LIVIE IN MBANDAKA is the second of three linked stories. KWAME LOVES LIVIE immediately precedes it. THE LATE MIDDLE AGE OF KWAME JOHNSON, the third story, follows it.
Olivia Carlyle watched the unending green of jungle pass below the plane. She was about to become a third year law student at Boston University and it seemed madness to come way out here to a remote part of the Congo, to what she and Kwame had always jokingly called the uttermost parts of the earth. Because of Mobutu Sese Seko’s kleptocracy, the country exuded danger, oozed banditry and disease. That’s what Mike contended. Mike was the American friend who intended to marry her and with whom she lived in law school. He was waiting for her in Kinshasa, the capital. He had accompanied her to Africa, insisting that the Congo was too perilous for a young American woman traveling alone.
They had fought about her going without him to Mbandaka. Livie won the fight. She had lived with Kwame for two years in Cape Town when he served there as a cultural diplomat. When she last saw him almost two years earlier, they had agreed to be married in Paris that Christmas. That hadn’t happened. They had been out of touch for some months. But Kwame would always be one of the most important men in her life. She felt she must see him again before some dreadful explosion of who knew what happened in the Congo and he did not survive. She intended to talk him into leaving Africa and coming back to the States with her.
On the ground in Mbandaka Kwame had taken an unusually bright student he taught at Bomboko Congo School to the airport. The student had a university entrance interview in Kinshasa. Kwame watched the young man move out toward the plane just as the last incoming passenger debarked. She was a striking woman. Blonde, tall, lithe, she seemed a golden figure. Light shimmered around her as it might for some white goddess out of Rider Haggard.
Kwame shook his head to clear it of an apparition. But it really was Livie. If she was coming to Mbandaka, why hadn’t she let him know? He watched her walk hesitatingly across the tarmac, surveying the silent jungle surrounding the runway. He felt the old stirring in his groin. As she came closer, he saw that she was thinner than when they were last together. Her face, always placid and unlined, wore an expression of strain. What was she doing here?
When she entered the terminal, he grinned at her. Their eyes met, but she looked away, not wanting to encourage the attentions of a Congolese hustler who hung around airports. Then she glanced back at him. He said in English, “Want a taxi, lady?” She screamed with surprise, dropped her satchel purse and excitedly embraced him. She wore the same perfume she had always worn, a fragrance that swirled memories into his head. When he held her, he felt the bones of her ribs.
“What the hell are you doing here?” he asked. “Appearing like some vision out of a movie?”
“Look at you!” she said, laughing. “Scumbag!” Her grin and the pleasure of seeing him erased the strain from her face. They kissed. She tasted as she always had, a taste that made him a little dizzy.
“It’s like being in a dream to see you,” he told her. “But why are you here?”
“Swami, I came to rescue you from the uttermost parts of the earth.”
Kwame laughed, then looked at her carefully and saw that she meant it.
As they drove into town, Livie observed, “You look like you’re flourishing in this dangerous place. How can that be?”
Kwame ignored the question and asked, “Did you move in with that guy?” In their last correspondence over a year before, she had told him that Mike wanted her to live with him.
“Are you kidding? “ she answered, careful to suggest a falsehood without actually telling one. “When I was finishing up my first semester of law school? I had exams for god sake.” She scrutinized him for a moment. “You jealous?”
He shrugged. She saw that he was jealous, but also relieved. He did not want her living with another man. She saw that prevaricating was the right thing to do.
“How is law school?” he asked. “Other than being a great way to lose weight.”
“Want to see how much I’ve lost?” She raised an eyebrow. “Is there some place where I can show you?”
They regarded one another, each of them amused, both knowing he wanted to behold her unclad again, to see how thin she looked, to kiss the ribs that showed through her flesh and the points of her hips. Livie smiled. “You must have a bed,” she said, “and a bedroom door we can lock.” She felt him holding back. Why was that?
“Let me show you the center first.” His job as a cultural diplomat was to establish and run an American Cultural Center in this unlikely place.
