MY WEDDING DAY is the second of three linked stories. The first story, titled BOLOLO, precedes this story. The third story, titled LEAVING BOLOLO, follows this one.
On my wedding day I was up before dawn. I gathered things I was taking to my new home and put them in a box. As I started toward the door, Ruthie came out of the bathroom. She said, “Put that down and give me a hug.” She held me very tight, saying goodbye to the teenage mission girl daughter she had never expected to be marrying so soon.
“You come back in plenty of time to take a sponge bath.” No bathing in the Tshuapa on my wedding day! “You want to be nice and fresh for the wedding – and for afterwards.”
I nodded and kissed her, took the box and headed two doors down to the Roberts house where at the end of the day I would be mistress of the manor. Going down there I stopped to take stock: to listen to the mission station stillness; to smell the cool, fresh air so gentle on my skin in those few comfortable minutes of darkness before light broke across the sky; to gaze across the Tshuapa gentling along in its eternal way.
I also said goodbye to being a girl with dreams of flying away from this place that had shaped me. I bid farewell to notions of meeting new people and achieving amazing things in the wider world I’d only read about. I had made my peace with living here for years to come and achieving what I could as the wife of Dave Roberts, recent widower, a man I did not yet know, but would expect at some point to love.
At the Roberts house I climbed the steps and went inside. Dave was there. I was still having trouble thinking of the man I was marrying as Dave, not Dr. Dave, the station fixture, a kind of uncle. Coming out of the kitchen, carrying a cup of instant coffee, he seemed surprised to see me. “Morning, Ja—“ he said. Then realized, of course, that I wasn’t Janie, his wife who’d died. He substituted, “Morning, Sweets.” I’d heard him call Janie that any number of times.
It was his wedding day, too, but I realized that he was thinking of the surgery he was about to perform. He starts surgery at sunup to catch the cool of the day. He hadn’t focused yet on getting remarried at 11:00 that morning. He looked at me a little strangely as if trying to remember who I was. He leaned over and kissed my mouth so briefly it seemed done before it started, a curious way to kiss your bride on the day you were marrying her.
He handed me the coffee cup, momentarily confused, realizing Janie wasn’t away on a visit, but dead in childbirth and that I was moving in, his future wife. Starting down the path, he turned back and called, “Guess I’ll be seeing you later.” He gave me a shy grin. I felt the blood rushing to my face about later. My husband by noon.
Watching him go, I put out of my mind what had happened the night before. I had resolved to make the best marriage I could with Dave, even if he was twice my age and I hardly knew him.
Janie had died less than a month before. Only twenty-nine and almost a sister to me. Dr. Dave, I mean Dave, was about forty. She was expecting their third child. When Ruthie told me the news that Janie and her baby were gone, I went hollow inside. Death had never before rubbed my nose in what it was. I walked around the station for several days in a kind of shock-trance.
It had been a period of suddenly growing up. My school year ended at Pakima Station. I escaped Dangerous Dakin Dobbins from Ikela who kept pestering me with attentions that were sometimes
exciting, but more often icky. I came home to Bololo. I turned seventeen. Then Janie died. Ruthie and I took the kids, feeling that someone must break the news. Ruthie told them, “Your mother and the baby have gone to be with Jesus.” I couldn’t say those words.
We had supper the next night or so at the Dentons along with Dr. Dave and his kids. That was the first time I understood that Janie’s death meant that Dave would have to return to the States. The mission board had a rule: no unmarried male missionaries on its stations. Women, yes, and there were plenty of them. Men, no. The board was certain that single male missionaries would chase Congolese women with the same relentlessness that Dangerous Dakin pestered us girls at Pakima. So Dave and the kids had to leave.
Dakin Dobbins came back from home visit in Des Moines, Iowa, boasting that he’d “done It” with a high school girl. She’d taught him everything. Maybe she had.
