Will Be Boys

“I didn’t steal this baby. That’s the last… It was crying. In the mosque. Lots of people heard it. The baby needed someone. So I went to the mosque to take him to the midwife. I just wanted to help.” Arif sat in the corner of the police station where the officer had thrown him. His sarong was soiled from the drubbing he had suffered when the crowd found him carrying an infant boy outside the mosque. What was the town faggot doing with a baby boy? And where was the queer Arif had been living with for months? The gossip-mongers, free to say aloud what they had long whispered about Arif and his beau, enjoyed their best day in years.  

The fatter of the two policemen rubbed his right foot into Arif’s chest. “Where did the baby come from, Arif?” Arif coughed out an answer. “Where? What?” The fat cop returned his black boot to the floor.

Dede. I never told them. Dede. I never told anyone.

I first saw Dede at the carnival that came to town months earlier. Carnivals make me sad—everyone having fun with friends, families. I don't usually feel so lonely. I'm busy in my salon every day almost all day. Plenty of customers to talk with until I close up, go to bed, and sleep. Too tired for anything else. But the day of the carnival, everyone said, "See you at the carnival, Arif." And I said, "Right, see you," and so I thought I had better go.  

Everyone greeted me as I passed them along the midway that night, but still it sucked to be walking alone. I'm not a fan of any of the rides—they make me dizzy most of them—not that I would I do even the Ferris wheel by myself. Just me in a gondola made for two? I don’t think so.

I do like some of the games—not darts or gun things, but the one where you hammer the rodents? I remember when I was a kid my uncle took me to the carnival and taught me how to play that game. The guy who ran it let us play with two hammers, one for each of us. Of course, we won a prize. My uncle asked which prize I wanted, and I chose a doll, but he said it wasn't for boys and told the guy to give me the slingshot. I was so angry, I threw down the slingshot and ran all the way home. In the morning, my uncle was in bed with his arm around me, the slingshot between his fingers and my bare chest. Mmm . . . that's a whole other story. I got a little sidetracked didn't I? Sorry. Sorry.

I won the rodent hammer game that night, too, and felt a hand grab my right shoulder. "Wow!" someone screamed right in my ear. I turned around and saw that angelic brown face for the first time. "Oh, dear, I'm sorry. Did I startle you?" he said but his left hand stayed there on my shoulder. It didn't seem strange. It felt just fine. What seemed strange—what did startle me—were those eyes, those blue eyes. You know. Does anyone else—did anyone else, I mean—have blue eyes in Sumatra? In all of Indonesia? I remember when I was a kid and saw Zac Efron with those blue eyes in the movies, I asked my uncle if they were real. He said a lot of Westerners had blue eyes. And big dicks too, he told me. And suddenly I couldn't stop imagining Zac Efron's dick. Real kid stuff, you know? Oh dear, sidetracked again.

"You brought me luck," I spoke into those eyes. "So you pick the prize."

He turned his hand into the buttons of the loose batik blouse he wore and wrinkled his brow as if to say Really? I said, "Really," and he pointed at a brown plush bear. "I would have picked that myself," I said, retrieving it from the owner of the game stand and handing it to Dede as he introduced himself, and I reciprocated, adding, "You're not from around here."

He stowed the doll into a backpack and hoisted it onto his shoulder. "No, I just arrived on the bus."



"You have family here?'

"No, I'll be on my way tomorrow morning."

"Where will you stay tonight?"

"When I saw the carnival all lit up, I decided to hang around until it closes. I'm sure I can find a corner of a tent to curl up in."

"You'll have to compete for space with all the boys pissed from rice wine."  

"Yeah, I know enough to avoid the corners smelling of their pee."

Neither of us spoke or even moved for a moment until I asked if he wanted to see the freak show.

"Why not?" he said.

I would never have gone to the freak show alone. I hadn't been there since I was a kid. My parents took me, and I was fully freaked out by this guy who, without using his hands or fingers, but only, I guess, optic muscles, popped his eyeballs right out of their sockets. He tipped his head back so that his eyes were balanced on his cheekbones. I felt woozy, and my mother had me squat down and put my head between my legs. My father just laughed. Well, luckily, that guy wasn't at the show when I took Dede. There was a bearded lady and a guy whose skin was all knotted up like a tree and a goat with five legs. We had to pay extra to see a naked guy with tattoos covering every centimeter of his skin—even his penis had tattoos of tigers and when he rubbed his dick to harden it, the tigers looked like they were running. That made me laugh, but, Dede got woozy like I had from the eyeballs, so we left the tent, and I suggested he squat and put his head between his legs, but he just asked for a cup of coffee.

We drank our coffee at one of my favorite stalls just outside the carnival. I didn’t have to ask Ibu Eva to empty the contents of a sachet into a plastic cup and add hot water from a thermos. She handed it to me. “What will your friend have, Arif?”

“Coffee mix also, Ibu,” said Dede. “So,” he turned to me, “Tell me about yourself.”

I found him not handsome, but adorable—masculine and yet not really manly. Imut is the Indonesian word that described him—and describes the kind of young man I always like. “I’m a barber and hair stylist. I have a simple salon here.” I paused. “I’m sure you know what people say about people like me.”

“And is it true? In your case?”

“Yes. And... you?”

“I’m not gay!”

