Emily stopped listening to the conversation. She wondered if she should check again with Mamadou the cook. But what would she tell him? She had no idea when their final guest would arrive. She glanced at John. He smiled at her, gave a small shrug about Dr. Kleckner’s tardiness, and made a little face about their other guests’ tendency toward competitiveness. He seemed relaxed. So Emily remained where she was.
Although she would not have admitted the fact, Emily was a little afraid of her husband: of his ambition and relentless pursuit of achieve¬ment, of his intellect, of the ease with which he conversed with almost anyone, and of his tendency to be a tiny bit impatient with her and their two boys. In Washington, where they were last stationed, Emily had been heavily involved at their sons’ school; she had also worked in a travel business. But John had asked that for their first year in Ouagadougou she devote herself entirely to helping him become a successful Ambas¬sador. She had agreed and she was often lonely. The two boys were at boarding school in Switzerland. They were in their mid-teens and
feared that they had left the nest forever. With them gone, she did not know for certain what her role was. Or for that matter what it would be for the rest of her life.
Now Emily often thought of her husband not as John, but as The Ambassador. She wanted to stay attractive for him and representative of his position. Since she had a tiny tendency to put on weight, she did a video workout every morning after he left for the office. She was re¬lieved—immensely relieved!—that he had been appointed Ambassador even if it was to an unimportant country like Burkina Faso with a capital called Wa-ga. Finally they could relax. Worries that John’s ambitions would always be thwarted gnawed less ferociously at them now.
Emily no longer feared that her every act might impact his chances for success. Of course, they hoped for a more prestigious post next time. But even in Ougadougou she wanted everything to be right for him, including a dinner en famille for three American academics, especially for the Adams couple, John’s longtime mentors, who gossiped across the room. She could see that their admiration was good for his ego.
The mentors came from the college in Maine where John had done his undergraduate work. Horton Converse Adams III, called Tripp, was a sociologist who specialized in the training of elites. His wife Sarah was an historian. Newly retired, designated as “emeriti,” they were venturing around the world. They had come to Ouagadougou expressly to visit John, to bask in the success that had come to him upon being named Ambassador. While there, they hoped to catch sight of their faculty colleague Charlotte Kleckner.
But Dr. Kleckner was late. She had come in the night before from Bobo-Dioulasso. Emily had talked with her by phone, inviting her for seven. The clock hands were now moving toward eight.
Adams announced, “I’m getting a little worried.”
“So am I,” said Sarah. “Is Kleckie safe?”
“I wouldn’t worry yet,” replied the Ambassador. “One gets casual
about time in West Africa. That’s the tradition.”
“I’m sure you’re right, John,” said Adams. “But Kleckie’s not African.”
“She’s hopelessly punctual,” agreed his historian wife. “It comes from working with statistics.”
The professors looked at one another as if something ought to be done.
“Should I call her hotel?” Emily asked her husband.
“Let’s give her a bit longer,” suggested the Ambassador.
“But just a bit,” said Sarah.
As they waited, Adams silently beat his winter-bleached thumbs to¬gether. Then he chuckled and observed, “Charlotte Kleckner in Africa!” He shook his head. “I can hardly imagine it!” He and his wife smiled at one another.
“Have you met her?” asked Sarah. John and Emily indicated they had not. The historian sighed. “She’s delicate. Pale-skinned.”
“Sexless, she means,” her husband declared. Since they were with John, whom they had known so long, it was permissible to gossip. Sarah laughed and lightly slapped her husband’s arm.
“She has hollow cheeks and long hair—” Adams continued.
“Unfailingly dressed in a bun,” added the wife.
“Lives entirely in her head,” said Adams.
Dr. Kleckner walked across Emily’s mind in a gray tweed suit and sensible shoes: a parched, stereotypical maiden academic.
“How did she happen to come here?” the Ambassador asked.
“Funding for her sabbatical study didn’t come through,” Adams explained. “She was determined to get away and this came up. So she agreed. Need I say . . . Impulsively.”
“In a fit of madness,” his wife added.
The sociologist looked at his watch and tapped his finger against it._”Do you know if she’s going to finish out the year?” he asked.
