WISDOM IS QUIET
The night boat from Zanzibar
encountered rough seas. It pitched and yawed with nauseating disequilibrium, Yayuk's
ultimate recourse a plastic bag that Sebastian fitted like a feed sack—which served as
the reverse. Shed of an odious, copious, miscellaneous mass, Ms. Kertanegara tried to
resume her toss-and-turn sleep, while Mr. Lazarus weighed the odds of his navigating an
aisle clogged by slumberers to crab-walk his way above deck, toss the baggy overboard,
then somehow stagger back without throwing up himself. A long-shot. Yet he accomplished
it, resolving thereafter to remain seated come Hell or high water (anticipating both),
deciding it was better to drown than to die from non-stop puking.
Next morning, anchored in a
sultry harbor smooth as a steam-ironed sheet, the M.V. Muungano disgorged its gill-green
passengers. Single-filing their way onto a sun-swabbed wharf, then through Tanzanian
Customs (a farce, since mainland and island were one and the same, thanks to a recent,
hotly contested, local election initiative) the couple fought off a rip tide of taxi drivers to walk
the few short blocks to Salamander Café (prearranged rendezvous point for themselves and
the Lawrences). Finding it closed, of an early Sunday, Yayuk once more had need of a
plastic bag, ducking behind the café's outdoor counter to empty her bladder this
time—Sebastian discarding, curbside, the done-up remains.
Where was George? Where were Ratiporn and the kids? Perhaps they had
not received the telephoned message? Learning from a shoeshine-stand owner next-door that
the Salamander would not be open until ten—two and a half hours away—the pair resigned
themselves to a caffeine-free wait.
"Been here long?"
George Whittaker Lawrence
III, a moniker far more pretentious than the humble man
himself, embraced Sebastian in a bear hug of boyhood reunion. Friends since elementary
school, the two had maintained contact, despite residing at opposite ends of the earth.
Their size difference—George a meaty six-footer, Sebastian, bones like a bird, a mere
five feet six—was analogous to their contrasting lifestyles. George was a family man
dedicated to humanitarian service; Arnie Lazarus was a bachelor dedicated to
himself, or, put more charitably, to his Muse—these disparities somehow a catalyst for
the relationship's epoxy.
Yayuk was introduced. George then went to move his Land Rover—in which
Ratiporn was waiting. Host and hostess, shortly thereafter, returned.
As guests—one familiar, the
other not; one relaxed, the other horribly self-conscious—Sebastian and 'his consort'
played their roles with respective ease and chagrin. Having visited the Lawrences on
several previous occasions—in Brattleboro, Buffalo, Divonne-les-Bains, and here in
Dar-es-Salaam—Sebastian felt at home, his sporadic visits always welcome, his
eccentricity and story-telling proclivities entertaining diversions for parents and
children alike. Whereas Yayuk felt the pressures akin to an intruder. Scrutinized from all
sides, she was especially mindful that both George and his thirteen-year-old daughter had
read about her and Sebastian—as told in that misbegotten novel, whose single
saving grace was its unpublished status. Of course she had not read
it herself; she assumed it was inaccurate. She assumed it was distorted and
chockfull of lies. The fact the he had written it in the first place was
sufficiently dishonest. To distribute it, then, among his friends and
relatives—describing its pretensions, worse yet, as
true—was to prejudice all before Yayuk had the chance to represent herself. She felt
helpless, hopeless, voiceless, and unforgivably betrayed. Nor did she want to read
his "Indonesian Odyssey." Those two lost months of disgrace were best left
forsworn—though vengeance might redeem them. Barring that, she considered them dead and
Why, oh, why did Sebastian insist on resurrecting them? For insist he
did, not two days into their stay, plucking the desktop-printed manuscript from its place
on the Lawrence's bookshelf, then force-feeding Yayuk its "bull-bull"
Wrong, wrong, wrong; all was wrong—the parts to which she listened,
anyway. Mostly Sebastian's words just droned on and on... so she tuned them
out—incurring, as intended, the proud author's wrath.
"This is important, Yayuk, pay attention! Im not reading for
my own edification. I want you privy to details as Ive recounted them."
Meaning he wanted Yayuk to endorse his lopsided version, to condone it
and thereby absolve him of its bald-faced fabrications.
Better to clear the air once and for all, was Sebastian's opinion.
Better to brave recriminations now (four months into their African travels) than to have
their future spoiled by a retroactive feud, especially with the fate of Yayuk's visa still
undetermined. In other words, better to force the issue...
"You always push me, Sebastian."
... than to allow Yayuk time enough, space enough, to forget his shameful past, to forgive
his having ripped her from her roots, bragged about the process, then rubbed her nose in
the dirt of his former relationships.
As might have been predicted,
recitation of this novel sparked malice in its listener, consternation in its orator. Less
a recapitulation, more a first-time-made confession, the story struck Sebastian, even, as
unfair. He had gone too far in betraying confidences, exploiting character foibles,
boasting about his conquest of the book's unworldly heroine...
... reminding Yayuk of her plight as a wanderer's passing
fancy—while reanimating 'whores' to whom she was compared, thus scandalized by this
self-aggrandizing "artist." Had anything changed? She was no closer to
respectability here in Africa than she had been in Indonesia: still unmarried, still
traipsing around with an older man, still ostracized by her family and friends back home
(while less independent financially), and once more made the butt of a fiction-
It went without saying that she closed her ears, allowed instead the
unfamiliar vocabulary, foreign idioms, and convoluted sentences to excuse her from a
... her blank response infuriating him who
persevered, who read, as into the record, this fraudulent account.
