CHAPTER THREE


IS THAT YOUR BOY?

 

    A solitary goat strained its tether to graze on what few shoots of grass protruded through the dun-colored sand... under a mafureira  tree... on whose truncated branches a "br-awwwk-ing" quartet of scavenging magpies briefly perched... with plenty of pickings below, wind-blown refuse having accumulated along the forlorn roadside... a choppy sea, splattered with whitecaps in the distance, blurring the gray distinction between itself and a semi-stormy sky... while in the foreground, passing just beyond the roof posts and low balha  fence that defined the patio at Restauranté Moçambicanos, an old woman wrapped in an older sun-bleachedcapulana  paused to beg alms... her weary face cast in a studied expression of abject deprivation designed to bleed, from a pair of donors therein, its measure in meticais... before hobbling off on a pair of makeshift canes, her need insufficient, evidently, to merit foreign aid... followed by a man trying to sell a blanket of animal-hide patches (gazelle and shangani, for the most part) who lingered in hopes that his price of twenty-four dollars might yet be met... during which interlude a succession of children showed up, resting their chins atop the shoulder-high partition like disembodied heads, homeless, parentless, education-less, their nation's malnourished future ensuring they, too, would most likely starve.
    "Good morning. Where do you come from; South Africa?"
    "No, I’m an American," the customer replied.
    "Is that your boy?" the waiter inquired further, while covering an outdoor table with a swatch of food-stained cloth.
    "The young lady is Indonesian," Sebastian retorted, before joining his androgynous mate for their habitual slugs of morning coffee—when available; the town of Vilanculos threatened to relieve them of caffeine's junky-monkey...


    [They had walked to this café from their bailloté  by the ocean, having found indigenous housing for a change:

its simple lacelace  walls and thatched roof breathing the shoreline air at a relaxed tempo that the couple hoped to ape before their stay was through,
having awakened to bird song,
wind through a stand of blue gum trees,
maize being thumped into powder,
firewood chopped,
laundry slapped on stone slabs,
voices transformed into music by virtue of their language being strange
(with only an occasional passing car to wrench tranquility into the present era),
followed by the dunk and splash and trickle that accompanied their tandem showers—from a large plastic drum, a drum that needed to be refilled twice daily during the periods running water was available; electricity, too, was an unreliable luxury.

Carlos, their landlord and host, did all of the care-taking, and most of the cooking.
    On the previous day, wanting to do some marketing, Yayuk and Sebastian had tagged along as Carlos made his rounds through Vilanculos’ town-center mercado, weaving among its crowded stalls, the couple noting recognizable products—"Colgate" toothpaste from the United States, "Ayu" soap from Indonesia—mixed among a throng of those unknown to each, while the dusty heat created an acrid atmosphere rank with fish smells, molting poultry, and sweat from scores of swarthy sweltering underarms. Prices did not appear to climb on the couples’ account; Carlos was able to amass their evening meal of potatoes, bell peppers, tomatoes, peanuts, onions, and one somewhat scrawny fowl for about forty thousand meticais ($4 U.S.). Yayuk, after expressing a level of distaste that Sebastian thought unseemly, condescended to carry their clucking entrée home—naming it "Lazarus."

   "Hey, it looks like Carlos did all the dirty work."

   "Too bad," was Yayuk's facetious comment, not in the least disappointed about missing the chicken's slaughter. Sebastian could watch anything, she decided, with that unnerving detachment he called "objectivity." 'Cruelty' was maybe more accurate—though she was reluctant to judge him harshly, anxious for her beloved to prove her fears untrue. In venturing first to America, then to Africa, she had taken an enormous risk. From their initial involvement back in Indonesia, she had needed months to recover, months to regain her compromised honor, months to repossess her self-respect. He had abandoned her, after all, discarded her perfect love like so much extra baggage. To give him this second chance was to welcome more disaster—if they could not fit, if the goodness she sensed in his character failed to override. He was selfish, for starters—yet disarmingly tender at times. He was unfair, blaming her for their disharmony before looking to his own faults—yet typically even-handed when dealing with others. He was stubborn beyond even her mulishness, presuming himself in the right no matter the situation—yet willing to change when mistaken or proven to be wrong. He was imperfect, in other words, therefore no different from any other human being, except that Yayuk rejected those 'fatally flawed.'

