By Elias E.
A not so dear old friend's arrival in New York City, allowed me reprieve from a long and lately tired marriage.
"How come you've never spoken about him these last eight years?" Sarah, my wife, asked suspiciously when I told her of Victor's arrival and my plans to take him out for a night on the town.
"We went to high school together; we were on the basketball team together; I don't know. I just never knew where he was for the last 15 years," I replied. "Why don't you come with us? It’ll be fun," I added with more enthusiasm than I really felt, knowing she would not accept. "Abdehal! kenante gar sesaker lamesh!?"
This would be a night without curfew. It would be a night when I wouldn't have to check-in at home every other hour. A few years earlier I would have gone head-on with Sarah whatever the consequences; but I am a few skips away from the big 4-0, and my capacity to engage in ChiqiCHiq was at an all time low. It helped that Victor, my not so dear friend, was a non-Ethiopian.
I hadn't seen Victor in fifteen years. He worked for a UN agency in Nairobi, and the few times he had come to the US we had been unable to connect. After several phone calls we decided to meet in the East Village. Victor brought along a couple of his West African buddies, Sela and Omar.
Victor had changed quite a bit since high school. He was now lean and athletic. The Ethiopian kids used to tease him mercilessly in school about his long arms and huge hands, the way they swung pendulum like when he ran down the basketball court, his shoulders stooped, the whites of his eyes highlighted by his jet black skin. As the leader of the amoral minority in high school, I was a magnet for the disenfranchised, the misfits and the dooreyes in general. So on a rainy afternoon in September, I watched Victor's back as he kicked the shit out of his most vociferous persecutor. So it was that Victor pledged his allegiance and was initiated into the group.
Unlike the rest of the group, Victor didn't smoke or drink back then; he did, however, keep us supplied with duty free cigarettes and liquor that he pilfered from his dad. In addition he had a most generous allowance, which he shared with the group selflessly.
The night started off slowly with one drink following the next as we reminisced about the old days, African politics, and the unforeseen paths our lives had taken. Victor had wanted to be a football player and I had wanted to find my way to Hollywood. But as fate would have it neither of us attained our childhood dream. As the night went on, the topic turned to music and women, both subjects that had to be discussed with unmitigated passion. We laughed about the time I took Victor to Lyceé gwarro where I introduced him to Elfenesh, a charming WelloyE from Dessie. Elfenesh was my partner in the war against virginity. It was there behind the cloth curtain that divided the single room that Victor, with excruciating groans and grunts, discovered the essential meaning of life. After that, a significant portion of his allowance became unavailable to the group. We laughed about the time he caught the clap, and in a sheer panic wept like a baby; and the embarrassment of taking him to the clinic to get the problem fixed.
We left the quiet bar we had been in and headed to a new spot in Alphabet City. There, a group of European women who were sufficiently tipsy wiggled their hips and made eyes at us across the bar. We smiled, and Victor, the lecher that he is, went over and started up a conversation. The rest of us wondered why he was wasting his time with these tired white women. He came back to his spot at the bar with a wispy Spanish woman clinging to his arm. "This is Josephine," he announced with flair. "She's from Barcelona." We introduced ourselves. "I asked her to hang out with us," Victor added. I pulled Victor to the side. "There is no way I am going to walk down the street with these women in tow, in my town. Lose them," I hissed at Victor. "Lose them," echoed Sela.
We left a disappointed group of women at the bar and headed for the next location. Omar, a Muslim and recently wed, insisted he had to go home and caught a cab. The three of us walked with renewed energy. It must have been 2:00 a.m.
We walked in to the sound of salsa music and heaving mass of human flesh. We made our way to the bar, got our drinks and moved to the wall to better survey our surroundings. At the bar there were three Puerto Rican girls or so I thought at first. We listened to the music, admired the pretty women in the joint, and as it was approaching 3:00 a.m., we decided to look into one other place before the night was through. As we left, I heard one of the Puerto Rican girls call out my name. Surprised, I turned around and walked towards the woman.
"ReshaheN indE? Lullit neN." I searched my memory bank futilely trying to match the face with the name until all relevant facts finally clicked. Her hair was longer and straighter, she'd also put on a few pounds, all in the right places.
"Aye, indEt eresashalehu, Lullit? Tadias," I replied.
"These are my friends Eme and Tsehay," she said waving towards the other two women. I shook their hands unable to take my eyes off the one called Eme.
This was trouble: the alcohol, the smell of their skin, the seeming perfection of face and form all mixed in with the nostalgia of wilder days gone by… ripe recipe for some kind of disaster of monstrous proportions.
Years back I had had a reputation for being wild. My deserved notoriety had led to the undesirable situation where even the most casual acquaintance somehow felt they where intimate friends. This part of my history irked my wife to no end. "Eswan demo yet new yemetawqat?" was her first question at every social event where I would bump into a woman I used to know.
