Kusubiri (To Wait)
I. To Escape
I arrived off the boat — maybe a lifetime ago — a threadbare traveler, yet another parched visitor with a ratty pack, traveling fast and light. When the engines shut off and we floated to the quay, I took a pill. What the hell. The shrink at the VA in the States said, “One pill every day. Remember. When you stop, you’re done.”
Even though things had been headed down for a while, I wasn’t sure if I was there to give us a final downhill push… or a resurrection. She stood in the crowd behind the barrier at the dock. That must be something, right? When I came through the iron gate at the dock, she was waiting across the street. So that must be something, right?
While the waiter capped our beers in a scruffy Indian restaurant by the pier, she asked if I ever loved her with a capital L. She was always looking for that sure thing. I wanted to say, yes, yes. But the chapati came, and then the rice and dhal. She took the phone out of her back pocket and began to text someone. I convinced myself it must be
work, not that dude from the mainland she’d mentioned hooking up with last month. I pretended to watch the football match through the arched window over the bar. I asked if she was ever going to leave the island.
“Why?” she said. “Everything I want is here.”
She failed to mention if that included me.
We had sex at her place behind the NGO office where she worked. She went to the back porch afterward for a smoke. In the morning, she was still out there curled up on the bare wooden couch, her legs pulled up near her chest, sleeping as the sun rose over the garden wall. I took in, inhaled her staggering beauty, wrapped in a sheet, and felt our uncertain future flip like a coin out of a ripped pocket — heads, tails, heads, tails. She had a plan. I’d take the daladala to the farthest place on the island where the beach was endless and the roads were made of rag coral and stones.
And then she’d come. Sooner, later, whenever.
“Just go out and wait, she said. “I’ll come meet you. Really, I’ll come.” She must have seen the uncertainty in my face. “Hey, there are moms here that, surprise, still need prenatal care and babies that need feeding. But you know I’ll come.” That was one of our things from the first days. Those first days when she asked me, “Yo, Sport. What’s that
one thing you know for sure?” Those were the days of easy laughs and cheap beer. But if you said something three times—it was a promise, real and true.
“Your favorite place, right?” I said, keeping my eyes on her sunburned feet.
“That’s cool. When you can. Yeah, I’ll wait for you out there. Good idea.”
After she left for work the next morning I grabbed some money and my ATM card, my pills and mobile, the Sawyer water filter and some random clothes. I scribbled a note on last week’s shopping list.
# # #
For the first couple of weeks I stayed in one of the hostels behind the village, near the well and far from the beach. I read what was left of a detective novel they had at the desk and played thread-bare football with the local kids.
Then one of the more friendly caretakers said, “Ala, Mzungu, did you hear?” as if it was nothing to either of us, like the water truck arriving early or a new guest in the front room. We tried to tune the little radio with the busted plastic case to the VOA, and when that wasn’t anywhere, to the BBC, and then the local radio station. He translated.
Something about the emergency services and the army deployed in California, roads shutdown, troops shooting to keep order, biochemicals, poison water, burning air. I paced around the room. How far away was all that? How much of that did I carry with me?
Funny thing: I used to be one of those guys “keeping order” and then the burn and the treatment got to me. After two months in the VA, they tossed me out. I was in way too deep anyway. There was a party off-base. My team leader, with the big arms and the Mohawk gave me one last hug and whispered in my ear, “Torch. Remember everything you can, dude. Without memory, you’re a meat puppet, just someone’s stone on the road.”
He was the first one I tried to call. No answer. The hostel cleaner watched as I banged numbers into my phone. Numbers from before.
I called her local number, the last one saved in my phone, then her US number. I just needed to talk with somebody. Who says that’s a bad thing? Always the same response — Circuits are busy. Try your call later. Try your call later. Try your call later. I tried again later and again later still. Like she said, there was work and nowhere else to go. I slammed the phone down on the front desk and the hostel staff shook their heads. A phone, I would learn, was worth a lot more than a phone call.
The cleaner said, “Pole sana.” Very sorry. For a minute I thought about going back to town. And then the cleaner told me no daladala. Town was closed. No one in or out.
