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.