Crimson Tundra

Amy Benson is a writer, wanderer and woodworker. She lives in Brooklyn.

The Morning They Came for Me

I was lying on the cool tile floor the morning they came for me. For 18 months, I’d known they might, had tried to imagine the moment, the magnitude of the confrontation. My eyes were closed, I was simply lying there, in a t-shirt and Jake’s boxer shorts. I heard – and felt – the vibration of a car door closing nearby and I knew. I stood, pulled back the pink sheet that I used as a curtain and took in their approach. The unselfconsciousness of their walking was appalling to me and my hands began to tingle. February in the Kalahari meant summer. The fact that it was 8am did nothing to diminish the furnace that was churning, and I became aware of how wet I was, how universally damp.

I opened the door immodestly, too nervous to think of changing clothes, slumped my shoulders and crossed my arms in an attempt to make less of my uncontained breasts.

They sat and their words cut the room. “So Amy. Do you know why we’re here?”

There were two of them, a man and a woman, she the more smug of the two, though her smugness, as it turns out, was a thin veneer and I was able to punch through it with a lie that came unthinkingly. I knew why they were there, but I would not be the one to say it.

“We’ve heard that you’ve been driving. That the jeep outside is yours.”

My tears surprised all of us. Not only did I not think I cared about my life in Botswana, it had also simply just been so long since I’d known my own feelings, so many months of white knuckling my daily existence. I exploded into sobs of relief and childish rage, excused myself to the adjacent room for a minute or two and let myself weep unselfconsciously before returning to the scene. Nonplussed thus far, she flung an obviously practiced line at me, enunciating, quite theatrically, each word.

“What we’ve heard, Amy, what we’ve heard, is that you drive everywhere. That you drive all around.”

“It isn’t true!” I said, explaining that I drove occasionally out of perceived necessity, but not much. It was this that prompted her to re-embody, to drop the performance and to allow the beginnings of compassion to move across her face. I was a 31-year-old woman sobbing in a threadbare, sweat-soaked t-shirt and boxer shorts, had until their arrival, been entirely alone in my concrete house in this slum of the Kalahari, and she seemed, finally, to see me.

But, in fact, it was entirely true. Truer than I imagined she knew. They’d have come sooner if they knew the extent of my crime, her face would never have broken. Later, I would never have heard from the man in the room that he respected what I’d done. They didn’t know and we would pit the two bodies of knowledge against one another, the knowing of how far I’d gone and the knowing of who’d told them. Neither of us would betray our secrets in the end.

The jeep was mine, I did drive everywhere, I had been all around. I’d driven that thing to Cape Town and back for christ’s sake, more than 900 miles each way through the South African bush. I’d driven it as far west as you could go, through the Kalahari, where sand blew in a constant hazy line across the road, to the Namibian coast, where there’s an old German outpost on the South Atlantic. I’d taken it on a ferry over to Zambia to spend a week on a tiny island in the middle of the Zembezi River, an island that belonged to a mad white man, an Australian who came to Africa in the 90s and who burned down his own bungalow while I was there – high on psychedelics – and the same night had to be rescued from the middle of the river, having tethered himself and his broken down boat to a dead tree not far from the edge of Victoria Falls. I’d driven through the Tuli Block in the country’s east, where hardly anyone went, where I just barely escaped an elephant stampede while attempting a self-driven safari in a car entirely unmade for it. The jeep and I had been stuck in the sand in the belly of Botswana – the Central Kalahari Game Reserve – where the country’s indigenous still cower and cling to their 35,000-year-old culture, despite the government’s efforts to extinguish them by, among other thug tactics, cutting off their water supply – a damning move in that hot, dry land. The hyper legitimate fear of lions prevents anyone with half a brain going more than a foot or two from their car in the CKGR and it was nearly a day before a family of indigenous passed by on a water run and helped to dig me out.

I’d been around.

The piece of driving paraphernalia I got the most utility out of in those blearly Botswana days was the black wig I’d asked Jake to bring on one of his early visits. I had long reddish blonde hair, but I kept the wig in the glove compartment and any time I got in the car to drive, at least until I was out of Botswana, I would tuck my hair and head into this black, banged, shoulder-length wig, and tie a scarf around my head. I usually wore sunglasses, too. The thing about Botswana, back then at least, is that, though it is the size of Texas, only two million people live there and it is incredibly difficult to find any place at all to be anonymous. There is nationalism in Botswana, but underneath it all, people are still members of a tribe – most of them are Tswana – and they practically all either know one another, or are actually related. A white person stands way, way out if you’re not in one of its two tourist towns, the closer of which was more than 500 miles away from where I lived. And so the wig seemed called for and, though I thought it pretty much did the job – at least outside the borders of my small village and the town nearby – one time I was driving along slowly through the bush with my windows open and through the open window the driver of an oncoming truck greeted me by name, casually, of course unable to comprehend the anxiety this caused me. If they knew it was me under the black hair, I wonder what they made of my driving outfit. It’s impossible to know.

It’s true that I’d been unhappy in Botswana, but, nonetheless, I remained deeply conflicted about the idea of leaving. Of course, I could have left at any time, could have picked up the phone and said three words and been swept up into the motion of leaving, the thing, at that point, beyond my control, a momentum entirely outside of myself. But this was something I could not bring myself to do. I’d been living in Sese for a year and a half, an absolutely unbelievable amount of time for as unsettled as I was. The life simply didn’t suit me. I had a hard time getting it up for the villagers I lived among, for the teachers I worked with, for the children whose stares were constant and unwelcome. The heart of it, really, was that I was a cynic, was fairly certain that what I did or did not do in Sese wouldn’t amount to much in the end. There was too much inertia here – generations of it – and I understood too little, almost nothing really, about how, why or in what direction to nudge people. I had only platitudes, and I’d never been any place where they seemed more stupid than here.

The confronters didn’t stay long. I couldn’t tell you exactly how long, but it wasn’t more than half an hour. Nothing was decided, they had to caucus, but this was one of two or three rules that had been described to us as absolute. If you drove a car, you were finished, booted out of the country within days. And this would have been the case for someone who had moved a friend’s car from one space to the next in a parking lot. I had done much, much more – I actually owned that jeep out front.

I lied on the ground once again – the cool tile – and wept mindlessly after they left. I was an empty vessel for once, a rare reprieve from the civil war that typically rages in my mind, that had sustained such a high tempo in Botswana that I’d insisted on a CAT scan at one point, convinced by migraine of the presence of a massive tumor. A couple of times my head pain was so alarming that I was convinced the fumes from the parafin lanterns, that I (and everybody else) used to see in our electricity-less village at night, were slowly poisoning me and I’d gone in the middle of the night to sleep in the back of the jeep. The night I became concerned that the headaches might indicate malaria, I drove the 30 minutes through the bush to town at midnight – a black, unpredictable, terrifying sand path through the desert – to the hospital to have my blood drawn. They had a television in the emergency room waiting area and it was the same night that Philip Seymour Hoffman overdosed and I sat there watching the BBC News coverage of his death and, because of this, I know it was February 2, 2014. I cried, absurdly, over the death of this actor and the the pain and uncertainty in my head, while I waited for the results. I did not have malaria. Or meningitis. Or a tumor.

I was, to my horror, and as always, in perfect health.