“So what are you going to do now?”
To avoid thinking of an answer I walked outside, kicked a rock till my foot hurt and talked myself down. Everything will be back to normal in a week, a month at most.
Maybe not in the States, but here. It was only the States, the good old USA, that was turning on itself, eating itself from the inside out. That’s what I told myself anyway.
“Don’t worry, you can always stay here.” The cleaner laughed and so did I. Two days later the hostel kicked me out. No one wanted my money. US dollars.
On a borrowed bicycle without a seat, I peddled on the sand to the larger village with the ATM, but all I got was, “Error 482, contact your bank.” So I used the last of my local money to rent a beach shack, a boma.
It had a cubbyhole for my pills and other stuff, a cot, a latrine out back, a chair with a broken leg, and a brazier in the middle of the room. No door.
II. To Run
There was no place to go. She was right about that, even as things stretched to three and then six months. I know because I was rationing my pills. One pill a day, every day, like the shrink said. I got friendly with the Indian guy who ran the hostel and the teacher in the larger village with the ATM. They could speak a little English, and hearing even that reminded me who I was. Or who I had been.
I rented a dugout outrigger from the teacher for a cut of whatever I could earn. It was dry enough most days, and had sails pieced together from faded fifty kilo rice bags that said Jin Xiang and Fiffa and Bomba. My favorite was made from a bag with a picture labeled Two Girls. I named them Emelda and Zelda and asked them to watch over me. But I was clear with them: we can hang out, but that’s it. I’m in a relationship.
“Keep your leg in the rope loop,” the teacher had told me when he handed over the oars and the keel. “If the boat goes over, we’ll need a piece of your body to prove you’re dead.”
The boat was more than a way to earn a living. It was my place in the village. There was still a trickle of European visitors and I toured them to the reef and one of the atolls. They paid with local money, and I used it to bargain for a fishing net and a transistor radio, which I charged from a winky wired plug on the front desk of the hostel. Another benefit from being in the tourist trade: The visitors let me use their computer to write
Because no one was sure about email to the States, the visitors promised to send the message via snail mail to the NGO address, some PO Box in New Jersey. Someone at home told them e-mail was being “managed for security” by the US government. They promised she’d get the message. The teacher warned me later that when the tourists need
you, they promise to be your brother, to send money, to take you with them. Then, once they’re in that taxi on the way back to town, you’re less than a memory.
# # #
The juice was turned off with increasing frequency. First it was Monday afternoons, then Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It blinked off Monday one week and never came back. As the Indian manager told me, “When the economy in the States gets whipped, everyone is going to feel the lash.”
I must have taken too many pills because I started talking fast and loud. We can fix this. It’s not my fault. Why don’t we just trade stuff. I’ll trade fish for rice. You’ll trade eggs for milk.
He just smiled saying, “Who are we going to trade for power, for current?”
# # #
The next week he walked down the beach to my boma wearing the pressed shirt and brown pants he always wore. He was carrying his leather sandals to keep them clean for town and asked if I wanted anything. His mobile wasn’t working and he needed instructions from the owners in The Gulf. What to do with the hostel? What to do with the
local staff? What to do with himself?
“Pills, dude,” I said. “Go to the Shamshu Pharmacy, the one behind Darajani, and get me as many of these pills as you can. And before you go, I want to print a picture from my phone.”
We hooked the generator up one last time. “Hear the lion roar,” he said. We laughed and squeezed enough juice to make a couple of prints from a picture someone had taken of us, me and her, smiling, looking at each other. I put one in my pocket, tore another one in half so it was just her and nailed it to a post next to my bed. Some nights, when I was especially tired and stupid, I put my face next to it so we were looking into each other’s eyes. “Capital L love you. Capital L. Capital L. I was just about to… I didn’t know if you… Come on, don’t be like that. I wanted to say it. I did.”
At first it made me crazy happy, talking to her — I could still feel her, like we were sitting in the Indian restaurant. And then, it made me crazy sad, like I’d forgotten to take pills for a week.
“Can you hear me?” I screamed, running out of the boma, yelling at the stars. “I said Capital L. I said it, ok? I said I would wait and I’m waiting. But when you get here I want…”
Best not to want too much.
