Saturday, May 23, 2015

JES "Romance". Or a groundhog trapped among the angels: failing to come of age in 1970s Jakarta

They say that boys develop slower than girls and I believe them.

When my son graduated the sixth grade - excuse me, but when did people start graduating the sixth grade? My Grandfather only made it to the sixth grade but they didn't hold a bleeding graduation for him did they? No they sent him off to work as a tool monkey on oil rigs - imagine the educational credentials you need to be a twelve year old tool monkey. But my son's school had to have a graduation ceremony where every kid was expected to recite a poem or somebody's used speech or bang on a piano and if they screwed up would cause their parents to lose face with all the other scheming, grasping social climbers that infested Ladue like termites on a Baobab tree. So parents would hire teams of professionals to turn their lackluster spawn into a poor facsimile of a pop star for one lousy rendition of a 3 minute song so they could one up the Friedmans only to be upstaged by the Korean scholarship kid playing flawless Chopin. Bloody private schools. Or when I'm thinking more clearly: bloody overachieving immigrants.

But I digress. As I was saying, it was when my son graduated the sixth grade that I first realized something quite shocking: among the thirty or so students graduating there were 15 little boys in matching blue blazers and mommy's best bowl cuts and a few little girl equivalents. Then there were 11 or 12 beautiful, poised young women who seemed to have strolled into the wrong ceremony. I turned to my (ex) wife and said: I don't remember it being like this when I was their age. She looked at me dismissively and said: "it still is" - no, that's no true, she didn't say that but she was thinking it. What she really said was "Oh yeah, that's the way it is at that age".

I had no idea.

Not a clue, not even a hint of a clue of the immense chasm between boys and girls. Which is funny because I lived it. No that's not quite right: I writhed in agony over it for years on end. I was a small, late developing and particularly testosterone challenged young man (young man being what older adults call you when you exhibit absolutely no evidence of manhood whatsoever). And I had no idea what was really going on. Yes, I had had the "talk" and had played tether-ball while the girls had all the "extra talks" which in retrospect wasn't fair at all. Not only were they emotionally, physically and for all I know spiritually more mature, they also got more coaching - how in the devil did they expect me to cope with such an extreme power imbalance?


For I was Protoman - in theory male but lacking virtually all evidence thereof, a subterranean dwelling groundhog like creature who when I first came to the surface in seventh grade encountered such dazzling creatures, such angels, so unlike the grubs and roots that I had lived with my whole life that I was blinded and like Punxsutawny Phil forced to retreat and await the end of my puberty winter six years hence. Were I wiser, I would have stayed underground or gotten sent to a military school or boys reformatory or supermax prison or some other place less harrowing than American style secondary coeducation was for me.

But of course I didn't.

Because I had fallen in love. With all of them. Well almost all of them or at least in love with the idea of being in love with all of them which admittedly - given my lagging hormonal chemistry - was a rather foolish thing to do. But as I stipulated earlier I had absolutely no idea that the girls that I saw walking around my school had in the space of a few short months moved light years beyond the kids that I used to beat at Indian leg wrestling. And crucially, that I had stayed stuck firmly in the same shrimp sized space I had always inhabited. It was this dichotomy between my self image: "Debonair man about campus", my reality: "Pure boy containing no less than 10% pimples by weight" and the changed status of the girls around me: "Goddesses" that was the source of so much pain and suffering through my junior high and high school career. Take for example the problem with my locker.

At my international school in Jakarta we had those little lockers that stacked five one on top of the other and I had the middle one. The two lockers above me were occupied by two of the tallest, blondest girls that I had ever met. They were from Germany and Holland respectively and they had breasts. At about exactly my eye level. They would come up between class talking in their (in my humble opinion) sexy Germanic accents and stand there with their lockers open expecting me to weave between their - I mean them - to get to mine. Sometimes they would drop things on me and I would pick them up for which they thanked me the way a young Marlene Dietrich must have thanked Humphrey Bogart for saving her from Nazis, turning me into a gibbering, crimson ninny. To this day I attribute my "C" in Algebra I to poor locker placement. I cannot understand how the school could be so lax as to not consider the threat of psychological trauma to boys like me when allocating locker space.