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Juxtaposed: Discreet Stories, Old & New

The paragraphs of life that have gone well for me have always been fleeting and I wonder now if there will come a moment that will divide my life, forever after which I’ll have been cracked open, will have come to know that the struggle has been for nothing, that all the strivings of my lifetime won’t add up to something whole in the end, but rather remain islands of prosperity or of defeat, many of which I won’t be able to recall after a time. In fact, I believe this to be the only viable scenario. This discreet knowledge is the reason I’ve never been able to get married. Or to go home.

This is a paragraph I wrote while in Botswana sometime during this hemisphere’s winter – June, July, August, I don’t remember. I do remember that I was hungover when I wrote it and, unless I’m in Brooklyn in the wintertime, eating Mexican food and drinking Bloody Mary’s with Laura, I’m always depressed when I’m hungover.

Hangovers are not a new thing for me. When I was 24 years old, I moved to Brooklyn where I shared a room with an alcoholic boyfriend and an apartment with a batch of roommates whom, amongst the often rotating cast, held the following jobs: bartender, actor, theater producer, brewery distributor, waiter and musician.

We drank.

This was South 3rd Street in Williamsburg, back when S. 3rd was a Puerto Rican hold-out amidst the spread of the young, white professional, a place you could and did still see home cooked murals of the dead teenagers go up overnight on the sides of bodegas, where the survivors would light a nightly vigil inside of halved cardboard boxes and others would plot revenge; where muggy Saturday mornings were filled with the sounds from the island pouring out of tricked out Cadillacs; and where grandmothers perched faded pillows inside of window sills so as not to bruise their elbows throughout their daily surveillance. Where kids still skipped, playful and insidious, through pried-open fire hydrants.

South 3rd Street was a proper noun in the lexicon of our lives. The individual words had no meaning when you spoke them: souththirdstreet. It wasn’t a nicety of geography, or an address, but an event, a frame of mind, a shared hallucination. When we say it in retrospect, which we rarely do these days, we’re talking about a time in our history, one for which, among our group of friends, we have as much reverence and loathing as some do 1960s America. “When we were on South Third Street,” as if on a drug, as if everything in the years since has been a form of rehab given to very liberal ground privileges.

We drank a lot.

I recall a friend asking me during this period if I wanted to go hiking upstate on a weekend and that my response, after a moment’s consideration, was that I was not capable of hiking on a Saturday because I would, of course, have a hangover from the night before.

Alcoholics and addicts endure heartbreaks, we know this and we waver between pity and blame. They break things that can’t be fixed, their creative lives are squandered rather than enhanced, which was surely the goal. People die from this. But my demons have been a slow burn, always. I’ve woken up in hotel rooms with no memory of having checked into them, had sex with people I wished I hadn’t, been lucky to drive a car or even a motorcycle home without incident and missed a little work, but overall my stories are, mostly, tame. I, again mostly, keep it together. It is the insidious slow burn that I am speaking of here, the ways in which daily life is less crisp, in which my food doesn’t taste as good, in which my body swells, in which my depressive tendencies nudge through my defenses, in which my thinking feels a beat slower when I’m drinking.

Not drinking, as an activity or a lifestyle, is not something I’ve done much of over the past 12 years and spending the last 14 months living alone in the desert has brought this fact into a focus I can’t seem to get a proper handle on. It’s brought me to the beginning and the beginning, there doesn’t seem to be any arguing about, has to be Cindy.

There was a period in my life, which spanned from the age of 15 to that of 18, which was defined by a family neighbor named Cindy and that I have been trying to understand. But every time I tell myself the story, every time I write it down – a thing I have done again and again these solitary months – I have written it for effect. I’ve used the experiences I’ve gathered into myself through booze and drugs and splashed them across a page, in anything but plain English, for an effect I haven’t earned.

I started writing about these neglected memories in an attempt to explain (mostly to myself) how I ended up in New York. But it morphed into a revelation of what underpinned that move and perhaps every one since. I have been afflicted with a restlessness all my life, with a forgotten dream I want desperately to remember, with a seeking that has no answer. After all, I found Cindy. She wasn’t the one who came looking for me.

Things I know happened during those three years, in no order at all: I repeatedly sat in the middle of my bed late at night with the barrel of my father’s loaded handgun pressed up against the roof of my mouth. I repeatedly slept with Cindy’s 40-something doctor boyfriend when she was out of town and she knew of and encouraged this behavior for the sake of the “expansion of my sexual horizons.” When Cindy’s business began to falter, we used my connections to procure large amounts of cocaine, which we then sold in smaller quantities for profit. I stopped attending high school regularly and manufactured a lie about a rape in order to prevent myself being expelled from the expensive, private, all-female Catholic school. I called the San Antonio Police Department in a paranoid frenzy to “turn myself in” and was, bewilderingly, rejected and sent home. I drove a burnt orange 1969 Chevy Blazer into the Gulf of Mexico and left it there.

*************

Cindy had no business in Windcrest, the south Texas suburb where my family established itself in the closing years of my father’s 30-year Navy run – a place where so many retired military families and couples settle that it isn’t unknown for neighbors to refer to one another by rank, rather than name. At 40 she was the youngest person on our block by ten years. Her feet were forever propped up into pumps, her dyed auburn hair fluffed up into a frenzy, her cigarette stained fingernails masked with red paint, her jeans a size too small. Her car, a leased black Lexus with a perpetual wax job, Joan Jett’s voice creeping out of its windows, was not the sensible grey Camry or Cadillac (this distinction dependent on rank) that you typically saw.

Her presence was odd and this was not the kind of place where odd was something a person could particularly be. She would come and go within three years on a block and in a neighborhood where people tended to settle in. Our own house had been inherited from my mother’s parents, my grandfather (army) had bricked over the tiny yard and constructed a latticework canopy, my father had planted citrus trees and grapevines.

At 15 my restlessness began to manifest into the understanding that to earn my own money was to know freedom and after failing as a dish busser at a motel diner three miles from our house (I could walk it), I created a flyer for myself and my varied services (lawn waterer, carpet vacuumer, etc) and gave them to all of our neighbors, including her.

Cindy lived alone with two shaggy white maltese dogs who had been trained to piss and shit on stacks of old newspaper, which laid on top of a plastic tarp in a corner of her bedroom, and so to work for her was to gather these newspapers up twice a day and to lay out fresh ones. It was to empty glass ashtrays, to vacuum the pool, to prune the bushes, to polish her glass shelving, to scrub the dog piss from the carpet, to wax the Lexus, to transform, after Halloween, the entire sun room into a Christmas display of wooden train tracks and elf figurines and to scatter fake snow. The older of the two maltese fell into the pool one morning and drowned and Cindy attempted to resuscitate it with mouth to mouth and on that day to work for her was to fold the corpse up into a towel and to drive it to the vet, a thing which she could not face.

For a long while, I was a child and she was an adult and I would walk back across the street on my lunch breaks and eat bowls of dry Fruit Loops with my fingers and sit on a stool and watch the interior design channel on the kitchen television with my mother. And over time I must have stopped doing this because I know I began taking my lunches with Cindy, which meant driving to the Starbucks on Broadway (there was one closer but this was the more fashionable of the two) and ordering frappuccinos (my first experience with coffee) and drinking them in the car on the way back to Windcrest. She never ate solid foods during the day and very often dinner was a fistful of cherry twizzlers and some form of vodka (lemon drop martinis were a favorite), which she kept in the freezer. I – a swimmer, a runner – would hold my breath and roll down my window when she lit her post-frap cigarette.

