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from the January 2009 issue

Maybe Not Yem

"Can you believe it? One of my friends threw her boss's baby into a washing machine, just before going back to her village," the woman beside me said in a flat voice. I turned my gaze to the darkness outside the car window. The woman was terrorizing me. Damn it all! A chill ran through me as I thought of what she had just told me.

The air was stuffy. Our small van crawled along the road. The heat from the van's engine was enough to make frozen blood boil. As we traveled along Java's northern coastal road it felt as if we were on our way to hell. Since six o'clock my body had been bent like a hook. The pain in my back made me feel as if I had arthritis. With the feeling of pins and needles in my flesh, I was afraid to move a limb. And of course, I didn't have the nerve to state my displeasure at the woman's story. I looked at her again, hoping that she had finished terrorizing me. She shouldn't be making things up as we exchanged our experiences as guest-workers abroad.

"And me?" She let the question hang, then fell silent. I looked around me. The driver, with a cigarette dangling from his lips, was listening to music—the song "Teluk Bayur." The conductor, seated on the floor of the van, was asleep; head resting, with mouth agape, on the stack of our suitcases; his legs stretched out along the aisle. The five other women, leaning against one another for support, were also fast asleep. They all looked the same, with faces as pale as corpses. Maybe it was because they had just finished working overseas and, now, were paying it off with a deep sleep throughout their journey. I wasn't like them. And neither was she. It was just me, the driver, and the woman beside me who were still awake. She looked at me and I looked back at her. Suddenly, I didn't feel comfortable being awake—though I find it almost impossible to sleep in a vehicle. From the light of the vehicles coming in the opposite direction, I could see her eyes, burning into my flesh.

She placed her lips so close to my ear that I was able to smell her breath. After having her mouth closed for such a long time, her breath smelled of a blocked drain. I could feel her warm breath on my left cheek. "I put rat poison in the milk for my boss's kid," she said.

Had I known I would have to endure such a journey, I would have asked a member of my family to pick me up. I could have asked my boss to buy me a ticket directly from Singapore to Surabaya. Had I done that, I would already be in Blitar, my hometown. I wouldn't have had to come into Jakarta. I wouldn't have needed to land at notorious Terminal 3—where all the guest-workers are as good as shaken down. I wouldn't have had to rent a seat in this van, which was little better than a garbage truck. And I wouldn't have met this woman! I should have rejected my boss's suggestion that I accompany Karti, a fellow employee with whom I had worked for two years, to her home in Banyumas. My boss had told me, "Make sure nothing bad happens to her on the journey home." But in fact it was I who was being tortured. While Karti, whom my boss had worried about, was sound asleep curled into herself like an armadillo.

The air was so close inside the van. I opened the window, hoping to catch a fresh breeze. Instead, sand from the back of a passing truck flew into my face. I slammed the window shut. The smell of decaying fish from the ponds alongside the road made the air worse. The woman, who had been sitting beside me, was now sitting across the aisle, opposite me. She smiled cynically.

"We're the only ones still awake."

"I'm not sleepy. But you go ahead…" I really wished that she would sleep.

"I'm not sleepy either. Do you want to hear one of my other stories?"

Maybe this time she would tell another story, even less humane. I guessed her to be around forty. Her cheeks were somewhat sunken; a false gold tooth sometimes gleamed with flashes of light. Her nails were cut unevenly—like those of a patient in an asylum. Her dark and deep set eyes reminded me of a gambling addict suffering from lack of sleep. Though she was thin, and had sagging breasts, she was also muscular. Maybe she was suffering from some kind of mental disturbance. I didn't need the stress.

"Have any children of your own?" I asked, trying to change the topic of conversation. If I agreed to listen to her stories, I knew I wouldn't be able to sleep—not just tonight but probably for the next month as well.

"Three living. Another three, I aborted."

God, I had asked the wrong kind of question.

"Gosh, I guess I am tired. Maybe I'll try to sleep."

"Well, when you close your eyes, I hope you don't start thinking about that baby in the washing machine…."

She'd done it! I was now trapped in her game of terror. I stopped leaning my head against the back of the uncushioned seat on which I was seated and which was causing my bottom to burn with heat. I moved a little to the side but my back felt like it was resting against metal.

"Why are you telling me such terrible things?" I asked her. "It's impossible. I don't believe you."

"That's because you don't know."

"You'd get the death penalty for killing a baby."

"But my friend got away with it!"

"Because it never happened!" I argued. I realized that my tone was rather aggressive.

"You're still young. What do you know? Do you know that she never used the same name? Or that she always used a false address?"

