The Romance and Reality of Paris: A Conversation with Alexander Maksik
by Michelle Johnson
Alexander Maksik, who moved to Paris in 2002 to write and teach, is the author of You Deserve Nothing, the first book from Tonga Books, Europa Editions’ new imprint, edited by Alice Sebold. His writing has appeared in several journals and the anthologyStrangers in Paris: New Writing from the City of Light (Tightrope, 2011). The recipient of a Truman Capote Fellowship and a Teaching Writing Fellowship from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he lives in Iowa City, where he’s the provost’s postgraduate writing fellow.
Here, WLT‘s (World Literature Today) managing editor interviews Maksik about the contemporary literary expatriate scene in Paris, the persistence of romantic notions of Parisian expat life, and Maksik’s own work.
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Michelle Johnson: Your novel, You Deserve Nothing, is set in Paris. Did you write it while living there? What is the relationship between your time in Paris and the novel?
Alexander Maksik: I did, and I’d never have written it without having lived in Paris. I’d lived there for three years before I began writing, so the love affair was over by then. Along with its charms, I’d also discovered a Paris that included all the awful things every other city includes—poverty and homelessness, neighborhoods divided by race and wealth, a variety of bigotry. So I set out to write a sort of anti-Parisian Paris novel. I knew that, for several reasons, I couldn’t write about glittering lights and iconic avenues. In large part, the novel is about disappointment, and part of that disappointment is tied to the disparity between the romance and reality of Paris.
MJ: While you were living in Paris, did you think of yourself as an “expat”?
AM: Despite my best intentions, I did, yes. Or at least I thought of myself as foreign. When I first arrived in Paris, I was determined to become Parisian. It’s an indication of my own immaturity and naïveté, I think—the idea I had then that I’d be able just to slip, practically unnoticed, into one of the most entrenched, closed, and suspicious societies in Europe.
MJ: In his essay “Translocal Underground: Anglophone Poetry and Globalization,” Alistair Noon suggests we need a new word for anglophone poets living, writing, and publishing outside of their countries of origin and that we should begin by “ditching the term ‘expat'” because it “defines its subject negatively: you’re outside of your patria” and ignores that you’re also “inside somewhere else.” As a writer, do you see any negative, or at least limiting, connotations to the label expat?
AM: Well, I’m not sure how much the term matters. It’s really a question of experience. The majority of my friends in Paris are from other countries—Lebanon, China, Italy, Morocco, the UK, the US, Norway—and I don’t think I can remember any of them ever identifying themselves asexpats. But there’s no question that they, we, are formed by our experience of living outside our native countries. And frankly, being identified by nationality is considerably more limiting than being identified as an expat. Parisians like to know what you are, what your last name means. I’m consistently amazed by how determined Parisians are to identify and classify people in terms of nationality and ethnic heritage. I see this as a far greater problem than being identified as an expat.
MJ: In Never Any End to Paris, Enrique Vila-Matas’s ironic account of his narrator’s years in Paris in the 1970s, the narrator-author is trying to live as Hemingway did. (After telling his father he wanted to “study to be a Hemingway,” his father sent him straight to law school.) And John McNulty’s documentary, in which you appear, nods to Hemingway in its title, Welcome to the Feast. Do all literary Parisian expats trace back to Hemingway? Are current expats in Paris still responding to Hemingway’s influence? Were you?
AM: I fell in love with Hemingway’s Paris after reading A Moveable Feast. And I grew up in Ketchum, Idaho, where he lived, where he killed himself, and where he’s buried. I also happen to think that he was an extraordinary writer. So, yes, I was seduced by the Paris of A Moveable Feastand The Sun Also Rises, but I was never taken with Hemingway merely because he boxed lions and wrestled marlins. I owe a debt to Hemingway because without him, I might have fallen in love with some other imaginary city, and gone off in search of that fantasy. It wasn’t Hemingway’s life in Paris that drew me to the city, it was his writing about Paris that drew me. A Moveable Feast is one of the most powerful pieces of writing I’ve ever read. It’s an exquisite book. I’ve lived there. I’ve been drunk in the cafés he describes. I’ve written a novel there. I know the city well and, as I’ve said, been disappointed. But despite that disappointment, I can still read A Moveable Feast and feel what I always felt. I think that’s an important distinction—it’s the writing, not the city. Of course, there are plenty of writers living in Paris, who are there, in one way or another, because of Hemingway, but there are just as many who are there because of any number of other writers. Julio Cortázar’s grave is always littered with notes and flowers.
MJ: I noticed the publisher’s website, in describing the just-published anthology Strangers in Paris: New Writing Inspired by the City of Light, refers to “anglophone Parisian writing as it is today, without the veneer and expectations of stereotypes, romantic notions, or iconic representations.” Is there a reality gap between our collective nostalgia for a bygone literary scene and the contemporary experience of moving to Paris and writing?
AM: Isn’t there always a gap? Among other things, that’s what living in Paris has given me—a hyperawareness of the distance between nostalgia and reality; the disillusionment and sadness of discovering that the cities we imagine don’t exist. No, Paris now is not what Paris was. That said, nearly everyone I know there is an artist of some kind. And there’s nowhere else in the world that provides for me the same sense of community. I don’t know how much that has to do with Paris itself, but certainly the fact that we all come from somewhere else serves to strengthen that community. What’s remarkable about the anglophone artistic “scene” in Paris is how supportive people are of one another and how uninterested they seem in the business of their art.
MJ: Could you tell me a little about your piece in the anthology?
AM: It’s a short narrative about walking in the Montparnasse cemetery with my father. I’ve spent a lot of time there. It’s not nearly as glorious as Père Lachaise, nor is it so glutted with tourists. I find it one of the most peaceful places in Paris. The day I write about, my father and I were wandering around before going to meet my girlfriend’s family for the first time when a bird shat on my shirt. That would never have happened in Père Lachaise.
MJ: What does it mean in 2011 to be an expat in Paris, and what does the literary expat scene look like?
AM: I don’t think there’s any one literary expat scene in Paris. David Barnes’s “Spoken Word” is about as democratic a community as exists in the city, and it draws a vast variety of writers, musicians, actors. I love the spirit of those nights, and I think David’s done an extraordinary job of keeping it vibrant and utterly unpretentious. The spectrum of talent and seriousness is broad and varied. “Spoken Word” has been in five or six different venues, but for the last few years it’s been at Cabaret Populaire in Belleville, which is one of my favorite bars in the city. I love being there precisely because it’s far from Hemingway’s Paris, and the audience isn’t sharpening its claws. I met David and began reading at “Spoken Word” about the same time I started writing my novel. That community sustained me through some of the most difficult years of my life, and I’ll be grateful forever for that.
“Poets Live” is another good reading series, which has just been taken over by Rufo Quintavalle, who is a friend and an excellent poet. Jennifer Dick does another great series called “Ivy Writers.” There’s also “Double-Change,” which promotes both French and anglophone writers.
MJ: Paris is known for its café culture. In fact, the American Library in Paris recently displayed a photography exhibit of Anne Boudard’s work, Les cafés parisiens: Paris coffee style. What role did cafés play in your writing life while in Paris, and is there an Iowa City analogue?
AM: When I first moved to Paris, I wrote nearly every evening after work at La Palette, a café down the street from my apartment. I was friendly with a few of the waiters, and, in those early days, I took great pride in being known there and would look forward to settling in and getting to work. Sadly, the café was sold, and though it looks the same, it’s become slicker somehow, more of a place to be seen, and those waiters have been replaced.
Something I love about the city is that you’re permitted to be alone. There’s nothing unusual about being alone in a café. It’s a common observation, but nonetheless true, that in most cafés, for the price of a beer or a glass of wine, you can stay and work for hours. I like to work in public—all those people around me keep me focused somehow, keep me from procrastinating. I’ve learned that an important aspect of writing is inventing structure that doesn’t actually exist. In Iowa City, I love to write upstairs in the café at Prairie Lights. It’s as close to a Parisian café as I’ve found here. And by the way, the store’s wireless code is “Gertrude Stein.”
MJ: Iowa City, like WLT‘s home (Norman, Oklahoma), is a landlocked Midwestern city. Yet Iowa City is a unesco City of Literature, and Norman has been host to hundreds of international writers, particularly during the festival surrounding the Neustadt International Prize for Literature and NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature. Surely these defy the stereotype of literary culture existing only in big, cosmopolitan cities?
AM: The level of support and enthusiasm that the Iowa City community provides writers is extraordinary. I’ve never lived anywhere where writing is treated with near universal reverence. Living here can be dangerous in the sense that it’s easy to be lulled into believing that the rest of the world cares as much about books. It’s funny; Paris and Iowa City are the two cities I’ve lived where I’ve never hesitated to introduce myself as a writer. In both places, writers are granted immediate respect, and that’s not always the case elsewhere. Yes, there’s an apparently endless train of literary luminaries who come through to do readings, but what’s reassuring is that there are so many people living here who are passionate about writing, and care about it more than nearly anything else. There’s no question that Iowa City, in terms of literary culture, can compete with any major city in the country.
MJ: In You Deserve Nothing, at the International School of France, a classroom’s walls include photos of Sarte, Camus, and Hemingway with Sylvia Beach standing in front of the Shakespeare & Company bookstore. Is Shakespeare & Company still at the heart of literary Paris?
AM: Well, they certainly play a major role in Paris’s anglophone literary world. They’re very supportive of young writers and continue to allow a few to live upstairs in return for some pretty nominal work. Their summer festival is fantastic and exceptionally well run. They’re about to award their first Paris Literary Prize, which is a considerable award and reserved for new writers. What’s particularly impressive, I think, is that while they host all sorts of established writers, they also allow those who are lesser known to read. I admire, and am grateful to, any bookshop that’s vibrant and alive and seems to have a clear vision for the future. Given their location, and given their history, I think it would have been easy to allow the shop to become a kind of literary Disneyland, but Sylvia Whitman seems determined not to allow that to happen.
MJ: Do you have a favorite bookstore?
AM: I have several. In Paris, the Village Voice is my favorite. I also love L’écume des Pages and La Hune. In San Francisco, City Lights. In Seattle, Elliot Bay. I have a tremendous affection for Prairie Lights, which is a genuinely wonderful bookstore. Also for Iconoclast Books, in Ketchum, Idaho, where I’ve been buying books since I was a teenager.
MJ: Is it fair to say your novel alludes to some of the familiar symbols of Parisian expat writing even as it challenges our romantic expat-in-Paris notions? Or perhaps I’m trying too hard to push your novel—about the distance between desire to act and the courage to do so—into a box that fits the subject of our interview?
AM: No, I think that’s a fair observation. But the problem is that it’s nearly impossible to write about Paris without making some reference to those symbols. Paris itself is a symbol. The word is so freighted, that the minute you type the letters, you’re triggering all kinds of literary and emotional associations. Judging by the number of books published each year that have something to do with Paris, it appears that there’s no end to the appeal. I was certain that the only way to handle writing a book set in the city was to deal with the gap between what is expected and what is found. Paris can no more live up to expectations than can one’s teacher, or one’s father.
MJ: Gilad, a student, is disappointed when, on his first day of school, he realized Paris “was irrelevant to the school.” He feels his potential to be “swallowed up by a place” is threatened by the symbols of America he encounters while riding the bus to school and concludes: “ISF was its own country.” Is this international school a microcosm of globalization’s homogenization of culture, another example of an “American badge” on Paris, or something else?
