Those Winter Nights...
When you fall for an Indonesian poet in Iowa, things get a little crazy.
We were like Thisbe and Pyramus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, saying goodbye through a chink in the wall, only this was an ever narrowing door that was closing between us, neither one of us having the heart to turn around.
Ahem had asked me to ride in the university’s van with him to the airport in Cedar Rapids, and I didn’t want to. It was too much. I knew I’d make a scene, if not in the van, then out on the tarmac where I’d try to stop his plane or smuggle myself aboard. Buying a ticket and flying back with him to Indonesia never occurred to me. At least I credit myself with that. I was stupid and naïve and continued to be stupid and naïve for the next year while I schemed for ways to see him again, but I knew enough not to return with him from Iowa. Plus, I was a graduate student living on a monthly stipend of $500. I could never afford a ticket. I worked three jobs, including the translator job that enabled me to meet him in the first place. I couldn’t bear to prolong his departure, yet knowing that he was about to leave sent shockwaves through my system.
I remember it was snowing, fat flakes coming down from a gray January sky as I walked away shivering, my puffy goose down jacket unable to offer me its insulating warmth. I walked alone, back to my apartment on Summit Avenue, a mile from campus, where I turned up the thermostat and closed the blinds and got into bed and covered myself in blankets and sobbed. When my husband came home – yes, I was married – he knew why I was crying, Zen man that he was, understanding and wise. He understood because I had fallen in love with someone that a person could only hope to meet in their lifetime. Ahem was an Indonesian poet who played gamelan and directed a dance troupe and combined all this with poetry performances in temple ruins in Jogyakarta with thousands of people in attendance and had come to America at the bidding of the prestigious International Writing Program with the likes of John Banville and Desmond Hogan and Earl Lovelace, none of them yet famous in America, yet you knew it was only a matter of time. And most importantly, his beauty, with his shoulder-length black hair and brown skin and mysterious black eyes, and the way he held himself, appearing through the smoky cloud of a clove cigarette in observance of the rituals of Bukan, a principle which means nothingness in Indonesian and is akin to similar Zen philosophies my husband studied.
I didn’t believe in cheating, but then pages aren’t filled with the virtuous beliefs of people. They’re filled with mistakes, compulsions and obsessions. I would become obsessed with someone who wore the pointy pinky fingernails of a certain class of men in the Middle East, who sopped up sauce with fried krupuk crackers and didn’t use a knife and fork, who would always choose a rickshaw over a taxicab and a sarong over a pair of jeans.
The International Writing Program was holding a performance night. Ahem was asked to participate. He had wooed me with stories of his birthplace in Java. It was a village where people could take the shapes of animals. Javanese art has close ties to mysticism. He knew of people who could be in two places at the same time, people who seriously practiced the occult. He knew certain practices himself and would perform from them that evening. I sat in the front row holding my breath as he smashed a light bulb in a paper bag, then took out the pieces and chewed them and swallowed them. He coughed up blood. The director of the IWP rushed toward the stage, Ahem professing that this was a normal part of the ritual, that nothing unexpected had happened, he was fine.
“The Indonesians are crazy,” whispered Sipho Sepamla, the South African novelist also a member of the IWP, standing next to me backstage as Ahem stood at a little sink washing the blood off his face and hands. “Didn’t anyone tell you about the Javanese?”
“What do you mean?”
“The poet from last year?”
“What did he do?”
“I don’t know. I wasn’t here, but I’ve heard that next to him, Ahem is tame.”
I never did find out. We lived in our little secret nexus in Iowa City, an igloo carved of snow, just the two of us honeymooning in his hotel room at the Mayflower Inn. The first time I lay on top of him and saw his face, touched his black curly shoulder length hair, I felt like I was looking into the face of a beautiful god speaking to me in another language from another time, another universe, circling my breasts with his fingertips. I was totally unprepared for what came next. It was a feeling akin to death, falling through layers of existence, falling, falling, falling, not cognizant of my husband, Ahem’s wife or child back in Java.