The Ambassador did not know. But he reassuringly said, “I should
think so,” because those were the words ambassadors used on such occasions. Emily said nothing. But when she had spoken with Dr. Kleckner by phone the night before, she had sounded quite capable of dealing with Africa.
“I suppose she’s glad to get out of Bobo to come see us,” Adams remarked.
“Probably lonely,” opined his wife. “Homesick for shop talk.”
“For talk about ideas.”
The professors nodded to one another. Great talkers, the emeriti, Emily thought, but she noticed that their concern was real. As their words flowed out, they crossed and recrossed their legs. They drummed their chair arms with long, thin fingers. Watching them, Emily wondered how they would fare on their trip when they were no longer fortunate enough to be the guests of an ambassador. She also felt herself grow¬ing a bit upset with this woman academic. After all, she was delaying an occasion provided for her by the American Ambassador. Didn’t Dr. Kleckner realize that an American Ambassador was a busy man?
“I suppose we should reassure Kleckie that her career won’t be dam¬aged if she decides not to finish her study,” Adams mused.
“You needn’t bother,” his wife interjected. “You know she’ll tell us everything’s wonderful. That’s what you’d tell her if she dropped out of nowhere to visit you.”
“I think we should reassure her no one at the college will blame her if she comes back early,” Adams persisted. “Face it, this entire continent’s a basket case.”
At last they heard a car enter the drive. A moment later Dr. Kleckner appeared. “Kleckie!” exclaimed the professors.
“Hello!” she said. “Nice to see you!” She took Tripp and Sarah by the hands and kissed their cheeks in the French style. Emily and the Ambassador introduced themselves. Dr. Kleckner kissed their cheeks, too. Then she enthused to all of them, “Don’t you love this country!”
From the professors’ description Emily had expected to receive a dried-up maiden aunt. But Dr. Kleckner was tanned and vibrant. She wore sandals and a dress made of mammy cloth. It was quite becoming: bold red-and-yellow-petaled flowers on a field of blue. A cloth tied about her head in the manner of Burkinabe women matched the blue of her dress and accented the color of her eyes.
“Kleckie, it’s really you!” said Adams as the party sat down.
“Yes.” She leaned back comfortably. “Really me.”
The emeriti examined their colleague intently.
“I’m sorry I’m so late,” Dr. Kleckner continued. “I was walking around the Ziniare market and completely lost track of time.”
“Around Ziniare?” asked Adams. He turned to the Ambassador. “Isn’t that where we drove today?”
“Yes,” said the Ambassador.
“You weren’t there alone, I hope!” commented Sarah lightly.
“Of course I was!” Dr. Kleckner laughed. “It’s not a bandits’ hideout, you know. People live there.”
“Really?” Adams joshed. He grinned at his sociologist colleague as if to let her know they saw through her pose.
“It’s rather like where I live in Koumi outside Bobo,” said Dr. Kleck¬ner.
The emeriti exchanged a glance. “Really?” said Adams again.
“I love Koumi!” she said. “It vibrates with vitality, kids playing, trucks honking. I love to watch women gossiping in the market while they carry pots on their heads and babies on their backs. And hear their laughter. And all the while they’re wearing huge gold earrings and gigantic headcloths. They pick out red peppers and oranges and those stubby, sweet, yellow bananas. They inspect papayas in woven baskets and fish in bright enamel pans. I love the way their eyes shine when they laugh. I love their skin, that chocolatey lustre. Don’t you?”
The Adamses tried to stare without being impolite.
“Don’t you feel sometimes that white skin is awfully washed out?”
The emeriti raised eyebrows at one another and did not bother to hide their surprise.
“I bought myself a couple of kola nuts,” Dr. Kleckner rattled on. “They’re really so refreshing! And where did the time go? I had a little trouble hitching a ride.”
“You hitched a ride?” asked Adams. “Well, well. How prole!”
“With a passing truck.” Dr. Kleckner smiled. “The driver took me right to the hotel. The desk clerk brought me out here.”
A silence. Then Sarah commented rather formally, “I thought the housing in Ziniare rather poor.”
“The government is trying to improve it,” Dr. Kleckner replied. “These things take time. Did you get out into the countryside?”
