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YETTIE’S LAUGH – Stephen Jordan

My car was at the mechanics, and I was going to be late for a lunch with a customer at the Hotel Indonesia. I was fretting when Yettie said, “I’ll drive you.”

“Great, thanks.”

She grabbed her purse, “Let’s rock and roll.”

The daughter of an Indonesian diplomat, Yettie was in her early twenties and had been brought up in Canada and the States; her English had an American accent. Yettie was attractive with long hair and an alluring smile that preceded an easy laugh. Unlike most Indonesian women, she made a lot of eye contact.

The Bank of America’s Jakarta branch was just off of the enormous Merdeka Square in Central Jakarta; around the square were the presidential residence, the central bank, army headquarters, and the American embassy. During the early ’70s, the army was still nervous after the attempted communist coupe in 1965 and maintained a pervasive presence.

I had determined that Yettie came from money: fashionable clothes, Italian shoes, expensive accessories; and she drove a ten-year-old Mercedes coup. Without checking left or right, Yettie swung out of the bank’s parking lot onto the street.

“Yettie, you just cut off an armored car.”

“Did I? Driving here is more free-formed than in the States.” After just missing a pedestrian, “I like the Beach Boys when I drive; there’s a tape in the glove box.”

I Get Around came up on the tape, and Yettie said, “You know, I should be driving down the coast highway south of Los Angeles by the beaches with the top down and the wind blowing through my hair, in a bitchen car listening to bitchen music. Is bitchen still used?”

“It was popular when I was in college. Around that time at the San Francisco Symphony, a guy behind me stood up at the end of Beethoven’s ninth and proclaimed, ‘Is Beethoven, the most bitchen composer ever, or what?’”

“Is Beethoven your favorite composer?”

“I prefer Buddy Holly.”

“You’re a generation ahead of me; I was a Beatles teeny bopper.” She sighed. “Now I’ve got to get my Javanese mojo working.”

“Did you have Javanese mojo?”

“Not really. I’m more American than Javanese. But my driving is Indonesian, without all the American rules: blinkers for lane changes, strict speed limits and all those traffic lights. And American pedestrians have the right of way.”

She laughed, “If that were the law here, it would be chaos.”

“Chaos? What do you call this? Look at that army convoy up ahead with motor scooters weaving in and out like it’s a game. Oh, and that small motor scooter in the next lane with three children sandwiched between the father who’s driving and the wife sitting sideways on the rear fender.”

Yettie looked me in the eyes and said, “How else are they going to get around?”

“Why don’t they leave the children at home? Oh, a suggestion: why don’t you keep your eyes on the traffic.”

She glanced at the unfolding mayhem around us and said, “Javanese are family oriented.”

I looked around at the swarming motor scooters; busses racing each other for passengers; two lumbering steamrollers in the slow lane; what looked to be a 1950 Chevrolet spewing clouds of bluish smoke, pedicabs that were prohibited from using major roads but did anyway; trucks so overloaded that their leaf springs were flat, the ubiquitous army convoys, and most everyone drove like Yettie.

Yettie said, “When I returned here, I decided that Indonesia isn’t right or wrong; it’s just different. You might give that a shot.”

“I’m trying, But help me out: why all the steamrollers? I pass several on the highways each week. At home, I saw steamrollers at construction sites, but never on a major road.”

“Maybe the operators take them home to guard them.”

“Why would anyone steal a steamroller?”

“I’ve wondered about that,” Yettie said.

“Another thing: busses race each other for riders?”

“Oh, I stay clear of busses,” Yettie said. “The drivers are Bataks from Sumatra. Bataks were fierce warriors; they’re still very aggressive. They used to be cannibals.”

“Really?”

“The Dutch outlawed cannibalism around a hundred years ago. Now Bataks release their aggressiveness racing busses.”

I looked at the car’s rearview mirrors; so far, Yettie hadn’t used them. The interior mirror was turned down and toward her for cosmetic purposes I assumed. “When I asked my driver why he didn’t use the mirrors? He said, ‘I’ve passed that already.’”

“He’s right,” she said. “Do you like it here?”

“Some things drive me crazy. But overall, my wife, Emily, and I love it. I’m making the bank a ton of money; Emily teaches music at the International School and has begun giving piano lessons at home. We hope to do several tours here.”

“Most of the Americans can’t wait to be transferred to a nice Asian city, like Singapore.”

“Many of them spend their time at the American Club bitching about everything, especially the servants. I wonder if their servants have cocktails and bitch about them.”

With her easy laugh, “Other than the traffic, what drives you crazy?”

“The Indonesian concept of time.”

“Me too,” she said. “The Americans and I are at our desks when the work day starts at 8:00. For the next half hour, the Indonesians drift in; they tell me that they’re on rubber time — kind of Indonesian flextime, I guess. On the other hand, have you been at the backdoor at 3:30 when the bank closes?”

“For the stampede?”

“By 3:31, there’s not an Indonesian in the bank,” she said. “Anyway, my Javanese mojo redemption doesn’t include rubber time.” She cut off a car and swung into the hotel’s parking lot. “Well, here we are. Fifteen minutes late — prompt by Indonesian standards.”

A few months later, I was transferred to Singapore.

●●●

I had been in Singapore for a year and was in a cab that was caught in a traffic jam; I looked out and saw Yettie sitting in a cab next to mine. We managed a brief conversation. Her father had an important job at the Indonesian embassy in Singapore and Yettie worked as a translator. We were talking about getting together when our cabs took off. I would next see Yettie at the Singapore traffic courts.

Stanley Wong, an Assistant Manager at the bank, looked up from the summons I had handed him and said, “You’re in big trouble. What happened?”

