The Louisville Review Fall 2019
My dog is shitting water balloons.
It’s not as glamorous as it sounds, although the little confetti-colored mounds do stand out from your typical backyard dog-offerings.
We’re good parents, Tony and I; we usually feed Simba organic. Grain-free. Vegan, even, that time she acted funny after licking the toad. But today’s backyard evidence suggests she’s developed a neon-plastic habit, sourced from the neighborhood kids; the detritus of a birthday party stuck to the bottom of a garbage can; deflated balloons swimming in the sauce of a melted ice cream sundae or stuffed amidst a pile of soggy paper plates. It means poor Simba is leaving behind a trail of hot pink, canary yellow, and Day-Glo orange as the day goes on.
Luckily, I’m home early today. As the cool couple on the block—childless and cool, which somehow goes together—it’s our turn to host the annual St. Johannes Fest, complete with wet bar out front and bonfire out back. Flames will sprout up, lighting up our treeless backyard, to warm the butts of the few high schoolers or honeymooners still crazy enough to test out the old tradition. Legend has it that on summer’s longest night, young couples should grab hold of their partner’s hand and jump across the brief height of flame. It’s an old German, or Nordic or Swiss tradition that’s held firm in our little corner of suburbia. The custom is a holdover from days past when people had to ward off bad spirits, or the evil eye or a hex placed upon them by jealous neighbors.
Our jealous neighbors, Anna and Steve, will be there. Telling us, like every year, how envious they are of our party-hosting life. Our house. Our travels. Our Peace Corps years. “Africa. Oh, Africa,” they’ll say, reiterating how much they’d longed to do the Peace Corps right after college but how they’d never taken the chance and now, “Oh well.” We’ll all smile and sip our cocktails, while we pet Simba and they tend to their kids: one tugging at a pantleg and the other tucked snug, in the crook of an arm.
Anna and Steve moved to the neighborhood around the same time we did. Back then, Tony and I were something of minor celebrities. Our wedding had recently featured in the New York Sunday Times—which was quite a coup back then. We’d even nabbed one of the picture columns: the photo showing our bright, smiling faces in front of a giraffe with the tag line about how we’d met in the Peace Corps. That was still at the dawn of the social-media age, when it took more than just quick thumbs and a Twitter account to get your name into the world, and Sunday Styles ranked pretty high. That feature set us a path of Grand Expectations—and Schadenfreude, which is what Anna and Steve have for us in spades, even if they were our best friends, back in their pre-spawn era.
We’d first met them at the St. Johannes Fest right after we’d all moved in, standing in line, eager to jump the fire said to bestow a special blessing on new couples. A celebration of the wild adventure of youth before the staid and earth-bound years of family and children to come—though not to us. Which is why we’re still cool. Why we can still host block parties with top shelf liquor while Anna and Steve succumb to cleaning kiddie-crayon from their midcentury-décor.
I take a sweep of the back yard and dump the last of Simba’s poop into the trash, noticing how the garbage can really stinks. Usually dog bombs go into the compost where I can toss a little hay on top and mix it around for odor control—but not today, given the water balloon fiasco. No plastic in the compost; Tony would go ballistic. He’s a Master Composter (that’s a title) and uses the compost for his annual beds which have won us the Best Yard competition three years running. When he gets home, I’ll tell him what’s going on with Simba so there can be two of us on the lookout for any additions to the yard. God forbid one of our party-goer’s pristine Sperry Topsiders should slide into any embarrassing poo. Under our previous hosting, there’s never been an accident, not even the year the Holloway’s drunken daughter didn’t quite negotiate the full length of the fire pit. Her jeans got singed, but no harm done and luckily, she’d removed her jacket before the jump so it couldn’t catch fire. I found it the next day, stuffed it into the niche of our Noguchi-inspired outdoor table. I’d always meant to give it back. But things do get left behind.
When I left for Africa, I left pretty much everything behind, apart from what I could fit into a single Lands’ End canvas duffle. It didn’t hold much, and most of what it did—although seemingly vital when I packed it in Ann Arbor—didn’t hold much use once I got to Kenya, excepting those extra-strength Hefty bags, which did come in handy, as did the three packets of Mrs. Grass’s chicken noodle soup “with the flavor egg inside”. The Hefty bags I used for draping over the top of my rectangular-shaped, camo-colored, government-issued mosquito net (not the fancy, diaphanous, Out-of-Africa-kind, which would have been quite useless against the fog of mosquitos in the wet season). But I needed a plastic cover over the net while I slept because of all the bats perched overhead in the rafters. They peed down on me all night, dousing me in wet and who-knows-what kind of germs. The Mrs. Grass’s came in handy for nursing myself back to health after Round II of a particularly persistent dysentery. That special flavor egg added just enough spice to disguise the taste of the iodine tablets I needed to purify my water, to reduce any chance of a double infection with giardia or another water-based bacterium, even if it did vastly reduce the water’s drinkability. In Peace Corps, suddenly all those stories from World War II vets about cholera or malaria killing people or driving them crazy, became scarier—and much more plausible—given that as foreigners, we didn’t have any natural resistance to those things. I suppose that’s why Peace Corps mandated weekly doses of Mefloquine for us—as malaria prevention—so we wouldn’t die or go crazy like the last generation of Americans sent abroad.