“No, we didn’t.”
“Oh, what you missed!” she exclaimed. “That’s how Africa really lives. I go out there whenever I can. A village family has sort of adopted me.” Dr. Kleckner dug into her bag of woven fiber and withdrew an envelope of photos. “This is the concession,” she said, displaying a snapshot of a large compound surrounded by a mud wall. “The extended family lives here.”
“As do sheep and goats!” exclaimed Sarah when Dr. Kleckner pro-duced the next photo.
“Yes, chickens roam everywhere,” she said. “Fodder for the animals is stored here.” She offered other photos. “This is the patriarch’s house at the entrance to the living compound. Rather grand, don’t you think?”
“Is this him?” asked John, taking a photo from the sociologist.
“Yes, Moussa. He’s about fifty, I think, though it’s impossible to tell.”
John glanced at the photo and passed it to Emily. She saw a lean-faced, very dark-skinned man with eyes so penetrating that their gaze seemed to peer inside her. He seemed the essence of Africa. Emily stopped
looking at the other photos, without quite realizing that she had.
“He has four wives,” said Dr. Kleckner. “They’re Muslims, of course. Plus two women he inherited when a brother died.” Emily gave a hur¬ried glance at snapshots of the women and children and found her eyes drawn back to the photo of Moussa the patriarch. “The wives live in their own quarters with their children. Each one has her hut.”
“Quite a busy place,” observed Adams who was collecting the photos.
“Oh, yes!” said Dr. Kleckner, taking them from him. “Children everywhere. Some have the same names because the first boy always seems to be called after his father. Very confusing. I’ve finally got it sorted out. And they’ve got me straight. The patriarch calls me Nana, which is a common first name for women.”
“Where do you stay when you go there?” Emily asked.
“They built me my own hut,” said Dr. Kleckner. “Even my own private loo.”
“And you eat— What?” ventured Sarah.
“What everyone else eats. Not a very interesting diet. Usually millet of some kind with a sauce. Peanuts or something.”
“These inherited women,” Sarah said. “The widows of the dead brother. What happens to them?”
“Moussa takes care of them.” An unasked question hung in the air. “In Africa, of course, that means he sleeps with them,” Dr. Kleckner explained in an academic way. Then her eyes twinkled. She said, “Why should a good woman go to waste? That’s how they look at it.”
“Have you gone to waste, Kleckie?” teased Adams. “You’re a good woman.”
Dr. Kleckner blushed. Quite becomingly, Emily thought.
“Why are you blushing, Kleckie?” Adams bantered. “We demand to know.” He began to watch her with real interest. His wife was not quite so amused.
“Life is so different here,” Dr. Kleckner said. She shrugged. “Here
a man will watch you in a market or at a bus stop. Then he’ll come and say, ‘Marry me. I think we should get married.’”
“By marriage,” Adams said, wishing to be precise, “he presumably means something different than what we mean. Is that right?”
“Do you think American men talk marriage only when they mean it?” asked Dr. Kleckner. “Usually these proposals aren’t rude or insistent, just admiring. Peace Corps girls visiting Bobo get half a dozen of them in a single day.”
“All these proposals,” Adams joshed. “Have you been tempted, Kleckie?”
“Well, I’m relieved you’re here with us safe and sound,” interjected his historian wife, seeking to change the subject.
“Have you been tempted, Kleckie?” persisted Adams.
At that moment Mamadou announced dinner.
Watching Dr. Kleckner as they went into the dining room, Emily did not find it difficult to believe that African men found her attractive. She noticed Tripp Adams observing her as if for the first time. She smiled privately at that. Then she heard his wife whisper to him, “She’s conning you. Don’t encourage her.” Emily smiled privately at that, too.
Then, moving past a mirror, she glanced at the reflection of a slender, rather pretty woman and tried to appraise her as if she had never seen her before. Occasionally the Ambassador’s chauffeur drove her to the market. He waited in the car while she walked among the stalls, doing more looking than buying. She was younger than Dr. Kleckner. And more attractive. Why, she wondered, had no man ever approached her in the market to suggest that they get married?
