Late in the afternoon after our safari in Parc Albert I left Charley and Paul Wemboyendja at the Hotel des Grands Lacs. I drove out of Goma to the nearby shantytown of Saké. I was hoping to find the turnoff to the DeMuncks’ plantation and, if I was lucky, to meet them. While in Washington training for a Foreign Service assignment with USIS, I’d had the pleasure of meeting their daughter. It was improbable to encounter a young woman, a colon’s daughter, raised on a plantation in the Congo, then suffering such chaos. Even more improbable to fall in love with her. But she was a lovely person and I did.
In Washington I lived in the basement apartment in the home of the widow of an army general, a friend and classmate of General Eisenhower. He had been killed in a freak accident on a yacht in the Potomac River. Mrs. Prichard was the mother of a classmate of mine at boarding school, but it was George DeGarmo who suggested that I share the basement apartment with him.
Serving as an officer at the Patuxent Naval Air Station in Maryland, George spent the week in his BOQ and the weekends in Washington. There he carried on a lively social life. George had been introduced into a Georgetown house full of young European women, mainly Belgian, although one of them was a Swede with that special charm for which Swedish girls had a reputation at that time. George and I used to hang around that house.
The Belgian girls had a friend working as an au pair for a naval architect living in McLean. Murielle often spent her free time at the house and we got to know her there. George took her out first, but there wasn’t much rapport. I had been dating a diplomat’s daughter with whom there was zero rapport. Once George moved on to Marcia, whom he later married, I was happy to try my luck with Murielle.
I had never dated a girl who was not an American. Murielle was both a European and not a European. When I first met her−−in 1962−−Americans knew nothing of Africa. They assumed it had no history. They thought it no surprise that men with joke-smith names−−Lumumba, Kasavubu, Tshombe−−should make a mess of independence. And here was an attractive young woman who had grown up among these people. She had not been educated in the same way I had, but she spoke not only English, French and Swahili, but also a tribal language.
While I was receiving a thorough preparation for living overseas, she was already doing that−−in America, looking out for herself, cut off from her family. For their safety her parents had sent their children off−−she had several brothers−−to Europe and America. The parents were trying to keep the plantation running in a Congo where change was constant and always uncertain.
Murielle was not beautiful in the way that American girls might be, having used the right soaps and cosmetics and hair dyes since high school. But she was pretty and carried herself well. She had a capacity to move around the world that I was only learning. I was very taken with her.
Murielle had had enough experience with men not to treat them with the freedom Gunilla offered. Still, she was open to relationships. Being an au pair involved frustrations that made a young woman want outside contacts. I like to think that she sensed that I was a decent type, interested in friendship, a romance, but not in compromising her.
The first night I took her home, we parked outside the house in McLean for a long time, talking and getting to know one another, enjoying each other. We started dating.
Something else happened that spring. I got my overseas training assignment: Brussels, Belgium. Wow! Was this providential? I was already dating a Belgian girl.
I took her to movies. We went to plays, to a jazz club. I was earning decently and we had dinners in good restaurants. Sometimes we did things with the Belgian girls and their dates. One evening we went as a group to a dance place, patronized by black Americans. Oh, could they dance! During the competition we sat or stood at the edge of the dance floor. The others watched the dancers. I watched Murielle. I liked her more all the time.
The Belgian girls rented a house at Rehoboth Beach. One evening I drove Murielle there. On the way she lay down on the front seat, her head in my lap. (My brother and I had sometimes driven that way, back and forth from college.) At one point as we passed through a toll booth, the toll taker called to his partner, “Hey, d’you see that guy? There’s a girl asleep on his lap!”
All spring I thought it wonderful to have found this friendship, to have a romance before going off to Europe. But what about when I left? I had never been good at playing at romance, knowing that the play always had to end. Was I thinking about some kind of future for this romance? Yes, I was. I liked this girl.
But I was also thinking about the trip George and Marcia and I were planning to take in France before I reported to Brussels. Marcia would have a college friend along for me. What about Murielle?
