For months after leaving Mississippi, I kept seeing bits and pieces of Robbie in the crowds as I moved through the campus—glimpses and fragments of his features, of his voice. I saw his smile on one person, his hair on another, his body and his eyes on yet another. The flashes of Robbie, the sudden turns of my head as I spotted a memory of him in the crowd, were like pieces in an unfinished mosaic, keeping him fresh in my mind.
So it was a shock when I stopped at my mailbox on my way between Psychology and Theater. Inside was a letter from Seattle—from Robbie—the first since we had left Mississippi. I eagerly tore it open.
I’ve got great news. I got married—to a really fine woman called Anne Roussot. Eat your heart out. Hope you can come out and see us some time.
Thanks again for a wonderful summer.
My first reaction was sadness, then disappointment, then loss. I knew I should be happy for Robbie. But I only felt empty. A space opened within me—that something or someone that I could count on was no longer there, like the feeling after the death of someone you had known and liked. The person I thought of for a brief summer as one foundation of my life had departed to a different world; it was a death of a friendship. Oh, I sent him and Anne a wedding present. I have no idea any longer what it was, but it seemed to me more as if it was a going-away present from me than a celebration gift.
The mixed feelings I felt were reinforced a few months later when I received another letter.
Well, we’ve been busy. Alexander Robert Ellis, 8 pounds 7 ounces, was born June 2, hale and healthy. Mother and babe are doing fine, as you can see by the pictures. Hope you’re doing fine as well. I think of our summer together often.
In my mind, the second letter finally closed the door between the previous summer and the future; one part of my life was gone. I was left in a state of bewilderment, of profound uncertainty. A sweet part of my life was over—gone and in the past—and I was at a loss as to what to do for the next part. The future in which Robbie had appeared in some vague way was now a void. I was devastated. I was lost. Something indefinably deep in my life had ended. That beautiful summer that somehow I thought could be recreated would not be seen again.
What gnawed at me, of course, was the guilty feeling that I had let the world flow by with no effort to influence it. I, a typical college senior and adult, had done nothing to nurture any kind of ongoing relationship with Robbie after we left Mississippi. I had taken that relationship for granted. I had been too lazy to send letters to keep in touch, and e-mail had not yet been invented. I had just assumed that somehow Robbie and I would resume our friendship on the same terms during the upcoming summer—somehow we would find a job in the same place and be able to work together with the same or greater intimacy. There was absolutely no basis for this assumption, except hope.
So, in the spring of 1970 I felt a loss, like the feeling I felt after reading a particularly absorbing novel—that the characters I had grown to know and love were now, depressingly, gone from my life.
“Greetings,” the letter said, and I didn’t need to read any further. I threw the letter down on the table and just collapsed on the nearest chair in our living room. I was living at home for the summer after graduation, and I wasn’t entirely surprised that the draft letter had arrived. It was just that I realized that the cold form letter would change my life—and even more so than I realized then.
My options were clear: Canada or go into the service and take my chances. I think Mom wanted me to do the former. Dad was another matter.
“You need to go,” he said as we sat across from each other later that evening. Mom was sitting quietly to the side. The soft light of the lamp illuminated Dad’s face. It was a Father Knows Best scene.
“Why, Dad? It’s a rotten war.”
“It may be, but your nation has asked for just two years of your service. I know this is getting to be an unpopular war, but so was the Civil War, and look what it accomplished. So was the Korean War. So was the Revolutionary War. But the results of those wars was more freedom for the world. I don’t think we will be able to judge how important this war is for decades. Ultimately, history may decide against it, but history may also decide that containing the influence of the Soviet Union in Vietnam is, in the long run, important for our ultimate survival.
“We didn’t do enough to contain Hitler, and we ended up in a war that killed 50 million people and left an ethnic and religious group of people deliberately decimated. It was supposedly a ‘popular’ war. It wasn’t if you were on the battlefield, as I was, but it was necessary. I saw the result of not doing anything, Jakey. We didn’t contain Hitler as we’re trying now to do with the Soviets and Chinese. We’re trying to contain communism this time. Only time will decide whether or not our strategy is worth it.