If you let him, he kissed you. He also put his hands in your shirt. He wanted to show me all about “It.” “It” even sounded tempting, despite the warnings I’d had and the rules I was supposed to respect. If Dakin had been handsome, “It” might have happened. But I was sure I could do better
Mutimba said “It” was wonderful. She was my best friend; I’d gone to school with her up to sixth grade. Her father negotiated well for bridewealth and saw that she married, not an older man who wanted a third wife, but a promising young man who brought him the necessary goats. She already had two babies. She brought them to see me, proud of herself, letting me know she was a real woman.
A day or two after that supper at the Dentons my father got one of his brainstorms. Tension hung over the house. He paced a lot. Finally we had a talk. When Ruthie brought tea out, I knew this was serious.
“Sweetie,” he began, “there are few times when we can do things that are really meaningful with our lives.” Where this was going? That’s what I wondered. “You know why we’re out here. In this benighted part of the world, the ‘heart of darkness,’ as some say. We’re here to give people less fortunate than ourselves a chance for a better life.”
‘Dave Roberts gives them a better life in terms of physical health. I give them a better life in terms of spiritual health. We don’t have a lot of the things people back in the States think are important. But at the end of each day we know that we’ve advanced a good work. We don’t ask ourselves questions like a lot of those fancy people in the States do: ‘What does my life mean? Why am I in this rat race?’ Do you understand what I’m talking about?”
“I think so,” I said. I knew that he meant every word. I admired him for it. But I also knew that we were here to escape the kind of American competition that would leave him behind.
“Do you want me to do something?” I asked.
“It’s your choice, of course. I’m just laying it out for you.” I knew he wanted very much for me to do whatever it was.
“Here’s the thing,” he said. “Dave Roberts, a good man, dedicated to sacrificing for other people, has been felled by some very bad luck. Janie’s died. He has two kids who need a better break in life than they’re going to get back in the States. He needs a wife.” He continued, “Those of us living at Bololo need a doctor here. If Dave goes, there goes our medical insurance policy.”
I blurted, “You want me to marry him?” Lucas was so surprised that his mouth dropped open. I said, “I’ve just turned seventeen. I don’t know anything about being a wife.”
“You’ve been doing a great job mothering those kids. If that family goes back to Illinois, who’ll take care of them?”
“But I hardly know Dr. Dave,” I said. “Why would he want to marry me?”
“He’s a wonderful guy,” Lucas insisted. “He’d take it slowly.”
“I’ve got to get some air,” I cried and fled outside. I ran down beside the Tshuapa, too confused to think.
That evening in the bathroom I stood in my bathrobe and looked at my body in the mirror, wondering what Dr. Dave might think of it. Ruthie came in and saw what I was doing. “You’re beautiful,” she said.
“Am not,” I replied. ‘And I don’t know anything about men.”
“You know what they look like.” That was true. “You know what happens when they get excited.”
I said, “I can’t imagine that anything about this body would excite Dr. Dave. All the bodies he’s seen.”
“You’d be surprised,” Ruthie countered.
“I don’t ever want to get married,” I told her. “I want to finish high school and college and get a job in New York or Washington.” I also wanted to get off Bololo Station.
“Don’t worry your head about marrying Dave Roberts,” Ruthie assured me. “Consider that another of your father’s crazy ideas.”
For the next day or two I thought about my marrying Dave Roberts, flattered that my father thought I was ready to be a woman, a wife. It turned my head. Being realistic, I also doubted I could cope with a place like New York. Sometimes in towns near us I felt disoriented.
Lucas finally raised the subject of marriage again. “There are a lot of romantic notions floating around out there,” he observed. “But if they were true, do you think fifty percent of marriages in America would end in divorce? Real marriage is about two people living together, working for the same purposes. That couple gradually grows into one person. That takes years. When it happens, it’s love, a happy marriage.” After a moment he asked, “You ever think about marriage?”
I had been wondering if marrying Dr. Dave was what I was supposed to do. The successful marriages I knew were where the partners seemed to be a good fit. They helped and sustained each other. Was I supposed to do that with Dr. Dave? He needed a wife and a mother for his kids. Maybe that was my role in life.