It may have been coming back from Rehoboth that Murielle and I talked about getting married. It could not have been very serious talk, but more serious than tentative beginnings like, “Do you ever think about marriage?” The possibility of marrying Murielle was certainly on my mind.
But unlike some men in my training class I would not rush into anything. They were trying to marry someone, anyone, fearful of encountering a foreign culture alone. My mother always contended that choosing to marry someone was the most important decision of one’s life. So the decision demanded careful thought.
One night after being out, we came back to the basement apartment. We were alone. George was off at Patuxent and Mrs. Prichard had gone on a trip. We lay barefoot on my bed. It had the softest mattress I’d ever floated on. The air was cool in the dark room, but the summer night outside was warm. The slightest fragrance of Murielle’s perfume made me dizzy, made me eager. The taste of her kisses made me think about our always being together.
I took off my shirt and invited her to take off hers. She did not move, said nothing, and gazed at the ceiling. I left the bed and took off my pants. I was now wearing only boxers. I suggested once again that she take off her top. She did not move. I embraced her.
I had always thought that steps forward in a romance should be matters of mutual agreement. I would not be a salesman of moving forward. I did not say, “You’ll like it. You’ll wonder why we haven’t done this earlier. C’mon, Mu.” I did not sell it, but I really wanted to hold her skin next to mine.
I pulled back from the embrace, nuzzling her, and asked, “Why not?”
She said nothing. I kissed her. She whispered, “Because I’m Catholic.”
We pulled out of the embrace and stared at the ceiling.
Uh-oh. This sounded like serious Catholicism. That was why it was so difficult to talk seriously about marriage, to negotiate what marriage would mean. I was willing to respect her religious beliefs, but I was not willing to be married in her church.
The Catholic Church at that time was not at all accommodating about adherents marrying outside the church. I regarded marrying in that church as a deal-breaker. I was afraid that priests would be part of the package. I did not want them inside my marriage. I did not want my children raised in that faith. I was very leery of a Catholic girl telling me while we were courting that those things were not important to her, then deciding, after our children were born, that they were. I did not want my marriage or my children’s upbringing to be pulled two different ways.
And so Murielle did not take off her top. She may not have refused because she was Catholic. It might have been because she was alone in a foreign country with no family to support her if she made a mistake. It may have been the assumption that removing one garment would only lead to removing others.
I might have said, “I love you. Let’s talk about the actual possibility of our getting married. What do you think about that?”
And if she was agreeable to that, I might have said, “Would you be willing to marry me outside your church?”
But what if she said no? That was where I could not let this go. Because her refusal would mean the end of the romance.
So we lay on the bed, looking at the ceiling. The fragrance of her perfume faded away. The taste of her kisses no longer dazzled me. After a while we got off the bed. I put my pants back on.
Murielle was staying the night at the house. I took her up to the second floor and showed her into Mrs. Prichard’s guest room. I kissed her goodnight and went back downstairs.
I woke in the night and lay, thinking that if I were a real man I would tiptoe up to the guest room and get in bed with her. And what would happen would happen. But I was a guy waiting for a sign. She had chosen not to give it.
I have no memory of tearful goodbyes. I think perhaps the naval architect who turned out to be an officer with the CIA went on vacation with his family and took Murielle with them. At any rate the romance continued until that parting. It never had the closure of a break-up, of a discussion about what-happens-to-us-now.
Murielle went off. I joined George, Marcia, and Alison for sightseeing in Normandy. As a tourist I learned to play at faux romance with Alison. That’s why we were together. So we enjoyed kisses on the side trails up Mont St Michel.
I suppose I wrote Murielle for a while from Belgium, but living in Europe was a new experience to savor and I savored it.
As I drove to Saké, I passed the lava flow of Nyiragongo’s most recent eruption. I drove down the only turn-off I could find. I passed mud-and-wattle huts, asked directions of Congolese, received conflicting advice, and persevered. I came upon a locked gate. There I left the film truck. I climbed around the gate and walked to a plantation house constructed of lava blocks and set on a tall headland overlooking Lake Kivu.
