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My sister had attempted suicide twice in her short life. When I called her the day before yesterday, I got her voicemail, and she hadn’t called back. Normally––if there ever was a “normally” with Lori––she returned my calls within a couple hours. I called again before I went to bed last night and got voicemail again.
The morning sun shone soft light through the flickering window and warmed the studio apartment, heralding another beautiful Southern California day. I had lain awake much of the night and was chock full of anxiety. My love for Lori was visceral, like we were joined at the chest. I hadn’t heard from her for a couple weeks. Although she was four years older than me and had been my protector and idol during my childhood, as her emotional stability floundered, our relationship had flip-flopped. I was now her support and protector.
It was too early to call again; Lori was late to bed and late to rise. I slumped down at the little, round, yellow table in the corner, the same one I wrote at, to drink my customary blueberry smoothie. My wife Jessica, dressed in her short, pale blue nightgown that showed off her long, sexy legs, and eating a piece of whole wheat toast, shuffled over and kissed my cheek.
“Morning,” I said.
“I take it you haven’t heard from Lori.”
“No. I’m worried.”
“Well,” Jessica said, “maybe she’s finally gotten a life. I’m sure she’ll call soon, honey.”
I called three times later that day with the same result––the flat echo of her voicemail message. At the table the next day, my notebook in front of me, I continued to stare at the same page of the short story I had been writing and that I hoped to sell to pay next month’s rent. I got up from the table, turned on the TV and flopped down on the orange futon that doubled as our couch and bed, hoping that the news of the last days of the 2000 presidential campaign would distract me. It didn’t, so I turned it off. Alone with my thoughts––Jessica was busking on the Santa Monica Pier that afternoon––I thought about flying to San Francisco, where Lori had been living for several years. I knew it wouldn’t accomplish anything if she weren’t home. Also, I didn’t know any of her friends or even her landlord’s name. I couldn’t think of anything else to do.
I feared the worst. Lori was twenty-nine and had suffered from depression since her teenage years. When she was eighteen and I was fourteen, we lived with our grandmother. Grandma and I came home from the grocery store one afternoon. I was the first in the door and, hearing sobs coming from the bathroom, I pulled open the door. Lori lay on the floor bleeding from her wrists. She had to have known that Grandma and I were likely to find her before she died; it was an obvious cry for help, not a serious suicide attempt. Through the rest of her teens and early twenties she had been in and out of therapy, mental hospitals and drug rehab facilities, and had barely survived another suicide attempt. The phone on the table next to the futon rang just as Jessica came in the front door. I sat frozen through the second ring.
“Are you going to get the phone?” asked Jessica as she leaned her guitar against the wall.
When I picked up the phone and held it gingerly against my ear, I heard my voice crack. “Hello.”
“Brad Wilson, please.”
“Brad, this is Gabriel. I’m your sister’s landlord. I’ve been trying to find your phone number since yesterday. I’m sorry to tell you that Lori’s in the hospital.”
“Oh, shit,” I said. “What happened?”
“Is it Lori?” asked Jessica. I nodded.
“I walked by her window yesterday morning,” said Gabriel, “and saw her lying on the floor. She looked sick, so I got my key and went in. She wouldn’t wake up, so I called the paramedics. All I can tell you is there was an empty pill bottle on the floor that the paramedics took with them.”
“Is she going to be okay?”
“They won’t tell me anything. All I know is she’s in intensive care.”
After I hung up, I was trembling with fear. I wasn’t ready to accept my anger at her yet, but it was there, seething below the surface. I told Jessica what Gabriel had said.
“Maybe it’d be better if she succeeded this time,” she said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that, Brad.”
“Yes, you did,” I said. Even I wondered if she was right. I had been responding to Lori’s crises and grieving for her for ten years. I wondered if I always would. I knew I had to go see her, but I didn’t know what to do to help her. I didn’t know what she wanted out of life. Hell, I wasn’t sure what I wanted. What would make me happy and fulfilled? I didn’t know, and I certainly had no clue about what would make Lori happy and fulfilled.
“I’m flying up there, Jessica. I’ll keep in touch.”
“Brad, we can’t afford a flight to San Francisco. You can’t run to Lori every time she has a crisis. Why does it always have to be you? She has a mother, father and half-brother, and she always has a boyfriend. She’s not a child anymore; she’s twenty-nine-years old.”
“She’s my sister, Jessica. She’s already tried to kill herself twice. I’m scared.”
“I know. I know. It’s just….Well, I have a hard week coming up with finals at school and… Never mind. Nothing I say matters. All you care about is your writing and your sister.”
“That’s not true, Jess, but how would I feel if—?”
“Go, just go,” she said. “I’ll deal with my problems. I never get any support from you anyway.” She fell on the futon, put her hands over her face and sobbed.
I couldn’t deal with Jessica right then. Knowing that Southwest had frequent flights to San Francisco, I threw a few clothes and toiletries in a duffel bag and headed for the airport.
It was a new year: January 5, 2002. We had already invaded Afghanistan and were driving out the Taliban, while edging relentlessly toward invading Iraq. Our standing in the world was low and declining; as I settled into the broad, cushy first class seat next to Dave for the twelve-hour flight to Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar, I wondered how we would be received. Once the captain had turned off the seat belt sign, I got up, went to the restroom and did two lines.
“What can I get you to drink?” asked the flight attendant.
“Two tequilas,” Dave and I said simultaneously.
“Okay,” she said. “With ice?”
We both said, “No, thank you.”
“Coming right up.” Two minutes later, she handed us our drinks.
Dave chattered on and on. I was only half listening when he said, “I hope we can bring back some samples from this guy. I think we can get a couple briefcases with false bottoms.”
I didn’t say anything. I was afraid to say something that would make Dave angry, but the idea of us smuggling drugs back to the U.S. made me wish I hadn’t agreed to this trip. But what could I do? I would have been out on the street if Dave hadn’t loaned me the money to cover those bad checks. Nine months before I’d had $85,000 in my bank account.
I was doing my best to numb my brain with alcohol and coke, but it wasn’t working. I was nervous about flying with a drug dealer and possible international drug smuggler. I didn’t like the way I was living, though I wasn’t fully aware of my feelings then. I just had a constant, uneasy feeling. My life seemed glamorous to people who claimed to be my friends, but at some level I knew they weren’t real friends. I was using alcohol and drugs to keep me from understanding that either I wasn’t leading an authentic life; or if this was the authentic me, I had better think about a change soon. These feelings were bubbling close to the surface—only the alcohol and drugs kept them from reaching it.
At the airport in Yangon we quickly went through immigration. We got our luggage and followed the signs for customs, up a hallway with unadorned dirty, white walls, through a gray steel door to the right and into a gigantic room with concrete floors and long lines.
“I wonder what the problem is,” said Dave. “You wouldn’t think there would be that many people arriving in Yangon.”
We joined one of the lines. “I don’t know,” I said. I could barely see to the head of each line. Then I saw what was holding us up. They were hand-searching luggage.
“Oh, shit,” I said, panic suddenly rising in my gut.
“What’s the matter?” asked Dave.
“Look at what they’re doing at the front of the line.”
Dave squinted and looked. “Fuck.”
“What are we going to do?” I asked.
“Let’s get out of line, and we’ll find a trash can and throw out the stuff we have,” Dave said.
“There’s a soldier standing at the end of the line. You think he’ll let us?”
“Why wouldn’t he?”
“I don’t know. Let’s try it. We don’t have many choices.”
We pushed our way back through the line, dragging our luggage behind us. The soldier looked about fourteen, but he cradled an automatic weapon in his right hand, held in place by his left arm, the barrel pointing at our feet as we approached him.
“Where are you going?” the soldier asked in broken English.
“We need a bathroom,” said Dave.
Brilliant flashed through my mind, but the cop said, “No bathrooms here. You must wait until you finish customs. Bathroom is in main terminal.”
“But my friend here is ill. He needs a bathroom right away,” said Dave.
“I am sorry, you cannot go there. I can put you in the queue where you were. It will not take long. Then you use the bathroom or go to First Aid around the corner to your right,” he said, pointing.
