Sherlon, my former philosophy professor, calls and says, ‘Clio, my dear, I need a big favour from you.’
I can tell by the way he drags out my name and slurs on the word ‘dear’, that his nostalgia for our long nights on the bright red velvet couch in his faculty apartment has been inflamed by a great deal of alcohol. What I can’t tell is whether he’s just missing me, drunk-dialling to flirt, or has gotten himself into serious trouble. Maybe he’s taken too many sleeping pills while polishing off a bottle of Chardonnay, thinking that this will bring either me or his estranged daughter back.
‘What do you need?’ I ask, sounding off-putting on purpose, even while calculating how long it would take me to get out of bed, slip out of my pyjamas into real clothes, and drive the fifteen minutes to his place.
‘It’s Polly,’ he says.
He had foolishly convinced his daughter to leave her mother and her life in New York to attend the small private college in West Palm Beach where he was the philosophy chair. He had done it, in part, to have his daughter close to him, but she’d interpreted it as a desire to save money and she had dropped out in the middle of the second semester of her second year to join a small women’s organization called Kenbe, Hang On, which ran a rape crisis clinic in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. He had not heard from Polly for weeks and neither had I, even though we’d been good friends before she discovered, from a casual remark he made while cooking a dinner for the three of us, that he and I were sleeping together. Her disappearance had given me an excuse to stop seeing him, something which I could never quite find the courage to do, even after a year of saying to myself that what we were doing was wrong, because he was my professor, because he was twenty years older than I was and because his daughter was my room-mate. Polly’s absence made us both feel dirty and any conversation about her took away our desire to touch one another. Still, every now and then he would call me in a drunken stupor, in the middle of the night, to complain about some unrelated problem, mostly his students and classes, and I would listen to him while talking myself out of going over to his place and just holding him and apologizing for pushing his daughter out of both our lives.
‘What’s going on with Polly?’ I ask. The fact that he was saying her name at all meant that something had changed either in her status, or ours.
‘Her mother’s not heard from her,’ he says. ‘She’s not been calling me, but at least she had been calling her mother.’
The mother had long changed status, where he was concerned, from being his ex-wife to simply ‘Polly’s mother’. The way he said the word ‘mother’, especially when he was sloppy drunk, made me feel that Polly’s mother had reached the lowest point of gradual erasure. It was dangerous to fall from his good graces. He could easily eradicate you with words; wipe you out of his life by merely shifting a pronoun or placing emphasis on a verb.
‘What do you need me to do?’ I ask.
Part of me is hoping to hear him say, ‘Get in the car and come to me. Don’t bother changing out of your nightgown. I need you now and only you can save me.’
Except he would never put it that way. If it came to that, he might say more professorially, ‘For everyone’s highest good, please come over.’ This would give him a chance to tap into the past lessons he’d tried to teach me both in and out of the classroom: to entertain thoughts that I didn’t completely accept, to find truth not in certainty but in ambiguity.
‘You know Polly’s mother’s heart is not very good,’ he says. Unlike most people who liked to trash their exes, he preferred to point out her myriad health problems as though they were weaknesses in her character.
‘You know she has that strange condition where her gall bladder shoots small stones into the rest of her body,’ he used to tell me. ‘You know one of those stones nearly shut down her kidneys.’ ‘You know she nearly inhaled one of those pebbles into her lungs.’ ‘You know one of them attacked her heart.’ He said this as though she had left herself wide open to all of that, as though she’d simply decided to commit gradual suicide by initially neglecting all the stomach and backaches that signalled the beginning of her decline.
‘You know Polly’s mother can barely walk now,’ he says. ‘She’s being looked after by a nurse, and insurance being the crap it is in this country, she’s paying out of her own university pension for the care. She’s sick and nearly destitute and supremely depressed already, the last thing she needs is more complications in what’s left of her life.’
He had married Polly’s mother when they were both graduate students at the City University of New York. Her specialty was Caribbean history, which, according to him, she’d decided to study as a way of better understanding their Trinidadian background. They married in their early twenties, he told me, reasoning that it would be easier to live on very little if they merged into one household. Polly came early in the marriage, a surprise that would cause research papers to be late and classes to be missed and dissertations to be delayed by several years. He and his wife didn’t agree on many things. Unfortunately, he realized this after the marriage, and even more so after Polly was born. The only thing they could agree on was their approach to parenting, which was loose and relaxed and resulted mostly from their being too busy with their academic work. Polly became as uninterested in them as they had appeared to be in her, throwing herself into her schoolwork with a zeal that they, scholars both, should have admired. Instead, as she had herself told me, they kept encouraging her to explore what they vaguely termed her ‘artistic side’, offering no guidance or direction, or even a suggestion.