With compromise in mind, Yayuk
and Sebastian proceeded to the American Embassy, their way purportedly paved by an
'unofficial' phone call. Scheduled to see a man George Lawrence knew both socially and
professionally—"an easy-going, likable sort of guy"—the couple found
themselves interviewed by no such persona.
After filling out the appropriate form then approaching a bullet-proof
window, Ms. Kertanegara (Mr. Lazarus shadowing) was summarily grilled:
incredulity expressed at her
Indonesian employer granting indefinite leave;
skepticism greeting her stammered
explanation of the job's part-time nature;
an arched eyebrow countering her
denial that marriage was in the offing;
and a "somewhat
irregular" determination making it unlikely that her visa would be approved.
"Come back at 3 oclock," was the interrogator's
parting instruction. Argumentative, brusque, and discouraging, George's 'pal' would
soon stamp VISA DENIED—or such was Sebastian's presentiment. Yayuk, on the other hand,
had endured this process before.
"I got it," she concluded.
"How do you figure that?"
"Let's have lunch."
And have lunch they did, after well-earned cups of coffee at the
Salamander Caf�, Yayuk's spirits higher than those of her doubting sponsor...
... until their return to
the Embassy at 3:00 P.M. sharp, whereupon Sebastian joined wholeheartedly in Yayuk's
"Five years? Theyve given you a multiple-entry visa good
Problems related to Immigration, of a sudden, were solved. Problems
related to choosing from among a whole host of new options, just as suddenly, loomed. Now
that Yayuk could return to America, would she do so... should she...
and to what end?
As for the Lawrence family, life
went on as usual: George coping with a refugee crisis, Ratiporn busy with housework,
tennis, and golf, their teenage children preoccupied with hormones and multi-ethnic
schoolmates. Courteous, generous, hospitable, the Lawrences—to Sebastian—were domestic
ideals whose international context served to embroider their otherwise conventional
aspirations. Yet he did not envy them. Nor, in his heart-of-hearts, did he want the same.
Nor did Yayuk.
"No freedom, if you too much like a model," she
protested—their hosts' conservative profile too mundane for her renegade taste.
traveling. Go where we want, do anything we like; so what," was Yayuk's
assertion, once distance had been placed between herself and Dar-es-Salaam. Due to no lack
of kindness from the Lawrences, Ms. Kertanegara had felt at odds with Sebastian's
surrogate kin—his expectations, more than theirs, having made her ill-at-ease.
Their acceptance, granted or denied, had not been her objective. What mattered was the
harmony she, with Sebastian, might achieve. 'That novel,' and all it meant, perhaps lay behind
... perhaps not, as they jointly reconsidered, reflected from
afar, from the town of Lushoto, to be exact, a peaceful, eye-delighting village tucked
into the Usambara Mountains.
Fresh alpine air, in a positively luscious setting, breathed a breath
of coolness into the couple's heated relations. Lodged at Kilimani Guest House, a
prison-style establishment, with cubbyhole rooms, unsanitary toilets, and no running
water, Yayuk and Sebastian escaped each morning to the nearby Lawn Hotel, where coffee,
served on the verandah, cost more than half of their budget accommodations—though was
worth it for the view. Perched on a hillside bounded by verdurous peaks, scarcely a
tourist in residence, the Lawn was a stately throw-back to colonial times—as
evidenced by its idle, if agreeable, personnel. Taking full advantage of this, Sebastian
resumed novelization of his and Yayuk's journey, ending the hiatus imposed by old
business,' consulting his principle character evermore closely.
"You only show my negative, Sebastian, cover up your own,"
was Yayuk's main criticism.
Adept at exposing other people's defects, Mr. Lazarus often camouflaged
those he possessed, albeit subtly, manipulating the language—a dearth of
introspection thereby concealed. To be "right" was enough—ignoring the
limitations of black-and-white rectitude. To be "right," however, with respect
to Yayuk, won precious few arguments. Hers was an emotive form of reasoning, anathema to
Sebastian, who ran roughshod over anything at odds with his unrelenting logic.
"Karonga," he would cry, attempting to squelch his anger... while Yayuk would
retaliate with a well-aimed "fuck you" (profanity he had taught her).
On a slope above Lushoto, one such fracas raged.
"You dont understand. I look up that word in the dictionary.
Bitch mean female dog. To call an Indonesian virgin
dog without reason, is worse than say like prostitute. For all my life until
now, I'm not called that."
At issue was an offhand remark made by "that cheap Japanese
slut" (Yayuk's classification of Sebastian's most recent part-time girlfriend),
whose catty denigration had been scrawled on a napkin and forwarded in a letter... two
years earlier... its cancer having metastasized to Ms. Kertanegara's brain.
"It was no big deal, Yayuk. Youre making a mountain out of a
mole hill, to use an American expression. And youve been punishing you, me, and
us—like a mad woman—ever since."
"Not like that, Sebastian. Until she apologize, for all my life, I
never will forgive!"
And therein lay the problem. Unaware of her offense, the party in
question could hardly say she was sorry; Yayuk's only recourse was to lambaste
Sebastian... who deserved it... guilty as he was of inciting the long-term
spat. His mischievous intention to stir up a little rivalry had become the chronic impetus
for unremitting rows.
"Okay, okay, I'm to blame. The one to hate is me, not her. Get
"No! For all my life... "
... at which point Sebastian cut her off, as he did too often,
abusing his powers of persuasion to argue Yayuk speechless—though no less fit to kill in
her wounded-pride pique.
This time, however, the outcome was less hysterical. Yayuk was staring
meat-cleavers, sure enough; Sebastian's affected calm disguised aggravation; but a
subtext of forbearance kept tempers in check.
On the front of past offenses, progress had been made.
BACK TO CONTENTS