It and the view were something out of movie versions of paradise. South Pacific’s Emile de Becque had a home like this and sang songs all day. How lucky the DeMuncks were to live here! But no one was around. I circled the house, wanting to verify that it was, indeed, the place where Murielle grew up. I determined that it was.
I had not seen Murielle in fifteen months. But already feeling the isolation of the Congo, already aware that there’d be no dating for me on this two-year tour, it was pleasant to think that a relationship with Murielle might still exist. The attraction between us had always been strong. Even if obstacles intruded, we really had loved each other. I left her parents a note.
I looked around at the view once more and returned to the gate. There I found a couple staring at the film truck. He wore khaki trousers and a tunic, belted, with pockets at the chest and below the belt. She looked very much like Murielle. I introduced myself, explaining that I was an American friend of their daughter, now living in Bukavu. I had no sense that either of them had ever heard of me. But why would Murielle have told them anything? What I did sense was that they were both enormously tired.
They invited me into the house. I felt uncomfortable at first, very aware that I was defying one of the fixed rules of my upbringing (“Never intrude!”). I was also conscious of the inadequacies of my French. But soon it was clear that the DeMuncks saw me as a pair of virgin ears. They could tell me things that their friends had grown tired of hearing.
Moreover, as an American officer, I represented that irresistible force, American policy, that they held responsible for much of the calamity that had befallen them. We had tea and a light supper.
Independence and its aftermath had turned their lives upside down, they said. Eighty percent of the workers on their coffee and tea plantations were Tutsis, originally from Rwanda, though they had lived in Congolese territory for generations. Now members of the Congolese government were threatening to force all Tutsis back into Rwanda.
When the DeMuncks had talked to North Kivu’s provincial president−−it clearly irked Madame to address him as “Monsieur le Ministre”−−he had told them that if they supported the Tutsi work force, then they were “contre” the local government. “What can one do?” Madame asked.
She complained that local bandits were hired as police. These hoodlums terrorized the countryside, slitting the throats of plantation workers, and beating pregnant women. I remembered Murielle telling me about plantation workers who had found the decapitated heads of fellow workers placed along footpaths.
“We sent the children outside the country,” Madame said, “so they would be safe.”
“We did not want them to see these things,” Monsieur said.
“The children are safe,” Madame went on, “but we have nothing to send them.” That meant Murielle was on her own. She couldn’t take chances with men, lying beside her on summer nights, wearing only boxers, who told her they loved her.
Monsieur explained that he had plowed all his money back into the plantation. He had put nothing away against a rainy day. “And why should I?” he asked. “In those days a Congolese franc was worth the same as a Belgian franc.” Now the Congolese franc was worthless. Things kept breaking down. It was impossible to get spare parts and on a whim the government commandeered trucks.
Of course, they acknowledged, Belgium had lacked courage. To abandon the Congo in the manner it had! The Portuguese in Angola were right to hold on. And the Americans! Wasn’t it clear that they intended to exploit the Congo’s riches?
I listened as they let off steam. “Mais vous ne dites rien!” Madame kept saying. “You aren’t saying anything!” But what was there to say?
I wondered what an American son-in-law’s responsibilities would be to these good people so battered by the changes that independence had wrought. What would they be to Murielle’s brothers? Where were those brothers? Were they faring as well as she was? Au pair was no long term arrangement.
At dinner I asked about Madame’s photography. Murielle had told me about it. “There is no time anymore,” she said. She caressed the dog with affection and conversed with the parrot. Monsieur chuckled now and then. I liked him for that. After dinner Madame showed me a collection of her photos printed as postcards. She stood behind me as I sat thumbing through them. Reminiscence warmed her voice.
When I said goodbye, they invited me to return. “Come spend a week,” they suggested. “Climb our volcanoes. Or perhaps we could all go to Uganda. We know a place in Elizabeth Park. It’s not usually open to tourists.”
Driving back to Goma, I realized that I had not asked to see photos of Murielle as a child. I wondered if I would see them again. If I would see Murielle again. Or ever hear from her.