AM: All schools are insular. I don’t think you find any more evidence of globalization inside those walls than you do outside them. Gilad complains about ISF early on in the novel, but I don’t imagine he’d complain about it now. I’d like to think he’s outgrown that adolescent tendency to rail against whatever institution happens to contain him. When I moved to Paris there wasn’t a single Starbucks in the city. There are now thirty-nine. After the United States, France is McDonald’s most profitable market. This is a real source of anxiety for the French, as well it should be. Independent cafés are closing and being bought up by groups like FLO; all the young smokers smoke Marlboro Lights. It goes on and on. America is everywhere in France, and had Gilad been paying attention, he’d have seen it in the street far more often than in the halls of ISF.
MJ: Vila-Matas’s narrator sought liberation: “We all encounter a small world at birth, a world that is generally the same wherever we are born.” He became interested in “the noble idea of forgetting the stifling atmosphere of Barcelona and being able to enjoy, in self-imposed exile, the free French air.” Do you agree that Paris offers liberation? Did you go to Paris seeking liberation? If so, did you find it?
AM: I think any great city can offer liberation. I’m not sure that I went in search of liberation, though I certainly went with wildly romantic notions about what Paris would do for me. I think I stopped being young in Paris. It’s a strange thing to say, I guess, but something shifted in those first years. I had promised myself that I would live in Paris before I was thirty, and I moved there when I was twenty-nine. I’d lived in Los Angeles for a long time before moving to Paris and knew a lot of actors who were also pursuing an illusion. I was like one of those women looking out the window, seeing the Hollywood sign for the first time. I mean, you can’t imagine how happy I was to be in France, how certain I was that the city would change everything. There’s not a city in the world that could have lived up to what I expected of Paris. That said, I suppose I did find some kind of liberation—it was the liberation of anonymity. I love to be alone, and I’ve never felt so comfortable being alone anywhere the way I do in Paris. People say that New York gives you the same freedom, but whenever I’m in New York I can never find a place to disappear the way I can in Paris.
MJ: So do Parisians seek this same liberation by leaving Paris and going elsewhere?
AM: I knew some Parisians who traveled fairly often, and some who moved to California and swore they’d never return to France. But generally speaking, I don’t think Parisians have that same desire to go off and become something else. Some Americans feel embarrassed by their nationality. They have notions, as I did, that by living in European cities we will become somehow “less American,” which is to say more sophisticated, more elegant, more cultured. I’ve never met anyone embarrassed to be French. The French vacation primarily in France and in former colonies, where they can speak French and eat familiar food. I don’t think it’s quite the same mentality. I know very few French who have dreams of giving up their lives and starting again in an unfamiliar country. It’s that old country / new country paradigm.
MJ: What are you working on now?
AM: I’m writing a novel about a Liberian immigrant living illegally in the Cyclades, which probably seems like a departure, but during my years in Paris, I became increasingly interested in the experiences of African immigrants living in Europe. Immigration, and particularly illegal immigration from the Maghreb and western Africa, is a major concern for a lot of western Europeans and, if it isn’t already, will soon become the central political issue across the continent, I think. In the last few years, there’s been a surge of far-right politics, and it’s frightening to see how people like Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen are gaining momentum, not to mention legitimacy, on anti-immigration platforms. You see similar movements of varying extremism in Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Belgium, and the UK as well.
I’ve been surprised by how many times at Iowa I’ve heard some variation of the argument that we “shouldn’t” write from the perspective of people we don’t know, that we don’t have the “right.” Men don’t have the right to write from the perspective of women, etc. The notion that someone might not have that right strikes me as absurd. Either a work of fiction is successful or it is not. I have no interest in writing over and over about myself.
MJ: What do you miss when you are not in Paris?
AM: I miss many things—the physical landscape of the city, the sheer beauty of the place, the light, the sky. I miss the people—their elegance and nonchalance, the variety of faces. I miss my quotidian life—particular cafés, bars, and restaurants. And as much as anything, I miss that feeling of anonymity. I miss walking and riding my bike everywhere, and I miss those fleeting moments that always seem to come when I’ve sworn I’m going to leave forever, when I come around a corner, and the city just opens up and I think, “This is everything.” You see? Despite it all, the romance remains.
From: Existentialism is a Humanism by Jean-Paul Sartre 1946
Written: Lecture given in 1946
Source: Existentialism from Dostoyevsky to Sartre, ed. Walter Kaufman,
My purpose here is to offer a defence of existentialism against several reproaches that have been laid against it.
First, it has been reproached as an invitation to people to dwell in quietism of despair. For if every way to a solution is barred, one would have to regard any action in this world as entirely ineffective, and one would arrive finally at a contemplative philosophy. Moreover, since contemplation is a luxury, this would be only another bourgeois philosophy. This is, especially, the reproach made by the Communists.
From another quarter we are reproached for having underlined all that is ignominious in the human situation, for depicting what is mean, sordid or base to the neglect of certain things that possess charm and beauty and belong to the brighter side of human nature: for example, according to the Catholic critic, Mlle. Mercier, we forget how an infant smiles. Both from this side and from the other we are also reproached for leaving out of account the solidarity of mankind and considering man in isolation. And this, say the Communists, is because we base our doctrine upon pure subjectivity – upon the Cartesian “I think”: which is the moment in which solitary man attains to himself; a position from which it is impossible to regain solidarity with other men who exist outside of the self. The ego cannot reach them through the cogito.
From the Christian side, we are reproached as people who deny the reality and seriousness of human affairs. For since we ignore the commandments of God and all values prescribed as eternal, nothing remains but what is strictly voluntary. Everyone can do what he likes, and will be incapable, from such a point of view, of condemning either the point of view or the action of anyone else.
It is to these various reproaches that I shall endeavour to reply today; that is why I have entitled this brief exposition “Existentialism is a Humanism.” Many may be surprised at the mention of humanism in this connection, but we shall try to see in what sense we understand it. In any case, we can begin by saying that existentialism, in our sense of the word, is a doctrine that does render human life possible; a doctrine, also, which affirms that every truth and every action imply both an environment and a human subjectivity. The essential charge laid against us is, of course, that of over-emphasis upon the evil side of human life. I have lately been told of a lady who, whenever she lets slip a vulgar expression in a moment of nervousness, excuses herself by exclaiming, “I believe I am becoming an existentialist.” So it appears that ugliness is being identified with existentialism. That is why some people say we are “naturalistic,” and if we are, it is strange to see how much we scandalise and horrify them, for no one seems to be much frightened or humiliated nowadays by what is properly called naturalism. Those who can quite well keep down a novel by Zola such as La Terre are sickened as soon as they read an existentialist novel. Those who appeal to the wisdom of the people – which is a sad wisdom – find ours sadder still. And yet, what could be more disillusioned than such sayings as “Charity begins at home” or “Promote a rogue and he’ll sue you for damage, knock him down and he’ll do you homage”? We all know how many common sayings can be quoted to this effect, and they all mean much the same – that you must not oppose the powers that be; that you must not fight against superior force; must not meddle in matters that are above your station. Or that any action not in accordance with some tradition is mere romanticism; or that any undertaking which has not the support of proven experience is foredoomed to frustration; and that since experience has shown men to be invariably inclined to evil, there must be firm rules to restrain them, otherwise we shall have anarchy. It is, however, the people who are forever mouthing these dismal proverbs and, whenever they are told of some more or less repulsive action, say “How like human nature!” – it is these very people, always harping upon realism, who complain that existentialism is too gloomy a view of things. Indeed their excessive protests make me suspect that what is annoying them is not so much our pessimism, but, much more likely, our optimism. For at bottom, what is alarming in the doctrine that I am about to try to explain to you is – is it not? – that it confronts man with a possibility of choice. To verify this, let us review the whole question upon the strictly philosophic level. What, then, is this that we call existentialism?
Most of those who are making use of this word would be highly confused if required to explain its meaning. For since it has become fashionable, people cheerfully declare that this musician or that painter is “existentialist.” A columnist in Clartes signs himself “The Existentialist,” and, indeed, the word is now so loosely applied to so many things that it no longer means anything at all. It would appear that, for the lack of any novel doctrine such as that of surrealism, all those who are eager to join in the latest scandal or movement now seize upon this philosophy in which, however, they can find nothing to their purpose. For in truth this is of all teachings the least scandalous and the most austere: it is intended strictly for technicians and philosophers. All the same, it can easily be defined.
The question is only complicated because there are two kinds of existentialists. There are, on the one hand, the Christians, amongst whom I shall name Jaspers and Gabriel Marcel, both professed Catholics; and on the other the existential atheists, amongst whom we must place Heidegger as well as the French existentialists and myself. What they have in common is simply the fact that they believe that existence comes before essence – or, if you will, that we must begin from the subjective. What exactly do we mean by that?
If one considers an article of manufacture as, for example, a book or a paper-knife – one sees that it has been made by an artisan who had a conception of it; and he has paid attention, equally, to the conception of a paper-knife and to the pre-existent technique of production which is a part of that conception and is, at bottom, a formula. Thus the paper-knife is at the same time an article producible in a certain manner and one which, on the other hand, serves a definite purpose, for one cannot suppose that a man would produce a paper-knife without knowing what it was for. Let us say, then, of the paperknife that its essence – that is to say the sum of the formulae and the qualities which made its production and its definition possible – precedes its existence. The presence of such-and-such a paper-knife or book is thus determined before my eyes. Here, then, we are viewing the world from a technical standpoint, and we can say that production precedes existence.
When we think of God as the creator, we are thinking of him, most of the time, as a supernal artisan. Whatever doctrine we may be considering, whether it be a doctrine like that of Descartes, or of Leibnitz himself, we always imply that the will follows, more or less, from the understanding or at least accompanies it, so that when God creates he knows precisely what he is creating. Thus, the conception of man in the mind of God is comparable to that of the paper-knife in the mind of the artisan: God makes man according to a procedure and a conception, exactly as the artisan manufactures a paper-knife, following a definition and a formula. Thus each individual man is the realisation of a certain conception which dwells in the divine understanding. In the philosophic atheism of the eighteenth century, the notion of God is suppressed, but not, for all that, the idea that essence is prior to existence; something of that idea we still find everywhere, in Diderot, in Voltaire and even in Kant. Man possesses a human nature; that “human nature,” which is the conception of human being, is found in every man; which means that each man is a particular example of a universal conception, the conception of Man. In Kant, this universality goes so far that the wild man of the woods, man in the state of nature and the bourgeois are all contained in the same definition and have the same fundamental qualities. Here again, the essence of man precedes that historic existence which we confront in experience.
