by Jennifer Spiegel
mosquito net chocolate Hluhluwe
I’m the girl who gets the guy.
We fall asleep. His body against mine in a way that suggests an accident in positioning.
We arrive at Kruger National Park, the premiere game park in South Africa. The ‘Big Five’ are there: lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant, and rhino. Roughly the size of Israel, there are a few campgrounds in the middle of the wild surrounded by barbed wire.
‘Did you hear about the guy in Namibia?’ Nick puts up the tent and I grab our sleeping bags.
‘No.’ We don’t even pretend to push the sleeping bags on opposite sides of the tent. I throw them together in the middle.
‘Apparently, some guy at a park wanted to see the lions at night, so he sat up on one of the benches inside the campground, just by the barbed wire fence.’ Nick arranges our tent, wiping off its flaps.
‘He must have decided to take a little nap. The lions jumped the fence and ate him. They found his ravaged body in the morning.’
I recoil. ‘That’s disgusting.’
‘Don’t think a little barbed wire is gonna stop those guys. If they want you, they’re gonna to get you.’ He leaves the tent door open, only zipping up the mosquito net.
In the afternoon, we take a one-hour drive while the sun is setting and it’s spectacular. It’s Africa. A brilliant red sun and a purple sky over the bush. We see hippos, lions, elephants, impalas, a lilac-breasted roller, giraffes, baboons, a vervet monkey. We take pictures as the sun goes down in streaks of rich color, as the rain clouds roll in, as the sky turns a dark shade of blue.
It rains in the evening.
Catherine, sketchbook in hand, sits in front of Nick on a blanket under a canopy. The canopy hangs between three trees. I shower and brush my teeth, rinse out my underwear, and soak my socks. I use Elmer’s umbrella to pass back and forth between the bathroom and our campsite. Every time I pass the canopy, both Nick and Catherine look up.
First, they smile. Catherine hugs her knees and looks dreamily at him as he waxes some tale, probably about the time his foreskin ripped during intercourse. Probably not that’for she is English and reserved and well-mannered, while I’m American, loud and crass.
‘Hi,’ they say.
‘Hi,’ I answer. I’m carrying a bag of my dirty underwear.
The next time, Nick reaches out his arm towards me, straight in front of him, like he’s trying to catch something. His fingers splayed. ‘What was that book we were talking about last night’the one by Hemingway?’
‘The Garden of Eden.’ In which a marriage falls apart.
‘That’s right.’ He looks at Catherine. ‘The Garden of Eden.’
When I shower, I think about them. He shares Zachary’s bankrupt ideology. But he’s light, happy, adventurous. I’m convinced it’s only because he hasn’t really taken his bankrupt ideology to its logical conclusion. Misery is the logical conclusion of uncertainty. Do I care that the girl sits in front of him, captivated and hugging her knees? She is younger than me’she still hugs her knees. I envy her that. I don’t really care about her adulation, though. I don’t really care.
I use the umbrella to go between the bathroom and the campsite. They’re still sitting there. When I pass, Nick checks me out from head to toe. ‘You’re wearing a new outfit.’
‘I found clean shorts at the bottom of my backpack.’ I crawl into our tent to arrange my things, happy he noticed.
When the rain stops, Elmer feeds us grilled hake and cabbage. The fish and the rain and the stars and the warm coffee are everything I want. We head over to the recreation area and it’s already dark and glittery. I imagine wild lions jumping barbed wire fences. When Ingrid gets up to leave, I stand.
‘Where are you going?’ Nick looks concerned.
He thinks I’m leaving. ‘Nowhere. I’m taking Ingrid’s place.’
‘Good.’ His facial features relax.
We play cards, trading smiles, sharing glances.
On our way back to the camp, I veer off and head towards the bathroom. ‘See you at home,’ he says.
The malleable heart.
It’s a starry Mapumalanga night and there’s the razor-sharp sound of leopards, the jackal cry. We zip up the tent to be alone.
‘Don’t use your flashlight.’ I stand up in the pitch black, pulling down my shorts to slip on sweatpants.
‘I’ll just use my imagination.’