We would detour every once in a while to a second hand clothing store in a better part of town where she would force me to remove my baggy t-shirt and jean shorts and dress me up in couture, liking the way the fabrics stuck to my small, 16-year-old by now, frame. She had an adult child, a daughter somewhere in her early 20s back in West Texas, but she was chubby and Cindy resented it and for a series of other reasons, that one included somewhere, they no longer spoke. She bought me Armani and Perry Ellis and Gucci and Versace and Chanel and a woven thong bikini, which I kept hidden in a drawer for months until I was emboldened, surely by drugs, to wear it to a late-night pool party we threw. I kept it for years, hauled it around with me to Austin and the Bronx and Syracuse and Brooklyn, but that was the only time I ever wore it.

And throughout all of this, I was mostly silent. A thing I have never been able to untie myself from, even in adulthood, is that I am shy and withholding for quite a long while with people who come into my life and that making friends is, in general, an agonizing and prolonged process, which requires undue persistence on the part of the other person. And so, necessarily, she revealed herself to me. She revealed herself to me on the drives to Starbucks and from her bed when I would come to clean the toilets and she was too depressed to get up and to work, still swirling from a recent divorce. From the desk in her home office, in between the many phone calls she would take from the headset she tucked in around the auburn hairs. Her voice was thick and she was almost always smoking (Virginia Slims) and tapping ashes into glass ashtrays. She revealed herself to me also in drawers. I began staying over to watch the dogs (singular ‘dog’ after the drowning) when she went away on business and I went through everything and her life as presented to me in drawers consisted of: sex (condoms); smoking (Virginia Slims); opulence (forgotten wads of cash); solitude (divorce papers); nostalgia (faded pictures of Cindy holding trays of cocktails at the Playboy Club with a white puff strapped to her ass 20 years prior); and cherry twizzlers (cherry twizzlers).

And so because I am bad at making friends and was even worse in childhood, and because we had moved to San Antonio only a couple of years prior, Cindy became my friend, more and more my only friend, and I stopped being a child and she stopped being an adult and we knotted ourselves together somewhere in the middle.

We slipped into a sort of cultic devotion to one another – her, post-divorce, me, post-nomad. We were each the one the other truly trusted, the rest of the world a sort of series of apparitions, which we endured and humored, but we were ourselves, living inside of our best, most vibrant moments, when it was just the two of us. I would liken it now to those first weeks of love with someone new, but this was a different kind of madness and it lingered between us for two years. She was in every way the counterpoint to my mother and I think I detected, when they were in one another’s company (rarely), a triumphant air about Cindy, the knowledge that my loyalties had shifted, that all the hard-wired truths of my childhood were coming unglued, that I’d found in her a refuge from the military precision I’d forever found chafing, that she was now in command of my further education and molding.

And, for a while, she was.

Cindy ran a chancy business from her home office, from the headset, and my duties around the house expanded, over time, to include filing, taking messages, faxing (you still faxed things in 1998) and looking through hotel and resort brochures to compile enormous databases of information about their sizes, their locations, whether or not they had a spa. She planned and executed conferences and meetings for medium-sized businesses, and sometimes the clients poured in, she was flush, and sometimes the whole thing seemed cursed, her single employee would quit (again), she’d begin sleeping with a client (again), she’d fracture a vertebrae in her neck jet skiing in the Caribbean and amass an enormous hospital bill.

Meanwhile, I had begun, in the only portion of my life I kept separate from Cindy, cutting straws into thirds, buying razor blades in ten packs and snorting cocaine. Before I’d ever had a drink, before I’d ever taken a drag off a joint, before I’d ever had a fuck, I had snorted quite a lot of cocaine. And for this, Cindy cannot be blamed. One of the happy things that has happened to me as I’ve aged is that I have begun to imagine the future, when I let it turn over in my mind, in terms of how it will feel, rather than look. There has been a shift in my perception and the future, in my imaginings, has become a sensual place where I may or may not experience the world in given ways, but back then the future was a visual thing, a movie reel, and I imagined myself in various roles. I wanted to embody all of them, to live 100 different story lines at once, harbored zero regard for my well being or even particularly for my personhood.

The main thing was to nail the role and this I did pretty well. I have a particular talent for actualizing things I begin spreading rumors about (even if they’re just to myself), have always known that the best way to get something done is to say out loud that you’re going to do it, believe strongly in self-fulfilling prophecies. To whisper something out loud is to roll up a tiny snowball and then, if you’re inclined to go stand at the top of a hill, it’s out of your hands, the thing has a life of its own. I mentioned casually a couple of years ago that I was thinking about the Peace Corps and, because of this remark, for the past 15 months, have been trapped in southern Africa, having done little more than roll up a tiny ball and stand at the top of a steep hill.

And so the idea settled over my mind that my next great role should be young American drug addict and I bustled around setting up props. I had saved up my money and bought a small, round glass bedside table, the kind of wrought iron thing that you could lift the piece of glass from and I set the glass on my bedroom desk and loaded an enormous pile of sugar onto it (I didn’t know then that actual coke was generally dealt with in smaller piles) and I would stare at this mound and shrug and delight in the newness of it the way another child might delight in a new pair of shoes and I left it there for weeks and in this way rolled up my tiny ball.

Cocaine is everywhere. It’s as ubiquitous as a pack of cigarettes if you just simply ask and so I asked my brother’s pot dealer and I held onto the miniature baggie she sold me for a week, would massage it between my fingers, the little rock hard and sterile smelling and not at all the loose sugar I’d expected. I didn’t tell anyone – not even my brother – was alone in my bedroom the night I finally tried it, sat with crossed legs on the furry carpet that my mother had installed a few years prior and did like the dealer had told me: I chipped at the rock, pounded with my palm at what came off of it under my plastic learner’s permit license and scraped and chopped at it with the permit’s edge until I’d formed a short thin white line on the round glass. I hadn’t yet acquired a pretension about the denomination of the bill I used so I rolled up a $1, made a tight cyclone out of it and sniffed at the powder with my right nostril. It took a couple of tries to get it in there, to overcome the timidity of my nose, the revulsion to the foreign thing – I’d never even smoked a cigarette. But as I sat hugging my knees waiting for something to happen, I smiled and bounced my legs up and down a little, giddy and free and expecting to like it.

And like it I did.

I liked it so much that I began doing it every day. A little sniff in the mornings. Then more. I rapidly moved beyond the capacity of my brother’s pot dealer to supply me and she introduced me to the two Mexican nationals who supplied her – I don’t remember their names but they lived in an apartment adjacent to a trailer park a convenient ten minute drive from our house – San Antonio is one of those cities in which neighborhoods can flip on a dime – and I began spending evenings inside that apartment, a dark four walls. Newspaper had been plastered over the windows and I was always there among two other young girls – probably not as young as I was – who the Mexicans called “our ho’s” and one of them was always chain smoking clove cigarettes. Stains on the one love seat made me shy to sit on it at first, I’d pull up a paint bucket and turn it on its end to sit down, but soon enough I didn’t care and we’d spend hours inside that apartment, just waiting, always waiting, for some delivery, the clove cigarettes permeating everything. Every once in while we’d go for a drive, in one of their trucks and I’d be squashed in the middle of the bucket seat and one of them would scold the other with regard to his speeding, “Not while we’re carrying, man. Not while we’re carrying.”