Lucas said, “You might ask yourself what your prospects down the line really are. If you go back to the States and your mother and I stay out here, where will you be in five years? Ten years?” I said nothing. “Will you be married to a guy who doesn’t understand where you come from? Doesn’t understand serving others? Or things bigger than yourself? That could mean divorce. Single motherhood.”
I realized that was true: a mission girl would be a curiosity in America. Would I be happy there? After we finished talking, I took a walk. Dr. Dave rather scared me, but he was a good man. He would treat me well. The fit between us was unusual, but it made sense.
Moreover, there was a lot of divorce in the States. I knew my Dad could not cut it there. Could I? I’d always been happy at Bololo. I thought I wanted other things for myself, but I might not achieve them. If I did, they might not make me happy. I admired my parents making sacrifices for the betterment of other people. I finally decided I was willing to sacrifice for Dr. Dave and his children. I thought marrying him would make me a better person. I would put behind me what I had been attracted to in guys like Dangerous Dakin Dobbins.
When I told Lucas I would marry Dr. Dave, he walked me right over to the surgery. He knocked at the door. A nurse answered. “As soon as the doctor’s free,” he said. Dr. Dave came out right away.
Before Lucas said anything, Dave looked at me with incredible tenderness. Suddenly I felt that maybe I could like him. In five years I might– He smelled of disinfectant. He took my hands in his. “I will work to make sure you never regret this,” he said.
Tears sprang to my eyes. I expected him to kiss me, but he didn’t. He grinned at Lucas and said, “I better get back. I’ve got patients.”
Lucas and Dave decided we should be married within a week. Mutimba came to the house with her babies and assured me that we would be mothers together. I was to get pregnant as soon as possible.
Twice in the succeeding days Ruthie counseled me, “Elizabeth darling, you don’t have to do this. You’re so young.” But I felt exalted by what was happening to me.
“Plenty of women have gotten married younger than me,” I told her. I’d made my decision.
On a station like Bololo every day seemed pretty much the same. But not the day Dr. Dave and I were to be presented to the Bololo community. I spent that day with Dr. Dave’s kids, Tyler and Mamie, getting acclimated to the job of being their new mother. I knew Dave wanted to replace the child Janie had been carrying. I tried to imagine becoming pregnant in maybe no more than a month and delivering a child before I turned eighteen. Gee! Then I would spend the next twenty years raising children and sending them out into the world when I was still shy of forty. Then what would I do? Try to figure out who I was? Would I love Dave who was by them an old man, almost sixty? Or want to leave him?
Another event of that day was the arrival of visitors from outside our world. A mission benefactor was giving Bololo the plane they arrived in. With him was a young man. Together they would drive back across the jungle in a mission vehicle they would leave with our people in Kisangani. These visitors – and Mr. Templeton’s gift – would be honored at the same social being given for Dave and me.
I got the kids up on our porch to watch the plane come in, landing on the strip between our houses and the Tshuapa. When the plane came to rest, the men climbed out of the cockpit, George Templeton, first, then the other man, young, fairly tall, an easy presence. He waved to us. I waved back. He smiled and climbed down off the wing. Was he good-looking? Yes. I suddenly realized I’d really never seen a white man like him, only guys like Dakin and men the age of my father and Dr. Dave.
That afternoon when I took Ty and Mamie to the little beach we have on the Tshuapa, one of the Congolese said a mondeli was swimming in the river. I found a towel laid out on the beach with sandals and a tee shirt.
As we were getting settled, the mondeli came wading out of the river toward us. When I realized who he was, the visitor, my whole body tingled in a way I’d never felt before. He walked up to us, sparkling in the sun as water dripped off him, moving with grace and self-confidence. Books might have called him a young god. I watched him, a little mesmerized. He smiled. I smiled back. I had never seen a man like him, yummy, beautiful in a Speedo that covered but did not hide his masculinity. He was muscled, but lean, sturdy shoulders, legs that went hiking, a young man, the kind of man I would never know.
“Hi,” he said. “I’m Nate. We saw each other when I came in.” We flirted a bit. I realized he found me attractive. I assumed he hadn’t been swimming with a white girl in a long time.
