Chapter Two: Surfacing
[Chapter One can be found here.]
Four years earlier, of course, it had been Paul who was the newcomer to Africa, also stepping into a situation much more complex and possibly more perilous than anything he had imagined from home. Also having to make decisions with too little knowledge. He had arrived during the day, but now it was night, getting close to being the next morning. He was in Lomé, the capital of a thin strip of land called Togo, and he was asleep. Outside the compound walls surrounding the structure with the room of bunk beds where he lay, building sand was ever so slowly shifting from abandoned construction piles into an already sandy side street there in Kodjoviakopé, a quiet residential quartier close to the beach and to the border with Ghana. Nothing much else moved, not really. Aside, that is, from a fidgety and stout white man named El who sprawled by the street, wearing a beard and an embroidered sleeveless shirt of heavy homespun cotton. He looked to be in his late 30’s and was sitting as still as he could, leaning into the sand, smoking cigarettes, his sad eyes (could they be seen) constantly moving as though seeking something, shifting back and forth through the shadows, missing it.
He flicked a spent butt away, ember still glowing. Seconds later, a wooden match snapped between his fingers, flared and went out, and a fresh gleam reddened the gloom. More than a couple of beer bottles, dead soldiers, lay close by him.
He ran his hand across his beard, wishing he had another drink. He knew he couldn’t sleep, though he had been awake, now, for the better part of three days. He got up, paced to the corner, sharply turned, and slowly walked back to where he had been sitting. He thought to himself that anyone who saw him would probably be reminded of a bored dog testing the limits of a leash. But the only thing restraining him was himself.
It wasn’t, he told himself, that he shouldn’t sleep and let the booze ease out of his system, that he didn’t have things to think about soberly. He just didn’t want to; he knew it, and admitted it. Life had gotten out of hand. It was no fault of his own, but it was proving to him to be just too much to encompass. It was with him even when he was not thinking on it directly. But he couldn’t carry it, didn’t want it, hadn’t asked for it. Nonetheless, the loss, the sadness of loss had crept to every crevice of his being. He had no way to control it, or so he thought, certainly not outside of alcohol.
And there were the images, too, that had lodged themselves in his head, images from before, good ones he was scared were now completely marred by more recent ones, which were now coming out to leer at him again, especially when he hadn’t had enough to drink. He didn’t want them. Didn’t need them. Hadn’t asked for them. But he was stuck with them.
What he thought was that he cared too much, and that was a bad thing. Especially when the worst of life happened. He told himself he couldn’t let go of people, not even when they were no more, and always wanted to take responsibility for each and every one he met. A bad thing, he was discovering. When he lost one, it came as a personal blow, almost an insult, a sign of his own failure. He had lost them. He wished he could do without people, so the losses wouldn’t be so hurting, but he knew he couldn’t. A loner he would never be.
More than for any other reason, that’s why he had befriended that fellow Paul, the one who’d come in on the flight with him, who was now passed out in one of the bunks inside the Peace Corps maison de passage behind him. He didn’t need him, didn’t want to get involved with the life of anyone else. But he couldn’t help himself. And he needed to.
He’d been flying back from home leave, from Cincinnati to New York to Schipol in the Netherlands the day before, then on to Niamey and Lomé. The two men had met on that last leg of the flight. The guy, Paul, had talked to El about a girlfriend, one who’d drawn him away from his graduate school in Wisconsin, who he was planning on visiting in Benin, who he hoped to stay on with. El, mired deep into his own misery, hadn’t listened much, but hadn’t turned away, either. The worries of the other were something he could cling to, distract himself. He’d been getting more and more afraid for himself as they got closer to Lomé, the somewhat damped fires of his own loss rising once again, his emotions starting to bubble against the lid of the sealed pot where he’d secluded them. It was hard returning to the scene of disaster; distraction was welcome.