“I’ve seen too much of what happens when good men do nothing but wring their hands, Jakey.” Dad swallowed hard, his eyes filling with tears of memory. “At the camp we entered in 1945, there were stacks of bodies six feet high and 400 feet long—both dead and alive, naked bodies, with limbs of the barely living writhing in the excrement and human waste of the dead and living. Man should not do that to man. I still feel rage at the absolute inhumanity that the Germans forced upon those people. And I get tears of empathy for all those people who died and who managed to live. ‘Never again,’ was our credo, and we must abide by it. Stalin and the Soviets are doing and did similar things, and this country decided to put up a wall against them.”
“Dad, I don’t want to go.”
“I’ve not asked you for much, Jakey. I believe in what we decided at Nuremburg: ‘Never Again.’ I want you to do your duty to your country. If you must, come back afterwards and exercise your right to protest. But give your country the benefit of the doubt. Will you really be doing more for your country and the world by going to Canada?”
Dad paused. He hesitated and started to say something more and paused again. Finally, he said: “I’ve said my piece, Jakey. You know how I feel. I can’t say anything more.”
‘Oh, God,’ I thought to myself. I’m caught between my respect for my father’s views and my inclinations. “Dad, I have to think about this.” I did, and I eventually reported to the Army base and began the two years that would change my life forever.
The military life started okay. I didn’t mind the basic-training part. It was largely physical training, with some danger thrown in, and I was in good shape and actually enjoyed the exercise part. I turned down the offer to go to Officers’ Candidate School, because I wanted to get my service out of the way as quickly as possible. I respected my dad’s wishes, but I was only going to do the minimum time possible.
Shortly before the end of basic training, our “class” of trainees, as they called it, got our orders. I was being sent to an infantry division in Vietnam as a clerk typist. I would be spared some of the horror of the field, but not all. I was grateful for small favors. But I, as most everybody else, started counting the days till departure from Vietnam the moment the charter plane arrived on Vietnamese soil.
The months in Vietnam were characterized by long periods of boredom punctuated by short periods of sheer terror—until the end of my tour. During one of those long periods of boredom, I read an article in Stars and Stripes about a volunteer program to help Vietnamese villages—sort of an Army version of the Peace Corps. I decided to join the program and get closer to the people of Vietnam. It was, I felt, my way of adding a dose of good to the world. Robbie’s story told about my involvement with the village and its tragic end as I related it to him and Alec on that hike—the hike that gave me so much pain but freed me from that anchor on my soul. I won’t repeat the story here.
What Robbie did not talk about was the aftermath of my departure from Vietnam because I never told him much about it. When I got off the plane in San Francisco and was discharged from the Army, I was a total wreck. I had my belongings; I had my memento of Tran, the Vietnamese boy. All my other possessions—mostly at home—were inconsequential. Maybe someday I would go and get them.
The Army had given me a ticket back to Boston, but I wasn’t going to go back; I couldn’t face my father. In retrospect, I felt he had betrayed me. I knew it was irrational to be a Monday-morning quarterback about what had happened, but my experience was so crushing that, if I had gone home, I probably would have murdered my father. I had so respected him before. I had so loved him. I so much wanted to follow in his footsteps through life. But, on my return to the United States I felt so betrayed. I knew it wasn’t his fault; I knew my naivety had contributed to what had happened. I knew that he couldn’t see the utter incompetence of our policy that I had witnessed in Vietnam.
I stayed at the San Francisco Airport for two days, like the homeless person that I was, trying to decide what to do. The airport terminal was open 24 hours a day, and somehow I didn’t call attention to myself. I was totally lost, going over in my mind the past few months and my options for the future. I had nowhere to go where I didn’t or wouldn’t feel this awful guilt for my actions. I had no one I could rely upon, except perhaps my mother—for some things—but she was inseparable from my father. I thought of Robbie, but he had his own life, I was sure. He was married and was living somewhere that I didn’t know, probably in Seattle, and he had a family to support.
What I realized in those hours in the San Francisco airport terminal was that the confidence in myself that I had accumulated over the years had dried up like a plant without water. The veneer of bravado had been destroyed. I needed to run. I ran.
