an open-armed gesture, as if
the breadth of Allah's Creation could be encompassed by her petite embrace, her
childlike enthusiasm gushing virgin-spring fashion, luring Sebastian's less
spontaneous character from its crow's-footed refuge. His hug more than closed the
seventeen year gap between them; it unified their respective maturity and youth. It
displaced Yayuk's naiveté and Sebastian's cynicism, forging in their stead a
more enlightened entity; or it started the process. Two halves, unaware of their
incompleteness, resist becoming one whole; Ms. Kertanegara and Mr. Lazarus had yet to
admit their mutual partiality.
"We eat at home tonight?"
Her question was actually a reaffirmation of their plan to dine on the
shoddy hotel room's balcony. Restaurants, even in Third World countries, stretched
Sebastian's meager resources. Better to scavenge among the city's plebeian food
stalls. A spitted chicken could always be found rotating, neck to tailbone,
peers. Fruit-juice stands abounded; guava, mango, sugarcane (for the genuinely
impoverished), and pomegranate were available, freshly squeezed. A little bread
(discus-sized and about as palatable), an order of newsprint-wrapped chips, and one gloppy
but aromatic helping of fried aubergine rounded off their evening purchases—with a
honey-saturated nut and shredded-wheat pastry for dessert.
Dinner in hand, the two budget travelers scaled their lodgings
colorful staircase—five flights—each storey a story, a distinct slice of life
connected by marble steps scuffed and polished (the lift long dysfunctional) by numberless
ascents and descents... past a ground level café's murky kitchen... then three drab
floors of import-export related offices... climbing to the top floor's Gamil, Dar Mekka,
and Normandie hotels. They entered the latter and proceeded to number 4 (written in
Arabic), a corner room with all the charm of a dilapidated watchtower. Picturesque in its
decrepit way, with sweeping views of the waterfront afforded through twin portieres, the
room was noisy; horns honked incessantly well into the night; and dirt cheap, its most
endearing quality given the ideal location. Anywhere similar, in the West (cockroaches
notwithstanding) would have cost a fortune.
For Sebastian, who was bankrolling their entire trip (including
Yayuk's flight from Java to California), money was an issue; too often
issue. For Yayuk, who was penniless but from a well-to-do family, mentioning how
much things cost indicted one as "a villager."
"Shut up, Sebastian."
"Maybe youd care to pay for this meal yourself."
These were the key phrases at Fu Sheng Chinese Restaurant (back in
Cairo) where the loving couple had dined on rice, fried noodles, and
bile—mostly the latter—Sebastian having committed the unpardonable sin of bringing
up the daily budget by way of steering his table-mate toward the menu's least
"What happened with you!" was Yayuk's pat recrimination.
True, she could contribute not one piaster to their travel fund, but was that any reason
to be niggardly about what she ordered for dinner—at a nice place, too, one "a
little bit familiar" because it linked Cairo to San Francisco, to Chinatown in
particular, where the AWOL Ms. Kertanegara had felt closest to home? Furthermore, was it
not at Sebastian's invitation that Yayuk had come to America, then to Africa, his
insistent letters brushing aside her lack of funds? She had finally agreed for no other
reason than her desire that they be together. "I want with you, even in Hell,"
she once had affirmed, jokingly. How dare he remind her, after the fact, that she was
totally dependent upon him financially! Not dependent upon him morally, however. Without a
marriage proposal, Yayuk felt no obligation whatsoever. Nor any gratitude. She was there
for curiosity's sake. Against her family's wishes (had they been apprised of her
elopement). Against her religious beliefs, as well (though these were liberal,
even by Indonesian standards). Sebastian simply failed to understand.
"You are like pig head; just go straight with your
fair. Even railroad track go a little left, a little right, a little around.
You are inflexible!"
Too true. The Gordian knot of Sebastian's reasoning might take a
lifetime to untangle, snarled as it was by a loner's self-centeredness—often in cahoots
with a haughty self-esteem.
"A simple thank you, now and then, would be greatly
"What for, must I thank you? We are together. That is
enough." By which Yayuk meant: no lip service; she had scant tolerance
for niceties between a man and a woman (their unwed status, at that stage,
notwithstanding). Thank yous were implicit by the undeniable fact that she was there.
Thoughtfulness, on the other hand, she prized beyond all measure. The
pink roses Sebastian bought to brighten up their Cairo hotel room fit into this category.
As did the Godiva truffles he gave her just prior to their departure from
California—chocolates she guarded with an almost fierce covetousness; Yayuk's
diamonds, these precious, self-rationed morsels came to be called. Yet even more
cherished were his less traditional gestures: transferring a peppermint (their last one)
from his mouth to hers when she smelled it on his breath; asking her to choose which of
his four rayon traveling-shirts she would like to see him wear; his willingness to play
the fool, affecting an idiot's walk and loony facial expressions in full public view;
the seductive way he helped while Yayuk brushed her teeth, nuzzling the nape
of her neck with his gone-gray whiskers. Nuances—tender tones of voice, a casual
caress—were the trivialities which most moved her, which stirred the wizard's brew of
emotions simmering in Ms. Kertanegara's neophyte breast.
After an all-too-brief five days in Alexandria,
they took the Turbo Jet bus back to Cairo's inhospitable airport, catching a
2:30 A.M. flight to the "Dark Continent's" other extreme...