Atheistic existentialism, of which I am a representative, declares with greater consistency that if God does not exist there is at least one being whose existence comes before its essence, a being which exists before it can be defined by any conception of it. That being is man or, as Heidegger has it, the human reality. What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself. Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it. Man simply is. Not that he is simply what he conceives himself to be, but he is what he wills, and as he conceives himself after already existing – as he wills to be after that leap towards existence. Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism. And this is what people call its “subjectivity,” using the word as a reproach against us. But what do we mean to say by this, but that man is of a greater dignity than a stone or a table? For we mean to say that man primarily exists – that man is, before all else, something which propels itself towards a future and is aware that it is doing so. Man is, indeed, a project which possesses a subjective life, instead of being a kind of moss, or a fungus or a cauliflower. Before that projection of the self nothing exists; not even in the heaven of intelligence: man will only attain existence when he is what he purposes to be. Not, however, what he may wish to be. For what we usually understand by wishing or willing is a conscious decision taken – much more often than not – after we have made ourselves what we are. I may wish to join a party, to write a book or to marry – but in such a case what is usually called my will is probably a manifestation of a prior and more spontaneous decision. If, however, it is true that existence is prior to essence, man is responsible for what he is. Thus, the first effect of existentialism is that it puts every man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsibility for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders. And, when we say that man is responsible for himself, we do not mean that he is responsible only for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men. The word “subjectivism” is to be understood in two senses, and our adversaries play upon only one of them. Subjectivism means, on the one hand, the freedom of the individual subject and, on the other, that man cannot pass beyond human subjectivity. It is the latter which is the deeper meaning of existentialism. When we say that man chooses himself, we do mean that every one of us must choose himself; but by that we also mean that in choosing for himself he chooses for all men. For in effect, of all the actions a man may take in order to create himself as he wills to be, there is not one which is not creative, at the same time, of an image of man such as he believes he ought to be. To choose between this or that is at the same time to affirm the value of that which is chosen; for we are unable ever to choose the worse. What we choose is always the better; and nothing can be better for us unless it is better for all. If, moreover, existence precedes essence and we will to exist at the same time as we fashion our image, that image is valid for all and for the entire epoch in which we find ourselves. Our responsibility is thus much greater than we had supposed, for it concerns mankind as a whole. If I am a worker, for instance, I may choose to join a Christian rather than a Communist trade union. And if, by that membership, I choose to signify that resignation is, after all, the attitude that best becomes a man, that man’s kingdom is not upon this earth, I do not commit myself alone to that view. Resignation is my will for everyone, and my action is, in consequence, a commitment on behalf of all mankind. Or if, to take a more personal case, I decide to marry and to have children, even though this decision proceeds simply from my situation, from my passion or my desire, I am thereby committing not only myself, but humanity as a whole, to the practice of monogamy. I am thus responsible for myself and for all men, and I am creating a certain image of man as I would have him to be. In fashioning myself I fashion man.
This may enable us to understand what is meant by such terms – perhaps a little grandiloquent – as anguish, abandonment and despair. As you will soon see, it is very simple. First, what do we mean by anguish? – The existentialist frankly states that man is in anguish. His meaning is as follows: When a man commits himself to anything, fully realising that he is not only choosing what he will be, but is thereby at the same time a legislator deciding for the whole of mankind – in such a moment a man cannot escape from the sense of complete and profound responsibility. There are many, indeed, who show no such anxiety. But we affirm that they are merely disguising their anguish or are in flight from it. Certainly, many people think that in what they are doing they commit no one but themselves to anything: and if you ask them, “What would happen if everyone did so?” they shrug their shoulders and reply, “Everyone does not do so.” But in truth, one ought always to ask oneself what would happen if everyone did as one is doing; nor can one escape from that disturbing thought except by a kind of self-deception. The man who lies in self-excuse, by saying “Everyone will not do it” must be ill at ease in his conscience, for the act of lying implies the universal value which it denies. By its very disguise his anguish reveals itself. This is the anguish that Kierkegaard called “the anguish of Abraham.” You know the story: An angel commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son; and obedience was obligatory, if it really was an angel who had appeared and said, “Thou, Abraham, shalt sacrifice thy son.” But anyone in such a case would wonder, first, whether it was indeed an angel and secondly, whether I am really Abraham. Where are the proofs? A certain mad woman who suffered from hallucinations said that people were telephoning to her, and giving her orders. The doctor asked, “But who is it that speaks to you?” She replied: “He says it is God.” And what, indeed, could prove to her that it was God? If an angel appears to me, what is the proof that it is an angel; or, if I hear voices, who can prove that they proceed from heaven and not from hell, or from my own subconsciousness or some pathological condition? Who can prove that they are really addressed to me?……..
His brother owned a nightclub in Brooklyn – Ben Maksik’s Town and Country.
Everybody played there. Judy Garland, Bobby Darrin. Louis Prima. Harry Belafonte.
My grandmother, beautiful all her life, was a model when she met my grandfather. By then she’d been on the cover of Look magazine and The Saturday Evening Post.
I have a clipping from Life magazine framed on my wall – May 22nd, 1944. She and her eight-month-old son are lying on a bed together – he’s smiling at the camera. She has shoulder-length brown hair, a small nose and brown eyes. Beneath the photograph is a caption.
Their homes were immaculate with good art on the walls. They belonged to country clubs where they played golf and tennis. They traveled often and stayed in the best hotels.
They were the kind of people who knew the concierge by name. They loved to be regulars, to be received, to be known. My grandfather carried a money clip and tipped generously.
I remember him lying in the sun wearing small white tanning glasses over his eyes, his skin so dark he might have been from Kerala or Sicily but his blood was Russian.
As a boy, I loved to watch him prepare his pipe. He made a popping noise with his mouth as he drew the flame of his match into the pipe’s bowl. I liked the sweetness of the tobacco smoke and the way he held me on his lap, the smoke swirling around us.
My grandmother drove a Mercedes convertible with the top down, a silk scarf around her throat, a Chanel handbag on the passenger seat beside her.
Both of them dressed beautifully all the time. Their closets were full of bespoke clothing and important labels.
Eventually they moved from an exquisite house in Rancho Santa Fe, California into a large apartment in downtown San Diego. They said they wanted to live somewhere that felt like New York but with warm weather. San Diego is a terribly boring city, and in no way resembles Manhattan. Though they never admitted it, I think they were disappointed. San Diego was a sort of wasteland and the move, their last, was a sharp blow.
The apartment was a modish place on two floors with a rooftop deck and a swimming pool. My grandmother decorated it herself. There was red Italian leather furniture, pen and ink nudes and designer tables.
On staff were doormen and valets.
As they grew older they stopped seeing their friends. They became increasingly insular. My grandmother did what she’d done most of her life; she doted on my grandfather.
They went out to dinner. They went for walks. They read books. They argued about where they’d eaten the best steak, the best bagels.
They no longer played tennis and golf. They stopped traveling. My grandfather began to have trouble walking. My grandmother slipped and fell in their favorite restaurant and cut her leg open on a sharp marble step.
They left the apartment less often. Their world became a miniature. They turned entirely in on themselves, shielding each other from whatever it was they saw out there in the dark – deterioration, weakness, ugliness, loss of dignity. Death.
They had long conversations about restaurants and hotels. What year had it been? Where were they living? Who was the waiter?
Having never been particularly interested in other people’s lives, in their old age, they became even less so. They were entirely self-referential.
I think they were slightly insane before my grandfather became sick with Alzheimer’s disease.
Their isolation, their fiercely closed lives drove them crazy before the dementia. When my grandfather began to ask me the same questions over and over, when he began to call me by my father’s name and ask about my mother as if she were my wife, the change didn’t feel severe – they’d been stubbornly floating away for years.
Their pride was such that at the beginning they refused to acknowledge their failings. On the rare occasions when they left the apartment they continued to drive their car. They let the registration lapse, received parking tickets and didn’t pay them.
Once I visited them with my girlfriend. We met at their apartment, and they insisted on taking us to dinner. My grandmother sat in the passenger seat, we sat in the back and my grandfather drove. When he turned on the windshield wipers to turn left, my girlfriend and I giggled.
But it wasn’t very funny. They were out of control, my grandparents. And they must have felt it, felt themselves hurtling towards what they saw as a very ugly, very undignified and very unfashionable end.
I was living in Los Angeles and would, from time to time, drive down or take the train to visit them. I’d stay in a guest apartment, which the building provided for visitors. There was a gym, a spa, and a small game room, which I never saw anyone use.
My grandmother waited on my grandfather hand and foot. She barely left his side. She defined most of her life by serving him. When I’d come to visit, the three of us would sit in the kitchen and eat breakfast together. During one of my last visits my grandmother became hysterical because she couldn’t toast the bagels the way she knew my grandfather wanted them. She left the stove on and burned the eggs. She had trouble cutting the juice oranges but refused to let me help. Her hands trembled. She couldn’t grip the fruit.
My grandfather sat immobile at the table.
As if in solidarity, their meticulously decorated apartment began to deteriorate. The carpet was worn, appliances failed and weren’t replaced, the air was stale, and the apartment became dingy. It was nothing obvious, but my grandmother was a perfectionist; she was obsessive about her appearance and, by extension, her home.
When I was little she made me sandwiches on thin, delicate slices of bread. She cut carrots in uniform sticks. She garnished the plate with cherry tomatoes. I was always amazed by her ability to make everything pretty. Nothing was out of order.
She always knew when I’d stolen candy from the bowl in the living room.
I visited less often. My grandparents were exhausting, demanding, and, frankly, they were boring. They talked of nothing but themselves. This was true when they were younger but now they’d become absolutely withdrawn. My grandfather had become oppressive. He gained weight. He began to drink. He stopped dressing for the day and instead wore his pajamas.
One summer when they were in Italy, my parents sent him a Missoni bathrobe. I’d never seen him wear it and then all of a sudden it was all he wore. He tied it loosely around his growing belly.
On one trip, my grandfather had fallen asleep in his chair, his chin on his chest, and I coaxed my grandmother out of the apartment and into the hall.
I took her to the game room, grim and windowless, where I taught her to play pool. She was terrible. When she lined up a shot she narrowed her eyes and cocked her head to the side. It was a look I’d never seen on her face – pure determination and focus. She giggled when she missed the ball entirely. It was the most fun we’d ever had together and it reminded me how much I loved her.
Soon she said that she needed to go back; she had to check on my grandfather.
Let’s play another game, I insisted.
But she was too nervous.
I can’t leave him alone, she told me.
My grandfather began to yell at my grandmother. He accused her of having an affair with one of the bellmen and imagined that he’d beaten him up. He wore a white t-shirt under his robe. It was stained. The apartment smelled of urine. So did he.
A nurse came to live with them. She filled their refrigerator with terrible food my grandparents would never have bought themselves– baloney, iceberg lettuce, frosted supermarket cakes, American cheese, Wonderbread, Miracle Whip.
Things began to rot.
The nurse stole from my grandparents.
One of the last times I visited they asked me to make them lunch. I made baloney sandwiches with French’s mustard, some stale potato chips. The lettuce was brown and I had to throw it away.
We ate in the living room, plates on our laps – my grandfather, fat, an oxygen tank at his side, his robe threadbare, said nothing.
None of us did.
Afterwards my grandmother held onto my arm and we walked outside onto the rooftop deck. Her hands were always cool. They were soft and impossibly thin. She squeezed my bare arm with her fingers. We moved very slowly among the lemon trees, my grandmother stopping to point out the fruit, encouraging me to take some home. We talked about the weather.
It isn’t as cool as it was yesterday, she said. Might be a hot summer.
She asked me to hand her a lemon. When I did she ran her delicate nail across its skin and held it up to my nose.
I love that smell, she said.
In the bright sunshine my grandmother looked particularly pale. She was so slight. There were mysterious bruises on her legs. Scabs. She looked very old and still very beautiful.
From the deck we could see new buildings going up, the city skyline, the Pacific Ocean far out to the west.