“Can we go back there?” asked Dave, pointing to immigration. “There’s a bench we can sit on.” And, what Dave didn’t say—trash cans.
“No, I’m sorry. I cannot let you return to immigration. You must go to customs now. I will help you to return to where you were in queue.”
We followed the soldier back through the line and pointed to where we were when we got there.
“Thank you,” I said to him. Dave smirked. We waited. The line wasn’t moving very quickly, but I could see the front of the line a little better as we advanced. An older man and a young woman stood behind the tables. They let some people pass to the window where they handed in their customs forms and were allowed out. They were manually searching the luggage of others. I couldn’t discern any pattern to which people they searched. Terror surged from my head to my stomach. My legs started shaking. My mind raced from the three little bottles of cocaine in the bottom of my suitcase to the article I had read in the paper about Americans with twenty-year sentences for possession of illegal drugs, suffering from lack of food, cold and even torture in foreign prisons. I didn’t know what prisons in Myanmar were like, but I could guess.
“Should we separate?” I asked. “I could let somebody go ahead of me. Would that give us a better chance, do you think?”
“No,” said Dave, “they’re only searching about every third or fourth person. If we stay together there is a better chance that one of us or even both of us will get through.”
Dave was acting calm, but the sweat patches under his arms gave away his tension. We watched and waited.
The searches still appeared random. My stomach tightened into a knot, and my legs were shaking. If I were to have a chance of getting out of this, I had to calm down and not act so nervous. It suddenly occurred to me they were not searching anyone’s person.
“Look,” I said to Dave, “they’re not searching anyone’s person. I’m going to put mine in my pocket.”
“I wish I could,” said Dave. “I have too much to fit in my pocket. I wanted to share with whoever we might meet here.”
The line moved forward. This was about my last chance to get into my suitcase without being noticed. I set it flat on the ground, unzipped it and, bending over, felt around until I felt the little bottles. I grabbed two in one hand and one in the other and stuffed them into my pants pockets as covertly as possible.
As we moved closer to the tables, I could see that the male officer searched more thoroughly than the female one. I went first and made it to the front of the line feeling like I looked calm on the outside. I said a silent prayer that the woman would finish first so she, not the man, would search my bag. She appeared to be in her mid-twenties, short, and kind looking. Besides, the man looked mean, especially compared to the woman.
Just then, the woman closed the suitcase she was searching and motioned for me to step up to the table. She smiled at me, and I smiled back, hoping it wasn’t a nervous looking smile.
She said in perfect English, “Good morning, sir. Open your bags, please.” Somehow, I opened the bags without my hands shaking. She couldn’t see the knot in my stomach. Suddenly, I had the panicked recollection that I had another bottle in my suitcase. I had packed four bottles. She looked through my briefcase first, item by item, and peered into the various pockets. When she turned to my suitcase, I closed my briefcase. Looking in my suitcase, she saw my toiletries bag first. She unzipped it and looked at and handled each item before zipping it up. Then she lifted every piece of clothing, even inspecting my shoes, putting her hand inside each shoe up to the toe. A pair of socks lay on top of where I thought the fourth bottle was. She looked at the socks, but did not lift them.
“Thank you,” she said. “You may close your suitcase and proceed to the counter.”
I looked to my right. The man had stopped Dave. “Open your luggage,” I heard him say.
I hurried to the counter and handed the man behind it my customs card. He stamped it and motioned for me to go. I looked back. A large plastic bag was sitting on the table between the man and Dave. Two more soldiers approached. I hurried out the door and into the main terminal, pulling my suitcase behind me. Just as I got to the main door out of the terminal, I heard the pounding of footsteps behind me.
“Mr. Wilson?” a male voice yelled in broken English. I opened the door, tension gripping my body. I pulled my suitcase through the door and felt my arms being grabbed from behind. “Are you Bradley Wilson, sir?” a short young man in military uniform asked as he let go of my arm and stepped in front of me. In a split second I weighed whether to admit my identity, but they would ask for my passport and catch me in a lie.
“Yes,” I said, with what I hoped was a puzzled look on my face.
An older, heavier man in a similar uniform walked up and stood beside me, holding my arm.
“Passport, please,” the short, fat man said. I reached in my pocket and handed him my passport. He opened it to the main page with my photo, looked up at me, and asked, “Were you traveling with David Borelli?”
“No,” I said.
“Come with us.” How did they know? I wondered. Had Dave ratted me out? I couldn’t believe he would do that.
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A Short Story by Boyd Lemon
(from his book: Unexpected Love and Other Stories)
Mark and Lauren sat at a table at L’Espalier waiting for their entree. Lauren, Mark’s yoga instructor, wasn’t very chatty. She rarely made small talk. Mark liked that.
After a few moments of silence, Mark asked her what she did besides teach yoga. “My real love is art, “ she said. I paint, but my passion is writing–poetry and fiction.” She said she’d started writing when she was nine, after her mother died.
“Sorry about your mother,” said Mark. “Did your father remarry?”
“Yes, unfortunately,” she said. “I didn’t get along with my stepmother. I ran away and lived with my grandmother. I owe her a lot. So…I’m really blabbering, aren’t I?”
“Oh, not at all. I’m interested,” said Mark. “Go on.”
Lauren, totally immersed in the conversation, looked straight at Mark, not distracted by the commotion of patrons and servers. “Well, to round out the story, I put myself through U. Mass, Boston, English lit major, and I’ve been writing and waitressing ever since. I started teaching yoga three years ago.”
“If you don’t mind my asking,” said Mark. How old are you?”
“I don’t mind. I’m 30. I can’t believe I’m that old. How old are you?”
“I’m 50,” Mark said. Lauren nodded.
When their entrees came, Lauren savored every bite of her salmon, as if it were a flavor she had never tasted before.
Mark, chowing down his lamb shank, was a little nervous. He had given Lauren a short story he’d written. She had critiqued it, and agreed to read it again. The revised manuscript sat on the table to Lauren’s right. She picked it up.
“It’s better,” she said, “but the ending is too melodramatic. Why not end it here?” She drew a line on the third page from the end. “I’ve marked passages that don’t ring true. I hope you keep working on it.”
They had met at the restaurant at her request, so Mark was surprised when she asked him to take her home.
He parked the car in front of her house. “Would you like to come in?” She asked.
“Sure,” he said.
She unlocked the door and they stepped into an entryway with ocean blue walls and burnt orange ceramic tile. A rot iron chandelier bathed the area in pale yellow light. Mark looked around as Lauren stepped into the living room.
“This is my roommate Joe’s condo. He decorated,” said Lauren.
The living room’s color scheme was green. It ended in floor to ceiling windows with a panoramic view of Boston Harbor. “Wow, that’s quite a view,” said Mark. He wondered how a part time yoga instructor and waitress afforded to live there. She must sleep with her roommate, he thought.
“Yeah, I love it,” she said. “Sit wherever you like.” She laughed. “I sound like a waitress. Can I get you a cognac?”
“Yes, thank you,” he said, as he sat on the black leather couch.
Lauren walked over to a wet bar in the corner and poured drinks in brandy snifters. She handed Mark his and sat next to him, tucking her leg underneath. She took her cell phone out of her skirt pocket. “Excuse me. I need to listen to a voice mail message. Grandma calls every night before she goes to bed, so I know she’s okay. She’s 86 now, and she’s in good health for her age, but you never know.” She listened for a moment and then closed her cell phone.
“Is everything all right?” Asked Mark.
“Oh, yeah. She’s fine.” Lauren glanced over at a closed door next to a built-in floor to ceiling bookcase. Her blue eyes, darker in the dim light, darted around the room, as if she was waiting for something to happen. She smiled and looked straight at Mark. Her left eye twitched, and she scooted a little closer. Their knees touched. She rested her hand on his knee. Her scooped neck blouse revealed cleavage, as she leaned forward and pulled her leg out from under her. Her long natural blond hair fell across the right side of her face. Mark smiled back at her and put his hand on top of hers. He touched her cheek and hesitated. She smiled. He kissed her. She pushed her tongue between his lips, but a moment later pulled back.
