On a hot day, Tom and I take the ferry from the downtown dock to the south end of Dar es Salaam, where a ribbon of beaches runs down the coast and tourists mingle with locals. Sometimes a small herd of cattle clops down by the water. Bongo Flava, the Tanzanian brand of hip-hop, blasts from speakers at the beach-side bars. Tom parks the car by one of the resorts and we walk down to the beach. A Rasta man introduces himself to us as “Mr. Chicken Pizza,” and offers me jewelry at a discount price.
“I bet he’s a lapsed Muslim. His real name is probably Mohammed,” Tom says as we walk away.
We strip down to our suits and take turns wading into the surf. He doesn’t want to leave our things unattended. I squint to keep his pale head in view as he swims against the waves.
We’ve only hung out once or twice, Tom and I, always in the smoky air of expat joints crowded with people like us who came abroad years ago full of misplaced idealism but are still here because they stayed too long and have nowhere else to go. My visa expired six months ago but I won’t run into trouble unless I try to leave. I only talk to my parents on Christmas and birthdays, but I did remember to send in my absentee ballot this year. Tom says he doesn’t follow politics anymore. He still checks the sports scores.
And as I watch Tom swim freestyle then float face-up for a while on the turquoise water, I realize how little I know him, except that he likes Proust, smokes too many cigarettes, and veils his dissatisfaction as wit. But my ex-boyfriend just got engaged to a girl I knew in college who was skinny and popular, the kind who double-majored, dressed up for class, and never said ‘damn.’ So I really didn’t feel like being alone today.
Later Tom sits next to me and leans in for a kiss that I dodge and pretend to ignore. He sulks for a while and then tries again.
“Come on, don’t you like me?” he asks with a grin, but I hear the whine in his voice.
“I like you a lot,” I say. “Let’s get lunch.”
We wander up to a small cafe just behind the dunes. There are only two tables, cracked and plastic under a thatched roof. I order fish and rice for both of us–my Swahili isn’t great but I think the waiter tells me that’s all they have. He brings us chai. We sit in silence. His advances spurned, Tom now seems bored and listless. The tea is spiced and full of sugar. A few grains of sand have worked their way into my mouth. I swallow them down with the hot tea and avoid looking at him.
“Well, tell me about your work,” I say eventually.
“It’s shit. Don’t want to talk about it,” Tom mutters.
A white woman in her forties comes in wrapped around the arm of a young black Tanzanian with chiseled abs and long, thick dreads. A polished shell hangs on a string of leather around his neck.
“All these sad, lonely white woman who have to come to Africa to get plowed,” Tom says under his breath. “Pathetic.”
I look at her sunburned nose and cheeks that make her appear raw and shiny, the way she keeps wiping at the sweat dripping between her breasts and staining under her armpits, her attempts at the local: a few braids in Nordic locks and traditional African fabric tied around her waist that clashes tremendously with her pale, freckled skin. She smiles vaguely as her companion jokes with the waiter in Swahili, and laughs when they do though it is clear she didn’t understand anything they said.
I see them as the caricature he does.
The dregs of our tea are cold in the bottom of the mugs and it’s been almost an hour but there is no sign of our food.
“Let’s play a game,” I suggest. “Ever played ‘marry, bury, screw’?”
“How about we just skip the first two and get onto the third?”
I frown at him over the edge of my mug.
“Fine, but it’s your loss. How do we play?”
“I say three people. You have to say which you would marry, which you would kill, and which you would sleep with. So… Julia Roberts, Cameron Diaz, Nicole Kidman. Go.” I list the first three Hollywood actresses that pop into my head.
“Easy. Marry Julia Roberts. Big mouth, heart of gold. Screw Diaz. Bet she’s a tiger in bed. Bury Kidman. Icy bitch.”
Tom leans back in his chair. His judgments come so quick and easy.
“Give me three,” I say.
“Umm… I dunno, who do women think is hot these days? Screw that. I hate celebrities. Shakespeare, Hemingway, Homer.”
