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.
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.