THE LATE MIDDLE AGE OF KWAME JOHNSON is the third of three linked stories. LIVIE IN MBANDAKA immediately precedes it. And before that comes KWAME LOVES LIVIE.
As Kwame Johnson approached sixty, he knew that he did not want to be an old man in Africa. He was in good health and intended to stay that way. He ate carefully, exercised every day and had few worries. There were no problems with his family. He had three wives and ten children. He got along with the wives and they got along with each other. He had bought a property large enough for each woman to have her own quarters, her own kitchen. He lived in a suite of rooms in the main house.
His first wife Kalima he had always considered beautiful. He longed for her when she was living with the Nigerian doctor Odejimi. When he and Odejimi began to share her, she entranced him. As he came to know her, he began to regard her less as a toy, more as a companion. He repented of seeing her as Odejimi did and demanded exclusive access to her. He realized he was in love with her, understanding that she would never feel romantic love for him.
When they first lived together, she desperately wanted a child. By no other man – not the absent Belgian whom she had married, not the Nigerian doctor – had she become pregnant. She grew to trust her relationship to Kwame and the trust dissolved whatever it was that prevented pregnancy. Because of her trust the Bon Dieu allowed Kwame to give her a child; that was how she saw it. And then four others.
Kwame was now a man in late middle age. By the reckoning of her people Kalima was an old woman, more interested in her grandchildren than in coming to his bed.
If Kwame loved Kalima, he never loved the other wives.
His second was Maya. He had resisted a second wife at first, but “No!” he was told. He must. It was the African way. He was, after all, building an African family. Reluctantly he agreed. Maya was an orphan, only fifteen and very scrawny. She quickly became as devoted to Kwame as a puppy. She took readily to sex and brought more imagination to it than either of the other wives. But she never entranced him. He found her gratitude off-putting. Still she got pregnant easily and gave him three children.
Belle came to him with a French name, unusual in a Mongo woman. He took her when he thought a young woman would add interest to his life. A lovely body. When they were together he often invited her to dance nude for him. Splendid body, empty mind. She was obsessed with fashion. She had so many cloths and bodices, head cloths and sandals that there seemed hardly room enough in her quarters for the two children he gave her.
At sixty Kwame had lost interest in his women. But regular sex was necessary to discourage the young wives, particularly Belle, from seeking lovers. Their fidelity was important because of SIDA (known as AIDS in America). To keep his young wives satisfied, he had each one come to his quarters twice a week. There he serviced them. Keeping these encounters interesting he found a challenge. Like the Bon Dieu Himself, he rested on Sundays. Now and then he took a whole week off, returning to his exertions with more appetite.
At the birth of Kalima’s first child, a son, they followed tribal tradition by naming him after his paternal grandfather; they also gave a nod to Kalima’s father. The boy was called Robert Bonanga Johnson; he would be known as Bobbo. Kwame was determined that this son be registered as an American. However, when he appeared at the American Embassy in Kinshasa, Kalima with him, carrying the baby, the consular officer assumed he was an African. Kwame explained that he was an American Foreign Service Officer in charge of the American Cultural Center in Mbandaka, but the consular officer remained unconvinced. In slow English (so the officer could understand) Kwame insisted that he was born and raised in western Massachusetts, a graduate of Boston University with a doctorate in African Literature from UCLA. Before entering the Foreign Service as a cultural diplomat, he taught at B.U. He was now living in Mbandaka and had taken an African wife, the mother of the infant. Kwame showed Bobbo’s birth certificate, such as it was, and his American passport, his diplomatic passport. The consular officer appealed to the Deputy Chief of Mission to settle the matter of Bobbo’s citizenship. The DCM recalled that, indeed, there was a cultural center in Mbandaka with an American officer in charge. He escorted the Johnsons and the consul to his office, interviewed Kwame, inspected his documents, and instructed the consul, “Register the baby and give him a passport.”
Since a trip to Kinshasa was expensive and humiliating, Kwame did not bother to secure American citizenship for his other children.