* * *
Cape Town Kruger Shaka Mlilwane
The days have been filled with bird varieties’with starling and Marabou stork. They’ve been filled with animal sightings and changes in landscape’from bush to sunsets: burgundy, golden, sapphire. Our nights have been filled with the sound of crickets and birds and jackals and hyenas. Our concerns are over who washes the dishes and who sits where in the mini-van. All of our needs are provided for’from meals (Elmer prepares beef curry) to toilets (Elmer knows where every bathroom is from Cape Town to Mapumalanga). We haven’t spoken about white complacency or Johannesburg suburbs or black townships. We don’t want that kind of encroachment. Instead, we wake up early and see animals. We go to sleep late and it’s under the stars.
We look at a vervet monkey.
‘He’s kind of fun.’ I take the monkey’s picture.
Catherine turns her whole body around in the mini-van, just to look at me. ‘What, exactly, does fun mean in America?’
‘The same thing it does in England.’
She doesn’t say anything. She continues sketching the vervet monkey.
While Elmer makes cheese sandwiches at a picnic spot, Dylan and Ingrid and I sit off to the side, discussing politics. It’s the first time in days’since Nick touched the arm of the Zulu woman’I’ve thought about South Africa in terms of its political situation. I’ve been so absorbed by my surroundings.
‘I’m not anxious to return to my other life.’ I picture that other life: a divorce certificate, a house without furniture, unread books.
‘There aren’t any politics in this world.’ Dylan squints her eyes at the sun. ‘We’re living a dream.’
‘This sort of existence isn’t sustainable.’ Ingrid sips her water. ‘It’s so” She searches for the word. ‘Tentative.’
‘We can try to repeat it till it’s not, make this our life. An overland safari to Namibia.’ I check out my sunburnt shoulders. ‘Ward off the ephemeral.’ Make it certain. I look at Dylan and Ingrid. ‘Don’t you guys want to go to Namibia?’
Dylan puts her hair into a ponytail. ‘I’m going to Victoria Falls after this, Jillian. I can’t make it, love.’
‘And I’m really a dentist.’ Ingrid counts her South African money.
I look at Ingrid. ‘I didn’t know.’
‘Of course you didn’t.’ Ingrid pockets the money. ‘I didn’t tell you.’ Her eyes are hard on mine. ‘I only told you to look right or left to see a warthog.’
In the distance, the others run around. Elmer slices tomatoes. Nick plays Frisbee with Catherine. He prances on top of the grass with his t-shirt lifted up over half his torso, like a kid. I dream of Namibia: red sand dunes striking hard against cloudless blue skies.
‘When we get to Jo’burg, I may immediately go to a travel agent.’ I lift my arms over my head. ‘Sustain it for as long as possible.’ I think of making permanent what is fleeting. It’s like struggling to make Zachary love me, like re-tracing tribal tattoos. Dylan checks her date book. Airline itineraries stick out. ‘You’ve been a lot of places, Dylan.’
‘I have. Namibia isn’t one of them.’ She looks up at me. ‘And what will you do after Namibia?’
‘Botswana?’ I stand up to go get a cheese sandwich.
Repeat it till it’s true.
* * *
pen paper words books
On the seventh night, I undress in the silhouette of the moon.
We listen to the constant roar of crickets and grasshoppers from inside our tent. ‘Imagine. They live to shag and die.’ Even when Nick says shag, he sounds sophisticated.
‘It’s not a bad life,’ I say.
I answer the last of his questions.
‘What will you do without him?’
‘I’m fine, Nick.’ I panic when he asks. ‘I’ll love someone else.’ That he even thought to ask alarms me. ‘You’ve been in love twice, right? That’s what you said.”
‘Yes, but you’re different.’
‘No. I’ll love someone else.’
I can’t see him. I feel him hover. I feel him move a hand over my forehead and through my hair. He moves away just as quickly.
He is consoling me for my losses because my words sound like lies.