I hastily, if somewhat reluctantly, disengaged myself from the three finest looking women I had seen in some time, and bidding them goodnight, went to join Victor and Sela at the door. So who are they, they asked. "Just some girl I used to know," I replied casually, leading the way out the door.
The evening was flying; one last spot to hit before lights out. I had a spring in my step, feeling like I was 25 again, or at the latest 30. I suddenly was glad that I was still fit; that my stomach was flat and my arms toned; that I didn't have a double chin like some of my friends. As we walked up Avenue A, Victor and Sela where gabbing away while my mind was fixed on the occupant of a barstool in the place we had just left. My body ached with a longing that I could scarcely contain. Fidelity was only the half of it. Though I loved my wife, the sexual tension, that oozing dissonance between desire and reason, the raw excitement of seemingly endless possibilities no longer existed. Sex, but for those rare occasions, was pedestrian and unfulfilling. I had 'cheated' on my wife a few times during our years together. Those incidents happened when we had separated a couple of times. In time our differences where reconciled and we got back together. But one thing I had never done was cheat on my wife with an Ethiopian woman. Now there are those out there who think cheating is cheating period. But I don't quite see it that way. If I had an Ethiopian lover, and my wife discovered it, I am sure it would hurt her deeply. So even on a solo trip to Ethiopia, much to the chagrin and utter amazement of my friends, I had refrained from sampling the local delicacies. Perhaps in the back of my mind was that anxiety, that only I seemed to have; that the only safe sex in Ethiopia was no sex at all. Perhaps I loved or feared my wife, but these where all moot points now.
I had been wondering for some time about the new breed of Ethiopians. It seemed as though expatriates of the last decade, the women particularly, were a staggeringly different breed than those who came before them. Besides their obvious physical attributes, these new women were more risqué and self assured. They did not suffer from yiluNta, that particular Ethiopian characteristic that is often mistaken for diffidence here in the America.
We got to the last bar, which was half empty. I ordered the drinks. Sela and Victor looked unhappy. "What's up?" I inquired.
"Man, there's nobody here. We should go back to the other place and hook up with those girls you were talking to," Sela bemoaned.
"No way, man" I replied, "Tomorrow’s Ethiopian radio will have the whole city and a few other states knowing what I was up to tonight. Just get it out of your mind."
"What Ethiopian radio?"
"The grapevine broadcasting service."
Fifteen minutes after our arrival Victor and Sela were looking dead bored. What right did I have to impinge on their happiness? What kind of host would I be if I didn't acquiesce to my guest's most reasonable request?
"All right, drink up and let’s go back," I announced. Before I had finished my sentence Victor and Sela had downed their drinks and turned for the door.
Lullit, Eme and Tsehay were in the same spot, a couple of guys hovering over their shoulder. We joined them, jockeying for a spot at the bar beside them.
"You're back," Lullit commented.
"Yep, nothing else happening out there tonight," I replied. "Let me introduce to my friends."
I introduced Victor and Sela to the girls, and Lullit and I engaged in small conversation about mutual acquaintances. Sela was talking to Eme, who was looking at me.
My blood raged. How do I step away from Lullit and approach Eme without being too obvious? What was I going to do anyway? Should I tell her I was married? She probably already knows that by now. I looked down at my hand. Duh. I was wearing my ring. Ahaaaaaa! This whole thing was F#$K*!g with my head. Forget about it, I thought, just have a good time. You’re an adult. You can control your desires. Besides, a little flirting never killed anyone.
“Why don't we go somewhere else," suggested Tsehay", who had been talking up a storm with Victor. "We know a place that’s hopping on Tuesday nights and they stay open late."
Victor's wristwatch stared back at me. It was 4:10 a.m. I rolled my wedding band between my thumb and pinky, praying that all would end well.
I finished my drink my third in less then an hour. My head felt light and my face felt flush, but I felt real good. We paid the tab and walked out.
The streets were empty, and the girls set off ahead of us at a brisk pace, arms wrapped around each other's waists. The guys fell back to enjoy the view. God, they didn't make ET girls like that when I was growing up. Their wonderfully shaped behinds bopped along like apples in a barrel. They all had great legs, which till recent years, was the forgivable flaw of most Ethiopian women. They never turned back, forging along, their laughter carrying in the early morning air.
A surly bouncer with more ink on his body then the Sunday edition of the New York Times stopped us at the door of a nondescript building. He stared long and hard before nodding us in. The place was pretty full, with Hip-hop blaring from the speakers. A few couples danced, while others where scattered around the room. We made our way to an empty corner of the bar.
Eme was sitting on the stool, her large brown eyes a little bleary, her dark olive skin radiant. She waved me over and I went. Her luscious full lips seemed strangely appropriate for her delicately chiseled face, and had a hypnotic effect as she spoke. I wasn't listening. I was just watching her mouth form words that breezed by my head.
"You're cute," she said, “Waking me from my stupor.”
"I… beg your pardon?" was how I could only reply. She curled her index finger, beckoning me closer. I leaned closer and her warm, moist lips pressed against my stiff surprised ones. Phew.