# # #
The Indian guy who ran the hostel brought a dozen blister packs from town. I went up to his room. “This,” he said, “is my little going away present.”
Then he looked around, shrugged, and started putting stuff in a beat-down suitcase that he slid out from under the bed. I figured it was the same suitcase he came in with. He took the radio from the front desk, three pressed shirts with fraying sleeves, three pairs of pants, a local kanzu, a stack of letters and pictures of kids. Taken when?
“Are those your kids?”
“My nieces and nephews.”
I watched him pack his phone with the broken screen, his razor, toothbrush, and some tooth cleaner in one tin, and some sort of hair grease in another.
He turned up the mattress and swept the floor with a short sisal broom. He had lived in that room for years and in less than fifteen minutes, all that was left of him was dust in the corner.
He had been a mainstay of the community. When the staff or the relatives of their relatives needed a loan because their sister was in the hospital in town, they came to him. When they needed an aspirin because their baby daughter had a fever, they came to him. When they needed to write a letter to get an appointment to get registration papers
so their son could attend school, they came to him. Who would they come to now? Who
would I come to?
He roped the suitcase to the bicycle without a seat.
“Hey dude, when you’re not traveling, what do you keep in there, in the suitcase?”
“What do I keep in the suitcase?” He looked at me, tired, like I was just one of
the hundred mzungu who asked questions. Where to eat and when to swim and where the ATM was.
“Not much. Everything I can’t replace.”
I felt for the picture folded in my pocket. I wouldn’t need a suitcase.
We shook hands.
“Keep an eye on the place,” he said. “When things turn around, we might be
“When do you think?”
He gave me a look that said, don’t ask me and I won’t bullshit you.
# # #
After that, I learned to fish and not be afraid. The fishing was easier. In the morning when the wind was at your back, you might catch the tide going out. It was then you could run the breakers at the reef. You had a couple of hours to grab whatever fish fell into the net, slam them into the bottom of the boat and retreat back into the lagoon. Sure, if you missed the change of tide, you could make a run for it. Maybe you’d smash the boat. Or you could lower the sails and spend the day drifting over the coral until the tide was right again, out on the black water, hoping a rogue wave didn’t crush you against the ocean side of the reef.
The teacher told me to take it easy in the rainy season, when the wind comes up fast. He said he liked his boat. But he liked talking English too. And it was a good day, on the balance beam between too few and too many pills, so I could tell that wasn’t the only reason. He liked telling me what he heard on the BBC. He would tell me the same story
over and over, about the States and the world trying to put itself back together like Humpty Dumpty. Maybe this was his memory. Maybe this was life here. The same story, day after day. Or maybe the BBC was broken too.
I tried to keep track of my fear, hold it at arm’s length. But it wasn’t fear that got to me — it was obsession. Stuff ran around in my head like the fly in the boma that couldn’t find the door. Can’t you see there is no damn door?
After a dream where I felt my leg was on fire, I was sure I would burn the boma down. So, in the middle of the night I moved the brazier, buried it in the sand. After that I cooked outside, even in the rain.
When I was out fishing, past the reef, I was convinced my neighbors were in the boma stealing. I didn’t have much to begin with and by now I had even less. I didn’t give a shit about anything except the pictures and the pills and the Sawyer water filter. So I kept one of the pictures in my pocket all the time, and took some of the pills and the Sawyer with me in the boat. Emelda approved, Zelda, the cautious one, not so much. I lost the pills when a tremendous wave punched the dugout over on the reef like a surfboard. I thought I broke my arm after everything splashed down in the lagoon, but all I cared
about was that the Sawyer was okay.
Then, all I thought about was the phone. The hostel was closed; how was I going to charge it? I had to charge the phone. Had to. What if she called and I didn’t answer? If I didn’t answer, after all this time—was it a year?, maybe more?—I was sure she’d start hooking up with that mainland guy again. I kept the phone on. Then there was a guy, a rich guy (a rich guy?), dying in the village and, like everyone, I ran down the beach to see if there was something to be had when he croaked. Everyone, including my friend the teacher and his family, surrounded the house. After the guy was in the ground, the village leader said he would pick people to go in and take one or two things. There was something, he assured us, for everyone.
