Despite what people said, we were not a ménage à trois. We did live together and I was intimate with both men. But LeGrand and Gérard hated one another. And it got more complicated when the drought came.
LeGrand was my husband. Gérard was a lover who stayed around too long. Still, he had undeniable rights to remain. He was the father of my son. And I was a woman who had bad luck with men.
LeGrand was seventeen years my senior. He had been in Burkina Faso for twenty years, developing hotels in Bobo-Dioulasso. He’d started with a small place away from the center, now patronized only by Africans. When he’d made a success of that, he built a handsome hostelry in the center of the city, overlooking the rond point at the Place de la Nation where six avenues converge. It was the best independent hotel in the Sahel, patronized by government officials and foreign businessmen trying to develop the country. He had never married; there were simply too few white women about.
He was not unattractive: tall rather than short, husky rather than slight, with a charming rogue’s twinkle in his eye. Before we married, when I asked about his experience with women, he explained that he’d had affairs with several wives of his friends. “And you’ve had Burkinabe women, too,” I suggested. He shrugged. Of course, he had, but to live openly with one of them was unthinkable. He had to present a standard.
I grew up in Bobo. At eighteen I went to see what I could do in the France I had heard so much about in school. My first experience with bad luck. I met Roger at a café near the Luxembourg Gardens on the Left Bank in Paris. I patronized it for a drink after work. At first I went there with girlfriends from the office. One afternoon Roger brought his drink to our table, introduced himself, and sat down. When it became clear that it was me he was interested in, my colleague, who was married, excused herself and cleared off. “I’m sorry I’m not a tourist,” I told him. “But I’m not looking for a lover.”
“How unfortunate,” he said. “You’re not Parisienne. Where are you from?”
“That sounds interesting. Is it?”
“Where the desert creeps forward every year. You were smart to leave there.”
After that day I went to the café on my own, figuring to see him again. Of course, he appeared. This went on for a couple of weeks. Then we would have our drinks together and take a walk in the gardens. He kissed me. He told me that he had never felt this way about a woman. I doubted that was true, but it was nice to hear. We spent the night in a hotel. That night−−it was very passionate−−completely disoriented me. I fell helplessly in love.
Roger sold computer software and traveled widely. We spent weekends together, seeing regions I had studied in my Bobo classroom: Brittany, Dordogne, the Loire Valley, even Luxembourg. Certain he loved me deeply, I was flying around in an orbit of such ecstasy that I was ready to commit myself wholeheartedly to him. One evening after we made love, he told me again how much I meant to him.
“Why don’t we get married?” I suggested.
“What?” Roger replied. “And spoil this?”
“We could be together all the time.”
“You’d get pregnant. We’d never make love again.”
“Don’t joke,” I said. “I’m serious.”
He grew very quiet, turned away from me, and looked at the ceiling. “I love you very much, Zizi,” he said. I believed him; there was nothing false in what he said. “The trouble is I’m married,” he admitted. “With two children. If I had the money, I’d divorce my wife and marry you. But I haven’t got the money. Divorce is expensive and I’d have to set up an establishment for my family and another for us. That’s way out of my reach.”
I felt as if the air had been sucked out of my body. I did not cry. I did not slap him or run to hide from this revelation in the bathroom. But I did gasp for comprehension. I had been totally honest about who I was; Roger knew everything about me. I thought I knew about him, but I knew nothing.
“There’s no reason we can’t continue this affair,” he said. “There are people all over France who have arrangements like ours.”
In fact, we did continue it for a month. But the passion was gone. I felt disillusioned, betrayed. The joy I’d felt in being on my own in Europe vanished. I quit my job and booked a flight back to Bobo-Dioulasso.
I did not want a messy goodbye. I did not want to cry in front of him. Nor have a farewell session in bed. We made a date to say goodbye in our little hotel. From a café across the street, I watched him arrive. He was carrying a bouquet of flowers. I gave him time to rent a room. He’d be waiting for me. I went out to DeGaulle and flew home.