Then there were the Bikinis. There is this notion among church ladies and other paragons of virtue that small revealing bathing apparel is immoral. I don't know about immoral but for protomen like me it was definitely stressful. Particularly in Jakarta which is five hundred miles away from the equator and warm all year round. And given that one of the 'hot spots' for teens centered upon an American club with a large pool and a notable lack of air conditioning, bikinis were de rigueur. Bikinis weren't a big problem in the fourth grade but the bikini issue began to rear its curvaceous head in sixth grade and was a roaring monster by seventh, expanding in certain directions every year thereafter. I'm not really sure girls understood just what an impact all the bikini-age had on the boys around them. Perhaps it was a special topic covered while we were playing tether-ball. Something along the lines of "OK girls here's something that will drive the boys nuts but the key is that you can't ever let on that you know it's making them gaga. Here are the three key maneuvers guaranteed to temporarily cut blood supply to the male brain reducing their ability to cope by the equivalent of ten IQ points". Me, I think I generally lost twenty because encountering bikini clad teen girls limited my vocabulary to single syllable words and "ums" and I had an incredibly difficult time answering simple questions with anything but a strong, declarative grunt.

Now I'm all "yay" bikini - except for my daughter of course - but back then I honestly don't know how I made it through holidays like spring break and Christmas what with all the exposed Goddess flesh.

To get girls to pay attention to me I often would 'hang out' with guys that I thought girls liked or at least that girls stood near for extended periods of time in the hopes that whatever attracted girls to them would rub off on me. One time I was hanging with a couple guys who seemed to be friends with the Girl of My Dreams du jour. They were using a code that I later found out had to do primarily with girls' private parts. This code was not one that I was familiar with as I tended to learn all of my more salacious vocabulary and details from my (much faster developing) younger brother. So I was standing with these....gentlemen when The Girl drove up on her minibike. I bobbed, gulped and choked in lieu of a greeting while my friend - we'll call him "Tom" began the intricate dance of insult that he had been dared into by the other kid present who we will call "Brian" for want of a more appealing name. Tom began this particular dans macabre with the classic veiled innuendo to which the young lady (young lady not implying lack of maturity as young man clearly does) in question responded with a firm nolle prosque to which Tom countered with the appropriate (unbeknownst to me) insult. Which caused her to make a face - at which time I - thinking the joke quite different than the one that Tom was trying for - laughed. Earning me the most withering glare that I had ever experienced from an incumbent Girl of My Dreams who then proceeded to fire up her mini bike and drive off. I have to confess that I never had the courage to look her in the eye again - and we rode on the same school bus every day. It was a particularly tragic loss to me because she had the Suzuki. And the thing was: I didn't even know what the hell anyone was talking about.

Our school, not being in the bible belt - actually we were in the Koran belt but that didn't apply to us - had a lot of dances. Dances that included slow dancing without anyone walking around trying to stick their hands in between the dancers - what is it about certain people that they get their kicks at finding couples who are enjoying their dance and try to stick their damned hand in between them like it's some blue stocking menage a trois? Honestly, don't teachers get enough at home?

But I digress. Slow dances sans handsy teachers turned out to be a problem for me. Surprisingly I was able to get girls to dance with me but when things got close "He" reared his ugly head and I had to break the clinch to "get something to drink", "go the bathroom", "burp", or some other lame excuse. Little did I know that girls considered "His" arrival as simply an occupational hazard of slow dancing with boys, not that they particularly wanted "Him" to show up during "Color my World" but what were they going to do? This paranoid obsession of mine became a particular problem when a truly beautiful girl of Polynesian extraction took an uncharacteristic interest in me at the annual Sadie Hawkins day dance. I know, it freaked me out too. She kept asking me to dance fast dances over and over again clearly expecting me to reciprocate on the slow ones but I knew she was only doing that because she didn't know about "Him". As soon as she found out about "Him" what would she think of me? So I wasted an entire evening alternatively dancing with and ignoring the most beautiful girl that had ever shown the slightest interest in me.

We remained friends despite my deranged dancing behavior and it led to other incidents that I shudder to recall. For example, she was bigger than me. Not that she was fat, she was simply an older, much more mature, full figured girl normal for her age and I....wasn't. So we were at some event or party at the International club which had a pool even bigger than the American club and she of course was in a bikini (what was it with these girls and their bikinis?) and everyone was doing the game where you put your girlfriend on your shoulders and then they 'fight' - the sport has a lot of touching and grabbing and girls fake fighting so you can understand its appeal. Except I was with someone who outweighed me. So we solved the problem by me sitting on her shoulders which resulted in us rising to the top of the league tables but was not a particularly good sign for a budding romance. Indeed this party closed out the school year and by the time I came back to Jakarta in the fall my Polynesian princess had found an older man replete with whiskers, muscles and most importantly, a total body mass at least double mine. Sigh.

