Jakarta, twelve years earlier
Running: It had been his earliest memory. Running from someone. Running toward something yet unknown. Running past the smiling Nemin, with the curved, blue laundry basket always at one graceful hip and her youngest trailing close by the other; past Sumarti, polishing, always polishing the black SUV with the company plates; past Gde, who clipped the hardy, nubby grasses and had the equally unenviable task each morning of gathering the fragrant frangipani blossoms that carpeted the lawn overnight as if by magic, their pink-tinged petals seemingly touched by a fairy’s kiss.
Like all budding athletes, he had his rituals to observe before bounding out the door to the city beyond and freedom. The New York Yankees cap—symbol of a team and a city he had never seen but that loomed large in his dreams—tilted slightly to the left, just so. The yellow-green shirt—a salute to one of Jakarta’s greatest baseball teams—worn loose over the long, skinny navy denim shorts, matched by the yellow-green socks and navy sneakers, also just so. But most important of all, the moment of tribute to the blue, white and yellow painting of his mother and her two equally fair-haired sisters, his aunts, who lived in America and whom distance had made all the more intriguing.
His family called it The Three Graces though the figures were less antique than Victorian, grouped as they were after those in John Singer Sargent’s The Wyndham Sisters. Quinnie knew nothing of Sargent and the Sisters, and his knowledge of the ancient Greeks did not extend beyond his mythology class. But something compelled him to touch the thickly applied, swirling paints just above the red signature of the artist, John Kalen, in the lower right-hand corner—furtively, of course, lest his mother’s wrath pour down on him.
Then and only then could he singsong “Good day, Gde,” making a rhyming game of his name as he scooped up a frangipani blossom and, inhaling its sweet scent, skip past the heavy metal gate, past the guards and the baying Dobermans, laughing, always laughing.
“Good day, young master,” Gde would say. “You be in big trouble.”
And in truth, he would be, but Quinnie didn’t care. He had escaped a Yankee Doodle oasis of tennis courts, swimming pools, barking dogs, barbed-wire fences, and barbecues to another world, the real one where marble mansions, sleek hotels and onion-domed mosques collided with the tin shanties that lined brackish canals. There were no sidewalks save for the raised lanes along which lumbered battered buses, fat and red, so he dodged the ubiquitous Blue Bird taxis and the mopeds and motorcycles on which modern young women in too-short skirts clung to the waists of their boyfriends. Years later, whenever reporters asked how he became a running quarterback, he would flash on his twelve-year-old self darting through traffic as if it were an obstacle course and grin at the memory.
At the Youth Monument—which to Quinnie resembled Prometheus in his mythology textbook, holding a flaming disc aloft—he would pause reverently, admiring what he imagined to be the Titan who defied the gods to bring fire to Earth and thus free mankind. He felt a ripple of pleasure as he thought of him and his powerful physique. But on the brink of young manhood, he understood that such thoughts and feelings were best kept to himself—especially as his mother, Sydney, and a reluctant Nemin, would sometimes affront his newfound manly dignity by checking him for ticks and ensuring that he was scrubbing himself in the big, claw-foot tub, while he, ashamed, would keep his knees pressed tightly up against his chest.
“Filthy, always filthy,” his mother would say as she’d grab the loofah to scour his still-tender flesh, “after these excursions to God knows where. I swear you’ll be the death of me.”
He’d be in for quite the scrub-a-dub-dub today, he thought, as he wandered through the courtyard of the National Museum, with its elephant gods and curvaceous goddesses. He felt enormous pride in its Doric columns as well as sympathy as the museum struggled to remodel and become something greater than itself.
In a sense, he was like the museum—not yet what he would be, still becoming—and that was exciting enough.
Today, he decided to forgo communing with the warrior gods and serene goddesses for a different kind of temple—one to sport rather than art. He pressed his nose against the chain-link fence surrounding a baseball diamond as he watched teenage boys in yellow, green, and white uniforms, the ball arcing in the air from the pitcher’s hand to the catcher’s glove or back from the hitter’s bat, setting the fielders in motion. The muffled, hollow sound of the ball hitting the catcher’s glove alternated with the crisp c***k of bat on ball. Quinnie was slender enough to slip through a break in the fence and take a seat behind home plate. As he watched the players veer continually between stillness and motion, he remembered the book that his oldest aunt—Selena, called Lena—had sent him, describing baseball as “America’s pastime.” That made him chuckle. Football, he knew from scouring the Internet, was really America’s game, whereas baseball, as if to compensate for being eclipsed in its own country, belonged to the world and to youths like these who gathered in the early morning mist to play for a few hours before succumbing to the heat of the day.
He longed to join them now and risked much to watch them with no other thought than someday they would let him pitch. It was one of the things he really loved to do—throw a ball straight, curving, or spiraling. It was his gift—that and running.
The players must’ve sensed as much, for he heard them talk about letting him play in the bottom of the inning. It was highly irregular. But Quinnie didn’t care, leaping from the bench.
“What position?” asked the pitcher, who also seemed to be the team manager.
