Chapter Eighteen: Clearing
[Chapter Seventeen can be found here.]
That night, again sleeping chaste next to Lori, Paul awoke to an incredible urgency in his bowels, and also in his stomach. He grabbed something to wrap around him and ran to the latrine (“We call it a ‘vay-say’ here, coming from ‘water closet,’ shortened to wc, then into French as ‘doublevay-cey,’ then ‘vay-cey,’” Lori had explained). He barely made it, diarrhea exploding from him as he whipped the wrap—a towel—away and drew down his boxer shorts.
There was no seat, merely a hole in the cement slab under his feet. The need forced him to stay crouched there until his legs started to ache, his stomach churning all the while. Just as he finally was able to stand, the urge to puke finally overwhelmed him. Turning around, boxers still around his ankles, he let go into the hole, involuntarily taking a deep breath through his nostrils immediately afterwards—and catching full force the smell from below. That made him puke again. And again, until his stomach was dry. He put his hand out against the wall by the door, shook his feet out of his shorts, and leaned there, naked, the towel lost somewhere on the floor. He tried to breathe evenly and through his mouth, hoping and praying that simple act would still his insides.
However, as soon as his stomach quieted, his bowels demanded urgent attention once more. He turned around and squatted—just in time. By the time he was done, he realized he was sweating profusely and was quite cold. And panting. And was so weak he could hardly stand.
Lori had a roll of toilet paper in there, he knew. Feeling around, he finally located it, picked it up, and cleaned himself up as much as he could: the mess, he could feel, was extensive. He picked up his boxers and dropped them again almost immediately. They were no longer wearable, he could tell, with nothing more than a touch. He groped for the towel, found it, wrapped it around him, and stumbled back into the main hut, knocking over a stool. Lori sat up in bed.
“Are you all right?”
“No. I, I’ve been throwing up, I’m chilled, I’ve diarrhea. Something’s wrong.”
She pushed aside the mosquito net and reached for a blanket, which she wrapped around him. “And you made it to the vay-cey? That’s not bad. It could be much worse. Here, lie down. You probably just have a spot of food poisoning, maybe a bit of giardia. Don’t worry, it’s probably not malaria.” She paused, then spoke in a no-nonsense tone. “But I want you to do two things.”
“Uh.” He curled up into a ball and drew a blanket around him, not wanting to listen, not wanting to say anything more. Wanting only to lie still in the hopes that his insides would be still, also.
“First, you gotta make sure you don’t get dehydrated. I’m going to make up some rehydration formula for you. Sip it, even if it makes you feel you are going to throw up again. Sip it very, very slowly, but do so. And keep doing, whether you want to or not.” She started moving around the room, collecting what she needed.
“Second,” she set a large metal bucket in the corner farthest from the bed and put a roll of toilet paper next to it, “use this, for your bowels. And don’t be shy. The vay-cey is not where you want to be when sick. I know, I’ve had to use it.” She put a large bowl by the bed. “And use, this, when you vomit. This may be bad for a few hours, but let’s try to keep my home at least reasonably clean. If it’s food poisoning, you’ll just have to let it work through. Same, if it’s giardia. If you aren’t a little better, well, then we’ll see. But let’s make sure you remain hydrated. That’s where the danger comes from, dehydration. So drink.”
Paul tried to nod, but felt needs again from his bowels. He pushed away the bottle Lori was offering, flung the blanket off, and started out the door but realized she was right, he wasn’t going to make it to the vay-cay. He turned to the bucket, glad it was dark. He was embarrassed, even through his sickness, by the sounds he was almost instantly making—and not just the gaspings coming from his throat. He cleaned himself once more, his hands shaking. Lori quickly picked up the bucket as soon as he was away from it and disappeared outside. As he crawled back onto the bed, he heard water splashing someplace close by.
He must have slept for a moment, for the next thing he knew, Lori was handing him a cup filled with a sweet and salty liquid. He tried to sit up but groaned and lay back down, pulling the blanket around him as he started to shiver. He sipped, trying to do as she had told him, though his stomach was close to rebelling. He could hardly do more than wet his tongue, but he kept trying. Lori lit a mosquito coil to mask the lingering smell.
“Well,” she said as she sat down in a chair near the bed, “I guess neither one of us is going to get much sleep tonight.”
Paul nodded and sipped again, then put down the cup and puked into the bowl.
“Don’t worry, just keep sipping. It may come up, but some will stay down—or you’re going to get reallysick.” She picked up the bowl and once more disappeared through the door.
The entire night went like that, with a patient Lori emptying pail and bowl and keeping Paul sipping at the rehydration formula. In a way, he thought, in one of his more lucid moments, it was a good thing he was too sick to think. He tried to laugh; Lori looked at him strangely and forced him to sip more of the rehydration formula. He fell fully asleep, finally, just before dawn. Lori bathed him with a sponge, cleaned up, then pulled the blanket off of him and replaced it with a sheet (it would be getting hot, soon) and crawled in next to him, exhausted.
When he awoke, Paul felt weak and achy but his stomach seemed to have settled a bit—he could move a little, at least, without needing to throw up—and his bowels were relatively still, though he could feel that he would need the bucket soon. He looked around: Lori wasn’t there, but the bottle of rehydration fluid was. He reached for it and sipped, still cautious. He felt a tremendous relief as he realized he wasn’t, after all, going to die: he hadn’t known what was wrong with him, though Lori had said it was probably just food poisoning and not even giardia, whatever that might be. For a time, he had been sure he had some dread African disease, but was too illiterate in African medicine to imagine what, but was sure it was fatal. Now, he felt he just might survive, though he was shaky and feeling weaker than he had ever been in his adult life.
