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
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
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
"Good morning. Where do you come from; South Africa?"
"No, Im 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
[They had walked to this café from their
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,
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.
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
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
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
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
"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 oclock, 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.
tailbone-bruising hours later, having endured a road that scarcely deserved the name,
Yayuk and Sebastian agreed to a temporary cease fire.
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