At the age of twenty-three I resumed living in my parents’ house. I expected never to love again, not with the passion that had just been torn away. I walked for exercise, swam laps at the pool at the cercle sportif, read books, boated on the river. I played tennis and cards with my school chum Bébé who was now married to an entrepreneur selling solar microgrids. I dated some of his engineer friends. There were so few white women about that they often asked me to marry them on our first date. There were also married men in Bobo as bored as I was. With an astonishing directness they proposed affairs. After my life in Paris, it was hard to adjust.
My father read my boredom. My unhappiness worried him. He brought LeGrand and me together over drinks late one afternoon and suggested that we marry. LeGrand was willing. I saw no better prospect for myself in Burkina Faso and I wanted my parents to stop worrying about me. So I agreed. LeGrand was forty. He accepted my father’s argument that it was time for him to establish a “maison.”
I insisted that the agreement carry a proviso. “I do not expect to stay here forever,” I told LeGrand. “The Sahel is drying up. Every winter the Harmattan carries away our best soil. Drought is encroaching from the Sahara.”
LeGrand was amused at my saying this. “Am I to marry an intellectual?” he joked. “Global climate change is hocus-pocus.”
“Do you doubt the drought?” I asked. “Every day young Burkinabe men are leaving their families. They’re traveling to Libya to attempt a crossing of the Mediterranean to find work. Many of them are drowning.”
“If we marry, you can leave whenever you want,” LeGrand agreed. “But I’ll be staying. I’m not upgrading Le Grand Hotel Bobo to turn tail and run.”
We married. We treated each other decently and with respect. Usually we took our meals together. We slept in the same bed, made efforts to produce children, but none came. Our marriage grew into a habit. There was affection on both sides−−sometimes we would share a joke−−but not a great deal. The rogue’s twinkle did not often sparkle in LeGrand’s eyes.
Julien Gérard came to Bobo as one of the 21st century entrepreneurs−−the nouveau colons−−selling Africans cell telephones, TVs, and solar energy rigs. He adjusted quickly to the cercle sportif life. He swam laps, played tennis, bridge and gin rummy, and rode a bicycle like most of the other young men. LeGrand and I got to know him as a friend of Bébé’s husband. He was a year or two older than me with a quick smile and an easy laugh. He had an athlete’s body and an athlete’s physical confidence. He resembled a Greek statue when he took off his shirt which he found frequent occasion to do: at the pool, at the tennis courts.
LeGrand went to Europe seeking loans not only to upgrade and enlarge his Bobo hotel, but also to expand the business to Ouagadougou, the country’s capital. He was gone six months. During his absence, I saw Gérard around town, at the cercle, at the pool. There it was impossible not to have your breath stolen from you by the splendor of his body. Sometimes when he got close, I detected a scent that might make a woman shed her sense of propriety.
Bébé had a bridge party one evening: three couples and lonely me with Gérard acting as my partner. He drove me home. I got a whiff of his special scent and thought, “Everybody does it. Why not me?” I suggested, “Would you like to come in for a drink?” He spent the night.
He proved to be an adept lover with a young man’s appetite for sex. During our night together I inhaled way too much of that scent. In fact, I rented him the maisonette, the little guesthouse at the back of our property. He rarely used it. We were discreet about the set up. Gérard took his meals elsewhere and often drank into the night with other single young men at the cercle. The new colonials were content to look the other way about our arrangement. After all, it was not unusual for single young men to rent someone’s maisionette.
Then I discovered I was pregnant. I wanted a child and thought it might be possible to persuade LeGrand that the child was his, conceived just before he left for Europe. He would be rightly doubtful, but he might be willing to accept the fiction. But Gérard would not accept it. He was proud of his loins. He insisted to me that he had rights as the baby’s father. He was less sophisticated than I had assumed; I had visions of his going about town, bragging, “I am living with Zizi LeGrand and she is carrying my child.”
