All posts in Non-fiction

  • A Girl

    A portable stereo in the corner of the clinic waiting room played static-flecked synthesized versions of old pop songs. The air was heavy with the smell of chemical-cleanliness and unmoved by the lifeless ceiling fan above, already gathering winter dust. My right leg was impatient, shaking, when “The Girl from Ipanema” started for a third time, and I couldn’t help but walk over and hit the ‘stop’ button with my fist. Who listens to muzak at a time like this?

    The reception nurse glared at me from behind her computer monitor, but said nothing. I carried on reading from the wrinkled thesaurus I’d found on the bookshelf beside me.

    A blunder.

    A bungle.

    A misadventure.

    My English professor had passed on this advice for if we ever felt lost with our stories. He told us to head to the library, look up the keywords of the story in a thesaurus. It must – and he repeated this point – be a heavy bound copy, the kind that could kill you should it fall on your head as you lift it from the shelf. “The words, incubated by the silence of the place, help your mind make sense of things.”

    He insisted this worked for any problem.

    Were he here now, my professor would have commented that in the absence of music a deafening silence now filled the room – although he wouldn’t have phrased it in such a cliched way. No, last semester he had lectured that “the descriptions are colored by the consciousness of the character through whose eyes the story is viewed,” a line that I circled with red pen in my notes. In which case he probably would write that the atmosphere here was like a funeral parlor the day before a ceremony, or a holding cell for the dead and the soon to be so.

    The old man opposite me looked up from his magazine, coughed and shook his head my way. I got the same shake and glare one-two when I arrived and gave the girl’s name to the nurse at the front desk.

    “You were supposed to drop her off and pick her up.”

    “The traffic was terrible,” I avoided her eyes as I said this, “no parking spaces.” Both of which were true, but neither of which told why I’d called the girl in question in the middle of last night, unable to sleep, instead just staring at the artexing on the ceiling above my bed for hours. It didn’t explain the initial relief that I felt when the call rang through to voicemail, why I suddenly panicked when prompted to leave a message, told the digitized voice that I couldn’t make the appointment. I would never have said that to the girl herself, never would have been able to tell a real person such a thing. In the morning I ignored her calls, held the phone in my hand and stared at the flashing screen instead of being there, as she had asked.


    I cracked the bones in my hand over and over and jangled the change in my pocket. At the far end of the waiting room were white double doors, their frosted glass circles staring right at me. Don’t judge me now, I came through, I am here. I wondered if she could hear the old man’s coughing from down the corridor. I felt like yelling, making a big show of it. I’m ready to hold your hand.

    The old man searched the magazine rack for some new material. Three year old National Geographics, home improvement magazines, parenting guides. He had an origami kind of face, all folded wrinkles and no edges. He picked up a travel brochure and coughed again.


    The letter confirming the appointment explained that it would take four hours, give or take. On the reverse side were various guidances. Directions to wear loose, comfortable clothing. Bring flat shoes and a sweater. Starting two hours before the allotted time, do not eat or drink anything – this last part screamed in capitals.

    “I know you’re busy, Matt, but you’ll come with me, won’t you?” She asked. “This is our situation, not mine.” 

    I nodded, yes.

    “Are you sure?” She tried to meet my eyes in an attempt to seal the contract. Tried, because my eyes were cement, stuck staring at the floor.


    A bomb, a breakdown, a bust.

    A disappointment.

    An implosion, inadequacy, a sinking ship, a total loss.


    Two weeks before, we had gone to the doctor about the stomach pains, nausea. I remembered he asked her about her eating habits. She said she hadn’t been able to keep anything down for days. I un-held her hand at this point – she hadn’t told me this part. The doctor asked about whether she was late or not, and I looked at my watch, although I knew what he meant.


    An accident. It was as much what the thesaurus didn’t say as what it did say. An idiot. A decision. Adolescents, kids, what were we doing?


    “I think we should talk about this some,” she said over the phone. “You can’t just run away.”

    “Talk about what. And I didn’t run, I walked,” a point I was keen to make. “Let’s schedule an appointment and get it over with.”

    “For a writer you sure have a way with words.” She hung up and although her number was on my screen I didn’t immediately call her back. I told myself that she wouldn’t want to be bothered during this difficult time – these exact words.


    I turned the page and a bookmark fell out of the back, lions or tigers – the cage photoshopped out – at the San Diego Zoo. I thought of my high school biology teacher telling the class that just 4% of animals are monogamous. Animals that tend to look alike are more likely to mate for life. I thought of her blonde hair to my black hair. Alliance. Decency. Virtue. How could I be sure it was mine?


    The second clinic was located in the city center, but on a back street behind a large crowded department store. The quickest way was to walk through it, but I insisted we walk all the way around, not wanting to be recognized at this time.