"I am sorry, I couldn't help it," she said.
"It’s o.k." I was saying the words as I was moving closer to return her kiss.
I moved back unsteadily, unsure of what had transpired, but thrilled and terrified. My jeans felt tight. I turned back to the group, pretending to listen to what they were talking about.
I felt Eme's hand grab mine, and as I turned she started leading me towards the dance floor. It was a fast number, but somehow we danced close, her chest hard against mine, her hips gently swaying against my leg. Her perfume soaked into my pores, and I let my lips brush against her ear. We must have stayed on the dance floor for a while; a film of sweat covered my forehead, and my t-shirt felt damp. "Let's get back with the others," I said.
Victor, Sela, Lullit and Tsehay had moved from the bar to some couches nearby, talking about who knows what. They seemed remarkably sober. I sat on an ottoman and Eme squeezed in next to Tsehay. I finished off my drink under the watchful eye of Eme.
It must have been about 5:00 a.m. Eme rose from her chair and announced she had to go to the ladies room. "AbirrEysh l’mTa?" Lullit asked. "Aye gedelem," replied Eme, making her way out of her tight corner. A few feet away Eme stopped, turned and reached a hand out to me. I rose ,and walking over, took it.
The unisex bathrooms were lined up in a row in the back. I grabbed Eme by the shoulders and turned her towards me. My lips found hers, and I was again surprised by their fullness. She was a good kisser; her mouth was both malleable and assertive. We stood there making out for a few minutes, and then I led her into one of the bathrooms.
Passions welled as we groped, caressed, kissed and tasted each other. Not a thought in our minds of place and time. I felt my jeans drop to my ankles and I lifted Eme's perfect bare bottom onto the edge of the sink.
"Do you have a condom?" she moaned.
"No," I mumbled, my head clearing. Suddenly realized where I was and what I was doing. I thought about my wife at home in bed. I thought about Eme. I thought about AIDS. And I thought about a condom. I wasn't a condom-packing player on the prowl, I was just a restless, married, thirty-something guy looking to recapture a fading youth. I looked down at Eme's beautiful face. Somehow we both knew the moment had passed. I pulled up my jeans and she her panties. We kissed again. I splashed water on my face and Eme fixed her makeup.
We walked back to knowing looks from the group. I lit a cigarette and sat down. "Don't sit there we've got to go," Tsehay said. I reached for Victor's wrist to look at his watch. It was 5:35 in the morning. I could smell Eme's perfume and scent on my skin.
"Do you have a pen?" asked Eme as we left the joint.
"No," I replied. Lullit and Victor hailed a cab.
"Let me give you my number," she said.
"Eme, come on!" yelled Tsehay. Eme got into the cab.
"Wait, wait" she said. On a scrap of paper, with a gnawed BIC pen borrowed from the impatient driver, she scratched her name and number on the paper and handed it to me.
"Call me?" she said as the cab pulled away.
"OK. I will," I replied, knowing right well that I never would.
I remember Victor and Sela joshing me about the evening. I remember telling them that I took her outback for some fresh air.
I could still smell Eme on me by the time the cab pulled up to my building. I jumped off with a hurried goodbye. The doorman buzzed me in. I was too embarrassed to look at him, afraid that my indiscretion was written on my face.
I carefully opened the door, slipped off my shoes, stripped off my t-shirt and jeans, and, tossing them in the broom closet, headed straight for the bathroom. I scrubbed my face and arm with soap and water; rinsed my hair in the sink and brushed my teeth.
Sarah was sleeping, snoring softly as the morning light seeped through blinds. I slipped into bed and closed my eyes. I dreamt about the phone number scrawled on a torn piece of paper that was tucked in the front pocket of my jeans. I dreamt that Sarah found it. Was it a dream? Shouldn't I get up and destroy the evidence? Nah.
I woke up the next afternoon to find a note on the kitchen table. “Have gone to the hairdresser. Will call you later. Love, S.”
My head was pounding as I recovered my T-shirt and jeans. I fished out Eme's phone number from the wrinkled singles and fives in my jeans pocket, the sad remains of the crisp fold of fifties and twenties I had had earlier last night. I looked at the scrawled name and number, recounting the events of the night before, trying to piece together how it all happened, wondering how it would have been, and where, if anywhere, a consummation of our desires might have led.
Sarah and I know in our hearts that our relationship was good for maybe another year or two. We were too different. Sex had brought us together, and sex would tear us apart. The raging fire that were the first few years of our marriage had slowly died down, and except for the occasional spark, there was not very much heat left.
I know, though Sarah denies it, that she had had an affair a few years back when our marriage was on the rocks. Hers, unlike mine, was a proper affair. It wasn’t a terminal fling. Good thing fidelity was not what I had expected, or particularly desired, when I got married.
That morning I burnt the piece of paper with Eme's number knowing there will be another Eme. Or perhaps I would run into Eme again some night. One of those nights devoted to Dionysus.
Names have been changed to protect the innocent and the not so innocent.