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I am so frustrated I could spit. The voice on the answering machine foreshadowed unpleasant news: my departure date's been delayed yet again. Only two days—owing to Columbus Day's position on the calendar (that cruel white male who deserves no national holiday)—I'm leaving on the 9th. Fuck. It wouldn't be so bad if I wasn't living at home, surrounded by silent non-support, where each delay is a nail in the coffin of their disapproval.
Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.
I told myself I wasn't going to write about my relationships this month (because, quite frankly, it's none of your goddamned business) but here it is again: V's trying to move mountains (again) to come here before I leave. He's probably on the phone now, excited about my delayed, wanting to see the changing leaves and me. I'm torn between wanting to get my hopes up and wanting to wade cautiously, still smarting from last week's disappointment.
I wish I was already gone, more than anything. I wasn't built to handle these questions.
What does it mean ‘how do I feel'?
How could I have doubted the outcome? Yesterday was a full moon, full of strangity; it seems only normal now to think that he is coming: Tomorrow night I will fasten my seatbelt, I will wait in my car, we will drive north until we find a bed and each other. This is insanity; logic is the wind knocked out of me; I will not believe it until he brushes the hair off my face and speaks my name. If he pronounces it right, I will be in trouble.
"Hey" (had I said this?) "no fair talking about the future."
About to head out – no time to write later, I'm sure. Rodrigo, my finger was above the 9 last night, to call you back, but I couldn't. I hope you don't feel betrayed by my silence. It's not that I'm trying to keep this from you, it's just…that I'm trying to keep this from you. Sign. Gray doesn't translate to this black and white well, does it?
I feel caffeinated—taller than usual – my movements have been so angular today – I am amazed at the ease with which this is working out. Rusted Root is plating – I feel like climbing trees.
Is this how this stuff works? Agreeing to take the whole bag of apples, even the ones that bruise? I always assumed that I'd be able to pick and choose, selecting only the shiniest or more interesting ones, but in the space between words I find myself lifting up the entire thing, hauling it over my should. But reluctantly, or maybe cautiously, making sure there's a ditch nearby to chuck the whole thing into, if need be. Keeping my laced tired so I can scoot away.
Must protect this heart, must not get too close, must bite my tongue against—
Argh! He's meeting my parents! This creature who is all together wrong for me—too old, too divorced, too much soon-to-be-on-another-continent—is cracking dumb engineering jokes with my father as I write. Jesus fucking Christ—I never signed up for this. Explained as a "friend from school"—which is TRUE—he's not my boyfriend (shudder at the thought)—so why am I freaking out? When am I going to mature the fuck up to handle this?
(This morning, I woke up to his body and sunlight and wanted time to stop for all time ever--)
All of these long silences were sure to be my downfall; thinking of no words to say, I said none, and I believe liberties were taken with my wadded-up-in-my-fist feelings. Then promises dropped like stones at his feet; yes, we'll see, maybe in two years, two years: promises I have no intention of keeping. When did I become such a cad? I dropped him off at the airport, cried a few tears (which he dried) then sped West, belting out Ani's newest lyrics, I actually felt freer, lighter: watch me now, V; watch me fly.
Packing (again). Will leave tomorrow (again). But the war—the odds are stacking up against me (again). I jump every time the phone rings, afraid that my dream—already a castle made of cards--is about to be knocked over (again).
Here it is, kids: I want to do good. I want to do. I am cynical. I am hard, but underneath it all is a great bubbling joy to feel and see and touch. Here I am not myself. Here I am an instruction card stashed in a drawer—potential, stored. Let me go, she whispers, set me free!
All these chances to reinvent myself, all these rooms full of people I have not yet met. One of these days, I'll take the plunge, take on the name Yvonne and lay on a thick Arabic accent, just to throw them all off.
There's music playing in the background of this cheap thriller that is my life. I'm going I'm going: I'm in Philadelphia and will board many planes tomorrow on the way to Benin. Can hardly believe it, can hardly catch my breath, can hardly keep my eyes open, so exhausted am I. I will sleep buzzing with electricity.
Phone calls. In these last few moments before leaving everything for two years and three months, I filled them with charges on my dad's AT&T card. I only reached machines and left my voice bouncing off of walls as my final footprint here. This has started off smashingly, and I'm anxious to leave. Had to take Larium; think insanity is soon to follow. How to how something this big? None of us have a clue, which is refreshing as breeze in this stuffy airport. (The thoughts are like the cirrus outside the window, wispy and far above my head.)
I have arrived, and with that my life suddenly sings. Imagine 35 wide-eyed kids, shipped off to a land they've only dreamed of, noses pressed to the airplane glass and breathing only
This, this is Africa.