After pulling on a pair of clean shorts (wondering what had happened to the soiled ones he had left in the vay-cey), moving with some difficulty and slowly to control the shaking that was still with him, he tried to stand, but had to sit right down again, dizzy. He made it to a chair, though, reaching for things to steady himself on, stumbling but managing to take the bottle of liquid with him, though he had forgotten the cup. The door had been left open, he saw, and he found he could watch the courtyard from his chair while he sipped some more. Not much was happening outside, but he could see that a slight breeze was rustling the leaves of the mango tree just beyond the compound wall. He realized he was still breathing hard as he stared at the rippling depth of the green as he continued to sip his drink, now wondered once more just what he was doing there, endangering himself. In light of the night he had just spent, he was feeling both stupid and scared, out of his element and at risk.
During the hour he sat looking out the doorway and sipping at his bottle of rehydration fluid, he tried to order anew the experiences of the last couple of weeks, to figure out just how he had come to be sitting here, sick in a mud hut in the middle of nowhere. And, as far as he knew, with no medical care available anywhere nearby. He was stupid. That much was clear. Still, there was a certain weird logic to it, to this journey that had dropped him at this unknown crossroad, he decided. It was like he was running away, but not just that, shedding things so he could become a new person. And last night, he sure had shedded. He laughed. Well, thought about laughing. His head still hurt too much for the actual act.
But what new person was he likely to be, were this really some sort of life change he was going through? What would he become? He could understand that he had to abandon his past—he hadn’t ever been a happy person. He could see that, now, through the forced introspection of the past weeks—but why abandon one thing if there’s no replacement around? Why not keep what you’ve got, at least until something else comes along? He groaned. His head was starting to pound, not just ache. Closing his eyes, he sipped again from the bottle. He was beginning to feel as though he were hung over, though he recognized that many of the symptoms, too, were caused by dehydration.
Maybe something else had, in fact, come along and he just didn’t yet know what it was. Or maybe it was coming along tomorrow or the next day, or even the day after that. If so, Paul wished he had at least an idea of what it was. But he did not. He kept his eyes closed and tried to sleep, there in the chair. Maybe what he needed was to just learn to be patient and let things come as they will.
Yet, that didn’t change the fact of the matter: the choice remained, asleep or awake. Should he go back to the being he now knew he did not care to be, or go forward to an existence of a sort he really had no picture of. Take a risk, or accept his limitations.
Which way? He didn’t think he could know; he hadn’t had enough time to know. This trip had been too fast, the experiences too new. His growing understanding of himself was still too limited. He had to decide on a lack of knowledge, for decide he must. There was no sitting here. He remembered Yogi Berra’s ‘if you come to a fork in the road, take it.’ Should he just flip a coin? He opened his eyes, fully awake for the first time that morning, with that thought in his head.
Staring out over the mango tree, he realized that he was being stupid. The decision had been made two weeks earlier. He had just been putting off admitting it. The fork had already been taken. One way, here, would just be a detour, for his destination was clear, either way.
Lori appeared outside the open door just as he reached this realization, carrying a large canvas bag.
“Ah, you live!” She gently spilled the contents of the bag onto the table after lifting out four eggs wrapped in crumpled newspaper. “I almost thought I was going to have to ship you to the states as baggage.”
“That’s what it felt like.”
“I know,” she said, “I heard you. You were pretty scared for a bit there.” Paul winced at the thought of what he might have said during the night.
“Thanks, by the way. Thanks. I can imagine—though I don’t want to—what you went through last night.”
She shrugged. “I’ve been on your side of it, and someone took care of me. Just as you will take care of someone, one day. And I’ve been sick here, with no one to take care of me besides the Kiemas. Though I love them, they’re not the best nurses, and they don’t provide the connection with home that another American can, connection with home that, we all learn here, all of us strangers, makes the suffering a little more bearable.” She did not look at him while she talked.
She took out a pan, turned the knob on the top of her gas bottle, and lit a flame on her little stove. She put on the pan, poured in a little oil, and then started washing and cutting up the onion, pepper, and tomato she had carried home. Then she cracked the eggs into a plastic bowl and mixed them.
“I’ll give you an omelet of sorts. I couldn’t think of anything that would be better for you or that you might be able to eat.”
“Thanks.” He wasn’t sure that food was the right thing but, he decided, he was willing to try. After all, she seemed to know what would work, what was needed. He continued, weakly. “By the way, I think I’ve come to a decision.”
“About what?” She poured the eggs into the pan. He knew she knew what he meant, but was just giving him an opportunity to say it.
“About staying or going back home.”
Her back was to him now, as she manipulated the vegetables into the pan with a spatula and onto the eggs, which she folded around the vegetables.
“And I’m going to stay.”
“Oh, I knew that the moment I met you.” She turned to him, spatula in hand, and he saw that she was looking at him in a way he hadn’t before seen. Her face looked sad. She reached her free hand around his head and kissed him on the mouth.
“What was that for?”
“Mmm… because I knew you would stay, lost soul, and you have confirmed my intuition. And that is very flattering.”
“Well, not quite.” She scooped half the food on a plate for him, half onto one for herself and set them on the table, which she pushed close enough so that he could reach his food. “I promised myself something when I first heard you talk about staying.”
“What’s that?” He took a little bit of egg onto his fork and put it in his mouth. It tasted awful and his stomach tightened, but he managed to swallow it.
“That if you decided to stay, I would make you my lover, at least for one night.” She dug her fork into her food and took a big mouthful, grinning broadly. “And I knew you would like that.”
He took another small sip of his rehydration formula and, feeling too sick to even think about sex, wondered just what sort of a world he had gotten himself into.
[Chapter Nineteen can be found here.]