“Mark, I feel I have to show you something. You’re too nice a guy to deceive, and I’m attracted to you–I’ve always been attracted to older men–but I don’t want you to think I’m somebody I’m not. She got up and led him toward the closed door. She opened it, grabbed his hand and pulled him behind her. At the back of the small room stood an antique, glass top table–a pile of white powder in the center. Mark’s eyes widened, but he didn’t make a sound.
“Joe and I have a little business here. I don’t have to tell you what that is, do I?” She asked.
“No,” he said softly. “I assume it’s cocaine.”
She asked the question Mark wanted to ask. “Why do I sell cocaine? Well, my grandmother has no means of support, and she gave up ten years of her life for me. I want to go to graduate school. I want to be a writer; that means everything to me. Teaching yoga and waitressing part time don’t cut it.”
Mark was stunned. He stood staring at the cocaine, then turned to Lauren, not knowing what to say. Though he had never known one, he pictured a drug dealer as a shadowy, greasy man with his own pitiful drug addiction, not a beautiful, creative young woman with everything going for her.
“Let’s go back to the living room Mark, she said, turning toward the door. “…Oh, unless you want some coke.”
“No, thanks,” he said.
Mark sat down next to Lauren and took a sip of Cognac. “Just so you know, I don’t use the stuff,” she said. “It’s strictly a business.” They looked at each other.
“Well, I don’t know what to say. I‘m not really judging you, but I have to admit I am shocked.”
“I understand, and I’ll understand if you want to leave.” She looked down at her lap.
Mark looked at her. Damn, she’s beautiful, and smart, he thought. She seems to like me. Except for this one not so little problem, I’d love to pursue a relationship. “I have to say, Lauren, I’m not comfortable here, but I like you. I’d like to get to know you better. Why don’t we hang out at my place in the future?”
“I like you too, Mark. We could do that.”
“How about Tuesday after my yoga lesson? We could take a walk along the Charles, and then I’ll cook dinner for you,” he said.
“That sounds wonderful Mark. I’m so glad you understand.”
“I don’t know if I do understand,” said Mark, “but I don’t judge you. I have no right to criticize the way you run your life. God knows I’ve made some bad decisions running mine.”
“Okay, it’s settled. I’ll see you Tuesday,” Lauren said.
Dating a drug dealer is out of my comfort zone, Mark thought, as he drove home. But, as long as she doesn’t use drugs, and they stay away from the place where she sells them, there doesn’t seem to be any harm. Lauren’s really talented, he thought. She could help me; and besides, she’s hot. He felt ready to escape the solitude that engulfed him since he had moved to Cambridge.
He hadn’t dated much since his marriage disintegrated three years before. The hedge fund he had started when he left his high-pressure job at Merrill Lynch in New York was successful immediately, and the hours were less. But he didn’t just sit around or play golf. He took classes in creative writing and started writing fiction.
Mark was happy and relaxed, as they cleared the table Tuesday night. “Come over to the couch, and we’ll finish the wine,” said Mark.
He pulled Lauren to him and kissed her. Eventually, he caressed her breast over her yoga top. “Sorry to interrupt the lovely, romantic ambiance,” he said. “I really want to undress you, but I don’t have a clue how to get this yoga outfit off.”
Lauren laughed and kissed him. “How about if we go in the bedroom? I’ll undress you first, and then I’ll show you how to get a yoga outfit off.”
After they made love, Lauren pulled up the covers and sighed. “Now I know why I like older men,” she said. “That was awesome.”
“You were terrific too. Thank you.” He meant it.
Lauren stayed the night. It became a regular thing after his yoga lessons. One night they wrote and read aloud to each other. That became a regular thing too. Soon she was coming over Sunday afternoons. They took a long walk along Massachusetts Avenue past Harvard Square. One Sunday they cooked seared yellow fin tuna, garlic mashed potatoes and asparagus, despite Lauren’s claim that she didn’t know how to cook. Another Sunday afternoon, they jogged to the river and back. She asked if he minded her running on ahead. “Not at all,” he said. He was pleased he was almost able to keep up with her. He felt younger, more alive.
He fell in love. In bed, after they disengaged, he told her so. She looked away and then back at him. “I’m flattered, but I don’t fall in love that quickly, probably because I’ve been burned too many times. The last man I loved was sleeping with my uncle. People aren’t always what they seem.”
One Saturday night Mark awoke to the sound of the tune on his cell phone. As he staggered to the dresser and picked it up, the clock said 3:32 AM. The screen on the cell phone flashed “RESTRICTED.” Better answer it–in case, he thought.
“Mark, this is Lauren. I need your help.” Her voice cracked. “I’m in jail. Please come and bail me out. They arrested Joe too, or I woulda called him. It’s his fault, the asshole. It’s awful here. They strip-searched me, and everything. I feel like I’m in a bad movie. Only this is real. Please help me.”
Mark called a bail bondsman and arranged to meet him at the jail. Three hours later he drove Lauren to his apartment. He made coffee. Lauren slumped on the couch.
“I can’t believe this happened,” she said. “We were so careful, and then Joe blew it. We always said we would only sell to people we knew. Joe broke that rule, only once as far as I know, and that was it. The woman with the buyer was a cop.”
“I’m really sorry,” said Mark.
“I don’t know what to do now. How can I keep supporting my grandmother?” How can I pay for graduate school?” She sobbed. Mark sat down next to her on the couch and hugged her until she stopped.
“You can get student loans to pay for graduate school. You can live with me rent free and teach yoga to pay for your other expenses. As for your grandmother, Lauren, it’s not your responsibility to support her. You shouldn’t throw away your life selling drugs to do it. She wouldn’t want you to. I bet she doesn’t know you’re selling drugs to support her, does she?
“No, of course not.”
Lauren began to sob again. When she stopped, she stood up and walked to the kitchen and back. “Mark, this isn’t the first time. I was convicted three years ago for possession and got probation. I also have a prostitution conviction. I used to be an escort for wealthy, older men. I’m screwed.”
Mark couldn’t think of anything to say. He stared at the wall. After Lauren went home, he walked down to the Charles River Esplanade, where he and Lauren had jogged. She was trouble, he thought. But he enjoyed being with her so much. He had never had such deep conversations with anyone. He had never felt so vibrant, so eager for the next day. Anyway, he couldn’t abandon her now.
Lauren moved in with Mark. Except for her phone calls and meetings with her attorney, their normal lives went on. She was as passionate about her writing and his, and it was contagious. They didn’t talk about the future. One day Lauren bounded in the door, smiling. “The prosecutor’s going to accept a plea to possession. My attorney says they’re worried about the entrapment defense.”
“That is good news,” said Mark.
“Yeah, the bad news is that because of my prior, I’ll still go to prison, probably for a year. With good behavior, that means about eight months.”
“I’m sorry, sweetie,” said Mark, hugging her, “but it could be worse.” He could feel her tears on his cheek.
“I know. I know,” she said.
When Mark visited her in prison the first time, as their time to talk had almost expired, she said, “Mark, the only thing that keeps me going in here is dreaming about getting out and going back to you. Every night before I go to sleep I picture us in bed together in the condo. I love you.”
“I love you too, Lauren,” he said.
Driving home Mark felt tense. He knew he had to make a decision about Lauren, and in fairness to her, soon. He needed the peace of a decision too. He felt whole and alive with her. But…it wasn’t just the cocaine. She sold her body too. What else would she do to get what she wanted? She didn’t learn from previous crimes. Why should he assume that she had from this? He couldn’t live with such risk and turmoil. Was she trouble, or was she just flawed, like everybody else? How flawed is too flawed?
The next time he visited her he pulled up the chair and waited for her to walk through the cream colored door on the other side of the partition. The guard stood next to the chair she would sit in and stared through him. When she saw Mark, she smiled with her whole face, wrinkling her temples. He didn’t smile. He knew it would look fake.
“Hi, sweetheart,” she said. “…Is something wrong?”
“Yes,” he said. “It’s best if we deal with what I have to say right away. I fell in love with you Lauren, but when I did, I fell in love with somebody I didn’t know. You have many wonderful qualities, and you’ve been very good to me. I’ll always love you for that. But I can’t deal with what you do that isn’t so wonderful. I can’t handle it. So… I’m saying good-bye now. I won’t be seeing you anymore. I…I’m sorry.” Tears filled Mark’s eyes. Lauren’s lower lip quivered. “Take care of yourself,” he said, and turned around and walked away.