We could also see directly into the San Diego Central Jail, a tall building rising up across the street. I’d always found it unsettling to sit by the pool and glance up at a prison but that day it was devastating.
I kissed my grandparents goodbye and drove home to Los Angeles feeling miserable.
Before I moved to Paris my grandfather gave me some of his clothes – shirts and sweaters he didn’t want anymore. Things he wouldn’t ever wear again.
I think he was lucid enough to understand, if only vaguely, that he would give me these things because he’d never leave his apartment before he died. His shirts were all famous brands and most of them had been designed for him. There were little tags sewn into the collar, which indicated when they’d been made, and for whom.
One of his shirts still hangs in my closet. He’d ordered from Neiman Marcus ten years before he died: Sol Maksik – 1992.
Looking at that little tag I wonder if, when he’d been standing before his tailor’s mirror, he had any sense of how little time was left.
* * *
My grandmother died first, halfway out of her bed and on her way somewhere. Perhaps she was heading to the bathroom and suddenly, with no warning, her heart stopped beating. Or perhaps she knew, felt a shock of pain and was reaching for my grandfather, reaching for his help.
I have some bad news, my dad said when I answered the phone.
I called my grandfather. He was surprisingly coherent. I imagined him there in the bright daylight, alone, the silence of the place overwhelming, bearing down on him.
His voice was weak. In my entire life I’d never seen him display any real emotion. That day though he was despondent; he sounded so utterly sad.
She was a great lady, he said. She was a great lady.
Yes she was, I said.
That’s the way life is though. Nothing you can do.
He was trying to pull himself together.
Are you ok? I asked
Huh? Oh sure, yeah, sure. Why?
I’m worried about you, I said.
About me? Why?
Yes, he said, remembering, his voice quavering. She was a great lady.
Are you ok?
There was a long silence.
Yes, I’m here. I think it’s time to go. I’ll talk to you soon.
I love you, I said.
Ok, you too.
He fumbled with the phone and then the line went dead.
Months later he died.
The apartment was stripped clean.
I still imagine my grandfather alone there, half-sane, his wife vanished and the night coming fast.
My Neighbor, The Prisoner Of War by Alexander Maksik 2011
The holidays feel oddly bittersweet in the Idaho valley that’s home to Bowe Bergdahl, our only POW in Afghanistan
I have been returning to Idaho’s Wood River Valley for 20 years, always to the same house on the river where my parents live. I’m older, my parents are older, but mostly little has changed. Each holiday season, I come home from different cities, different countries, and everything is still beautiful. The air is still clean. We leave the front door unlocked. The propeller plane glides up the valley and lands at the little airport. My mother and father pick me up. We eat dinners together. We take walks in the snow. We ski. I see my friends. And then I return to my life, wherever that is.
Two years ago I came home to yellow ribbons tied on trees. A young man who grew up in this valley had vanished from his base in Afghanistan. Not long after that the Taliban released a video of him sitting on a floor, eating the way a child eats when he’s being made to finish his dinner. Bowe Bergdahl has been in Taliban captivity now since June 2009; he is our only prisoner of war in Afghanistan.
The young man speaks. He says, “Well, I am scared. Scared I won’t be able to go home. It is very unnerving to be a prisoner. I have my girlfriend who I was hoping to marry. I have my grandma and grandpa. I have a very, very good family in America that I love and I miss them every day that I’m gone.” He seems terrified. He begins to cry. He says, “I miss them, and I’m afraid that I might never see them again and that I’ll never be able to tell them that I love them again, never be able to hug them.”
I’ve never met Bowe Bergdahl. I’m much older than he is, but we were both boys in the same town. We both know the same lakes, the same sky. We’ve both stood around a bonfire far out in the green woods with our friends, drinking beer, hoping the cops wouldn’t come to send us all home.
Terrible things have happened in this idyllic valley. Children have died in car accidents and avalanches. There have been murders. Devastating fires. While superstition says not to write such things, it feels important now to write this: None of those terrible things ever happened to me. To my family. I have been fortunate beyond measure, beyond reason, beyond odds. We are all alive. We are all healthy. We see each other often. We have far more than we need.
I don’t think of Bowe Bergdahl all that often. But this winter, as the plane turned up the valley, the hills white with snow, as it began to bump and fall in the updrafts and I could see our shadow racing below as we descended so low that it seemed as if the wings might clip the hills, I thought of him. I tried to imagine what it might be like to live the way he has these last two years – imprisoned so far from home, entirely absent from his family, 25 years old. I imagine him healthy and alive.
Last spring, the young man’s father stood outside to record his own video against a backdrop of snow melting on brown hills. And now, as I sit in my parent’s warm house, my mom cooking dinner, my dad reading in his chair, I watch Bowe Bergdahl’s father walk into the frame.
He’s wearing a thin black shirt buttoned to the throat. The wind is blowing. His beard is long and wild. There is the eerie sound of a bird chirping. I know those hills. They seem to find their way into nearly everything I write. The mountains in this valley are spectacular, but it’s always those hills that I think of when I miss home. They change with rain and light and snow. They become women and great lumbering animals and water.
His father says, “I am the father of captured U.S. soldier Bowe Robert Bergdahl. These are my thoughts.” He is measured and calm. He acknowledges the suffering of the Pakistani people. “The violence of war, earthquake, epic floods and crop failures have devastated your lives while our son has been in captivity. We have watched your suffering through the presence of our son in your midst,” he says. “I pray this video be shown to our only son.” In Pashto, he says Stayray me she, Bowe.” Hello, Bowe. “We love you. We have been quiet in public, but we have not been quiet behind the scenes. Continue to be patient and kind to those around you. Her Na, Bowe,” he says. “Her Na. You are not forgotten.”
He bows his head and the video ends.
I watch him over and over again, trying to imagine what fear, what helplessness, what loss he must feel. It is impossible. As impossible as it is to imagine what his son feels locked away, wherever he is. And I imagine that somehow the young man is still alive, that he sees this video his father has recorded, sees those hills in the background and can feel the air of home, can smell it, can see in swaths of snow still melting in the shaded ravines that the hills will turn green soon, that the changing seasons here await his return.
“The Barbarians” is excerpted from Alexander Maksik’s novel in progress,The Barbarians.
IT WAS DARK now. Jacqueline hadn’t eaten since the flattened chocolate bar she’d found on the step outside the pharmacy. Her mother would have called it God’s will, the fortune of finding food just when it was most needed; just when she didn’t think she could stay upright any longer, here was food. The grace of God, her mother would have said. She would have said it for the fortune of the airplane. And she would have said it for the man with the truck. And the fruit pickers in Murcia. And the woman who had the brother who drove another truck. And the Senegalese girl in Alicante who helped her up when she rolled off the park bench in her sleep. Who took her home to her family, who fed her rice and chickpeas and gave her water. The grace of God, her mother would have said. For the woman who found her unconscious in the sand on a beach somewhere outside of Valencia, who walked her to the sea and cleaned her face with a dishrag smelling of glass cleaner, who bought her coffee and two sweet magdalenas. For the Moroccan men who were arrested while she walked undisturbed onto the ferry in Valencia, for the cove in Palma, where she found cardboard boxes and a dirty blanket folded on a flat stone. On and on her fortune went.
And for the man who’d beaten her on the beach? For the diarrhea? For the absence of food? For what had been done to her sister? We pay for our sins, for the sins of others. Anyway, we can’t understand.
Dark and the road was unlit. She knew that she could not stay in that town. Not with all the people spilling off the ferries. She’d sat upright on a bench, looking alive. She watched them eat French fries stuffed into the tops of their sandwiches. The smell of the meat, its fat, the smell of thyme, the grilling bread all blew toward her. She watched the tourists waiting in line, she watched bits of the meat falling to the ground. She was not beyond pride so she ate the chocolate bar and tried to look happy and bored. This was, she’d decided, the appropriate attitude. You must not be desperate. She watched the policemen walk past and tried to appear cheerful as she looked away and ate her candy bar slowly, as if she might throw it away at any moment, as if it bored her, as if eating were an entertainment, as if it were something to do. She thought, perhaps when it’s dark I’ll go to the trash, but she saw that the square wouldn’t go dark. A band was setting up. The tourists kept coming, the lights came on, there were more and more police. She stood and stretched her legs. She felt as if she might lose consciousness and sat back down. She waited until the blood returned to her head, until the feeling of nausea had eased.
She stood up more slowly and left the square, turning into one of the small streets, thinking she might find a trash can in a darkened corner. But every street was burning with white light. The stores sold gold and T-shirts and alcohol and food. Everywhere was food. And the tourists pushed against each other and plodded along, as bored as the shopkeepers who eyed her as she passed. Everything was shining, the narrow stone streets and the white walls, and the food, the drums of ice cream under glass, and the turning meat, and the perfect rows of tall plastic water bottles, cold in the refrigerators, all of it white under the light.
On a ledge outside the window of a jewelry store was a large foam cup of ice cream. For a moment she thought it was part of the display, a prop for the gold chains. Then she saw there was a spoon stuck into it. As if it were hers. As if she’d ordered it. She moved to the side so that the cup was in front of her, so that she put herself between the street and it. She pretended to consider the gold. She relaxed her shoulders and shifted her pack to her hand, hoping it might look something like the purses she’d seen the women carrying up and down these narrow alleys and across the square. It would take one movement—an open palm, a turn of the hips, a sweep of the hand, and she’d be walking along like the rest of them, eating as she walked. She could feel it. Cup. Spoon. The ice cream cold in her mouth. Bits of chocolate.
Then a man appeared in the doorway. He took a pack of cigarettes from his breast pocket and shook one out. He wore a clean blue shirt, collar sharp as knife points. He lit the cigarette and looked at her. She looked at him and smiled.
“Nice,” she said. The word felt misshapen and dry in her mouth.
He glanced down at her sandals, over at the bag, and back to her eyes. She smiled again. She could feel her heart. “Have a nice night,” she said, turned, and walked away toward the square, leaving the ice cream melting in its cup.
She followed a road lined with eucalyptus trees and then a sign with the picture of an umbrella and a sequence of rolling waves. The road was darker and darker. Walking uphill she saw the lights of the airport in the distance, an occasional plane gliding away from the island. She walked for miles, following the signs to the beach. The beach, she decided. She’d go there and sleep.
In the morning she woke with coarse dark sand blown across her face. It was in her hair and in her mouth. Gently, she removed the grains from her eyelids. She rose up onto her knees, and the grains poured off her, slid down the back of her neck, caught in the waistband of her skirt.
The sun was just rising, wind blowing hard offshore. In the night, she’d heard laughter coming in across the water or drifting from the end of the road. Now there was no one.
Out on the water small strong waves were suspended in the wind, blown hollow, their peaks torn off before they fell to the sand. Jacqueline walked down to the water, raised her skirt, and slipped her feet into the foam lit white against the black sand. The water stung where the skin was raw and where the glass had sliced her right heel and the wire had cut her left ankle. She liked the stinging because it was sharp. The salt would prevent infection. She watched the waves and waited to decide. Now she was here. Before she’d been somewhere else. She’d come here by deciding. She couldn’t remember how. So she waited. And when the sun was up over the low hills long enough that she could feel the heat of it, she decided to stay. Perhaps because of the water on her feet. Perhaps because she was tired.