"Maybe I'm only twenty-two, but I know when I am being lied to."

"Then what are you worried about? Are you afraid of something not being true? You're awfully wet behind the ears, Little Miss."

I looked at her, or more accurately, I stared at her. She winced as she moved her legs.

"Look at that big toe of mine. It was crushed."

It began to dawn on me that the woman wasn't crazy after all. Such a person could not engage in a debate. I looked down at her feet. She lifted the right leg of her trousers, took off the sandal she was wearing, and raised her foot closer to me and the light on the roof of the van. The nail of her big toe was misshapen and infected.

"Got crushed beneath a table leg when I was serving dinner to my boss."

"Didn't you see a doctor?"

"Sure, with whose money, your mother's?"

"No, your boss's."

"Right, and not be given food for a day?"

Suddenly I felt some sympathy for her. Had her experience really been that bad?

I was often surprised when I heard my friends' stories about their lives as guest-workers. They gave their bosses such names as The Lady Ghost, The Witch, The Bitch, and The Dog. They told me how they mixed their urine with soup or drink to keep them from being so bossy. Hearing their tales, I learned that throughout my time abroad, I had been much more fortunate than they. All I had to do was clean the house and take care of a dog. And there were two of us to do these tasks.

Even though in the beginning I was scared, I began to ask her questions. She was a divorcée who had been left by her husband. She had worked for a little over a year in Saudi Arabia for an oil magnate who had three wives and ten children—with only one maid; that was herself. As much as I could, I tried to avoid asking the truth about the baby and the rat poison. Everybody was still asleep.

The morning light, a swatch of red morning sky, appeared before us. We were now heading east. The van bounced up and down as it moved along the uneven road. The conductor was still asleep, his head bobbing, a snorting sound, like that of a pig, coming from his nose. Maybe, as in Javanese myth, he was dreaming of transforming into a boar to make it easier for him to steal.

The Adidas watch my boss gave me showed it to be 4 a.m. The van pulled into a side road. We hit a bump and my head banged into Yem's—she of the rat poison. She smiled but it was the smile of an old woman in mourning, whose husband had just died; awkward and forced.

Suddenly, the car stopped and the driver barked, "Wake up! Wake up!"

The other passengers writhed as they awoke and then stretched their limbs, producing a cracking of joints. The conductor jumped up and led us out of the van to a small box of a place about three by four meters in size. He ordered us to sit down then quickly locked the door behind us.

"Hey, why are you locking the door?" I shouted at him.

The conductor stared at me as I stared back at him. "To make sure nothing happens we don't want to happen," he said while walking toward a group of men in an adjoining room who were talking in whispers.

I looked at the pale faces of my sleepy friends who, without suspecting anything, handed over their passports to the conductor at his request. I handed mine over, too, after seeing a sign with green lettering that read "Money Changer," behind a table on which was spelled "Counter."

One by one, my fellow travelers were called into the room which the men occupied. I wasn't able to see what went on inside. I grew apprehensive as I realized that I was to be the last foreign worker called into the room.

In the room, a man with the look of a cat about to swipe a salted fish was speaking: "We're here to help the foreign workers. Because of so much deception, we're here to help foreign workers whose money is still in the form of checks, dollars, riyals or ringgit. There's a lot of counterfeit money in circulation; we're just helping out is all. Not forcing anyone to do anything. All of this is for your own good,"

I thought of my Singapore dollars—three thousand or about fifteen million rupiah—inside my packet of tampons in my backpack. "I transferred all my money to my mother beforehand," I reported.

"Do you have a proof of transfer? You know how those foreign money transfer services try to deceive you. But we're Indonesians; you can count on us to do what's right for you."

"I threw it away in Singapore," I told him. "So, can I go now?"

"Of course! Out, that way, not this way," he said angrily.

When we got back into the van, all my companions began to complain about having to pay a higher exchange rate at home.

"I should have exchanged my money in Singapore," Karti moaned.

I felt guilty, as if I had betrayed the promise I'd made to my boss to take care of Karti.

Yem said nothing as the others groused about their money and checks, which were all now in rupiah. She sat, staring emptily. The bright morning sunlight, striking her face, made her appear tired and worn, as if some kind of sadness was choking her.

"Did you exchange your money too?" I whispered.


"What, did you think they were lying?"

"I don't have any money to change." She looked into the distance. "My boss is sending a check."

All the women, who initially had been indifferent to asking Yem anything, immediately screamed as one: "What?! And you believe her?"

"No, but what could I do?"

I knew that what she meant was that if she kept on asking for her wages, she would have had to delay her return. Agreeing to her boss's offer was the only sure way that her boss would indeed buy her a plane ticket to return home.