Of course, our use of a treatment drug for prophylaxis did mean that we probably left behind a new and resistant strain of malaria in Kenya, which I thought a lot about after Chege died. He and I shared the English teaching duties at our rustic, meager, out-of-the-way secondary school—the kind of place Peace Corps volunteers usually end up. Chege had left the staffroom early one Monday morning with a headache and two days later was dead. But news took a while to travel to the village, so I only found out when I went to visit him at the hospital in Voi, bringing along that Bertrand Russel book he’d left on his desk, thinking that he might want some entertainment while he convalesced with his Quinine Drip. Of course, dead, he didn’t need the book. Which is why I still have it. It was one of the few things I brought home with me from Kenya.
That’s the kind of story that you don’t tell people on your return from Peace Corps. People like Anna and Steve, who ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ over our Kenyan photos with the same exaggerated enthusiasm we’re supposed to show when viewing their latest ultrasound. A murky photo of some greyish blob we should all be so happy about. I’m sure it’s just coincidental that every time we fail to conceive, they have more “good news to share”, forcing me to paste on that fake smile I’ve mastered and grab a greeting card from the stash I keep at the back of our hutch, so I don’t have to stand, again, sobbing in the aisle of Kinney Drugs.
It’s not that we don’t have it good, of course. We have Simba. And our house and garden. We have all our pictures of Kenya and the exotic places we’ve gone since.
I call Simba over for a treat once I’m back inside. She hears her name and starts wagging, tail first and then her whole body, all one-foot-long of her. When we first got her, we wanted to give her a Swahili name, something not too strange, but a little exotic—so thanks to Disney’s Lion King we chose ‘Simba,’ meaning Lion, a reference to her color. Of course, since she was a rescue dog, we didn’t know her DNA, so when she maxed out as a rather midget dog, it made our name choice seem ironic. If people ask now, we act all cool about it. “Meta,” they might say, and we nod along, but her name has become less of a reference to our past than a reflection of unmet expectations. Which somehow, we’ve learned to spin, the way you do, when things don’t really go your way.
After two years of Peace Corps, Tony and I came home, taking with us only what we needed, which wasn’t much. We definitely didn’t need our mosquito nets anymore or the dozen or so ragged books that we’d read and re-read a thousand times in the quiet of a kerosene lamp; we didn’t need the cardboard toilet-paper-roll-D-sized-battery-holder constructed from the schematics of another volunteer who figured out that none of us could afford the cost of Double A batteries over the duration of a two year BBC Radio bender.
We said goodbye to our friends that we were leaving, too—both Kenyan and American—with a promise to stay in touch, although mostly, we haven’t. We left behind some less-nice things, too, not just the malaria, but schistosomiasis, a few rounds of dysentery and that typhoid scare in year two. But the things we miss most and can’t replicate are the big-ticket items like Empty Time and Quality of Life and Knowing the Difference Between Big and Small Things.
After Chege died, I returned to our village, his Bertrand Russell book my only company on the long walk home, wondering what about that book had made him read it—and if I should read it, too. He followed me back in an actual car, one that his relatives had rented out to bring him home, probably using up all their savings to do it. Of course, it was the local ladies who laid him out for the funeral; there weren’t mortuaries or funeral homes or strangers to treat the dead. It was the neighbors who washed him up, prepped him with salves and coins and set him out. They prayed over him, too, removing whatever evil spirits the malaria hadn’t taken with it. I remember how he looked so himself, laid out on two boards in the family’s backyard; it seemed an important distinction at the time because bodies did get jumbled up in the collection room at the hospital every now and again and he’d been one of several men our age who’d died that day.
There was wailing at the funeral—very biblical stuff—women renting their clothes, shrieking the air, falling down in grief; it seemed an appropriate response. Better than the stoic, quiet, private grief we tend to honor here.
I think about that opposite of silence, later in the day, when the Fire Chief arrives, sans siren, to give us the okay for the bonfire. He’s got the bright red truck, a small one, but without Simba’s bark we would have missed his arrival altogether, because without a siren, fire engines sneak up on you the same way normal cars do. It’s like the kids in the neighborhood; they don’t make noise. When they play it’s focused and sweat-free, mostly on their screens, although I do see them sometimes tossing lacrosse balls back and forth with no more than a quick swish of the net. I don’t know about Tony as a kid, but I was loud. There was a whole gang of us, running wild through subdivision backyards, unfenced, one green patch of grass merging into the next, the sky filled with our warbling as we chased each other, flitting like birds—or thieves—through neighborhood backyards, escaping on our blue banana-seat bikes whose shimmery, plastic-handled-fringe flew straight out behind us as we peddled. Racing forward, tassels snapping our wrists. Feeling that everything was ours—and possible.