After dinner Emily took Dr. Kleckner outside onto the terrace. The night was balmy. Mamadou had set out half a dozen mosquito-repellent candles so that the Ambassador and his guests would be free of the annoyance of insects. Through the iron bars of the safety fence the
Department had insisted John erect, the fire of the house guard glowed and crackled.
“Please excuse my husband, Dr. Kleckner,” Emily said. The Ambas-sador and the Adamses had remained in the dining room.
“Call me Charlotte, please. Or Kleckie. Or Nana.”
“In his first Foreign Service post,” Emily explained, “at the first dip¬lomatic dinner party he ever attended, the men remained in the dining room for brandy and cigars.”
“While the little women went off to chatter?”
“I suppose. That ceremony has always been for him the quintessence of diplomatic life. Now that he’s Ambassador, he always offers brandy and cigars. And women are free to stay. You saw that Sarah did.”
“I’m quite happy here,” said Charlotte Kleckner. “Rather nice to have ‘girl-talk’ with another American woman.”
“You’re teasing me.”
“Not at all.” Charlotte Kleckner gazed at her. “Are you happy here?”
“You certainly seem to be.”
“Yes, I love it. And you?” she asked again.
Emily glanced toward the house, wondering where Mamadou was. When she turned back, Charlotte Kleckner was watching her, a com-passionate smile on her face.
“We’ll have coffee in just a moment,” said Emily, resenting the smile. She would not acknowledge to this woman she did not know if she were happy or unhappy. Or even that she was at loose ends, merely getting through till the boys came home for Christmas. So she was a little surprised to hear herself say, “I confess I’ve wondered why no African has ever asked me to marry him. I don’t suppose it’s because I wear a wedding band.”
Mamadou brought the coffee. Instead of waiting as Emily knew the Ambassador preferred her to do, she poured her guest a demitasse. Charlotte Kleckner studied her face and Emily, feeling the other woman’s eyes on her, wondered what secrets her guest could read in the lines
around her eyes, in the tightness of her mouth.
“Milk?” Emily asked as she set the small cup before her guest. “Sugar?”
“I prefer it straight,” Charlotte Kleckner said. Then in a way that seemed merely conversational, but, Emily thought, might not be, the professor commented, almost musing, “I was desperately unhappy when I first came out here. Of course, I knew things would be different. Knew it intellectually. I was aware that Africa had lost ground since the days of independence. While the rest of the world grew ever more prosperous, in Africa the money economy was giving way to subsistence. Arable land was being eaten up by the Sahara. We hoped Africans would catapult themselves out of the tribal-colonial mix—which was foolish of us; we really are hopeless optimists—and they just couldn’t manage it.” Dr. Kleckner sighed aloud at the frustration she had first felt in Bobo.
“Africa struck me as hopelessly primitive,” she went on. “The people seemed content with mediocrity, ignorance, poverty. I had come here to teach. And to do some research. But the university looked like something out of Beau Geste and the students were all blockheads. I suppose it’s no surprise that I had trouble connecting with them.
“I’ve done a lot of teaching,” she continued, “but still I thought it was their fault. Furthermore, I was sure my colleagues at home would never believe any serious research could be done in a place called Bobo. I was ready to throw it all in and go home.”
“A bad case of WAWA”
Charlotte Kleckner laughed. “West Africa Wins Again. That difficult malady.”
“I’ve had terrible bouts of WAWA,” Emily confessed.
“I struggle with it every day,” Dr. Kleckner admitted. “I knew it would be different here. But—”
“But not this different?” Emily suggested.
The women smiled at one another.
“I love the balminess of these nights,” Dr. Kleckner said. “Do you
know what the temperature is right now in Boston?” She held her arms out as if to embrace the air.
“When I had all but decided to leave,” she went on, “something hap¬pened. Or rather nothing happened—except that it did. I can only think of the nothing-that-happened as magical, but in a kind of WAWA way. I was walking along a street one hot afternoon. Ahead of me I noticed a large, tall, amply rounded Bobo woman. She wore a pink, diaphanous headcloth of some faux silk material, tied in a manner that was all the mode in town just then. The pink was perfect against the lustrous dark-chocolate of her skin and inside an over-garment of the same material she floated along. She was barefoot in sandals and she really did float, her hands waving delicately a little out from her sides.