As they drove through the cités, she stared at children playing, at laundry spread to dry on bushes. She decided to risk the truth. “I’m here because I knew I would never forgive myself if something happened to you and I hadn’t seen you again.” She smiled provocatively. “Will you come out of this place with me? Before you die a horrible death?”
He said nothing and watched the road. She said nothing and watched his face.
Out in front of the center le snack, a kind of deli Kwame had allowed to be established there, was beginning to serve lunch. The clientele looked surprised to see him with a slim, blonde américaine. Nodding to friends, he took Livie inside the center, introduced her to his factotum Tata Anatole, showed her the film and video collection and took her into the office. Kwame made sure the door stayed open. The tata stood in the hall outside as if waiting to be called. His presence made Livie uncomfortable. “Is he always there?” she asked.
“Always,” Kwame said.
“Can’t you send him on an errand?”
“That would set tongues wagging.” They regarded one another. Kwame averted his eyes. Livie scrutinized him as if they had just met and she could not yet read his thoughts. “You’ll find that you’re an object of intense curiosity.” Livie waited for his move. He thumbed through unopened mail.
She said, “I sort of thought you’d want to– Welcome me.”
“I do want to,” Kwame said. He did want to. But he was not going to.
The assurance relieved her, but she felt him resisting ceremonies of welcome. “Maybe we should talk first, hunh?” she asked. “That’s cool. It has been a while.”
Kwame felt her impulse to come to him. She needed to be kissed and – damn his body’s hunger! – he wanted to kiss her. He wanted to hold her, to be in bed with her. She seemed like a white goddess, a traveler from a distant land he had once known, but no longer knew. He wanted to go exploring. But he let the impulse pass.
“Still a person of the mind,” she said.
“They’re watching us out there,” he said, nodding toward le snack. “Did you come out here alone? Things are–”
“A little dangerous? For a young, single, blonde American woman?” Livie said, finishing his thought. “No, I didn’t come alone. Mike wouldn’t let me.”
“Mike’s the man with room in his apartment?” Livie nodded. “And a thick wallet,” Kwame noted, “if he escorted you all the way out here.”
“He finished Harvard Business School a couple of years ago and is doing very well in finance. He wants to be married to someone like me.”
“To your type? Or to you?”
“We haven’t figured that out yet,” she said. “You always claimed I’d end up with someone like him.” She added, “Can’t we go someplace. I’m not really hungry.”
They looked at each other a long moment. Kwame felt the old life pulling him back. With the first traces of maturity in her eyes and with the lines that would one day appear on her face already forming, she seemed more beautiful than ever.
Livie examined him closely. It was proving surprisingly difficult for them to talk. At last she asked, “You didn’t fall in love with the Congolese woman married to the Belgian, did you? Your letter sounded as if maybe you had.”
Kwame said, “Well, I certainly didn’t expect to.”
Livie looked out the window at the street life. Then she examined Kwame again. “Can we still be together?” she asked. “I mean: if she’s married, does it matter what we do?” Kwame said nothing. Finally Livie asked, “Can I meet her?”
“She’s gone to her village,” Kwame said. At last he added, “I’m going there myself in a few days. To marry her.”
“Oh,” Livie said. Then because of the improbability of what she’d just heard, she asked. “Are you doing bridewealth? The whole bit?”
“You know where I can get healthy goats?”
Livie laughed. “How many?”
“Twelve. A lot of cash, too.” He added, “She’s carrying my child.”
Livie looked a little surprised. But she managed only to grin.
Kwame said, “Thank you for not saying, ‘You’ve been busy.’” Livie laughed. “She’s very pleased to be pregnant. For an African woman–”
“I have done some reading,” Livie said.
“I do love her,” Kwame said.
Livie looked carefully at him, but said nothing.
Kwame took Livie to the Hotel Afrique. Tombolo put her into a room overlooking the Congo River and brought her a beer and some tiny yellow bananas. Kwame explained that he had to give a class at the secondary school where he taught. He would invite his great friends, the directors, to have dinner with them. Once he left, Livie lay down to rest. Seeing Kwame again had required more energy than she expected. Soon she was napping.