She went back up the beach and snapped the sand from her blanket and folded it in half, then into quarters. She slid it into the thin white grocery bag and slipped it into her pack. With the sun on her face as she brushed the sand from her feet and slipped into her sandals, she looked out at the sea and for the first time in her life she wished she could swim.
The tide was going out, leaving behind pools of clear water and small spits of wet black sand. She climbed up onto the rocks and followed them away from the wide beach. It only took a few minutes before she could no longer see the stretch of hotels behind her.
She was looking for a place to live.
There were many caves, but all too low. With the rising tide they’d take in water. She climbed up the rocks and looked down at the beach and soon saw a cave at the very back of a narrow spit like a long tongue. She made her way to the edge of the cave. She swung her pack up harder than she’d meant to and it skidded across the floor and vanished into the darkness. She brought her body up onto the ledge. The rock was damp and not quite flat. Her right foot, which would require all of her weight, could slip out from under her and if that happened she would fall.
She stepped up onto the ledge and did not fall. She leaned forward and drew herself into the cave. She slid deeper in, so that only her feet could feel the sun. She thought of her mother. She thought of eating palava and jollof and she could smell ginger in a hot dry pan.
It was late afternoon when she woke. She would have to eat. It was no longer possible to ignore it. She was nauseated and weak and cold. Sunlight cut deeper into the cave now. She rolled onto her stomach and might have fallen back asleep if not for the nausea and her cramping stomach. But you must not sleep. She knew this problem. Your mind knows you need food, but your body has abandoned the idea. This is when you must eat. It is your last chance. When your mind agrees with your body, then you will die. There will be no more energy left to eat. In a park in Alicante, she’d heard stories from Senegalese women of people falling asleep in the cold in northern cities. Fall asleep in the cold and you die of cold, they said. In Paris, Berlin, Prague, Amsterdam, London. Wherever those women were going. There you die, they said, and people step over your body.
The beach was full of glistening people spread out on towels and on chairs beneath umbrellas, and there was the smell of meat being cooked. She walked down to the edge of the sea and splashed water on her face and over the back of her neck. She drew herself up and turned and walked with as much confidence and certainty as she could. At the seawall, she climbed the stairs and made her way to a bench, where she sat and adjusted herself to appear at peace and purposeful, as if she might be thinking about the beauty of the sea or waiting for a lover or her children and her husband.
She began to look for food. The sun was low and the wind had come up. The sunbathers were packing up. Jacqueline waited, scanning the beach for objects left behind. Two policemen walked along the sidewalk. She felt sick, and concentrated on the mast of a sailboat coming around the point from the direction of her cave.
Men came out on the beach to stack the chairs and clear the trash. They moved slowly, taking their time. Their laziness made her furious. She couldn’t wait any longer. She stood up too fast and steadied herself on the railing. She would walk along the shoreline. She would be reflective. A thin woman recovering her life.
She went to the edge of the sea, walked with her feet in the water. Now and then she looked up. There was a woman and a man and an older boy chasing two young girls who were running figure eights in the shallow water. Jacqueline stopped and looked out at the sea. There were boats, sunset cruises. Music rose and fell on the wind. She did not look at the family. Please leave something, she thought. She set her eyes on a sleek speedboat tearing across the horizon, its bow rising and then slapping the water. She turned and they were gone, leaving behind a plastic bag and a bottle.
Jacqueline unscrewed the top and drank. The water was very warm and as it slipped down her throat, she began to cry. Relief made her cry. Relief and, sometimes still, love. She drank it all, nearly half a liter. She knew to drink it slowly but did not, and the water hurt her throat and then there was a twist of pain in her stomach. She reached for the bag. Inside she found a piece of flatbread the size of her palm and scraps of roasted lamb, salted and rubbed with thyme. Seven pieces of meat the size of her fingertips and an eighth piece as long and thick as her little toe. She touched the bread and found the side on which the sauce had been spread. She tore it in half and collected the meat and made a sandwich and ate with as much control as she could. She chewed and waited to swallow. She counted her jaw closing twenty times.
To be elegant, to be graceful, to be beautiful we must do everything slowly. Nearly everything. There are some things that require us to be quick. But those things are only powerful because we do everything else slowly. One thing makes the other. Count if you’re not sure. Jacqueline counted, but it was not the counting that made that narrow face, those soft black eyes. It was the thyme.
Thyme was in her jollof. Heavy in it. Heavier than anyone else’s. It did not disappear behind the tomato paste, beneath the ginger. Less salt, more thyme. You roast it dry in an iron pan, first with the black pepper and the chili seeds and salt. Roast it dry just until it begins to smoke and then you add the oil and the onions. Then you start the rest. You do everything slowly.
Jacqueline’s stomach twisted and cramped. Still, the pleasure was extraordinary. She hated the taste of hunger, and now it was replaced by flavors of fat and salt, bread and thyme. That wasn’t enough, but now she could get control of herself. Now she could see what was there. The sun had nearly set, and the lights of the town were coming on. She turned toward the people crowding the sidewalk, the music playing. She put the empty bottle in the plastic bag and carried it along the beach as if it were her shopping. She walked to where there were hotels and nightclubs and swimming pools. Across the street, lining the wide sidewalk, were tables beneath awnings. It was just after sunset and the restaurants were mostly full.
Men stood outside holding menus, slapping them against their palms, smiling at the passing tourists, encouraging them to come and eat and drink. A tall man, handsome in a loose white shirt, sleeves rolled to the elbows, with his hands clasped behind his back, bowed slightly to Jacqueline. “Hello,” he said.
She met his eyes. “Hello.”
“Please, you come have a drink.”
“No.” She shook her head. “Another time.”
For a moment, she wanted to ask for his help. Something in his face had stopped her.
“Have a drink,” he said. “Dinner. Not expensive. Cheap.” He nodded to a large chalkboard menu.
She knew better than to look at menus. “Another time.” She walked on.
You don’t see black women here, he thought, and not many women like her anywhere. He saw she was something other. How many people did he see pass? In all the time he stood on that sidewalk. Every summer. Year after year. June through the beginning of October. Thousands and thousands. In his life? A hundred thousand? Kompsótita. Elegance. Grace. Charis. That was what he looked for while he waited. It was a separate desire. Not lust. Lust was easy to satisfy. There should be a word for the desire for elegance and grace in others. She walked away from him. There was a long thin cut along her ankle. He watched the skirt move against her ankles. Her hair was drawn up so that he could see her neck. She stood straight. She would have to turn around and pass by again. He worried about the Senegalese men at the end, across from the Aphrodite, with their sunglasses spread out on blankets. He’d watch out for her. When she returned, he wouldn’t try to sell her anything.
She needed more water. She would have to eat again. She felt it coming on, the lightness, the trembling. At the end of the sidewalk, across from the hotel, there were three thin African men standing in front of a blanket spread out over the concrete. She hadn’t seen Africans since leaving Spain and now she didn’t know what to be. It was good they were Africans, she thought. It meant less danger than she’d imagined. But what should she be to them?
One of the men was squatting barefoot, his toes on the edge of the blanket, his hands clasped between his knees, while the other two stood quiet and stolid. They watched her come. Jacqueline stopped. “Hello,” she said. The man who’d been squatting stood. None of them spoke and so she looked down at the rows and rows of sunglasses. There was a stack of DVDs in plastic sleeves and animals carved out of wood—zebras and giraffes and elephants.
Not knowing why exactly, she knelt and picked up a pair of black sunglasses. She looked up at one of the men. “How much for these?”
“Ten,” said the one who’d been squatting.
She nodded, picked up a wooden elephant, and turned it over. There was a small gold sticker on its back left foot. Made in China. She laughed.
“You want to buy?” the man said.
She shook her head. For a moment she thought she might fall. Points of black were spreading across the air. She squeezed her eyes closed and reopened them.
“Tu viens d’ou?” one of the men asked.
She should not understand French. Not with these men.
“What?” she said.
“Where you come from?”
“The United States,” she told him.
The man smiled. “You stay here?” He raised his chin at the hotel across the street.
“No,” Jacqueline said.
The others, who’d been distracted by a group of American women talking in front of the hotel gates, now turned their attention to her.
“I’m not staying on this side. And you? Where are you three staying?” Jacqueline looked the tall one in the eyes.
“The other side?” He smiled, ignoring her question. “What other side?”
“In another town,” she said, drawing herself up as straight as she could stand. She was angry now and relieved to feel it. “Have a good evening. Good luck with your sunglasses,” she said and met his eyes again, this time with a slight grin of her own, and then turned away.
The man called out to her, “Where are you staying, madame? Where are you staying? In the big hotel in another town?” The men all laughed and she kept walking.
A woman like that with feet and ankles cut up, the tall one thought. Thin like that. A woman like her. She’s in no hotel. No American. She’s sleeping on a beach just like us. There’s no reason to lie. What does she think? That we’ll come after her? We might have fed her. You don’t want to be alone. A person doesn’t want to be alone.
The tall man had paid to be taken with fifteen others from Dakar across Mali, Algeria, and into Libya, where they were packed onto a small wooden boat at Tubruq. In the dark they were sailed across the Libyan sea and left on a small beach a few kilometers outside of Sfakia in Crete. Mostly they had walked at night and slept during the day. Twice they were in covered trucks. The man had paid the traffickers’ fee with money his mother had given him, along with her blessing. He arrived in Crete with fifty thousand CFA francs, which he still hadn’t been able to exchange for the nearly eighty euros it was worth. Four of the men he’d traveled with had died in the Algerian desert. He did not know why and by then he was not interested. He’d eaten the millet they gave him, drunk the water, tried not to think or feel, and walked when they told him to walk, slept when they told him to sleep. The traffickers left them on the beach in Crete without ceremony, and disappeared. When they were gone, the man swam in the sea. It had been thirty-seven days since he’d bathed, and the feeling of slipping into the cool water that early morning was one of the greatest pleasures he’d experienced in his life. He slept on the sand with his head on his pack. Before the sun rose, he left the rest of the men and followed the coastline. He found a fig tree and ate until he was so sick with diarrhea that he thought he would die of dehydration in that scrub and shade. He ate the last of the millet and woke the next morning. He found almond trees and broke the shells with rocks and ate the nuts and survived. He kept walking and in a week was in Heraklion, where he thought he might have tried to live, but there were police everywhere and too many Africans. One night he climbed a fence, hid beneath the lifeboat tarp of a Hellenic Seaways Flying Cat 4, and waited to go somewhere else. After months of moving by inches through dead landscapes, the roar and kick of the hydrofoil was a kind of magic. Once outside the harbor the boat jolted into full speed and he fell and hit his head against the handle of an oar. The boat tore across the blue water and the man watched through a break in the tarp as the high black cliffs of a new island appeared, and when they docked and the jets cut out he took a breath and heaved himself out of the boat, terrifying and nearly knocking over a bewildered German and his wife. “Excuse, excuse,” he said, but they looked away, pretended to have lost something, and hurried forward. He followed them and the line of people streaming out of the boat onto the port beneath those high cliffs and another town full of tourists.
That weary arrogance. That chill grin. They were like the men who’d crowded her parents’ living room. Dirty, sweating, dull-eyed. The man in the yellow T-shirt—Knor it said, across his chest—was charged with executing looters. Shirt fringed with dirt. All those children following him with their rifles. “I wicked boy,” one of them sang, dancing in his rubber sandals on the asphalt still wet from rain. “I the real wicked boy,” he sang, firing the rifle one-handed, the other hand flat to the sky in a dancer’s flourish, laughing as he put bullets in the skulls of two women trying to drag a sack of rice like a corpse up an alley. Now, here was the other man, smiling at her, standing before his menu board. He was calm the way people are when they’ve eaten, when they’ve bathed, when the night is beginning.