When Bobbo was fourteen, Kwame sent him to Massachusetts to live with his grandparents. Kwame’s father was still alive then. Bobbo was now almost thirty, teaching at a two-year college, living in Long Beach, California, and married to a white woman. That taste for white girls ran in the masculine line, Kwame knew, because he himself had lived with a white woman he had very nearly married. Long ago she had come to Mbandaka to rescue him from Africa, but he was committed to Kalima. He did not regret that choice. However, nowadays when he dreamed of sex, which he often did, his partner was always the white woman he had almost married.
Kwame’s Congolese children were mostly adults now. Nine of them. He could not always keep them straight or remember their names, whom they were paired with or what they were doing. Most had settled in Mbandaka, but some were in Kinshasa, others in Kisangani or Katanga. Kwame wondered if he would miss them when he went on travels on his own.
He assembled his wives and children and explained that he must see his mother again before she died. When his father passed, he had not seen him in twenty-seven years. He must see his mother; he must return to the places where he grew up before he himself died. His family considered this perfectly proper; it was the sort of thing aging people did.
Kwame had been careful with his money. He earned well as a Foreign Service Officer and sufficiently when he had worked as a Mbandaka local employee of the embassy after he resigned from the service. He had invested wisely in Mbandaka and had passed his business interests to his chilfren. He gave Evariste, his seventh child, the management of his money, confident that there were adequate resources for the family. The days of school fees were over and money for brideprice payments had been apportioned for his two unmarried sons. He could depart knowing his dependents were provided for.
When he first went overseas and did not need the entirety of his wages, he had half sent to his parents’ bank in Springfield. His parents invested the money. Few African-Americans had stockbrokers, but Bob and Shirley Johnson did. Kwame knew there would be funds for his use when he returned to see his mother.
When he arrived in Springfield by train, Kwame did not recognize the downtown area. No one except him carried suitcases anymore. People passed him dragging luggage on rollers. He had seen these in airports, but assumed they were exclusive to air travel.
Women in the station all seemed to wear pants. It was no longer possible to admire their legs. What had happened to dresses? For that matter, what had happened to women? They seemed edgier.
He intended to telephone his mother at the station. But what had happened to telephone booths? Everyone seemed to use cell phones like the iPhone he used in Mbandaka. He remembered that Evariste had gotten his phone altered for America. He looked up his mother’s number in his wallet – it was not the one he had memorized as a teen – and dialed it. After several rings he heard her voice spill into his ear from across the years. It was not the voice he heard when she spoke to him in his dreams of her. It sounded fainter, older. But he trusted that the voice was hers. He wondered if they would recognize one another when he arrived at the house.
Outside the station all the buildings seemed different. Yes, he had been away thirty years, but the streets were laid out differently, too. Or was his memory defective? Traffic patterns had been changed. He recognized neither the cars that drove on them nor the products advertised on billboards. What was hulu? What was FX? Was MSNBC a bank?
He got a taxi and gave the driver the address of the home where his parents had lived since he was a boy. The driver punched numbers into his cell phone, set the phone on a holder beside the steering wheel and started off, moving down one-way streets that Kwame remembered as two-way and up onto a highway with four lanes going in his direction, the cars shooting past as if they had been catapulted from a cannon.
Eventually the taxi moved down a street that looked familiar. Were those the front yards he had run across playing tag with his buddies? Was that the house where he had shoveled snow to make pocket change? Some houses had been altered, bars put across windows, and they all looked smaller. He smiled at the thought of his three wives and ten children refusing to live in this neighborhood.
A woman stood on the porch of the house that had been his. Was that his mother, her hair nearly white? She looked smaller in the same way the houses did. He scrutinized her as the taxi approached. When in a characteristic gesture she unfolded a handkerchief and waved it, he knew it was she. He paid the driver, plunged out of the taxi, pulling with him his two suitcases, tied in the African way, and bounded up to the porch. “Maman! Maman!’ he cried, embracing the woman.
“What are you calling me, son?” she asked.
“Oh, mon Dieu! Je parle francais!” he said, laughing and hugging her, “Pardon! I’m speaking French. I never speak English at home.”
“What do you speak?” she asked.
He carefully formed the words. “Mainly French and Lingala.”
“I spose I should know that,” his mother said. “That’s what Bobbo spoke when he got here.” Then as an afterthought she asked, “Do you want me to speak slower for you, son?”