At Bomboko Congo School Kwame’s friends the Badekas had already heard about the beautiful white woman with hair like gold. “Can you help me show her around this afternoon?” Kwame begged. “And have dinner with us? And can I spend the night here on your floor?”
The Badekas thought the situation very amusing. They teased Kwame about his new friend and about his very American concern about what his femme Kalima would think. Clearly he feared she would be devastated if he paid appropriate attention to a woman who had traveled halfway around the world out of concern for his safety.
“Kalima’s not American,” laughed Badeka. “She’s a Mongo. She’d be very impressed that a woman would travel so far to see you. She’d expect you to be a good host.”
“She’d expect you to sleep with her,” Théa clarified.
“How can that be?” Kwame said.
“Eventually she will expect you to take another wife,” Badeka reasoned. “Perhaps two. African women understand that they will share their man with ‘sisters.’”
“Do you suppose she wants to win you from a failure of manhood?” Théa asked.
“She would prefer to know that you have tasted them both,” Badeka assured him, “and chosen her. You don’t want her father worrying about your virility.”
These assurances perplexed Kwame. Appropriate middle-class American behavior lay in one direction; acceptable Mongo conduct lay in another.
Kwame and the Badekas showed Livie the sights of Mbandaka. Théa made them a simple dinner and they all went together to listen to local rock’n’roll at a nightclub. The Badekas left early, complaining of lessons to prepare. Kwame and Livie watched the combo and chatted until after midnight.
When they returned to the hotel, Kwame waved to Tombolo in the bar and walked Livie to her room. She unlocked and opened the door and let it stand ajar. “Come in and talk to me,” she invited. “I don’t really feel that we’ve talked at all.”
Kwame sat on the railing opposite her doorway. “So: how is law school?” he asked.
“I’m supposed to tell you about law school while you’re sitting out there?” She scrutinized him. “We’ve never had trouble talking. Why is it so hard now?” He looked at his feet. “You’ve always been so articulate,” she went on. “Is it because you’re getting married? Aren’t we still friends?”
“I hope so.” He confessed, “I worry my vocabulary is shrinking. I haven’t articulated a remotely complicated idea in the two years I’ve been here. Not even to myself. I haven’t read a book in months.”
“Come in,” she said. “We’ll talk very complicated stuff. Can’t you?” Livie gazed at him a long time. “Is this really what you want?” she asked. “Marrying Africa?” He nodded. “You really want to turn your back on all you’ve worked for?”
He had earned a doctorate and become a specialist in African literature. He had secured a tenure track position at Boston University. They had met in a seminar he taught. The idea then was that he’d do a couple of tours as a cultural diplomat, deepen his knowledge of modern day Africa, and return to New England. “You have such a great contribution to make back home,” Livie reminded him.
“Do I? I feel more comfortable here. I don’t even know I’m black.”
“You have so many friends at home,” she said. She put her hand on his chest. “So many people are counting on you.” She kissed him – as a friend.
They looked at one another. He swallowed. Her kiss had tasted sweet.
“I love you,” she said. “I’ll always count you among the most important people in my life. Maybe the most important one of all.” She kissed him again, very lightly, and gazed into his eyes. “But I’m afraid for you.”
“Don’t be. This is what I want.”
“You’re going to be a kind of Rip Van Winkle. You’ll be in this place where nothing happens except dread diseases and violent, tribal convulsions every ten or fifteen years. And then you’ll come out–”
“You will!” She tapped on his chest as if she knew him better than he knew himself. “Your mind will get hungry for stimulation. You’ll want to talk ideas with somebody! But you won’t ever catch up with our world. It’s moving too fast.” She took his hands and looked deeply into his eyes. Her own eyes clouded with tears.
“Don’t cry,” he said. He knew she was right. He would want to return, maybe with Kalima, maybe not.