Then there was the girl in my Modern History class: V. She was great: beautiful, friendly, open, engaging - even to me - me! I thought she was a cross between Diana Goddess of the Hunt and that French lady they copied for the Statue of Liberty. So I maneuvered myself into permanent perch in the desk next to her the better to moon at her rather than pay attention to class. Until one day when she turned up in a dress. I mean a real woman's dress back in the days when they wore hose and heels and everything. And that was all it took. Well that and the fact that some much older, more worldly man, perhaps a junior, flipped her skirt up in my presence which allowed me to see absolutely nothing. But simply the concept that girls could wear such things and in theory one could go up to them and flip their skirt up so overwhelmed my imagination that I had to move several seats away from her so that I could regain my composure while Mrs. Barbour explained the difference between Cavalry and Calvary - not that I cared that day whether I was ridden or saved.

Eighth grade turned out to be particularly traumatic for me mostly because of my successes: I got into the school Musical, Bye Bye Birdie. Playing a teen. Me. A teen! All I can say is that they must have been scraping the bottom of the barrel to miscast me as a hip 50s teen - I would have been a more credible little brother to someone. And on top of this in a clear error of judgement rising to the level of negligence whomever was in charge of casting gave me a role as a dancer, And not some surreal dancer in leotards but a 50s sock hop dancer. With a girl. You know, dances that had dance moves and slinging the girl around and all that. They had yet to develop the acronym OMG but that is in fact what I thought when I read that I was to be paired with my friend's older sister S. More like OMG-WTF with extra skulls and daggers. And surprisingly when S found out she didn't have the typical response that girls unfortunate enough to be paired with me had: lodging a formal protest with the authorities and failing that, contracting a highly contagious disease that cleared up just after the event in question. No, she actually swallowed her pride and undertook the daunting task of turning me into someone who wouldn't completely humiliate her on stage. I repaid her mercy in the cruelest way possible by becoming completely infatuated. Which was a no brainer: beautiful? Check, seemed to tolerate me? Check, was constantly touching me and telling me better ways to touch her? Cheecckk! So you can see she was doomed to having Pimplestiltskin hopping around her until she ran me off.

Which happened pretty quickly after I took my younger brother's advice on how to handle 'babes' as he so eloquently put it. He said "you just go up to her and tell her you like her"

"Then what?"

"Whaddya mean what? You say that and if she says she likes you then bam! you're 'in'."


So I went with the little bro's advice which went over about as well as you would expect. For if she didn't get the point from my witty repartee she definitely got it from my crazed, desperate look. So aside from casting doubt on my brother's claims of romantic expertise the entire exercise was a huge, humiliating bust. Not that S was cruel - she let me down as easily as any demented kid could be. But it still felt like I'd run over myself. Over and over again.

You would think with all of my romantic false starts, hiccoughs, stumbles, trips and falls that I would have been particularly sensitive to the pain that others experienced playing the game of romance without a full deck. And you would be wrong. There was a girl in the grade below me, K. She had braces and was tall in that awkward way that teenage girls sometimes get: all knobby knees and elbows. One day she mustered the courage to ask me to the Sadie Hawkins day dance. I could tell what was going through her mind and knew how stressful it must have been for her but I still harbored dreams of repeating my Polynesian experience (and this time getting it right) so naturally a 'hot commodity' like me didn't want to be tied down by a member of the 'awkward squad'. So I made some ridiculous excuse and she reacted the way that I did in such circumstances: with equal parts embarrassment and disappointment. And the sad thing is I actually liked K and we would have had fun. But the saddest (and most karmic-ly appropriate) thing from my perspective happened five years later. I was back home for the summer and I spied perhaps one of the two or three most beautiful women I have ever encountered in my life. Honest. I am not exaggerating. She must have seen me staring because she turned and walked straight up to me but instead of telling me to buzz off and get a life, she said "Hi Bill". It was K, in town for her wedding.

