She called him Goatboy because of his fearless and relentless appetite for the food they encountered, especially the street-cart variety they found during the two months they’d been dating and traveling together in Southeast Asia. Guts of steel fed by a boundless hunger. Mysterious grilled meaty thing bathed in red sauce served out of a filthy metal trailer in Merida? He’ll eat that, she said to herself. And he did. Most of the time it seemed he did it for her sake, to get a reaction.
She kept waiting for him to become deathly ill, or need hospitalization, if not to prove that all digestive systems had limits then at least to justify the girl’s hardy sanitary stance—she carried her own plastic chopsticks, inspected all lunch counters for cleanliness, and sent back or abandoned any questionable entrees. A factory-sealed bag of potato chips always trumped warmed spicy noodles from a rickety cart. Always. Perhaps he vomited in secret, the way he masturbated, she thought. She’d found him doing this one morning in their bathroom—sitting on the toilet, his shorts at his ankles, his hand working furiously in his lap. Later she asked him to lock the door from now on, despite the fact that nearly all the budget hotels in which they stayed didn’t have bathroom doors, much less locks. The sight of his intimate, personal act had caught her off guard, the way coming across raccoons rooting through garbage cans late at night can startle you. Was her infrequent sex with him not enough to satisfy his libido? Apparently not. Yet she couldn’t hold the incident against him. If you’ve got an itch, scratch it, she’d always said.
Every day she considers how she will shape the story of her journey for her ninth-grade students she’ll face back in Seattle when she returns from her summer vacation, when Bali and exotic Asia are a distant memory, leaving a sour taste in her mouth like after eating nashi-gorang. How will she explain that on this trip she’s done all the things she always warned her students against—talking to strangers (and worse,
He’s looking at your legs, he said, in the bad way.
sleeping with them!), wandering dark, empty streets alone, drinking or taking drugs (both of which she’s done excessively; she once awoke groggily in an empty Saigon bar and she tried opium in a mud hut in the highlands of Thailand), getting tattoos (she’s gotten two—one of a cartoon-like dragon on her rear-end and one of a thorn-riddled vine wrapping around one of her ankles). She’s surprised at how quickly she’s taken to the backpacker lifestyle. How will she begin to explain (or justify?) Goatboy, his dotcom-refugee background, the way he circles Asia looking for something he can’t seem to find?
Now they were in Bali. The morning they took a mini-bus to Mas, the silver village south of Ubud, Goatboy dropped a banana pancake from his plate while they were eating breakfast.
Looky there, he said, scooting his chair back to retrieve it.
Don’t do it, she said, hopeful that he would curb his nasty habit sooner rather than later. Kick it off the ledge, let the dogs get it, she said. Their second-floor room’s balcony overlooked a rice paddy to the east and was shielded from the noise of Monkey Forest Road by a three-star hotel that stood between their crumbling guesthouse and the flow of Australian and Japanese tourists haunting the sidewalks. Goatboy held the pancake between his fingers, wiggled it, examined it, then ate half of it and threw the rest to the lawn.
Go get it boys, he said to the dogs lounging downstairs.
You’re making progress, she said vaguely.
The two boys who ran the guesthouse looked up at the young Americans. The boys paused from playing their gamelan.
That was for the dogs, Goatboy said.
Everything goes to the dogs, one of the boys said from below.
The girl insisted on taking a mini-bus to go shopping for jewelry. She thought she would buy Goatboy something small and shiny, a token representing something between them she couldn’t name.
Going local is the only way, she’d said, yet in reality her transportation budget was dwindling and taxi fare would’ve been too indulgent.
Nauseating clove cigarettes, chickens flapping about, B.O.—that’s your idea of local? he said.
You should’ve stayed in San Francisco, she said.
They caught the first mini-bus that came along Monkey Forest Road and found two open seats at the back. No farm animals could be seen and few people were smoking. There were worse ways to travel, as she well knew. Lush fields rolled by, some cultivated, some untouched. Being the only obvious foreigners in the vehicle, they got many stares. A heavy, dark older woman made her way to the back and pointed at the girl’s legs.
I see your legs, she said.
Of course, the girl thought. Yes, the girl said, they’re my legs.