After having our breakfast at a street-side stall, we were taken to a house, a kind of way station, where we could bathe and rest for a while. The place had a carpeted floor where several other people, who had probably arrived just before us, were seated. They were on their way to East Java but we only spoke to them for a minute before their driver shouted that their onward journey would commence immediately.

I didn't know the name of the place where we had stopped. I tried to find out but failed; I couldn't see any sign at all. But the men at the place, who seemed to be our hosts, spoke in a Jakarta dialect.

For one hour, we were left there in the carpeted room. Then we were called, one by one, into a room we had passed when entering the house. The strange thing was, none of the other women would answer my questions when they came back out of the room. It was only Yem who gave me a thin smile and Karti who asked, "Why have we been asked to pay again?" Once again, I was the last one to go to the room.

There, a man tried to explain his good intentions: "We are from an insurance agency. The insurance you paid at the airport only covers you for travel within Jakarta and West Java. Beyond those borders, we are not responsible. Yesterday, a car with foreign workers was robbed in Brebes. Everything was taken and the workers themselves were raped. We are only asking for five hundred thousand rupiah—which includes the cost for the driver and the conductor. But it's completely up to you. It would be a pity if either you or your money weren't safe."

Certain that this man had nothing on his mind but squeezing money from me and my companions, I followed my boss's rule to never trust in strangers: "How kind of you," I remarked. "Might I ask for your business card?"

My question took the man aback, leaving him unsure of what to do. He stared fiercely down at the table between us, where there was nothing but an ashtray. "Hmm, I'm sorry. I'm out of business cards."

Fortunately, at the same moment, I caught sight of a calendar on the wall with pictures of cats. At the bottom was the name of a shop and its address.

"We're in Bekasi, aren't we?" I asked. "May I borrow your telephone? I happen to have a relative who works at the police station in Depok. I haven't got that much money with me, so I'll ask him to pick me up here—especially since your travel service cannot guarantee my safety."

I was surprised at my own calmness. The man stood up. I thought that he was either going to shout at me or hit me. Instead, he walked towards the fan in the corner of the room and turned it on. Our conversation had made him hot.

"Excuse me a moment," he said before leaving the room, "I'll be back shortly."

Now that I had been left alone for a moment, I began to regret what I had just said. A relative, working in the Depok police station? What would happen if he ordered me to go there alone, separate from the other workers in my van? I didn't know this area at all.

At that moment, the man returned. He spoke to me roughly: "All right, you don't have to pay for the insurance but don't tell any of your friends. This one time, we'll help you. You can go on your way. I hope that you arrive safely and that you aren't raped or robbed. Now get out!"

"Did you pay?" Yem whispered as we continued our journey.

"No, did you?"

"What, you still don't believe I don't have any money?"

"I'm sorry."

"They think that they're the only smart ones here! Assholes!" she swore.

My companions fell asleep again as we traveled the dusty roads. I was silent because Yem was also silent. Looking at everything outside, I couldn't believe that I was back in Indonesia. A lot can change within two years. Lots of people have hearts made of asphalt. They have asphalt faces. They act as if they're made from asphalt. Black, without a conscience.

I'm not sure for how long but, in the end, my weariness overcame me, and I did nod off—even though I can rarely sleep when traveling. With me half-asleep, half-awake, the van traveled across bumpy and rocky roads. My body bounced about in the seat. Our bags fell down around us. Then suddenly, at some point in this ride, I heard Yem shout at the driver: "Turn left!"

"Are we there?" I asked.

"Yes. You take care of yourself," she advised. "There's still a lot that you don't know."

The car stopped and the conductor jumped out. "You're Sutiyem, are you? Sign here, we've got to keep moving. We've got no time to dilly dally," he said to Yem while looking at her small house with bamboo walls. It was very quiet.

I looked at Yem struggling to carry her backpack. She was carrying the least of all of us.

I opened the window. "Yem!" I called out.

Yem put her luggage down and walked toward me. The van's engine had been restarted.

"That story, Yem, about the rat poison in the baby's milk…Is it true?"

"I'm not Yem!" she told me with a smile. "I'm free!"

I've never been able to understand the meaning of that final smile she gave me—even after I decided to tell you about it. Maybe she was saying that she too had the power to make another person suffer. Could you ever imagine poisoning your own child with rat poison? Maybe someone—but maybe not Yem—could do it to an oil magnate who has three wives and ten children.

And Yem, or maybe not Yem, had never admitted to it. It was unclear. Everything was unclear.

Read more from the January 2009 issue
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