When I’d spent enough time in the bosom of humanity, I decamped to Lemo-Lemo Beach. Rocky track. Palm trees, bamboo shacks, white sand.
I arrived at sunset, the beach deserted and drenched in colours from the west. Two little girls ran around a handful of wooden buildings set back from the beach, on stilts. They giggled and hid when I looked that way. A man on a scooter came and picked them up as dusk fell.
I found a spot firm enough to park the bike, overlooking the high tide line, and stripped off my riding gear: gloves jacket boots jeans knee guards. Balance the boots upside down, one on the right foot peg, one between bars and tank, both out of reach of creepy crawlies. Who knows what creepy crawlies Indonesia really has, but I’m Australian and these habits die hard.
Sea and sky were liquid gold by the time I walked into the shallows. I sank under the water and let the warm sea push the air out of my lungs, the weight of the water like a hand on my forehead.
* * *
I set up my tent on that beach and stay for four days. After a while, word gets around; children show up and watch me cooking rolled oats for breakfast. Intently, silently.
Some of the older people come mid-morning to talk with me until I run out of Indonesian vocabulary and then they stay and talk to one another. Flocks of teenagers descend at sunset for selfies.
That’s how you flirt with boys in Indonesia – you go riding places on scooters at sunset, in groups, take selfies; you watch the boys flex their muscles at they play ballgames, shirtless on the sand. There’s a certain innocence to it; a tableau that both charms me and makes me feel infinitely old.
During the midday period though – when the sun is the strongest – I have white sands to myself. The water turns unrealistic shades of blues and greens. I read under the palm fronds, then swim in the shallows.
Despite all the sunscreen, my skin burns and freckles and browns: a contrasting line appears midcalf, where my underlayers end, that will stay for years.
* * *
At night, I sit on the beach in tranquility. The village is a mile away, tucked back from the weather. Until the night the fishermen come.
It’s after dark and they head unerringly for the shack beside my camp. My fire has burned down. I hear them approach on a motorcycle. Three of them.
Closer, closer: now, right here.
I had been drinking tea and reading by the light of my headlamp, but now I switch it off, catch my breath. Motionless, in the darkness.
These men – they are unknown to me. It is dark and I am acutely aware that this is not a time, a setting, when I will come across in a position of strength. Right now, I am only the reflecting whites of my eyes, scared in the dark, unavoidably female.
I fold my fingers around the hilt of my stabby knife. Don’t breathe, don’t breathe.
The men are so close.
I retreat further, up the beach, behind a shield of palm fronds.
They have lights, and I see the moment when they spot my tent. They also see the motorbike, but at first they’re confused, because it’s under a black cover. They don’t know what they’re looking at.
I’m melting backwards, still trying not to breathe, as I watch them shine a light into my tent. Empty. They’re talking to each other, surprised, curious, laughing.
I stay back, crawling into the deepest shadows I can find. There is a cloud across the moon and the starlight is weak. I’m so glad.
They’re probably nice. They’re probably lovely people. But my palms are sweating. Traveling alone, I have learnt that it matters how you present yourself. Do I look unpredictable and powerful and crazy? If so, good. But I know that tonight, the moment these guys shine their light on my face on this deserted beach, I will not look like any of those things. I will look alone. Female. I will, maybe, look like a victim.
My hands are sweating on my knife.
The fishermen pull a small wooden boat down the beach and set about their work. I am waiting desperately for them to leave. Ten, fifteen minutes pass.
What are they doing?
Sitting in the bamboo shack. Talking, laughing, on their phones.
Please leave, please leave.
The suspense is like a bad joke. I think about what it would be like to not be alone. I think of my ex-boyfriend, who promised me this briefly – the security of two, not one. Crouching, in the dark, in the interminable minutes, I message him. DEAR READER, I MESSAGE HIM. I watch the strange men on the beach. I sweat on the hilt of my knife. But – what – hang on, what the fuck? Who did I just message again? The man who finally made me feel more vulnerable and alone than any strange men on any dark beach? Reader, I block his number. In the dark there, under the palm fronds, I block his ass forever.
I may be scared, I may be weak, but damn, even my insanity has its limits.
Finally, I think my prayers are answered. Two of the men get into the wooden boat, push off into the sea. They fade towards the horizon, shining a light inot the water to attract fish.
But there were three of them. Where is the third one? Where—
Oh holy shit. There he is. Shining a light in my face.
“What you doing here?” he asks.
I shrug. squint against the light. It’s pretty obvious what I’m doing here.
“Are you alone?” he says.
Again, I don’t answer him. What the hell can I say? I could lie and say that I’m here with my boyfriend but they know that’s not true. They’ve been looking around here for a little while.
I look away from the light again.
He laughs. Is it a good laugh, or a bad laugh? Is the kind of amusement that stems from knowing you’ve got someone else in a vulnerable position?
I force myself to look back at him. He’s shining the light in my eyes but still I look back.
A moment passes.
Suddenly he drops the light from my eyes, shrugs, starts walking up the beach.
We’ve played out the scene.
* * *
Hours later, past 1am, I hear the others come back from fishing. I’m lying in my tent. My knife is there, but I’m not moving. They already know I’m here.
The sounds get closer, fade away. They ride away on the motorbike. Just another night of fishing, and the amusing diversion of the lone white girl on the beach.
* * *
I hate that I feel this vulnerability.
I hate that maybe I should.
I hate that the world is this way.
But I know, also, that staying home and making a sandwich won’t keep me safe either. I know that the fear will be waiting for me when I sleep, no matter how much I lock myself away from the world. And if I have to live with the fear anyway, then I’ll live on my own terms.