He kidded me, saying I did a nice job filling my bathing suit. We both laughed at that. It had to be teasing because I was wearing a missionary get-up out of the Esther Williams era. “If I wore a bikini,” I said, “I’d get run off this station.” Then I added, “You better not let my Dad see you in that Speedo.”
When it came time for the kids’ naps, Nate walked us back to the Roberts house. He suggested that maybe we could have coffee together somewhere. Suddenly I knew he wanted to kiss me. And I wanted him to. I knew this even without having done much kissing.
He suggested that I give him a tour of Bololo. I hesitated – here you don’t meet a young god every day – but I was engaged to be married in two days. I knew that tongues would wag if people saw me walking around with him. I told him there was a social that night in the Assembly Hall. “To celebrate the new plane,” I said. “Will you come?”
“I’ll look for you,” he told me. Again I felt his wanting to kiss me. I stuck out my hand and we shook.
That evening I felt Nate’s eyes on me. I liked that feeling.
When they called me to come stand beside Dr. Dave as his bride-to-be, I felt awkward in front of Nate. I stood off a bit from Dave. He took my elbow and pulled me toward him. People cheered. I felt so gangly I had to look at the floor.
Later I helped pass out cake. Nate waited till most people had theirs, then eventually he came up. “Congratulations,” he said. “I guess I won’t have a chance to show you around Kenya.”
“Are you coming to the wedding?” I asked. “It’s day after tomorrow.”
“I think George and I leave that morning. Wish I could. I’d like to kiss the bride.”
Of course, I blushed. Goon! I hoped he couldn’t guess how much I wanted that. “Enjoy the cake,” I said and turned to someone else.
I saw him the next morning, bringing tea to him and Mr. Templeton in the station guesthouse. He was standing outside in his boxer shorts after bathing in the river. I called to him the Lonkundo greeting, ”Olecko,” told him how to answer, and gave him the tea. “Maybe after breakfast I can give you a tour of Bololo and show you Dave’s surgery.”
Later when we walked around Bololo, chatting easily, Nate looked at me differently than Dave did. He really saw me. As a woman. With Dave sometimes it was like I wasn’t even there.
Nate showed me the plane. He boosted me onto the wing, his hands on my ribs. When he held me, I had the oddest idea about “Fit.” While I was convinced that my fit with Dave made sense, I could not help feeling that the fit with Nate was much more natural. But this was the wrong time to think about that. I inspected the cockpit.
That evening after supper the Bololo missionaries gathered to watch Lucas rehearse the wedding ceremony with Dave and me. It was another social. There were refreshments and the radio net was activated linking all the Central African Mission stations along the Tshuapa.
After Lucas finished, somebody yelled, “He’s gonna kiss her now.” People laughed. I stiffened. Dave and I had not yet done much kissing. I wanted Dave to look at me and really see me, then kiss me sweetly and a little lengthily showing he wanted this marriage to work. But his kiss was just a peck. I suppose he was embarrassed.
Suddenly I wondered how Nate would have kissed me. Then someone sang out over the radio net, “Did he give her a good one? Is she gonna want more where that came from?” Honestly! I thought: “Take me away from here. I can’t spend my entire life with these people!”
Dave’s kids and I passed out Kool-Aid. People were hugging me. wishing me well, and I hoped Nate would come up. He’d been watching me. I felt the weight of his eyes on me. Mr. Templeton gave me a kiss, one with more feeling behind it than Dave gave me. Nate stood back, watching me. Finally he clasped his hands together, raised them over his head, and left without looking back. I felt rejected by the world beyond Bololo.
Dave and I walked back to my house, holding hands. We talked, but not easily, about the social, and I truly wondered if we would have things to say to one another in the years of our marriage. When he left me at the porch, he turned me toward him. He leaned forward and gave me a shy man’s kiss.
But I wanted a real kiss! He was marrying me the next day. He was going to show me how a lover made his wife happy. I didn’t want a shy man doing that! “Somebody’s gonna need kissing lessons,” I said to him.
He looked surprised. “Maybe we can start tomorrow.”
