could soak up the rivers of blood that had once coursed through the streets; the way people could continue
about their business beneath giant posters of the new president as if nothing had happened, a nation busy
developing itself. As her circle of Indonesian friends widened, a few of them would be willing to tell her other
stories-about the corruption that pervaded government agencies, the shakedowns by police and the military,
entire industries carved out for the president’s family and entourage. And with each new story, she would go
to Lolo in private and ask him: “Is it true?”
He would never say. The more she asked, the more steadfast he became in his good-natured silence.
“Why are you worrying about such talk?” he would ask her. “Why don’t you buy a new dress for the party?”
She had finally complained to one of Lolo’s cousins, a pediatrician who had helped look after Lolo during
“You don’t understand,” the cousin had told her gently.
“The circumstances of Lolo’s return. He hadn’t planned on coming back from Hawaii so early, you
know. During the purge, all students studying abroad had been summoned without explanation, their
passports revoked. When Lolo stepped off the plane, he had no idea of what might happen next. We
couldn’t see him; the army officials took him away and questioned him. They told him that he had just been
conscripted and would be going to the jungles of New Guinea for a year. And he was one of the lucky ones.
Students studying in Eastern Bloc countries did much worse. Many of them are still in jail. Or vanished.
“You shouldn’t be too hard on Lolo,” the cousin repeated. “Such times are best forgotten.”
My mother had left the cousin’s house in a daze. Outside, the sun was high, the air full of dust, but
instead of taking a taxi home, she began to walk without direction. She found herself in a wealthy
neighborhood where the diplomats and generals lived in sprawling houses with tall wrought-iron gates. She
saw a woman in bare feet and a tattered shawl wandering through an open gate and up the driveway,
where a group of men were washing a fleet of Mercedes-Benzes and Land Rovers. One of the men shouted
at the woman to leave, but the woman stood where she was, a bony arm stretched out before her, her face
shrouded in shadow. Another man finally dug in his pocket and threw out a handful of coins. The woman
ran after the coins with terrible speed, checking the road suspiciously as she gathered them into her bosom.
Power. The word fixed in my mother’s mind like a curse. In America, it had generally remained hidden
from view until you dug beneath the surface of things; until you visited an Indian reservation or spoke to a
black person whose trust you had earned. But here power was undisguised, indiscriminate, naked, always
fresh in the memory. Power had taken Lolo and yanked him back into line just when he thought he’d
escaped, making him feel its weight, letting him know that his life wasn’t his own. That’s how things were;
you couldn’t change it, you could just live by the rules, so simple once you learned them. And so Lolo had
made his peace with power, learned the wisdom of forgetting; just as his brother-in-law had done, making
millions as a high official in the national oil company; just as another brother had tried to do, only he had
miscalculated and was now reduced to stealing pieces of silverware whenever he came for a visit, selling
them later for loose cigarettes.
She remembered what Lolo had told her once when her constant questioning had finally touched a
nerve. “Guilt is a luxury only foreigners can afford,” he had said. “Like saying whatever pops into your head.”
She didn’t know what it was like to lose everything, to wake up and feel her belly eating itself. She didn’t
know how crowded and treacherous the path to security could be. Without absolute concentration, one
could easily slip, tumble backward.
He was right, of course. She was a foreigner, middle-class and white and protected by her heredity
whether she wanted protection or not. She could always leave if things got too messy. That possibility
negated anything she might say to Lolo; it was the unbreachable barrier between them. She looked out the
window now and saw that Lolo and I had moved on, the grass flattened where the two of us had been. The
sight made her shudder slightly, and she rose to her feet, filled with a sudden panic.
Power was taking her son.
Looking back, I’m not sure that Lolo ever fully understood what my mother was going through during
these years, why the things he was working so hard to provide for her seemed only to increase the distance
between them. He was not a man to ask himself such questions. Instead, he maintained his concentration,
and over the period that we lived in Indonesia, he proceeded to climb. With the help of his brother-in-law, he
landed a new job in the government relations office of an American oil company. We moved to a house in a
better neighborhood; a car replaced the motorcycle; a television and hi-fi replaced the crocodiles and Tata,