Tony, just home, chats with the Fire Chief, and I scope out Simba, who’s crouched in the corner of the yard again, that sly kind of crouch, peeking halfway over her shoulder at me. I go running, plastic-bag-mittened, to catch the latest pink/green concoction before it hits the ground. In my pre-dog-owner days, I never would have imagined poo-catching, but it’s impressive what you’ll do for the neighbors.
Just before six, Brad, from around the block shows up; his grill joining ours beside the garage. He and Tony will stand there all evening, side by side, like two grooms on a wedding cake, flipping burgers and browning brats while I work the crowd, greeting the new arrivals, pointing people in the direction of drinks, keeping a half-eye on Simba.
An hour into the party, I finally meet the new neighbors from across the street, a young couple whose raucous rutting reminds me of Tony and I, back in the early days—when everything was about NOT getting pregnant. One of our first medical warnings from Peace Corps had been about how pregnancy was a mandatory ticket home. No discussion. No exceptions. No one to help you out. And all that in a place where plastic-pen-testers didn’t exist, meaning confirmation came the old-fashioned way: waiting until your boobs blossomed, hard to the touch, zapping in pain every time you reached across the desk. Stomach churning and vomit rising, you hoped the giardia tablets from your first aid kit might be the answer; but when they weren’t and the days went on and the sickness didn’t dissipate, you started planning all the things to do before they kicked you out.
Tony and I decided on a trip. A last hurrah before I’d have to turn myself over to the medical authorities for expulsion. We decided on a trip to Ethiopia, in the north, to see a little more of the continent before I had to abandon it in disgrace. Thanks to Peace Corps policy, it would only be me leaving. Tony was no Medical Emergency, the way my growing belly would make me—so this was our farewell tour. He still had eight months to go in-country, and who knew what would happen after. One of us left behind; the other, already home.
Arriving in Addis, the capital of Ethiopia, we saw nothing to compare with Nairobi. Its lack of a colonial history meant that Addis couldn’t compete with Nairobi’s private bars and clubs, its racing grounds and tourist cafés, or any of the other structures that the British had left. But once out of the city, the country astounded. Rolling hills that climbed into mountains, lush green terraced slopes that looked as fertile as I (grudgingly) felt. Whatever the world knew of Ethiopia—its famine or shattered politics, its insignificance on the world stage—it wasn’t this. This cultural vibrancy and ancient history, its Portuguese-styled castles and pre-medieval churches, its collection of intricate Abyssinian crosses carved from single sticks of wood. Everything evidence of a life built, honored, and attended with pride. Unconcerned about how the wider world saw it. I remember admiring that.
At the bonfire, I chat up the Petersons, the oldest couple on the block, whose granddaughter has just applied for the Peace Corps. “It’s so quaint that it still exists!” they say and I agree but with less than my normal enthusiasm because I’ve spotted Simba, looking furtive at the edge of our lawn. I watch as she slows, sniffs, crouches, seeking privacy in our neighbor-strewn backyard.
I catch her eyes and if she were human, I’d say there was a plea. For discretion. Sympathy. Looking at me, with what I recognize is not annoyance but shame. I look away.
On a twisty road through Northern Ethiopia, five days into our journey, it started. The cramps came first, gripping my insides, clawing, grasping. It didn’t want me either.
Crowded into the back of a beat-up minivan, swaying along a switchback road on open hills, it could have reminded me of James Bond in the South of France, everything green and splendiferous, with the country’s well-husbanded farms standing in for Mediterranean vineyards. But as we climbed and turned and double backed all I could think about was the pain. The wet. The knowing what was happening.
Tony convinced the driver to stop; everyone piling out so I could find a boulder alongside the road.
Me, crouching, looking back over my shoulder, seeing all the other passengers trying to watch or not watch, pleading with them for privacy as I spilled out onto that fertile soil something shiny and red, without the relief I imagined. The lost promise of something I wouldn’t have later.
They waited as I dug through my bag, selecting what I needed from the things I carried. A hankie, a roll of toilet paper, a water bottle, my khanga: that two meter-long and one-meter wide swath of African fabric, so utilitarian. A wrap in cold weather, a head-scarf in the heat, a towel, a sack, a blanket. The thing mothers used to swaddle their babies or to wrap a child against them.
I used mine to clean up what was left of the blood, and then folded it against me to dampen the surge of what was still coming. Tony helped me back into the car. We kept going.
We keep going.