Chapter Four: Losing
[Chapter Three can be found here.]
The lines for passport control and customs snaked through a variety of fragile-looking open doors with small signs posted above them, but only in French. Paul was embarrassed that his French wasn’t strong enough for him to read them. He had stopped between two, wondering which way he was supposed to go.
As he pondered the choices, that man he’d talked with on the plane, the big bearded guy in an African shirt, grabbed his elbow and pulled him along towards the door on the far left. Startled and relieved, he followed docilely, watching and imitating whatever the man did. On the occasions when officials spoke to him, he smiled and pretended to understand, nodding, shuffling on from passport control to customs, keeping right behind the other man, surprised each time he was allowed to move along. He thanked the man as they waited for their bags. The big fellow smiled and nodded. They moved apart.
Inside the main lobby, his knapsack now trailing from his left hand, Paul looked about him, still dazed, so not really seeing much, wondering what he should do now, for there was no sign of the girlfriend he had expected to meet him. Should he sit on one of the benches and wait? And hope? Or try to find a way of getting into town and… and what? For a few minutes, he stared at a palm tree by the street outside the glass wall around the entrance doors, puzzling for a clue.
“She’s not here?”
“Huh?” Startled, he turned around. That man, still clutching the bag that had been on his lap in the plane, the man who had so gently helped him through the formalities, was smiling at him once more. Paul was surprised by the smile as much as by anything else, for it was a peculiar, wistful smile and he didn’t understand it. Sure, they’d talked a bit on the plane, sure, but Paul didn’t even know the man’s name—or didn’t remember it. Paul did recall that the man had told him he was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the north of Togo on his way back from emergency leave of some sort. When Paul had asked if the man knew his girlfriend, he had shaken his head, no. She, too, was in Peace Corps, but in Benin, just one country over. He told Paul that he thought he might have heard her name, but that was all.
Now, they stood together in the airport, and Paul wondered what the man wanted.
“No…. ” Paul finally realized what the man had asked and shrugged. He didn’t really want to talk about it, not right then. He wasn’t sure what he should be feeling, or what he should do and didn’t want to have to pretend for anyone. He felt numb, and certainly didn’t want to talk about what seemed to be happening to him. Especially with a stranger who appeared, though helpful, to be intruding just a bit too much.
“Maybe she couldn’t get from Cotonou.” Attempting to be nice, Paul could see, the man was trying to put the best face on things. “Things like that are common here, happen all the time. You know, ‘WAWA.’”
“Wawa?” Paul tried to keep his responses short, not wanting to get drawn in to further conversation. He’d thanked the guy already, after all. But he couldn’t help asking.
“’West Africa Wins Again.’ Never expect anything here. Nothing ever happens the way you want it to.”
“Maybe that’s it. Maybe it’s something simple like that.” Paul wanted to turn away, but he also didn’t want to appear ungrateful. He was embarrassed by his situation, and didn’t want to share it, let along explain it.
They stood for a moment, awkward. The PCV, finally, sighed and put his hand on Paul’s shoulder.
“What will you do?”
“I don’t know.” Paul wanted to twist away, but he also was beginning to realize that he didn’t have anywhere else to go or to turn.
The man took his hand away almost immediate and considered Paul for a moment, that slight, strange smile returning to his face.
“Why don’t you come into town with me? Peace Corps has a maison de passage—a sleeping area for us—and I can sneak you in, if you haven’t much money, or find you a hotel, if you would rather.”
“Thanks.” Paul looked around, unsure what was motivating this man. “I really don’t know…. Guess I should just try to get over to Cotonou, as soon as I figure out how.”
The man shook his head, speaking now with more authority. He seemed to realize that Paul was going to accept his help and his lead. “Worry about that later. For now, let’s get you set up somewhere. There’s another thing: if she couldn’t get here, she may have gotten a message through to the local Peace Corps office. Lots of people do that, for they expect their visitors will check there, if something happens and they aren’t met.”
He stuck out his hand. “My name, by the way, is El, El James. I think I told you before, but you’ve probably forgotten. Just think of Elmore James. It’s not, but it helps the memory.”
“Paul Cassamude.” They shook, Paul still wondering how much he should rely on this possible benefactor, how cautious he should be. He looked out the window again for just a moment and asked himself once again just what his plan should be, if he could do anything on his own at all. If he should even try. He’d known, as he walked from the plane and hadn’t seen her on the observation deck, that he would need help—though he hadn’t wanted to admit it and was only now beginning to come to terms with the fact that he could be in trouble—and here was an offer, at least. But he didn’t know this man; he was even put off by, embarrassed by the fact that El had recognized his need. He hated that it was so obvious.
It didn’t take him long, however, to consider and abandon his other options as El patiently waited, that smile still on his face. For he hadn’t any others, not really. Or so he soon was able to tell himself. Only a fool wouldn’t accept the help offered when the alternatives would prove demeaning, at best, with a return home in utter defeat the most likely end. The choice of the moment, clearly, was not his. The greater choice was going to have to wait.
Quickly, then, he nodded, shouldered his pack and followed as the other man turned to walk outside. El signaled, that bag of his waving from his raised arm, and a battered Peugeot taxi pulled to the curb. Paul looked back at the terminal building as he climbed in; once again, he felt that maybe he should wait, again scared by the step he was taking. After all, she really might have been delayed. But he knew he didn’t really have much choice. He hadn’t the money for a fancy hotel and had no idea how to find a reasonable, cheap and safe one if she didn’t show up. Without El’s help, his only prudent option would be to find some way to get himself on the next plane back to the States.
Maybe that’s what he should do. Or, again, maybe he should just wait for her.
No. Neither was a good option. Let’s be honest. He couldn’t do either. Those were both losing moves, and he was feeling too much like a loser already. He didn’t want to confirm it, especially in front of a stranger. As he realized his predicament more and more clearly, he also was coming to understand just how much he was the fool; he didn’t know how much more of a battering his self-esteem could take.
He had managed to get here, after all, he told himself, and should take at least a little pride in that. He had to make a show of it, at a minimum, to retain at least that. And this man, this El, had a certain inspiring look about him, a confidence, a kindness, even quirkiness, especially in the way he still clutched that bag of his, now holding it close to his chest as he walked around behind the taxi to the opposite door. And, after all, he, like she, was in Peace Corps. Once he got an in on the organization, he could probably work his way to her. That way, maybe he could salvage the trip.
What else was he going to be able to do that would make any sense? He bit his lip, suddenly angry with himself, though tears welled into his eyes. What? Sit stupidly waiting in the airport, expecting a woman who probably wasn’t going to appear?
He had never wanted to admit it: The idea to come had been his completely. Her acceptance, he now realized, had been reluctant, if it had been acceptance at all. And he hadn’t heard a word from her after writing with the date of his arrival, even though they had long ago imagined a trip together, up north towards the Sahara. A chance for him to see Africa, and to find out if they still had a relationship. But that had been months ago, even a year ago.
If she cared, she would have been there. She had not been. Therefore, it would be dumb to wait for her. If it had been important enough, she would have found a way. Or would find a way to find him, once he had left the airport.
Why, then, was he going to try to find her? He shoved that question aside and, as El entered from the other side, pulled the taxi door firmly closed after him. He was setting himself on a course. There would be time to deal with it later, to figure out exactly what it meant. Now, he had to establish himself, find some solid ground.
He tried to close his mind to her, at least for now, and looked ahead.
[Chapter Five can be found here.]