I didn’t learn to smoke myself until I confessed the whole business to Cindy – it would be first her Virginia Slims then I’d move on to menthols, convinced they kept me high longer. Had I not told Cindy, the whole thing might have ended sooner. I wouldn’t have had enough money to keep it up, though this I guarded against. In addition to working for her, I had picked up a weekend job as a receptionist at a gym and after that a gig at the Jiffy Lube on Austin Highway – I labored under the cars, in the “pit,” with my hands overhead all day long, tightening and untightening screws and hollering things up to the ground floor and building for myself enormously grotesque biceps, which looked strange on my shrinking frame. I remember a period when I would knock on the doors of people I’d met – one of the Mexicans’ ho’s, Reggie, the manager of the gym where I’d worked, people I knew could potentially get me high after the Mexicans disappeared (I never found out what happened to them, they were simply not there one day and then were never there again) and they wouldn’t have seen me for a while and they would gasp. I was small to begin with and had lost 10 or 15 pounds to my habit.

But I did tell Cindy. I stumbled over it, let the words come out of my mouth, early on enough that it wasn’t yet totally obvious. I expected a stunned response, to be shunned, to be hospitalized, to be arrested, to have crossed a line that was farther to the right than anything we’d broached before. But Cindy was not that kind of woman. Cindy was the kind of woman who asked if I could get her some. “I don’t think anyone who has ever had a coke habit could have a line placed in front of them and not want it, not inevitably do it.” I know this now to be untrue, but this is how she felt and one night, probably that night, I got Cindy high and this night, whenever it occurred, I don’t remember it, divided our lives. From then on, coke was our focus, coke was our bond, coke was what we talked about and the reason we worked. And for the entire time, I was never older than 17.

From beginning to end, Cindy and I’s run, in its new incarnation, was almost exactly a year. I became a parlor trick after that, after I started doing it at school in the bathrooms – a few of the girls discovered me and they’d take me to their houses and gather a group in a circle around me and have me snort a giant earthworm of a line and they would yelp and gasp and be delightfully horrified at my tolerance. My mother kept an envelope in her closet, money my father would give her for Christmas or for her birthday and she had been saving it for years, for what I’m not sure. My parents have the money to go to Europe to buy expensive jewelry to purchase beach and lake houses, but they never, ever do. They are frugal and unpretentious and I imagine that this money was treasured and its eventual use meant to be thoughtful and wrought with a minor amount of guilt and I began taking it, a little bit at a time, until eventually it was all gone, all gone up my nose. I pawned their things. Small things, I’m not sure they ever knew. Cindy drove me to a strip club once, convinced we could support our habit if I took my clothes off and she waited in the car while the manager asked me, alone in his office, to give him a lap dance and while his back was turned for a moment I ran out, back to the car, humiliated and exhilarated and confused by the combination. I stopped pretending to go to high school and started going to San Diego, Memphis, LA and New York on “business” with Cindy and we hid our baggies of cocaine in our underwear on the planes.

We could snort an eight ball between the two of us in a night and I became convinced that the veins in my arms were collapsing.

Once, after leaving Cindy’s late to make the ten second walk back across the street to our house, I crawled right back out of my bedroom window with my sleeping brother’s stolen car keys. I drove for hours in the dark, my reality melting into a horror of paranoid delusion that left me convinced I was being followed – at a distance – by a pack of cop cars. Finally, unable to sustain the hours of anxiety that had unfurled out onto the highway, where I’d come to complete stops and exit my car to scream desperately in the direction of my phantoms, I called 911. To my pulsing mind, it seemed my only recourse. I couldn’t lead them home. I couldn’t be busted for evading arrest. I called 911, gave them my location, left my car on with the door swung open and let my cell phone drop to the middle of the street while I busied myself with facing a bit of shrubbery, my hands raised high in surrender.

One patrol car pulled up and soon another. The officers exited their vehicles with a crouched confusion, looking toward the shrubs that appeared to be menacing me. “What the…fuck?” the older one inquired, looking directly into my eyeballs, ascertaining that the only immediate threat posed in the ludicrous situation we now shared was from the insane girl before him. Immediately my mind exploded with clarity, the real cops pulling me back into reality, and I realized what I’d done. It dawned on me that I was still holding my arms up. I mumbled something about being sorry for the confusion and wanting to go home and the two of them stared, dumfounded, exchanging uncertain looks before the older one took a step forward, gazed at me as if to say “I hope you realize what a break you’re getting right now, young lady,” and told me to go straight home.

Other things happened this year. I learned to smoke crank, learned that it eased the comedown, learned to drive a motorcycle because the enforced concentration of driving one was the only thing that could give me a moment’s peace. It required so much concentration to ensure that I wasn’t going to die, that it was the only time I didn’t think about cocaine.

What I recall most acutely from this period, this period that as I turned 32 in October became 15 years removed from my daily life, is that I was an addict. This may seem an obvious enough jump, but to be an addict is to be something different from the person who runs, full of adrenaline, from a strip club to a parked car laughing; it is, for me, to be someone who, late at night, alone in her room, crawls on her hands and knees and is fully desperate and out of her mind and wants to find a morsel of white powder that maybe she, at some earlier moment, dropped and now needs to find, needs to suck on. Someone who, if she can’t find it, sits on a bed and holds a handgun, thinking she probably won’t use it but needing to hold it, needing to find another focus, something that is not the need in her chest. This is what I remember most. The moments alone at 2 a.m., scratching at my skin, staring for two, three, four hours at the small crack under my closed bedroom door, looking for a shadow to cross, for an intruder who never shows.

*****************

The need in my chest has shifted over time but never gone away, never become fully silent. I stopped doing cocaine abruptly a few weeks before turning 18 and have never touched it again, fought with Cindy, watched her drive a U-haul truck off our block and never heard another piece of news about her life, but that was not the end of this thing. It was the beginning.

I can picture my maternal grandfather pouring a glass of wine for the two of us, in his 90s now, explaining to me how he quit drinking two decades prior, slowly zoning in on the idea that “not drinking” to him had something to do with his personal ban on whiskey. I can picture the locked cabinet on my paternal grandmother’s liquor cabinet, a problem even in her 80s and I know that celebration in my family always includes fresh limes, from the citrus trees my father planted, squeezed into glasses full of gin and tonic and Texas-shaped ice and I would not change this. These are our ties, this is how we know we are home and safe, that the circle has been drawn.

But here alone in my concrete house in Botswana, I wonder about being an addict, I wonder why the joy has been drained from a glass of wine when I’m here alone. I fall backward in time and can’t see the lines anymore. It isn’t the first time that my past has become my present, that the lines have blurred.

**************

The man who was the man in my life for five of the last eight years decided he was done with it in what seemed to me a swift instant. I feel certain he would describe it differently, would call to mind a tortured inching away from me and into the protection of his own dignity, but of course that isn’t how it seemed to me. I only got to hear about it after the progression had climaxed and I was in no way equipped to cope with the news.

For a long time, my years with him existed in my being as vast, raw swaths of undigested experience, overwhelming memories that I was not able to dismiss, as my conscious mind wanted to, as sentimental. They remained critical to who I was and where I was going, and yet I could not decipher the transcript. And so I stopped trying to. I did a lot of things when Garrett and I broke up – I took piano lessons, signed up for welding classes, I volunteered at a bakery and I dyed my hair orange – but mainly I drank wine by the magnum and fell back into ancient habits in ways I could get my mind around. Snorting adderall is not, after all, the same thing as snorting cocaine but here we find ourselves awash in semantics and split hairs, and it didn’t take long before I wound up in the hospital with a palpitating heart. When I was 25 a doctor informed me that my heart murmurs inside of my chest, which it isn’t supposed to do, and there isn’t any way to tell if my incessant jumpstarting of it has contributed to the phenomenon or if I was born with a malady, but the reality on the ground is that an amount of adderall someone else might be able to snort or swallow and get away with had me naked from the waist up on a hospital bed at 4am in Bushwick. That night there was an obese man on a bed to the left of mine with gangrenous feet and various nurses continually discovered and disseminated the news that it was from these rotting extremities that the overwhelming smell emanated. A drug deal going on between the men in the beds to my right was fantastically overt and seemed to draw the distress of exactly no one. There was human feces on the ground and there were orderlies who argued about whose job it was to remove it.