I did hear from her again. Almost a year later. After a long stint in another part of the Congo I had been reassigned to Bukavu, once again to direct the cultural center there, this time with some idea of what I was supposed to do. I must have written her several times to announce my return to the Kivu and my hopes of seeing her parents again. She was in Sterrbeck in Flemish Belgium. I was very ready now to rekindle the romance, very ready to hope that a young woman somewhere thought about me.
Her letter to me has disappeared. Mine to her still exists. It said:
I’ve written you so many letters and sent them to so many crazy addresses and have appealed so many times to poor George and Marcia for news of you and have asked them to forward letters to you. . . All of which is to say that I don’t know what you know about me and where you found it out. Since your letter arrived today addressed to Embassy Léopoldville, perhaps you got that address from Embassy Brussels.
For the moment I’m in Bukavu. I’m planning a trip up northwest of Goma where Rwandese refugee camps are located. I’ll hope once again to see your parents. Are they still outside of Saké? I wrote you a week or so ago, again in the care of George and Marcia, but haven’t written your parents. I’ll have to work over a letter to them in a French that is more serviceable now than when you last saw me. Your letter will inspire me to action, particularly since I now have the correct address.
How do I like Africa? Well, I’m surviving. . . Now that the rains have begun, it’s wetter here oftener than it ever was in Brussels. I came to like Belgium very much, by the way. Wish I were back there now. I’d pop over to Sterrbeck in Brabant. You’re in Flanders, judging from Tramlaan. Que veut dire ça? (What does that mean?) Avenue de Tram?
I wish I could do something to get you to come down here. I’m quite serious when I say I can offer you a well-paying job here in my Cultural Center. We are looking for a European secretary-administrator. Eighty-percent is convertible into Belgian francs. If this interests you, cable me (I’m not kidding) and reverse the charges. This is simply aggressive hiring practice.
At first I didn’t know who your letter was from. (You aren’t supposed to be in Belgium.) When I saw the Murielle, my heart beat faster; my blood pounded. . .
Please let me hear from you. There’s still a considerable soft spot in my heart for you (it could be melted again without difficulty) and I’d like us to forget the past months of silence and bridge the gap with some letters. Tell me what you are doing, where you are living, what sort of job you have. And I will try to get up to Goma to see your family.
Hooray! Since Murielle and I were suddenly back in contact, since my existence in the Congo no longer seemed entirely without the interest of a woman, I felt like a male being again.
I discovered that her parents were no longer at the plantation outside of Saké. Where had they gone? Had they left the Kivu? Just walked away from the life they had built there?
Then Paul Polakoff who worked with me at USIS Bukavu took a trip that included a foray into northern Rwanda. He went to see Rosamond Carr, a semi-legendary figure in that region. She was a pioneer, a divorced American woman living alone, who ran a pyrethrum farm. Pyrethrum flowers, harvested mainly by African children who had nimbler fingers than their parents, served as the basic ingredient of natural insecticides.
When Paul returned, I asked, “Did you see Carr?”
“Amazing woman, living up there by herself, Rwanda’s Karen Blixen.”
“What’s the farm like?”
“A little lonely, I imagine.”
He shrugged. “She reads a lot. There are pyrethrum bushes everywhere. Kids pick the flowers. Then they get vacuum-packed into large white sacks and sent off for processing.”
“And no mosquitoes around.”
“I didn’t get bit.” He started off, then turned back. “Say, I met some of her neighbors who say they know you.”
“I don’t know any people up there.”
“A Belgian couple. M. and Mme DeMunck.”
“Really? They used to farm up near Goma. I visited them when I was here before.”
“They showed me a note you’d written.”
“Really?” Good heavens! They’d kept the note. “How was the French?”
“They appreciated the effort.”
So the DeMuncks had moved to Rwanda. I wondered if they had left the Kivu permanently or were just waiting for things to stabilize, assuming that that might actually happen.
Shortly afterwards I was in Goma, holding a series of film showings with Paul Wemboyendja. I shook free one afternoon after several morning shows in hopes of once again visiting the DeMuncks. I asked directions to Rosamond Carr’s plantation, then asked around for directions to the DeMuncks.