* * *
‘I need to talk to you.’ I enter the guestroom and see Zachary at his desk. It’s that moment’that moment of seeing him there: this is what I need to forget. Something in me melts. I see his body bent over papers and I want to press myself against his back, wrap my arms around him, kiss the top of his head, keep him from despair.
‘Okay.’ He pushes the papers away.
Where to start? What to say? ‘I’ve loved you forever, it seems.’ I sit on the bed. ‘I used to think we existed on this weird, exclusive plane that no one else had access to.’ He squints his eyes, putting my words together. ‘We said things no one else said, and it wasn’t because we were so smart, it was because we were so effete”
‘We were pretty smart, though.’ He turns his chair completely around to face me.
‘I thought you were special in your angst and I was eccentric in my orthodoxy. It launched us, happily, into another world.’
‘Zachary, I married you because I valued that exclusive plane so much.’
He walks his chair towards me, moving like a crab. ‘What are you talking about Jillian?’
I stare down at my hands. I feel so much like a wife confronting her husband about another woman’a hateful feeling. ‘I’ll never meet someone like you again’I know that.’
‘Why would you want to?’ He shakes his head.
‘The exclusive plane’it wasn’t real. There is no exclusive plane. I wanted there to be one.’ I look up.
Zachary stands. ‘How can you say that? How can you possibly believe that?’
‘That exclusive plane was just our way of not talking about things’assuming we already understood everything unspoken. I ignored your angst. You ignored my orthodoxy.’ I start crying.
I look at him. He has tears in his eyes, too. I’ve never seen him cry. He blinks the tears away. That’s it. I’ll never see them again.
He says, ‘No one’s going to love you as much as I love you.’
My face is red. The tears leave acid tracks on crimson cheeks. Defiance takes over my countenance. ‘You curse me.’
He turns away, swivels his chair around.
‘If no one will love me as much as you do, I’ll go unloved,’ I shout.
He looks out the window.
I continue: ‘I know you had an affair.’
He spins around quickly, stares at me. I want him to do something’even something violent. He doesn’t. He says my name. ‘Jillian.’
Again, the tears. I picture that woman’can’t help it. She says his name, touches his face gently. He falls into her, desperate for comfort. He’s always desperate for comfort. Every woman who’s ever held him in her arms knows this. It’s why this woman and the others love him so much. His desperation demands love. The woman is needed, extraordinary in her ability to console. Zachary clings to his comforter, seeking refuge from a world of uncertainties, a world of bedlam. Zachary hates the bedlam, but he’s unable to believe in anything else. He clings to that other woman like he’s done with me, with others. He’s desperate, frantic, his passion a passion born of fear, of false hope. False hope that this woman, this woman who holds him now, will save him. I picture her, grateful for his desperation, because for once’for once, in her goddamn life’someone needs her, needs her specifically, exclusively, uniquely. She holds him tightly, as desperate to give as he is to get. She puts her fingers in his hair. She holds him close, and soon it turns into a tangle of body parts.
My tears sting my skin like bile coming up a throat. I’m not defiant, only broken. Through chokes, gulps, and wet skin, I speak. ‘Unless your commitment to me rests on a certainty’some enduring principle’I can’t trust you. I don’t trust you.’ I know Zachary trusts me unconditionally. I never ask him why. ‘Your standards of right and wrong shift according to your needs. You have nothing to measure them against.’
Zachary hardens himself then. ‘Fuck your certainty, Jillian. Fuck your standards, your absolutes, and fuck your God.’
‘Don’t. Zachary, don’t.’ I shake my head.
‘Fuck your God.’ He looks at me, wild-eyed now. ‘Face it, Jillian. This isn’t about me and some loveless affair I had. It’s about you. You chose me. You chose me because of my beliefs.’
I wipe my face with the back of my hand. ‘You’re wrong. I chose you because I thought you were different. I thought you were intelligent. I thought you’d figure things out.’ I stand up, smooth over the covers on the guest bed. ‘I was an idiot, Zachary. I made the mistake of equating your despair with depth. In fact, you’re just desperate.’ I turn to leave the room. ‘And, now, now I wouldn’t touch you with a ten-foot pole.’ I walk out, knowing I love him still.
I leave that night.