Surprisingly, the new colonials began to ostracize us. With the exception of Bébé, they regarded my living with Gérard as brazen. I decided not to care. I had never expected to feel passion again and I felt it with Gérard . Moreover, I wanted the baby. When LeGrand returned to Bobo, I was four months pregnant and showing.
A man of the world, LeGrand was not astonished by what had happened. He insisted on his marital rights the night he returned. I was not averse to that. He treated me decently. I liked him for that and agreed that a man had a right to expect affection from his wife. Once the affection was delivered, we negotiated our future. I explained that Gérard rented the maisonette.
“Are you in love with this man?” LeGrand asked.
“I’m very attracted to him,” I admitted.
“I don’t want you leaving me for him.” I said nothing, waiting to hear more. “He cannot provide for you as I can. Moreover, I want a home, a wife, your companionship.” After stating this, he asked, “What’s your wish in the matter?”
“Everyone knows he’s the father of this child. Can he stay in the maisonette?”
“Ménage à trois? You’ll be a social pariah.”
“I’m one already.”
LeGrand grew thoughtful, then shrugged. “He cannot take his meals here,” he said at last. “I will not eat dinner with this man.”
“Can he return to the maisonette?”
“Not for the rent he’s paying now.”
“May I visit his room?”
“If I say no, you will do it anyway.”
I laughed. “I don’t want to hurt you, but I am only human.”
LeGrand gazed at me tenderly and placed a hand gently on my face. “I missed you, you know,” he said. He kissed me. “Sleeping with other women made me miss you.”
“Did you have many?”
“As you say, I am only human.”
“He will insist that the child is his.”
“He can stay out there until the child comes. Then we’ll talk again.”
When the baby was born, the documents noted that I, Celestine LeGrand, was the mother. Julien Gérard was listed as the father. All three of us discussed names and finally agreed on Luc.
Gérard continued to live in my husband’s maisonette. He took his meals elsewhere and according to reports from Bosco, the Le Grand Hotel’s night receptionist, he often dined there with young women, both European and Burkinabe. As long as Gérard stayed clean, I did not much care if these reports were true. I was busy being a first-time mother.
When Luc reached the age of six months, Gérard received an opportunity to run his firm’s office in Ouagadougou. The transfer involved a promotion and an increase in salary. Gérard told me he would refuse it. He did not want to be away from me or from Luc. When I related this news to LeGrand, he had drinks one evening with Gérard on the hotel terrace.
“Zizi is being ostracized by Bobo’s bourgeoisie.,” LeGrand told him. “Before you know it, Luc will be the one who’s ostracized. Do you want that to happen to your son?”
“Zizi has said nothing about this to me,” replied Gérard.
“It’s time for this maisonette arrangement to end.”
Gérard threatened to take me and the baby to Ouaga. LeGrand offered a compromise. Whenever Gérard could get a weekend or vacation time in Bobo, LeGrand would leave. After all, he was developing projects elsewhere; he could attend to them. The ostensible ménage à trois would end, but he had no objection to both men sharing access to me.
I was infuriated that they should negotiate this matter without consulting me. But I tolerated the arrangement for Luc’s sake. LeGrand paid scant attention to the child and I wanted him to have a father figure. For more than a year LeGrand left town whenever Gérard was able to get time in Bobo. But I was very unhappy.
In the Sahel we lived with a consciousness that desertification was always going on. Drought speeded it. That complicated everyone’s life. Because of the drought, decent food got harder to obtain. Bébé introduced me to the food supplies at the Catholic Mission in Kouentou. A Father Laurent had taken charge of the farms there. Vegetables had disappeared from the market in Bobo. However, they were available at Kouentou along with a variety of meats.
Father Laurent was virile and deeply tanned with strong hands, large fingers with dirt-encrusted fingernails and wrists as large as some men’s forearms. He moved like a man’s man, with a talent for working in the sun, beckoning plants to thrive and yield their fruits.
He also exuded a maleness that did not belong in a cassock. Why was this man a priest? I wondered if he had grown up somewhere in such poverty that the church appeared his only avenue to a better life. Maybe he had jumped at the priesthood the way I had jumped at a chance to try my luck in Europe.