“Well, maybe a bit.” Kwame realized that the English he expected to be ready on his tongue would require some retooling. He had thought that using it would be as easy as riding a bike again after a long absence, but he saw that he had misjudged.
“Talk however you want, son!” said his mother, laughing. “How good to see you again. Come inside!”
Kwame moved into his old room. How small it seemed! It was the room Bobbo had used between his fourteenth and eighteenth years, before he went off to UMass, heavily fortified by scholarships.
Within his first few days in the house Kwame made two discoveries. The first was that his mother was older than he at first realized. She had greeted him heartily, full of laughter, when he arrived and had prepared him a splendid meal that evening. But he quickly saw that she was not hearty. She had not used a walker that day, but he noticed that she was careful how she moved, holding onto chair backs and door frames.
Once he settled in, she often used a walker in the house and always when she went outside. She still had a car, an early ‘90s Chevrolet, but she rarely drove. She had two gatherings with women every week, but little social life beyond that. She read books and watched television. Church on Sunday. Although they ate decent meals together, Kwame assumed that when she was alone, days went by when she did not bother to cook for herself. She was now very close to the end of her life, perhaps even looking forward to it. Kwame saw that her love for him and what he symbolized in terms of family was keeping her alive.
The second thing Kwame realized was that he was less prepared to re-enter American life than he had assumed in the Congo. While he thrived there – and how could anyone say that he had not thrived, indeed flourished? – America had also thrived. It had danced along its merry way, innovating technology, dreaming up new forms of entertainment, spewing forth new words, expressions, catch phrases and raucous forms of slang, devising new ways to play the old race game, maybe changing the rules a bit, but not the outcomes. Nowadays change allowed, even encouraged, women to muscle men out of the way in education, business, sports, fashion, politics.
Kwame realized that he more truly resembled an immigrant than a returning native. His English was rusty. Seeing his mother with books, he realized how long ago it was that he had lost the habit of reading, he who possessed a doctoral degree and had once taught college students literature.
He would have to buy himself a new computer and update his knowledge of computing. He would have to learn a new menu of entertainment offerings. He would have to buy new clothes.
“Is that what passes for a haircut in Mbandaka?” his mother asked him a day or two after he arrived. “I’m not sure what kind of nationality you look like. But if you go downtown, folks may think you’re a terrorist.” His mother had been a hair stylist and always cut his father’s hair. She set him in a kitchen chair and made him look American. When he saw his reflection in a mirror, he did not recognize himself.
Kwame began to spend most afternoons and evenings watching television with his mother. She enjoyed his company. She repeatedly told him, “Oh, it’s so good to have a son here in the house with me!” The television watching – cop shows, domestic dramas, soap operas – helped him familiarize himself with the English language as it was spoken on the streets. News shows suggested a loftier form of speech except when cable news anchors began to shout. The politics they railed about he could not follow. Partisans still harangued about abortion. Had nothing changed except the traffic patterns in downtown Springfield?
In the mornings Kwame often took an hour’s walk. It brought him to a Dunkin’ Donuts shop where he had coffee and a cruller. He got to know the servers and tested the improvement of his English. At first he had been unable to quickly shove the French words out of his brain and replace them with proper English ones. He suspected the servers assumed he was mentally impaired. As his retrieval of English words improved, the servers relaxed and regarded him as a friend.
On these morning outings he studied the clothes men wore. Years ago when he was teaching at B.U., he wore sport coats and slacks, always a tie. Men he passed on his walks rarely wore suits or sport coats. Few wore ties. Some men sported outfits bought at Macy’s or Filene’s. But most wore casual trousers – chinos, even jeans – purchased from WalMart or Target, emporiums he had been hardly aware of when he left the States. He bought two pairs of pants, a jacket of the type he had seen men wearing at televised sports events, a sweater, and three solid-color sport shirts. He found leather shoes prohibitively expensive and, noticing that many men wore what had apparently evolved over three decades out of sneakers, bought a pair of New Balances for less than $80.
With the retirement of the stockbroker his parents had originally consulted, a young man had been given his account. Kwame spoke with him by phone, introducing himself, and arranged an appointment to meet him. Kwame dressed in his new clothes and went downtown to the brokerage.
