The Old Fever: A Memoir of Kenya by Rick Gray
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  EXCERPTS FROM A MEMOIR by Rick Gray
 Yellow Moon
 Somali Women 
 
The Notebooks
 Somehow Peeling
 In the Darkness 
 Checking into the Pig 
 The Curse
 
 

The Notebooks

There was knocking, an edgy rhythm. I gripped my lantern and was rising from the pile of student notebooks when the door flew open. They say there are no second acts in American lives, but I could see my ex-girlfriend believed this did not apply if you were out of country. Her backpack burst with supplies, as if she planned to stay a long time, or forever.

It was my fault. During the dark days of Peace Corps training, I had composed long love letters, to numb my loneliness. After I had been posted to the Kenyan highlands, I romantically described my life, hoping she would share the letters with those in New York skeptical of my going to Africa. It was cheap vanity, I knew even as I wrote it, never thinking she would appear at my doorstep. Yet here she was. I let her in.

Our parting had not been smooth. We were at David Mamet’s Speed-The-Plow on Broadway. Like every unemployed actress in New York, she was offended by the casting of Madonna in the only female role. She grimaced and squirmed in the darkness beside me throughout the first act. So when the theater lights came up during the intermission and I turned and told her I was moving to Kenya, she stormed from the theater. I stayed on for the second act. It was fucking Mamet. When I returned to her Village apartment I found her on the floor with her wrist slashed. It wasn’t a deep cut, just a scratch below the surface to draw blood, probably a ketchup mixture. I played our game, rushed around, attended her wounds, and she revived.

Now, as I stared into the flame of my lantern dancing in her green eyes, I could feel the old craziness returning. She had dyed jet-black hair, cut short and pulled tightly on her head, with a nod toward punk. Though this was 1988, in a time just before heroin chic, she had the sharp cheekbones and the ennui rehearsed to perfection. She dumped her backpack on the floor and lit up a Marlboro, her smeared lipstick leaving a red stain on her cigarette that looked like blood, or dangerous sex. Her arrival set off days of turbulent fucking and fiery arguments, great entertainment to the Kenyan school community, who clucked their tongues in disapproval. What was heard through the cardboard walls of the faculty housing spaces was never mentioned in the staff room, but the long silence that greeted my morning arrival let me understand I would be asked to leave if I continued. Yet I couldn’t stop myself, and by the end of the second week I was on my knees, proposing.

“Will you marry me, Dana?” I asked, peering up from my filthy cement floor. She accepted. I headed off to the local Catholic mission to find a priest. Kenyans hid themselves as I bounded by their compounds like the village idiot.

“I’d like to get married,” I told the Italian nun who greeted me. She sighed and looked upwards with a tired face and whispered what sounded like “Christ.” She knew who I was. The Italian missionaries would visit our school on Friday afternoons for catechism classes, and seemed at first confused, and then irritated, by the presence of a white person living with Africans. Bored, I would sometimes visit their classes and sit with my students. The missionaries never smiled back at me.

“She’s an African?” the nun asked.

“American. She’s from New York.”

Her shoulders sagged, her black, Italian shawl now hanging in the way I had seen in the Italian Film Festivals back in New York. I felt sorry for her. She had come to bring Jesus to the African bush, and now she had me. She let a long, nun pause pass, I knew them well. She told me to think it over for a few more days. As I thanked her for her help, she pierced me with a Mona Lisa smile. I had seen this before, an intuitive feminine warning, and it always intimates trouble. Walking back, the dread grew. The Kenyans now nodded with me in solidarity as I crept by their compounds.

When I opened the door to my space I found her sprawled on the floor and thought, oh no, not the wrist again. I wanted to kneel down beside her and explain that people don’t cry out for help in Africa. Africans suffer silently and die. But then I noticed the notebooks scattered around the floor and knew it was over. While I sat with the nun, my girlfriend had been rifling my journals. And in those journals was something I had never mentioned in the letters to New York.

It started with the books. Not long after I arrived at the school I volunteered as the librarian and began to stock the library with the Heinemann African Writers Series. The problem was, nobody wanted to read the African Writers Series. What they wanted was another series of trashy African soft-porn with titles like Mwangi’s Last Affair. I had thrown a few of these books into my African Writers Series choices, as a joke. They quickly spread through the student body like a tropical disease. There were lines outside the library to check one of them out, and I had to threaten many students for their return. Word of these books went even beyond our school, into the local villages. There were adults I recognized from the vegetable market turning up at the library door. Though written in English, they spoke to the community with a Nairobi version of slang that was irresistible. Mwangi’s Last Affair was our most popular book.

