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She could hear MTV playing in the dining room and men’s voices outside talking about last night’s game. She walked to the bathroom, closed her eyes, and turned on the water. Then she turned it off. She thought of her aunt’s words the night before about having to buy bottled water, and she wondered what in the water made it so awful. She looked through the bars of the window and saw a green beetle on the sill, and beyond, an old woman hanging clothes. The beetle flew away, past the university’s English department and down, down to where a mosque was calling people to prayer in a language garbled by heat. She dressed, quickly, in a long skirt and a shirt and walked out of the room for breakfast.
Her mother was sitting at a plastic table near the buffet of the university’s guest house, watching four men talking about soccer players with American rap videos playing in the background. The girl ate with her mother and wondered why anyone would paint a dining room white if they couldn’t keep it that way.
“I went for a walk this morning,” her mother said. The girl looked up, uninterested, and nodded. She was hot already, and the rap music was too loud.
“See anything?” the girl asked, pouring milk in her cereal. Her mother smiled and the girl realized she wasn’t hungry. She kept eating, though, because she was just streets away from starving children.
Her mother said, “I saw a bird.”
“Really?” She was tired, and the sun coming through the brown curtains hurt her eyes. Her mother’s hair was in the sun, and it looked grayer than before.
“You saw a bird?” the girl said. The milk looked slightly yellow.
“It was beautiful, with big green feathers and this long beak. It flew away before I could take a picture,” her mother smiled. “Sometimes I wish I were a bird.”
You’re having a bad day when you’d like to be a bird, the girl thought, saying nothing. The girl sometimes wondered if she were a bitter, arrogant American tourist. She didn’t like feeling separate, uncomfortable in a place where carrying bananas and selling oranges on the streets supported the economy.
“It was cooler then, when I went,” her mother said. “You should go look around.”
The girl nodded and got up. Turning back, she asked, “When will we get to see Sam’s film?”
Her mother shrugged. “I don’t know if it’s done,” she said. “He said he still had to edit the footage for one kid.”
Feeling slightly compelled, the girl asked, “How many kids are there?”
She walked outside to utter brightness - equator, SPF 100 brightness - blinked and stared at the pale asphalt. She walked down the driveway, past a young man cutting the grass with a scythe. She passed the university students, dressed in slacks and skirts and blouses, and told herself they didn’t think she looked shabby. They stared at her, snuck glances. She felt they could see through her, as if part of their color and warmth was passing through her, but never absorbed.
Her mother told her it would be good for her to see how the other half lived. She agreed because she was sick of New England, its browns and greens and humidity, of her private school. She and her mother flew 20 hours from Boston to Amsterdam to Nairobi to Kampala, and there Aunt Katie picked them up in a cab driven by a man so dark she couldn’t tell him from the night. She thought he was beautiful.
She saw how red the dirt was. It reminded her of playing four-square in elementary school. When you got to the fourth square you could do anything, call watermelon or brick wall or make a rule that you could never get out. She had always wondered about the power of that square. She glanced across the street at a mosque, with high-headed minarets and green painted corners. Churches in America are never beautiful, she thought, just white with black trim. She came because she didn’t think Americans knew how to see beauty, and because she couldn’t remember how to be happy.
She and her mother passed tennis courts where a black man was teaching two white children. She smiled, thinking how superior white people think they are. She didn’t think she was better, just pastier and out of place. They found their cousins’ terra cotta house.
“You here to see Sam?” the woman who did laundry asked, holding the door open with her hip and holding a wet shirt. The girl noticed the woman’s hands, how dry and raw they were. She remembered when she had worked at a stable and her fingers had been calloused from carrying hay. Her palms had blistered from the rub of a broom and sweat, but she never minded because she thought there was something satisfying about pushing herself to the end of her strength.
“Yes, I’m Sam’s sister,” her mother answered. The girl noticed her mother smiled. The girl noticed her mother inch forward, as if to sneak past the woman in the door. The girl held back, prolonging conversation to test her mother.
“Do you know where Sam is?” the girl asked. The woman shook her head.
“I show you in?” the woman said, turning on one foot, and the girl could see how pale the bottom of the woman’s feet were. It reminded her of painting, how the primer always shows through whatever color is put on top.