“Yours but I also play a little infield,” Quinnie responded in perfect Bahasa. He could see the others were unsure of what to make of him, he who had their coloring and some of their features but whose emerald eyes and height—at twelve, he was already as tall as they were—suggested he was a foreigner. His command of their language did nothing to ease their uncertainty even as it garnered their admiration.
The pitcher motioned him to the mound. Though the batter was a few years older and heavier than he, Quinnie refused to be intimidated. “Have courage,” Aunt Lena would write in closing her regular emails to him, “and life will meet you halfway.” He visualized the prism of the strike zone, extending from the slightly crouching hitter’s chest to his knees, kicked his right leg high in the air and, reaching back, propelled the ball forward with his left arm, sending it over the heart of the plate as his right leg drove to the ground in a lunge.
Clearly, this was not what the team had expected. They had expected to humor a mascot, a pet, who would follow them like one of the mangy dogs that roamed the city. The players’ coolly indulgent demeanor told Quinnie that they doubted he could do it again.
So again, he squinted toward the plate, imagining the strike zone and the sweet spot he would try to hit, but this time he took a little something off his fastball and it broke sharply.
Now the players leaned in, putting their collective weight behind the hitter, who stepped out of the batter’s box, took a few swings, and stepped back in, glaring at Quinnie as he c****d his bat. Quinnie’s heart was beating so fast and so loud that he heard nothing else.
This is what I long for, he thought. This is what I belong to.
He reared back. The hitter never saw it.
It was the same with the next batter and the next. Nine pitches, nine strikes. Three men up and three men down.
“From now on you play for us,” the pitcher said.
Quinnie was at once elated and deflated.
“But I have school,” he said. “I go to one of the schools President Barack Obama attended.”
“Ah,” the first baseman said. “Oh bah mah.”
He pronounced the name with equal emphasis on all the syllables, reflecting the uninflected aspect of the Bahasa language and the awe in which the Indonesian people held Barack Obama—a man they saw as a native son, one of their own who made good on the stage of the far, wide world. To invoke his name was to utter a password that provided entry to a magical kingdom.
“He’s like a god to these people,” he remembered an executive saying at one of the many tedious cocktail parties his mother gave, through which he bobbed and weaved like a player in a video game, until Nemin corralled him for dinner in the kitchen with her youngest, Adhi.
“One party is as fatuous as the next,” he said to the uncomprehending Adhi, “fatuous” being one of his new vocabulary words.
The executive—who worked for the same multinational company as Quinnie’s mother—had not meant what he said as a compliment but as a way of devaluing both the president and the people Quinnie had grown up among.
But Quinnie admired the president, for like Barack Obama, he felt he belonged to two worlds. Not for him the expat life lived behind the barbed wire of the American compound. When his mother and stepfather ventured out, it was always to one of the five-star hotels like the Shangri-La or the Four Seasons for Saturday night dancing or Sunday brunch. Quinnie had studied the Indonesian culture, worked in the rice paddies as part of a school project, and persuaded Sydney—he always called her “Sydney” never “Mom”—to let him visit the Indonesian friends he made at school, which wasn’t too hard since more often than not she was glad to be rid of him.
Except when his absence interfered with her plans—as it clearly did now.
Quinnie’s joy in being accepted by the team evaporated when he saw Sumarti waiting by the fence, arms folded across his body. The brotherly familiarity he had earned among the players vanished in an instant as they realized by Sumarti’s stance and the luxury car that their rookie was a figure of some importance.
Still, the pitcher-manager said, “You can play with us anytime,” tossing him the ball with which he had struck out the side. He fingered it as if it were a talisman as he sat miserably in the middle of the backseat of the SUV, Sumarti eyeing him in the rearview mirror with a mixture of sympathy and disapproval that only deepened his unhappiness. Not even the sight of Prometheus heartened him. He had braved the wrath of the gods to light the world and paid a terrible price for being true to himself. Quinnie knew he would not be half so courageous facing his Hera-mother and Zeus-stepfather.
He tried to slip into the house as Nemin bustled about with flower arrangements, trailed by Adhi and Gaucho, the black rescue Lab whose abandonment issues were such that he was always following close behind the family or sitting on their feet, earning his mother’s icy rage. Both Quinnie and Gaucho had a timeshare on the doghouse.
“It doesn’t in the least surprise me that you should be out gallivanting on this, one of the most important days of my life,” Sydney said the moment he entered the house. “With so much still to be done for the New Year’s Eve party tonight—the first time my boss will be here—and I have to send Sumarti after you. It’s just typical of your willful selfishness that you would waste my time and distract me when you know how much this means to me.”
She grabbed him roughly by the arm, took him into his bedroom, and closed the door.
“You listen to me now. You do anything to f**k up this party tonight and so help me God I will come down on you like a tsunami, do you hear me? You will comport yourself among my guests like a perfect little gentleman and, after a respectable length of time, you will make your excuses and come back to this room, where you will remain for the rest of the evening. Do you hear me?”
“Ooh, let go. You’re hurting me,” he said.
“If I tell your father, he’ll do much worse.”
His father: She always called his stepfather, Chandler Parquist, his father when everyone knew his real father had been someone else—someone kinder, handsomer and darker but without the money and connections of his stepfather. Or so he imagined. It was not the kind of thing, he understood, you discussed.