The poor, foolish younger man next to him on the plane had been nervous for his own reasons, needing to talk, so El let him, pretending to listen, nodding or shaking his head, whichever seemed more appropriate to the tone of Paul’s voice. Never before had he left the US, Paul told El, hardly even looking over at him as he spoke, never having, as he related it, done much of anything unusual at all before this adventure, and he was nervous about it.
At times, he seemed to be speaking only to the back of the seat in front of him, which was fine with El, admitting that he didn’t really even know if the girlfriend wanted him to come—he suspected that letters he had not seen, that had arrived after his departure, told him not to come. El shook his head and wished him luck, still only half hearing, turning his attention fully back to his ongoing and failing attempt to permanently cut from his head that certain series of memories. It was becoming increasingly obvious to him that he couldn’t do it—though he had always known that, really. So he smiled and nodded, and tried to listen again, though he wanted to weep. Still, he began to feel that old sense of responsibility.
After the plane had taxied to its stop and he had said a distracted goodbye and good luck to the guy going to see his girlfriend—a doomed trip: El had seen it too often, and it always failed—El grabbed his shoulder bag, feeling in it the important videotape it carried, stood, and waited toward the read of the crowd to exit the plane, keeping an eye on Paul, but staying a little away from him, just making sure everything went smoothly.
The familiar wet heat pressed against him as he finally reached the open door with the stragglers among the passengers. The heat assailed him for the first time in three weeks, battering him, almost pushing him back inside. Oppressive, but so well-known after more than a year of it. He clinched his fists, squinted and stepped once more into the bright African sunlight.
Maybe, he thought as he slid his foot out of the plane and onto the moveable stair, shading his eyes with his free hand, he shouldn’t even have come back; maybe the heat was reminding him that he could never get over his loss, not here, at least, where perhaps he didn’t even belong. He braced himself anyway, lied to himself, telling himself he hadn’t really wanted to return, but was doing so only out of obligation. Yeah, right. He grabbed the rail, edged his feet carefully forward, and stepped down.
The man whose girlfriend was supposed to meet him—what was his name again? Paul?—walked towards the terminal, still with a few people between the two of them, shading his own eyes and scanning the packed observation deck far across the tarmac, atop the wide and low white terminal building. Hands waved. Someone jumped up and down. Not at him, though, not for him; El watched, purposely distracting himself so that he didn’t have to think about himself. He could tell Paul saw no familiar face. Even from the back, Paul looked disappointed, concerned. Hell, he should. Facing Africa cold, with no guide, no place to go. Took guts or foolishness. Or both. And Paul, as he had already told El, was only a fool.
Despite the heat and his attempts at self-distraction, El’s teeth tried to chatter as he walked across the tarmac: he’d feared they would do this, but had pretty well known it would happen. He wished he could control his emotions—always had wished that—or, at least, could manage his body, his physical reactions, but only drink had ever allowed that. He clinched his jaw and stepped forward, eyes close to tearing, putting one foot in front of the other, one hand clutching the strap of his bag, the other sneaking around for reassurance, again fondling that videotape within it.
He followed the other passengers into the terminal, still a few feet behind the man he had talked to on the plane. In sweltering heat, as oppressive even now that they were out of the sun as it had been in it, he saw the man—Paul, yes, Paul—looking around, clearly searching for something that would tell him which way to go, what to do now that he was on the ground. El looked at him and sighed, secretly relieved. With a quick breath, he grabbed the man by the elbow and guided him towards the correct control counter. Help someone else: it had always worked before, had always been his way out of his own troubles. Well, sometimes. Maybe it would work here, too.
“Just follow me. It isn’t that difficult, as long as you look like you know what you are doing. Easier, too, if you know French.”
“Uh, thanks.” Paul turned to him, startled but obviously relieved. They walked on in the dispersing crowd, Paul now trailing El, still looking around, still hoping to spot the one he’d flown so far to see. “I thought I did, but I guess not enough.”
[Chapter Three can be found here.]