Tell Me About Africa
by Susannah Indigo
On a chilly Colorado night I sit in a garden of red and orange and violet blues, naming countries in Africa while friends keep me warm. It is too late for pinks. Candles that match the deepest blues light every table, and just for tonight, it is enough.
"What's the modern name of Upper Volta?" Don asks.
"Burkina Faso!" more than one person shouts out. "And Ouagadougo is the capital!" I like having such smart friends -- when we tire of life there are always games to fend off the darkness.
"And, Lower Volta?"
A couple of meek guesses, but nobody seems to know.
"Christie must know, she's our African safari goddess of the night," Gabriel says, pointing to me.
"Uh..." I learned some amazing things from my trip, but this was not included. "Maybe...Lower Burkina Faso?"
"Ha! There is no such place," Don explains with a smart-ass smile. "I always figured that's why they changed the name of Upper Volta, just so folks would stop asking where the hell Lower was."
Friends who make you laugh at midnight in spite of your fragile heart are rarer than Angolan shrimp in the Rocky Mountains. I have been in love with a man named Matthew for 1,357 days of my life. That would be long enough to give birth to four babies; to write the great American novel; to begin and complete a graduate degree; to rename all the countries in Africa. Yet I am back where I started, mapping the path of loneliness in colorful gardens too late at night.
"Where's Matthew?" Bryan asks me, as though he can read my mind.
"I don't know. I left him on the mountain," I joke in response. "Maybe he'll come by later." I've shown my pictures, I've told my tales, we've oo-ed and aw-ed over my trek to Mt. Kilimanjaro, and I could probably keep talking all night and never touch on what really happened.
Bryan puts on that Fugees version of "Killing Me Softly With His Song" and asks me to dance. Bryan is tall and kind and very young and doesn't seem to recognize pain when he sees it. At least he makes me feel that for tonight I am not invisible, and that I might even be good at the things that matter. We dance, slowly and with hope.
"The capital of Madagascar is Antananarivo," I whisper to him. It seems a good and safe thing to know all the capitals along with the countries. I think that if I can recite from Algeria to Zimbabwe my life will proceed in an orderly fashion, not unlike the 3 x 5 cards my mother used to strictly map out the summer schedules of my youth.
"And Antananarivo is the name of one of the rooms in Graceland," he replies as though this were normal conversation between two people holding onto such thin air.
"1357 is a very large number," I respond. I know my numbers; there are 948 million aspen trees in Colorado; the Nile is the longest river in the world at 4,132 miles; I believe we get only one shot at true love in our lifetimes. I don't know how many rooms there are in Graceland, but I would like to find out.
"He's not worth it, Christie," Bryan whispers, holding me close. Maybe I've underestimated Bryan. I suddenly want to play chess with him just to find out what he's made of. He strokes my long black hair back off my shoulders and kisses my tanned neck. I wonder if he knows of poems and prayers and promises, or if he can see that I'm not exactly a normal woman. That at any given moment I am on the edge, foot heavy on the accelerator headed for the steep cliffs of Berthoud Pass, and only my writing of erotic tales deep in the night by the light of glow-in-the-dark frogs in my tiny office keeps me safe from the beckoning crash.
"I know he's not worth it, Bryan. Is anyone?" It seems to me that men and women deliver some extraordinary pain to each other as they desperately stumble toward passion and love. I've had three passions in my own life -- travel, writing, and Matthew. Matthew, who on day one of my love for him said he would take care of me always. He said it right after the mate in our third game of chess. Chess was a childhood passion of mine that I had forgotten until Matthew came along and woke me up. "Practice chess -- Tuesdays and Thursdays from 2 to 3 p.m.," was clearly required on my mother's 3 x 5 cards. So I did.
"Tell me what happened, Christie," Bryan says softly, so softly that I think it is Matthew killing me softly with his words, saying 'tell me, Christie, tell me' the way he used to before his mean streak surfaced, before he began to turn slowly, oh so slowly, from the sensitive man I so needed into a replica of his own alcoholic, absent, abusive father whom he so despised.
Can I tell Bryan any of this? "Tell me something first, Bryan. Anything about you. Tell me what your passions are in life."
He smiles and kisses my forehead. "My passions? Let's see. I'd say making music, making love, and making connections."
