This story is a work of fiction.
I’m standing in the corner of the courtyard rooftop, one palm resting on each scratchy, concrete wall. It’s hot, though not the overwhelming weight of heat that I associate with the word Africa; here in this scraggly suburb of Dakar, it’s merely muggy. Only I can’t bear the thought of shutting myself into one of those tiny rooms on whose rooftop we stand; when night falls and I finally have to sleep, I’m going to spread my sleeping bag up here on the roof, along with the other women on this trip who would rather risk malaria than discomfort.
Or maybe not. Doudou is grinning at me, that big, goofy, innocent smile, and I’m trying to decide just what I’ll risk if I take him up on the offer he’s so obviously making. He grins at my fine, sandy hair, my translucent skin, my high-bridged nose, my pale gray eyes. He grins at my thinness, my misery, my dessicated heart, and all I can think is that it ought to be Olivier standing here on this rooftop, Olivier with whom I am seeing Africa for the first time, Olivier showing me his native land and not 28-year-old Doudou, who barely speaks French, for God’s sake, let alone having any idea of what my 40-year-old American life is like. Professor of economics. A house in Western Mass. La femme abandonnée.
And yet, that smile. I don’t think all Africans are simple. I’m neither stupid nor racist, and I would have followed Olivier to the ends of the earth, though I won’t go to the door of his family’s condo in central Dakar. Won’t knock at his first wife’s rooms in the same building; won’t knock at his second wife’s apartment several blocks away. Won’t meet his parents, his colleagues, his children. After five years of teaching and working and sharing a bed, this rooftop is as close as I’ll ever get to his African life.
Doudou is rubbing the backs of his knuckles up and down my arm, a round, smooth feeling through my flimsy cotton shirt. His arms are bare—he’s not afraid of mosquitos, not afraid of making French mistakes, not afraid of anything, apparently. People who see that big, wide African smile think it signifies either a profound simplicity or some kind of wisdom, but I think it’s just lack of imagination. I’m sex for Doudou, nothing more—I don’t suppose he could even imagine anything more. If I sleep with him, maybe I won’t either.
We’re in his small, close room off the courtyard. I don’t know what he’s done to get rid of the three guys with whom he shares it, but I suppose this is a common arrangement given all the foreign ladies who stop here on their “See the Real Africa” tours. As one of three white women on this trip, I’ll probably have to deal with the not-so-veiled hostilities of the sisters tomorrow morning, but after five years with Olivier I should be used to that. My hair is twisted into a bun—it’s what I do in the heat—and I’d’ve thought Doudou would want to take it down, but he’s not touching my hair, my face, or even my shirt; he just unzips his pants and reaches for mine. They’re cotton, too, flimsy and white with an elastic waistband, and he pulls them down over my hips, reaching for my underpants with his other hand.
Will I have to teach him everything? That hadn’t occurred to me. African men don’t kiss, of course—that I had known, though it obviously didn’t apply to Olivier, educated in Paris and then New York. I unbutton my shirt, unhook my bra, while Doudou watches, still with that everlasting smile—is he pleased? Bemused? I take his thick wrist, his large pink palm, and place it on my breast, covering the black-coffee back of his hand with my own blue-white skin, showing him how to press, caress—is he getting any pleasure out of this at all? And then the other hand, the other breast. What in God’s name do Olivier’s wives make of him? Of course, he is all they know. And maybe this is a language he doesn’t speak with them.
Doudou presses himself against me suddenly, backing me down onto the bed, and I feel how hard he is, urgent, total. I unbutton his shirt, too, but with his hands against me, I can’t quite see how to slip it off, so I just place one of my hands against his chest and then start to play, with the nipple, the thick skin, the curve in to his breastbone. He gasps and I feel triumphant. And then the other hand, and then both hands, and then he is trying, clumsy, obedient, to do the same thing to me. I have the French vocabulary for all of this, of course, but I can’t believe he does, and I don’t want to talk anyway, I want to shut my eyes and let him take me, only when I do, that’s exactly what he does, thrusting into me with an urgency that flares for a moment under my skin and then subsides into the heaviness of his flesh colliding, retreating, colliding, retreating. It’s so hot in here, so close, and he’s completely absorbed in his rhythm, his effort, not smiling now, but I can’t get anything solid, sustained, though now of course I really want it—
And then he’s done, falling into me in a rush, and I can’t bear the thought that all there is is this, and somehow I push him over, and then I’m sitting on top of him. He is absolutely astonished but heavy with exhaustion, and I’m gripping, pressing, and somehow he responds. Just a tiny lurch, a little tremor of hardness, but it’s enough to make me absolutely desperate, the longing rising like a fist, like a blow—
He has no idea, none, but he won’t resist or maybe he can’t. Somehow I take what I want, at least this, this thing I can take, and finally I do take it, and then I’ve got it, and then it’s over. Not the flood of satisfaction, not the washing through of relief, not the tender warmth of love or the sharp heat of desire or the collapsing of the future and the past and the him and the me, just this one stupid miserable moment. I contract, and then it’s over. I pull away from him and he from me and he seems happy to fall asleep. I pull up my underwear and my pants and stuff my bra into my purse and wrap my shirt around me, and I go back up to the rooftop and wait for the sun to come up.
The next day, we’re on the roof again, he and I, that corner the one patch of shade in the midst of solid sunlight. The rest of the tour has gone to the marketplace but I said I had a headache and stayed here. I knew someone would have to stay with me but I didn’t think it would be him. That smile again, so bright my eyes ache. His clumsy French. I think he’s going to ask me to do it again and I’m wondering how, in this language he barely speaks, I can say no, wondering whether, as I scrutinize his face, he will be hurt. I didn’t think he could be but perhaps I was wrong.
“Et mon cadeau?”
“Mon cadeau, chérie. Tu comprends?” He’s asking for his present, the word they use here for tip. With an edge to the smile, a darkness? Or is it just too much brightness reflected off the whitewashed walls, the dazzle dimming my eyes.
“Of course,” I say, surprised out of my French. I count out ten dollars, twenty, fifty, and he looks overwhelmingly pleased, but perhaps he’d’ve looked the same if I’d stopped at thirty, or twenty, or even ten. I never know what’s enough.
“Tu veux le faire encore?” Again? No.
“I could do what you want,” he says proudly in halting English that he’s clearly practiced. “I could marry you. In America. That is my dream.” No.
“You don’t like?” If the smile doesn’t change, I can’t read it. Or perhaps it is changing and that’s what I can’t see. Finally he shrugs but he still doesn’t move. I am the one who will have to go, down from the rooftop and into the courtyard, out from the courtyard and into the airport, over the ocean and back to America. The world erases itself around me and I try to imagine a person, a place, an economy, a history, that could make this story impossible. I stand there on the rooftop and try.