Ambivalent parenting, she had called it, in her merely above a whisper of a voice. ‘Should I have just woken up one morning and written a novel? I was never sure what they wanted from me. I had a feeling that if I stayed out of their way, they’d consider me a good daughter.’ Still, when her father suggested after the divorce that she attend the small liberal arts school where he was teaching, she had been eager to give it a try.
‘At last, he told me what to do,’ Polly had said.
‘There are plenty of children who come out fine because their parents didn’t bully them,’ he said. ‘This is just who she is.’
His judgement was particularly cloudy for someone who considered himself a philosopher, but ask anyone about the tip of their noses – if they try too hard to study that island of skin, the rest of the world becomes blurry.
‘Don’t you think Polly is now complicating her mother’s life?’ he asked me.
‘Do you really want me to answer that?’ I said.
He relished in the rhetorical even when it didn’t make sense. I felt like diving into an argument about it just to annoy him. Of course I didn’t think Polly was complicating her mother’s life. She was complicating her own life more than anyone else’s. But he knew both Polly and her mother better than I did and maybe he was right about all of this in a way that I would never understand.
‘What do you want me to do?’ I settled deeper into my bed, while searching in the dark for the outline of the identical oak bed that had been his daughter’s. It was still as well made, with hospital corners and fluffed pillows, as she had left it the night she’d walked away. Her books were still neatly lined up on the small bookshelf on top of her ink-stained desk. Crowding her bookshelves were novels for her Latin American literature class. She had bought an entire semester’s worth of books using one of her father’s credit cards. He had only come to our room to pick up her laptop, which was open to a half-written page on what she was calling the Death of Magic Realism. Could magic ever be real? she had noted, or reality ever be magical? She seemed to have been brainstorming and had gotten stuck. Maybe it was the magic realism paper that had driven her out of our lives. Maybe her father and I had nothing to do with it. That thought was only comforting for a moment. The rest of the time I would imagine her locked up in a room somewhere, hostage to some evil do-gooder who’d lured her with promises of saving poor Haitian women, only to keep her handcuffed to a bed. During more lucid moments, I’d imagine her leaning over a pew in a stone-walled open-air cathedral, wearing a nun’s habit. I still couldn’t understand though, what he wanted me to do. The long silences between sentences were not helpful either. Was I supposed to guess what was in his heart? What was in hers?
‘Clio, I lied to Polly’s mother and I told her that Polly had called me,’ he said in his most professorial voice. He had that rare gift of sobering up quickly, or seeming to, like someone who had emptied a cup only so he could fill it up again.
‘Should you have done that?’ I asked rhetorically.
‘Are you asking me something?’ he said.
This was the way we always spoke. He could have the most violent reaction, slamming the phone down on me, if I told him straight out what he should or should not do. Now that we were broken up, I could say whatever I wanted. His punitive silences were not supposed to affect me.
‘I don’t think you should have lied to your ex-wife,’ I said.
‘There’s a grave real possibility that something terrible might have happened to my daughter,’ he said. His voice cracked and for a second it sounded as though he was crying. Then he broke into a loud laugh and I realized that he was doing both, laughing and crying at the same time.
I have replayed over and over in my mind the night Polly left his apartment. He was nearly done with the salad and pholourie balls that would accompany his stewed chicken and rice, when she asked in the type of timid voice that one might use to address a stranger, whether he was going to be leaving town during his sabbatical the following year or whether he would be one of those professors who stick around and come to the department a few times a week and end up working anyway.
‘Maybe I’ll do something wild,’ he replied. ‘Join an ashram or get a butterfly tattoo on my ass cheek like Clio here.’
I could tell that he wished the words hadn’t come out of his mouth as soon as he said them. Her face softened, as if to relax her eyes for tears; her pointed cheekbones seemed to melt. She got up, picked up her fading camouflage backpack from under the coat rack, opened the door and walked out. She was so skinny that her clothes never quite fit her and that night they seemed even looser as she slipped through the door.