    Inside, the doctor handed us a leaflet with a photo of a young woman on the front whose face was tilted to the side with a half open mouth, like she was deciding between the meat or the fish.

    The first bullet point: I think I’m pregnant! The fifth: How to arrange a procedure. I felt this should have been the first and only point. How is an abortion performed? I handed the leaflet to her. She burst into tears – my professor didn’t like stock phrases, but this was the correct phrase here – when we saw the ultrasound the following week. The nurse asked me to wait outside while they had a little chat. Later, she told me that the nurse asked if she was sure this was what she wanted, told her that it was her choice too, one that she had to be comfortable with. “But of course you’re comfortable with this,” I said.


    Contrition. Sin. Accountability. The old man and his coughing became unbearable. My biology professor talked about lions and tigers too, about the mating habits of spiders, filial infanticide.

    A miracle, an achievement – the antonyms made me feel better.


    The procedure lasted about four and a half hours in total. The doctor said it was successful, and I wondered if he used that word every time. On the drive home I asked how she was, said the things one is supposed to in such situations. “It’s all going to be okay. It’s for the best.”

    She stayed at my place for the following three nights and wore the same blue sweater the whole time. We watched daytime talk shows and I ordered takeout for us each evening, although she hardly ate a thing.


    She didn’t call after that, although she probably thought to. A blessing. Normality. I didn’t call either.


    My professor would have probably told me that this story needed a clearer resolution. I would have agreed, and gone back to the draft, reworked it a little. Something something epiphany, and amends made – if not to those directly involved, then at least in the narrator’s future relationships. Would that be enough? Would that help the poor girl? Perhaps I would have argued that the narrator’s actions could instead serve as a comment on male detachment, the cowardice of youth. My professor might have responded, “but in that case you need to make him more sympathetic. To tell the truth, at times he just comes across like an a-hole.”

    “That’s not fair,” I would have thought to say, but didn’t want to give too much away about the truth of the story.

  • A Name for Regret

    Ruwa was ten when I met her, or there about. No one could say for sure, so, I thought of her as ten during my first year in West Africa, and eleven at some point during my second. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Niger, and Ruwa lived with the Hausa family next door. But she was not Hausa, and her name was not a Hausa name. It means water, and I thought it was beautiful, evocative. The roll of a soft R over Saharan dunes. The rounded waiting of parched lips. The cool satisfaction of moisture upon the tongue. Ah, Ruwa. Singularly ubiquitous and necessary. Unlike the names of everyone else I met in Niger, hers was a name I thought I understood.

    I tried to ask her about it once, but she just shrugged her shoulders with a child’s self-consciousness and mumbled something I didn’t understand. The other women of the household waived my questions away impatiently. “Bawa,” they barked, “Bawa.” I asked them if that was her village or her family name, and they rolled their eyes and clicked their tongues with repugnance, directed not at my shaky grasp of their language, but at the question itself. They were the co-wives of the man who ran the bus depot. Maigari took people’s money, and waved them on and off the crammed, rattling buses and trucks that passed through the village. He negotiated fees for tethered goats and chickens, and decided whose baskets of grain and bundles of cargo should be checked by the soldiers playing cards in the corner of the depot. He was a man of influence.

    When the griots made their rounds, they sang their praises loudest in front of his door. When the Bedouins arrived with dates, his family was the first to taste them. When the locusts swarmed, those with nothing else to give collected the fattest insects from the fields, fried them with hot peppers and brought them to Maigari’s house by the basket load until his wives and I could eat no more. If you needed a favor, he was the man to see.

    When I first moved into my village, Maigari’s women watched from the adjoining compound. Hadiza crouched on a low stool over an open fire, stirring something in a charred black cauldron. Her co-wife, Hamsatou, sat flat on the baked dirt with her legs stretched out in front of her, 14-year-old Aichatou’s head in her lap. She weaved long strands of hair against Aichatou’s head while Aichatou winced and craned her neck to get a better look at me, the American.

    I did not see Ruwa that first day. Her presence in the household eased into my consciousness in much the same way that their language and culture became part of my daily existence—over chores shared with the women. We squatted in the courtyard picking sandy grit from baskets of grain while I practiced vocabulary and asked simple questions.

    “Menene wanun?” What do you call this?

    “Akwai ruwa chikin rijia?” Is there water in the well?

    And once, I turned to Ruwa to ask, “Ina garinki?” Where is your village?

    Again, the women scoffed. Aichatou flicked her wrist and snapped her lips in anger. “Ba’ komi?” What does it matter?

    I wanted to press her for a real answer, but Ruwa had already receded. At 21, I hadn’t the stomach for the investigation. I conceded to the cultural gap. And it was a wide gap that spanned an immeasurable distance from the world I knew.