Entering its offices, he realized immediately that he would have made a better impression in the suit he did not own. The young broker’s manner suggested that he had few African-American clients, that he took Kwame for a retired plumber or mechanic. Full of tact – after all, the man handled his money – Kwame recalled that his account had been set up by his parents while he was overseas, working as a Foreign Service Officer.
The young broker reappraised Kwame as if through new eyes. “You were Foreign Service?” he asked.
“I was,” Kwame said. “Before that I taught at Boston University.”
“I took the FSO exam,” the broker confessed. “Some ordeal! Where’d you serve overseas?”
“South Africa. Congo. Didn’t expect to stay in the Congo, but I did. Thirty years.”
“Wow! What’s Massachusetts seem like now?”
“Lots of change. It’s taking me a while to catch up.” Then he asked, “You took the foreign service exam, did you? I expect it’s harder now than when I took it.”
“Oh, I doubt that. You look pretty savvy.”
“Merci beaucoup, as we say in the Congo.” Kwame laughed. “I’m not savvy about Wall Street, though, so I need your help.”
Kwame and the young broker looked over his account. As expected, the stocks had grown considerably, but less than Kwame anticipated. He liked the young broker, but, not surprisingly, there had been little activity in the account. Instead of managing it, the brokerage had let it sit as a savings bank might have. “Now that I’m here,” Kwame said, “maybe the account can be more active. Would you want to give me some ideas?”
“Sounds good to me,” said the broker. He and Kwame shook hands.
Out on the streets of Springfield, Kwame walked around till he found a Dunkin’ Donuts. Inside, chewing a cruller and holding the coffee cup so that its warmth flowed into his hands, he realized that he needed to find a different brokerage, one that would actually manage his account. But he had no idea of how to do that.
Kwame bought the latest Apple laptop computer as well as the latest iPhone. He set about making a study of how to operate these machines so different from the ones he’d had in the Congo. He spent many mornings at the genius bar in the Apple store and made steady progress. He enrolled in a night school class about computing and began to acquire skills that he would never use.
A fellow student in the class was an African-American single mother, about thirty-five, with whom he struck up a friendship. After classes they repaired to a nearby bar for a drink. Kwame and his friend were both pleased to have someone to talk to. “I’ve lived in Africa awhile,” Kwame told his friend. “I have no idea what it’s like to be a young woman here trying to make her way.”
“I wish I felt young,” said the woman. “When I interview for better jobs, they tell me I’m too old.”
“How can they? You look so—“ Kwame hesitated. Was he about to say something inappropriate? TV suggested that women got angry with men quite easily these days. “Organized,” he said finally. “You look so organized.”
The woman laughed. She was very pretty. Kwame wondered if he wanted a relationship with her. He wasn’t sure how to proceed. While he was gone, women had become a lot more assertive – and critical – with men.
“Do you have children?” the woman asked.
“I do,” Kwame said with a smile. “A woman in the Congo doesn’t want a man. She wants a child. You’re just a means of getting there.”
“Is that right?”
“Tell me about your children.” Kwame hastily diverted the talk away from himself. He did not want to lie to her, but neither did he want to admit that he had three wives and ten children all at the same time.
“Just one, a boy. Love him mostly. Sometimes he needs his tail scorched. But he’s getting too big for me to do that.”
“Most boys finally appreciate their moms.”
“I hope so.” She laughed. “Nice to have a man to talk to.”
For his part Kwame was happy to get the worldview of someone other than his mother, even if the woman seemed needful of opportunities that she did not quite know how to find. One of them might be him.
As a young man Kwame’d had a lot of experience letting friendships grow into relationships. When his body began to want a woman again, he considered an involvement with the friend in his computer class. He was sure she would sleep with him happily if he showed up now and then to provide her son some discipline. But an involvement with her would mean a relationship with her son. He decided against it. Once the class ended, he and his friend stopped seeing one another.
One evening fiddling at his computer, he typed into the Firefox search bar the words Olivia Carlyle. Since returning to America, he had thought occasionally of Livie. He even daydreamed occasionally of contacting this old friend. But how would he do that? She had certainly married, probably more than once since her people divorced. He had no way of discovering her married name. He did not imagine that she had become a lawyer. Law school was more likely just a holding pattern until she landed the man she wanted.