After we broke up, for men I mostly sought out strangers and kept them that way (one notable night I left a bar near my office, having gone in when it was sunny and come out when it was black and torrential, and asked an absurdly good looking kid with an umbrella to walk me to the train, during which time I suggested he walk me to his apartment instead. He said he worked as a model, that he was 23, and I was nearly 30 and he probably lived in a box in Brooklyn but was housesitting this night and we had sex in the bay window of the Park Avenue apartment and afterward he began to read me some poetry he had written. I dressed, and I left him naked in the doorway with his notebook in-hand, calling after me to ask my name, which I refused to give.). But I did date a little and one of these men was very smart and very good and I confided in him my fear that I was an alcoholic, an addict and he would, again and again, correct me: a lush. I was a lush, not an alcoholic, although I’m not sure I fully comprehend the difference. I think maybe he meant I am a seeker of pleasure, an ecstasy junkie, a glutton, a misanthrope of moderation.

But here alone there is very little pleasure left in my drinking. When I began writing this account I’d given up booze for three weeks. Since going into the capital to see friends this isn’t true anymore, but I currently don’t have any alcohol in my house and, as long as I’m alone here, I hope to keep it that way.

***************

It seems over the course of these 14 months that I’ve seized a great many answers and then lost them. I suspect that I am never going to plateau, to even out, to know anything all that fully. Knowledge, forgiveness, wisdom if I’m lucky, might flitter into and out of my mind all my life, I’ll grow in spurts and shrink in others, and none of the answers will reveal themselves in the end. In the middle, maybe. But a swift breeze and they’ll be lost again.

And in some of those moments I think, probably, I’ll have a drink.

The Beginning, Examined

About memory, science will call a rational person to be mistrustful. To be wary of the seduction of it, to note the certain difference between an experience and the story of that experience stored in one’s mind.

Indeed, our memories tell us stories. Convincing ones, so compelling in their narratives one fails to recognize the foreign, even perverse, idea that nearly the entirety of one’s life is so unremarkable, so utterly plain, one casts it aside, can’t use it, has to make up stories to fill in the blanks.

Changes, significant moments, endings. These are the only things we get to keep and even these, precarious.

The psychological present lasts three seconds. A life lived in three second increments, the rest blurry, unreliable, made up.

Three seconds. The simple, the every day, are gone in a flash, lost forever, and yet these are the moments that comprise our lives. These are the moments strung together into the novel, the one we’ve all written, so that when they ask us – and they will ask us – we have something coherent to say. This is true even during, perhaps especially during, a trauma. It’s why people can’t remember car accidents. The car steady through the intersection, the next moment crunched into a pretzel with no witnesses to what occurred in between.

And so if I want to tell you a story, I ask myself, am I speaking about something that’s true? And I suppose I am speaking here about the fiction my mind takes as truth.

I look for clues, facts. The evidence unbetrayed by a biased mind. What was it like in the beginning? Those first two months.

Eunice.

I lived with a woman called Eunice.

Eunice was a fertile woman who had born five children, three of whom were still living, the others gone for reasons that were difficult to tease out. She had given these five children to a husband involved in politics in South Africa, for that was where she originated, and, for reasons equally vague but to do with those politics, they’d fled from there a handful of decades past and built a small home on a hill in eastern Botswana. At the foot of that hill, a school was eventually built, a college where the country teaches its teachers, and to their small home on their quarter acre plot they added structures over the years. After her husband died those structures became, according to Eunice, the reasons she had something to eat. She rented them to young girls, 18, 19, all of whom trotted down the hill in the mornings to attend the teacher’s college. She was the kind of woman who, the more you got to know her, the younger she became, was so hard-wired by now for the life she’d been born into that she was transcendent, seemed not to know that 78 was too old to unload a pick-up bed full of firewood and so she would, carrying one log at a time with the arm not assigned to her cain, hobble back and forth between the truck and the storage shed.

Serowe, where she and her husband had spotted their hill, was a village, albeit a big one, and she warned of “town life,” where, it was inferred, a girl could get herself into trouble. Trouble was warded off here by a curfew of sunset, and so she and I and the remaining ghostly son with whom I had a mutual avoidance contract, had our evenings together. The renters kept firmly to themselves, the only hints of their existence a single lit bulb in a window, the odd swoosh of old water tossed into bushes.

She took her meals during the day, I’d find evidence of them all over the house. Plates capped by other plates cradling leftover beans and wheat, rarely meat, for it was expensive and Eunice had little in the way of money. What little she did have seemed to be kept, at all times, either under the cushion of a chair in the living room or in her bra.

Eunice was satisfied with the foods to which she had become accustomed. Once, when her granddaughter came to visit, we took her in the antique pick-up to the market in the morning and she loaded a garbage bag full with greens, spending the rest of the day sprawled with her short legs stuck straight out in a V in front of her on a straw mat in the sun. She picked through them, chopping off the roots and, by way of washing, throwing the remnants into a bucket of water. The next day she cut the whole of it up into tiny pieces, which she boiled in salt, then laid inside of shallow baskets to dry in the sun. She sat posted in a chair, guarding the goods from chickens, and watched as a heavy wind blew by, which took half of the vegetables with it and, in her old croak of a voice, she said, defeated, “my morogo…” and this is still how I hear the Setswana word for vegetables in my head. In that ancient wheeze.

We were able to salvage most of it, which she kept stored in glass jars in a closet next to a foot-crank sewing machine and and she would reconstitute it with water and salt and packets of MSG, and it was this that I would find on her squirreled-away plates, with the beans and the wheat. I would offer her tea in the evenings, making it for myself more to pass the time than for an affinity for bush tea, and she would take a cup from me and pour into it four or five spoonfulls of sugar and it was three weeks before she looked down one night when I got up from my chair and said “tea?” and let a smile spread over her face and, still looking down, confessed that she does not like tea.

These evenings and nights I would pull on the flimsy handle that opened her front door, the same one that came clear off into my hand six weeks in, and find her either spread on her regular perch – a short couch formed to her round shape and laden with old woman paraphernalia – a crochet needle stuck into an amorphous square of yarn, reading glasses, folded fabrics for keeping her warm – or sitting on the floor with her feet stuck out in front of her like a child. Sometimes she was awake, but more often she was in the midst of one of her daily naps, either on her couch or on the floor, the small television encased in wood paneling with a turn dial, almost always blaring, Eunice undisturbed, mostly deaf.

I remember wanting to stare at her. Sometimes the scarf or bandana or beanie that covered her head at all other moments would have been dislodged by sleep and her features would seem entirely changed under her bald head. Her face pudgy but misleading, for she was vulnerable and old if you took her as a whole and even more so with her exposed scalp, but if you looked only at her face, its lack of lines, its enduring creaminess failed to suggest her 78 years. I would think to myself that I loved her in a way, loved her because each morning she got up before I did and when I shuffled into her kitchen from across the quarter acre at 6am, there was water boiling for me there, for the bucket bath I would take. Loved her because she was not inclined toward the farce of affections that seemed to have overtaken so many of the other “mothers.” When we met she did not squeal and lift me from the ground and throw the family cloth around my shoulders, not merely because her right leg would have prevented such theatrics, but because, I would come to know, Eunice would have thought it undignified and, instead, she shook my hand lightly and guided me toward her truck without saying much, content to let a relationship between us grow or not, in time.