“I’ll still want you then,” Livie said. “I’ll always want you. But the way we live is changing. When you come back, it’ll be like we’re spinning on different tops, mine much faster than yours, so much faster you can’t jump onto it.” She looked at him. “I don’t want to lose you.”
She kissed him again, softly. The lightness and the nectar of her taste made him want her. And the smell of her, the feel of her thin, needful body pressed against him, the throbbing of the blood pounding in his head, the dim redness behind his closed eyes, the action of blood in his groin.
He felt her moving and he followed her. They entered her room. He heard the door close. “Talk to me,” she implored, but they kept on kissing. He felt himself whirling, sliding, slipping away from Mbandaka, away from Kalima’s world into Livie’s, the world where he had grown up and where he still belonged. His head whirled on and on and the sweetness of her absorbed him and he who had traditionally been a person of the mind became a person of the moment. Impulse spun him, whirling, whirling, and when the spinning stopped, hours had passed and he was holding Livie as he always had and she was sleeping, smiling, holding tightly onto him.
As dawn came up across the river, Kwame got coffee and rolls from the hotel kitchen and brought them to the room. He and Livie ate, then lay back in bed and at last words came. They talked. Livie told him about the challenges, delights and drudgery of law school, about prima donna professors and her classmates, some of whom had already washed out, and about living in Boston’s South End. She discussed national politics and how legal training had affected her attitudes toward it and about issues of interest: climate change, reducing poverty and racism.
He tried to explain what it was like living in the remotest part of the remotest part of the world: the allure of quietude and the great stillness, the glory of primordial rhythms, the rising and setting of the sun, the majesty of the clouds, the flow of life. He acknowledged the slackening of his intellectual vigor and its replacement with silence, watchfulness, his acceptance of man’s smallness and need for harmony with the natural world.
“What’s it like to love this African woman?” Livie asked.
“Simple,” he said. “Not at all complicated.” He was quiet, then sensed that she wanted to hear more. “Sex is easy here. It’s a sex-conducive environment.” Livie frowned. “As opposed to, say, Victorian England,” he explained, “which was not conducive to it. With its emphasis on respectability and etiquette and Christian religiosity.” Livie nodded, pleased to hear him talking again like a professor.
“Here it’s natural. No guilt attaches to it. Traditionally there’s been little to do at night. And it’s too hot to wear anything to sleep in. Flirtation and sex are primary modes of recreation. Extra-marital contacts are widespread as they’re bound to be in polygynous societies. Until AIDS came along there were no adverse consequences. Everyone wanted children and a girl’s becoming pregnant out of wedlock occasioned no shame. In fact, it confirmed that she could produce offspring. That encouraged suitors.”
Livie smiled as if she could understand why Kwame found its simplicity attractive. “Out here,” he went on, “men and women need each other to complete themselves. To produce young. That’s seen as the purpose of life.”
After a moment of quiet Livie asked, “Will there be adverse consequences to your being here with me?”
“I hope not,” Kwame said. “I feel badly about it.”
“Don’t you? I’m about to be married.”
“But there’s so much for us to sort through. And this is part of it.”
“My feeling badly: I know that means I’m reacting like an American. But I’m not marrying an American.”
“Honestly I didn’t intend to seduce you,” Livie said. “At least not last night. I really wanted us to talk.”
“You didn’t seduce me,” Kwame assured her. “You pulled me back into American society. Our parts of it are very sex-conducive, too. And I needed to be pulled back before I took the leap. I needed to test what I really want to do.”
“So it wasn’t a bad thing?”
Kwame stared at the ceiling. “Now that I’ve had the test,” he said, “maybe it’s crazy to take the leap.” Livie hoisted herself up onto her elbow and gazed at him.
“It’s been sexual with Kalima,” he acknowledged. He smiled at Livie. “But it’s always been sexual with us. My mother would be horrified. I’ve betrayed what she’s always contended about our being people of the mind.” Livie watched him thinking of his mother. “Here it’s sexual in a way I’ve never experienced before.” He touched Livie’s cheek to reassure her. “The American Way of Sex.” He shook his head. “It has that mix of prurience and Puritanism, predators and romantics, advertising, TV and entertainment media, permissiveness and repression. They’re all wrestling around with you in the same bed. It’s so complicated. So American.”