The girl’s uncle was out, and her aunt was in the shower, so she was greeted by her cousins, Derek and Allie, and presented with granola and sweet bananas the size of her thumb. The apartment was small, with cement floors and bars on the windows. They had a balcony, where Derek’s towel hung. Out the window was what Derek called the jungle. He said that sometimes a monkey would come out of the mango trees and stick his black hands between the bars for food. Derek called the monkey Sir Reginald von Hungry. The girl smiled because that’s what he expected, and because she sometimes believed that pretend smiles could bring back her real ones.
That day the girl’s aunt took her and her mother off the university’s campus, and they found a small van meant to seat six people but which held close to 20. The girl’s aunt said it would take them to Bonda, to the school where she taught. A black man with an orange shirt yelled in Lugandan for people to get on until the van was so full, he had to leave the side door open and lean out into traffic.
She felt like a splash of white on a turquoise dress, opaque, draining.
A tall black man sat next to her and she could see the sweat on his forehead and the gaps between his teeth. Moving over, she whispered, “How long is the ride?”
“Not too far,” her aunt said. “Does this coin say 200 shillings?” Taking it, the girl could almost feel the gaze of the people and held the coin tighter.
“Yes.” The man beside her had leaned back and his elbow was pressed against her shoulder. She settled in as the van slowed.
“Damn,” her aunt whispered. “They ran out of gas.” Her mother looked confused. A breeze blew across the girl’s right arm. She checked quickly, and saw the man swing out of the side door.
“Jambo,” he said, and something else she couldn’t hear. The driver got out and someone took his place.
“Let’s go. We need to get out,” her aunt said impatiently. “I can’t believe we’re stuck in the middle of the road.” The man who had been sitting beside her suddenly appeared at the door.
“Wait. We are going to push.”
Surprised to hear comprehensible words, the girl lurched backwards. Her aunt nudged her from behind. “Hurry.”
“Wait, Miss. We will push. Just wait,” he said, and the girl stumbled.
“I-I can’t,” the girl said.
Her mother took her hand, but the girl was still turned when the man sighed and called out, “Jambo, Miss.”
Back at the guesthouse that night, the girl brushed her teeth with water bottled and wrapped in plastic. They had a small TV in the room and the girl flipped between the two channels. She knew she hadn’t deserved to be called Miss by that man. It was too respectful, too honorable, and being American she wasn’t used to courtesy.
“Turn if off, please,” said her mother.
The girl lay on her bed. All she could hear was Destiny’s Child playing in the next room and a mosquito. She rolled onto her stomach and traced the carpet, wondering what place America hadn’t ruined. She tried to meditate to keep her mind blank so that she wouldn’t dream. For the three years she was depressed, she didn’t have dreams, or even moon-like whispers of dreams. Sleep was tranquil and empty, and she liked it that way.
When her parents figured out she wasn’t just “in a funk,” as her mother put it, and she started medication, she began having dreams again. Vivid, terrifying Prozac dreams. She thought she was going insane. She longed for unfilled, forgiving sleep when she could ignore the fact that she existed. Her parents asked if she were okay and she told them she thought it was getting better, because, she thought, you can’t tell your parents that life has never really interested you.
Her fourth day in Africa, the girl’s aunt took her and her mother to a horseshoe of tourist shops on the outskirts of Kampala. Her cousins’ taxi driver, Frederick, drove them and the girl recognized him as the man who had picked her up from the airport.
Her aunt led her to a small shop. There were red Masai blankets with lumberjack checks and brown clay bowls that said Made in America. She almost laughed, wondering if tourists came for African souvenirs and accidentally bought generic Western products.
“What kind of blankets are these?” the girl’s mother asked, pointing. The woman sitting behind a rough wooden table said the Masai lived in the Savannah and herded cattle. She stopped and looked down into one of the Made-in-America bowls, waiting for the right words.
“They’re the only tribe left. They-” she stopped. “The government came and asked the Masai if they wanted to go to Nairobi, but they did not go.”
