Jane lingers in bed beneath the veil of the mosquito net and listens to schoolchildren slosh their clothing in buckets of water near her window. They will twist the bright splashes of color, then smooth them flat on the steaming earth to dry, so that when she leaves the house she will have to walk on her tiptoes in the small spaces between the pieces of cloth.
She rises and parts the batik curtains over the window. Chickens nit-pick at corncobs left for them days ago in the yard. The rains have stopped. Today is the day. She will go to the post office in town ten miles away to mail the letter to her husband, whom she left behind six months ago in Pittsburgh. After months of rewriting her letter, she feels she’s got her message right. It’s been difficult: the more time that passes, the more there is to say.
She locates the already addressed envelope between pages 150 and 151 of a Gideon’s Bible she bought from a street vendor in Accra and smiles at the irony. Ecclesiastes. That which is done is that which shall be done. There is no new thing under the sun. She knows her husband is not the first man in the history of the world to fall in love with a woman who is not his wife. And she is not the first woman in the world to try to escape it, to give the dog away, lock up the house, fly to another continent. No, infidelity is as old as the hills.
Her wind-up alarm clock ticks loudly as she slips a cotton dress over her head. Six o’clock. The morning lorry to Takoradi passes by in a half hour. She fixes a cup of tea sweetened with condensed milk, drinks it, then sets out across the moist valley toward the road on the ridge. Although the rainy season is at its peak, the African sun, even in the early morning, is hot on her forehead. She wipes away the sweat with a red cotton handkerchief — one of the few useful items she remembered to bring from Pittsburgh.
Notice of the teaching position abroad had come in a rush. Although she applied for the job right after George moved out, the actual invitation — in the midst of her anger and despair at her husband loving someone perky, sunny, tall, athletic, someone entirely unlike herself — came as a surprise. Which was fine, because she welcomed the driven inevitability of it all. She wipes her face with the handkerchief again, reaches the road, and sees that the lorry, a Mercedes-Benz truck converted into a bus, is full, as always. Farmers in stiff, white town shirts are squeezed in shoulder to shoulder, thigh to thigh. Young women sit serenely, cradling children and great bowls of corn, rice, and tomatoes on their laps.
The locals always ask her questions. At least once a day the village children greet her in faulty English from their doorways. “Why are you?” they want to know. Always, she hesitates, then smiles and answers appropriately that she’s fine. On the bus today, the other passengers say, “Madame. Where are you going?” She explains that she’s going to town to mail a letter. “To the post office,” she says, returning their smiles. She shows them the envelope in her leather satchel. “Oh, Madame,” they answer. “I understand. It is a good day to travel.”
Sometimes they get more personal. “Where is your husband?” they ask. “In America,” she tells them, and wonders if, in fact, she is lying. She visualizes the marriage document in back of the old photo album in the bottom drawer of the night stand at home and thinks, melodramatically, that she is lying. Then again, she knows that in this culture any man who once was the object of a woman’s affection qualifies as a husband. All of my husbands are in America, she thinks, and stares at the coal black, muscular necks and shoulders of the women sitting in front of her. The sweet smell of key soap and omo, the local laundry detergent, fills the bus. Thick air rushes in through the open windows, slapping her blond hair around her face, making her sleepy. She dozes.
The bus thunders into the Takoradi station. She wakes with a jolt and wipes strands of hair from lips that are salty with sweat. Girls balancing plastic water buckets on their heads approach her, advertising their water in thin, high-pitched wails. The sound, like the cry of loons, makes her sad.
“Tomorrow,” she tells them softly, and heads for the post office. She pauses in the cool, vast lobby. In the far corner is the red box marked overseas. She walks, one steady foot in front of the other, her chin held up, her eyes focused on the word overseas, and realizes that she’s trying to appear nonchalant, as if she were a guilty child replacing stolen change, and others were aware of the crime, watching. She glances around. Three men in colorful tunics with matching turbans are standing near the clerk’s counter, quietly talking, oblivious to her.
She stands in front of the box and slides in the letter. Suddenly, she craves something very cold, her thirst urgent, overwhelming, as if now that she’s free of the letter she remembers her body, its needs. She walks in the direction of the bubra bar a few yards from the sea and thinks of the way people ravage food and drinks after a funeral, and she feels just like that, hungry, thirsty, relieved. “Fine morning, Madame,” the bar owner greets her.
