The flames catch and climb, the smoke settles low across the carpeted floor like seawater filling the passenger cabin of a sinking ship. This is the image that comes as the two of you reach for each other in the fumbling darkness: Curtains burning soundlessly in a red room.
Through it all the record turns, the threadbare song echoes through the empty halls — fumy, sepia-soaked voices haunted by the disappearance of their own time.
My love must be a kind of blind love. I can’t see anyone but you.
Photo by Flickr user PV KSYou have to work at losing someone, you think, as your hands begin to do what they are told. From a photograph on the shelf, Suzette’s creased and steady gaze is blind in one direction. It can only look back. You know this intimately, painfully. Who are you with, now? To whom are you surrendering?
“Oh, god,” says the woman you have brought to your bed, as the record unspools its wraithy reverberations. “This song.”
Years ago. A different continent. So many nights lost or unrecognizable, excepting the night you made your way past the broken mortars and spent shell-casings, the chaffed-off rust of rotorless helicopters tilting in their shallow mound-graves, the flayed ruins of Russian-built planes that lay in crooked waste in the fields around the aeroporto internacional. Suzette waited for you where she said she would, on a bench in the darkened terminal. It had been hours since the last plane arrived or departed. You were clean-shaven for the first time in months. Why had she wanted to meet there? The anonymity of a world in transit, the normality of a white man (aid worker, diplomat, tourist) sharing a whispered conversation with a local girl. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway; the place was deserted but for the cleaning crew and the half-sleeping Mozambican customs agents.
“There are places inside myself I haven’t been to yet,” Suzette said, and when she did you broke a dozen promises that had been designed to keep you alive. The two of you walked out to the observation deck that overlooked the single runway, which was cracked and edged with weeds. You sat on the half-wall and talked about the coastal village she had run away from and the healers who emerged from the bottom of the sea. You could hardly bear how close she was to you, how lost, your absurd and privileged luck, the vastness and soft bearing of her presence that overwhelmed your inhibition.
Are the stars out tonight? I can’t tell if it’s cloudy or bright.
One night in August she drives you away from the city and out to West Rock Ridge State Park. She parks the car outside the locked gates and the two of you hike the road that leads down to the lake. The pavement is warm and wet. The night-wind tosses the trees.
You take your shoes off and roll your jeans up and wade out into the dark waters, feeling the cool velvet mire on the rocks beneath your feet. She watches you from the shore. You cup a handful of lake water and release it over your head, letting it run down your shoulders and back. You let your mind drift, remembering nights in the village so bright you didn’t need a candle to bathe by. Every surface washed in silver and the trees threw shadows. Suzette and the fire-warmed water poured pale down her dark body. You lose track of time passing.
The moon may be high, but I can’t see a thing in the sky.
“So strange,” you say later, “to live in a place where water can be trusted.” You tell her about the crocodiles, about the bilharzia, about the hippopotamus that made its way downstream one wet season and claimed the lives of two women from the village before it was hunted down.
You walk back to the car. She turns on the heat to warm you up and your fingers find their way between her fingers.
You’ll have to figure things out. Sooner or later.
The fairgrounds were mostly empty except for the boy with no face, and the boy who carried the boy with no face on his back. They chased the two of you through the narrow alleyways, past the closed-down restaurant stalls and the bumper-car island and the shuttered strip clubs. The boy laughed and growled through his scored featureless nothingness and you were terrified by his feral lack of demands but you laughed back wildly, uncontrollably. He thought he had you cornered but you grabbed Suzette and pulled her through a hole in the fence that was too ragged for the boy with no face and his courier to breach.
That was the first time you held her hand.
You led her back around to the Ferris wheel and on the third or fourth turn it stalled with the two of you at the top, and the sea and the city beneath you. Music rose from the scattered marketplaces and mingled in the humid air. She spoke almost in a whisper and laughed and fell into silent pause. The tops of the palm trees below swayed in the salted wind.
I don’t know if we’re in a garden, or on a crowded avenue.
“I want you taste my language,” she said, and smiled.
You spend more time alone. You feel it slipping into your life, this detachment. There’s a corner table at the local bar where you like to sit and drink and the waitresses look at you with pity even though you have worked yourself into a quiet kind of happiness. They have no idea, and this is part of your secret; it’s the side-paths of the village that make your heart unnavigable. Your life is full of good friends and meaningful work and the least you can allow yourself is a soft longing and a gratitude for having survived the near-death of love. And yet you lead yourself to believe that you could find your way back to that place again. Given the right circumstances. The right person.
You are here, so am I. Maybe millions of people pass by.
One night, sometime after 2 a.m., she sends you a text. You are just slipping into an inebriated sleep but you grab your phone off the bed-side stand. Nothing surprises you about what she says:
I saw you at the bar tonight sitting there by yourself and I realized for the first time how desperate and empty you are. You’re someone I once let into my circle of friends and all I could do tonight is feel sorry for you. You can’t live through your village stories forever. I’m done trying to get through to you, but maybe you could call me if you ever decide to live in the present. All the best.
You lie there, awake, until the sun comes up. It’s been almost seven years now. There’ve been others. Some closer, even.
But they all disappear from view.
A storm had knocked out all the power from the village. You and Suzette ate bread and sugared tea for dinner and then you sat next to each other at the table talking softly through the candlelight. It was a long weekend and the boarding school students and most of the teachers had gone to the city. When the rain let up you moved to the small concrete verandah outside your front door and looked down at the village. Across the bairros open doorways and windows flickered with the light of kerosene lanterns. The high wind sang through the cellular phone antennas. The churchbells were silent and there was no call to prayer from the mosque. Suzette, accustomed now to the city, made a double-edged joke with the wave of her hand:
“I’ll never understand how you people live in this backwards place,” she said, and laughed.
Later, the two of you collapsed into your broken bed. Every touch was a gamble. There was only so much to save you from yourselves. That’s how it was for everyone back then. The more you abandoned, the more you risked. You were letting yourself go to this village, to this impossible girl. Maybe you could find a way to never leave.
Sometime in the night the candle you had stuck into the neck of an empty wine bottle guttered and tilted. The flame leaned into the heavy red curtains that were nothing more than repurposed linens from the student dormitories. You didn’t notice until you caught the smell of wet smoke. You moved to get up but she put her hand behind your head and held you there with the lightest of persuasion. Firelight grew deeper and threw its will across the red walls.
“Baby”, she said, using her hips to angle you more deeply into her body, “I only have eyes for you.”
And the room around you just kept burning.