Eventually Mr. T (I pity the man who ain't hairy and don't smell) showed up at my door. But deeper voice and actual muscles notwithstanding, when it came to the fairer sex I remained the same consummate ass I had always been. And the best example I can give of my supreme ass hattery (assitude? assness?) was my rematch with S if you can call yet another complete fiasco a 'match'. It was over a year later at our Concert Choir's end of year Anyer Beach junket and blowout weekend (what can I say? we were a peculiarly profitable high school choir) and after dinner somehow my friend C. and I ended up with S. and her friend R. Our friend M. probably would have joined us and kept me out of trouble had he not been on the lam because he had rashly smeared Afitson (Indonesian Ben Gay) on the toilet seat of the choir's largest Bass who in response was enthusiastically seeking M so he could use all of his badass bass-ness to as he so colorfully put it: "wring his scrawny little neck".

So we four strolled out onto the beach. It was a moonlit night (of course) and the waves were crashing and sighing against the shore while palm trees swayed in a breeze filled with the tantalizing scents of Java and Sumatra (of course). And in the distance there were flashes of heat lightning illuminating the waterspouts sinuously weaving around the doomed island volcano of Krakatoa. It was that bloody romantic. Barbara Cartland could have cleaned up had she put that setting in one of her bodice rippers. And it was in this almost comically charged environment that we plopped down onto the soft, dry sand to talk. Somehow C. ended up paired up with R. and I with my previous nemesis: S. Sigh. Thinking that C and R were trying to get something going and being a good and thoughtful friend I swallowed my embarrassed discomfort and sat there talking with S. We talked about this and that as I doodled in the sand. Eventually I drew a line and then absentmindedly made it into an arrow to which she added fletching and then - inexplicably - drew a heart around it in the classic Cupid money shot configuration.

And I froze. What did this mean? My mind began to race: "OMG, OMG, OMG? Doesshereallylikemenow or am I just imagining things? WTF? OhGodohGodohGodohGod whatdoIdo? Is she looking at me, how do I look? What? How? Where?" As my brain descended into panic mode my body seized up. If someone had consulted my System Manager it would have shown my CPU and RAM pegging out at 100%. Now I know that this wasn't technically true but it seemed as if I entered a state of catatonic paralysis with my hand upheld, poised to write on the sand and that so locked was carried back to my hotel room and from there back home. Of course by the time my brain finally rebooted and I could function again my (imagined?) moment had passed. I knew this because in the interim my 'good friend' C had gotten together with S and not R as one would have reasonably expected. On the bright side M lived to smear toilet seats again, narrowly avoiding being strangled by the big bad Bass whose temper had cooled at the same rate as his burning backside did.

And it wasn't long after that that my family left Jakarta, moving to a place where scrub oaks swayed in a breeze filled with the rustic scents of Oklahoma cow pats, where exploding electrical transformers flashed, illuminating the killer tornadoes dancing in the distance and where handsy teachers ruled the land. But maybe, just maybe in Bartlesville, Oklahoma I would find the romance that had so eluded me in the tropics.


Contrary to my elaborate fantasies, I didn't suddenly turn into God's gift to womankind in Oklahoma. Apparently there was a strong global consensus on my many romantic inadequacies at that time. I actually didn't get an honest to gosh girlfriend until I was 20 which was about the time that I started shaving. Since then I've had three 'serious' relationships, if you count my marriage (and boy was it serious), interspersed with a few fiascoes for old time's sake. All three women were both uniquely beautiful and perplexing to me - I cherish my memories of each of them. I wouldn't say that I've been particularly 'lucky' at love (I remain, as ever, something of an 'ass' in this area) but I have realized that having another person who is uniquely yours and you theirs, someone who chooses of their own free will to intertwine lives with you is something that I have longed for ever since my first futile blunders in the seventh grade. And I don't suppose that will ever change. Because like most people, I need to be wanted and want to be needed.

Author's Note: Believe it or not these stories are all true. Or as true as I can make them over thirty years after the fact. I really was that big of a dope - ask anyone. Some of you may think that I have gotten some of the details wrong which is probably true as my memory today is certainly no better than my 'romantic moves' were back then. That being said, if you don't like my story make up your own damn memories - I mean faithfully record your memoirs for posterity. Then we can have a memory off. God help us

No comments:

Post a Comment