‘Should I go after her?’ I said, turning to face him. The fact that I was even asking meant that I didn’t want to go. And I could tell from the way he placed the wooden salad bowl on the table that he didn’t want to go after her either. It occurs to me now that I was stepping into her mother’s inactive role, practising ambivalent parenting.
I had been parented much differently. My anxious migrant-worker parents took an interest in everything I did. They had only allowed me to hang out with the children of their ambulant colleagues, fellow captives, with whom I’d never really forged a bond. I suppose I could have tried to be a brilliant student and, like many of those kids, plotted my escape via an Ivy League education. But my unstable adolescent life had left me longing for so much that, had I not been accepted to the one college that had taken me, I would have joined the army.
Even now, I try not to make a big deal about it, but Polly’s father – in my own version of partial erasure, no longer my college philosophy professor but Polly’s father – was the first man I ever had sex with. This was something he seemed so proud of that I was afraid he would blurt it out in the two back-to-back classes I took with him my first year of college.
‘One of the last virgins in the world,’ he would occasionally whisper in my ear, ‘and I had her.’
One of the millions of asses in the world, I would think, and I love him.
After an evening at his apartment, I would feel guilty when I returned to the room I shared with Polly. Each moment with him felt like something I had stolen from her. I would be dying to tell her what we had just done, substituting another name for his, but in the end I decided to lie, telling her I’d been at the library, studying for exams I was failing because of my borderline obsession with my own body and these new sensations I was feeling.
‘Do you have a phone number for Polly?’ I asked, after he had been silent for a while. So silent that I feared he had fallen asleep.
‘Her phone is now disconnected,’ he said.
He didn’t know this, but Polly had learned about Kenbe, the Haiti women’s group, from me. I had gone to the Global Experience office and had picked up a small, matt fold-out brochure and had brought it back to the room with me. She had taken it from my desk and had slept with it on her chest that night and many nights after that. How ironic it would have been for me, I thought, to have tried everything possible to escape my parents in rural Georgia only to end up farther from them physically but even closer to their past in Haiti. But their country, the one they had lived in and had left with me as a baby, cradled in their arms, and the country I would now see, the one in the brochure, would not be the same. That country would have long days of consoling wounded women and rocking the enormous heads of their hydrocephalus-stricken offspring and preemies that would barely fit in the palms of my hands. My parents’ country would still be green and beautiful, just as they’d vaguely described it to me now and then. Their country would have no need for people like Polly and me to interrupt our lives to go and help.
In the end I didn’t volunteer. Instead I spent my spring break working extra hours at the cash register at Whole Foods. I had relieved myself of any guilt by clinging to the possibility of the last line in the brochure, that one did not need to volunteer only during spring break, but could do it at any time.
Sherlon had fallen asleep. I could hear him snoring loudly on the other end of the line.
‘Sherlon,’ I shouted his name several times, but he did not answer. Is this what it was like, I wondered, to be his daughter?
I was about to hang up the phone when I heard him mumble my name.
‘Clio,’ he said, ‘do you know where my daughter is?’
I did, but I wasn’t sure I was ready to tell him.
The walls of the Kenbe office in Miami’s Little Haiti neighbourhood were covered with photographs of sad but hopeful-looking women, their eyes aimed like laser beams at the camera which had hoped to capture their image, to elicit pity and sympathy. Unlike the Haitian restaurant and barbershop next door, which blasted lively music from giant speakers into the street and had people walking in and out, the two-room Kenbe office, though it was completely visible from the street, was quiet, and you could see Polly and another woman in profile as they worked at their desk. Even in the eighty-degree-plus heat, Polly was wearing a thick brown velvet jacket that looked at least thirty years old. She had probably picked it up from one of the many Salvation Army and Goodwill thrift stores that provided most of her wardrobe. Her face was even more gaunt now than when I had last seen her and she was stooped over, reading files through a fragile-looking wiry pair of glasses.
I watched her for a long time from a wobbly table outside the coffee shop across the street. She spent hours staring at her computer screen and only occasionally stopped to file a few pieces of paper in what seemed like small filing cabinets beneath the desk. A while ago, I had suspected that she might be here, based on the way she had carried the Kenbe brochure around for days. She wasn’t there that day, but the woman at the other desk, her boss, had told me that she would be back in a couple of hours. I had left and never returned.