It was here that she wrote the letter. Oh, there have been several drafts, dozens — on paper, in her head — but this is where she wrote the version she finally sent. By now she has memorized it. She sees the words in the morning, in the afternoon, while she eats, while she bathes, in her sleep.
I realized something the other day, and I want you to know about it. Eight years ago, when I was eighteen, my sophomore year, I fell in love with this boy. He had crazy blond hair like Einstein and wild blue eyes. He never buttoned his shirt, so the tails flapped around him, even in the winter, as he glided down the small-town streets of Lawrence.
We would get all boozed up and soar like madmen down country roads in his rusty hatchback until we ended up by the river. In the darkness among the trees we’d share our gallon of wine until our mouths stopped working and we’d fall asleep. That’s it. We would sleep. This went on for months. He’d give me books, I’d tell him stories, until one day I told him I didn’t want to hang out with him anymore. Hang out. I actually used that phrase. I was young. Just before graduation I spotted him at an outdoor concert on the green. He moved toward me. I looked down, and when I looked up again he was just five feet away. I met his eyes and couldn’t stand the suffering I saw there. No, I despised the suffering. What could I do? He whispered my name twice. “Jane. Jane.” I walked away. Just like that.
And now I think of the way you purposefully folded your hands on the table to deliver the bad news. A distant diplomat. The impatience in your voice the last time I talked to you on the phone, as if to say, Get on with it, snap out of it, I certainly have.
And now I’m sorry for the look I put into that boy’s eyes. I want to explain to him that I was young. A fool. That it had nothing to do with him. Anyway, I guess you are wondering where I am. I will tell you. In Africa. Far away from you. You might say I am waiting. I can’t wait for the moment when you realize what you have done.
I can’t wait. Jane stares at the sea and thinks she should have added something softer, something more loving, rational, less spiteful, because on gentler days she really does want to get at the core of the failed marriage rather than to participate in some sophomoric dance of blame or revenge. She doesn’t know how to tell anyone this, but she sincerely wishes that people could live inside of each other just for a minute or two, like ancient spirits. She thinks everyone would be simultaneously delighted and appalled at their findings. But at least they would know.
She looks up and sees a white man, at least six feet tall, with hair shaved close to his scalp like a Tibetan monk, standing next to her.
He smiles. “Do you speak English?”
She stares at his whiteness. She rarely sees white people, doesn’t own a mirror, and his skin color seems oddly wrong, as if he is ill.
He points to the stool next to her. “May I sit?”
“Sure.” She scans the wood table in front of her as if to hide what is there.
“I startled you,” he says in a thick accent. “I’m sorry. My name is Roland.”
She places the accent. “You’re German.”
“Yes. My country sent me to build a hospital in Axim.” He raises his hand to the bartender, who is staring off at the sea. He waves more vigorously, but the bartender stands motionless in the humid afternoon, asleep with his eyes half open.
“It might be hours before you get a beer. Have a sip of mine,” Jane says, and passes him the bottle. She sees that his hands are all angles, big bones, squares. “I’m Jane. I teach English.”
“Your accent. Let me guess. American or Canadian?”
“American. I’m from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.” She adds, “It’s near New York.”
“Ah. New York, yes.” Jane has learned that most people know about New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, although they often refer to the latter as Hollywood. She watches Roland sip the beer again and decides that he’s probably around twenty-five.
“My English is not very good. When I arrived two months ago, I knew only a few words. Hello. Goodbye. Perhaps you can teach me something.” He tilts the long neck to his lips, then leans forward in earnest. “Tell me. The locals, when they sit with you and talk, then stand up to leave, why do they say I’m coming?”
Jane smiles. “I’m coming,” she repeats, laughing. “It means, I will go away now, but I’ll come back.” She uses her hands to demonstrate going and coming as if she were in the middle of some Hawaiian folk dance and enjoys the oddity of the motion; she has always been a quiet woman, serene, one whose hands generally stay near her lap.
Roland nods enthusiastically. “Then it is the same as saying excuse me. Yes. This makes sense.”
“It’s quite polite. Of course,” she adds, unable to resist, “I’m coming means something very different in America. You wouldn’t want to say that to just anyone on the street.”
“Why not? You are laughing. It is funny. Tell me.”
She smiles broadly, looks at the sky, tries to imagine a way to explain, then looks back at Roland in the hope that she’ll see that he’s joking. He isn’t. He’s waiting for an answer. She says, “I can’t.”
Roland is laughing now, too. “Please, you must tell me.”