“As I drew parallel to her, I caught a sweet, womanly scent—not at all what I would have expected when I noticed beads of perspiration catching the light on her brow. She glanced at me and smiled. Smiled in a way that was like a shining in her face. She was a large, sweating woman, walking in the afternoon sun. But she moved with absolute grace. She was serene; she was beautiful. She knew who she was and was happy to be that person. Her smile made me smile.”
Dr. Kleckner took a sip of her coffee and smiled herself, smiled at Emily. Emily was not sure why, but she smiled back.
“What about that moment could possibly have been magical?” Char¬lotte Kleckner asked. “I’ve wondered that so often. Maybe it was the fact that I stopped hurrying to my appointment. I turned back and smiled again at the woman. Then as if she had spoken to me, I heard a voice say, ‘Let them teach you.’”
“I wish I’d seen her,” Emily said.
“Women like her are all over the streets. Once I started looking, there they were.” She sipped her coffee again, then leaned forward, not asking Emily’s permission, and refilled her cup. “Until that moment it seemed preposterous that—I mean . . . I was the one who had come to teach,
right? I was the one with the doctorate from Harvard. We think so little of Africans. But they are so— Gentle. And joyful. So sweet-tempered. So beautiful.”
The two women sat silently for a moment. “Seeing that woman changed me,” Charlotte Kleckner said. “I did let them teach me.”
Again they sat without speaking.
Finally the visitor added, “I had hired a house man to cook for me and I had let him do the marketing. I began going to market with him. I didn’t want to bargain. I thought it was undignified. He taught me how.”
“I’m not very good at it,” Emily admitted. “Are you?”
“I insist on a fair price.”
The two woman laughed.
“I began to have relationships with market women. We greet each other as friends now. I speak a bit of their language and I even know a little something of their lives.”
“I wonder if that’s something I could do,” Emily mused.
“Probably,” said Charlotte Kleckner. “I started wearing sandals. Then looser dresses, African prints. I put away those suits I used to teach in. Then a market woman said I should wear a headcloth and as a lark I tried one.”
They sat again without speaking. The professor’s mouth wore the curve of a smile and Emily wondered what memory provoked it. “As I began to learn from them,” Charlotte Kleckner said, “I discovered that they were beginning to learn from me. I found that the work I was doing with women’s groups became more productive.”
“Could I come visit you in Bobo, Nana?” Emily asked. Then, as if to retreat from the question’s presumption, she quickly added, “You really don’t mind my calling you that?”
“No, no. I like it.”
“I would love to see the work you’re doing,” Emily said. She was surprised to hear the urgency in those words and realized how much
the visit might mean to her.
“How about coming next week?”
“I’ll have Mamadou pack us a lunch.”
For a moment the two women were silent. They listened to the watchman talking with a friend as they crouched beside the fire.
“The patriarch’s naming you,” Emily said. “It seems such an intimate thing.”
“Does it?” Nana Kleckner cocked her head to consider the statement. “It’s quite a complex relationship we have,” she said. “I mean, for really having no relationship at all. Sometimes for village ceremonies I sit with the men, accepted by them. Sometimes with the women. Moussa would like to know me in a way he will never be able to. I would like to know him in a way I won’t be able to.”
She gazed off across the yard. “One evening I was sitting with him outside his house. He had a copy of People Magazine—God forbid!—and the ads fascinated him. He asked me to explain some of the pictures. I did what I could and then he said to me, ‘Let us talk all night. We will watch the moon rise and you will tell me about the places you have seen that I will never visit.’” Nana’s voice drifted off and Emily thought of her sitting in the darkness with Moussa’s penetrating gaze reaching out to her.
Nana Kleckner seemed for a moment to have lost all awareness that Emily was with her. Then, glancing at Emily, she said, “I couldn’t stay with him, even if we never went inside that house. Which eventually he would have expected us to do. Across the compound his wives were watching us. The wife whose turn it was to be with him kept calling her children, quite loudly, even though the children were already in her hut. We both knew that I was—and must always be—one of those places he would never visit.”
Nana watched her a long moment. She asked, “Would you like to come to the concession sometime and meet the people there?”