Their house was small, a rustic, but rather charming cottage. high up in the volcano country. It stood on what struck me as a kind of moor, a stretch of green between ridges of hills, with heavy clouds pressing down against the country. It reminded me of Scotland and struck me as a depressing place, particularly after the splendor of the plantation house I had visited on the heights overlooking Lake Kivu.
But it was safer than the Kivu with less harassment from local officials. That was a real plus. Planters like them and Mrs. Carr lived without any official protection at all. For their safety they had to rely on the goodwill of the Africans in the neighborhood. Those neighbors were generally friendly and grateful for the work and wages the plantations provided. But independence had unsettled many things.
I admired the DeMuncks’ tenacity in the face of all the reverses they had suffered. I wondered if tenacity was their only option. I wished I could have expressed that admiration to them face to face. Unfortunately, I learned that they had left for Kigali, the Rwandese capital, only four hours before I found their house. I left them a note.
A few weeks later a veritable road show descended upon us in Bukavu. The American Ambassador Mac Godley arrived with an entourage that included embassy officers as well as his sister and brother-in-law, both doctors in Massachusetts. The consul and I accompanied the group, first to Goma, then to Parc Albert where I saw my first lions, and lastly into Rwanda to visit Rosamond Carr.
The ambassador was divorced. As far as I could tell, it seemed to be embassy policy that a wife should be found for him. There were whispers that this was the reason for the visit to Mrs. Carr. Her plantation lay beyond the ambassador’s jurisdiction and I could not imagine why she would want to trade her quiet and fulfilling life to marry an ambassador. In fact, she didn’t. The ambassador later married one of the embassy secretaries.
Given the size of our group, Mrs. Carr needed help preparing for us. Although they had disappeared when we arrived, the DeMuncks provided that help. While the others toured Mrs. Carr’s holding, I slipped off to see if I could once again find the cottage where I had missed them by a few hours.
Yes, they remembered me. We greeted each other like old friends. We had tea together. I was grateful that after eighteen months of non-stop usage my French had much improved. “And where is Murielle these days?” I asked. “I got a letter from her not too long ago. She was in Belgium.”
“She’s back in America now,” said Madame. “In Washington.”
“With a job,” said Monsieur.
“Living with two young women.”
“Could I have her address?” I asked. “My tour here ends in two or three months. I’ll be in Washington. Maybe I can see her.”
When Madame gave me her address, I asked about the DeMuncks’ removal to Rwanda. Was it permanent?
“No, we expect to go back,” said Madame. “But it’s a great relief to be here for a while without all the interference of officials.”
“We will go back one day,” her husband assured me. “We can’t stay away. But a little rest is welcome.”
I asked about the other children. One of the sons was talking about returning to help run the plantation. Hanging on was what most of the Belgians still around were trying to do. Some had no other options. Some lacked the courage to start again−−and, in any case, where would they start? Some of them loved Africa and would hold on as long as they could. The DeMuncks fell into this last category.
On my earlier visit I had found the couple frustrated and worn out. I was very pleased this time that they were rested and in good humor. I could not stay long lest my absence be noticed and disapproved by my immediate boss, the Bukavu consul. I said goodbye and thanked them for their hospitality.
As soon as I returned to Bukavu, I wrote Murielle that I had seen them. I said I hoped I would see her when I came through Washington.
When I returned to Washington, seeing Murielle was the top priority on my list. We had been writing back and forth, not too frequently and mainly as friends. But I thought of her every day. I felt certain the attraction we felt for one another was still very strong. I wondered if it might be best to stop worrying about all that we had never discussed before. She had written with a little pique that I had asked her to marry me the way a Congolese would ask. I was not sure what that meant, but clearly it was no compliment. Maybe now I should lay the offer on the table like a go-ahead American, put some sales pitch behind it, and leave religious negotiations until after we were married.
Before seeing her, I checked in at USIA. I had been reassigned as the USIS youth officer in Karachi, Pakistan. That sounded interesting, a new part of the world to learn about and explore. It would be wonderful to live there with Murielle at my side.