Suddenly on the computer screen appeared: “Olivia Carlyle, Esq., Mediator Robinson & Associates, Los Angeles.” L.A.? She’d gone out there? He wondered how far she was from where Bobbo lived in Long Beach.
The text continued: “Working as a fulltime mediator for over twenty years, Olivia has facilitated resolutions in thousands of disputed matters. She provides a unique blend of quick intellect and highly developed people skills in working through and settling complex legal and factual matters.” Whuddia know? She had become a lawyer, after all. A mediator. Who knew?
Livie’s name jumping up onto the computer screen made him think of her again. For several days he thought about the professional she had become, about the tantalizing woman she had been. He thought about their friendship, about their living together in South Africa, about her visiting him in Mbandaka to “rescue him from Africa.” From time to time over the years he had wondered what it would be like to see her again, to rekindle their friendship. Musing about that made him feel younger than sixty. But how could it ever happen? She was way off in California, out of reach.
Kwame settled. He watched television with his mother. When he felt a strong need for a woman, he visited a prostitute. For a man much married, this was hardly satisfactory. But he didn’t want to start over with a woman. After all, he was in his late middle age.
After Kwame was home about six months, his mother died. A good woman deserved a good death, Kwame thought, and this is what the Bon Dieu gave her. She went to bed one evening feeling poorly, was little improved the next morning, only picked at the lunch Kwame prepared for her, and was gone when he brought her a tray of tea in the late afternoon.
Taking care of her estate required three months. Kwame worked with the lawyer who drew up his parents’ wills. Nothing was keeping him in Massachusetts and he decided to go see Bobbo in California. He sold the house as it was. He kept aside several thousand dollars for expenses and put the remainder with the new brokerage he had found. To see the country he took a train to Los Angeles.
When he arrived, he telephoned Bobbo to say that he was at Union Station. He rented a car, put Bobbo’s home address into his iPhone and let Siri direct him onto the Harbor Freeway to Long Beach. The traffic intimidated him. He stayed in the right hand lane, muttered curses at insistent honkings, found the right off-ramp at Siri’s instruction, pulled over to the curb and parked. He sat shaking behind the wheel for several minutes. Finally he went on and arrived at Bobbo’s house.
He had not seen his son in fifteen years, since Bobbo was hardly more than a boy. They shook hands and embraced uncertainly. Bobbo introduced his wife Cheryl and their two small children, both girls. As Bobbo took his father’s suitcases and led him toward the house, Kwame saw how small it was. “This place is a starter home,” Bobbo explained. “It’s small, but we own it. It’s been a stretch to do that.” The house contained a living-dining room, a kitchen, a bathroom and two bedrooms, one for the adults, one for the kids. “I wish we could put you in your own room, Papa,” Bobbo said, “but there’s not room for that. I’m afraid you’ll have to sleep on the living room couch.”
“I know I’ll be comfortable there,” Kwame assured him. He could see how much it distressed Bobbo not to give him a room of his own. Having spent his formative years in Mbandaka, Bobbo treated his father with an African respect for elders. Kwame wondered if Bobbo and Cheryl had argued about whether or not to put Kwame up. He assumed they had.
“You’ll have the place to yourself most of the day,” Bobbo said. He would go off to Long Beach City College where he taught history, mainly survey courses with a specialty in “History of the Developing World.” Cheryl worked as an administrative assistant and finally both kids were in grade school, going to day care until one of their parents picked them up late in the afternoon.
Over beers, late into Kwame’s first night there, he and Bobbo talked, getting caught up. Kwame assured his son that Kalima, his mother, was well; so was Maya. He showed him photos of them in his phone. He did not mention Belle, the third wife, about whom Bobbo had never heard. He spoke briefly of Bobbo’s siblings and told him of his grandmother’s passing.
“How long are you here?” his son asked. Kwame shrugged. Bobbo studied him. “You haven’t left home, have you? With all those dependents there?”
“They’re well able to take care of themselves,” Kwame said. “Probably glad to see the old man go.” After a moment he added, “I wanted to see my mother again before she died.”
“She and Daddy were very good to me,” Bobbo said.