Emily sat back in her chair. Heavens! she thought. What ever made Dr. Kleckner think that? She poured them more coffee and thought perhaps she would like to go.
When the Ambassador led the Adamses onto the terrace, he glanced at Emily, a little surprised that she had already served coffee. “Welcome to civilization,” Emily said. “We wondered if we would ever see you again.” These were the words she always said when the Ambassador returned with guests from brandy and cigars.
Then she did something she had never done during all the dinner parties she had presided over as her husband’s hostess. “I’m going to let you serve yourselves,” she told the newcomers. John looked astonished. “And, darling, while you’re up,” she went on, “would you mind telling Mamadou we’d love more coffee?”
He threw her a who-me? expression that made her smile at him with love. He obediently went off to speak to Mamadou while the professors helped themselves to coffee.
Later when the Ambassador himself was serving his guests liqueurs, Adams gazed a long moment at his colleague. In a lightly teasing tone he commented, “I think Burkina Faso becomes you, Kleckie.”
“You’ve gained a bit of weight,” noted his historian wife.
“Indeed you have,” said the sociologist. “You’re positively curva-ceous.”
“Nothing like peanut oil to round a girl out,” Dr. Kleckner acknowl¬edged in the darkness. “I’ve gotten some new clothes, too. I threw away all those gray suits.”
“Really?” asked Sarah. “You’ll need them when you get back.”
Dr. Kleckner said nothing and there followed a spate of shop talk: about the college in Maine and its sociology department, about new re¬search, colleagues, and mutual friends. Emily and John listened, pleased
at the animation of the voices.
To Emily’s surprise, the Ambassador reached over and took her hand. When she looked at him, he gave her a smile.
Eventually Adams said with a chuckle, “You know, Kleckie, I think people in the department will hardly recognize you when you get back.” Emily watched him looking at Dr. Kleckner, seeing her not merely as a colleague but as a woman. Emily noticed that his wife was watching him, too. “When are you returning?” he asked.
“I’m not,” Dr. Kleckner replied.
A stunned silence. The emeriti shot glances back and forth at one another.
“The study is more involved than I thought.”
“But you will return at the end of the sabbatical,” Adams said.
“No,” Nana Kleckner replied, “I’m not returning at all.”
“Kleckie!” blurted the sociologist.
“Your career is at the college!” exclaimed his wife. “Surely, it is.”
They both stared at her. But the historian began very faintly to smile.
“Kleckie, dear,” implored Adams, “be serious. Where’s your perspec¬tive?”
“You don’t miss the college? Or Boston?” asked his wife.
“Now and then I do hunger for a night at Symphony Hall.”
“Don’t you miss us?” asked Adams.
“Of course,” Nana Kleckner said with real warmth in her voice. “I think of you often”—teasing them gently—“slogging about in snow under gray skies or tramping sidewalks in wan sunlight with newspapers blowing about your feet.”
After a moment she said more seriously, “And I’ve thought of myself: thin and lonely, walking for winter exercise down the streets of a college town, wearing old maid’s shoes and gray tweeds. Hungering for color without knowing it.”
“I believe you really want to stay here, Kleckie,” said Adams.
“Yes, I do,” she said. “I’m happy here. I’m rounded and tan. I work with people, not statistics. I’ve found color. I live in it and it’s lovely.”
Later, saying goodbye, the professors stood apart, their thin, white arms folded across their chests. Emily and Dr. Kleckner had gone to the kitchen to thank Mamadou and to fix the time of Emily’s arrival the following Tuesday in Bobo-Dioulasso.
As he heard Nana Kleckner chatting with Mamadou in an African tongue, Adams whispered to his wife, “She’ll be back. Mark my words.”
“You think so?” asked his wife. “At home she was plain. Here she’s beautiful. Why should she give that up?”
“Well, we’ll see,” said the sociologist. “She is certainly beautiful,” he acknowledged. “Extraordinary, isn’t it?”
As they lay together waiting for sleep, John told Emily about this ex-change between the Adamses. They laughed quietly about it. And al-though this rarely happened when guests were in the house, they made love. As they held each other afterwards, John said to Emily, “Missus, you are so lovely. Marry me. I think we should be married.”