Finally, Polly got up, strolled over to the other woman’s corner desk, exchanged a few words, then walked to the front door and out on to the street. She walked down the short block, keeping her eyes on the sidewalk as if searching for something. Moving closer to the kerb, in between some parked cars, she picked up some cigarette butts and, after sorting them, packed the rest into her pocket, cupped her hands around her mouth and lit one. She had not been a smoker when we were room-mates, but then again she might have been without my knowing it. Maybe she was one of those smokers who only smoked the remainders of other people’s cigarettes. I finished my coffee and crossed the busy street, still hoping somehow that I could make our meeting seem accidental.
‘Hey, Pol,’ I said, when she looked up and saw me.
‘Hey.’ She opened one of her palms, spat in it and put out the stub with her spit then put it back in her pocket.
‘What are you doing here?’ she asked. She didn’t sound angry, just surprised.
‘So you went on the spring-break trip?’ I asked.
She turned toward the window, the office and her desk and nodded. She had left one of the drawers on her small cabinet open and she suddenly seemed torn between going back in to close it and standing there to talk to me.
‘How are you?’ I asked.
Pointing to her flat chest, she said, ‘Me?’
Accustomed to her delay tactics – avoiding eye contact and repeating questions – I repeated the question.
‘I am fine,’ she answered then.
I followed her gaze. She was watching a fox terrier, which was tied to a parking meter in front of the coffee shop across the street. The fox terrier was mostly white, with black patches, and it looked old. Or at least I thought she was watching the terrier. I remembered telling her how, soon after I had turned fifteen, I had convinced my parents to let me get a learner’s permit. One day I was driving with my mother on a dirt road when a stray dog came out of nowhere. The window was down in the car because my mother was teaching me to drive the way she claimed people learned in Haiti, including how to signal with my hands. When the car hit the dog, I heard the crash then the long whimper. It was not exactly what I had expected a wounded dog to sound like. Maybe an eternal bark – the equivalent of a scream – even a barking at the sky, but not a pleading moan like the one my mother and I were both hearing coming out of the dog as the car was passing over it. I had pleaded with my mother to stop, but she’d refused, even as we looked back and saw the dog vainly try to stand up on one hind leg as the other three crumbled underneath it. There was no blood, which I found strange, but I wondered how long it would take that dog to die. And I wondered how long that image of the dying dog would remain a secret between my mother and me.
‘I’m sorry,’ I told Polly.
‘Why?’ she asked, still watching the dog.
‘Because of your father,’ I said.
‘Come and have a coffee with me,’ she said. She turned back to look at the open drawer and at the other woman in the office who was also watching us. The woman was a few decades older, maybe our mothers’ age, but she was beautiful, eggplant-coloured with bright red fingernail polish, which neither of our mothers would wear. She waved at us and, jealously, I didn’t wave back. Holding up one index finger, Polly pointed at me then at the coffee shop. The woman nodded her approval.
I felt like holding Polly’s hand as we crossed the street and I would have, I think, if she weren’t walking a whole lot faster than me. Neither one of us stopped when we passed the old terrier, which appeared listless on the hot sidewalk concrete. I followed Polly to a table in the back of the coffee shop, near the bathrooms. The air was cooler in that spot, but it was also dark and the aroma of cocoa and coffee was strongest there. A man came over and seemed both annoyed and disappointed when we only ordered two hot chocolates and none of the paninis and sandwiches and desserts he kept recommending.
Sitting there, it suddenly felt as though our time together had no limit, as if we might be silently sipping our hot chocolates forever.
‘I’m not seeing your father any more,’ I told her.
‘Why not?’ she asked, matter-of-fact, as though we were talking about someone who had been living in the dorm room across from ours.
‘Because of you,’ I wanted to say, but perhaps that was only a part of it. ‘Because’, I said, ‘it was wrong.’
‘Didn’t my father teach you about moral relativism?’ she said. ‘Or did you ever even talk to each other?’
I thought she was about to throw the rest of her drink in my face and storm out, but we both sat there saying nothing as we calmly emptied our cups.
‘Touché,’ I said, ‘and well deserved,’ all the while marvelling at our relative calm and reserve. We were close to being adults now, both of us, no longer young women, almost real women.
‘Have you been in touch with your parents?’ I asked.
‘No,’ she said.