The teacher’s wife went in, one of the first, and got the tiny six-panel solar collector. That’s what I needed. I had to have it. She shrugged. When I was chosen, one of the last, I took a handful of women’s shawls.
“Ninaamini tunapaswa kujadili.” I said to the teacher’s wife with a little too much
force and a little too much need. I believe we should negotiate.
“I want, I need the solar for our radio,” she said.
“So do I. I need it for the phone.”
“Yes. I know. We all know. We know everything about you. And you, when will you begin to know about us?”
I didn’t know how to answer.
“Mzungu, the solar is mine. Besides, it’s not like before. You have no one to call with your phone. Remember?”
It’s not true, I thought. I’m going to kill you if you say that again. I bit my lip.
I thought seriously of ripping it out of her hands. But I was sure I’d get the shit kicked out of me for it. I probably could still take one or two, but eventually, maybe even when I was sleeping, the men would hold me down and beat me with sticks.
“Just take all these shawls, as a gift. And maybe I can use the solar at your house?”
That’s how it worked for a while. I would walk down the sand to have tea with the teacher and, as the tea was brewing, I would take the red and black wires on the side of the solar and stick them into the phone.
But after a while, I didn’t bother. She was right. If there was no juice in this part of the island, maybe the whole island, maybe the whole…
Anyway, there wasn’t going to be anyone calling.
The next week, I gave the mobile phone away to one of her kids, who talked, with the English her father taught her, non-stop and didn’t bother charging it.
“Hallo, hallo, hallo. My name is Khadija. I am seven years old. Seven years old. Khadija, my name is…”
She told me, “You will see. I’m phoning and later people will come from the outside and give us money. That’s what they always do.”
III. To Count
The pictures began to fade and my memories came less frequently. What was the sound as she lit a cigarette? What did her lips taste like after a swim? How did she smell when she was sleeping and put her leg over mine?
I took some time to count the pills I had left, adding the days I skipped and the ones from town, subtracting the ones I lost in the lagoon. It must have been two years. Was it more? Was it a lot more?
Even if I stretched it, I only had months to go on the pills. But I promised I would
wait. I promised.
The picture in my pocket began to shred, particularly where it folded. I tried to flatten and keep the little section that held her face, her shoulders, her funny ears, and especially her eyes. The eyes that could still bring me back from thinking about the reef and what might be out there, from the phone that was gone, from my friend’s radio that didn’t
work anymore, from my diminishing blister packs of pills. I tried looking at that section of the picture in the bright light of mid-day, hoping I could burn it into my retinas.
Until it was stolen, the picture nailed to the wall fared a little better. But when I needed to jerk off late at night, I would run outside so she wouldn’t see. When I got back inside and before crashing back onto the cot, I would apologize…for everything.
I learned the local language, which I spoke incredibly badly, or so the village kids told me.
They stopped calling me Mzungu and named me Nyanya, tomato, because of my hair and skin.
When they talked to me, a few of the kids and even some adults, inserted words like schooli, girlfriendi, boati. It worked for everyone.
Once while harvesting seaweed I asked one of the women, “How is it possible your language has no verb for missing?” She looked at her friend curiously. “How is it possible,” I asked, “you can recite from the Holy Qu’ran, but you can’t say, ‘I miss my friend.’” They laughed and her friend said, “True, Nyanya. We can see what it is you miss
at the end of each day. But if there was no word for miss, maybe you don’t miss?”
# # #
“I’ve heard you’re learning to survive,” my friend the teacher said.
“And I’m paying you when I use the boat.”
“That’s true, but that’s the least of it. Putting food in your mouth, sure, you have to do that.” As his cook worked behind us, I could smell the cardamom, cinnamon and cloves, and the milk being boiled for tea on the charcoal brazier behind the house. “But people tell me you are learning how to talk. Not really talk, but…” He closed the shutters
against the late afternoon sun. “Negotiate and even… joke. What do you call it? Tease.”
“I guess I must be learning then.”