A DANGEROUS GAME
A Short Story by Boyd Lemon
(from his short book of five stories, Games)
(Warning: Rated “R”)
After two Bombay Sapphire Martinis, I called my ex-wife, Stephanie, “…just to chat,” I told her.
“I’m glad to hear from you,” she said. “I’ve been thinking about you and wondering what you’re up to.” Age had added just enough huskiness to her voice to make it even sexier.
“Same ol’, same ol’,” I said. “How about you? How’s your job?”
“Great! I love my job,” she said. “It’s challenging, and my boss is really nice. Last year I was promoted to senior paralegal.”
“That’s great,” I said. I remembered how she used to look naked.
“It’s really nice to talk to you after all this time,” she said. “We’ve always been able to talk.” Yeah right, I thought. Well, here goes. What the hell.
“It might be fun to go out to dinner next Saturday,” I blurted, noticing my shaky voice.
“I’d love to,” she replied.
Saturday afternoon I drove north on the 101. I wondered if Stephanie would sleep with me. Or would she reject me? During our marriage she used sex for control. I wouldn’t let that happen again—no way. Maybe it was trouble, but I needed to see her. Did I need to forgive her to fuck her? I wondered.
I stood at her door for a moment, hesitating. My chest was tight, my underarms moist. I knocked. Two seconds later she opened the door. She wore a long multicolored dress with a scooping neckline that showed a lot of cleavage. Her hair was the same dark brown with streaks of blond, wavy and just above her shoulders. Undoubtedly, it was now gray underneath. She was as thin as ever. Though her forehead was wrinkled, crow’s feet spread from her eyes, and her jowls sagged slightly, I wanted her.
“Hi, Doug,” she said with a coquettish smile. “Come in. Welcome.” We kissed and hugged perfunctorily, as if this were a casual meeting of friends. She bent over, and picked up her sweater from the couch. Her boobs, braless, nearly fell from her dress. I stared. She smiled again.
As we waited in the reception area of Harbor Restaurant, she pressed her hand to my arm. I peered down her dress at her erect nipples until the hostess asked us to follow. We sat at a window table overlooking the Pacific, and I picked up the wine list. “Would you like a glass of wine? I asked.
“Oh, no thanks,” she said. “I quit drinking years ago.”
After we ordered, we shared remembrances of the past–good times only. I told her I was sorry to hear that her marriage broke up.
“Yeah, I shouldn’t have married him,” she said. “I was lonely, I guess. It’s so nice to have someone.”
Not always, I thought.
After I asked for the check, she thanked me for dinner. “It’s been good to see you again, Doug. You’re welcome to stay at my place tonight if you don’t mind sleeping on the couch. It’s fairly comfortable. I know it’s a long drive home for you.”
“Thanks. I’ll take you up on that,” I said. My groin stirred.
I signed my credit card slip. “Let’s go out to the pier and enjoy the view,” I suggested. She offered her arm. We strolled to the railing and gazed at the ocean. The breeze smelled of salt. A harvest moon hung low on the horizon. “Look,” I said, pointing.
“Beautiful,” she murmured. When her hand brushed mine, I held it. Sea gulls squawked overhead. Dark waves rolled to shore, their foam flashing phosphorescent lime green. I let go her hand and put my arm around her, pressing my hip against hers. I stroked her back just below her neck. She leaned her head against my shoulder and sighed, then turned and looked up at me, reflected light shimmering in her eyes. When we kissed, it felt like it always had–natural. I’ve felt awkward kissing some women, as if our mouths didn’t quite fit together, but with Stephanie it was different. I caressed her, pulling her against my hardness. I knew she felt it, and she didn’t pull away.
“Let’s go home,” she whispered.
“Let’s,” I said.
As soon as we stumbled through the doorway, we kissed. I unzipped her dress and pulled it off. She helped me undress, and we fell onto the couch, our bodies pressed together, undulating. I was electrified, almost crazed. I entered her. As the tension mounted, our movements became fluid and synchronized, as natural as if we’d never been apart. We moaned together with each thrust. I kept moving inside her even after I came, until she screamed and went limp.
Afterwards, she got up to go to the bathroom. Her breasts sagged a little, not as firm as they were, but her posture remained that of the dancer she’d been in her youth.
I was asleep within minutes and awoke in the morning with her wet, soft tongue on my erection.
After showering together, we dressed. “Let’s have breakfast. There’s a cafe down the street that has your favorite Italian sausage,” she said.
I wanted to stay, but I didn’t want her to know.
“I can’t,” I replied. “I have a brief due tomorrow and I need to work on it.”
“So you’re here for 14 hours, get laid and leave.”
“Well,” I said, “I’ll come again.”
I won’t give her a date, I thought. I’ll leave her wondering.
I drove up on a Friday afternoon three weeks later. She opened the door before I knocked. Her nipples showed through her flimsy white blouse. With the door still open, we kissed, slowly at first, then with darting tongues. I was so hard I ached. She moaned and slid her hand down to my erection. She kicked the door shut, knelt and pulled down my shorts. She took me in her mouth, kneeling, just like she had kneeled the time I caught her giving my friend a blow job in the bathroom.
That evening we walked down to the beach and sat on a large, smooth rock. The long summer day had left it warm. At low tide, sea foam laced the black water that ebbed and flowed beyond us. I stood up. “Come here,” I said. She took my hand and I pulled her to her feet. I slipped her shirt over her arms. She did the same to me. I pulled down her shorts, then mine. We clasped each other, kissing and caressing, then lay down on the rock, side-by-side. The cool, damp breeze raised goose bumps on her skin, but they vanished as I pressed every inch of her against me, my hands all down her back. I entered her like that. We moved slowly at first, then with our bellies slapping together, faster and faster. She moaned with each breath until her body shuddered against me. She relaxed, and I exploded inside her. My belly sunk into hers, my arms around her. I stayed inside her until she shivered. As I held her, I remembered how she used to turn away from me in bed.
We slept late on Saturday, took a long walk on the beach and ate dinner in. That night, after we made love, Stephanie, looked at me, her eyes wet. “I love you, Doug. I was a fool to leave you.”
“Well, we can’t go back to the way we were, 20 years ago. I don’t want to,” I said. “I’m not interested in marriage any more, and I’m enjoying my freedom.” She looked away. “I understand,” she said. A tear moistened the corner of her eye. She turned toward the wall.
Sunday morning, as I packed my bag, she asked, “When can you come up again?”
“In about a month,” I said.
“That’s too long,” she said. “What are you doing next weekend?”
I bent over and picked up my belt from the floor. “I’ll be in San Francisco at a conference,” I said.
“What about the weekend after that?” She asked.
I told her I wanted to do some things by myself.
“What are you going to do that you couldn’t do with me?”
I went to the bathroom, to retrieve my dental floss from the counter. She followed. “Oh, I don’t know—go for a hike in the hills, read, nothing special,” I said.
“Are you seeing someone else? You must be. Otherwise you’d want to spend time with me. I need to know.”
“I just want to be alone,” I said. “Is there something wrong with that?”
“Well, I guess not,” she said, frowning.
During the next couple of weeks I fantasized about her constantly, and she phoned me nearly every night. Two weeks later, as I hiked in the San Gabriel Mountains, I pictured her naked, sucking me in a men’s room stall. I stopped on the trail. Pre-cum soaked my shorts, and I went behind a tree and jerked off.
A month later we drove down to San Diego to visit our adult children, Sara and Austin. It was an Indian summer day. We took Sara’s German shepherd for a walk in the park. I pointed out the picnic tables and grills and suggested we barbeque hot dogs for an early dinner. “There’s a deli over there,” I said, pointing to the left.
“Good idea,” said Stephanie. “Austin and I’ll go buy the stuff.”
