"I'm making you a present of my sister", says Assi in all seriousness, "she'll be here tomorrow". Her sister, Jojo, short for Georgina, is large and enthusiastic with her hands which are strong from making tie-and-dye but she is shy and reserved with her own body.
We frolic in the back of a taxi returning late from a night on Boulevard, in the waters of the sea at low tide, in Assi's apartment, with Assi close by, marking her approval with a series of tuts, raised eyebrows, and occasional "someone's coming". That would not be me. In Africa, privacy is a luxury for the wealthy. Jojo enjoys my caresses of her large breasts, but rapidly, her inexperience combined with her ampleur - not really to my tastes - means that my mind wanders, and the next time we meet, we settled into an uneasy distance, the switch obviously moved to "off", the reasons left unvoiced.
Over a beer, I discuss the details with Assi, down to the way I still hurt from Jojo's inexpert rough-handedness. Friction is fine in small doses. She finds my discomfort amusing, asks for more details. The opportunity for honest disclosure is interesting, it may bring us closer through the gift of insider information, or create distance through the sharing of too much detail. I treat it as an experiment.
Cynthia, as I explain to Assi, is the main reason for my wandering mind. One measures a woman's beauty by the gravity she exerts on mens' eyes. When Cynthia exits the swimming pool at the BCEAO and walks to the changing rooms, every male eye in the place is fixed on her tall curvy body, and especially her backside. There are places on a woman's body where too much is never too much. Case in point. We exchange names and promise to catch up another time. When my friends go back to the pool she asks after me, and the next time I go, I catch her number and we agree to go on a date. It takes a few attempts, the first couple of times she simply does not appear, and my heartache at not being with this siren grows stronger until I have an almost a physical pain in my chest.
We do consummate a few dates, comically western for this place. Excellent Lebanese food at Terrace opposite Byblos nightclub. Bad pizza at Hotel Palm Beach, followed by espressos. "If you like" and a shrug is her response to any proposal I make except those leading towards intimacy of any kind. Cynthia, with a life story that is as striking for the gaps in it as for the sadness of it, seems utterly passive, yet critical. She dismisses the pizza as badly made, which it is. She tells me to drink my espresso before it gets cold, and she's right. She lists the good places to go in Lomé: they are all the most expensive ones. Here she's wrong: Lomé is most interesting when it's low class. That's when the paint and pretense is scraped off and we see the real fabric of this stressed society. Like the beer-music-sex joints stacked up beside the border with Ghana and along Boulevard. They are open every day. "People need to eat every day", is Assi's brother Kosi's wry analysis.
It is bright and hot and on the walk to the beach, I stop to buy water at the little corner shop where in the evening men gather to drink, and where I sometimes stop with them, learning Ewe. It is a complex language and the older men can explain it best. A hundred francs buys two bags of water, I chew one open and drink, a light taste of chlorine. The sandy path to the beach is strewn with plastic litter. Someone has lit a garbage fire and it smolders poisonously. The water is warm, the currents strong. The second bag of water rinses the salt off afterwards.
The gaps in Cynthia's story irritate me. They take the shape of a lie of omission. She can not live and support her child on her self-stated salary. Not possible. Her job seems to consist of lounging around the pool area. She radiates modesty but has expensive tastes. Espressos and hotel restaurants. Beautiful tresses, bangles, and dresses. She asks me if I would buy her a mobile phone, but she is reticent to spend time with me. She claims to be alone but is constantly texting to someone or other. A frankly stunning woman but such beauty needs maintenance, as I know from my own wife, and I like to know the price of what I consume.
I ask her, does she have a man supporting her? No, she tells me. Does she have a wealthy family? No, she tells me. Does she go out with men for money, I ask the last time we eat together, at a beach-side restaurant. I'm shocked and dismayed you would even ask that, she replies, you've seen where I work, why are you accusing me of being a prostitute. I'm just trying to understand, I say, it was a question, not an accusation. Friends don't need to know everything about each other, she replies. Just accept me as I am. Sure, I say, but I don't know who you are. I ask her to be more frank with me, she says she's already been more open with me than with anyone else. Her text messages to me - and I assume to others - are filled with the words of love, but she speaks with shrugs, and silence fills the space between us.
I explain that I don't have time to take this slowly, it makes sense to me rapidly, or not at all. She finds this demand for clarity to be an abuse. We agree to disagree. I: when you're ready to be open with me, give me a call. She: we're not friends.
Lacking a coherent cover story, one presumes the worst. People lie, we all do, much of the time. Call it a constant of human nature. She is, I assume, a traumatized girl surviving in a tough prison world, using her natural assets to get what she needs from all manner of men. She meets one man that seems different. This is how I flatter myself. Different. Not like those drunken self-destructive French ex-patriots. She thinks, I think, in my self-flattering rationale, this one will get me out of jail. A visitor, one of those with the magic power to transport himself, and me, and my child, to the free world of the Whites. This is my ticket to freedom. But he will never stay with me if he knows I'm a whore. I must hide that. I must hide myself.