I walked along the check-in counters for all the airlines that served San Francisco, looking for someplace to go. In the end, I chose the first plane scheduled to someplace entirely away from the United States. I went up to the counter, took some of the cash that I had gotten on discharge from the Army and bought a ticket—one way. It was leaving in two hours, so I had little time to change my decision even if I wanted to. I didn’t even call home until I got to Jakarta. I told my folks that I had decided to stay in the Far East. I didn’t mention that I had been in San Francisco, because if they had known I was going to be there, they would have flown west to see me, and I probably wouldn’t have made the decision to go back to the Far East.
I Cannot Grow
I cannot grow;
I have no shadow
To run away from,
I only play.
I cannot err;
There is no creature
Whom I belong to,
Whom I could wrong.
I am defeat
When it knows it
Can now do nothing
All you lived through,
Dancing because you
No longer need it
For any deed.
I shall never be
Different. Love me.
— W.H. Auden
I had gotten off the plane in the sultry, pungent-smelling humidity of Jakarta amid the tropical reds, bright yellows and lavenders of the trees and plants. I walked across the tarmac to the air-conditioned terminal, entered, collected my bags at baggage claim and stood there wondering where to turn next. I had no idea what I was going to do nor where I would go. I had run away from something, but I wasn’t sure what I was running to. Jakarta? I knew nothing about the city. I had enough money to last a couple of months in hotels to find out, but that was all. I had enough money to drown myself in alcohol for a while, but that was all. I needed to find work—or not and let myself fall apart.
I took the bus into the heart of Jakarta. The tourists swarming around me looked to be all agog at the sights and smells, but I’m sure many were looking forward to their next destination: someplace like Bali. I wasn’t so enamored with Jakarta. I had been to Bangkok and Saigon, and except for the local geography, there was a certain sameness of those cities and Jakarta. They were noisy, smelly, crowded, human. Bali might have been a different story, or so I had heard, but I wasn’t in the Far East for pleasure. That was something I wanted to deny myself—as penance for my last month in Vietnam and my fuckup of Tran’s village.
At least I had enough respect for the future that I realized I needed to make a living. I had run, and now I needed to hide. I quickly learned how to find the American Express office and the tourist spots, but I didn’t know how to find potential employers. I knew there were bars and restaurants that catered to tourists and others that catered to foreigners who lived in Jakarta. It was at the latter where I might find connections to getting work. The only thing I could think of was to get into a taxi whose driver spoke English and ask him to take me to a bar where the Yankee workers went but that the tourists didn’t. It took the driver a while to understand what I wanted, but once he got it, he took me away from the tourist centers to parts of the city that looked more down to earth.
We arrived at Harry’s Bar. Yes, yet another Harry’s Bar in yet another city. I paid the taxi driver for a harrowing ride, then, with my bags at my side, pushed the door open. When I walked in the door, I knew it was exactly where I needed to be. The bar could have been in Minneapolis or Jackson or any American city. There was only one other person in the bar besides the bartender, but I knew from the pool tables and the juke box and the general prosperity of the place that there would be more people there later in the day—foreigners living and working in the Far East. And, I wasn’t wrong.
In the meantime, I sat at the bar and ordered a beer. The bartender was an Aussie named Hank who looked like he had just walked across the desert from Alice Springs to Perth in full sun. His hair was black and slicked back from a strong, wide, ruddy face. The only indication of his current occupation was a slight pudge at his waist on an otherwise Australian-football-player body. As the afternoon wore on, I grilled him about where to find a place to stay, what time Harry’s Bar filled, who came and what they did for a living—those that weren’t tourists and had to earn a living. He asked me what I was doing there, and I told him that I couldn’t return to the States after being in Vietnam—which wasn’t entirely untrue but certainly was misdirection as to the real reason I was there.
Hank didn’t care. He had seen a thousand troubled Jake Cantwells pass through his bar, and I was just one more. He did say there was a lot of work in construction and that there were construction workers who were looking to share apartments. He said he would introduce me to some of them as they came in later.