I saw him in the afternoons after class while my husband, an art student, was busy painting in his studio, never suspecting that I was in another man’s room, bed, the lights dim, the snow outside the windows unable to reach us. Toward the end we got braver and went out to restaurants and to the mall. By then, I knew Ahem would be leaving soon and I didn’t care who saw us together. In fact, I wanted people to see us, craved witnesses. They became people I could talk about him with afterward. When you’re living this death-in-life it feels like nothing else, heavy and insoluble, but you also know it’s going to end. The day Ahem left Iowa City, I got into bed. Soon I was feverish. I confessed to my husband because I had to.
For one whole year, Ahem and I wrote letters. They arrived every week filled with love poems and fabulist tales. We imagined what our lives together would be like. He’d come to New York and drive a taxi. We’d move to Bali together, I’d teach English and he’d perform. I applied for a Fulbright to study pantoun poetry in Bali. My plan was to record the efficacious songs traditional villagers sang while they were tapping trees for sugar maple – a dying folk culture. I traveled by Greyhound to Champaign, Illinois to get help in writing my grant from a husband-wife team of Indonesian literature scholars on the faculty at the University of Illinois. They even put me up on their couch in their tiny, dimly lit apartment. I had written to them, having found their names in the byline of a research article I read on microfiche, begging for their assistance. I didn’t know how to write a grant proposal. I was studying Bahasa Indonesian from a grammar text Ahem had left behind but needed help writing letters to universities in Indonesia to request a partner institution, a requirement for Fulbright sponsorship. They were eager to assist me, to the point of practically writing my application. They believed in the importance of the work I would do. Apparently so did Fulbright, who honored me with the fellowship. But I couldn’t get a visa to Indonesia. I had won the Fulbright but couldn’t travel there. It was 1983, Suhurto’s political party had become unstable, and the nation was dissolving into anarchy. America began to cut ties with Indonesia; no American scholars would be granted visas that year. Shutting the case on my Smith-Corona, I cursed governments and generals. I was still living with my husband and for all his understanding the one thing that became clear to both of us was that we couldn’t continue living a farce. I was twenty-two years old. He was twenty-four. If we felt so much distance from each other now, how were we going to feel in one year, five years, twenty? We had stopped having sex. I couldn’t even imagine wanting to drink tea with him in his studio.
The next year I was still working for the IWP when another Indonesian poet arrived. His name was Linus Suryadi AG. Ahem had told him everything about us. He approached me in the cafeteria and asked me how I was coping.
“Terrible. I can’t get over Ahem.”
“I’m here to help you,” he said, so different from Ahem who spoke in parables as if parceling out a secret. Linus was more westernized, curt and to the point. “Meet me on the bridge outside the Humanities Building at 2 PM.”
“Why? What are you going to do?”
At 2 PM, I met him on the bridge and we walked to a nearby park. The fall term had just begun. It was still warm outside. We sat down on the grass. It was very simple. He took out a gold chain from his pocket and swayed it in front of my face and told me to keep my eyes on it. I didn’t feel anything except hokey. I didn’t even know he had succeeded in hypnotizing me until I saw him the next day and he asked me if I could remember what my dream had been that night. I did remember. I had dreamt that a tiger had stood up on the side rails of the bridge and was about to pounce on me. I remembered it only because the dream had woken me from sleep, not in a bad way, it wasn’t a nightmare, but I woke up before I knew what was going to happen. I was about to describe it to him when he said, “Did you dream of a tiger?”
And then I was cured. I stopped writing letters to Ahem. I stopped spending all my time in the fellowships office of the University searching for grants to Indonesia. I put down my Indonesian grammar books and gamelan tapes, stopped holding the batik cloth to my face that Ahem had given me for traces of his coconut tamarind scent. I saw my relationship with him for what it was, a way to get out of my marriage. • 19 February 2014
Harriet Levin Millan is the author of two books of poetry: The Christmas Show (Beacon Press) which won the Barnard New Women Poets Prize and the Poetry Society of America's Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award, and Girl in Cap and Gown (Mammoth Books), a National Poetry Series Finalist. Her story "Yalla," an excerpt from her recently completed novel, appears in the Winter 2011 issue of the Kenyon Review. She teaches creative writing and is the director of the Certificate Program in Writing and Publishing in the English and Philosophy Department at Drexel University.