The girl’s mother listened. The girl didn’t like it when her mother pretended to be interested in African culture. She nudged her mother and pointed to a pair of earrings. Her mother glanced past her. The girl turned her head too, and saw a man dragging his body along the ground. His legs must be paralyzed, so he had cut old tires and tied them around his thighs so his knees didn’t scrape the pavement. He had his head up, looking at the girl’s mother and the Masai blanket. The girl shuddered and immediately felt cruel. It was not the man’s fault he looked like a snake nor really was it hers for being afraid. Ever since Eve we’ve been scared of snakes, the girl thought.
“Mom, can I?” she said, touching the veins of her mother’s hand because she wanted to protect her, to stop her from staring at that man. Her mother nodded and the girl took the earrings from their rusted rack and handed them to woman. Her mother paid 10,000 Ugandan shillings.
Back at the guesthouse, her mother headed toward the bathroom. The girl reminded her not to drink the water, then sat and peeled off her blue sneakers, feeling like an old set of crayons snapped and mashed so that all the colors were the same indistinguishable murk.
“I love you,” her mother said, leaning from the bathroom door with still-dry hair. She asked for her toothbrush, and the girl considered how amazing it was that people really seemed to care about things like plaque.
When the girl was five and learning to read and beginning to question why the alphabet needed K and C, her mother would read her Stellaluna or Mirette on the High Wire because she thought Disney’s stories were sexist.
When her mother finished she would ask, “How much do I love you?”
“Past the moon and the stars,” the girl would answer. Then her mother would kiss her and put on a tape of Raffi singing “Evergreen, Everblue” so the girl could fall asleep.
The next day she and her mother again walked to their cousins’ house, and her aunt and uncle called Frederick, their driver, to come pick up the family. The girl’s aunt said they were going to a mosque on top of the highest hill in Kampala.
“You want to go where?” Frederick asked, pulling out.
Her aunt said, “Verdi” and pulled Derrick to sit on her lap. He moved over and sat on the girl’s. She always assumed children know more about everything because they haven’t been taught rules yet. They don’t know the brushstrokes, the cross hatching. They don’t know how to mix colors to get the perfect shade of purple because they don’t know what purple is yet. The girl sometimes believes that knowledge ruins everything.
“Whose car is this?” her uncle asked from the front. The girl was sitting on the opposite side of the car from her mother. They had fought that morning, about nothing and everything. Her mother decided she was moping and rude and said so. Sometimes the girl wanted to slap her mother, hard.
She had hit only one person in her life.
“Can we have a Pokemon battle when we get home?’ Derek twisted around. The girl nodded, distracted.
“You don’t have your own car?” said her uncle.
She began to feel pins and needles in her thighs. Wrapping her arms around Derek, she shifted slightly. The car was too small.
“You can be Tortuga,” Derek said.
She moved her hands again so she stared at a scar on her left thumb. It was in the shape of a little x, or she supposed, a small cross. She had given herself that scar, carved in into the base of her thumb with a red tack. Red, because red is lucky. X for all the things she had done wrong. She pinched it with her right hand, until the lines became a little bloody. She never really wanted it to heal; it was one of the few things she felt was beautiful.
“Do you want to be Ponita?” Derek said.
The mosque at Verdi was larger than one across from the guesthouse. It had a tree which, in Boston, she never would have noticed. But here she missed trees. Green was rare, and she got used to the bright orange of clothing, the yellow of taxis, and the blue of the vans. She wanted to touch it, to feel the oval leaves and remind herself of the rough bark, so different from the waxy surface of the tropical plants in her uncle’s garden.
The mosque was empty, cool from the white cement walls and its height above the city’s smog. Glancing up, she saw the minarets and they reminded her of onions, and of Valentine’s Day when her parents would give her white chocolate Hershey’s kisses. She never really liked white chocolate. It was missing the richness of cocoa, the texture of sugar.
She waited outside because she felt oddly faithless, wearing a jean skirt and sneakers. Frederick stood leaning on the car. He checked his cell phone as she marvelled at the length of his fingers.
She glanced at her hands. The right one was marked in five places: a round pink scar from the summer after fourth grade when she scraped her hand on the pool wall, a long white line on her index finger from a cat food can, a burn from the toaster, a scissor nick, an old hangnail. Her right hand was strong, did the dirty work, endured the writing assignments and geometry proofs. Her left hand was dainty and unblemished, except for the X. She wondered if she had thought about which hand she should make it on, or just simply picked up the tack and started to scratch the skin.