Men with words, that is surely my weakness.
"And, just to be interesting here, I learned to read Tarot cards when I was twelve years old and have been doing it ever since. I've firewalked. And I'm an expert at braiding and weaving hair." His hands are running through my own long hair. "Do I pass your test, Christie?"
I just smile. It seems everyone passes the test in the beginning. Bryan leads me over to the corner by the orange bushes and sits me down in front of him and begins to braid my hair. Our friends are starting to leave and I'm vaguely aware of the goodbyes.
"Tell me," Bryan says. "Tell me."
The most powerful two words in the English language. Tell me. Tell me your secrets, tell me your dreams, tell me because you are important to me and we need to touch each other in the places that matter.
But what to tell? They say the average person has about 50,000 thoughts every single day. How do we know which ones are true? What else can I do? I begin.
We sat in a garden of tropical pinks and whites near Seregenti National Park in the Masai Mara region of Kenya, playing chess, sipping gin and tonics, avoiding our truths while we waited for the weather above us on the mountain to clear. We were camped in a party with four men from the Italian expedition, sharing guides and dreams and ambition.
The climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro is not technical, but it takes at least four days of slow climbing
and a great deal of willpower and patience and determination to go up the 6,000 feet to the Roof of Africa at 19,000 feet, the highest point in Africa. I had trained hard for six months at home, running every day and doing weight training for strength and endurance. Matthew started training right with me, as he started everything, with enthusiasm and hope, but in the end he'd be full of excuses. He only started to run hard the last two weeks. I was getting assignments and he wasn't. When I mentioned on the flight into Nairobi how happy I was about going to Africa courtesy of the magazine he said to me "Yes. But prove to me you're good at the things that matter, Christie."
It knocked the wind out of me. I thought I was good. I had struggled and loved him hard and long through all of his problems and his battle with depression. I was afraid to even ask what he meant and what more he could possibly want from me. But I am my mother's child to the end, so I tried harder. I focused only on what he once said to me, "Your love and your writing and your enthusiasm have been a beacon in my life." It seemed like something to hold on to.
Bryan picks an orange hibiscus from the nearby tree and tucks it behind my ear and I don't know if I can stand his kindness.
In the camp Matthew and the other men spoke in Italian and laughed a lot. Matthew would translate for me sometimes, other times not. He spoke four languages fluently and could say "I love you" in ten. I can't explain him to anyone very well, all my friends knew
him and nobody was very crazy about him. But I adored him. Worshipped him. Needed him. Lived for his touch, his voice -- his incredibly sexy voice calling me late at night from wherever he was in the country and telling me how to touch myself for him. "Lift your skirt, baby," he would whisper, "Te amo." And I would do anything he asked.
"Tell me, Christie. Tell me why." Bryan is weaving strands of my hair together and it makes me feel like crying.
Why? I don't know. He was so far inside of me, living under my skin. He saved my life from the dull colors that everyone slips into after a certain age. Matthew was my very own pack of Crayola 128s, drawing out of me shades and nuances I didn't know existed. He was a great writer and editor even though he wasn't writing much, and he made me a better writer because I needed his approval. He wrote in the margins of my life in invisible ink, the words they say Harold Ross of The New Yorker used to write on manuscripts -- "Make better." And I did.
"You know, Bryan says softly, "someone once said something wise like 'Our chief want in life is someone who can make us do what we can.'"
Yeah, exactly. That's great. He did that for me. Not only did my writing get better, he tuned me into my sensuality in a way I couldn't imagine before. He was so intense about sex that I was swept away in it all, craving more and more and I didn't care how hard or kinky it got, I was there with him. He became part of my meaning -- Matthew, writing, travel -- that was all there was and all I ever needed. He was one of the few safe spaces in my life, a haven, a shelter, and I kept ignoring all the lost words, lost nights, lost weekends. Then I got the Africa assignment and somewhere between Colorado and Kenya we stopped telling each other the truth.
I think that Bryan will kiss me if I just turn my head, maybe two inches to the left. Someone once told me there are a hundred kinds of kisses in the Kama Sutra, but I just need the one that matters. He feels so warm and good, but yet if I close my eyes for very long, I'm not quite sure I know who he is.