Livie agreed. “We’re all crazy.”
“It’s deeper with Kalima,’ Kwame said. “She doesn’t feel romantic love for me. But there’s a respect.”
“Lucky you two,” Livie said.
Kwame left her at the hotel and went to teach his classes. When he returned, she had dressed. They had the hotel kitchen pack them a lunch. Kwame took her out onto the river, out behind the islands that lay off the town to a sandbar; there the night tracks of crocodiles formed patterns in the sand.
After they ate, they talked about American policy in Africa. They argued about Mobutu. Livie contended that his grip was keeping the country in chains. Kwame countered that she didn’t grasp the situation’s complexities. Livie stuck her tongue out at him and did a monster walk around the sandbar. He tackled her and pulled her into the river. They splashed one another, then stretched out on towels, and slept.
When Livie woke, she found Kwame staring at the sky. “I’ve been thinking of Kalima,” he said.
“As well you should,” she teased, “lying beside the woman you pleasured last night.”
“I’m not sure Kalima really wants me.”
This surprised Livie. She turned beside him.
“She has the baby coming. That’s what she really wants.” Kwame smiled at the curiosity of it. “Somehow I was able to give her the baby. No other man had been able to.”
“So she’ll keep you around.”
“Its funny. I see that Kalima’s people have been right all along. Why should a Mongo woman from the village of Bolobe marry me?”
“You’re a catch, that’s why.”
“No. I’m a black American at the end of the American era. A professor with a shrinking vocabulary who’s lost the art of articulation.”
“You are so full of shit,” Livie informed him.
“It’s been fun to be with a woman like you who makes a lot of the same assumptions about life that I do. Who’s been trained to be curious and question authority. Who assumes the individual has responsibilities to himself that transcend the group. Who thinks I’m more important than the children I provide.”
“You are American, you know,” Livie said. “There are always times when we do not want to be what we’re stuck with being.”
“I can’t deny that it makes a lot more sense for me to marry an American woman, black or white, brown or yellow – and to make peace with being American – than it does to marry Kalima,” Kwame allowed. “And live a life that’s totally foreign to who I am. You’ve made me see that.”
Livie watched him. “But you’re unhappy about it.”
“Yes, I am.” He gazed at the African sky, the enormous clouds floating in that depth of blue. He thought how much he would miss them if he ever had to leave the Equateur. “I guess you’ve rescued me,” he said. “Mission accomplished.”
“Do you hate me?”
He pulled her to him and kissed her. “Without you I’d have made the worst decision of my life. I really might have become Rip Van Winkle.” She gazed at him and smiled. “The only real question now is: When do I go home? Now or at the end of my tour?” He stared out at the river.
Quietly she suggested, “Why not go back now?”
He stood and ran into the water. He swam so far out into the river that Livie worried the current would sweep him away.
After they returned to Mbandaka, Kwame drove Livie to the Eala Gardens, the area’s single tourist attraction, a holdover from the long gone colonial era. They walked the garden paths, holding hands. They sat by the river to watch the sunset. They drove back to Mbandaka and had a light dinner at the Hotel Afrique. They went to her room. As they had so often done in the early evening when they were living together in Cape Town, they made love.
Afterwards, holding one another, they drifted in and out of sleep. Or at least Livie did. Instead of feeling pleasurably spent, Kwame considered his future. He thought of Kalima whom he knew he loved. Maybe marrying her would be a mistake, but if he let Livie rescue him, he would marry her. He had expected to marry her, after all, when they were last together. But he had always known what that would mean: ten good years together and children he loved so much his heart ached just thinking of them. Then Livie would want a divorce. Her friends would all be the same moneyed people who were her friends now. He would never be more than a professor of an arcane subject who could not provide the things she would want. She would still love him – he truly believed that, as she claimed, she would always love him – but still she would want the divorce. He would lose daily contact with his children. His people had never divorced and Livie’s always had. Was that the future he wanted?