    Pace decelerated in Vilanculos—markedly—like the tide which crept over reef-protected shallows, submerging sandbars that sprawled to the horizon in centimeter after centimeter of ankle-deep sea, changing morning into midday into evening by slow degrees, by temperate, by hot, then by temperate incantations, each one cooled, stoked, cooled by a ship-to-shore breeze. Bathing, grooming, laundering, consumed surprising amounts of energy, chewed it up nonchalantly or swallowed it whole, as did daily meals; breakfast, lunch, and dinner were major events in this uneventful lassitude... about which neither Yayuk nor Sebastian complained. Good health having returned, it was a relief to sample idleness voluntarily. Their shuffle-step excursions were utterly aimless, in this resort without tourists, where Rand, yen, Deutsche marks, dollars had long since ceased to be exchanged, where dust churned under the sandals of only a few intrepid back-packers—for the moment, though more were sure to come if peace prevailed, if prices climbed no higher, if word-of-mouth should spread and prosperity make a comeback. Benefiting whom, the couple conjectured? ]

 

...Still seated at the café, they bought his and hers straw hats. Ms. Kertanegara, in charge of bargaining, whittled down the price from $5 each to $2.50 for both, as Sebastian looked on, nursing his refill, marveling at an ability that fixed-price America failed to engender, and pleased with the feminizing effect of Yayuk's selection.
    "You look adorable."
    "What does mean?" she asked, her question somewhat rhetorical; she could tell from Sebastian's inflection that he was up to his usual nonsense—his flattery no less irksome than his theories about her masculine style of dress.
    "I like wearing shirt and blue jeans; so what," she would proclaim, enough said about the subject, as if it were perfectly natural for a ninety-two pound, four-foot-ten-inch tall woman to don garments in which she swam, disguising her bra-holstered bosom (in no jeopardy of being detected, regardless the garb) while refusing to wear a belt lest it betray her itty-bitty waist. If pressed, Yayuk contended it was an issue of freedom. Indonesian social standards were defined along gender lines in ways Ms. Kertanegara considered restrictive. Simply phrased, men had more options—though never was she mistaken back home for a male. Why dress like one, then? Sebastian jumped, as usual, to psychological conclusions. On several occasions he had heard Yayuk describe herself as "ugly." After listening to her litany of flaws: "too short," "big lips," "thick ankles," "no breasts," he had asked her to name a single physical attribute she thought of as attractive. "None," had been her immediate, emphatic response—which cast a telltale light on her choice of clothes. Add to this the fact that Yayuk was a late bloomer—her first menstruation had happened at age nineteen (her first consummation occurring at age twenty-seven)—and the riddle of her apparel was easy to decode. She was gay, of course... though this deduction was otherwise insupportable. He was gay, might well have been counter-charged. Yayuk's boyishness, reinforced of late by countless misidentifications, had begun to embarrass her companion. If she were seen as male, then he must be... her father—by adoption? Her guardian—by (dubious) virtue of his older age? Or her lover—thereby confirming his homosexuality? Sebastian caught himself pressuring Yayuk to wear the pink pantsuit she had brought along (handmade by her mother), or at least to tie her shirttails around her ant-like waist, anything to accentuate her being a female—"within the bounds of modesty," he would amend. "What happened with you?" was Yayuk's pat recrimination. Could Sebastian, after forty-six years of presumed machismo, be rendered insecure by a few arched-brow stares? Yayuk was a woman, after all... to whom he was attracted... irrespective her tomboy's pluck and attire... mildly attracted, recently, his sex drive having flagged—which may have been the root of his middle-aged doubts.
    "I know you are old," Yayuk would tease, whenever Sebastian misplaced his glasses, or when he tripped over something, or forgot a word, or lost his train of thought. He was aging—fast, he felt—going through a succession of mid-life alterations—analogous to spurts of growth in his teens. "Lessons," he called such changes, trying to console himself, trying to accept his thinning hair, his wrinkled skin, his multiplying moles (or were they age spots?), his weaker vision, dwindling strength, compromised agility, flexibility, and much reduced stamina, not to mention the pain in his joints, or his gums' recession from teeth grown hypersensitive... all part of a planned obsolescence intended to teach earth's least gracious occupants that humans, too, must yield their turn in the end. Sebastian was bound and determined to do so in style... when the time came... on his seventieth birthday, to be specific. Meanwhile, contending with attrition was a full-time job.
    At 8 o’clock, on their last night in Vilanculos, Yayuk, trying to help Sebastian remove the clapboard dormers from their baillote's  pair of windows, accidentally knocked his wet toothbrush onto the concrete floor, whereupon she stooped, retrieved it hastily, and replaced it on the bureau next to hers—a simple operation which he, as was his wont, proceeded to psychoanalyze, claiming that A. it demonstrated Ms. Kertanegara's tendency to cover up her mistakes; B. her subsequent denial proved she also tended to disown them; and C. whenever possible she shifted the blame... thus sparking an argument that lasted until 3:15 A.M., the hour appointed to rise, finish packing, and lumber four-plus kilometers (uphill) to catch the bus bound for Beira.

Butt-Cruncher Route

    Ten tailbone-bruising hours later, having endured a road that scarcely deserved the name, Yayuk and Sebastian agreed to a temporary cease fire.

 

Lazarus here...

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