I reached up, took the sides of his head in my hands, the way Dakin kept trying to do, and gave him the best kiss I knew. He pulled back, a little surprised. “We can start right now,” I said.
“I’ll show you more tomorrow,” he promised. Then he kissed me solidly.
Inside the house Ruthie and Lucas had a little goodbye ceremony. Sweet of them. When Ruthie was cleaning up in the kitchen, I went to talk with her. I needed to tell someone that I was having doubts. Earlier I had felt I was supposed to be with Dave Roberts; now I felt I was supposed to be with Nate Kennett. When I looked at her, the words wouldn’t come out. I must have seemed scared. Ruthie smiled reassuringly.
“Feeling a little nervous?” she asked. “Most brides do. You’re standing on the threshold of a new life, wondering—“
“If this is the right thing,” I said, finishing her thought.
“You know who’s not wondering that,” Ruthie answered. “Those two kids. They’re so pleased that you’re going to be their Mom. And Dave is so grateful to you. Don’t think there’s no passion there because there is. He’ll show you that.”
So what was I to say? The whole Central African Mission was counting on this wedding. My mother had made my dress and washed and ironed it that very day. I got tears in my eyes. I could not tell her why I was crying. She assured me, “It’s all going to be fine.”
When I went to bed, I couldn’t get to sleep. I kept thinking about making love. And wondering why Nate didn’t kiss me. The night before I married Dave, I was thinking about Nate.
Finally I realized I would never get to sleep unless– Unless– Unless– Could I? If I didn’t, I would never know. I got out of bed. I listened for regular breathing coming from my parents’ room and slipped outside. I saw no one. I hoped no one saw me.
I hurried to the guesthouse. I tiptoed inside. I turned the handle of Nate’s room. I stepped inside. Finally I moved to the bed. Slowly, slowly, I pulled the mosquito net from under the mattress. I slid inside and tucked it in again. I sensed that he was awake. I told myself he’d been waiting for me. “Olecko,” I whispered. He did not move, but I knew he was awake. “Olecko,” I whispered again.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
He was wearing only boxers. I was in a long cotton missionary nightgown. Having walked across the station, my night vision was good. He sat up and I could see that he was excited under those shorts. He crossed his arms before him to hide the evidence. “What’re you doing here?” he asked.
When I reached out to touch his face, a tingle went through my body. “Why didn’t you say goodbye? You were supposed to kiss the bride.”
“I was afraid to kiss you,” he finally admitted.
“Why were you afraid?”
“Because I wanted to give you a real kiss.”
“Kiss me the way you wanted to. Right now.” I rose up on my knees. I yanked the nightgown from under me and pulled it entirely off. I was now naked except for panties. “Show me how to do this,” I begged him. I crawled toward him. “I don’t even know Dr. Dave. I want you to be the first man to do this with me.”
He looked at me. I knew he wanted me. “We’re supposed to be together,” I said.
He nodded across the darkness. “I feel that, too,” he said. He reached out. He touched my breast. Passion surged through me. We looked at each other. I crawled closer. My blood pounded: Take me! I knew he wanted me. Take me!
But he shook his head. He held me away from him. “In five years you’re going to love him,” he said. “If we do anything, you’ll regret it.”
Oh, please! Please help me. It isn’t easy to come here.
He gazed at me across the darkness. “You’ll feel guilty all your life. You can’t want that. In five years you’ll love him.” Suddenly he wrenched the mosquito net from under the mattress and slithered outside. I saw how excited he was. But he was running away.
I knew he wouldn’t come back. An honorable man. Just my luck. I put the nightgown back on and went outside.
“Have a good life,” he said and offered his hand.
“Kiss me. Please kiss the bride.”
He leaned forward, his body well away from me, and kissed me lightly on the mouth. “I hope you’ll be very happy.”
I was still holding his hand. I didn’t want to loose it. Finally I started back toward home. My emotions were running awry. I felt on fire. I knew he wanted me. I wanted him. When I got back to our house, I had to cool down. I went to the river. I threw off the nightgown and walked into the water. Despite the mosquitoes, I stayed there until I was sane again. Sane meant doing what everyone expected me to do. And I made up my mind to do it.