Unfortunately, however, I did not feel that I understood about Africa in much depth and about what American policy was trying to do there. I sometimes felt that we Americans were running the Congo without understanding the society and how it worked. I wondered if Foreign Service life was a matter of living in many places without deeply understanding any of them. And I wondered if going out again unmarried was a good idea. If nothing could be worked out with Murielle, it might be best to resign.
I saw Murielle after work. Unfortunately, she was busy that evening. Of course, I was nervous, but once I embraced her, the nervousness was gone. We went to a restaurant to have tea and sat at a table outside. We started talking as if we had never been apart. That very strong attraction between us was still there. We both felt it. I saw Murielle trying to resist its pull−−maybe that was not unwise−−but I grinned at her and said, “Don’t fight it. How great it is to see you!”
We chatted along: how did she like her job? Who were her housemates? How had she found them? Did they all get along? We reminisced about the house the Belgians girls had had and the good times there. What had happened to those girls? I had escorted one of them to her brother’s wedding in Brussels.
I told Murielle about seeing her parents. A brother, she said, had already returned to help his father rehabilitate the plantation at Saké. I talked about the work I had done in the Congo, about my doubts about American policy. I said I was slated to go to Karachi. What kind of a place would that be?
“Smelly,” she said, laughing. “Crowded.” She suddenly spoke in an Indian accent that she might have picked up from an Asian wallah somewhere. “You will be very happy in Karachi, sahib.”
We laughed together. I looked across the table at her. “Do you want to come to Karachi with me?” The smile faded from her face. “I mean it,” I said. “Why don’t you come to Karachi with me?”
She pulled back. “There’s something I must tell you.”
“Don’t pull away. There’s a very strong attraction here. Don’t pretend it doesn’t exist. That you don’t feel it.”
She looked down at her teacup. “I’m engaged to be married.” She raised the cup to her lips and drank.
I drank some tea long enough to absorb this news. “What does that have to do with anything?” I asked. “You’re having tea with an old friend. He’s loved you for a long time and wants only what’s best for you. And he thinks what’s best is that you come with him to Karachi.”
She gazed at me for a long time without speaking. I gazed back. I had seen this happen in movies: a man and a woman gazing into each other’s souls. But it had never happened to me. It was happening now.
“Even if it’s smelly,” I said at last. “Even if it’s crowded.” I reached across the table to take her hand. She withdrew it and shook her head. I attempted the Indian accent. “You could be very happy in Karachi, memsa’b.”
“You have a terrible accent.”
“In several languages. I’m told I speak French with a Congolese accent.”
“Ooo!” she said with a smile. “I must go.”
“Don’t run away from this, Mu. I’ve been thinking about you for months.”
“I’m expected for dinner. I must go.”
She stood and started toward the sidewalk. I took her wrist to stop her. “Meet me tomorrow. Same time, same place.” She shook her head. “I love you. This is your life. You know what my mother says about—“
“I know what she says.”
“I’ll wait for you tomorrow.”
She shook her head and hurried away from me along the sidewalk. I went back onto the terrace to pay the bill. I went to the car I’d rented−−at first I couldn’t remember what kind of car I’d gotten−−and drove to Mrs. Prichard’s house. I was staying again in the basement.
The next day I went to a market and got some things to feed her. I did not want us to be in a public place. There must have been something about feeding her that said, “I can take care of you. I want to take care of you.”
I parked near her office, uncertain that she would come. That days’ nervousness was exponentially worse than that of the day before. At the hour I’d met her the day before she did not come. Was she testing me? Or had she been forced to stay late? Or was she wrestling with herself?
Finally I saw her coming along the sidewalk. I hurried up to her, put my arm around her and, although she did not want to let me, I kissed her cheek. “What a coincidence,” I said, “I just got here myself.”
“Liar. I’ve been watching you for twenty minutes.”
“Caught out. You look fantastic today!”
“This old rag?”
I laughed. “We’re both liars.”