That night, and in truth, many of the days that followed are lost to me now. As in a car crash. I recall our meeting, the gentle shake, and then I’m transported somewhere to a day weeks later, one of any anonymous, homogenous days, the endlessness of our training sessions, six days a week, eight, nine hours in an artificially lit room with 60 strangers, days draped in the pulsing tensions of ego, sexuality, insecurity, isolation and unease. I look for facts.

Mine was a separate structure on Eunice’s hill-top plot of land, a concrete house with a small porch attached and burglar bars sloppily welded to the front and only door. The whole of the house was a farce, a movie set. There were sinks and faucets out of which no water ran, a fridge that was not only not plugged in, the cord had been hacked into a splay of wire. The bathtub (a bathtub!) revealed itself not to be attached to, but merely shoved flush with the wall and the first time I stood in it splintery pieces cracked off into the water I’d poured, and so for those two months I bathed in a six inch tall round, red bucket.

I know I did not write these months. I did make some notes.

A close friend gave me a brown leather-bound notebook two nights before I left and branded into the front of that notebook are the words, “I am not the same having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.” These words are mostly faded now, but I can still read them and I open the book to the beginning.

Sometimes, When Alone

I’m lonely and the loneliness seems to be taking the form of a sort of paralysis. I fuss around all day, roaming into and out of rooms, forgetting what it was I wanted and retreating back into the room I keep dark, a sun-free space, to lie on a mat and to wait. I figure emotions, like anything – like everything – are fleeting things. Surely if I just wait I’ll feel better later. Maybe tomorrow.

I have to eat sometimes and so I wander into the kitchen and open cabinets and peer into baskets and think about beans and how it’s impossible to eat them without first soaking them. So I slice a tomato and put its pieces on a plate and squeeze saracha onto them and eat with my fingers. I haven’t done my dishes in a few, maybe four, days and I have taken to sniffing forks, deeming them perfectly acceptable so long as I don’t catch a whiff of the putrid. The cold does not improve things. It’s late June now, I’m told July will be worse. It’s hard to concentrate on much, difficult to want to move around, the numbing creeping first into the fingers then spreading up the wrists.

Winter has come to this hot, hot place and as a friend who lives 300km up the road pointed out, “I’ve never been this cold with no prospect of getting warm.” In the morning I brave myself out of my sleeping bag and hustle outside to sit on a sun-soaked stone, my whole being turned reptilian with need. I look to the children, who always seem to know, and they stand in metal trash cans and face the rays, creating for themselves personal saunas that must be even more necessary than my stone. I feel certain they have no sleeping bags and as much as my house of cinder blocks holds the cold, their cubes of corrugated steel must be worse. Ladies rustle out of the forested areas unexpectedly. You’d have never known they were there, but here they come, six of them all with enormous piles of dead wood perched overhead, the day’s fuel, the day’s heat. The smallest one, maybe four feet tall, doesn’t carry a load but instead an infant on her back, strapped to her body by a carefully knotted yellow towel. Some of the others are in bathrobes, having gone to the forest in the same casual way that I would go into my kitchen to collect a match.

I sit on my stone and wonder if I smell like fire the way they do. At least in the crippling heat I could become clean. Had found a haven in water. Now I’m lucky to remember to pull my pants down at night and swat at my crotch with a handful of suds. For weeks, I’ve taken my long johns off only in spurts small enough to wash and to change underwear, grabbing at them afterward like a starving man after bread. Back on they go. Socks. I washed them once, resigned to sweat pants as they dried in the sun. The clothes I left on the line overnight were frozen when I woke.

Jake wants me to send pictures, provocative ones. I look at myself in the cheap distorted mirror that hangs from a little hook in my bathroom. It’s only big enough to hold my face and I wonder if my body is still enticing. I have seen it so rarely these weeks, have kept it hidden under my long johns. I am able to summon the courage to wash my hair perhaps once every two weeks. I always feel sick afterward, shaky from cold, have to use a towel to squeeze every bit of water I can from my head before rushing outside to find a slice of sunshine. I blow my nose and my forehead crushes inward with its constant winter pain. I stand on my tip toes and try to look down into the mirror, past the matted hair, dry and broken at the ends. My nails, typically bright with color, bare, my face announcing my age with new, sun-induced wrinkles, lips cracked from the dry air, my sandy long johns.

Sexy pictures?

The request is confounding, would be humorous if it didn’t depress me. A request from a life I wanted to leave behind, if only for a little while. I don’t want to stand on my tip toes and wonder about the state of my freezing, tomato-sustained body. Not here. I may not fully comprehend my reasons for being in Botswana, but I know that this is the opposite of whatever they are.

I wake up the next morning and I feel the same. That heaviness in my chest. It’s familiar, I’m afraid of it, had forgotten about it but my body knows. Ten hours sleep. I see no reason to get up. I lie awake with my eyes closed, trying to think nothing, trying to get the song that spontaneously creeped into my mind when I woke to go away. I try to tell myself, “just sit with your own existence. Just to sit with it, let that be enough.”

Later this morning, I face the dish pile. I will my fingers into the act of washing them, hoping this will help. Once finished I pull sneakers onto my feet, I tell myself I don’t have to run, I’ll just go for a walk. It’s Saturday and, at 2pm, the village isn’t yet at full force. They’ll come out later, to dance.

I pass a woman wearing a sweatshirt that reads, “Ohio State University.” A group of toddlers waddles by, each child evidently responsible for a pudgy chicken, big feathery masses held tightly to their chests and I say, “You have chickens!” and smile and they say “You have chickens!” and as I walk farther past them I hear them behind me, deconstructing the sentence. “You, you, you… have… have chickens, have chickens.” Other children, as ever, call out my name:

“Lorato, Lorato, Lorato.”

Always in a repetitive way that I’ve never understood. My favorite child, favored for her boldness, her eagerness to look me in the face and make herself known. So unlike the others. She’s three feet tall and calls out her standard greeting, the one that hurts my heart, that I know already I will one day miss. I can hold its exact sound in my head, each inflection, the sweetness of the little voice box.

“Hello, my friend!”

I hope she doesn’t outgrow the urge to do this until after I’m gone. I break into a slight jog, my shoes creating little valleys in the sand and I know that, for now, this is the beginning of it getting better.

On Leaving

When one joins the Peace Corps, she is allowed to bring with her two bags, weighing no more than 50 pounds each. Into mine I tucked clothes I would not have worn in what I, at the time, still thought of as “my real life.” My daily uniform had, for the last year, been an old t-shirt and ripped jean shorts during the summer, counterbalanced by a hoodie and black jeans during the winter. Clothes I’d wear to drive my little Genuine Buddy scooter across the Brooklyn Queens Expressway or, when I started staying over at Jake’s in the East Village every night, over the Brooklyn Bridge, to my wood shop in Red Hook. For this two-year outing, however, I’d spent a rushed afternoon hesitantly spending money on four modest, printed dresses, two long skirts, two long-sleeve blouses, three plain t-shirts, a soft green scarf, sand colored flat dress shoes, three pairs of quick dry socks, ten pairs of sexless quick dry underwear and a rain coat. I’d also placed into my bags two framed photographs – one of me clutching my best friend during the wedding she’d had six weeks prior and another of Jake and I taken at my going away party. In the photograph, he is looking calmly, squarely at the camera, while I am twisted into a drunken and admiring revelry, eyes squinted, my glance focused upward toward the side of his face.