That evening, he introduced me to Kingman—Robert Louis Kingman, but the first and middle names were never used—shortly after he came through the door. Kingman’s yellow hardhat was nestled under his arm, held against his wife-beater shirt that was smudged from a day of work. It covered a well-muscled body. His dark-blond hair was creased from the band of the hard hat, his gray eyes were bright and intelligent. He was just over six feet tall, I figured, without the heavy work boots that he wore. He looked to be in his early 20s.
“Hi, I’m Jake. Pleased to meet you.”
“I’m Kingman. Pleased to meet you, too.”
“Can I buy you a beer?”
“I’m more than pleased to meet you. I like you already,” he said as he laughed warmly.
“What do you want?”
“It’s already on the way,” he said, as Hank arrived with a Bintang. I signaled to Hank to put the beer on my tab. And the next and the next. About an hour later we were feeling the effects.
“Come back to my place with me,” Kingman said. “I need a shower and a cleanup, and then I’ll take you out to dinner.” I closed out the tab and we left Harry’s. We weaved down the street for a few blocks, dodging cars and motor scooters, and arrived at his walkup apartment. He parked me in his living room—a tiny area that bordered two bedrooms and a small dirty-dish-strewn kitchen—while he disappeared to have a shower and shave. I looked around and saw piles of paperback and mystery novels on the coffee table in front of the couch. He was a reader—at least of diversion literature.
There were also a few English-language newspapers from Jakarta, some mail that seemed to contain mostly bills that had been partly opened, some paycheck stubs. And there were piles of Playboys in the corner next to the lamp. I thumbed through them while I waited, noting that my additional page turning probably would not have done any damage, they were so well used.
Kingman emerged somewhat a different person—fresh-shaven and wearing a clean shirt and trousers. The shower had sobered him up, and the waiting time had done something similar for me. “I’ll buy you dinner,” he announced.
We walked down past Harry’s to a small restaurant that had a nice balcony porch with outdoor patio seating. The tables were lit by lights within red, green and blue paper lanterns. The restaurant served riistafel, which I learned was a Dutch Indonesian cross that included meat, rice and a gazillion sauces. We talked, and I found out that Kingman was raised on a farm in Washington State and had spent his military in Korea instead of Vietnam.
“Lucky you,” I commented.
“I take it you weren’t so lucky.”
“No, I had a miserable time—so bad I couldn’t go home and face my folks, mainly my father. I got to the States and turned around and took the first plane to the Far East. It was to Jakarta. I arrived this morning.”
“Where are you staying?”
“I have no idea.”
“What are you going to do?
“I have no idea.” I shrugged. “Anything. Any work.”
“Where’s your luggage?”
“At Harry’s. In his back room.”
“Okay, we’ll stop and get it on the way home. Tonight, you’re staying in the spare room at my place. Tomorrow, if you want, I’ll take you out to the construction site to see if they need anybody.”
I had quietly hoped that Kingman would invite me to stay at his place for the night, even if it was on a sofa. He was familiar with Jakarta, and he could probably help me find a permanent place to stay. But I didn’t know that the invitation to stay would be good for 10 years, partly because I also got a construction job with the company he worked for but mainly because we hit it off—as friends, close friends.
I had a bed at his place the whole time I was in the Far East. I moved out, temporarily, three times when I found a place for the latest woman that I had shacked up with. I did pay my half of the rent for the full 10 years even during those times, though, keeping my bedroom always available—a comment, I suppose, on the permanency I felt about those relationships—and I never really moved everything out.
Our lives in Jakarta were circumscribed within a handful of bars, restaurants, and dance places catering to young expatriates. There were several hundred, maybe thousands, of us in Jakarta, many young men in the construction and oil business, but there were a number of people who worked in the embassies and some of the American, Australian and British companies that did business in Indonesia. We all shared a certain expatriate identity irrespective of our national origins, as if we were living in a small city on another planet.
There were similar small expatriate communities in the other cities in Asia where our construction company got jobs when work was light in the Jakarta area.
