“Whatever happened,” she asked, “with that whole business about the trip to the dry cleaner? The story about the money left in the wallet? Remember the cats, all sprawled about? We’re still waiting, you know,” she said, picking a stem of bougainvillea from a vase on the table. “We’re still waiting for the ending.”
She paused. “And don’t think we have all day.” Her grey eyes settled like moths on my heart.
August in Dakar, we succumb to the most oppressive heat. Humidity descends and fills the air with a sort of miasma of despair. For months, one moves through each endless day weighed down by an ocean. But this morning something is different, a breeze softens the stillness. There is a sense of forgiveness. A little fountain beside the blue swimming pool gently gushes like youth. The garden’s blood lilies and staggering red stalks of canna, trellises of bougainvillea and mango trees create an oasis on the edge of the Sahel. Three embassy peacocks, having examined the guests upon arrival, retreat to the hedges with pristine arrogance and five women, as slender and elegant as kelp beneath a slowly retreating tide, gather around a table laid with white linen in the shade an ancient baobab. Dutch trading vessels and men smoking pipes decorate the aobana china plates (she, a Norwegian raised in Japan, married a Dutch Ambassador). Chocolates are moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell.* We drink espresso and talk about the summer’s personal trials—behind us now—and international politics, recent droughts, refugees in Libya, the recipe for chutney and rents in Dubai and Ulaanbaatar, upholstery, the patriarchy and its decline. The wives of ambassadors, the mothers of diplomats—artists, professors, translators, doctors—have nowhere to go until noon. Conversations begin, digress, lull and sweep back in generous feminine circles as a stream of life meanders into a thousand valleys of all that was or might have been
or is to be—**
Rare are the moments when I find such peace in Dakar; when heat, solitude and memory have not conspired to finish me off by noon. But this morning, despite life’s nagging errands and unfinished reports, despite the unwritten books and brittle bones, despite my first child’s imminent departure for an adolescence abroad: in other words, despite the indifferent passage of time—that impenetrable tyrant, that unflinching bureaucrat—despite all this, the breeze, the friends, the coffee and the way the sunlight diffuses through emerald-green mango leaves had brought a lingering harmony, a sort of heaven on earth, and I dwelled in its realm.
And now this. Whatever happened…? she asked. I watch the two words linger in abeyance, floating above us on the surface of the ocean air, waiting to secure orders for their next direction, and consider my command. It’s not exactly a threat, I don’t think. Perhaps more a snag—a tear in the tranquility. Whatever happened, I wonder to myself, with that book you were going to write? Whatever happened—my mind kept meandering—to that friend you were going to visit in the hospital? To the child you were going to cherish the time with? Whatever happened to reading the Russians, my dear? Or to prayer—to all those prayers you were praying? To reckless laughter? To meeting for lunch, with wine at midday and making love all afternoon? Whatever happened to learning French, for chrissake? Weren’t you going to learn French?
Whatever did happen to all that? I think to myself in an attempt to distract my mind from the scene that it truly yearns to probe—for in the midst of the beautiful garden with the gentle friends, a situation was beginning to intrude: a vehicle on the way to the dry cleaners was stuck in traffic at a roundabout. The road that swerves through the valley between the deux mammelles toward Almadie was teeming with buses, taxis, people and horses pulling carts. Dogs lay emaciated in the shade; the gendarme wore helmets and mirror sunglasses; vendors sold coat racks and miracle cashews among sufi marabout, lime-sellers, surfers, barefoot talibe begging for the mosques, Nestle coffee carts and so many women balancing buckets of mangoes, bananas, fish or a leg of some beast on their head—all of this was swarming the traffic because one day two years ago, a bunch of cows had meandered into the roundabout beyond the African Renaissance Monument and stopped to ponder the world, unflinching in their separate, bovine schedule.
To be fair, the cows had not so much wandered into the city and blocked the road as the city had wandered onto the desert and blocked the cows. There was a stalemate and all involved seemed to respect it as yesterday’s provincial Dakar turns gently, almost in the palm of one’s hand, into a West African urban metropolis. In the rising tide of traffic created by the cows, a spontaneous village had sprung up as happens, and I—annoyed, bored, impatient and stubborn—had lifted my pen from the paper, left the car in a huff and walked home.
But the scene, I confess, hovered in my mind for years—years, mind you. A source of unfinished business as distracting as an abandoned child or an unpaid debt. And here’s the truth: I had left the whole mess at the roundabout when I rose from my writing one morning, defiantly gathered my things, put on a hat and returned, quite simply, to work. Because as it turns out, poetry is a fool’s endeavor. Who mourns the unfinished sentence? Who gasps when the pen lies abandoned on the writer’s desk? No one. And anyway, there were applications to fill out. There were flowers to grow, eggs to boil, egos to soothe, wounds to suture and a God to worship. In other words, dear reader, there was life to live. The children arrived home from school each afternoon and filled the rooms with delight. I submitted some reports, I gazed out the window. The summers played out. An ominous shadow descended an escalator one day in Manhattan and the world was thrown on its hinges. I checked the news. I checked the news again. I did nothing but check the news. I stood by the pool; I snuck a cigarette. It’s with regret to report that cats died—the first by a car; the second for love. I crossed the sea, coming and going like the days, like the months and eventually like the years. One morning amidst the ghostly trees of a past life, an owl flew up from the edge of the woods and trees crashed down, flash floods swept through and creatures emerged from the bushes and the trees and the gardens. I went into a trance. I tried to be patient, I tried to forgive. I tried not to panic most mornings. Time unfolded. I went to Paris. And through it all the unfinished story loomed, haunting me the way conversations with an old love continue in one’s mind years after he has left you forever.