“Was I right to send you to America?” Kwame asked. “None of the others are Americans. I hope it was the right thing.”
“It was, Papa, “ Bobbo assured him. “Would I be teaching history if I stayed in the Congo?”
“I guess not.”
“Would I be living in this expensive part of the world, feeling grateful for this house and pollution and traffic and earthquakes, if I stayed in Mban?”
Kwame said, “There’s more people in Mban than you remember. These days they have their own noise and pollution.”
“I’d never have met Cheryl in Mban. We have a strong marriage, even if sometimes it gets—“ Bobbo shrugged and waved his hand back and forth.
Kwame wondered what Cheryl really thought of having a black stranger sleeping on her living room couch. He saw very quickly that it would not work for him to lodge in the Johnson living room. He found a motel nearby and moved there one day when the family was gone. He saw that Bobbo was genuinely distressed, but Cheryl seemed relieved.
Kwame had been in the motel three days, feeling lonely, when he once again googled Olivia Carlyle. The telephone number of Robinson & Associates, Mediation, stared at him out of the screen. If he called, could he get through to her? If he did, what would he say? Would she want to see him? How would he feel if she brushed him off?
He reminded himself of the last time they had been together. She had said something about always counting him among the most important people in her life. “Maybe the most important one of all,” she had said.
The phone rang several times. Finally a distracted voice answered, “The Robinson Firm,” it said. Then: “Could you hold, please?”
When the voice returned, Kwame asked, “May I speak to Olivia Carlyle, please?”
“She’s not– I’m sorry. Could you hold again, please?”
When Kwame repeated his request, the receptionist was still distracted. “Olivia? I think she’s up at Trancas.”
“Trancas Beach. I’m sorry. Are you a client?”
“I’m an old friend.”
“Oh, I’ve spoken out of turn. I’m sorry.” The receptionist seemed genuinely distressed. “All I can say is: She’s not here.”
Kwame googled Trancas Beach. It was located at the western end of Malibu, which Kwame had heard of. Should he try to find her? What a fool’s errand that might be. But why not take a drive? Her name might be on a mailbox. He had heard of Malibu. Why not take a look?
Kwame found the turn-off to Trancas Beach, an enclave of super-rich beach mansions that hid the strand they overlooked. He drove slowly along Broad Beach Road, scrutinizing mailboxes. Most, but not all, showed house numbers, but only a few displayed the names of owners. It was hard to both drive and watch the mailboxes. When Kwame had driven the length of Broad Beach, he turned back and drove even more slowly. Finally he came upon a mailbox that showed the name Robinson. He drove past it, then stopped. Livie was partnered at a firm called Robinson & Associates. He stopped, left the car, went to the mailbox and opened it. A letter lay in it for the mailman to take. The return address said, “Robinson – Carlyle.” Kwame grinned. Bingo!
He got through the gate – it was not seriously locked – walked to the porch and rang the doorbell. After a pause he rang it again. He started to look around the yard when the door opened. He turned and saw a tall, lithe, blonde woman, quite good-looking, thanks to beauty creams. Her face wore an expression of uncertainty. Why was an African-American on her porch?
Kwame turned toward her and grinned. “Want a taxi, lady?” he asked, feeling years younger. It was the first thing he had said to her when she arrived in Mbandaka thirty years previously.
Livie steadied herself on the porch railing, shook her head, and said, “Well, well. What the hell are you doing here?” She grinned. “The last person I ever expected to see.”
Kwame spoke to her as if they were still together, living in Cape Town. “Who’s Robinson?” he asked.
“I suppose you want to come in,” she said.
“Who’s Robinson?” Kwame repeated.
“A business partner who died a year ago. Also my husband.”
Kwame approached her. She opened her arms to embrace him. They clung to one another as if the thirty years were only thirty minutes. Kwame knew – they both knew – that the old attraction was as strong as ever although they might not express it the same way.
They entered the house together. “What to drink?” Livie asked. “There’s beer, fruit juice, lemonade, whiskey. But it’s too early for whiskey.”
They moved into a living room filled with half-packed boxes. It overlooked an empty, sun-splashed beach with waves rolling in green and breaking white. Kwame followed Livie into the kitchen. She turned to gaze at him with a quizzical expression as if wondering what he might want besides a drink.