I treat this as the simplest explanation for the contradictions of a woman who won't show her body to me, who won't touch me except briefly and with trepidation, yet who is obviously highly social. On our few and brief dates, it seems she knows everyone.
Two layers of deceit, my own on top of hers, and it's too much. Two wrongs don't make a right, they just make a mess.
Eventually we leave the table, the relationship rifted, unconsummated. A tear in her eye, and relief in mine. Her expensive tastes are ruining my budget, and her inaccessible desirability is making a mess of my self-confidence. I cannot be both special and irrelevant at once. If she is a professional, she plays for high stakes, and maybe this is indeed her game. Break their hearts and make them slaves. Or maybe she's stealing from the bank where she works. Maybe her father set her up with the job and sends her a generous allowance. Maybe everything she told me is a lie and she is married. I no longer care. Other hips beckon, every plan has a backup.
Back at Adamovo, I discuss this all with Assi, who takes some nature of pleasure in my stories. I tell Assi, "let's go and make a metisse". That is French. She raises an eyebrow. "Yes, I'll take you to the back and take you from the back," I point with my hands to the small changing space in her shop. She laughs and slaps me. She is not my type, physically, but she is actually beautiful, and has a strong and confident character, and is the closest thing I have to a real friend in this place. Assi never asks for anything. I ask her, "a small pipe then", which is also French, and she tuts and tsks and calls me names. I feel she appreciates the compliment. All the time, she is sewing, cutting, making money out of cloth, dresses for women, her trade. It pays for a television in her two-room house that the whole courtyard comes to watch on the evenings when the Spanish soaps are on.
Just as my rejection of Jojo leaves a passing unease - surely, returning Assi's unusual gift with "no thanks" is rude - my rejection of Cynthia's "if you need to ask the price, you can't afford it" apathy leaves me uplifted.
At the clinic, my accidental friend Cristian is getting much better, and so quickly! The malaria both bodily and cerebral, the hepatitis, and the anemia seem to be regressing and he is now sitting up and eating. His kidneys have not failed as was feared. I am enormously relieved. Only a few days ago he looked like a corpse and was peeing blood and was going into a coma. But the diagnosis and treatment have been excellent. I make a mental note about the quality of medicine here, and the benefits of travel insurance. We will be flying together and I do not want to accompany a seriously ill person who could go into shock at any point. It is a long and tiring trip from Lomé back to Europe, with a rushed stopover in Casablanca.
Part of the relief at getting Cynthia to renounce our unlaunched affair is the prospect of Sarah, a young waitress at the bar where I often stop. Twenty-two, she says, but I guess nineteen. It can be hard to tell. It does not matter: age is less significant than respect. Sarah had been watching me with appetite for a while, and surely my random gifts of cash for a taxi, phone credits, and excessive tips had piqued her interest. After Cynthia I'm looking forward to a girl who sacrifices something for me. And after Jojo, one that raises my desire. We've exchanged meaningful glances and meaningless words for a week or more now. She wants a steady boyfriend to refer to and a white guy would be cool. We're all the fashion in Lomé. She is tall, thin, shapely. Yes, my type, though she communicates more with looks than with words. "Ouiss", she says. Kosi says he thinks she does not understand French very well. But I find she is clear, just very shy. We finally agree on a date, which consists of her coming back with me to my hotel for a night.
It is not what I expected. My days in Lagos had taught me of opportunistic young African women who opened themselves rapidly and efficiently, knowing that relationships with visitors had only days to flower and fertilize, like desert plants irrigated by a once-per-year rain. Sarah, instead, reinforces a startling pattern of Togolese modesty, and though happy to shed her clothes and press herself, gorgeous and naked, against me, she is clearly uncertain and denies anything more intimate, asks me to stop the caresses and kisses, and my body, gallant despite itself, obeys without regret. She has a smooth skinny waist and hips and a long torso topped by generous breasts and long thin neck. It's the smallness of her buttocks that make me think she's younger than she says. The feel of her satin smooth skin is shockingly and sufficiently sensual to fill my appetites. We sleep carefully apart. At six AM we rise and I walk her to take a motorcycle lift home.
When I return to the hotel, the manager Jean-Claude, who hides a careful, organized, intellectual engineer-manager in the skin of a happy ruffian, is watching the French news on television. There are riots in Europe. I greet him and sit down. He says, after a pause, "given that the memory of a hotel manager is by definition very short, you are the first person, as far as I remember, who accompanies the girls back to the main road."
I nod and shrug. A girl that goes out with a white man takes a social risk. Attempted escape in progress! Watch the action! It's easier to slip away, alone, although never unnoticed. Cynthia was annoyed that I walked with her. Sarah, positively happy. "G bien dormiss, merci", she sighs, as she climbs on the back of the motorbike. We kiss lightly and I tell the driver, "this is my wife, careful or I will have to kill you!" I detect what may be a pattern: the professionals prefer to leave alone, while the nice girls - call them the naive ones, the ones who hope somehow that this may be their next boyfriend - like to be walked. Admittedly, my sample size is small and my opinion highly distorted.