The next day, my wedding day, I was up before dawn. I greeted my mother and went over to the house I was moving into. Dave was there. He kissed me, uncertain who I was. Then he went off to his surgery, to the work so important to Bololo Station.
Once he was gone, I sat in the living room. Across it was a photo of him with Janie and the kids; he had sent it to his parents in Florida. Next year there would be a photo of him and me and maybe three kids now, the man a little older and the woman younger than the one there the year before. At almost forty, Dave had had a wife, had kids, had a profession that required thought and reading. I realized that I would be in his house as a provider of meals, as a caregiver to his kids, as the body in his bed when the sex-hunger was on him. That would be my life.
Nate Kennett wanted to know who I was, what I thought, where I wanted to go. He saw me. Could hardly take his eyes off me. His gaze had weight I could feel. Dr. Dave kissed me good morning without knowing who I was. In the presence of missionaries Nate Kennett hadn’t dared to kiss me because I was so real to him. Last night he hadn’t dared to make love to me, not, as he said, because I would regret it in five years when, maybe, I’d grown to love Dave. No! He couldn’t because he wanted it so badly. When he did kiss me, his hands on my shoulders, he held me away from his body so that I would not feel how big he was in wanting me.
There was danger with Nate. I liked the danger, liked that men were different from women. Would there ever be danger with Dave? When he made love to me, would I feel that his pounding into me pushed us to a place we’d never been, that in passion I would embrace the danger, that it would make me lose my sense of individual being to become one with him? No. That might happen with Nate Kennett. Maybe that was why he wouldn’t touch me. Because the danger of our being united was so strong we’d never get over it.
Sitting there, I wondered: Could I really marry Dave Roberts? The night before I had decided I would. But could I really live my life on this tiny stretch of Africa and never see more of the world? Yes, I could. I would.
But not without first saying goodbye to the life I would never know. I had to embrace Nate Kennett. In the days ahead when I got depressed being stuck at Bololo. I would remember that hug and feel him against me.
I heard the Congolese nanny waking the children. I slipped away, down the steps of the porch. I hurried across the station, the same route I’d taken the night before. I drew close to the guesthouse. It was still dark. Dawn was just breaking. I recognized Nate standing outside, eating a little breakfast, talking to Mr. Templeton and Carl Denton. I wanted to see him alone.
I tiptoed over to where the Land Cruiser was parked. The back of the vehicle was up. Ndeki who had been in the early school grades with me, a pal, was bringing gear that the men would transfer to Mondombe Station. I whispered, “Olecko” and we chatted a moment. He moved off to get more packages. I saw that he had already loaded some. A tarpaulin was spread over them.
Suddenly I moved without thought, in a trance. I had been in a trance for a while after Janie died, the first person I had known well who went to the other side. Now Nate Kennett was going to die. I crawled into the rear of the Land Cruiser. I undid the tarp and wrestled it over my body. When Ndeki returned, we looked at each other. His eyes grew enormous.
“Rafiki Ndeki,” I said, “don’t ever tell anyone I did this.”
He just stared at me, not knowing what to say, what to do.
“Ndeki,” someone called. It was Carl Denton. “We almost loaded? Our guests need to get off.”
“Ndio, Bwana,” he replied. He began to fill the back of the vehicle with duffels and packages. He leaned over to be sure I had air and was as comfortable as possible.
“How’re we doing?” Mr. Templeton said. He came to check the trunk. “Thanks so much– Ndeki, is it?”
I heard the men say goodbye to Carl Denton. I recognized Nate Kennett’s voice. My heart beat faster. I thought: What am I doing? But I suppressed that thought. I had wondered about danger with Dave Roberts and decided there would be none. I was making my own danger. Would I ever have a chance to tell Ruthie and Lucas how this had happened? And why? What would they think had become of me? I knew Nate would take care of me. The man who was too principled to take me last night would be too principled to let me founder in Nairobi.
The men got into the Land Cruiser. The motor flared. I felt a rumbling beneath me. The vehicle began to move. We were gone.
And so began my wedding day.