“That’s okay—”

“Of course it’s okay!” I was taken back by the fellow’s vehemence, but knew that a young man this imut would likely have often been taken for gay, been propositioned or worse. “I really don’t try to seduce every cute boy I meet.” He laughed.  “And where is Hell, Dede?”


“You said you were from Hell.”

“Oh, right. My Hell was Jakarta.”

“The capital? That’s my dream. I thought you were going to tell me you came from some small village here in Sumatra or on Java where the narrow-minded superstitious or hyper-religious people made life a Hell for anyone not quite like themselves. Jakarta is too big and varied.”

“There are small neighborhoods in Jakarta with some very small people.”

“I guess. I guess.”  

The carnival lights flickered and went dark. The hostess of the warung yawned loudly. I looked at my watch. “Almost 2 am! Let’s go to my place. I sleep in the room behind the salon. You can stay the night.”

Dede raised his left eyebrow.

I laughed. “Not in my bed. I swear to God. I’ve had my fill of normal guys. So to speak. I’ve got a mattress you can unroll on the floor of the salon.”

I awoke next morning to the smell of rice frying on the little table-top stove in the kitchenette just outside my bedroom. Wrapping myself in a sarong, I sat at the table where Dede was adding a concoction of vegetables and herbs to the hot wok. “Wow!” I said, “you know how to make yourself useful.”

“I know how to appreciate kindness,” Dede replied and served us aromatic mountains of fried rice we gobbled hand to mouth.

“Better than the cup of noodles I usually make for breakfast,” I said.

“Make? To add boiling to a styrofoam cup is not ‘make.’”

I laughed in agreement and by the time we had finished the coffee Dede had ground and brewed, we had agreed that in return for bed and board, Dede would make himself useful—appreciative—in my home and salon for as long as each of us wished.  

After six months, Dede and I were more partners and friends than benefactor and beneficiary, Dede having advanced from washing hair to cutting and styling. When he asked me, after a particularly busy day at the salon, if I wanted a massage, he demonstrated a technique so relaxing that I invested in a massage table and curtain behind which Dede assumed his own piece of the business.  

I had a pleasurable piece of that piece myself. Whenever, by the touch of a hand or the throbbing of an erection or a direct verbal request, a male massage customer sought a happy ending to a rubdown, Dede poked his head through the opening in the curtain to see if I liked the needy fellow enough to bring him to orgasm. If so, Dede and I changed places; if I shook my head in the negative, Dede made clear to his customer that the best he could do would be to provide some extra lubricant and, with a towel at the ready, wait for the client to finish himself off.

The town assumed that Dede and I were lovers, but in fact we never had a sexual relationship. However, you might say, although we never did out loud, we had a loving relationship.

Despite his many chores, Dede glowed with satisfaction through that half-year and even put on a bit of weight unnoticed by most of our patrons or even by me because of the loose blouses and sarongs he regularly wore.

Notice, such as it was, arrived one night when I was awakened by muffled screams from the salon. Fearing thieves had broken in and were beating up Dede, I grabbed a knife from the kitchenette and bolted into the salon. I did not engage the intruders I expected.

Instead I found Dede naked from the waist down with a dilated vagina from which a baby was in the process of being born.

“Dede! You… you are a woman,” I gasped.

“I’m not! I’m not!”

“You are having a fucking baby! I’ll run for the midwife.”

“No. NO!,” yelled Dede. “Just get ready to take it. Oh, God, here it comes.”

I scrambled to hold the infant safe on the mattress.

“You have a knife! Cut the cord, Arif. CUT THE CORD!”

I dared to do it, and lifted the child so the mother could see the tiny boy. But Dede closed his eyes, repeating “I don’t want to see it.”

“But, Dede, you’re his mother.”

“I’m no mother! I’m no woman!”

“Bullshit. You have the plumbing of a woman!”

“That’s just what they said. The ones on my football team in Jakarta. The ones who raped me. Again and again. ‘Fuck you, bitch. You’re no boy. You have a girl’s plumbing,’ they said. Eight of them. Again and again. ‘I’m a boy,’ I cried. Again and again. ‘I’m a boy.’ I’m a boy, Arif. I’m a boy.”

I cleaned up the baby as best I could and wrapped him in clean pillowcases. I had often heard stories of abandoned babies left in the mosque where God would protect them until a good Muslim family would find and adopt them. And so I headed for the mosque and left the child just inside the entrance.

When I returned home to the salon, Dede was gone along with all his clothes and backpack.

I scoured the town searching for Dede without success; meanwhile I was overwhelmed with fear for the baby. He hadn’t had any nourishment since he was born. I had cut the cord, yes, but what is supposed to happen to a baby then? I needed the help of a woman, and so I decided to retrieve the baby and take him to the midwife.

As the child’s bellows echoed throughout the mosque, I lifted him carefully, held him to my chest, and made my way in the direction of the midwife. But before I got even halfway there, a crowd, awakened and upset by the incessant crying of a baby, intercepted me.



James Penha

Expat New Yorker James Penha (he/him) has lived for the past three decades in Indonesia. Nominated for Pushcart Prizes in fiction and poetry, his work is widely published in journals and anthologies. His newest chapbook of poems, American Daguerreotypes, is available for Kindle. His essays have appeared in The New York Daily News and The New York Times. Penha edits The New Verse News, an online journal of current-events poetry. Twitter: @JamesPenha. James recommends the Ali Forney Center.


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Thursday, July 28, 2022 - 08:12