“You like Uganda?” Frederick asked, and she looked up.
“Yes, it’s beautiful. Everyone dresses so nicely,” she said.
He smiled. “They dress sharp,” he said, touching the hood of the car. She looked at the dirt the tree grew out of. She detested small talk.
“I heard you were helping my uncle with his film,” she said.
Frederick nodded, looking up at the minaret. “Sam? Yes. I helped him find the children’s homes.” He sighed. She stood up against the tree, and was disappointed to feel the same greasy skin of the other African plants. With Frederick watching her, she walked over to the wall dropping behind the tree. Frederick came beside her.
“It’s beautiful, yes?” he said, smiling. He had a dimple at either end of his mouth. She saw a tin house and a man with dreadlocks walking in circles. She could taste the dirt in her mouth, so unlike the bite of sugar. She wasn’t sure what he meant.
“You’ve seen the storks?” he asked.
“Yes. They’re quite something up close.” Her eyes started to water and burn.
“Have you seen the film, Frederick?”
He answered, yes, and stepped up on the wall. She felt odd, distant, at peace, as if someone were explaining a simple blueprint and she wasn’t listening. She asked him what he thought of Americans.
He laughed. “I like them. They don’t know how to haggle. I always get full price.”
“Are they like Ugandans?” she asked, simply because she needed to know. She couldn’t comprehend what was wrong with her, with America, with the world. She needed to know why there were pictures of American porn stars taped to buildings in Kampala. He looked at her strangely. She kept staring up at the storks circling, the feathers burnt off their heads from eating from smoldering dumpsters next to starving children.
“Did you like the film?” she asked. He nodded.
“I did. You will see it?” he said.
“When my uncle has his screening,” she answered.
He shook his head. She stuck her hands in her pockets, thinking about how Americans haven’t suffered enough for beauty.
“You should see it now,” Frederick said.
“The film,” he answered. “To see what Americans are like.”
“But it’s about AIDS,” she said. “AIDS in Uganda, AIDS in Kampala.” She wondered if he hadn’t understood her.
“Your uncle, he made it, yes?” Frederick said. She nodded, confused. “Then it is about Americans, yes?” Frederick said. She touched her left thumb and felt selfish, as if she were hoarding a purple pearl that Frederick had just proved was plastic and she didn’t want to admit the loss.
“You want to know about Americans? Look at your aunt, your uncle, your little cousin. Look how they walk into a mosque with their shoes on. Look how they call me with a minute’s notice. Look how they leave me to wait here until they feel like going.” He stopped. She knew she had asked too much. “That is Americans.”
Derek ran up to her, demanding she play Ponita in a Pokemon battle. She walked backwards, away from Frederick, as she knew she was supposed to if you saw a bear. You’re not supposed to hold a bear’s gaze, she thought: Bears think eye contact is a challenge. But she met Frederick’s gaze.
Frederick drove her and her mother to the airport, in the middle of the day this time, so the girl watched the passage of bicycles and goat herders and children rolling tires along the road. She remembered what her grandmother had told her when she punched a boy in fifth grade. She’d explained that he deserved it for calling her a cry baby. Her grandmother smiled, and said, “Fear is the mother of hate.” She couldn’t understand how fear might have brought her to make his nose bleed. But she realized, now, that fear is the mother of everything. The nurturing mother of support, the vicious, alcoholic mother of rage, the overworked single mother of indifference. Fear is how humans survived the process of evolution, she thought. It protected us, preserved us. But we are becoming fearless.
She hadn’t hit that boy because she feared him, but because of that name. Because she didn’t know how to stop being sad and wanted to beat the answer out of him.
“We’re here,” her mother said, touching the girl’s arm. Her mother got out and walked to the back of the car to help Frederick with the suitcases.
The girl shook hands with Frederick, and he looked at her, challenging. She was breathing deeply. She realized she could no longer taste the haze, watching the white area around Frederick’s pupil.
“It’s beautiful here, Frederick,” she said, and squeezed his hand.
That’s the primer showing through, she thought, and let go.