There had been only one afternoon for this obligatory shopping because the weeks leading up to my departure were, in retrospect, probably somewhat misguided. Jake, who at this point I’d only really known for five months and who I had recently moved in with, suggested we get on a plane, fly to Milan, rent a BMW motorcycle and circle Switzerland as a way to commemorate the frenzied love affair that we’d decided, sadly, had an expiration date. We had met briefly three years prior, at a bar, through a mutual friend, and when I say “met” I mean after three hours and seven beers I took him home to the hovel of a room I was renting in Bed Stuy and we had sex, immediately after which I pointed out where his shoes could be found and suggested he find them. We hadn’t seen each other since and when we ran into one another again, years later, we loved this story, thought it was romantic. We told everyone this story and we told each other we would both still be single when I got home, that we would be together again then, but I think we knew that when things are over they usually stay that way, which is perhaps why three days after I left, via email, we changed our minds. Jake has a self portrait tattoo covering the entirety of his back in which his legs have been replaced by the bottom half of a motorcycle and his hands are thrust into the air, one holding a stack of $100 bills. This is entirely irrelevant to the story, just a fun fact. You’re welcome.

Anyway, so three weeks before I’m supposed to leave for Botswana, we go on this trip but the thing is that exactly 24 hours before the trip I realized I had a urinary tract infection, which if you’ve never had one (most men haven’t), feels a bit like someone dragging a razor blade across your genitals. So I go to one of these walk-in clinics that they have, I guess everywhere, but somewhat ubiquitously in New York likely because a fair number of its residents don’t, as I didn’t, have health insurance (a point I repeatedly, as a 30 year old woman, lied to my parents about – parents are obsessed with health insurance). So I’m in this clinic and I have, according to the non-doctor who works there, an exceptionally bad UTI and he explains that I should not, for the next ten days, expose myself to excessive sunlight, drink alcohol, do anything to aggravate my crotch area or have sex. And I’m about to go on a ten day motorcycle trip in a Mediterranean climate through wine country with my boyfriend. And this is the situation.

Naturally, of course, I do all four of these things to excessive extents and within a few days of returning home I am sicker than I have ever been. I am sicker than I have ever been and I still have my boss’ new website to finish, a media cabinet to build for Jake out of reclaimed lumber for our new apartment (we began moving into this new apartment not five hours after our plane hit the runway at JFK – also known as two weeks before Botswana), all the stuff I didn’t sell or give away from my old apartment to pack up and move out to my friend Katie’s basement on Long Island, to pack for Botswana, to groom myself for a photo shoot with Jake’s motorcycle as a present for the 40th birthday I was just missing, to have a going away party and to host my very recently divorced brother who was flying in for said party.

And so here I am, in bed one night, thinking how I don’t have time to be in bed but that I also can’t get out of it and Jake is out running an inaugural film festival that he’d founded that year so I’m alone in the apartment and it’s about 11 p.m. And the way in which I’m sick is so vague and foreign and difficult to pin down that I think perhaps I can simply snap out of it, so I get up and attempt to “snap out of it” and about halfway to the kitchen I become aware that I cannot walk and I fall to the ground and I’m naked and I realize that I am having a very difficult time remaining conscious, not because I’m tired (I’ve been in bed all day) but because there is something very, very wrong. And, at this point in my life, I believe that one of the surest signs of maturity is the ability to die or to have a panic attack with composure so I am attempting to text Jake in a relaxed manner, explaining that things have not exactly improved and he is responding kindly, but also in a way that one might when he is at an after party with exciting guests and drinks and the intoxication of an event that’s gone extraordinarily well.

And so things progress rapidly. I go from chill girlfriend who does not want to interrupt a good party to calling 911 and also Jake, asking him to hurry home so that he can perhaps put pants on me before the, what will surely be male, paramedics arrive.

As a bit of background on the lovely apartment we (technically, Jake) were now renting, our landlord was an Italian drug dealer who owned a bakery on the ground floor that had been in his family for four generations and he only rented to friends of friends, keeping rents down in exchange for tenants who got it. Tenants who wouldn’t cause scenes, who looked the other way if and when streams of pot heads or junkies filed in and out, who wouldn’t draw attention to the place, who just generally got it. And we did and we had a sweet, sweet deal in a neighborhood where there haven’t been any sweet deals since 1992.

Frankie (yes, seriously, Frankie) had recently put a man in the hospital for “working him over with a baseball bat” because he “got out of line.” And so we feel very lucky to have this apartment and we love it and we have been painting it and one afternoon I spent four hours scrubbing scum off of the kitchen cabinets. Above all, we are trying not to piss off Frankie, to illustrate that we are “cool.” And two days after we moved in, I am sitting in a windowsill in the kitchen and Jake is smoking over my shoulder out the window and I lean back to give him some space and the vase that I had stupidly placed there falls, goes directly through the awning of the bakery and smashes into the sidewalk in front of Frankie’s building. There is a bar next door and people had been outside smoking and their attention is now focused squarely on the building and the awning is ruined and a piece of the glass has smashed into the windshield of Frankie’s truck, cracking it, and we, 30 and 39 years old, respectively, are now hiding in our apartment. But it’s clearly us and Frankie calls and it’s awful but we are eventually forgiven and less than 48 hours later I have literally called the authorities to the building. And so illustrating that we are “cool” is not going well.

When Jake gets home, he is drunk and adorably trying to take things seriously and to “get it together” but really he is just circling me like a well-meaning shark and it takes the both of us, him drunk and confused, me ever closer to unconsciousness, to locate pants and a tank top which he sort of succeeds in outfitting me in and we begin to hear sirens and Jake scoops me up, carries me down five flights of stairs and three quarters of the way down the block to meet the paramedics – both of us aware, without having to say it, that this is necessary for vague, Frankie-related reasons. And they put me in the back of the ambulance and I lie about my name and social security number, and I spend the next two days in the hospital hooked up to an antibiotic drip, which is meant to eradicate an aggressive kidney infection.

I’m eventually released and I walk the 30 blocks home feeling thoroughly flushed out and realizing how very much I am going to miss New York. And I shower for the first time in three days and begin to understand that I have quite a lot of things to do and so instead of doing them I go out to dinner with Jake. And about a week later he drives me to Philadelphia and we hug and cry and eat a $100 cheesesteak and I go to Botswana.

Sese

The village of Sese sits swollen on the ancient plains that are the Kalahari Desert’s cruel sands and stabbing scrub brush. Like so many villages peppered across the Texas-sized slot of earth called Botswana, it would be thought an anomaly by anyone studying up on the quite literally unparalleled awesomeness of this country’s development since Britain bowed out half a century ago. From not one road to liberate its people from the single-minded procession of dirt and boulder, to an economy eclipsed on this continent by that only of South Africa, Botswana is a celebrated nation among what the world prefers to think of a sea of dark grief.

This, however, would not be the first thing a traveler to Sese would note. Here is a lonesome triangle of earth where children play nude in overturned hunks of rust that were once cars and vie for the feral right to scoop fistfuls of discarded beans out of heaping metal bowls. Grandmothers recline atop the sand on worn pieces of cloth placed alongside diminutive shacks of corrugated steel, and no matter the weather – be it the churning midday heat of October or the hysteria of February’s cold winds – their serene stoicism offers the impression that they have been sitting there since the beginning of time.