“No champagne?” he asked. He smiled at her, all charm.
The first time they had been together she had served him champagne. She had also served him herself. She had been his student in an African Lit seminar and there had been a strong attraction between them that she was eager to pursue, but that terrified him. They met at her apartment the day he stopped being her instructor. Her father had sent her a magnum of champagne to celebrate her graduation. They had drunk it, nibbled hors d’oeuvres and explored their attraction.
“I’m out of champagne,” she said. She took a pair of beers from the refrigerator, passed Kwame one of them and led him through the living room out onto the balcony where the air was fresh. It smelled of salt and the sound of the waves made them raise their voices.
“Living room’s a mess,” she said. “I’m finally clearing Grant Robinson’s stuff out of the house. I’m thinking of selling it.”
Kwame settled himself into a chair. Livie stood, leaning against the balcony.
He asked, “Did you ever marry that guy who came with you to Mban—“
“I did,” she said. “On the rebound. I’d just been dumped by the only man I’d ever loved and Mike Ackerman was willing to pick up the pieces.” Then she asked, “Did you marry Kalima?”
“You remember her name.”
“I was not about to forget that. Are you still hitched?”
“Still hitched, but I’ve left Africa.”
“Were you there in that town the whole time?”
He moved to the railing. “There was an outburst of violence shortly after Kalima and I married. We escaped to Bangui. I expected we’d go on to America. Kalima refused. She wanted her baby born with her people.” He took a drink of his beer. “When things settled down, we went back to Mbandaka. So, yes, I’ve been there the whole time.”
“Kalima didn’t want to discover America?”
“It would have been a very tough adjustment for her.” He watched the waves breaking. “I’m adjusting myself. America has changed in thirty years.” He turned to grin at her. “But you seem as– What do I say? A man still tingles at the sight of you.” She smiled and looked away, declining to play his game. A silence. Finally he asked, “What happened to Ackerman?”
“We were married sixteen years, two children, both boys.”
“Where are they?”
“In the East. One’s in finance, the other’s an engineer.”
“Very trite story. I was raising two boys and maintaining a mediation practice. He got left out. So he found another woman. My fault.” She shrugged. “You always said I’d get divorced.” She drank of her beer and turned to watch the breakers. “I came out here. I’d been doing mediations for a while. They can be fascinating, challenging. I joined Grant’s firm. He was fifteen years older than me, but a genuinely good man. So when he talked marriage, I let him. His wife had died.”
“And now you’re packing him up.”
“And you can help.”
“Be glad to.”
Livie was getting rid of all the summer books they had read at the beach. There was a surprising quantity of them. Robinson apparently liked mysteries and bought them in hardback. They stacked the books in cardboard cartons Livie had gotten from a supermarket. “Does this take you back?” Kwame asked.
Livie busied herself, boxing books.
“The day I filed my grades for that semester, I was putting books in boxes, getting ready to go to South Africa.”
“I remember a day I came to your office about a paper I was writing. What was that book anyway?” She laughed. “Oh, were you scared!”
“I’m not scared now.“
Livie turned her back and picked up another pile of books. The moment – if it had been a moment – passed. “Tell me about your children,” she said while her back was still turned. “Whatever happened to the child Kalima was carrying when you two got married?”
Kwame told her about Bobbo and said that he had succeeded in getting American citizenship for him. “He teaches history at Long Beach City College.”
“Really? You’ve seen him, I suppose.”
As Livie closed up the boxes of books, she said aloud, but talking to herself, “I wonder if I should send these to Grant’s children. They know how much their Dad loved summer books.”
Kwame carried the boxes of books down to the garage.
When he finished, Livie suggested a walk on the beach. “Grant had some shorts that might fit you.”
Kwame changed into shorts he found in a bureau drawer. Fit him? They were too girthy. He was momentarily miffed. Had Livie had not noticed that he was still in good shape? He’d get lost in her departed’s shorts! He bit his tongue and cinched the shorts tight to his waist. He also put on a pair of Robinson flip-flops.