    In this new world, in Ruwa’s world, I woke each day to an ancient symphony that lifted the morning over an ochre horizon in three parts. First, the roosters stretched their necks and scratched their staccato alarm to the fading night. Their cries were followed by the Mallam’s soulful call to prayer, a prayer that swelled the desert air and spilled through the village like a haunting — echoing, reverberating, and fading languorously into hush. A fertile pause. Suspension of time while the sun balanced on the edge of before and after. And then, beat by hollow beat, the silence gave way to the rhythmic drumming of mortar and pestle. Women began their work. Day had broken.

    On most mornings, I joined my neighbors for breakfast. Hamsatou and Hadiza took turns cooking while Ruwa swept the ground beside the fire, and Aichatou yawned and whined in the universal language of adolescence. I watched and learned to eat from a bowl with my hands, politely. With breakfast done, I would begin my rounds through the village, visiting women who expressed interest in the stove-building technology I was sent there to peddle, though even then, I suspected their interest was roused more by me than my wares.

    In the afternoons, visitors would sometimes join me under the shady acacia tree in front of my house. Aichatou and Ruwa stopped by often to talk and to watch me go about my day. Once, I invited them to share in the pageantry as I opened a care package from my mother. I fed them a kaleidoscope of treats like M&Ms and Good and Plenty, and showed them magazine photos of places that far exceeded their imaginations. As I flipped through the starched pages of Cosmo, they stopped me on a shiny picture of colorful baubles on a string. “American food,” the two girls declared almost in unison.

    “Jewelry,” I corrected them. Aichatou snapped at Ruwa as if it had been her stupid fault they were wrong. It was the silent invective of a favored child.

    We were nearing the bottom of the package, and I turned their attention to the crinkly cellophaned rolls of Sweet Tarts lingering in the folds of newspapers yet to be discovered. I handed one to each. Aichatou opened hers immediately and shot a possessive look at Ruwa who put the candy in her wrap for later. I knew she would never taste it, and I wanted to ask again about her family. Where were the people who loved her? I had the training, or rather the obligation, to seek the truth, having arrived in Niger with newly printed degrees in journalism and cultural anthropology. But I lacked the strength for it. I think perhaps it was that day when I bent to the sin of conjecture. I imagined Ruwa had come from a small farming village some miles away. Maybe her family had feared she would starve in their arms, or had themselves fallen victim to famine. It was not an uncommon thing during times of drought in the desert. I cast Maigari as the wealthy patron who had taken her in, offered her refuge from a terrible fate. It was the narrative I had been looking for. But it was the wrong one.

    It has been 25 years since I left Africa, and it has taken me a long time to listen to my Peace Corps stories as I retell them for my daughters. There was Hamsatou who laughed as she tried to plait my silky hair. There was short-tempered Hadiza who judged the village women harshly. There was Aichatou who had a biting tongue. And then there was Ruwa whose name meant water. Ruwa who was bawa and had no family–whose only place was at the fire or beneath Aichatou’s animus. Ruwa in the retelling did not feel right, and so, one evening, as I translated words like donkey, and camel, and shadow for my children, I finally reached for the frayed Hausa dictionary I still keep on the bookshelf. There in the tissue-thin pages lay the one word I had neglected to search for all these years. Bawa: a slave.

    Ruwa, was a girl to carry water.

    Water . Maigari’s compensation for an unpayable debt.

    The truth is sharp, but it rings clearly now through the safe distance of time. I imagine how I might have purchased her freedom, though I can’t see the path that would have kept her free—a young girl with no education in a country with no place for young girls. Would Maigari have replaced her with another? Was it within my power to lift even one child up? Did I fail her, or is that hubris? These questions come too late to matter, so I resort to telling myself again and again that I could not have changed much.

    In the 25 years since I left, Niger has suffered a coup and civil unrest. The drought has lifted and returned. The gentle nomads with whom I once traveled have taken up jihad for their survival. The ambassador’s friendly wife was revealed as a spy, and U.S. troops have built a base for drone missions into neighboring Mali. It is not the Niger I remember. It never was. Niger has always been bigger than I allowed, with a disturbing history and a complicated future. I see that now. And although I can never fully excuse my reluctance, or inability, to see through such thinly veiled darkness, I have come to accept that I was young, and I have found peace in the admission that I am not someone who will change the world.

    In the village, Maigari and his two wives are surely dead. Aichatou is an old woman at 39. But I have not allowed Ruwa to age in my mind. Through guilt and regret, I have chosen to preserve for my conscience, the shy, unassuming ten-year-old who would one day return to her natal village—a village in which the mornings are sung into being by roosters and prayer calls and the timbre of pounding wood—a village where her family named her Ruwa because they loved her. Because Water in the desert is life itself, and the name is beautiful.