Men and women in blue jump suits preside over squares of sand, their ownership asserted by fences of narrow tree branch and flimsy wire. Iron and steel have, mostly, supplanted the mud and thatch one would have been witness to decades ago, and homes are dinky one-room metal affairs that roast in summer, freeze in winter and flood when the rains come. Their residents, numbering 2,000 or so, speak in cavernous, guttural tones that emit from the backs of their throats and throw into sharp contrast an outsider’s voice, inevitably anemic and nasal.

One reaches Sese by turning, depending on where you’re coming from, either left or right from a paved road onto a brown slot through the brush. There is a new green sign a few meters before the turn-off that reads, “SESE” in white letters. Four kilometers over a stretch of sand and gravel flanked by hibernating corn fields that blur off into the horizon, past a sharp dip where there is a minor salt pan and into the realm of unnamed roads and anonymous paths. Just before the dip, a lone homesteader’s piece of the earth hosts a smattering of dogs and donkeys, his two kilometer separation from the huddle of his 2,000 neighbors suggestive of an outlaw’s wisdom, or a gentrifier’s vision or maybe simply that he was there before Sese was and there he is still. He’s never visible from the road, never outrightly visible, occasionally one might perceive a rustle or a moving shadow through the weaved branches of his outdoor kitchen.

Donkey carts hug the perimeter of this path, flat, wooden, ancient beds supported by enormous birch wheels carrying drums of water, sacks of maize, tires, spinach, people, everything, nothing. Boys or men spank packs of two or four donkeys with leather whips that crack louder than you’d think. Cars and trucks own the middle, flying by, mocking the carts, sometimes seemingly as ancient, sometimes new or at least not old BMWs or Mercedes, for this too is Sese. Sese is a three hour walk or a twenty minute drive from the world’s most profitable crater, a hole in the earth from which men and machines haul diamonds. And though the BMWs and the Mercedes stop in, their owners are mere tourists, would never think to live here, are dropping off workers, and along with them the wisdom of civilization’s prized Things, the wisdom that inspires the high heels a few teachers wear to walk through the sand, the phones young girls barter their bodies for, the chronic question: “When will you take me to America?”

It is not plain who was here before the digging began and who came after. To be sure, this was settled land. There are those who reminisce about plowing and harvesting and fashioning sandals out of leather, but those are few and they speak quietly and the great majority of the men and women who live here weren’t born here. They came mostly from other places in Botswana, but also from Zimbabwe and Zambia, their lives surely complicated but their reasons for coming to Sese simple. The mine, a 20-year-old funnel, employs thousands and many of them pack daily into the cramped, shockless vans that serve as shared taxis between Sese’s sand roads and the mine – little moving microcosms of Botswana life filled with loud music and gossip and contradictions. Riding in these vans it is possible to see, within the same blink, both a man in a business suit and a woman in worn out rags, her breasts heaved up over her collar ready to feed the small child she has absentmindedly handed you.

The population of Sese grows nearly daily but it was two years ago that the most devastating migration occurred. The government of Botswana evacuated and destroyed the slums nearer the mine where workers and their children slept and ate. They came en masse and flooded the small village’s single school, its solitary clinic. Also its bars. A single stretch of V-shaped gravel would serve as Sese’s main street, if it had one, with homes webbing out haphazardly for a few kilometers on either side. Aside from the school and clinic, on this road one finds one general store where bread, tomatoes, onions, sacks of beans, small candies, cigarettes and warm, treated milk can be bought. One also finds five bars. Cramped, mostly electricity-less, concrete “shabeens” where day and night, milk carton-like containers formerly filled with home brew scatter around in the wind.

The mine has recently announced plans for an expansion and surely it will require more labor, continually pushing Sese along into critical mass, a new crop of pioneer nomads ready to nudge the boundaries of what one resident calls “this condemned place,” ever further into the brush.

Here, one might be convinced she has, at last, found the final horizon on earth.

The Clinic

On a Monday, in the dead of the Kalahari Desert summer, I had a 2 p.m. meeting scheduled with the village doctor, a man from the Zambia border region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who accepted the Botswana government’s offer because, unlike his own, this is a peaceful country. There have been no bloody revolutions here, no fissures between races.

I had been to the clinic several times before. I stop by simply because my new life consists largely of seeking out hives of human activity that are not bars so that I don’t have to be alone all the time. Between this and spending nearly 30 percent of my waking hours immersed in cool bath water to stave off heat stroke, I am very busy. Anyway, there are few such places in Sese and, though I work with the school, helping out at a clinic stupidly seems like the kind of thing someone who has just arrived to volunteer in Africa should be doing, even if that person has no medical background whatsoever. So they know me there, and the nurses have given me little nicknames and want desperately to braid my hair. They often take great joy in weighing me and and if I happen to weigh a few ounces more than the last day, they are thrilled to be able to inform me that I am “getting fatter and fatter!” A great compliment in Botswana culture.

I usually sit next to Cecilia, a 27-year-old nurse who claims she is older than me because she has two children and I have none. I do her job for her, which is to count out pills from really big bottles and put them into smaller ones. She lets me do this both so that she doesn’t have to and so that she can methodically convince me to take her to America as my maid (both the school principal and vice principal – two educated, intelligent women – have made the same request). As I count, she strings together passing and loud commentary about the patients who present themselves at the window in front of us. This one is insane. This one is HIV positive. This one smokes too much marijuana. This one’s smokey blue eye hasn’t worked since the 90s when someone threw a rock at it. If they understand English, they make no sign that they are aggrieved by this betrayal of their privacy. Sometimes she interrupts her flow to attend to a tuberculosis patient in a breezy room to the right, where the windows are always left open to prevent the nurses catching it.

Occasionally, I do a pointless little lap around the clinic, unable to communicate with anyone, pretending to be “getting to know the community.” I take on this task by picking up people’s babies and patting children on the head if they don’t squeal and run away from me before I can get to them. Sometimes I go back into Cecilia’s room (there might be an official name for that room, but this is what I call it) and guiltily use hand sanitizer after these laps. I hope I stop doing that.

But anyway, I had a meeting on this particular day and when I made my entrance into the clinic, I was greeted by the aftermath of the apocalypse. There was not a single soul inside the clinic. Nobody to guard equipment or medications or to attend to patients, though there were none. I checked in Cecilia’s room and the doctor’s office and rolling chairs were cast to the sides of rooms everywhere, looking as though their previous occupants had stood up from them aggressively. Whirling fans were the only sign of civilization and, without patients and nurses hustling about, I was free to realize how loud and knocking they are. They continually threatened to fall from their perches and decapitate me. I had just walked 30 minutes in the mid-day heat to get there and was looking for somewhere to sit down when I realized that the benches I always see sardined with patients are missing most of the boards that are supposed to act as seats and that those that remain are either crooked or splintered. I sat on the floor and surveyed what else sat on the floor – a few bricks, empty bags of chips that read “monkey gland flavored!” being tossed about by the fans, crumpled papers, pill bottles and string left by a mop that had once, presumably long ago, been used to clean the floor. I saw a broom in the corner and noted the little piles of beetles that the sweeper had created in several places, somehow paying no attention to the trash. Flies were ever-present. I read a sign informing patients that “pregnant people and prisoners” do not have to wait in line.

As I sat, I noted that without the human pulse to distract me, this is what the clinic looks like. I also realized, after looking again at the time, that absolutely nothing was wrong. Everyone was simply on tea break.