The beach was virtually empty on this weekday afternoon. The tide crept closer as they walked. They took off their flip-flops and waded. Livie talked about mediation, about moving into it after five years of drudgery in a law firm where women were overworked and rarely made partner. She found mediation more satisfying than law. There were real satisfactions to helping people solve problems.
Kwame confessed that he could have used a skilled mediator to lead him through the thickets of his relationship with his father-in-law. “Bonanga didn’t want Kalima to marry another white man,” he explained. “She had married the Belgian and he had not honored their contract.”
“He saw you as a white man?“ Livie could not help laughing.
“Yes,” Kwame told her. “I thought: For once I’m black like everyone else and he sees me as white.” Livie chortled. “When he and I had disagreements,” Kwame said, “Kalima generally took his side.”
“Bonanga thought I should show Mbandaka how prosperous I was by taking a second wife.”
Livie stopped walking, held onto his forearm, and bent over with laughter. “And Kalima agreed?” She laughed harder. “Weren’t you pleasing her? You’d never have had a second wife if you’d married me.”
“There were times I wished I had.”
They studied each other and again let the moment pass
“Did you take the second wife?”
“Reluctantly. Didn’t sleep with her to show that Kalima satisfied me. Then I realized Bonanga was shtooping her. That was a fight.”
“I’ve mediated conflicts like that. Did you finally sleep with No. 2?”
Kwame shrugged. ‘I was living in an African society. Believe me: It means more problems, not more sex.”
They walked a bit farther.
“We were friends,” Kwame said. “My African wives were never my friends.” He added, “Don’t ask me about the wives and children. I can’t keep them all straight.”
“Did you wish you’d come back to the States with me?”
“What kind of a question is that?” Kwame teased. “I say no, you kick me out? I say yes, you sleep with me?”
She walked on. “We’re having a nice beach walk. No subtext.”
“Of course, I want to sleep with you. That’s for the record.”
“I’d be damned disappointed if you didn’t. That’s for the record, too.”
LIvie corked his shoulder and ran down the beach. He watched her, wondering if she were running from exhilaration or to get away from him.
When they returned to the house, Kwame stretched out on the couch. Soon he fell asleep. Livie sat beside him in a rocker. She watched him. She rocked. She thought about her life. She dozed. She woke. She rocked some more. She half-dozed.
Inside the half-dozing she thought: “Grant, will you forgive me if this takes its course?” She thought how Kwame would react to her asking that. “Forgive you!?” He’d say: “He should applaud you! We’ve always been fantasssstic together.” He had sometimes sent her emails with four s’s in fantasssstic. She thought: “Yes, that’s what I thought when I fed you champagne.” She dozed. She watched him again.
Kwame woke and sat on the edge of the couch, shaking his head as if trying to clear it. He finally realized that it really was she, watching him. “It is you,” he said.
“Yes.” She stood. “Drink?”
“I’ll have lemonade this go-round.”
She brought him lemonade and sat beside him. After he drank it, they kissed, tentatively at first. Then with more confidence. Then with ardor.
“Is this a good idea?” LIvie asked.
Kwame said, “I’ve been watching you ask yourself that question since you recognized who it was standing on your porch.” He added, “If it weren’t a good idea, I wouldn’t have found you.”
Livie considered this, then stood and held out her hand. Kwame rose and followed her into the bedroom. She lowered the blinds and began to remove her clothes. He watched her. She said, “I haven’t done this for a while.”
He said, “I do a great refresher course.”
In the late afternoon they lay together in bed, watching the light patterns on the ceiling. LIvie asked, “Do you have any pressing obligations?”
Kwame laughed at this.
“Why not stay here for a while?”
Kwame kissed her shoulder.
“You could wear Grant’s clothes.”
“I’m in better shape than he was.”
“Are you? I think I could scare you up a toothbrush.”
“I’ve got a toothbrush in the car.” He quickly explained, “I didn’t know where I’d be tonight. So I threw some stuff in a backpack.”
“When I turned up in Cape Town,” Livie said, “you were stunned to see me. I asked if I could stay at your place for a few days.”
“A couple of weeks, I believe it was.”
“One week was all,” she said. “And you said yes.” He gently touched her cheek. “This could be the same thing. I could tell people that I have a friend visiting from Africa.”
Kwame said, “Sounds like a plan. Let’s be friends.”
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