After 25 hours of travel we made it, and already I can feel resonations deep to my core—here is home for 27 months, babydoll, would ya get a load of that? The people are amazing—took us out for our first beer— flag, at 60 cents a bottle (and one bottle apparently enough for this jet-lagged lightweight).
We can do anything, everything.
So much information, so much shitty beer. So much knowing that this is where I need to be. Laughing and spinning in this world of stars and bright fabrics, speaking French and Beninois. There is myself in the people that surround me, this I know, but I want to look past that and find them. Right now is very American— slightly unfortunate, but I think they know what they're doing. Onion and tomatoes, bread and jam. Now all at once, but if I close my eyes, everything is all at once.
My bags arrived today, thankfully only one thing missing.
Am breathing for the first time since I arrived, these quiet 20 minutes before another training session. Ate papaya from a tree in the convent. Leaning Beninois—a beautiful accent that dances in your mouth before leaving. The air surprisingly cool and clean—unusual for a pollution-filled, traffic-clogged Cotonou. Woke to the sound of nuns singing, smell of incense burning in the chapel and looked through my mosquito net to the rising sun. Realization: this place will transform me a thousand times more than I could ever dream of making change. I have no conception of what that will mean.
Once there was a people that were not liked by another people. So strong was the disaccord that, eventually, war was made and those less skilled in battle fled. Instead of land, they found water; with death on their backs, they swam. But the water never end, and the arms finally tired, so the people not good at fighting decided to stop and live there. They built their village in a place where fish swim; houses perched on stilts, markets floating on boats, children growing into fishermen and sellers of fish; war resting on the banks of the immense lake.
small drops sound big when they land on tin roofs, and big drops sound like something more than rain, as if the water drums inside your skull, cleaning out all semblance of thought. Heard it as I was getting ready for bed and braved the mosquitoes to go out and touch it. We were all out there, arms stretched, feeling the sky bend down and kiss us full on the lips. Exhausted joy runs through my limbs, mingling with the typhoid and hepatitis vaccinations coursing in my blood. Life blows with the wind, in one window and out the other.
Out last day in Cotonou—we depart for our host families tomorrow. My new home is a place I cannot pronounce. They let us get comfortable here and then move us, leaving us spinning—blinking—brilliant— wide-eyed and unbelieving.
Send-off party— we will up the night air with drums and dancing and dreams—so many things I want to learn and see and do. It all spills over the edges here. Like a child crayoning outside the lines. It would take a lifetime to absorb it all, I think, panicked. Until:
But Jewels, it's a lifetime that you've got.
If I could leave the rest of these blank, I would, because there is no other way to describe my reaction to this— all this—this life of children running barefoot through yards connecting people and lives. My host family is enormous and gracious, but my mouth hangs open at this point, overwhelming and exhausted am I from travel and vaccination. A mantra echoes in my head:
This is how the world lives, this is how the world lives I> and I never even had a fucking clue.
The Beninois laugh like it comes from the soul of the earth.
These tiny steps are made at comprehension: Today I asked Blandine, my closest ally—a 14-year-old girl—to write down the names of all the children that live here. She then made a list of the mothers—4 total—and even though I don't know who belongs to whom, I also think it doesn't matter too much—everyone belongs here. Tiny steps—learning to boil water; tiny steps—also to clean dishes, to wash clothes. Nothing is the same here, and these night hours I share: with children, with mothers, with animals, with this strange bowl of stars.
Her name is Inez, and she has "maux a la tete." I don't entirely know what that means, but I think it equates to migraines. I've taken this 9-year-old girl as my secret favorite, and her bouts with pain are worrisome: she also falls asleep often, an odd narcoleptic-like affliction that gets her while she shells peanuts, or holds my hand by the fire. I must tread lightly, but I'm screaming to know: Has she been to a doctor? Will she be all right? And so it begins, Jewels, and where you expected it: right at home.
"Il faut saluer"
It is the base concepts I'm learning that are so different—those of time and space. I leave my door open to the world to catch the breeze and the chain of visitors is endless. They inquire about my mother, father, fiancé (invented by someone, somewhere, and now held to be true) and every other American that lives "la-bas" (they all wish you will). They shoo away the goats, fix the stove, admire my bike before moving on to the next night; the process of the "saluer" completed only when all are safe and accounted for.
There is a small child in my room. He slipped in so quietly that I didn't notice him at first, but he stands, staring, a finger in his mouth and dirt on his knees. I don't know who he belongs to; he's too young to speak French.
Today: a bike ride by the railroad tracks, in blinding sunlight and brilliant green. The mountain bike is my prize possession, and I've found the way to get through deep sand is to keep pedaling hard.