I think about the copy of The Old Man and the Sea that my boyfriend gave me before I left for Africa. “Don’t go, I love you,” he wrote on the inside flap. I read the whole book on the plane and cried, for the old man, for the fish, for him, for me. Now I hate everything that reminds me of my ex. Bury Hemingway! I think. But then I realize it wont hurt him if I don’t like Hemingway anymore. I resolve to like Hemingway in spite of him. So there. But wait, I’m not going to marry Hemingway just to get back at my ex. Hemingway was a bi-polar alcoholic, probably had STDs, and ended up killing himself. And his stories are depressing anyway.
“Are we still playing?” Tom asks. I don’t know how long I’ve been silent.
“Oh, sorry. I’d marry Shakespeare. Bury Homer. Screw Hemingway.”
It’s the perfect revenge. He’s in America with his tiresomely perfect fiance, listening to her drone on about china patterns and wedding invitations; I’m on a beach in Tanzania and I just screwed Ernest Hemingway. Ha, don’t you regret breaking up with me now?
I feel better until I sense I’ve reached some new low.
Plato, Aristotle, Socrates. Virginia Wolfe, Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson. Mozart, Beethoven, Bach. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Doors.
As we keep playing the game, the options become increasingly absurd.
Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Wile E. Coyote. Planes, trains, automobiles. Ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise.
“I’d screw Mickey Mouse. He seems like he would enjoy that sort of thing,” Tom says with a smirk. “But I can’t believe you’d marry Mustard over Ketchup. Ketchup would do the taxes and mow the lawn, bring you breakfast in bed, that sort of thing. Mustard is an asshole. You’d end up divorced and Mustard wouldn’t pay child support.”
Tom and I agree we would both bury Mayonnaise.
Finally, our food comes out on plastic plates. The fork leaves a sharp metallic taste in my mouth. At the table next to us the white woman is studying her Tanzanian boyfriend carefully as he rolls rice into a ball with his right hand, strips some fish meat from its skeleton and dips the whole thing into the red sauce on his plate. He brings it to his mouth without looking down. Nothing spills. She imitates him, but drips food down her chin and onto her lap. He laughs and kisses her. She looks embarrassed but leaves her fork untouched on the table. On the floor of sand their feet are touching.
After we eat we try to resume the game but it seems to have run its course. I can’t think of much else to talk about.
“I still can’t believe you’d do Mickey Mouse,” I say.
Tom just shrugs.
The sun is setting and I’m getting mosquito bites around my ankles. We’re both watching the couple at the other table. The man is counting her fingers in Swahili. Moja, mbili, tatu, nne… She murmurs the numbers back to him.
“How romantic,” Tom says with his lip curled. “Give me a break. They can’t even have a real conversation.”
It’s true that we haven’t heard them talk so much as say words back and forth. It takes her ten minutes to explain in a clumsy mix of English and gestures that she’s been in Tanzania for three weeks and will leave in another two. She asks about his family and he recites a long string of names. She nods and smiles. There is a long pause. They look around as if trying to locate something to say in the fading light around us. Finding nothing, they go back to counting, hands clasped together, her head on his muscled shoulder.
A little later we pay our bill, make our way back down the beach and to the car, and drive back into town. At Tom’s apartment he invites me in for a drink, which I accept for the free whiskey but he offers expecting another chance. When I turn him down again he says he’s getting tired and that I should probably call a taxi.
“See you around,” Tom says as I open the door.
“Yeah, of course,” I respond. He’s pouring himself another drink.
On the ride home I rest my head against the window and watch the gas lanterns glow here and there in the nighttime markets. They’re making soft circles of light that seem to float in the darkness. For the first time in weeks, I feel glad to be alone.
But I remember those last moments in the cafe, there with Tom and his open disdain for the pair sitting across from us. They weren’t talking. The man placed his hand against the woman’s cheek and drew his dark thumb across her jaw. She lifted her chin towards him, rested her palm on his knee. Maybe they were what Tom thinks: a woman desperate for attention and a man too willing to give it. But even in the fading light their eyes were bright and shone hard. And with something like envy, I think how fierce and true their love might be–that must show instead of tell, must fill silence with something so much greater than words.