Friday, December 09, 2011

Chapter Thirty-Nine: Beginning

Chapter Thirty-Eight can be found here.

As he got out of the taxi and walked over to where the driver had told him he could find a bus to Ghana, Paul wondered just why it was he suddenly felt such a sense of loss, felt that something was wrong, that he, somehow, had made a mistake there, in the hotel. But what else could he have done? It wasn’t his responsibility, his business, anyway. Not anymore. All he had done, or had tried to do, at any rate, was a good deed. He had rescued that man, after all, had saved him from a great deal of trouble. Even if, for a while, it looked like one of the stupidest things he’d ever done. And Sam had been grateful in Bobo. Paul remembered his tears. There at the hotel, however, all he had wanted to do was to get rid of him.
He looked around him, trying to think of something else instead of himself, drinking in the real African environment now surrounding him, far from the hotel and its sense of being in Europe or America. This was his world, however different he might be from an African, this here, he told himself, not the world of the rich. This was his world, even if it were Africa and he a foreigner. That much, he told himself, was clear.
But something had changed.  Something in him.
Sam was going back to things he cared about, Paul knew, things he really cared about. To his wife, his little articles for airline magazines, his children and, Paul expected, even grandchildren. To a life that, somehow, satisfied him in ways that Paul was sure he never even wanted to fathom. Sam’s world, he repeated silently, was not his own.
But what about Paul? He walked slowly down the street. What was he going to? What did he care about? Was there anything he held dear? He had spent four years, now, in Africa, working and studying, or so he told himself, but for what? So he could be embarrassed by an American tourist? He suddenly realized that he had turned away from the open-air bus station and was stepping into a street bar to get a beer.
“Look at yourself,” he demanded into a dirty mirror as he waited for his drink, “and ask what another sees, what Sam sees. What do they see that I don’t? And why can’t I see it?
“What do they care about in life? What do they love that I am missing?”
He didn’t want to answer that, so got up and shouldered his pack. “Forget the beer,” he shouted to the barman who hadn’t yet returned from the back. He wanted the drink, badly wanted it but, again, something was wrong, something he couldn’t even identify. Even without knowing what it was, he realized that he was now able, for the first time, to state at least that much clearly. Something in his life was desperately wrong. Whatever it was, he had to deal with it, to deal with it first, before he could have even another drink.
What was he doing here? Why had he come? Oh, there had been some folderol about a girlfriend, but he could hardly remember her name, let alone what she looked like. And some excuse about learning a different culture, a different land. But hadn’t those things been, really, just excuses?  Wasn’t there something else wrong, behind it all?
Again: what had he accomplished in the last four years? Sure, and again, he had learned something about this part of the world, and he did love it. Africa had become his passion. But what had he done for himself? And was it a passion he had stoked to deflect attention from something else?
When you came right down to it, all he had become, in Africa, was a drunk. Standing on the street there in Abidjan, looking around at the bustle on the streets, the distance taxis coming and going from the yard across the way, he admitted it to himself for the first time. He had isolated himself from his own culture, using it only when it was needed to help him negotiate this one. All that he had once thought he had cherished about becoming a better person, that had been so much crap, hadn’t it. Since he had been here, it had all been an excuse to isolate himself and to drink.
He looked around himself, standing there at the side of the road, tears trying to form at the corners of his eyes, deliberately stripping himself of the illusions he had so carefully build over so many years.
Had he done anything for anyone here? Even for himself? Had he meant to, or had even that been an excuse? As a PCV, he had tried—or so he thought at the time—to bring something of his own skills to an African situation. To help somebody else, to be more than just a leech on an alien culture. But what had resulted? At the school, nothing. Though his pepinieres, certainly, had been fun to create, he had done little that Adam, the old grandfather, hadn’t already been able to do. His contribution had been to bring in a little money that hadn’t even been his.
What had he been so proud of, when he’d first seen Sam? Was it because Sam, though black, was an outsider here and Paul could maintained the illusion that he wasn’t? Had he really had the nerve to imagine that he was any more of an insider? Just those few days ago, and had he really been that stupid?
More and more disgusted with himself the more he thought about his life, Paul started walking down the street a bit.  Then he stopped short and turned again toward the bus station. It was time to get away from this. He had to move on.
But he found he could not move.
He stood still in the street for some time, seeing nothing around him, currents of people swirling around him in both directions, tears now actually on his cheeks, the first tears he had cried in years. There was something else to his life, he realized, something somewhere, that he was missing, that he had been missing for a long, long time, never knowing it. Yes, perhaps he had even been using his life in Africa to block it, so that he could ignore it.
Was there a mask he was wearing that he hadn’t even realized he had on, a mask to fool only himself? If so, could he lift it? Could he look at the reality behind it?
He liked himself, didn’t he? He admired himself, didn’t he? He had done, could do, things few other Americans even imagined. So what was wrong? What was he ignoring?
Two images broke on him simultaneously. The first was old, one of his earliest and most cherished memories in Africa, the second much more recent. Through the streaked and scratched window of an ancient bus, he saw three elephants walking. Without stopping, one casually reached its trunk up into a tree and pulled, bending the tree until the leafy branch snapped off. The elephant stuck the greenery into its mouth and chewed as the tree, now a slow and easy step behind, swayed and danced. At the same time, in the brightness of a rainy-season dawn, he saw an elephant walk away and into a wood, reaching down with its trunk and nonchalantly pulling up a clump of grass.
Someone bumped into him; he looked around, seeing, for maybe the first time, the reality around him.
For the first time. Or the first time in four years. He understood clearly then where he was, what he was, and saw for once where his road was leading. A drunk and a wastrel, he was turning into nothing more than a fool. A foot self-created and self-deluded.
Was this what he had wanted for himself? Was this pointing him to anything but a lonely death in some dusty, isolated town in a culture that could never be his own no matter how much, honestly or not, he may lust after it?
He stared about him for a moment, taking in this new world that was speaking its admonishment from every corner, then he turned and walked back in the direction he had come from.
He remembered something Sam had said about risk, that it came with having something to lose. For the first time, Paul admitted that he did, in fact, have something to lose, and that he was, at the moment, losing it. To stop that, yes, he would have to risk something, the only thing he could.
He needed help, though. He had needed help, he saw surely, for years. He had fooled himself into believing that Africa could provide the growth he wanted, when really he should have started with self-examination. He had imagined that Africa was improving him, when really he was using it as an excuse to drop lower and lower, further and further away from any knowledge of how to help himself. Now, he had to put himself in other hands, were he to survive at all.
Led, by himself, away from just the things he was seeking, from community, from friendship, he was going to need a hand guiding him back. He had allowed himself to subsume himself in alcohol, finding in the bars a false construct that looked like community. But it hid only his own degradation and that of those around him.
He reached into his shirt and pulled out a battered leather African wallet worn on a string around his neck. In it were two things. The first was his passport, which he used regularly. The second was the one thing he had brought with him that he had kept over the years, his ticket out, carefully updated each time it neared expiration, updated and then forgotten. He had always told himself that it was just an escape hatch. Most often, he even forgot he had it.
It was time to use it.
He found a taxi and asked the driver to take him to the airport. He slammed the door and did not look back.

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