Some priests look at a woman as if she were invisible. Not Laurent. Bébé suggested that he had been rusticated to Kouentou as punishment for sleeping with parish women at a church in Abidjan. When I first met him, it was obvious that he took pleasure in women. “Thank heavens,” I thought. Sometimes the church seemed so full of pederasts that a man who appreciated women was reassuring.
On a visit to Kouentou I asked him, “What do you think of our climate? Will this drought ever end? Can you keep producing food here?”
He looked at me as if none of his other customers asked such questions. “No end in sight,” he said. I nodded my agreement. “Things are bound to get worse.”
“Men are leaving here for Europe. Their families are starving.”
“I feel guilty producing quality food only for clients when so many people have so little.”
It did me good to hear someone talk that way.
“Don’t you feel that way sometimes?” he asked.
“Of course, I do.”
He smiled at me. He touched my forearm and said, “Blessings on you.” His touch burned.
That touch made me wonder: “What does he know about me?” Did he know that two men shared me? Would it bother him if he did? Might it intrigue him? “You reprobate!” I thought, thinking such things. I laughed at myself.
I said, “I have a five-year-old son. I worry about him.”
Laurent took off his hat and wiped his brow. “I often doubt that prayer will end this drought,” he said. “I wonder if I should be in this cassock.”
“It must be hot in there.”
He laughed. “Yes. Oh, if I could work in tee shirt and shorts!”
“I plan to get out of here before it becomes unbearable,” I said.
“Take me with you.” We laughed. Although clearly a joke, I thought of it all the way back to town.
Then Gérard had an accident in Ouaga. His left leg had to be amputated. Doctors fitted him with a prosthesis. Although he was able to move around with only a slight limp, he complained of the false leg and removed it whenever he could. His firm put him on reduced duty. Now he spent more time in Bobo. LeGrand took pity on him and worked out an arrangement whereby they traded off six week stints. I was expected to fit my routine and that of Luc to whichever man was “home.”
At first I was glad to have Gérard around. But the accident had lessened his physical confidence. It diminished him. Where before he walked with a swagger I loved to watch, now he limped. He retained his young man’s sexual appetite, as he happily demonstrated. But a night in bed with this diminished, one-legged man lacked the joy of our first couplings. I began to avoid those nights. I wondered if I could escape them. Probably because I was unhappy with Gérard, I grew ever more aware that the drought was getting worse. I wondered if it were time to leave.
Whenever LeGrand returned, he was consumed with projects at the hotel. He paid little attention to me. He quit the house early in the morning and not return until after nightfall. When we ate dinner together, we rarely had conversation. We hardly ever slept together. I wondered who took care of that for him. More worrisome to me, LeGrand showed almost no interest in Luc.
As the months passed, the drought grew worse. The swimming pool at the cercle sportif stood empty. All the plants in my yard withered. The grass turned to straw. Trees began to die. The city government reduced the hours we could access water. Bébé’s husband transferred to Abidjan and my best friend and her family left. One afternoon at Kouentou Father Laurent put his hand in a sack of beans I was buying. He pulled some out and examined them. “I’m embarrassed to sell you these stunted specimens,” he said.
“I will disguise them with a wine sauce.” He shook his head. I said, “It’s not your fault if there’s no water.”
Gratefully he kissed my forehead.
The truth was: I thought constantly of leaving. My parents had removed to Europe. I tried to discuss the matter with LeGrand. “You’re my wife,” he said. “I refuse to let you go.”
“We had an agreement”
“There was no agreement.”
“I’m not going to raise my child in this drought.”
“Droughts come and go. It will pass.”
I began to dream about Luc and me fleeing the drought. The next time I was at Kouentou, I asked Father Laurent. “Are you talking to God about this drought?”
“I have no influence with Him.” He grinned and shook his head in dismay. “Are you safe?” It was a strange question. We were not in any physical danger.
“I worry about my son,” I confessed. “I can’t get my husband to focus on us.”