Later, Kossi and I find a taxi to the clinic. Cristian's recovery is going fast. He is surprisingly strong. His young woman friend, Odette, stays beside him day and night, or puts her sister there as guard, as if someone would steal her ticket to freedom, if he was left unattended. When I visit Cristian after the final lunch with Cynthia, I find a stunningly beautiful woman beside him, Odette in gown, new hair, dressed up. Part of my mind wonders if a piece of Cristian's cash has gone on this. And part says, that would be fitting, she has looked after him in his worst days. Cristian won't die on the flight. I tell him, you must stop smoking and make a good husband for Odette. We agree to delay our departure by another two days, which neatly means I will be able to spend Sarah's day off with her, in part or whole.
On Wednesday, when I go to the bar to drink a malta and see Sarah, she is not there. I greet the barman and the people around the table where he sits. "Why did you call her madame", he asks, pointing to one woman, "and her mademoiselle?", pointing to second younger, prettier one. Carefully, unsure whether I offended someone, especially the older woman, I look at them both and construct an answer. "Back home," I explain, "when a woman wears a headscarf she is married and when she wears her hear long, she's mademoiselle". He grins and says, "yes, that's it, I was curious how you knew." Lucky I did not go with the, "obviously she's older" option.
Sarah is sick, says the barman. I call her mobile phone - these devices have spread widely amongst the inmates of this continental prison, slowly liberating a giant society held down like Gulliver by a myriad of taboos and thefts and tolls - but get no answer. The networks here are unreliable, the phones old and fragile, and people can be out of reach for hours. I call again and again, until it is late and I return despondent to the hotel. It is my last night in Lomé and I'm still alone and I am worried about Sarah. I yearn for her "ouiss" and her growing trust.
At the hotel, the receptionist, Bea, a tall elegant woman with, I soberly admit to myself, a well rounded posterior that gives shape to her body, is going home and we chat a while. Perhaps she is still pleased with the small gift of money I gave her last week, with which she did her hair. Maybe I look like I need something. Maybe she is just happy to see me. Last time we talked, I explained to her that her partner, a drunken dying Dutchman, was like a rip tide, a dangerous place to be, but possible to side-step. If you try to save him, I told her, he will drown you along with him. Tom, the fox-faced alcoholic, is at the centre of several minor expatriate dramas here in Adamovo, including Cristian's crisis, brought on by what I read as Cristian's futile and costly attempts to save Tom from Tom. Men who love the bottle hate everything else. A little booze cures the need for god, but too much destroys all faith, in oneself and in others.
We chat some. The hotel is empty, the other guests asleep, Jean-Claude has gone home, the security guard is outside the gate. We are alone, and I invite Bea to my room, and she smiles and nods acceptance.
Bea talks. Her nervous chatter is welcome after the timid silences of her precedents. Bea rests her head on my chest, in the bed, and talks. She tells me about her work, her colleagues, her family, her dreams. She tells me she will leave Tom but is torn by obligations of loyalty. He is, of course, a ticket to freedom and she is choosing between self-destruction and salvation, all depending on whether Tom will implode before, or after, he leaves for Europe. I warn her than his return to white country means little. Only a pregnancy and free child can, these days, facilitate the union between free and non-free.
She loves working in the hotel and wants to become a hotel manager. She asks about me, about my family. I am open about my status as - so far - faithful husband and father, and we chat, semi-dressed and in each others' arms, in the dark, until about two AM, when we sleep. My arm rests on her hips, and we spoon, a thin layer of cloth acting as chaperon. The smell of her tresses fills me, it is a warm, smoky smell, like cassava and a nice kind of sweat, and I sleep and dream of being a young boy discovering Africa again.
The sparrow comes every morning at around six and insanely knocks and flies against the window over and over until I chase it away. I wonder what the sparrow is doing. Fighting its reflection, or perhaps trying to mate with it? Warning me of an incoming tsunami? Trained, by some previous visitor, as an alarm clock? Some things are incomprehensible and better left so.
Bea leaves, silently, early, with a squeeze, just as the sparrow comes. This time I don't walk her along the road. It would not be good.
I finally return home, after two long tirings flights connected by a brief and stressed rush through Casablanca. Wheelchairs and airline security do not mix well. Three days late back from Lomé, and my wife is not happy. She greets me with "so how many women did you baise in Togo, then?" In French, as is the wont with the Congolese. She is not subtle, but not stupid either, and she knows very well that I have an eye for beauty, she being the best example. I answer, truthfully, "none." She starts to accuse me of lying, and I finish with all necessary detail, "I really tried, but it is so complicated, and in the end I did not find anyone suitable. Maybe next time." And I give the shrug I learned from Cynthia.