freedom fighter named Sukarno as the country’s first president. Sukarno had recently been replaced, but all
the reports said it had been a bloodless coup, and that the people supported the change. Sukarno had
grown corrupt, they said; he was a demagogue, totalitarian, too comfortable with the Communists.
A poor country, underdeveloped, utterly foreign-this much she had known. She was prepared for the
dysentery and fevers, the cold water baths and having to squat over a hole in the ground to pee, the
electricity’s going out every few weeks, the heat and endless mosquitoes. Nothing more than
inconveniences, really, and she was tougher than she looked, tougher than even she had known herself to
be. And anyway, that was part of what had drawn her to Lolo after Barack had left, the promise of
something new and important, helping her husband rebuild a country in a charged and challenging place
beyond her parents’ reach.
But she wasn’t prepared for the loneliness. It was constant, like a shortness of breath. There was
nothing definite that she could point to, really. Lolo had welcomed her warmly and gone out of his way to
make her feel at home, providing her with whatever creature comforts he could afford. His family had
treated her with tact and generosity, and treated her son as one of their own.
Still, something had happened between her and Lolo in the year that they had been apart. In Hawaii he
had been so full of life, so eager with his plans. At night when they were alone, he would tell her about
growing up as a boy during the war, watching his father and eldest brother leave to join the revolutionary
army, hearing the news that both had been killed and everything lost, the Dutch army’s setting their house
aflame, their flight into the countryside, his mother’s selling her gold jewelry a piece at a time in exchange
for food. Things would be changing now that the Dutch had been driven out, Lolo had told her; he would
return and teach at the university, be a part of that change.
He didn’t talk that way anymore. In fact, it seemed as though he barely spoke to her at all, only out of
necessity or when spoken to, and even then only of the task at hand, repairing a leak or planning a trip to
visit some distant cousin. It was as if he had pulled into some dark hidden place, out of reach, taking with
him the brightest part of himself. On some nights, she would hear him up after everyone else had gone to
bed, wandering through the house with a bottle of imported whiskey, nursing his secrets. Other nights he
would tuck a pistol under his pillow before falling off to sleep. Whenever she asked him what was wrong, he
would gently rebuff her, saying he was just tired. It was as if he had come to mistrust words somehow.
Words, and the sentiments words carried.
She suspected these problems had something to do with Lolo’s job. He was working for the army as a
geologist, surveying roads and tunnels, when she arrived. It was mind-numbing work that didn’t pay very
much; the refrigerator alone cost two months’ salary. And now with a wife and child to provide for…no
wonder he was depressed. She hadn’t traveled all this way to be a burden, she decided. She would carry
her own weight.
She found herself a job right away teaching English to Indonesian businessmen at the American
embassy, part of the U.S. foreign aid package to developing countries. The money helped but didn’t relieve
her loneliness. The Indonesian businessmen weren’t much interested in the niceties of the English
language, and several made passes at her. The Americans were mostly older men, careerists in the State
Department, the occasional economist or journalist who would mysteriously disappear for months at a time,
their affiliation or function in the embassy never quite clear. Some of them were caricatures of the ugly
American, prone to making jokes about Indonesians until they found out that she was married to one, and
then they would try to play it off-Don’t take Jim too seriously, the heat’s gotten to him, how’s your son by the
way, fine, fine boy.
These men knew the country, though, or parts of it anyway, the closets where the skeletons were
buried. Over lunch or casual conversation they would share with her things she couldn’t learn in the
published news reports. They explained how Sukarno had frayed badly the nerves of a U.S. government
already obsessed with the march of communism through Indochina, what with his nationalist rhetoric and
his politics of nonalignment-he was as bad as Lumumba or Nasser, only worse, given Indonesia’s strategic
importance. Word was that the CIA had played a part in the coup, although nobody knew for sure. More
certain was the fact that after the coup the military had swept the countryside for supposed Communist
sympathizers. The death toll was anybody’s guess: a few hundred thousand, maybe; half a million. Even the
smart guys at the Agency had lost count.
Innuendo, half-whispered asides; that’s how she found out that we had arrived in Djakarta less than a
year after one of the more brutal and swift campaigns of suppression in modern times. The idea frightened
her, the notion that history could be swallowed up so completely, the same way the rich and loamy earth