Oh but Paris! Let me tell you, I’m a sucker for that lost-time feeling. That winter, the Seine had flooded over its banks and was rising up the stairs to the quay where the Parisians had put a strip of yellow tape at the top of the stairs to warn others of peril. The trees along the banks were submerged in the rising waters and their branches dragged along the river like fingers skimming the current as it pulsed past. I woke early in the mornings and walked down the Rue de Seine to the river, buying a coffee at the only open café, passing plaques on the walls about Voltaire, Sand, Montesquieu and the composers, poets and adovcats who created academies or were born in Rouen or died in a war, and I wondered what my life would be like had I been bold enough to move to Paris after school.
It was so quiet. It was not the 21st century. Across the river, the imposing Louvre was an elderly tyrant in the silent morning. The sky was stone grey, the river’s current was very strong. Ducks twirled merrily down the river’s current like businessmen at a carnival. Occasionally one passed by sitting smartly on a scrap of wood, joking around with his buddies who were being traditional on the cold water. The first day, before the others arrived, I had stood at a window next to a green Picasso at the Musee d’Orsay and watched three massive swans surge down the river when suddenly, dramatically—with incredible power and spirit—they lifted as they approached the footbridge and flew off.
That night, having dinner alone at a restaurant, I wondered if the swans had been a hallucination and googled swans in Paris? After the museum I had walked back to the hotel and thrown on a sweater, boots, grabbed a pack of cigarettes and tied back my hair while I waited for the elevator. I walked a few blocks, the street was already quite busy, and entered the small restaurant, one I have frequented now and then over the years. The few empty tables were reserved and so I sat at a stool at the end of the bar next to the yellowing Parisian mirror on the wall and took out my book. I felt a little self-conscious as I opened to the page I had been reading—perhaps, I wondered, people don’t read books at bars anymore? In the years before smart phones or internet, I often went to quiet bars alone to read. One could still smoke in a restaurant, and I read or wrote letters in long-hand sitting at a quiet bar on a weeknight in new york. But the world has changed drastically since then, and I have often stepped aside from its pace for long stretches and there’s the threat, I sometimes sense, of becoming an anachronism.
I asked the bartender about the menu. He replied with a slightly strained kindness, as if addressing an older woman. He leaned toward me for a polite moment among his more opulent tasks, and extended his ear in case my voice might be weak with age, or my request too curious or meandering to follow in the frail, dim light. There was a sense of obligation attached to his gesture and as he turned back to the others, I—having been myself since forever (loose, effortless, as eternal as you, taking everything for granted, steeped in folly and whim) suddenly felt awkward, self-conscious and stiff. My sweater was too big perhaps, maybe shapeless; my hair neglected, maybe gnarled. I may have forgotten to put on lipstick. My effortless presence, in other words, no longer lent elegance to the room. But wait, it’s me! I almost called after him, but my bag was clumsy on the barstool beside me and I worried I might lose my place in my book. It was better to stay still. I turned and looked at the diners at the tables. They were talking together elegantly, having just negotiated some deal or penned a libretto, no doubt, as it dawned on me that I was a middle-aged woman sitting alone at a bar. It was early February. The occasion of the weekend was my fiftieth birthday, my husband and friends would be flying in soon. Up to that point, I had been pretty cool, pretty fucking cool for the last four or five years about this impending deadline. But the the days had conspired regardless, and time caught up to even me, and now no amount of Paris or swans or rivers or Picassos or floods could assuage the shock of this sobering moment.
Whatever happened to the quick and earnest attention of bartenders? Whatever happened to effortless ease? So this was it: goodbye youth, I thought. Goodbye beauty, goodbye to being listened to at the dinner party. Goodbye cherry red lipstick—I never even got around to wearing you—goodbye to smoking hashish with rock stars on the Mediterranean in a bikini, on a yacht, eating rabbit for lunch and drinking rosé. Goodbye too all that. No more cliff diving; no sweet-talking my way out of speeding tickets; no joking about masturbation, that would certainly be considered horrendous and scandalous now, coming from the pale lips of middle-age. Damn, I thought. Fuck. And so what’s left to talk about? What’s left but to say things like, I’m grateful for my health. Which I am. I am grateful for my health.
Oh look! someone exclaimed and I was startled from my thoughts. My daughter had arrived and was walking through the ambassador’s garden toward us. She had returned to Dakar from the summer resplendent in beauty, rejuvenated and calm and peacefully remote, ready to soon embark on high school and life abroad. She smiled at the familiar women who had helped raise her. They sang her name in surprise and raised their arms and stood up and kissed her cheeks which were flushed in the heat. She joined us at the table and reached for the chocolates. She could eat one-hundred of them and nothing would ever happen to her. Across the table, my friend’s beautiful grey eyes were alight with joy. Her question to me had dissolved, unresolved, into the sweltering sea as the conversations swelled and rose and broke and dissipated, incessantly flowing against the shore.
To be continued, in time.
*references to Proust are not coincidental.
**Where did I read this? I have no idea.