“Six weeks ago, I got a letter from the Traffic Division, saying that my car’s rear light, the one over the license plate, was off. So I had the light bulb replaced and considered the matter settled.”

“Then what?”

“A few more letters came telling me the light was off. Since I fixed it, I tossed them.”

“How would the matter be handled in the States?”

“A small-town cop might have pulled me over and told me about the light, but no citation. In a large city, the police probably wouldn’t bother.”

“People travel with their cultures and make bad assumptions based on them,” Stanley said.

“Now what?”

“Get to the court early, wear your best suit and bring lots of cash. They don’t take checks.”

“How much?”

“Be safe and take four hundred dollars.” About a one hundred and sixty US Dollars then.

“Why, that’s… that’s preposterous.”

“Another thing: don’t talk back.”

“You’ve been in that court?”

“It’s a long story.”

I was the only European among the defendants; we were given numbers and told to sit accordingly and not to talk until we were called. I was toward the front; Yettie was to the rear; we made eye contact and nodded. A stern woman appeared wearing judicial robes and a British judge’s white wig. We rose and she seated herself behind the high bench and began calling cases.

When I was called, the judge reviewed the notes and said, “In the States you ignored official notices?”

“No.”

“So you don’t take us seriously?” Her voice was rising. “Am I sensing American arrogance?”

“Bad assumptions brought me here, not arrogance.”

She banged the gavel, “Two hundred dollars.”

I paid the cashier and waited. A half hour later Yettie came out and said, “Thanks for waiting. I’ve got to pay this.”

“How much?”

“Six hundred dollars.”

“Wow.”

“Bad boogaloo, that’s for sure.”

“Lunch?”

“Great.”

In the cab, I asked, “What did you do?”

“A cop pulled me over. And, well, I tried to pay him off, like Jakarta. Talk about a humongous mistake. Although I work for the Indonesian embassy, I don’t have diplomatic immunity. Pulling strings is difficult here.”

Singapore is pretty much corruption free.”

“A deal must have been worked out the between the Indonesian Embassy and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I dodged a bullet and could’ve been cooling my heels in the slammer.”

We went to the Raffles Hotel that was near to the courts. When we were seated, a waiter approached and asked for drink orders. Yettie ordered a gin and tonic; I asked for a whiskey and soda. Yettie said to the waiter, “Full pegs, please.” (A British peg is two ounces of spirits)

“A Muslim woman drinking gin?”

“I’m a Methodist, like Mom, and enjoy a few pops now and then. Mom’s Canadian; Dad’s a diplomat. The Indonesian national sport is badminton; Canada’s is ice hockey. See what I mean?”

“I do. How’s your Javanese mojo?”

“Bagged it. I’ve been accepted at UCLA and am heading state-side.”

“Have you been in LA?”

“Those freeways are mind blowing,” she sipped her drink.

I couldn’t imagine Yettie on the LA freeways and said, “What are you going to study?”

“English — poetry fascinates me.”

“Your favorite poet?”

“Phillip Larkin, a Brit, still alive.”

“Never heard of him.”

“His acuity is canny. Your favorites?”

“I like the World War I British poets — Owen, Brooke and Sassoon. We had to read poetry in high school, but structure wasn’t taught. I wish it had been.”

Yettie said, “Classically educated, those young officers knew poetry’s mechanics — meter, feet, rhyme and so on.” She explained poetry’s more popular structures over an English lunch of grilled lamb chops, boiled potatoes, overcooked Brussels sprouts and a half bottle of Burgundy. I had thought Yettie was kind of a ditzy air-head until that lunch when I learned more about poetry than I had in high school or college. We wished each other luck and exchanged addresses.

Six years later, I had returned to the States, and the Singapore branch had forwarded a letter from Yettie. She had completed a master’s degree at UCLA and was pursuing a PhD. After a few exchanges, I didn’t hear from her and figured she was busy with her studies. Several years later the wedding invitation arrived; she and her husband, Ian Sinclair, a solemn-looking Scot, had teaching positions at UCLA.

About ten years later, I received a large envelope from the office of Professor Yvonne Sinclair that contained a formal photograph of Yettie, Ian and two young boys who looked like handfuls. At the end of the typed letter, she wrote, “Hey, are these the most bitchen kids ever, or what?”

Fifteen years later, Ian Sinclair tracked me down. He phoned, determined that I knew Yettie in Asia and said, “Sorry, bad news, six weeks ago, Yvonne — Yettie — died. She was killed.”

“Good God, how?”

“A traffic accident. I know what you’re thinking, but it wasn’t her fault. We met in graduate school. After failing the California driving test several times, the driving examiners refused to drive with her. She asked me to teach her to drive like an American. We started with the mirrors; I’m proud to say she stopped scaring the hell out of me and became a good driver. She was on the coast highway coming back from a lecture in San Diego; a truck driver fell asleep and crossed the divider. Death, they said, was instantaneous.”

“How are you? Your sons?”

“They’re fine. James, the oldest, is a marine officer; Andrew will become a psychologist. I’m still teaching; my specialty is Dickens.”

“Ah.”

“You rolled your eyes?”

“I did.”

He said, “You’re still a banker?”

“Yes. And you just rolled your eyes?”

“You’re right.”

“Yettie was a natural teacher.” I told him about our lunch after traffic court.

Perhaps to cope, Ian started with Yettie stories: how she had become an authority on twentieth-century British poets; Yettie’s lectures at Oxford and an honorarium; and Yettie’s hatred of poetry slams. On it went until he said, “But more than any of that, she saved me from myself. You see, I’m reserved. Actually, I’m stuffy.”

“I’ve been accused of that.”

Ian choked up. “Yettie brought me around with humor and…” His voice cracked.

“Her easy laugh?”

“Indeed,” Ian said and put the phone down.

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