She was more than twenty feet away, but the man spoke with an enthusiasm and volume that embarrassed her.
“Hello. You are returning.”
Jacqueline nodded. “I am returning.”
“I’m happy for that. Thank you for returning.”
She laughed and then stumbled, and if not for grabbing on to a lamppost, she’d have fallen. The man crossed the space between them, bent slightly at the waist, and inclined his head. He repeated the words several times before she understood. “You are fine? Lady? You are fine?”
She didn’t know how long she’d been hanging on the pole.
“You will come? Please.” He extended his right arm in the direction of the restaurant.
She could not stay there clinging to the metal. It would be better to go with the man. “I’ll come,” she said and took the man’s arm, which was warm and solid. His skin against her palm brought solace—a jolt of pleasure that left her weaker.
The man guided her to the restaurant. She wanted to say, “Too much sun today. I’m dehydrated.” She was turning the words into a sentence, but she was so exhausted she could not speak. He took her into the restaurant and lowered her gently into a chair. There was a hand at her back and then a cool glass before her. The ice cubes knocked against her teeth as she drank. She drank, and from the plastic pitcher in his hand he refilled the glass.
After the third glass of water she leaned back in her chair. “I can’t pay you,” she said. “I don’t have money with me.”
“You are okay?”
“Yes, fine, thank you for the water. I should get back now.”
He came around the table and leaned forward, his hands flat on the paper tablecloth. “Stay,” he said and smiled. “Stay. A little while, yes? Wait.” He raised his left hand and showed her his palm. “Stay? Yes?” He smiled and left her there.
She picked up a silver knife and then returned it to the table. Hanging from the back of one of the straight wood and wicker chairs was her plastic bag and in it the empty water bottle. She looked away, and out at the sky. She should leave here, gather herself up, and get back before it turned any darker, but she was tired and weak, the chair felt solid beneath her, and she could not make herself move. Just a few minutes longer and then she’d go. She wanted to cross her arms on the table, lower her head and rest, but if she were to stay she must do so upright. Stand and leave. Stand and leave. But she could not. The hard chair was a bed. She closed her eyes.
An arm passed in front of her. Then there was a plate. A large tomato, a green pepper. Both had been stuffed and baked.
“Yemista,” the man said and poured olive oil from a glass bottle in a glowing green stream three hundred degrees of a circle around the plate. “Pepper and tomato. Made with rice. Eat, please.”
Jacqueline looked down at the plate. There was the smell of garlic and mint.
The man had come around to the other side of the table, brought the chair out and sat sideways, as if he wouldn’t stay long.
“Please,” he said again.
She shook her head. “I have no money. With me. I have no money on me now.” Vapor rose from the food. It was very close to her, the smell made her dizzier.
This is God, her mother said. Take what He gives you. Don’t be stubborn, young woman. Eat.
“You do not need to pay me,” the man said, but when Jacqueline glanced up, when he saw her eyes rise from the food and meet his, he said, “You pay me the next day. The time after, yes? Now you’re eating, yes?”
God, her mother said. All of this is God.
“Yes. Not the next day, but I’ll pay you. Not tomorrow, soon.”
“Not important,” the man said. He was happy that she would eat and felt as if she’d admitted something to him. A thing he already knew.
She knew she’d broken. She spread the paper napkin across her lap and raised the heavy silverware from the table. She drove the tines in, drew the dull, serrated blade through the baked crust of rice, the skin, the soft flesh of the tomato. She ate. Then there was nothing else—not her mother, not before Spain, not Spain, not the cave, not the Senegalese men, not this man. For those minutes there was only the food and again the pleasure of relief.
The man left her alone to eat. She could have eaten endlessly, but after she sopped up the olive oil on her plate with a thick piece of bread, after she finished the bottle of Coke, she stood up to leave.
“You must stay.” The man had returned. “You must have dessert. Coffee. Grappa.”
“No,” she said. “I’m late already.”
“I have to meet my friends,” she said.
“Yes.” He looked away from her. A group of young women had arrived and were standing at the entrance. The man glanced back to Jacqueline. “You are fine for walking?”
“I’m fine for walking,” she said. “Thank you very much. Thank you.” She felt she might cry. She felt the string at the top of her head pulling her straight. Raise your chin, young woman. “The food was delicious.”
“You are welcome,” he said. “Forever you like.”
“Thank you.” She smiled and moved toward the door, the man following her.
“Don’t forget,” the man said. The white plastic bag hung from his fingers.
“Oh. Thank you.” The bag was heavy. He’d filled the bottle. “Thank you,” she said again.
“Forever you like,” the man said and returned to his restaurant.
How long since she had eaten like that? She thought of the food she’d refused on the plane. All the small packages unopened. Her mind slipped away from her. She lost track of time. Everything behind her lost its form and existed only as a kind of aftertaste.
She walked to where the road turned away from the sea and swung upward. She stopped on the sidewalk, leaned over the railing, looked down at the black sand. She remembered lightning storms. The sky turned violet and was shattered by jagged veins of light. This is the show, her father said. This is the show, children, the show. He laughed high and nasal and clapped his hands. I am not your child, her mother said. I know, Angie, I know, he said. They drank Coca-Cola from the bottle, except for her mother, who insisted on the glass. Jacqueline didn’t know when the lightning storm had been, or how old she was then. She was irritated with herself. Any bit of luxury and she softened, forgot, and shifted. That was the problem with fortune. That was the problem with her mother’s God. Nothing has changed because you’ve eaten that meal. If anything, you must be more careful. You are known. You are in the minds of at least four people. She wanted to lie down on a bench and close her eyes, but she walked down the steps into the dark and went to her cave.
Those weeks in Málaga, an Algerian man selling fruit on a sidewalk told her a story of three women who lived with him in an illegal inland camp. They had shelter. There was water nearby, he said. They had jobs picking strawberries in a nearby greenhouse. They were paid regularly. But anyway, they’d held hands and stepped in front of a train and were all killed. People shook their heads and didn’t understand, but I understood, the man said, I don’t have the courage to do it myself, but I understand. He gave Jacqueline oranges and told her she must eat.
She didn’t believe she deserved a quick exit, the romance and flash of instant death. The Algerian man was like her father, so naively sure of himself. She accepted his gift. Those oranges tasting so entirely like orange. She ate while he talked. If you want to live, he’d said. Until then, she hadn’t considered it either way.
In Málaga, still carrying the flesh of her first life in her breasts and on her hips, she’d been sitting on the sand with her arms around her knees when a small blonde woman in a ragged straw hat with sunburned hands showed her a worn laminated index card.
“You want massage cheap?” the woman said. “Good strong. Yes? Yes?” She pointed to the rates written in small, neat handwriting. Five minutes, three euros. Ten minutes, Five. Shoulders, Feet, and Back.
“No,” Jacqueline replied. “No. But thank you.”
The woman took Jacqueline’s right hand in her left and, from a glass bottle, poured a small green coin into Jacqueline’s palm. The woman moved her thumbs over Jacqueline’s hand, rubbing the oil into her skin.
“I have no money,” Jacqueline protested. “No money.”
“Yes,” the woman said. “Cheap.”
Jacqueline shook her head and tried to take her hands away, but the woman held tighter.
“No money. No money.” Jacqueline lowered her head and began to cry. It was as if the woman’s hands were pulling something from her. “No money,” she said again.
The woman stopped but did not let go. Jacqueline looked up and was unable to wipe her face. “No money,” she said again. “I am like you. I am like you.”
“Free,” the woman said. “Okay? Free. Nu existä nici o taxä. You fine, lady. You fine.”
And for a few minutes the woman massaged Jacqueline’s hands. The oil smell, rich and clean. She cried and watched the woman push her thumbs along the muscles in Jacqueline’s palms. She didn’t know how much time passed. “Thank you,” she said. “Thank you. I’m sorry I have no money.”
“We are fine,” the woman said. “We are fine.”
“Okay,” Jacqueline said. The woman walked down the beach, stopping to solicit customers. Jacqueline fell back on the sand, her knees pointing at the sky, and did her best to thank God, to wish the woman well.
You think it an accident that she should find you? You want me to say that I am fortunate? You want me to tell you that I am blessed? Because she pitied me? That is a blessing?
How to begin? Excuse me sir, excuse me ma’am. Bonjour, monsieur, Bonjour, madame. Excuse me for bothering you. Jacqueline walked to the waterline and followed it to the far end of the beach. The sun was strong but not stronger than what she was used to. Still, she’d need a hat. And she wanted to cut her hair. The braids were weight she didn’t need.
She would need a lie. A student in New York. Columbia University like her father. And to make money, to pay for what the scholarship didn’t, to make ends meet, she did this. New York is expensive. It was good enough. She knew the idioms. He’d given her that too.
She began with a couple sitting on a wide white towel. The woman lay facedown, propped on her elbows. The man sat at her side, stroking her back. As Jacqueline approached, it occurred to her that she hadn’t considered whether or not she knew how to touch these strangers.
“Excuse me for bothering you,” she said.
The man had watched her come, had pushed with his thumb into his girlfriend’s back—two hard pulses in warning. The girlfriend had turned in irritation, but relaxed when the thin black woman spoke.
“Excuse me,” Jacqueline said again. She’d begun the sentence too far away and was afraid that with the wind, they might not have heard her. “I’m sorry to bother you. Do you speak English?”
“Yes,” the man said, and the woman nodded.
“I’m sorry to bother you. I’m a master’s student in New York.”
Jacqueline stood above them with the sun behind her and the couple looking up from behind their sunglasses. “I’m sorry to bother you,” Jacqueline said again, kneeling on the sand. “I’m a student, but I’m also a masseuse, a massage therapist, and I was wondering if you’d like—”
“Oh no no no.” The man cut her off.
“Michael,” the woman said sharply.
“No, it’s fine, I certainly understand. I’m sorry to bother you both.”
“Wait, please. How much for a foot massage?”
The man shook his head. “I don’t mean to be rude, but we can’t buy everything we want.”
The woman ignored him. “How much?”
Jacqueline hadn’t thought about the cost. She said, “One euro for five minutes. That’s what I’ve been charging, but if you’d like—”
“No, that’s fine. That perfectly fair,” she said. “How would you like me?”
“What kind of massage do you do?” the man asked.
“Oh,” Jacqueline said, “it’s a combination, you know, I don’t like to limit myself.”
He took off his sunglasses, wiped the sweat from his nose, and looked at her.
“Swedish,” she said.
The man smirked and nodded as if he knew everything about Jacqueline.
“This okay?” The woman leaned back on her elbows. She pointed her red-painted toes at Jacqueline. “It’s all right,” the woman said. “Go on. Five minutes, one euro. Ignore him.”
Jacqueline walked her knees forward, drew her skirt up, took the woman’s small feet into her hands, and rested them on her bare thighs. She held the right foot so that the heel rested between her palms. She pushed her thumbs along the pad of the heel, along the arch, and over the ball of the foot.
“Oh, that’s wonderful,” the woman said. “Wonderful.” She let her head fall back so that her long black hair fell clear of her neck and collected behind her in a low pile on the white towel.