Jane takes a deep breath, holds her hands in front of her. “It’s nothing. I’ll tell you later. I absolutely promise I will. I just can’t right now.” They smile at each other, and she has the urge to throw her arm around his shoulder. She recognizes the odd, instant familiarity that unfolds among people abroad, out of their element. Not long after she first arrived, she met a group of Dutch physiologists at a bar in Accra, and she stumbled back to her hotel at 3 a.m., utterly exhausted after hours of listening to their confessions.
But that was months ago, and she hasn’t met a fellow Westerner since. She slowly pulls free a strand of hair caught under the collar of her blouse, stuck to her damp skin, and she takes the beer back from Roland. “So. You’re an engineer? A biologist? A bureaucrat?”
Roland folds his arms comfortably across his chest. “A builder.”
“You are surprised.”
“Yes. So many foreigners you meet here are professionals, scientists, doctors.”
“I can do carpentry. Masonry. Bricklaying. I do it all. You see my hands,” he says, turning them palm up on the table. “You were looking at them before. I saw you.”
Jane flushes, thrown off balance by his frankness.
“Touch them if you want.”
Jane sits up, straightens her spine, unsure if his bold invitation stems from a language barrier or something else. “No. I can’t.”
Roland smiles and shrugs. “Touch them. They are like leather.” Hesitantly, her hands hover above his, then lightly, slowly, she brushes her fingertips along the surface of this stranger’s palms, and the calluses remind her of desert dunes, smooth and round, and she wants to say, Lovely.
She sits back, feels the beer and heat going to her head, and asks him, “So. Why is your hair so short?”
“I shaved it when I was a rebel, and it has been this way ever since. I was very mischievous as a youth. Never finished university. Broke the law. Threw beer bottles over the Wall into no man’s land. You know about the Wall?”
“Yes. My mother lived in fear that I would be shot.”
“Shot? You’re making this up.”
“I moved to Berlin from the country when I was sixteen. In New York, citizens shoot each other. In Berlin, you got shot at by police.”
“Why are you here? In Africa?”
“I matured. I went to work for my uncle, a builder. I joined a volunteer program to help these people,” he says, and gestures toward the huts that dot the beach.
She looks out and watches village men cast their hand-sewn nets into the sea. A comfortable silence falls between the two of them, and Jane’s mind wanders to darker thoughts. Murky clouds glide in over the surf. She’s always felt there’s something unsafe about the African coast. Even in the sunshine its choppy water defies rather than invites her to take a swim, to use it for anything other than fishing, laundry, bathing. This is no resort.
“I think you are more interesting than me,” Roland says.
Jane looks at him, shakes her head. “You don’t know me.”
The wind picks up and he looks at the sky. “Shit. The rains will come soon. We must go.”
She is ready for another beer. Many beers. “I don’t want to go back yet.”
He stands, looks at the sky again. “I could motor over to your house.”
Jane, all nervous energy, laughs. “When?”
“This evening, if you like. After the rain.”
“But I hardly know you.” She laughs again. “I mean, will you have to spend the night?”
“I think so. Yes.” He’s suddenly quite serious, one hand on his hip, the other rubbing his chin. He looks at her. “I cannot motor in the jungle at night.” They both think about this.
Finally, Jane says, “I’d never do this in my country.”
Roland shrugs. “We are not in your country. And we are not in mine.”
Before boarding the lorry back to her valley, she buys six bottles of beer and a package of unleavened crackers with Hebrew writing on it. Back in her cabin she cranks open the glass louvered windows to allow in fresh air from the imminent storm.
The rains come and go quickly. Soon she hears the sound of Roland’s motorcycle along the ridge. It’s 5 p.m. and the sun sets early here, so Roland is nothing more than a shadow as he stands in her doorway. She’s feeling light, giddy. “Come in!” she sings, and goes into her bedroom and returns with four kerosene lanterns.
“Let me,” Roland says, taking the lanterns out of her hands. She watches as he gently lifts off their glass bulbs and wipes them clean with a rag. He fills the lanterns with new kerosene, trims the wicks, replaces the glass bulbs.
Jane picks up one of the clean lanterns, briefly illuminating the room, and disappears into the darkness of the kitchen. “Hope you like canned ham,” she says when she returns. “A friend sent it from the States.”