The woman clucked her tongue and shook her head. The girl was wearing jean shorts and now she wondered if that was an appropriate choice. She had to make good decisions these days, both financially and otherwise. At the beach in Kuta no one had given her a second glance concerning her clothes, but up here in the hilly part of the island things seemed different, more modest.
At the next stop, an older man climbed on and walked down the aisle. His dirt-stained flip-flops clacked as he approached, and once he saw the girl and Goatboy, he made his way to the backseat, then slid into the corner, stepping over a local girl traveling with a wicker basket.
How far’s Mas? the American girl asked the native girl. The girl shook her head, either unwilling to answer or not knowing how to in English, then got off at the next stop. She was about to ask the man in the corner when Goatboy put his daypack over the girl’s legs.
What are you doing? she said to him. She couldn’t see his eyes through his sunglasses.
He’s looking at your legs, he said, in the bad way.
Without pausing the girl looked over at the man and saw that he had one hand moving under his loose, dirty T-shirt. With the other hand he wiped his forehead. He wouldn’t meet the girl’s stare.
In broken English the man said, Many, many silver shops ahead. Beautiful, beautiful things, he added.
Stop that shit right now, the girl said. She found herself pointing at the man. Stop doing that!
For a moment she wondered if this was some kind of filthy local custom.
For Christ’s sake, keep the bag on your legs, Goatboy said.
Nice shiny things ahead, the man said, now looking at the girl’s face and then at her legs.
Please stop it! the girl said.
Others in the seats ahead of them looked back at her. For a moment she wondered if this was some kind of filthy local custom, and if the local girl had known to flee because of this. She’d once seen a businessman touching himself under his briefcase on a bus back in Seattle. At the time she’d thought, Now that’s multitasking. But this was different.
Let’s get out, she said. She started to get up and the man spoke.
Beautiful, beautiful things ahead, he said.
She pointed her finger at him again, unable to sputter a word.
Go, Goatboy said, just go.
The driver resisted letting them out on the road. We get to stores in five minutes, he said.
Stop right now, she said.
Someone’s totally jacking off in your bus, Goatboy said.
The driver pulled the vehicle over, and the two Americans stepped into the steamy mid-day air. Cars and trucks barreled by, tires flinging pebbles.
Later, while drinking sodas in a Mas restaurant, they recounted the incident, what they could have done differently. Not much, they agreed.
Take a taxi? the boy offered.
The waitress came over, asked if they wanted any lunch.
I couldn’t eat a fucking thing, the boy said. The girl shook her head. The waitress walked away. The boy pounded his fist on the plastic table, making the hot-sauce bottle bounce. He seemed on the verge of tears; his face, under a straw hat, appeared to reveal double black eyes, raccoon-like.
That dirty motherfucker, he said, his voice trembling. She hoped he wouldn’t actually cry. Few things annoyed her like the sight of a weeping male, especially when it seemed to be just for her sake, as it did now.
One afternoon, years later, when the girl was living in Boise, she was feeding her second child, Buster, who had just started the habit of throwing his carrots on the ground first before tossing them into his mouth and snapping them between his newly grown teeth.
As she bent over to pick up one of the carrots littering the linoleum floor, she noticed the faded tattoo circling the base of her pale leg, like a worn ankle cuff, and she thought of Goatboy. Motherhood had taught her that accepting some germs built up one’s immune system and kept one from acquiring some illnesses later. The idea had an odd logic that she couldn’t fully spell out—how do we decide when dirt is good for us? She thought she could discuss it with the boy she’d called Goatboy and she wondered if he would understand.
In Bali, that afternoon, though, she stroked her new silver ring, a gift from the boy. Its smoothness felt warm on the flesh of her middle finger. She knew that the boy would pack his bags and leave, maybe not the very next day but within a week or two. She would encourage it. Despite her fanciful thoughts of abandoning life back in the States and continuing the traveling life, she now knew she needed to return. To take her mind off of the awkward, impending conversation, she admired the way the powdery sunlight of late afternoon fell on the green and yellow steps of rice fields blanketing the hill across the road, the still water mirroring everything earthbound and celestial. She wished she could eat the landscape, consume its richness, its beauty, like a five-course meal, with a set of clean, polished silverware, one hand resting on a linen napkin folded limp across her eager lap.
She considered how she might begin such an endeavor. n°
©2005 Albert E. Martinez and Nerve.com