“Look at the movie star,” the man said. The woman did look like something out of a magazine, with her enormous black sunglasses and her black bikini, and her head thrown back. Jacqueline saw the skin drawn tight across the woman’s throat. She wished she had her own sunglasses. She could not tell if the man was looking at her or if he was looking out to sea. She added sunglasses to her list of things she needed to begin a new life. The woman’s feet felt like those of a young child.
“You have beautiful feet.”
“You have great hands. My God, where did you learn to do this?”
“Oh, in New York,” she said. She glanced over at the man, who was lying on his back, his head turned away from them, breathing as if he were asleep. “A massage school,” Jacqueline added.
She’d learned from Saifa, who had been putting her feet in Jacqueline’s lap since they were children. And it was never the other way around. In the early morning after dancing, on the couch together, sitting on the terrace watching the dark towering clouds come in over the ocean, Jacqueline held her sister’s feet and pressed her thumbs along the same lines, squeezed, held her heels like tea cups, squeezed her toes and cracked the joints. And when she’d become pregnant, idiot girl, every night talking about the places they’d live together, all the lives they’d lead. In Manhattan and Paris, Los Angeles, and most of all Papeete, where their father had once been the guest of an American businessman.
“No place in the world as pretty as that,” he said. “It wouldn’t be possible. It was the work of a master, unlike this place, the work of a child with a crayon.”
“Benoni,” their mother said, shaking her head. “You will go to hell for that.”
Imagining the woman’s feet were her sister’s, Jacqueline lost track of time. The woman eased down onto her back, her arms out at her sides, palms upturned. The five minutes must have passed, but Jacqueline wasn’t certain, so she went on. She no longer wanted the feet in her lap. She imagined driving her thumbs hard into the arch. Instead, she laid them on the sand as if they were valuable.
“Yes,” Jacqueline said.
“Maybe I should buy another five minutes.”
Without moving, the man said, “Maybe not, dear,” saying dear as if it were a joke. The woman lowered her sunglasses and rolled her eyes at Jacqueline.
“It’s a euro, please.”
Jacqueline had lost her energy. She had no more patience for charm, for her story, for kneeling. The man raised himself up just enough to reach back and push a hand into the pocket of a nylon backpack.
“What’s that accent?” He asked, with a coin in his hand. “Jamaica?”
“She speaks English perfectly. Better than you, Chris, I’m sure.”
“I’m talking about her accent,” he said. “Not her English.”
“Just give her the money.”
Jacqueline sat on her heels. She was still. She felt the weight drawing her face down, deadening her eyes. She put her hand out, and the coin fell into her palm.
“So what’s the accent?”
“Liberia,” she said.
“Thank you, thank you,” the woman said. “Maybe we’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Liberia,” the man repeated. He nodded as if he suddenly knew her. “Take care of yourself,” he said in a new voice, which was to mean something solemn and understanding.
Jacqueline nodded and walked away from them down to the water. With her back to the beach, she slipped the coin into her bra and felt it pressed solidly against the top of her breast. Then she squatted and washed her hands in the sea.
“Those people are eating each other,” the man said to his wife, who was already asleep.
She built a mattress out of cardboard she stole from a pile behind a grocery. At night, she searched the dumpsters in the alleys off the main road. She didn’t touch the food. The rotting fruit, the molding bread, the souring milk. She filled the plastic bag with the cleanest, driest trash. She crushed it down and added more. In the early morning, when the sun lit up her cave so that not a corner was in darkness, she tore the boxes open. She spread the first on the stone floor. She molded the trash to cover the length of the cardboard. A second piece of cardboard went on top.
The next day while she was working, she collected the thin plastic grocery bags that swirled around the beach like ghosts. Later, along the perimeter of each piece of cardboard she made holes with a jagged rock. She rolled the plastic bags into cord, threaded the holes, and bound the mattress together.
She tried a pillow of trash, but the sound kept her awake. Always crackling in her ear. In her half sleep, it spoke to her. So she filled a doubled bag with sand, put it under her head, and slept.
The darkest mornings, after the moon had gone and there was no sound on the promenade, when the only noise was wind and breaking waves, Jacqueline slid out of the cave and moved barefoot down the rock in the pitch-dark.
Like a rat, her mother said.
Jacqueline moved carefully, around the point and out onto the sand. There in the shadow of the great outcropping, she slid her skirt from around her waist and dropped it in the sand. Her underwear too. Tanktop and bra. She collected it all in her arms and stood still, and when she was sure, she moved out of the shadow and climbed the steps and walked past the sign that said Do Not Drinking the Water. She pushed the stiff silver button and the shower kicked to life. She crouched naked on her heels and washed the clothes, draping them dripping over the wall, piece by piece. Then she rose and stepped onto the metal grate. Twice she’d done this, and in those two dark mornings, naked beneath the water, beneath the soft glow of the streetlight, before the wide, empty, orange street, before a slinking cat, she felt as if she were breaking open. That first instant when the water covered her, it was as if something cracked and fell from her skin, from her eyes. It was more than salt and grime. She wanted to stay longer. She always wanted to stay longer. She collected her wet clothes and walked naked across the sand, over the rocks, keeping low, careful not to slip, and eventually found her way back up the wall and into her cave. She brushed the sand from her feet and swung them inside. She laid the clothes out flat, wrapped herself in the blanket, and slept.
The least expensive hat she could find was a white cotton visor with an adjustable Velcro band. HELLAS it said, in light-blue lettering. Four euros at a small market a few minutes up the road, away from the beach. It gave her the look of a tourist, she thought. A real souvenir. She wore the visor low over her eyes. She was careful. She carried no sign, no evidence of her work. She maintained the same story, the same disposition—bright-eyed student, scratching out an island vacation before returning to school in the fall. The visor softened her, hid her eyes, made her look earnest and enthusiastic. She rubbed their feet, their shoulders, their hands. Three euros one day. Two. Once, six. Some days nothing at all. She soon saw that people were more likely to call her over after lunch, when they were groggy and lazy in their pockets of sand, trusting of her, a well-spoken student, a charming accent.
Every day at noon she went to a small snack shop. The owner was big, unsmiling, suspicious. But his apron was as immaculate as his restaurant—a counter, three stools, a takeaway window to the street. Nothing out of order. When he opened, he hung a red, white, and blue clock outside the shop. Pepsi.
“Good afternoon.” She stood straight and smiled.
He nodded. “Chicken or lamb?”
“Chicken today.” She alternated. Chicken, lamb, chicken, lamb.
“No thank you.”
He grilled the bread, shaved the meat from the skewer, spread it on the griddle. She loved the way he snatched the hot bread from the grill, pulling it up into the air, turning toward her as it crossed the space from hot station to cold and landed in front of them on a plastic cutting board beneath the counter. He went left to right, spread the sauce, then the lettuce, the tomatoes.
He slid it onto wax paper and carried it back to the grill where he added the meat. He turned the paper into a cone and filled the opening with fries.
She ate at the counter. Every day at the same time. Chicken, lamb, chicken, lamb. They didn’t speak otherwise. The man stood at the window watching the street, waiting for takeout customers. No one but Jacqueline ate at the counter. When she was done she placed her two-euro coin on the countertop.
“Okay?” he said.
“Best in the world. You should raise your prices.”
The man smiled. Satisfied, but not surprised.
She could have bought chocolate bars for less. Bags of chips. But what else did she have to spend her money on? In that way, she was rich.
Six nights, she’d been here. On the seventh morning she was awakened by a brutal dream the contents of which she couldn’t remember. She was struck by a terrible loneliness, and exhaustion. She didn’t go to the beach. She stayed at the back of the cave. She knew she should go out, but she had no appetite. Hunger was no longer the burden. Time was.
She had built a home without meaning to. Now she wanted to know what would happen next. She didn’t have the capacity to kill herself. Let’s be honest, her mother said. You haven’t the courage for that kind of thing. No matter what you feel. It’s just not in you, my love. Jacqueline also didn’t have the capacity to spend the rest of her life in a cave, massaging the dirty feet of tourists.
What, then? There was nowhere to go. No one left. Even Taylor was gone, which seemed impossible.
“Why doesn’t he say I,” she asked her father. They were watching Taylor on television. “Why does he say ‘President Taylor’ when he means I?”
“Some people believe,” President Taylor said, “that President Taylor is the problem.”
Her father reached over and patted her knee. When the speech was over, she asked the same question. Later she would listen to the BBC as the UN reported his indictment for murder, torture, rape, sexual slavery, terrorism, looting, the unlawful recruitment of child soldiers, the kidnapping and murder of UN peacekeepers.
Her father looked at her, and with a smile that meant this is the last we’ll speak of it, he said, “That’s Ghankay. Exceptional men have exceptional habits, Jackie.”
She would have pressed it, but her mother looked at her and she shut up.
And much later still, as she sat in the back of a Land Cruiser, sixty kilometers from the border of Sierra Leone, Bernard said to her, an arm around her shoulder: “This is what happens when all your life, you live on a hill looking down on the poor.” After a while she fell asleep. When she woke there was a group of LURD soldiers surrounding the truck. Boys in T-shirts. The one in white—in an NFL on FOX T-shirt—kept the barrel of his rifle pressed against her head, asking questions.
She was frightened. Still she thought, Pull it.
“Answer them,” Bernard said. The driver and another man, both of them white, looked straight ahead.
“She’s sick,” Bernard said.
“Firm your jaw,” the boy said and poked him hard in the temple with the barrel.
There was an older one speaking to her, but she couldn’t see him.
Where was she going?
“New York,” she said looking at the back of the driver’s head.
“Why you go New York?”
“I live there.”
“They stole it,” she said. “They stole everything.”
“Taylor,” she said. “Taylor’s soldiers.”
The door opened and she stumbled onto the red dirt road. She hadn’t noticed before, but now she felt the camera that Bernard had hung around her neck.
The man who’d been speaking stood in front of her. He was so close she could barely see him. His face shone and he reeked of cologne.
“You tell that we will take action,” he said. “You tell we have enough to take city. Enough. You tell we come dress Taylor like a woman.” He stepped back. “You tell that.”
She nodded. He let her back in the car. Held the door for her. Helped her in. In white letters across the back of his T-shirt that was the color of flooded roads, it read Too Tough to Die. Jacqueline could still smell the cologne. All of them were wearing it. She thought of them passing the bottle around, shaking it onto their palms, slapping it onto the backs of their necks, smoothing it over their cheeks, like boys getting ready for a dance.
She kept her passport on a flat stone, standing like a decorative book. Gold on blue, just like Bernard’s, but hers read “The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here,” while his read “United States of America.”
Saifa alone in the yellow chair looking out the window, a chemistry book resting on her belly. She was eight months pregnant and enormous. When the power went out for the fourth time in an hour and the picture vanished, her mother said, “Plug it into Saifa. It’ll work.” Her father handed Saifa the cord and she fit the prongs into her nostrils.
“Still doesn’t work,” he said. “Must be something wrong with the television.”