“My dear,” Laurent said. Suddenly he put his arm around me and held me close. He kissed my cheek. We looked at one another. Then he kissed my mouth.
I felt dizzy. “I should slap you for taking such liberties,” I said. “But you kiss so well.”
We both laughed. “I’ve had some practice,” he said. Then he raised his hands as if to reassure me. “All before the priesthood.” We laughed again, more heartily. We were flirting openly now.
I looked at him as if to ask, “Are we taking this farther?” He gazed back at me. Then he kissed me again, very fully, and put his hand on my breast.
When we broke our embrace, he said, “Go with God. My blessings on you.”
I drove back from Kouentou very confused. When I got home, I discovered Gérard’s car parked before the house. I did not want to see him. Even outside, I heard him arguing with LeGrand. “I’m tired of this arrangement,” he shouted. “I want my family with me all the time.”
“You can take the boy,” LeGrand shouted back. “You can’t have her.”
“I will have her! She loves me.”
“She detests you and that ugly limp.”
There were sounds of a scuffle. “Don’t push me!” Gérard shouted. I heard someone fall back against furniture.
“Get out of here!” LeGrand cried. “Or I’ll rip that false leg right off your body!”
There was more pushing. The men shouted at each other. I wanted to shout myself.
I went to Luc’s room. I found him standing in the center of it with his hands over his ears, blocking out the sound of the screaming. I picked him up, went to the rocking chair we had there and sat in it, holding him, singing to him, trying to assure him that everything would be all right.
I thought about men: Roger, LeGrand, Gérard. What a trio! Would Laurent make it a quartet? I am not religious. Priestly celibacy always struck me as absurd. God did not intend men to be celibate.
But I did not want it to become a quartet. As the two men fought over me, I committed myself to no intimacies with Laurent. I would be a respectable woman, one Laurent could admire, one that I myself could respect. That woman would not be a party to Laurent’s breaking his vow of chastity. In that way I would show my respect for him. To make sure that happened, I vowed not to see him again.
That evening long after Luc had gone to bed and Gérard had departed, LeGrand and I talked. “I am fed up with this situation,” he said. “I am sending you and the boy to France. Choose wherever you want to live.”
“I’m fed up with it myself,” I said.
“We will not divorce. We will remain married and I will visit you occasionally.” I nodded my agreement. “I want you gone in a week.”
I set about preparing for our departure. Amongst all the arrangements that had to be made, I thought I must write Laurent a note to say I treasured our friendship. I tried several times to write it. The words didn’t come. I would have to tell him in person.
The afternoon before Luc and I were to leave, I got a woman to stay with the child. Our luggage was waiting in the hall for our flight to Paris. I drove out to Kouentou. I was surprised to find Laurent waiting for me at the car park. We looked at each other for a long moment. “You’re leaving, aren’t you?” he said.
“Tomorrow. How did you know?”
“I sensed it.”
He took me by the hand and led me through the community to the small house where he lived. We entered. He shut the door. He kicked off his boots. I told myself I would be that admirable woman who−− He flung off his cassock. He stood before me naked except for his shorts. Gently he began to remove my clothes.
Never before would I have described intimacy as spiritual. But that’s how it felt. I wept. He comforted me.
He rose from the bed. Washed. Beautifully naked, he packed a duffel. He got dressed. I got dressed, thinking, “Now it’s a quartet.” We went to the car. We got in. I drove us back to Bobo. We hardly spoke. I pulled into our driveway. LeGrand’s car was not there.
Laurent said, “Get the child.”
I did. He loaded the luggage from the front hall to the rear of the car. When I brought Luc out, I told him, “This is my friend Laurent.”
He said, “Hello, Luc. I’ve heard a lot about you.”
We got into the car. I fastened Luc into his car seat. We started off.
Laurent turned to the rear seat. “May I be your father, Luc?”
“He said yes.”
Roger. LeGrand. Gérard. A drought of good men. Maybe Laurent would be better. After all, he was a priest.
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