The bars and nightclubs where the construction workers hung out opened early in the afternoon and closed early in the morning. The jukeboxes were up to date with the latest British, American and Australian rock songs. The dance floors were surrounded by a number of Asian women of mixed nationalities—and a few anglos. The women, perched on tall stools at the edge of the dance floor like birds on a wire, were a cross between construction-worker groupies and, well, escorts.
I realize now that I could have spent my entire non-work time in an oblivion of drugs, alcohol and sex—within and around those bars. All vices were cheap and readily available. The construction business was populated with a whole number of men who lived just like that, stumbling to work in the morning, hung over or bearing the smile of sated sexual appetites or both.
The reason I didn’t spend my life that way—at least, until my last few months in Jakarta—was Kingman. Kingman wasn’t into that lifestyle. He enjoyed the drinking. He enjoyed pot and a few other recreational drugs—but only occasionally. He enjoyed dancing in the dim-lit bars to music that was too loud.
Kingman wasn’t fully into that lifestyle, and he kept me out of a private oblivion that I unconsciously sought. He was a lifeline to sanity. He was a father figure in a way, even though he was a year younger than I. My sadness and discomfort with myself might well have led me to a physically destructive lifestyle, but Kingman’s presence helped me keep the destructiveness to the psychological rather than the physical side of myself. Kingman had the ability to walk away from difficult circumstances, when the atmosphere got too close to complete debauchery, and somehow I always followed him—which is probably why I stayed alive and relatively sober.
It was at Harry’s where I met Mei, a Chinese woman from Hong Kong. Kingman and I had gone home to shower after work and had gone out, as usual. We were sitting at a table drinking Tsing-Tao beer, getting a buzz on before we went out to dinner. The juke box was playing Steppenwolf. A woman dressed in fine Chinese silk—pink with pale blue embroidery—slipped off the bar stool and came up to us, turned to me, put out her hand for a handshake, Western style, and said, “I’m Mei.”
“I’m Jake,” I said as I shook her hand. “This is Kingman.” I nodded toward my drinking partner.
“I’ve seen you around,” she said to Kingman. “We actually met several months ago.” Her accent had a lilt of Chinese, but her English was very good. She was petite and spectacularly beautiful. She wasn’t a Marilyn Monroe type, of course. She was more like an Audrey Hepburn: small boned with a delicate face full of promises of intelligence, with her obsidian hair tied behind her.
She turned to me: “Do you want to dance?”
I felt a bit flustered. This was much more forward than I expected of a woman, particularly an Asian woman. I had expected stereotypical shyness. I had envisioned an Asian type with a fan covering the face, a flower and vine line drawing on it, coquettish eyes flirting at me. To come up to me and be as brash as if she had graduated from Skidmore or Smith and was aiming to be a top-flight lawyer in New York was not what I expected.
“Sure,” I accepted. We danced a few dances. Mei moved with fluidity; she smiled shyly, dispelling some of my Skidmore/Smith-graduate impression. I asked her if she wanted a drink, and she quickly accepted. I took her to a table and beckoned Kingman to join us. He made gestures that he didn’t want to interfere with what was beginning between Mei and me and indicated that he was going to walk home—walking fingers.
That evening began an involvement with Mei that lasted almost three years. The first year we dated, and we frequently ended up in my small bedroom at Kingman’s, usually after a long evening of drinking, dining and dancing. In the morning, she made tea and breakfast for me—and eventually for Kingman, who soon lost his shyness about her being in his apartment every morning. He just acted as if she was just another roommate.
In that first year, Mei and I did almost everything together. The only real break, besides work, was the time I took off regularly to play some badminton with Kingman, to ride my bike and to get some exercise, but the evenings always started and ended together.
After almost a year, Mei urged me to get our own place. She was uncomfortable with my relationship with Kingman. Maybe, she was just uncomfortable with Kingman. In any case, we started to look for an apartment, which didn’t take long. I dawdled, however, in closing the lease deal the first time, so we had to repeat the search. I don’t know why I dawdled; perhaps it was a certain hesitancy about our relationship that I couldn’t express directly.