My love. It was her mother’s gentle voice, the one she reserved for her daughters and only when they were falling, when they could no longer understand the things that happened in a life. Lives in which, even with all their privilege, the most terrible things had entered. My love, her mother said in that calmest, surest whisper, Get up. Jacqueline, weeping now, said, “Tomorrow, Mama, tomorrow.” Jacqueline closed her eyes and imagined a mountain above her, those layers of earth and rock and ash. That was her mother’s trick. To think of all the time, all the history of all the people who ever lived. Jacqueline turned onto her side, drew her legs up, and pressed her smooth knees against the damp back wall of the cave. She tried but could imagine no one else, and no other life but her own. You are a selfish girl, her mother said. Jacqueline shifted so that her hip took more of her weight. The pain of bone against rock helped to pass the time. She thought, You must keep a present need. Always keep a present need. Make it unbearable. Solve no problem too quickly.
She slept and dreamed she was giving birth to her sister’s child.
The next morning the beach was crowded. Her first job was two blonde girls in bikinis. One of them doing a headstand, the other with legs crossed, eyes closed, thumbs and forefingers joined. Both of them laughing. They took her immediately. Two five-minute foot massages. She sat on her knees and held a foot in her hands, pushing her thumbs along the sole.
“So where are you in school?”
“Wow. I didn’t get in.”
“Neither did I.”
“We’re both at Duke.”
“You said you’re a grad student?”
“Journalism.” She’d decided today it would be journalism, and switched to the other foot.
“Amazing. They have a great program.”
“I love your accent. What are you, like, Jamaican?”
“You make enough money like this?”
“I stay in a hostel.”
“Oh cool, us too. Which one?”
“Maybe she doesn’t want to say?”
“Oh, my God, I’m sorry.”
“Well, we’re in Fira. I just asked because I thought how random if we were staying in the same one, you know?”
“Mine’s not in Fira.” Jacqueline looked up and smiled.
“Are you in Oia? I heard that’s the best, even if there’s nowhere to party.”
“It’s nice. Very quiet.”
Jacqueline had moved on to the third foot. It was too fast probably, but they didn’t protest. She ended each massage by rubbing sand against the soles of their feet. A new flourish. “And finally, to exfoliate,” she said.
“Amazing.” They gave her a five-euro bill.
“Keep the change.”
“You know, if you ever want to meet out for a drink, we’re here for another week.”
“Sure,” she said, folding the bill in half and slipping it into her skirt pocket.
One of them handed her a card.
“That’s my email and my cell. Write anytime or send a text.”
She stood above them, brushing sand from her knees. “Sure,” she said. “Next time I’m in Fira.” She dropped the card into her pocket, waved at them, and moved on down the sand. She needed to eat, but there was more than half the beach to travel. There was a couple sitting quietly up at the edge of the dry sand. They were on matching blue towels neatly laid out, side by side, without a corner upturned. The woman with her legs crossed, the man leaning back on his elbows. Jacqueline turned away from the water.
“Excuse me,” she began. “Do you speak English?”
She made her pitch, reaching for her visor to make certain it was straight.
“Oh, I don’t know.” The man removed his sunglasses and squinted.
“What kind of massage?” the woman said.
“Oh, it’s a traditional form. Something my mother taught me.”
The woman smiled in a way that reminded Jacqueline of a cat. “Sit down,” the woman said.
Jacqueline kneeled in the sand. She did not like to kneel, but she couldn’t find a better position to do this work.
“What are your rates?” The man watched his wife flex her feet.
“Two euros for five minutes,” Jacqueline said.
“You live on that?” he asked.
She shrugged. She lifted the woman’s right ankle and cradled it. It was a small, elegant foot with a high arch and clear-varnished toenails.
“You tell me if it’s too hard.” Jacqueline held the foot steady and applied a slow, constant pressure.
“Oh. As hard as you like.”
She pushed deeper.
“That’s wonderful. Oh, God.” She fell back and closed her eyes. “Do five minutes a foot, okay? Can you do that?”
She thought of the shaded table, the basket of bread.
“My wife’s a glutton.” There was something soft about him. “How long have you been doing this?” he said.
“About a month.”
“Where are you in school?”
“Yeah? You like it?”
“I don’t know. I start in September.”
“Where are you moving from?”
She slid her thumbs along the arch and worked the ball of the foot.
“When did you leave?”
“June,” he repeated. She could feel him staring. “I’m glad you got out safe.”
She turned to him, surprised by the tenderness in his voice.
“Thank you. I think your wife has fallen asleep.”
“I guess you’re talented.”
Jacqueline’s legs were going numb.
“Must be strange to go from there to here,” he said. “To an island like this, to rubbing the feet of people like us.”
“People like you?”
“With time to lie in the sun.”
“It’s not what I think about.”
He seemed embarrassed.
“Why did you stay so long?”
“My father was a believer.”
The woman woke up and stretched her arms above her head again, twisting slightly. “Oh,” she said. “You have such lovely hands.”
Jacqueline moved on to the left foot. The man rolled a piece of blue sea glass between his fingers.
Jacqueline turned her head from side to side, stretching her neck.
The Senegalese man was watching her.
She focused on the woman’s foot, counted fifteen seconds, and stopped.
“Okay,” she said. Her voice was weak.
“Thank you, thank you,” the woman said. “Just amazing. You don’t have a card or something, do you? Some way to reach you? I swear I could do this every day.”
“No, I’m sorry.”
“Nowhere? No phone? Nothing?”
She shook her head. She couldn’t stand. Her legs were numb.
“Here you go.”
The man held something out to her. “Take it,” he said. “Please.”
The woman rolled her knees from side to side. “Seriously, you earned every fucking penny.”
Jacqueline slipped the bill into her pocket and fell back off of her heels into the sand. She forced a laugh as if she meant to fall. But she couldn’t stand. She was so weak. Breathe. Breathe, she thought.
Slowly it all came back. The sky. The surface beneath her. Her own weight. She sat up. The woman, eyes closed, was still rolling her knees from side to side like a metronome. The man had his hand on Jacqueline’s foot.
“You all right?”
“Fine,” she said. “Sometimes my back spasms. Comes on fast, you know.”
“Sure,” he said. “I thought you’d passed out.”
The woman said, “We’ll be back. Look for us.”
The man stared with his girlish, gentle eyes.
“Thank you,” Jacqueline said. She looked down at his hand resting on her foot. He drew it away.
“You’re sure you’re okay?”
“Yes. Just need to get out of the sun for a bit.”
She took a long breath and stood up. “Take care,” she said and moved in the direction of the road. It was taking a long time. Then she was at the steps, resting at the bottom, climbing to the top, and the man was sitting on a bench, waiting.
The inflection was wrong, the words repeated sounds, she thought, not language. She didn’t move because she didn’t want to fall.
“Why you’re not at hotel? In other town. Why you like this beach so much?”
He raised his chin.
She looked down the road to where the other two men, his partners, stood behind their blankets of sunglasses. It was possible that he posed no threat, that he was being friendly, playful. But she didn’t like his face and she didn’t like to be identified.
“What do you want?” she said.
“Only to say hello. To welcome you to this beach. To say to you, bonne chance, my friend.”
She studied his eyes, his arms spread out, his long hands hanging across the top of the bench.
“Thank you,” she said and would have walked on, but did not have the strength.
“You are doing here?”
“On the beach. You are doing what?”
“I don’t understand,” she said, though she understood.
He waved his hand at her like she’d told him a bad joke. “Yes,” he said. “You do. You do.”
Jacqueline stared at him.
“You are working.”
She did not respond.
“You are working and I think you are living. Here,” he said. “I am thinking you are living here.”
“I’m going to have lunch.” She pushed away from the railing. Adrenaline gave her strength to move.
“It is possible,” he said. “It is possible I know where is.”
She took a step forward. She’d have to pass by him to get to the restaurant.
“What is? Know where what is?”
“The place you are living.” He nodded toward the beach. Jacqueline thought of herself standing beneath the shower, naked in the streetlight.
“You can work for me,” he said.
“No, thank you.” Jacqueline took two steps, passing the man, but his long right arm came alive and he took her wrist in his rough hand.
“This is not choice.”
She met his eyes and didn’t fight and didn’t look at the fingers on her arm. “Do not touch me,” she said. He kept his hand where it was and smiled at passersby as if it were a game he and Jacqueline were playing. She didn’t want to be seen, didn’t want this attention, but she wouldn’t smile. She focused on his face, trying to work out what he was exactly, the danger he posed. There were a thousand degrees. She had lost her sense of time. Everything seemed to warp around her, and despite the fear she felt, the adrenaline had begun to dilute and disappear. What she had left was anger, which she focused on and it gave her enough power to pull her arm away hard. People stopped to look. An incongruous scene on this quiet bay.
Jacqueline pulled with all her force. His nails dragged across her arm. She’d broken his grip and she walked toward the restaurant. She went in and took a table farthest from the sidewalk. She rested her arms on the plastic tablecloth. There were three raised red lines on her skin. She was very tired, and more than food, more than water, what she wanted was to sleep, she wanted to hide away, to bury herself somewhere and close her eyes, to be contained and protected.
A woman brought the menu, a bottle of water, the basket of bread. Jacqueline watched the door to the kitchen, but it was always the waitress who came and went.
“Is the owner here?” Jacqueline asked.
“Is there a problem?”
“Not at all. No. I was just hoping to speak to him today.”
“To speak to him?”
Jacqueline saw her face for the first time. Until then she’d been a vague presence, a sweeping hand, a smell of garlic and dirty oil. All familiar smells to Jacqueline, which made her trust that presence. But the face was jarring. Somehow she’d expected a face like her mother’s, or some element of her mother in the eyes. But the woman was young and looked at Jacqueline with suspicion. “Why would you need to speak to the owner?”
“Oh, only because.” She wanted to say he had helped her, she owed him money for a meal, she wanted to repay him, thank him. But the woman was the man’s girlfriend or his wife, so Jacqueline said she was hoping for a job, she wondered if there might be a job.
“We’re not hiring anyone now.”
Jacqueline nodded and said she understood and ordered the yemista. The woman left and Jacqueline hoped the man might return. It was important to repay him. She wanted to speak to him. But it was only the woman who moved through the restaurant, proprietary and efficient. The man never came. The woman left her alone to eat and eventually brought the check. Jacqueline dug the money from her skirt pocket. There were two bills. One was a five euro, the other was a fifty. Fifty euros. Charity. A donation to the victims of their pathetic little war. Victims of her father’s hero. Victims of her father. She felt deceived. Those two people on the sand to whom she knelt. But why anger? Why was her first response always to be furious, always to doubt accidents. Those people, this money, everything is intended. Give in. Her mother would have said Yes, if she could have spoken, Yes. She never would have hated. Her mother who was raped and butchered by a child with a machete. Even then she would not have hated. Even if she had seen what happened next, to Saifa.
Jacqueline laid the money down on the check. With the two-euro cover, the total was seven. When her change came, she slipped a twenty beneath the receipt. She owed him nothing now and felt an absurd relief.
She stood out front on the sidewalk and counted three men standing in front of the sunglasses. She turned in the other direction and descended the stairs.
At her cave she sat with her bare legs in the sun, her calves pressed against the warm rock, and watched the boats pass. She didn’t want to leave. She didn’t want to begin again. So she sat, most of her in shade. She liked the pretty bay, the changing light, her bed, the order of her life. Nostalgia, her mother said. This is not the end. You must go on.
Jacqueline spread her money on the flat stone, counted and arranged it neatly, and returned it with her passport to her pocket. She folded her blanket and clothes and pressed both down into her pack. She slid the mattress to the very back of the cave, as if she might return. Despite its weight, she kept the pillow. She swung out and slipped down to the sand, and went on.