The tents were so lovely. They were divided into two rooms, with rattan rugs on the cement floors,
tiny twin beds covered in elephant print spreads, and all lit by lanterns.
One night, Matthew and Paolo, the tall Italian who had been kind of leering at me and never saying much during the whole safari to get there, played chess once again at the small wooden writing desk while I watched from my corner on the twin bed, writing my notes and trying to focus my energy to make the climb happen and not have to turn back in disappointment. I was half listening to them chatter in Italian, trying to pick out words I knew, knowing perfectly well Paolo could speak in English if he desired. They smoked cigars and drank; somehow I don't think this is in the training manual for mountain climbing. But Matthew seemed to have met his match, another competitive ego who would stay up all night to try and win.
"Come here, Christie," Matthew said in English, and I was there next to him.
"Paolo wants me to bet on this game. What do you think?" I looked at the board -- they were just through the opening, and they were equal and it seemed a silly question.
I hoped he wasn't going to ask me for money, as he'd done way too often back home lately. I just shrugged and laughed. "Sure, why not?" Part of me wished I could ever be as carefree as they were; the other part wished they'd grow up and get serious.
"OK, Christie. But he wants me to bet you."
I laughed and started to turn away, but Matthew pulled me down onto his lap. He hadn't been touching me much on the whole trip and this felt so good. I hugged him and he whispered to me and it was all funny and sexy and just another good story to tell later on like everything was with Matthew when he was "on" and being his most charming self. "Be more adventurous, Christie," had been his constant admonition to me since day one when he dragged me up into the light.
I sipped his drink, I smiled flirtatiously at the obnoxious Paolo, I tossed him a fake kiss and casually said "si" as though I did this kind of thing regularly. Matthew held me very tight for a while and I swear, I swear that everything was perfect in my life again for that one very last time. It was sexy, it was fun, he loved me, I was desirable. The weather would clear the next day, and we would stand on the peak together soon and life would begin to proceed once again in perfect order. There was no risk; I wasn't worried. Matthew had hustled his way through Greece years earlier playing bridge and chess. This was a man who probably could have been a grand master if he'd grown up on my 3 x 5 card discipline. I'd never seen him lose, and I liked the tease. Paolo bet a great deal of money in return.
"Christie, Christie...." Bryan murmurs. I turn in his arms and his voice is different and when he holds my head so tight with his hands still woven in my hair and his tongue just touches the softness of my upper lip, reaching, tasting, I know that I am not crazy, I know there is an end to this story and I know I will find it.
"Tell me, Christie. Tell me this doesn't happen," he insists between kisses.
I sat on one lap and then the other. It was sexy, Bryan. I liked it. It kept my mind off of everything else. I'd drink a little more and completely forget about all of my conditioning for the trip and the grind of my life and my constant seriousness. I'd get up and dance around the room like I was some harem girl and they'd watch me and talk in Italian. It was another world, and I lost myself in it. There was nothing to worry about; there were all kinds of people around outside, not to mention Matthew right there in the room with me.
It took a long time. In the middle game Matthew pulled me over and began to touch me, right in front of Paolo. He would run his hand down to my ankle and lift the long African print skirt I was wearing up to my thigh and say "she's quite a prize, isn't she?" and I almost thought he sounded mean, but he was holding me so very tight. He would let Paolo reach over and touch my thigh and I swear I could have stopped it, but I didn't, because I felt silly and light and free and like some slave-girl being auctioned off. It was sexy. I let it happen. I tell myself that over and over and over again.
"It's all right. Just tell me." Bryan wipes the tears that I'm working so damned hard to fight from my eyes and he presses his fingers down on my eyelids and says, "Just close your eyes and finish the story. Tell me."
The game was fairly even but I could see that Matthew would win easily when he wanted to. "Tie your skirt up around your waist, Christie," he said while waiting for Paolo to move. "Loosely, just show us those strong legs while you dance."
"See?" he said with a shrug. "She'll do whatever you ask."
God knows in the case of Matthew this had always been true.
"Show me her tits," Paolo said.
