“Nothing sweeter,” he said. I was sitting behind him on his motorbike. Touched by this poetry, I agreed with him: it did seem that there could be nothing sweeter than this, than riding in the morning on the dirt road, for a distance too short for helmets but long enough that the wind cooled your neck and hands, wrapped around the waist in front of you.
But then I put his words into context. We had been talking about a sweatshirt that one of us had forgotten at a friend’s house. “No,” I corrected him. “In English you say ‘No sweater.’” Putu repeated my words after me, pushing out the altered vowels with more care than he gave to skirting potholes. We had agreed that I would help him perfect his English, and that he would teach me Bahasa.
For me, the silliness of barely speaking another language, of grasping for clarity through the long-suffering of bilingual friends and the awkward pidgin cobbled together by tourists and the people — the valets and hiking guides and waitresses — who accommodate them, retained its novelty longer than the island of Bali itself. Wifi permitting, we communicated best through Google Translate, god bless it. It was during our first real conversation that he said: I want you to belong to me. He typed it into the text box and Google hesitated a moment as it configured, before giving me the sentiment in words I could comprehend.
I don’t belong to men, I typed back to him. I tried to memorize the words that came out on the other side, the fragments that made up a thought, which then became a thought of Putu’s own, for his own digestion, his own paradigms. My reply confused him. He typed another question: So you belong to many men? he asked, his eyes uncertain.
“Tidak,” I said aloud. No. Nobody, I typed. Contrition overtaking him, he began to apologize, but I waved it away. I care for many people, I typed. All are my friends. I do not have one pacar. I wanted to be frank with him before we slept together, so that neither of us would have expectations the other couldn’t fulfill. Still, I worried how he would respond. I wondered if this description of my sexuality would make him see me differently; or perhaps I was not giving him, and the entire Balinese culture (as if this single 20-year-old boy could represent all of it) enough credit for its modernity. I had (have) these ideas, you see, about my Westernness, about my freedom.
He took my answer with grace, it seemed, and we asked each other more questions about our respective cultures, confessing the assumptions we’d made about one another since the soccer field in Gobleg. Because of my hair, he told me, he had feared that I liked girls. When I told him that I did like girls, as well as boys, he seemed confused again. The stereotype of bi/pan people, that we fuck indiscriminately (I leave for you to unravel the value judgments attendant to this generalization, of course), did not seem to be something with which Putu had heretofore been familiar. Rather, it was his initial assumption. He began to quiz me with a list of men and women that we both knew, asking if I was sexually attracted to each one. Between my miserable Bahasa and some frantic typing, I managed to communicate to him that while in the past I have had male & female pacar, this does not mean that I want to fuck everyone I know.
Putu and I met at a soccer game held for a group of American volunteers who had come to save the Balinese with donated tube socks and teamwork drills for young children. The first game the Americans played, however, was with a group of teenage boys gathered by our organization’s Balinese liaison. She and I watched them, the American men and the Balinese boys, playing on the small, grassless field, which had been carved into the side of the mountain and ringed with makeshift netting. Balls that escaped it were retrieved by the younger boys who watched the game. A few mothers watched the game, too, but women and girls did not play. As a rule, they were too busy working at home for the masculine pastime of soccer.
Putu was tagged out of the game at some point, and that was when I first noticed him. Had his wink been superimposed on an American boy, its cheesiness would have been awful, unforgivable. But he had a broad, friendly smile, and beautiful lips, and when he drove me back to the volunteer house over the slippery concrete trail that bound his forest village together, he drove slowly so that I would not be afraid. “You are safe with Putu,” he told me over his shoulder.
And I felt safe with him, far more so than with the American volunteers. They were the type, I had learned very quickly, that I try to avoid. Rich white cishets with jobs in finance and law and film, the type of men an Oakland queer like me becomes used to mocking, even mythologizing, on Tumblr and in “radical” IRL spaces, especially if you don’t associate with their kind on a daily basis. And I don’t, if I can help it: I am lucky enough to work from home, free, for the moment, from the semi-corporate environment for which bros of a lower socioeconomic strata than the American volunteers are bred to work. I attend a private women’s college, with an atmosphere that is more “liberal” than these Americans, casual homophobes and thoughtless, ridiculous racists, were accustomed to.