When Stephanie and Austin returned, she took out of the bags two packages of wieners, eight in each package, two dozen buns, a quart each of potato salad, macaroni salad and pasta salad, two large bags of potato chips, an entire cheese cake, an entire chocolate cake, a half gallon of ice cream, three bottles of wine— Austin doesn’t drink wine—a bag of charcoal, a bag of hickory chips, lighter fluid, matches, a silver wine bottle opener, four real wine glasses, a large jar of pickles, a jar of Kalamata olives, four different cheeses and three different kinds of crackers. She handed me the receipt and the credit card I had given her—almost 180 dollars.
“180 dollars for hot dogs in the park?” was all I said, but I must have looked furious. During our marriage Stephanie charged so much that I took her credit cards away and gave her a budgeted amount of cash monthly. She always ran out of cash before the month was up, and I always gave her more. She accused me of treating her like a child. I told her I wouldn’t have to, if she didn’t act like one.
Back at Sara’s, Stephanie poured a glass of wine from one of the bottles. A few minutes later it was gone, and she poured another. I wondered why she was drinking again.
“I’m not feeling well,” she said when she finished the second glass. “I’m going to bed. Come with me Doug.”
“I’m gonna stay up and talk with the kids awhile,” I said.
She went to the bedroom. A few minutes later she called down the hall, “Doug would you come here a minute?”
The door was open. She sat on the bed, her eyes full of tears. “I just don’t think you care about me, Doug. We haven’t been together in over a month, but you don’t want to go to bed with me. You’d rather sit around and chat with the kids. How do you think that makes me feel?”
“I do care about you, Stephanie, but I also care about our kids. And why are you drinking again? You know you have a problem with alcohol.” She turned her head and sobbed. I left.
Sara was alone in the living room. “I overheard part of that,” she said. “Mom’s drinking again. I don’t know what’s going on, maybe it’s none of my business, but you two are no good together. There’s a reason you got divorced.”
“Yeah, I know,” I said.
The next afternoon, before we left, I noticed the wine bottles, empty in the kitchen trash. Was it me? Something I was doing? Maybe she couldn’t handle me having the upper hand. Maybe that’s why she was drinking again. I didn’t care; I wasn’t going to give up control. I didn’t enjoy her company, except for the sex. About 24 hours, and I was sick of her. I knew I probably should stop seeing her.
I stopped calling her. She phoned and invited me to come see her. I made up excuses not to, but still, I longed to fuck her. She said she missed me. She emailed me a description of all the things she wanted to do to my body, and I almost drove up to let her.
A month later she called from a hospital. She’d been admitted with stomach pain. “Doug, please come up here. I need you. I’m scared.”
“I can’t. I have to be in court tomorrow,” I lied.
She called the next day. “They discharged me,” she said. “They couldn’t find anything wrong. The doctor prescribed anti-anxiety and anti-depression medication.”
Three Sundays later she phoned. Through her sobs, I discerned she’d been fired. “Santa Barbara’s a small legal community. Everybody here probably knows what happened,” she said. “I’m sure I can get a job in L.A. Can I stay with you until I save enough to get my own place?”
“Yeah. I guess so,” I said.
“Thank you. I really appreciate your help.”
“Okay,” I said, “but understand we can’t live together indefinitely. This is just temporary.”
“I understand,” she said. “It’ll only be a couple weeks. I promise.”
I could finally fuck her again, whenever I wanted. It would be fine, I reasoned, as long as I kept the upper hand.
The next Friday she arrived. I went down to her car and helped carry up her belongings. We made two trips, carrying her skirts, blouses and shoes for work; one pair of genes; a pair of shorts; two casual shirts; three panties and bras; a pair of sneakers; a stained nightgown; and a box of old photos of the kids. One of those large bottles of Smirnoff Vodka peeked out of a shopping bag.
“I left everything else,” she said. It was just crap.”
After peeing, she came back in the living room in only her bra and panties. Her ribs and hips looked sharp under her skin. She’d lost weight, but her belly sagged. I went over to her and pulled down my pants. “Suck me,” I said. She did, until I came.
She got a job right away. That first week together we had sex every day. She never refused. Friday night she joined me on the terrace as I sipped a glass of wine. Walls shielded us on both sides. She removed my sandals, stroked my feet and legs and sucked my toes. She kissed my mouth, lovely wet, delicious kisses. Soon we were lying naked, devouring each other. The tension mounted. She screamed louder with each thrust. As we climaxed, she let out one last scream. “Are you all right over there?” somebody yelled.
“I sure am,” she shouted and we laughed.
I dressed while Stephanie peed. From the corner of my eye I saw her walk to the kitchen, still naked, carrying bottles of pills. I watched her pour vodka and wash down the pills. I wondered then, why am I into such a sick woman? I’m addicted to her. Neither of us had mentioned when she would move out.
One night I met her as she pulled into her parking space. I told her to get in the back seat with me. I pulled down my pants, and she went down on me. “I’ll do anything you want, Doug. Just tell me.” She licked me everywhere I told her to. It seemed humiliating for her, but I liked it. She’d humiliated me when we were married. She once told our friends about her sexual escapades with other men. She deserved this.
Two weeks into her job, she came home early, and said she’d been fired. “Personality clash,” she said. “But I’ve already called the employment agency, and I have two interviews Monday. It’ll be all right.” She pulled a bottle of vodka from her purse and poured a full glass.
“Let’s go out for sushi,” I suggested.
“I’m not hungry,” Stephanie replied. “I’ll make you some pasta. Please stay home with me. I need you, Doug.”
She changed into her nightgown while the water heated. The bedroom door was open. She was drinking more vodka and taking pills. When she came back to the kitchen, I reached up her nightgown and fingered her. I made her lie down on the table, and I fucked her while the pasta cooked. She didn’t come.
She got another job immediately and moved to Beverly Hills near her job. I worried that she was moving on, but she called or emailed nearly every day. She even sent me a key to her apartment, “…so you can hang out anytime you want,” she said. I won’t hang out there, I thought, but I can go fuck her.
I had a deposition 10 minutes from Stephanie’s, so afterward I called and told her I’d be right over. I let myself in. She stood in the kitchen wearing panties and her blouse from work. She clutched a glass, her Smirnoff bottle on the counter. “I was fired again,” she slurred. “It’s my birthday tomorrow.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. I barely listened as she told her story. She stopped mid-sentence.
“Well, let’s go do what you came for,” she said, and then stumbled toward the bedroom. She pulled off her clothes and collapsed on the bed spread-eagled. I piled mine on the floor and climbed on top of her. She smelled sour and faintly of shit, like she hadn’t wiped herself, but I managed to get enough of an erection to fuck her. When I pulled out, she turned toward the wall. “I’m going to sleep,” she said. She fell asleep right away and I left.
I pulled out of the apartment garage and drove to the Cheesecake Factory. I sat at the bar and ordered a Scotch. This thing with Stephanie was so wrong. I didn’t want to be around her, but I was obsessed with her. The sex wasn’t even good anymore, but I still wanted to fuck her. I wanted to be able to fuck her. And she was sick, getting worse. Maybe I should organize an intervention, try to get her into Rehab. She’d probably resist, but I thought I should do something.
I took her out the next evening for her birthday. She didn’t eat much, or talk. I asked, “Is something wrong?”
“No, nothing,” she answered. “I’m just tired.” I suggested we go to the Polo Lounge for a special birthday dessert. “I don’t really feel like dessert,” she said. “I’d rather just go home.”
In her apartment I pulled her to me and kissed her. Her mouth opened, but her tongue was flaccid. She pressed her hands against my shoulders and stepped back. “I’m really tired. I just want to go to sleep, if you don’t mind,” she said.
“Okay,” I said. She had never refused me before, except when we were married. I followed her to the bedroom. She opened her dresser drawer and took out a black, see-through negligee. I gave her a peck on the cheek.
“Good night,” she said flatly.
My stomach was queasy as I locked the front door behind me.
I found a bar and ordered a drink. I wondered what was going on with Stephanie. Why was she rejecting me? She hadn’t until now. She didn’t drink as much as usual tonight. That was good, but something felt wrong.
I drove home. On the elevator up to my condo I checked my pockets. My cell phone was missing. Damn. I’d set it down on Stephanie’s night stand before I’d kissed her goodnight. I needed my phone. It wasn’t that late. I could just go pick it up, I figured. I probably wouldn’t wake her.