We moved into our apartment, and our lives changed. Mei became a housewife instead of a date or a lover. We began to have meals in instead of at the restaurants and bars. We went out drinking, but with a diminishing frequency. The apartment allowed, or forced, our relationship into something more permanent. The food probably was better than at the restaurants—less fried food and more fish and vegetables—so I was probably healthier—physically.
I don’t know how or where Mei learned her sexual techniques, but compared to my awkward sex partners at college and the purchased slam-bam sex at G.I. bars across Asia, she was phenomenal. She had a way with foreplay. With the prior women I had bedded, the gasp-inducing first touch to my genitals and other sensitive parts was wonderful, but the feelings occurred only once during an afternoon or evening in bed. Mei had the ability to make me feel the first-touch ecstasy several times when we made love. She knew the sensitivity of my perineum, of my anus and of my prostrate. She knew just what parts of my erection needed the massage of the tongue—and of the vagina muscles. She knew when to go fast and when to slow down, when to be firm and when to go lightly. She knew what part of my body would respond when another had been saturated with feeling.
I learned to give her pleasure as well. She would teach by her moans. She would instruct me, with her hands guiding my hands and my mouth to those places that I knew about but had never fully understood. She was lithe and strong and sexy.
In the early months of our relationship, the sex sustained us. Though I didn’t grow weary of the sex, obviously, I began to seek something more. I was sexually satisfied, of course, because Mei was an expert in bed. But I was unsatisfied in most other respects. It’s probably because I didn’t think I deserved happiness. I didn’t want it. I could accept sexual satisfaction, but I wasn’t ready for the rest.
Apart from my own troubles coloring our relationship, I suppose I wanted a meeting of equals. Mei’s behavior, unfortunately, became more Asian, subordinating her persona to the male, catering to me, giving herself to me—ironing my underwear, putting toothpaste on my toothbrush for me—doing things for me that either need not have been done or that I could and should have done myself. That subservience made me uncomfortable, because I didn’t deserve to be catered to and didn’t want to be catered to. It made me uncomfortable as well, because I wanted a strong counterpart, and Mei acted more and more deferential rather than being an equal.
Then again, maybe I let it happen that way. Maybe it was, in part, my insecurities that added to the way she acted.
Finally, she said she wanted children and marriage. She was nearing 30, and she thought time was running out.
Ultimately, it was I that ran out. I didn’t deserve a wife, a family and a home. They represented responsibility, which I wasn’t ready for. So, in that last year with Mei, I started going out more and more without her—not in a cheating way. I would join Kingman at the bars. Kingman and I would go deep-sea fishing, play basketball at the gym, work out, eat fried food, go drinking. When I drank too much I would stay at his place—or, rather, the bedroom I was paying for at his place.
“What’s happening?” Kingman asked, finally, after a long afternoon at the gym.
“I’m not ready to settle down.” Ah, the universal excuse when things weren’t going well.
“You know you’ve paid the rent for your room, so you can come home anytime.” ‘Home.’ An interesting choice of words, but it sounded welcoming.
“Thanks, Kingman. I owe you—everything.” I don’t know why I added that last word, but I think it reflected part of my real feeling for him.
Eventually, I sat down with Mei and told her I didn’t want children and told her I didn’t want a sedate domestic life. She wept uncontrollably for a day, but a few days later she was gone—gone from Jakarta, as far as I knew.
It was a relief to move back to my room at Kingman’s. I stayed with Kingman for another year, and then Phoung came along. She was Vietnamese; she was beautiful; she was another Mei. But I was long-time horny; I wanted more than a one-night stand, and so the cycle that I had experienced with Mei was repeated. A year of bliss—particularly sexual bliss—months of domesticity after we got an apartment, and months of clashes—her desire for a family and marriage, my desire to escape. I told her it was over, and I moved back into my room at Kingman’s once again. She screamed at me, called me names, told me I was immature and selfish. I remained silent and knew she was right.