He's gone now; disappeared back into the darkness. But not before smiling first; a firefly grin.
I know nothing.
I just looked up the word for "abortion" in French.
Torn between trying to define some kind of goal—a place for me—here. Kathy said she came here with this thought: that the change will occur entirely to her, not her to it. It hasn't been long enough for me to begin this process—I know—but still. What words will I look up, speaking, every day of my life? It all seems to impossibly large, especially to a chick who's still learning how to say hello in local language and to maintain her own latrine.
Here's your postcard day:
--sweating in the 3:00 sun
--mixing mud with our feet
-- to build a better stove
--"It's amazing what you can do with a little dirt and water" which is totally true. To find tools in dead grass, in the stones that line the road. Poetics take the sideline to utility (except Francis' stove; she etched fish into hers) and the result is fewer trees are cut down. Why? Because the same mud that makes my room so unbearably hot makes a helluva stove, one that uses less wood to cook. Amazing, huh?
No mail this week apparently. Wasn't expecting any, but we all leaned forward I our chairs when the question was asked. Adaptation cycles, cultural integration: I have to bite my tongue against the bullshit: Some people need to hear this.
Got the rabies shot today—my embarrassing weakness exemplified in the myriad of vaccinations—everything went white and my arm number for 20 minutes., I don't think this is normal, but don't want to seem like a pansy. The last round made me sick—mostly fevers, but fucked up dreams too. Hate this part, but must be healthy, strong.
Freckles. Who woulda thunk it, but there you have it— the question I'm asked most frequently: What the hell are those?
Difficulties: Watched Inez and her sister get beat with a stick by their uncle—punishment for not studying. My whole self caught in my throat—he set down the branch when he saw me watching.
< BR>Difficulties: Went to the clinic and saw a malnourished baby so think it was hard to tell if she was breathing. An ad for Olestra flashed through my head.
What was it again, that former self? Oh yes:
This is bigger than purple hair.
Mental note to self: not so much Flag before biking home—the concessions all look the same after dark. Been in a bit of a funk these past two days: 6 hours of language training today did nothing to help the situation. Not necessarily homesickness, just more a lack of control: I cannot sit under a tree without being stared at, cannot wash my clothes without criticism, cannot cook my own food. Wanted another Flag tonight, or two; would have welcomed utter inebriation. But in the end. This would not have helped me get home, not helped to understand.
Rode to the mountain today. Some sort of essential internal release: this was here before and after me: all will simply be, and that is enough. Spun the pedals until my legs burned—the road bumpy enough to crash out each thought. Letter home, which surprised: "I'm learning that it's all in how you count the victories, not in how often they come."
I can only think this catharsis came from movement, reclaiming my body (if not my mind or time) in this strange land. To look down and remember what I brought with me, not what I left behind.
I can't decide if I have adopted Haricot—the kitten that showed up at my doorstep—or if he's adopted me. We were both pretty lost at the time but have the best kind of friendship possible—I give him scraps from dinner, he chases the bugs out of my room. The little shits chasing my pen as I write, purring until his ribcage rattles. When he curls up, I can fit his entirely into one palm. Such a fragile life, I want to protect him from the world, to win his devotion. Well, hell if that ain't symbolic, baby.
Fuck it. I thought coffee would be the thing I miss most, but I'm discovering that living mouse- and rat-free is quickly taking over that most-missed position. Last night at 1am, this morning at 6:30—I flip out even though I know it's stupid. I think what has me jumpy is that Ellen was awakened by one
in her mosquito net
a couple of days ago. I can't wait till Haricot's bigger, just to chase the fuckers away. They are supposed to fix the hole in my wall this week—that should help. I hope so, anyway.
First mail came today—a letter from Rodrigo. It made me cry in a quiet sort of way, having forgotten what I wrote September 8th. Keep forgetting, too, that the line connecting Before, During and Next is a continuous one. But here it is: whatever was said and done hangs on that highwire, no matter how often we may fall off, which oceans we step over. I wouldn't trade a moment with you for all the balance in the world, for a single step more sure—but I'm setting down the ache, now, for good. Just wanted you to know.
Driving home from Parakau (when this shift towards "home" occurred is a mystery. Haricot helped) and was struck by the savannah-style beauty of this all—mists rising up from grasses, Monet-suns hanging from trees, huts and people matching the red red redness of the soil. Worlds and words swirled together, but all was air and the residual heat of the day, giving way (as do we all) to the full moon, to the coolness of the night, to something bigger than everything, smaller than nothing.
The questions and answers oscillate each day, but today they are: yes. And here.
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