I unlocked her front door and slipped in, stepping quietly through the hall to her room. The moonlight poured through the window over Stephanie’s face on her pillow. She lay on her side, her black negligee bunched up around her chest. The covers had slipped down to her belly; they gathered behind her in a dark mass. It took a moment to sink in–a man was lying next to her. I stepped back. Stephanie’s eyes sprung open, gaping wide. “Shit,” she said, closing her eyes again, then turning away.
“You fucking whore,” I bellowed. I wanted to hit her. My hand was already clenched. I leaned back on my heels, holding my breath. Can this really be happening? I thought. I got the hell out of there, slamming the door behind me.
I don’t remember driving home. Saturday I stayed in bed until night-time when, still in Friday’s clothes, I walked out of my condo. I stopped at the first restaurant I saw, sat down at the bar and ordered a double Scotch. I spoke to no one, except to order more Scotch.
Sunday morning an eerie calm hovered over my hangover. I fixed eggs and toast, my first food since Friday night. Meanwhile, the calm had evaporated—my chest was tight. I drank a Scotch but it didn’t help. I kept turning it over in my mind. How could she do that to me? I wondered if she’d been fucking other men all along. Goddamn! Wasn’t it good enough with me? Maybe she didn’t like it. Maybe she faked all those orgasms. But she always seemed to want it. Why wasn’t she faithful? Not in our marriage, not now. I was always faithful to her, but she betrayed me. How could I let her do this to me again? I must be the stupidest man on earth.
My stomach was churning. Saliva sprang to my mouth. I ran to the toilet, banging my shoulder on the door jam. Fuck. I lost the eggs and toast, mostly on the floor. Reaching into the linen closet, I grabbed a towel and dry heaved while wiping up the mess. I went back to bed and buried my face in the pillow, letting the tears flow. Sunday passed in a haze. I don’t remember what I did.
Monday, I awoke tense, like I’d had bad dreams, but I didn’t remember any. The morning was still dark. I called my office and left a voice message, saying I was ill. I opened the cupboard and grabbed the coffee. I pulled the filter out of the box and stuck it in the coffee maker. I poured coffee into the filter without measuring. It came out in a big clump and spilled on the counter. “Fuck,” I swore. I didn’t bother to clean it up. I just shook in more. I filled the pot with water, poured it in and pushed the on button. Then I paced. The coffee was taking forever. I pulled the pot out before it was done. As I poured a cup, my knuckles scraped the pot. It burned like hell. “Shit!” I yelled. I banged down the pot and ran cold water over my hand, then picked up my mug and swallowed. The black coffee burned my throat. I left it, went into the living room and grabbed the remote. I flipped through 200 channels– nothing on but ads and cartoons. I can’t stay here any longer, I thought. I’d better run. I tied my running shoes, then jogged down to the beach. Along the Venice Boardwalk I picked up speed, heaving with each stride. Past Muscle Beach, closed restaurants and street-vendors setting up their wares, I ran like a mad man. I turned toward the water, then the bike path, past Santa Monica Pier toward Malibu. I ran and ran, seeing nothing. My lungs burned. My legs ached and eventually buckled. Gasping, I fell to the sand. I lay there long after my breath returned. Finally, I got up. I felt cleansed. Walking home, I was too tired and I ached too much to be angry.
At home, I poured another cup of coffee and heated it in the microwave. I added cream and a spoonful of sugar, sipping slowly while I got the Quaker oatmeal down from the cupboard. I poured in the liquid, half milk and half water and set it on the stove. I got down the raisins and brown sugar and sliced a banana. I heated the milk in the microwave, 15 seconds to take off the chill. Stirring the oatmeal, I watched the grayish grain swirl until it was thick and soft enough to eat. After scraping it into my porcelain bowl, I scooped in the brown sugar, sprinkled on some raisins and laid in the banana, one slice at a time. At the kitchen table, I slowly spooned the warm cereal into my mouth, rolling it on my tongue. When I finished, I rinsed the bowl and mug and put them in the dishwasher. I still felt hungry, so I made some toast, spread on butter and jam and munched on it back at the kitchen table.
Afterwards, I walked to my bedroom and gazed out my window at the marina below. A young woman stepped from a blue and white sailboat onto the dock. Her burgundy dress fluttered around her legs. She probably spent the night with her boyfriend, I thought. A man on the next dock hosed down his boat. Mallards floated by. I looked at the spines of the books on the shelf by the window. It was like riding my bike down a hill without pedaling. I was at ease.
I ambled over to my recliner and sank down. My thoughts returned to Stephanie. Why did she cheat on me? Was she just a whore? No, I didn’t really think so. She slept with that guy to get back at me–for revenge. She’d done it deliberately. She said she loved me, and I humiliated her. And why? To hurt her. I’d loved her once, and she had hurt me. I’d been mad ever since. I’d wanted revenge. So had she. I thought I had control, but she paid me back in kind. It was the same power struggle we’d enacted in our marriage.
I extended the footrest, leaned back and fell asleep.
Several days later Austin called. “Mom’s in intensive care at Cedars. Sara and I are going up to see her,” he said.
“What happened?” I asked.
“I don’t know the details. Apparently she overdosed on something, and washed it down with a lot of alcohol. They think she attempted suicide.”
“Oh, my God,” I said. “Will she be all right?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’ll let you know.”
“Is there anything I can do?” I asked.
“Dad, you’ve done enough. I think you should leave her alone.”
“Thank you Austin. Take care,” I said.
“Bye dad,” he said. I hung up and sat down. I was part of this. I’d helped this happen. I tried to hurt her, and I might have killed her. I played a dangerous game.
I got up and stared out at the water.
Austin called later that evening. He said she had a 50-50 chance of survival. I thanked him for telling me and asked him to keep me informed. After I hung up the phone, I covered my face with my hands and sobbed.
Two days later Sara phoned. “Austin and I just left Mom’s room. She’s better, and the doctor says she’ll be okay.”
“Thank God,” I said.
“Dad,” said Sara, “Mom asked me to tell you not to contact her.”
“Okay,” I said. “I understand. I should have let her go a long time ago.”
What They Have
I stumbled out of my tent at our lakeside campground in Malawi, Africa and headed for the black iron gate. Several monkeys followed me. I waited at the gate, greeting my 12 fellow tour group members as they arrived in groups of two or three. Shouting and laughter of young male Africans reverberated from outside the gate. I wondered aloud if they would swarm around us to try to sell their crafts, art or trinkets, an experience tourists in Africa commonly encounter.
The gate opened, and we braced ourselves. A young man stepped in and closed the gate behind him. He said hello, shook the guard’s hand and waived at us. He shouted his long African name above the din, but I didn’t get it and forgot to ask him. I’ll call him Kea, the name of a Tanzanian man I met later in Zanzibar.
“I will be your tour guide,” Kea said, as the voices outside quieted. “The name of the village we will visit is Mbamba.” (The “M” is silent.) Kea collected $5.00 each for the tour, then opened the gate and asked us to follow him. In a flash the men crowded around, then disbursed among us as we walked. Two of them walked on either side of me. One, a tall, chunky man with short hair introduced himself as Cisco and asked me my name. I told him, and we shook hands. The other said he was Bush Bebe (phonetically spelled)—unlikely, I thought, as I shook his outstretched hand. “Glad to meet you,” he said. His head was shaven, and compared to Cisco he looked about four feet tall. Cisco said he lived in the village with his grandmother.
“I live in the village too,” said Bush Bebe. I noticed that two young men flanked each of the other tour members. Everyone chatted as we walked.
Neither Cisco, nor Bush Bebe, mentioned selling anything, but I was certain they would. At the end of the tour my prediction came true. I bought a t-shirt that we designed together. As we stood outside the campsite gate, we agreed that on the back it would have a map of the five east African countries we planned to visit and pictures of a fisherman and women grinding cassava into flour. The village name, Mbamba, would be on the left front. I chose a black shirt and said it was up to them to choose colors for the graphics. They said it would be ready outside the camp gate at 6:00 o’clock. Obviously, their sales technique was effective. I probably wouldn’t have bought anything, certainly not a $35 t-shirt, before we became “friends.” I handed Cisco the money with only a fleeting thought that I might never see them again. About five hours later, at two minutes to six, the guard walked over to our camp and told me Cisco was waiting for me. The shirt is beautiful.