“She was a devil of the Nairobi streets, an alcoholic and a bhang addict, and she felt a savage pleasure burn like a paraffin lamp through her black perspiring body. In the dark hotel room on the wrong side of River Road, Mwangi’s posh wedding ring sparkled like the eyes of a spitting cobra of India as he pounded into her like the Ashanti drums.”

During the rains, the students stretched thick plastic coverings over the books, to protect them. They looked like stiffened condoms on the library shelf. I signed them out with the shame of a porn peddler.

Certain female students began to visit the library after school, asking if Gichuru’s Last Taboo was available, or if Kimani’s Anguish had finally been recovered. It was always the one I had a crush on at the time, and she always came alone. Africans are never alone. Everything is done communally, even naps. The students would nap on top of each other, in mounds, during the lunch recess. Basking, they called it. I would stroll over to a pile of girls, their breasts rising and falling in group rhythm beneath their school uniform shirt and ties. Their eyelids would open slowly before they gazed up at me with pity and concern. It was a look I often saw from Kenyans. To be alone in Africa is to be in trouble. Solitude is for the outcast, and is considered painful and shaming. But I couldn’t hide from them. They saw me every day up in front of their class, unprepared, unqualified, and riffing off an improvised syllabus. And they saw my lustful glances, which grew less and less subtle as the solitary nights grew longer.

The girls began wearing lipstick, which was banned at the school, along with smoking and jewelry and speaking tribal languages. But these rules were all interpreted freely, in the African way. It went beyond rebellion, beyond lipstick and the occasional earring. It came from the core of who they were, their bodies, their walks, and the African rhythm that swung against and even ripped its way through the cheap thread. They cocked their skirts into impossible angles, tied complicated tribal knotting into their white button-down shirts, and introduced lacework into their socks, which they would bleach into an immaculate white to create the maximum erotic tension against their long, dark legs. After a night of maps and secret drinking the sight of the socks was like a kick to the groin. Some of the girls even tried to get away with rubber gumboots, which appeared to my eyes, bloodshot from insomnia and bad brandy, like high- fashion, African kink. I sent them back to the dorms and told them to wear the standard shoe.

One afternoon a student famous for speaking in tongues appeared at the library door. I feared her power and considered locking her out. Before I could stand she had stepped through the doorway and, her lipstick glistening, asked, “Mr. Gray, why don’t you enjoy us?”

She had been sent as a spokeswoman, and I quickly peered out of the library window for others. A few grazing goats lifted their heads from the grass, but otherwise the school compound looked empty. I turned back to her, hoping her eyelids wouldn’t start fluttering, the sign of another trance coming on. Her voices would draw a crowd, the last thing I wanted at that moment. I caught myself staring at her socks and tore my eyes away and focused on the flapping Congo on the Africa map on the library wall. Yet I couldn’t play dumb with her. She knew I had been around Ol Kalou long enough to know what the word “enjoy” meant, and she had psychic powers, and could read my thoughts as easily as one of the trashy books on the shelf.

“You don’t like Africans?” she teased.

“No, it’s not that---” I began to explain. A group of screaming, leaping students ran by the library window tossing a volleyball. The student who spoke in tongues turned away and rushed out the door. When I looked out of the window I saw her toss a fierce grin over her shoulder, then she turned away and became a schoolgirl again, racing with her classmates for the volleyball net. The library smelled like perfume. That night I wrote the first long, graphic sexual fantasy, inspired by this incident, into my journal. Within a month a pile of dirty notebooks lay beneath my bed.

These were the open notebooks now spread around my American fiancé. They peered up from the cement floor like the knowing African faces of my students. I did not truly love this woman I had asked to marry me, they laughed, and she did not love me. My proposal was only part of the sick act of our old life. I looked down straight into her green eyes and refused to apologize. She came at me with a Swiss Army knife before it was finally over, then grabbed her backpack and stormed away. I followed her out into the tall grass and watched until her tight black clothing had disappeared into the valley, and knew all of my old dreams were dead. I was glad no one could see me smiling. And when I turned back to my space, I saw I was wrong. Some of the Kenyan faculty had witnessed the scene. I think this was the first time we truly saw each other. They were grinning too.

 

end

© 2012, Rick Gray

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