Over the four days that I spent with them, I grew to marvel at their ability to simultaneously ignore and objectify the poverty of our Balinese friends, their playful riffing on child labor and sexual slavery always, of course, in good fun. In praising the humility and hardiness of the Balinese, they condemned them to filthy drinking water, to prohibitively expensive education, to a medical industry run by a mafia of grease-palmed professionals, as if the circumstances of capitalist neocolonialism were the natural order of things. As is typical of these sorts of men, the dictates of their common courtesy were somewhat unpredictable: it was only “chivalry” to carry a small bag for me if they had a free hand; and yet it was also acceptable to crack wise about brutalizing women, about inflicting brute head trauma so that they could rape their (/our) unconscious bodies, over a cozy meal of nasi goreng.
Putu knew about the Western notion of chivalry, too. “Ladies first,” he would say, stepping aside so that I could precede him along the foot-packed trails rimming Munduk’s terraced rice paddies. He insisted on carrying everything for me, and would take none of the money I offered for petrol, even when he drove me to another town for no other reason than that I wanted to go (the volunteer house where I stayed was forty-five minutes from the nearest ATM). He described himself as shy, embarrassed to speak with me in his rough English, as if my meager Bahasa could even compare. I am just a poor man, he explained through Google Translate. And you are a beautiful rich girl.
How mightily identity shifts under our feet, I thought. In California, I am a blue-collar white boi on the track to the middle-class by way of academia. In Bali, however, I am a wealthy American woman whose bottle-blonde is as natural as Barbie’s. Like Putu, at his age I was gathering early morning and late-night shifts as an “unskilled” laborer in retail and hospitality and health care, working to make payments towards those things for which I was willing to become heavily indebted (my schooling and my medical expenses; his motorbike and his family) in hot pursuit of, someday, a better life. Here I was, a rich, white American citizen, with all the gravity of stars & stripes & drone strikes, Obama and liberty and Gay Marriage ™, behind me. Which is perhaps why I felt — why I perhaps still feel — I couldn’t really blame Putu for what eventually happened: his marriage proposal, his paranoid jealousy, his refusal to take no for answer, and all in less than a week of meeting him.
I had thought I was safe with Putu. He did not joke about raping me, like the American volunteers did. He did not leer at me, or touch me without my consent, at least not until he didn’t have it. Now, for whatever reason, I’m having this debate with myself: who is better? Or, perhaps differently, who is not worse? Forced to choose between sharing a hypothetical bed with one of the American volunteers or with Putu, with whom would I take my chances? It’s always this dichotomy with me, I guess; the alternative, to share a bed with no one at all, only emerges every once in a while, when I am especially introspective. But now that I have told Putu that I don’t want to see him again, I have a lot of free time on my hands. I don’t leave for Sideman for another three days, and until that time, I will be hiding out at a small homestay rather than stay in the deserted volunteer house, avoiding going outside so that I don’t risk seeing him on the street, the only one that wends through Munduk, a tiny town with many tinier villages surrounding it, each a clove-scented satellite of mildew and incense.
I wasn’t even raped, only frightened and groped and pushed, by Putu; only threatened and intimidated with subtext, by the Americans. I know that I am lucky to have made it this far without worse, and as I write this, am thinking about the women and genderqueers, the trans* folx and homos, the POC and PWD, the fags and dykes, the neuroatypical and the poor, and all the permutations thereof, that I know who have lived it. The injustice lies in the imposition of this binary, and yet it is perhaps more choice than many people are given. Even this written rendering of it, done by reflex or instinct, feels futile, like time wasted doodling on scratch paper.
Putu just texted me, asking for the umpteenth time where I am, what I am doing, if I am still his pacar. I won’t respond, of course. It’s the right thing to do, and yet it feels like the easy way out.