I put her in the car and explained that for tea I was taking her to a place she knew. When I pulled up in front of Mrs. Prichard’s house, she gazed at it and finally asked, “Is this the place I stayed that night?”
I took her around to the side entrance to the basement apartment. I had set up a table for our tea and put hors d’oeuvres and cheese and bread before her. I readied the tea. I tried to make conversation, asking Murielle questions. She hardly spoke.
I made conversation while we ate. Eventually she relaxed. She had been resisting the attraction between us, as if she could resist the weather or hold back the tides. She gave into it enough not to resist it. I drew my chair up next to hers. I leaned forward, took her head in my hands and kissed her. She tried to resist it, shaking her head, but the kiss made us both lightheaded.
“Let’s go right now,” I said, “right now! And get a marriage license.”
She was silent for a time, then said, “Everything’s closed.”
“Then we’ll go tomorrow.” I looked deeply into her eyes and once more we gazed at each other in that way I had never done with anyone else. “Stay here tonight.”
She shook her head.
“Tomorrow we’ll get a marriage license and your clothes and we’ll go somewhere during the waiting period. Then we’ll come back and get married and go to Pakistan together.”
She shook her head, smiling. “You’re crazy,” she said, laughing.
“Let’s go somewhere right now. There’s plenty of money. I’ve gotten hardship pay for two years.”
She kept shaking her head.
“We can check into a motel as a married couple and tomorrow buy you everything new from the skin out.”
“I’ve got to go,” she said, laughing.
“I’m not joking. I love you. I’m offering you a life. Don’t resist this incredible attraction between us. You’re here because you know it’s real.”
“I do know it’s real,” she said. “I’ve been thinking about Pakistan. But can I just walk out on my life?”
“I’ll make sure you never regret it.”
“Please take me back.” She stood up and smoothed her dress. I did not move. “Please. I’m meeting someone for dinner. I can’t not go.” To get me on my feet, she offered, “I’ll see you again tomorrow.”
I stood. “I’ll come at noon. We’ll get a license.”
I drove her to the place where I’d met her. When I stopped the car at the sidewalk, she said, “Come again at 4:30.”
“I’ll come at noon.” I leaned over to kiss her. She shook her head and was gone. I watched her hurry down the sidewalk and turn in at the building where she worked.
I was supposed to have dinner that evening with George and Marcia. They did not know I was seeing Murielle. They wanted to introduce me to women I might like and some friend Marcia had known at college was joining us for dinner. I would be expected to drive her home, kiss her goodnight in the car, maybe do some necking if we’d hit it off, even some petting, and ask her out the next night. But I was an emotional wreck.
“What’s wrong?” George asked.
“I’m having trouble handling American life.”
George and Marcia drove the friend home. I paced a while in their apartment. Finally I wrote them a note, thanking them for dinner, and went home to clean up the remains of tea in the basement apartment.
The next day I went to meet Murielle at noon. I waited till 1:30. She didn’t come. She arrived promptly at 4:30. We walked to a nearby park, a small urban square with some benches. When we sat down, she did not look at me. “I can’t see you again,” she said. “I’m going out of town tonight.” It was Friday. “To Rehoboth Beach. I won’t be back till Monday.”
“We went there together,” I said.
She nodded and finally looked at me. Again we held each other’s eyes. She had to feel that power between us. It was why she was there. “I was up all night,” she said. “Thinking about us and running off and Pakistan.” Her eyes were shining with what might become tears. “I just can’t do that. Part of me wants to, I don’t deny that. But I just can’t.”
I took her hand. She pulled it away.
“I can’t see you again. Ever.” She almost visibly took command of herself. She stood. “I’m going now. You mustn’t come with me.”
“You say you love me. Then let me go alone.”
I took her upper arms. “May I kiss you?”
“No. I don’t want to cry and I will.”
She turned from me and walked off. I watched her till she turned the corner.
When it got to be early evening, I went over to George and Marcia’s. They welcomed me in. “Are you feeling better now?” George asked.
“I’m terribly sorry about the way I behaved last night. Your friend was very nice. I’m sorry I was so rude to her.”