As they talk, she and Roland move around occasionally, retrieve beers, fetch cigarettes from her bureau drawer. Jane watches the spaces between the lanterns’ circles of light grow larger. Even after six months here, she still feels uneasy about the shadows. She forgets which items — a bookcase here, a basket there — occupy which corners. Beyond the small illuminated circles there is only darkness.
Jane also watches the way Roland’s body moves in and out of the light. The natural angles and indentations of his face — which is quirky but handsome in the daylight — deepen into sharp crevices. She touches her face. What must she look like?
“I’ll never get used to the lanterns,” she says.
“They are difficult. Yes. But I enjoy the way edges disappear. The room seems . . .”
“Fuzzy?” He laughs. “I meant to say that everything, the room, your face, appears softer.”
She laughs. “Maybe it’s the booze.”
“Maybe you should smile more often.”
He moves unsteadily toward her, places himself next to her on the moldy couch. They’re both drunk. She says, “Tell me a story.”
“Story? I don’t know one.”
“Everyone has a story.”
“OK. Once upon a time I was in love.”
“I knew it.”
In the middle of the night she hears the rains. They tumble far off over the ocean like a great beast grumbling in his sleep. She waits for the violent sheets to begin slashing at the forest as she lies face up in bed. Roland sleeps face down, his head buried in her armpit. He is in his jeans, she is wearing a T-shirt. She wonders if this scene — two virtual strangers, clothed, sleeping together like old friends — would happen in the States. The small, green monkeys rustle the treetops as they search for their mates. Sharp flashes of illumination light up the entire cabin, then fade, leaving white spots before her eyes. Thunder explodes around the house as if all of Africa is shifting, sinking into the sea. She thinks about letters, hers, everyone’s, thousands of letters circulating around the world. Patching up wounds. Opening up new ones. A million words.
Once upon a time I was in love. She thinks of Roland’s story, and even in the African night, beneath the equatorial sky, she can see this Asian girl Roland once loved. Old love. Young love. A tiny waist, Roland’s large, bony hand curved around it while they nap in the middle of the day. Maybe a crystal vase containing yellow roses sits alone on a low, round table in the sunlit room. Curtains the color of the sky sway sluggishly in the German spring. Ethereal music rises from the street. The girl isn’t necessarily pretty, but fragile. Jane can smell her hair just the way Roland had described it before he drifted off to sleep under her arm. “And the whole time,” he had mumbled, “we both knew she would return to China, to be with her family, but such knowledge never helps, does it? We sent letters, then eventually stopped. I was very sad in my heart for a long time.” As she lies there, just a thin tin roof protecting her from the rain, she is overwhelmed with the knowledge that people are very naive and fragile. And that includes her husband. Yes. And possibly even his lover. Life is huge and round and pale blue to Jane, as if she’s underwater. She sleeps.
Morning brings tea on Jane’s porch and the sound of Sunday hymns across the valley. Roland sits in the sunlight and hums along. Sitting next to him, Jane serenely holds her hot cup of tea, enjoying the warmth in her hands and the uncharacteristically cool breeze that has come after the rains. When the music ends, Roland stands to leave. “I have German friends passing through next Saturday. You must meet us in Takoradi for a bubra. Please.”
She walks him to his motorcycle, hands him his helmet. He reaches for her hand but instead touches her lightly on her wrist with two fingers, as if he’s taking her pulse. “I am glad that I saw you in the bar. We have a lot to talk about. I am very glad that I know you.”
Jane, still not quite accustomed to his frankness, smiles. “You don’t know me.”
“I think you are here because you are running away.”
She wants to protest, is suddenly aware of her beating heart. “From what?”
“I don’t know. Sadness? I first saw it, this sadness, yesterday at the bar. As you looked at the sea.” He smiles. “It is OK. I like that about you.”
“No. I am sane. I am sure.” He puts on his helmet. “Meet me on Saturday.”
She watches as he disappears into the rain forest. Birds flutter briefly in his path then gradually settle back down. Africa seems so ancient to her. She can’t see its history the way one can see it in, say, Europe, in its architecture and paintings, but she can feel it all around her: in the tall grass, the thick and curved roots of the trees, the Southern Cross in the night sky, the faces of the people, the acrid breeze of their constant outdoor cooking fires. Old Africa. The beginning of civilization. Jane smiles and thinks of millions of broken hearts.
She thinks of the letter then. She knows she will write another, and probably another and another. She will revise the letters, their tone and message will most likely change, but at 7 a.m., along the green ridge of the Nsein valley in Africa, she wants the next one to say this:
All is forgiven.