“Why don’t you leave? I’d even lend you my bicycle so you could peddle down
the beach and catch a daladala. You know, from down there, they are running again, once a week, I think.”
“I don’t have anywhere to go, I guess. Anywhere better than here. And I promised my friend. The one. The one I told you about.”
“Suppose your friend is back wherever she came from? It has been years. You think a promise is forever?”
I looked at my callused, broken feet. A promise is what I had left.
He looked at me. “Well, we still have tea. And the rest of the world is discovering they don’t need your country as much as they thought.”
“You’re the teacher. You think that’s the lesson?”
“The lesson?” The tea came out. It was hot, milky and sweet. “I think the lesson is we don’t need the things we think we need. It’s the other things; we need them very much.”
# # #
Like everyone else in the village, I got sick. I got well. I stretched the pills, taking six, then five, then four in a week. I kept the blister packs, even the empty ones, and stopped counting the days because the empty blister packs did the counting for me. How many hundreds of days? And how many remain? During Ramadan, I went to the mosque and wondered what the other men prayed for. The teacher said he prayed for peace. So, why not? I prayed for peace. And I prayed for pills. I sold salt and fish and the seaweed that I dried but didn’t use for fuel. Every night there were stars. I dreamed the North Star turned higher in the sky. I dreamed of falling leaves. I dreamed of shoveling the first snow
in the morning, the kind on the driveway that would melt by noon anyway. I dreamed my team leader with the Mohawk would save me, like he had once already, dragging me out by my feet. If I dreamed hard maybe the stars might turn fast enough.
In one of my recurring dreams we were skipping together, light and easy on the beach. I tripped and when I got up, she was gone. In another, she was swimming in the lagoon and the tide pulled her out and no matter how fast I made the boat run on the wind, I couldn’t stop her being sucked out through the reef.
After those dreams, I ran the numbers in my head. How many pills would it take to finish me? Seven? Ten? Forty? And what would happen if I didn’t take enough? I thought about taking my foot out of the rope loop, jumping off the dugout out past the reef and just letting go. The thought of how that would end—at night, alone, fish food— gave me the shakes.
Sometimes, I would be lying in the sand before sleep, watching the stars, and think maybe the teacher was right. No one is coming. Maybe I am all I’ve got. What was left of before, if I couldn’t remember it? Maybe before was just something I’d dreamed, like driveway snow before it melted.
IV. To Wait
I roll over onto my side trying to feel for the rusted puke can under the bed. Where did it go? I try pushing up onto my elbows. Then I give up, turning on the cot away from the doorway and heaving whatever is left in my stomach onto the floor. It isn’t much.
I turn onto my back trying to wipe my face. I scrape out what remaining pill crumbs are left in the blister packs, first with my finger and then my tongue. I run my tongue around every indentation, every plastic husk, where a pill had once been. The Sawyer is clogged with sand and salt and I’m down to a couple of daily cups of brine.
Opening my eyes would be the right and proper thing to do. I want Zelda and Emelda to catch the outbound wind past the lagoon. I want to fill my eyes with the blue.
I can’t hear or understand much, but I feel a cool, small hand on my chest, someone saying “Wait.” I hear two guys talking in a language I can’t remember to understand. I open my eyes wider and see someone, the teacher, moving to block the sun. I want to lift my hand, but my arms won’t work. I want to tell her, to tell someone who might tell her, that I was here. A sure thing. I didn’t need everyone to know. It wasn’t a big deal — or was it? But I needed her to know.
Some guy with big arms picks me up as the teacher carries the cot. The two men lift and put me into the back of a truck. It’s dark back there with the doors closed. Where did they go? The truck starts to move, almost tipping me onto the floor, jerking over the stone road, probably out past the well. I yell, “Subiri. Usinisahau.” Wait. Don’t forget me.
And the truck stops. They open the back for a moment and someone gets in. The doors close again. Is it her next to me in the dark? Her arms under my neck, carefully so as not to hurt? I can taste my own tears. I can hear her say, “I’ve got you. I’ve got you.” The truck bounces on the rocks. And I strain, trying to hear her words the third time. The
third time that would make it real and true.