It was far harder the second time to face the fact that I was incapable of giving myself to anyone. I couldn’t accept responsibility. It was easier to work my job, go out afterward with Kingman and avoid it. And I realized, eventually, that any children I brought into this world with Phoum would only remind me of the boy in Vietnam who died because of my stupid actions. I wouldn’t replace Tran with a substitute from my own seed. It would be a desecration of Tran’s memory to have a substitute whose half-Asian features would be a constant reminder of my fucked-up life. I decided once again that I couldn’t handle the pressure to marry and have a family.
The last woman that arrived in my life in Asia was called Hiromi; she was originally from Okinawa. The pattern with her was kind of the same: a year of dating, several months of newlywed-style sex and a final few months. Unlike Mei and Phoung, Hiromi was much more subtle about inducing me into her life for the long run. As with Mei and Phoung, the sex kept me tied to her. Unlike Mei and Phoung, however, she tried to enter my intellectual life as an equal—learning and appreciating the poetry that I liked to recite from memory or from the books that lined my bookshelves, seeking out English-speaking theater programs and renting and buying VCR tapes of the best of English- speaking movies.
I didn’t know what was wrong with me, though; Hiromi was my intellectual equal and offered a life beyond sex and devoted service to me. She was nearly perfect. In the end, I wasn’t ready for perfect. I didn’t deserve perfect. Maybe I never would. Maybe my increasing enjoyment of my time with Kingman had something to do with it.
I decided to break it off with Hiromi. The precipitating event made it easy enough. The bottle of birth-control pills was no longer in the medicine cabinet, and I suspected the intent. I didn’t want children; I wasn’t ready for children, and I didn’t want to be faced with the choice of abandoning my child or agreeing to live my life with Hiromi. Too many children had died because of me. Because I wasn’t ready for children, I wasn’t ready for a life with Hiromi. I felt betrayed by her, so I ran back to Kingman—again. I called her and told her I needed some time to think.
I tried to get my life together one more time. I had failed with three beautiful, intelligent and engaging women; I was so messed up that I couldn’t appreciate them and had to cast them off. I don’t know why these women thought that I could become a good father when I knew I was incapable of growing up. Kingman probably thought I was nuts, and maybe I was, but he didn’t really say anything. He just bought groceries for two when I came back to my room at his apartment.
My failure and unhappiness at my love life gnawed at me. My insecurities ate at my being. I began to drink more heavily, to take more risks in what I did—both on and off the job. I took up gambling, lost a lot of money and lost a lot of respect for myself. I would sit in the bars after Kingman went home, when in earlier times I would have left with him. My job performance was suffering. I decided I’d better take some time off. I did it so I could sit in my room and stare at the ceiling for days on end. Kingman noticed my depression, of course, and would try to buck me up, making sure I didn’t go too much over the deep end. Kingman would come and sit on the edge of my bed, putting his arm over my shoulder, and, essentially, daring me to tell him what was wrong. Screw him, I thought, and then I felt bad, because Kingman really was my buddy trying only to help me.
How could he understand that after a decade in Jakarta that I made exactly four friends—Mei, Phoum, Hiromi and Kingman? The rest of the people I knew were casual acquaintances—people interchangeable with others in any city I went to. Three of my friends were now casualties. Only Kingman remained.
Things were spiraling downward for me. I couldn’t face the past. I couldn’t face the present, and I was beginning to feel that I couldn’t face the future. The only thing I could face was the ceiling of my bedroom. Could I handle more three-year stands with broken hearts at the end? And more failure?
Outwardly, I was still Jake, the crazy one, as one of my acquaintances had called me; I could still charm anyone into getting what I wanted—or at least I thought so. Inside, after each breakup, I grew more depressed, for the woman I had left, for me, for the world, and I felt myself sinking deeper into a hole whose sides were slick with the moss of despair. I couldn’t talk to anyone.
I saw no future. I seriously questioned whether I really wanted to go on living. Could I go through the rest of my life without forming any permanent relationship? Could my life stay circumscribed by this expatriate community halfway around the world from home? Home? Jakarta was home—and it wasn’t. Maybe I just wanted to end this stupid, fucked-up existence that was going nowhere, doing nothing for anybody, that swirled from day to day “turning and turning in the widening gyre…things fall apart,” as Yeats said.
Then, the phone rang and things went from one hell to a different one.