Her parents left her for home some days earlier, the safari they all took together over, so nice to see you, her mother not to be outdone by her daughter’s travel by inviting her to tour Africa’s glamour instead of sleeping on calfskin-strewn dirt in hovels—what do you call them? tukels?—full of actual Africans. She will watch her daughter’s documentary on television, thank you very much. Maybe it is true that they traveled all that way to assure themselves she was all right but it seems unlikely, especially since they left knowing her plane has been canceled for a week, that she will be alone in this not-so-tame colonial capitol, attending to particularly vague business she assured them makes the cancellation convenient.
She carries out the conjured errand in an afternoon, returning to her empty room in a much smaller hotel after sucking down a carton of juice with a fried sandwich and an ear of roasted corn bought from the street. After a few hours staring at lines in an overwrought novel, she flees for the disco-balled dance floor of the hotel she and her parents checked out of such a short time ago. She hadn’t danced there then, with her father looking on, she told him she was too shaken up by the minivan dodging animals all day, by the over-enthusiasm of their companions—the four “girls” as her father called them—and by the flashing mirrored ball that gave her a headache. But her first night alone, she goes straight out into the dark of this dangerous-at-night town right back to this hotel that towers over every other building to where, at the edge of the nearly empty dance floor, he sits drinking, barely though, as befits his possibly teacher avocation.
Left behind? he says over the DJ’s squawking mike. She takes the seat beside him without hesitation. Early on in the safari, he held the door open while she polished her glasses and told her she looked better without them. Without his own, he looks her age but so conventional, his hair clipped close around a face that showed this trip is his first and possibly last big foray.
The man waiting for her plane has pierced his bottom lip with a nail.
When she tells this other man about the plane rescheduling, she makes it sound as if it happens all the time, which it does in this part of the world, but just not to her, all alone.
Then they dance, and she shakes off all of her parent’s presence, the man with the hole in his lip, and this man too, although he dances well enough in front of her. The mirrors, all one hundred of them, reflect something real of her, a reflection of her flying apart, all those pieces of her now unwatched, unjudged, freed in a euphoria that, put together, is happiness.
She isn’t much of a drinker so when she tries to pay her tab, he volunteers. Then he offers to walk her back to her hotel. She objects. A white guy walking in this town at ? She can make her own way back without risking him; she has worn dark clothes, she is prepared.
He is prepared too. He pulls out a condom. He is more drunk than she thought. But staying at his hotel is the obvious solution. He takes her hand, the first time he’s touched her except for an elbow onto the dance floor, and she follows its pressure, its slight pull toward the elevator instead of the exit.
Never before has she betrayed anyone. She has moved serially through lovers, not even overlapping. But now her clothes come off easily. The morning after, she collects the rest of her clothes at her hotel, performs aimless errands down streets smoking with charcoal, inspecting all the stone and statuary that the cosmopolitan capitol has to offer, finally depositing her bag in his room.
She can’t tell him what is wrong with returning to the man with the nail in his lip though she feels such terror. An African forest, hot and dark, is about the best she can do in description. Sure, she has a job to do, but a job isn’t worth this, whatever this is, he says as she cries. But to say Yes, I’ll stay can’t be done. She stops that sentence, she suspends one word from another, not allowing the words to meet, she watches big birds glide outside his window instead of answering. About anything else, she cannot stop speaking. At my grade school, she finds herself saying, no one else had breasts. She laughs as if that will help her.
Does he hear her? She has unleashed herself, disregarded him, he is beside the point.
He pulls his glasses off his nose while pushing her down on the bed. She makes coquettish use of her hands, shaping the air in their heat. After, he tells her his plane home leaves the next day. His ticket has been fixed. Does she or does she not want to go with him? She doesn’t have to return to this project she so obviously hates. He avoids all mention of the he in that project.
Thanks, she says and closes her eyes.
A souk of the soul, that is the line in the poem she is building, a thin poem about chaos and camels and the haboob in Khartoum, a days-long choking dust storm so bad you can’t see your hand covering your own eyes.
A bad blankness.
Did you read my poem? she asks. I left it for you.
He hasn’t. Sandwiched between folders and books, it has been lost. She pulls it from a pile and folds it.
She does like his shoulders, she does kiss them, one at a time.
She has a day by herself after he flies. She stares at the capitol’s decrepit state buildings and buys a new book and a present. Maybe she has the address of the man who has flown in her notebook, she doesn’t check. He told her he’d written it there but she doesn’t want to see that he hasn’t. The gift, an elaborate Swiss Army knife, is an object of desire, selected and not bought before she traveled to
Kenyan men ask her to dance and she does. Then she doesn’t, she flees the hotel to stand on the dangerous street corner in front of it while it rains.
The plane leaves as scheduled but doesn’t offer silverware with dinner. I used my hands, she tells him while they wait for her backpack.
You look different, he says, and nothing about her delay or her hands.
The plane is turning its propeller to reposition itself, the plane is empty but still somewhere she can’t help but take a step toward.
After eating a plate of gravelly beans bought from a dirt-floored café, he takes her to his room, as windowless as an outhouse and redolent with its stench. The door doesn’t close and starlight comes through the gaps but not air. He tosses the backpack into a corner and sits on the narrow bed with its roped frame and army blanket and takes out his present. Come here, he says to her, and she does.
Terese Svoboda's Trailer Girl and Other Stories will be out in paperback this fall. Her fifth novel, Pirate Talk or Mermelade, will be published in 2010.