We walked along the dusty path—it hadn’t rained in a few days–toward the village, surrounded by the lush foliage and red and yellow flowers sprinkled about the jungle-like terrain. I recognized mango trees, cassava and groves of banana plants. Cisco said he was 19, had gone to secondary school and hoped to go to the university. His English was clearer and more grammatical than most of the Africans I had talked to. He said the villagers usually spoke Swahili among themselves. Bush Bebe said he was in secondary school. They both said they had lived in the village their entire lives and intended to stay.
We began to see thatched roof huts near the path. In about a mile we reached a small outdoor market and a water pump surrounded by thirty or so huts—the village center. Small wooden tables and brightly colored cloths draped on the ground were covered with fruits and vegetables—tomatoes, corn, potatoes, avocados, beans, bananas, fruit I didn’t recognize; and arts and crafts–paintings on animal skins of traditional dancers, animals, warriors; and wooden carvings of the wild animals of Africa–elephants, zebras, wildebeests, giraffes, monkeys, lions and leopards. There were handmade drums and local woodwind and string instruments of various shapes and sizes, and CD’s of African music. I doubt if anyone in the village had a CD player.
A line of women waited at the water pump chatting with each other and their children. As a child worked the pump handle, a woman filled a plastic tub. When it was full, she hoisted it up to her head, took the child’s hand and walked down a path with the heavy tub balanced on her head.
Kea asked us to gather around. The scene at the water pump continued. Kea said that most people in the village were subsistence farmers, growing cassava, tomatoes, beans, corn, rice, bananas and mangos. Some kept chickens. A few earned a living from tourism. There was no other work for the villagers. He told us that the well and pump had been provided by a charitable foundation, that it was the only source of potable water for the village. People who lived on the outskirts had to walk miles for water. He led us over to the outdoor market and said what we saw was the surplus produce that the villagers grew and arts and crafts the villagers made. He didn’t mention the CD’s. Nor did anyone try to sell us anything. He said there were no mangos or cassava flour at the market, because everyone grew cassava and mangos.
Kea said he would take us to visit the village school and the hospital, and then we would come back to the village center for lunch. He asked us if we would like to visit his home. We all said, “Yes.” Our individual guides left us. Cisco said they would rejoin us when we came back to the village.
We followed Kea for 50 yards or so. He gestured toward a hut made of mud bricks and a thatched roof. “That’s my home.” He said matter of factly that the thatched roof leaked. “I wake up with water dripping on me. Needs lots of maintenance.” He laughed.
The 13 of us couldn’t fit in the small home–a living room with a smoldering fire on the dirt floor, about eight feet square and two other tiny rooms with openings in the interior mud walls. We took turns, entering in two compact groups. He said they cooked over the fire. He pointed at a small table and two chairs. “This is where we eat,” he said, as he pushed them to the side to make more room. It was the only furniture; the house had no plumbing or appliances.
“Two bedrooms,” he said, pointing again, “mine and my grandmother’s.” The bedrooms were just large enough for a single bed sized pad on the dirt floor—nothing else.
He said one in five people in the village was infected with HIV, more women than men. He didn’t say, but it occurred to me that was why he and Cisco lived with their grandmothers. Probably, their mothers had died of AIDS. In answer to a question, he said that the average age for girls to marry was 15. Men, women and older children all worked on the farms.
As we left Kea’s home and headed up the dirt path for the school, 25 to 30 children appeared from somewhere. They looked as young as 3 or 4 and probably as old as 10. A boy on my left and a girl on my right grabbed my hands. They chattered away, always smiling. I couldn’t understand a lot of what they were saying, but they asked where I was from. They smiled broadly and shook their heads up and down when I said the United States. The girl, about 10, wore a dirty beige dress that was too big for her. The skirt almost touched the ground. The top was torn and top buttons were missing, exposing most of her chest. Many of the children were dressed in near rags, likely hand me downs from long ago. Only a few had newer, brightly colored clothes. Most of the girls wore dresses. The boy who held my hand, about 7 or 8, dressed in red shorts and an oversized yellow t-shirt, had a mango partly in his mouth, covering most of his lips. His hand was sticky. Several of the children picked up ripe mangos that had fallen from the trees, split them open with their hands and shoved them in their mouths.
As we walked, although it was just past 9:00, the humid heat closed in. Sweat covered foreheads and dripped from noses. We passed cassava fields and mango and banana groves. Each hut had crops growing behind or beside it. Those working on their small plots of ground were either cultivating with hoes or planting by hand. Kea said that they harvested by hand. We walked by dozens of people working, and many walking, usually carrying something on their heads—no vehicles or animals, except chickens. A girl, probably no more than 16, bathed a protesting baby in a plastic tub. I commented that babies the world over disliked baths. Cisco smiled and nodded.
In our travels in east Africa, except in the cities, we saw few vehicles or animals. Occasionally, people cultivated with a hand plough. Only once did I see an ox pulling a plough. There was no irrigation. Usually, there was enough rain, I assumed.
As we continued to walk behind Kea, I wondered how far the school was, but I didn’t ask. The children sang, first together, then by themselves. Sometimes they skipped in the sweltering heat. They were almost always smiling, chattering or laughing when they weren’t singing. The older children looked after the youngest. No adults came along, except Kea.
The two children holding my hands pulled me up to the front next to Kea. He smiled and asked me where I was from. “United States,” I said. He smiled broadly. “Obama,” he shouted, raising his hand in a fist. I smiled back, nodding.
“Yes,” I said. I voted for him. “Good. He’s a good man,” said Kea.
I asked if the people of the village had enough to eat. “Yes, usually,” he said. “We take care of each other. If a family is in need, we help out. We look after each other.” I asked about crime in the village. “Crime? No, none,” he said. We kept walking. Most adults and children near the path waived at us with big smiles as we passed. A man standing in front of a hut walked up, patted me on the shoulder and said “Welcome.”
After walking more than a mile from the village center, we finally arrived at the school. It was made of the same mud bricks as the houses, but with a sheet metal roof. I counted ten classrooms. It was a Sunday, so school was not in session. We followed Kea into a classroom. The children stayed outside, laughing, playing, shouting, much like a group of American kids would have done. The classroom floor was concrete.
One of the teachers started his presentation. Kea shushed the children outside without much effect. The teacher told us there were eight grades and ten teachers. They taught math, English, Swahili, art and music, he said. I thought of our schools in the United States that were eliminating art and music from the elementary school curriculum. Music and art flourished all over east Africa. Are art and music more important to the poor?
The teacher told us there were about 1,500 hundred students in the school. For most it was all the education they would get. Some went to secondary school in a larger village that required them to leave their parents. A few went to the university. He said that the school was built by charitable donations and it survived because of charity. He pointed to a plain wooden box with a slit in the top and asked us to donate. Most of us did.
After the teacher’s presentation, we looked around the classroom. The books on shelves in the back, except for math and English, seemed almost random, donations, I assumed, including many novels, some classic—Ivanhoe—some not so classic—Danielle Steele—for children? I saw no children’s books. The children’s art hung on the walls, much like an elementary school in the United States. They depicted mostly village and family scenes.
I asked the teacher if the school had a computer. He said they would like to have one, but they didn’t. After I got home, I read an article in the New York Times about an organization that was dedicated to providing computers for all African children by 2012.
When I trudged out the classroom door, sweating, I thought of the children that would be sitting in the sweltering classroom on Monday. Our child companions rejoined us, shouting, “Hi,” laughing and holding our hands again.
We walked about a half-mile down another path to the hospital, a brick building, smaller than the school. It had a main room with a concrete floor, where we congregated—again the children stayed outside—and two other rooms in the back that we didn’t enter. I didn’t see any x-ray machines or other medical equipment that you would expect in a hospital. Maybe equipment was in the back, but then where were the patient rooms?
The hospital administrator, a tall, thin, young man, who spoke excellent English, told us that care at the hospital was free. Like the school teacher, he asked us for donations. Nobody asked any specific questions about the care that was given. I can’t imagine that it was much beyond first aid, but I don’t know. Nevertheless, the man spoke to us with a sense of importance and an urgency and pride in what he was doing.