Eventually Livie woke. They lay side by side, his arm around her. This was a time when they had often shared their thoughts. “I’ve been thinking about American life,” he told her. “You know what I don’t understand? We are so trained to ‘do,’ to struggle, to compete, that we always feel a sense of failure about not doing better. At the end of our careers, when all the struggle-struggle-struggle is over, we feel that if only we had worked harder, if only our timing had been different, if only things had broken our way. . . Then we would be wealthier. Or more famous. Or have found true love. Or helped more people. At the end of American lives there is always a sense of not having done as well as we should have.”
Livie shook her head. As usual, he thought, she did not agree with him. Livie watched him a little impatiently. If they had to talk, let it be about his coming back to the States with her, not this abstract shit about a non-perfect world. Didn’t Kwame understand that no place was perfect?
He said, “America’s creating a civilization where most of us will spend our lives in artificial, climatized environments. We’ll work at computers, relax watching movies or TV. We’ll exercise our bodies on machines in the gyms we have in our homes. And we’ll cut ourselves off completely from the natural rhythms of the physical world.”
Livie understood that he was already feeling a nostalgia for the Africa he would leave behind.
“That’s a kind of folly,” he said. “A kind of hubris.”
“Kwame, most of us really are trying to live useful, productive lives.”
“I sometimes wonder if the earth doesn’t rebel against that hubris.” Livie looked at him as if he were babbling nonsense. “With earthquakes, for instance. Climate change. And fires, natural disasters, changing weather patterns. The earth is saying: ‘I am still here. You cannot escape me.’”
Livie gazed at him. “Swami,” she said, “you can’t believe that. It’s pre-literate, pre-scientific bullshit.” She grinned at him. But watching him, the grin faded. She sat up in bed and put on a shirt. “You aren’t coming back with me, are you?”
He shook his head.
“How can you stay? You’re regressing to–”
He did not let her finish the thought. “It isn’t possible that I’ve found something?” Livie shook her head. Kwame took her hand affectionately. “That’s one thing you have to love about Americans,” he said. “They’re unshakably convinced that their way is best.” She bit her lip.
“I guess I’ll stay out here in Africa,” Kwame told her. He shrugged, knowing that he had made the right decision. He had loved her once, but he did not love her now. He watched her eyes fill with tears. “You mustn’t cry,” he said.
“Let me tell you something,” Livie replied. She looked at him a long moment, trying to find words for her thoughts, and fiercely held his hand. “I understand the attraction of this place, I really do. But you’re going to become ever more isolated. Is that what you want?” Kwame shrugged.
“Please don’t stay,” she implored. “I’m so afraid for you.”
“Don’t be. I’m in tune with things here. I don’t want to live as fast as technology can push me.”
“It’s so dangerous here.”
“No more dangerous than New York or Los Angeles.”
“I’m afraid you’ll get sick,” she said. He shook his head. “Or that something dreadful will happen to you. These people can be so cruel.”
“People get sick at home. The difference is they don’t think they ever have to die. They think they can live five different lifetimes in fifty years. And never once know who they are. I want what is here, Livie.”
She began to weep. Kwame leaned close to her and pressed his lips against hers. The taste of her made him think of all the things he would be abandoning when he married Kalima. He knew that now and then he would miss them.
He rose from the bed and dressed. When he was ready to go, he turned back to her. “Thank you for coming,” he said. “What a friend you are! I hope you’re happy wherever you go.”
They kissed again. Livie said, “You, too.”
The next day Kwame took her to the airport and waved as she walked out to board the plane for Kinshasa. When the plane took off and rose into the sky, Livie looked back at the airport and saw Kwame’s figure, still waving. For a long time she stared at the green of the jungle beneath the plane. She wondered: Will he really marry Kalima? Will I marry Mike? Kwame always said my husband would be someone like him.