‘Shouldn’t you be?’
‘Shouldn’t you be?’ She was mocking me.
She covered her face with her hands and rubbed so hard it seemed as though both her palms and her cheeks might be burning when she stopped.
‘The spring-break trip was awful,’ she said.
‘So you went,’ I said.
‘It wasn’t the trip itself that was awful,’ she said. ‘It was the circumstances.’
‘How so?’ I asked.
‘I went to work at a rape crisis clinic, in a slum between a sewer ditch and a landfill, in one of the saddest places in the world,’ she said. ‘I saw women there who’d had their tongues bitten off by the men who had raped them.’
She saw girls, she said, eight, nine, who had vaginas as large as the top of the cup she had been drinking from, girls with syphilis scars running down their legs. She saw five-year-olds who had been raped by six or seven men, and saw mothers who took their thirteen-year-old daughters to tents where they sold them by the hour for sex while waiting to take them back home to give them a bath and comfort them and feed them the food that the survival sex money had just bought. These mothers would have offered themselves for the survival sex, except the men did not want them any more.
‘People there,’ she said, ‘live so much of their lives on the edge. You walk into a cracked concrete building and you say to yourself, am I going to die? Then you see people sit on top of overloaded trucks going seventy, eighty miles an hour, accepting what we should all know, that life and death are beyond our control.’
I was the one who was now avoiding her eyes. I couldn’t even look at the cups from which we had been drinking.
‘Why didn’t you go?’ she asked.
Because I was afraid of exactly what she was talking about. I was afraid to see it. I was afraid to know it.
‘But you are privileged now,’ she said. ‘You can give something.’
My parents had never talked about it, but my sense was that they had given everything. They gave everything so that I would never have to see this place Polly was talking about, experience it the way she had.
She had seen a few hopeful things though, she said, and when she came back, she had one of them tattooed on her chest, close to her heart so she wouldn’t forget. Knowing her, I was afraid to ask what it was. I knew it would not be a tree, a beach, a hill, or mountain, a flower, or a butterfly.
One morning, she said, she woke up in the rape crisis clinic, where she was also living, and in the open window frame she saw clear plastic bags filled with water. The patients had strung them to the windows to keep out the flies. The flies and their many eyes, saw – it was believed – distorted, magnified reflections of themselves in the water and fled.
‘How do you tattoo that on your chest?’ I asked.
‘The same way you tattoo a butterfly on your ass,’ she said, raising her eyebrows to make sure that her point had hit home. ‘But I had someone incompetent do it after I got back,’ she added, ‘and my tattoos look more like hot-air balloons than water bags.’
It was the first time I had seen her smile that afternoon. I reached for her hand as she started for the door, but she felt my fingers brush against hers and moved ahead. As she walked out, her back seemed a bit straighter than when she had walked in.
Outside, the old terrier at the parking meter was gone.
Standing where it had been, she said, ‘My father would call my saying this redundant, but there is so much suffering in the world.’
‘What do you do there?’ I asked, pointing at her desk across the street.
‘I recruit more volunteers,’ she said.
‘One day I’ll have to go with you,’ I said.
‘If you can handle it,’ she said.
‘Can I come and see you again?’ I asked.
‘Sure,’ she said.
Then she raised both her arms as if reaching for something above me. Her fingers landed on the back of my neck, clammy and shaking, nervous. They travelled up my neck toward my ears then over to my cheeks, even as her face was moving closer to mine. She smelled like chocolates and cigarettes and I didn’t think I would, but I parted my lips when hers landed on top of mine and right there in the middle of the street, with puzzled people walking around us and staring, we kissed.
I was shaking and my head felt like it was on fire and for a moment it seemed as though she was trying to pour into my body, through her mouth, everything that she was feeling, everything she had ever felt, things that she had said and things that she could not say, things that she had done and could not do. I tried to keep us linked that way for as long as I could, clutching her back and inhaling her tongue, but then, pounding both her palms against my chest, she pushed me away.
The rest of the world was there again. I still felt feverish and naked, as she turned around and calmly walked across the street. I watched her go through the office door, sit down at her desk and turn on her computer. She turned her chair away from the street and said something to the other woman in the office and they laughed, a necks pulled back, mouths open to the sky type of laughter. I waited for her to look back and wave goodbye to me. She never did.
Photograph © Reuters