By the time we went outside to join the children, it was even hotter. They still laughed, skipped and chattered as we took the long walk back to the village center. Different children held my hands this time and asked me questions—where was I from, was it hot there, did I like living in Boston, how many people lived in Boston? Sometimes I couldn’t understand what they asked. Kea had told us that English is their second language. A couple of times they skipped off for a moment, and then came back and grabbed my hands.
When we got back to the village, our individual guides rejoined us. At the village center near the water pump, a large blanket was spread out on the dirt. About 20 yards back a fire under a grill flared and smoked. Kea asked us to sit. Men and women set down large bowls of food and brought plates, spoons and forks. Others handed us bowls of soup–sweet potato, Kea said. The women dished chicken, beans and rice from the steaming bowls onto our plates. The food was spicy, similar to the spices in Indian food. We were served bread made from cassava flour. It all tasted good. The portions were huge. I feared embarrassment from wasting food I couldn’t finish.
The children stood behind us talking and laughing. Someone asked why the children were not eating. Kea told us they would be given what we did not eat. They were excited, he said, because they didn’t get chicken very often. We all left a lot on our plates, especially chicken. When we finished eating, adults handed the children our plates. They gobbled the food quickly.
I gave a few children coins. They grabbed at them with gusto. Others gave them pens and paper. Children in towns and villages we had passed through begged for pens and paper when we stopped. That was usually their first request.
The children who had pens and paper sat down in the dirt and started drawing immediately, but Kea interrupted them, put away their pens and paper and organized them into a line. Drummers appeared and started playing. The children danced and sang and invited us to join them. They tried to teach several of our women how to do the traditional African dance. The village men laughed and beat their drums. Whether they were dancing, singing or just talking, they reverberated a vibrant energy. The joy was contagious. We danced with them.
It was easy to focus on what the people of Mbamba don’t have. They don’t have vehicles of any kind, either personal or for work; washing machines, dryers, refrigerators or any other appliance; electronic entertainment, such as radio, TV, Walkman, IPod or computers; showers, bath tubs or toilets; animals or machinery to help farm; diapers; modern toys; telephones; air conditioning or heating; make-up; deodorant; tissues; glasses; dental care; flooring; curtains; electric lights or any means of irrigating their crops. Instead of lawn mowers, they use machetes to “mow” during the wet season when the grass grows high. As best I could tell, they had no underwear. At least, the children didn’t. The list of what they did not have seems endless.
What they have is less obvious and concrete, but defines their lives: joy in their everyday lives; a sense of community; the pleasure of helping someone in need; the gaiety of lives filled with music and dance; the fulfillment of creating music and art; the satisfaction of eating what they planted, grew and nurtured with their own hands; the natural peace of connection with the land; living surrounded by the natural beauty of the landscape and wild creatures of Africa; the love of an extended family and clan; small, simple pleasures; the accomplishment of making with their hands things they need to live; the time to enjoy the company and comradery of each other and their children; real human communication with those they care for; respect for and from each other; the incomparable enjoyment of watching and nurturing children; knowledge of what is really necessary; I suspect, the joyfulness of sex without it being promoted endlessly by media; the ability to distinguish the important from the unimportant; acceptance of life; acceptance of death; thankfulness for what they have. These people, desperately poor by our standards, lacking every comfort, convenience and entertainment that we deem necessary, are alive in the most human sense of the word.
In every village, town and city we visited or passed through in east Africa, most people we came within hearing distance of waived, smiled and said hello. Many said, “Welcome,” asked where we were from. Some tried to sell us something, and some did not. Everyone, selling or not, was unabashedly friendly. Never before in any other place have I had so many conversations with strangers. They were curious, as well as extroverted. They asked questions. They wanted to know about us. They were interested in other human beings, and they took the time to show that interest, and to try to relate to all of us.
When they found out I was from the United States, they often invoked the name, “Obama.” Many asked if I had voted for him. A few asked if I knew him. Most said something positive about him. Pride showed on their faces, not just in Kenya, but in Mbamba and everywhere between.
I remember a similar openness, friendliness and zest for life when I was growing up in a small town in California in the 1940’s and 50’s. It no longer exists in the America I know today.
It has been said that all other things being the same, it is better to be rich than to be poor. I suppose that if you isolate those two conditions, that is true. But life is more complex than that. It cannot be isolated into rich or poor. Life involves a complex set of conditions, relative wealth being only one. The villagers of Mbamba taught me that wealth is not the most meaningful condition and may even distract one from real human fulfillment, as it has many Americans. Of course, if you do not have enough to eat to quell hunger or to maintain health, or are sick with no means to obtain medical care, or have no shelter, life cannot be fulfilling.
I don’t mean to imply that the people of Mbamba do not suffer or to minimize the hardships they endure. If I thought their lives were nirvana, I would give away all my assets and move to Mbamba to be a farmer. But many Americans could learn something valuable from the way they live with what they have.
The people of Mbamba taught me that if you have those necessities, you don’t need anything else. You don’t need what Americans strive for, so desperately that if we don’t have enough of what we seek—and we never seem to have enough—we numb the effects of our perceived failure with pills and alcohol; we don’t experience either the pain or the joy that life brings. Many of us never realize what we have done to ourselves.
When the singing and dancing in Mbamba concluded, the children who had accompanied me on our tour ran over, said good-bye and hugged me. I hugged them and turned my head away so they couldn’t see my tears. My tears were not for them.
This was my street in Cambridge, MA, winter 2010. It was Sunday around noon. It was still snowing when I took the photo. I went for a long walk in the snow–about forty minutes to the Boston Commons and Public Garden. I was cozy inside my winter clothes. I wish I had taken my camera. The scene in the Commons was as quiet and peaceful as the snow flakes that meandered down and settled slowly on the white ground and onto the white trees and bushes. The few people out walking talked quietly, as if they didn’t want to disturb the serenity. That is until I reached a hill where children and adults alike were sliding on makeshift snow boards from the top of the hill down to the walk path, squealing and shouting in unrestrained glee. I stopped for a few minutes to try to soak up some of this enthusiasm. Joy joined with serenity. I walked on. Soon quiet rained again. I could almost hear the snow flakes touch the ground. Well, it wasn’t really ground, of course. It was more snow from this and previous snows. As in the photo, though the camera and I were capable of seeing color everything appeared in black and white. No frills, just basics–white, gray sky, dark gray paths and buildings, lights off on a Sunday afternoon. In the Public Garden some trees were sheathed in those strings of small white lights that seemed to flicker through the falling snow. The snow picked up a bit, and felt like light pin pricks on my face. I wonder if acupuncture feels like that. It had a healing affect on me. For a few moments I thought of nothing but the scene before me–white, black, soft, quiet, calm, peace. I didn’t want it to end. It did, of course, like all pleasure and pain. I didn’t feel like walking anymore, and there before me through a darkened window was the bar of the Taj Hotel–Boston, not Mumbai. The warmth of a glass of Cabernet spurred me to walk again. Tired and a bit cold from the drop in temperature that accompanies the end of snowfall, I walked toward home. The No. 1 bus stopped, but that would have been a spoiler. I kept walking. I unlocked my apartment door, tore off my winter clothes and plopped down on my couch to enjoy other pleasures in the solitude of my living room, watching the snow from my warm, man made shelter. I love the snow. For one who has lived most of a lifetime without it, it is transformative, another of life’s grand experiences. Will I tire of it? Probably, and then I’ll move on. If I knew how long I had left on this earth, I would know what to do and when to do it. But that universal, omnipresent mystery brings much of the joy to planning and anticipation. I’ll move on when it’s time to move on.
I searched in the halls of the University….
I searched in the thrills of competition and victory….
I searched between the legs of a woman….
I searched under the roof of a palatial residence….
I searched in the power of a sports car….
I searched in the aura of prestige….
I searched in the great cities of the world….
I searched in the churches and temples….
I searched among the philosophers and historians….
I am finding myself through the heart and soul of a young artist.
- Evaluating a Malpractice Case Against a Lawyer
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