Matthew just raised his eyebrows at me, looked at me expectantly, looked at me with that look I hated so much that always said "You're too uptight, Christie" so I did it. I had taken my sweater off long ago and I let him lower my leotard just below my breasts and prop them up on display and it was still sexy -- it was, I couldn’t help it. Matthew fingered my nipples and they were hard, and I was so soft inside, so soft for him that I thought I would die if they didn't finish the game soon and let me go to bed safe and warm and wrapped in his arms with his weight pressing into me so hard the way we both liked it.
I walked around the table, slowed down the dancing, watched the game closely. I let Paolo touch me. Maybe I wanted to make Matthew jealous, make him see how desirable I still was, maybe I wanted to cheat and distract Paolo from the game, but I let it happen. I knew how much Matthew wanted the money. I leaned over Paolo; I watched Matthew watch him touch my breasts and I felt powerful and in control.
And then I watched the end game, Matthew's specialty. I had watched him so many times be down a piece or two and wipe his partner off the board, walking away the winner with a sly smile. That was my mistake, watching the end game too closely, wanting it over, wanting to go bed with Matthew and hear how brave and good and adventurous I had been and how much he loved me and how wonderful and pure our climb was going to be. My life mistake: paying attention. He lost. But it's worse than that. He threw the game. I saw it. And he knew that I saw it. He paused and looked at me before he sacrificed his bishop, "accidentally." I will never forget that look as long as I live. It said, Christie, you're no good for me, Christie, none of it was ever true, Christie, you have no power over me anymore, Christie, I just can't stand being with a woman who's so damned intense all the time and Christie, I just don't care what happens to you anymore.
Bryan lets my tears flow and just whispers with his hands in my hair holding me still, "No, Christie, you're beautiful, you are. You are."
Matthew got up and shook hands with Paolo. He looked at me and said "Che tu parti iella," which Paolo told me so kindly after he left means in Italian "you bring bad luck," and that it was one of the worst insults that could be said in his country.
I spent the night with Paolo in my little twin bed. I didn't have to, but yet I did. It was awful and it was cold, so cold that I thought I'd never get warm again. I let this man fuck me anyway he wanted to, hoping, hoping that Matthew would come back in and stop it. But I never saw him again until later the next afternoon when it was announced we would climb the following day.
He never said a word about it that day, or ever. But he was wrong, I was not bad luck. Or maybe in a way he was right, for him. Five days later I made the peak and he did not, having to turn back at Baranco Camp at 13,000 feet from altitude sickness. I stood on that Roof of Africa and I shouted into the wind -- fuck you, Matthew, fuck you, fuck you, fuck you.
And that was my glorious success...
The night is silent. There is nothing left to tell.
"Christie, we need to do something for you," Bryan whispers, and suddenly I am fully back in this garden of red, but I suspect that there is nothing anyone can do for me short of erasing all the tapes of my memory.
"Come with me."
He takes my hand and leads me to one of the abandoned tables and sits me down. "Take this piece of foil and shape it into a heart, Christie," he says, and I can't see why not.
"This is an old ritual...don't laugh. Just humor me. When you don't acknowledge your heartbreak, it spills over into all the other corners of your life, and the blackness begins to win. Make this foil into the most perfect silver heart you can while I tell you the story of Isis."
He starts into a tale of the goddess Isis and lost love and power, but all I can see is the silver in my hands, and it looks prettier and prettier as I shape it, and I wonder if my heart was ever this pure.
Bryan fills a bowl with water from a glass and adds salt to it, and I almost laugh, until he touches my face and collects a leftover tear to add to the water. "Water as salty as tears, that's what we need."
He stands one of the thick blue candles in the water. "Light it, Christie," he says, offering me his lighter, and I do. "Watch the wax melt."
His hands are on my shoulders, and we both stay very still and watch the flame. "Now, pick up the candle and drip the wax onto your silver heart talisman. Imagine the wax is mending your heart. He whispers: Tears to salt water, wax to metal, Isis, stop my tears, transform my pain. Mend my heart to love again.
"Blow out the candle."
I blow it out; Bryan blows out all of the other candles in the garden and kneels before me in the dark. "Take this heart home with you, Christie. Do this same ritual for fourteen nights, and use your real tears to replenish the water. At the end of the two weeks, take the wax-covered heart, bury it near a tree and pour the extra salt-water over it."
His kiss is real and right and it matters, but he stands up to leave.
"Fourteen nights. And then come to me."
©2001 by Susannah Indigo