“She did wonder,” Marcia said, “why a guy who hadn’t dated a white woman in two years refused to take her home.”
“I’m out of practice, I guess. Afraid I’d make a fool of myself.”
“I’m afraid we made some jokes about you in the car,” George said. “We’ll pay you the compliment of not repeating them.”
“Can I take you two to dinner?” I asked.
We agreed on a place we could walk to in Georgetown. Marcia called for a reservation.
When she came back, I said, “For the past three days I’ve been trying to persuade Murielle DeMunck to marry me.”
“So that’s what was going on.”
“This time yesterday I thought she might say yes.”
“Isn’t she engaged?” Marcia asked.
“That’s why she said no.”
“Don’t worry,” said George. “The woods are full of young women wanting to go to Karachi. And you have three weeks to find one.”
I resigned from USIS and returned home to Los Angeles. As a way both to understand better what I’d experienced in the Congo and to adjust to American life, I enrolled in a masters degree program in African Studies at UCLA. I also spent time in the Theater Arts department; to stay sane I had written plays in the Congo. During that time I met the daughter of a recently retired Foreign Service officer. After a year’s dating we were married. Once I got my degree, I stumbled into a job as a correspondent covering Africa−−our son was born in Nairobi−−and covered the continent for four years. I never returned to the Congo. Once I returned to the paper’s Boston offices, a play of mine found a small measure of success, enough to lead me out of journalism into screenwriting.
For a time I felt a terrible nostalgia for Africa. But time heals everything. I rarely thought of Murielle. But now and then I’d see a woman who reminded me of her and I’d think: “How strong that attraction was!”
After he retired from USIS, Paul Polakoff settled in Los Angeles where he grew up. We stayed in touch. He had married his college sweetheart, in Bukavu of all unlikely places. They had lost track of one another. Claire had married, had two daughters, and divorced their father. Paul’s mother got Paul and her back together and maneuvered the African wedding.
After retiring, Paul served as a guide for Francophone African visitors to America. He kept in touch with people he had known during a career that took him as an Africa specialist all over the continent.
One evening we met for dinner at a restaurant. We talked Africa and travel, what Claire’s kids were doing in college and ours was doing in grammar school. Eventually we said goodbye, promising to get together again before too long.
When the ladies left the restaurant, Paul took me aside. “You’re the one who knew a couple named DeMunck. Isn’t that right? I met them up in Rwanda.”
“Yes,” I said. “I snuck off to see them when Mac Godley was wooing−− What was her name?”
“Rosamond Carr? I met them when I went to see her.”
“I think they expected to go back to—“
“Yes, they did.” Paul looked at me with a strange expression. I was sure he recalled that I had a special regard for the DeMuncks. “They went back to the plantation they had south of Goma.”
“A son was going to help them work it,” I said.
“Yes, he did.” A pause, then: “A couple of weeks ago the father and son were killed.”
“No!” I felt a hollowness in my guts. “What in the world happened?”
“They had gone to Goma to get funds to pay workers their monthly wages. Thieves knew they had gone there. They waited on the road back to the farm. I guess they set up a roadblock.” Paul shrugged. “When DeMuncks stopped the car, thieves ran out of the bush. Dragged both men from their car and killed them. Made off with the cash.”
I thought of Murielle. Poor woman!
“I knew the DeMunck daughter in Washington. Jesus!”
Paul and I went outside where our wives were chatting. “Sorry to be the bearer of bad news,” he said. “But I thought you’d want to know.”
“Yes. Thank you for telling me.”
As we drove home, I was unusually quiet. “Anything wrong?” asked my wife.
“Polakoff just told me that some people I knew in the Kivu were murdered.”
“It’s such a beautiful place. But so cruel.”
Driving on, I thought: What good people the DeMuncks were. How pointless to kill those men. A bit of money for a time. But all those jobs lost.
I wondered what Mme DeMunck would do now. Go back to Belgium? And what about the son’s wife? There must have been a wife. Possibly children. And I wondered about Murielle.
Oh, Murielle! Dear Murielle. How I wish I could console you!