So This is Goodbye

by Gwen Wilson

Jake squinted into sunlight, touched his clothes and was surprised they felt dry. And then he was surprised he could touch his clothes–the last time he had woke, he had been so weak he could barely lift his head, much less his hands. He was also pleased that he wasn’t violently nauseous; that was nice. He wiggled his fingers and, satisfied, lay his hands on his chest and glanced at the only other occupant of the makeshift hospital building, a fat Ethiopian woman sleeping silently whose name he didn’t know.

“You look like you’re feeling better.”

He hadn’t heard Karen come inside but he turned toward her voice. She had been at the outpost for a half year but was so adapted to the environment that Jake thought, when he first met her, she had been there much longer. Time in Africa had tanned her, turning her skin from the color of dry sand to wet; it seemed to naturally melt into her brown eyes and short brown hair, a bang of which flopped past her forehead and she frequently brushed out of the way. She was a small handful of a woman, just under five feet with curves that couldn’t hide under her clothes and an uncertain smile. Her green tank top hung carelessly low, her brown pants were rolled up loosely above her calves and the leather straps of her sandals crisscrossed her ankles. And, somehow, despite the fact that the humidity treated everyone else like a washcloth, wringing sweat from their bodies, she never even seemed hot.

“I’m feeling a little better,” Jake agreed.

“Good.” Karen sat on the stool next to his cot, crossed her legs and took his hand. He liked feeling her fingers between his, small and cool but strong, almost like she was leading him. “I thought you were going to get worse. This can occasionally develop into bloody stools, nausea and fever. We’ve even had to send some people home.”

“Really?”

Jake hoped he could be one of those lucky people. He had been reluctant to accept this thought…but, face it, he hated Africa. He had been living in Ethiopia for two months with a group of Catholic volunteers and he was starting to wish he hadn’t lied about being Catholic. His ex-wife had been, and Jake still had no idea what had drawn to him to the idea of this trip when he had seen her church flyer in his mailbox earlier in the year. Four thousand dollars for a year to work in an African village. It had been everything he had left in the bank after his divorce and he had quit his job and rented out his row house and rushed through training and flown to Ethiopia…he wished, now, he knew what he had been thinking then. Especially because of an incident days ago when he had been so hot that he had wandered to a small lake and drank water until his insides seemed like they were about to explode, and then he heard a commotion and saw a bunch of African children sitting above the water with their bare bottoms hanging out…and Jake had ended up with dysentery.

“You’re not as clammy as you were last night,” Karen told him. “But I want to check your temperature.”

Jake obediently let her poke a thermometer under his tongue. He had met Karen his first day in Africa and spent that first night with her, talking and laughing until it was late, until it seemed like his initial worries were gone. Karen was different than the other volunteers: she was older (but a year younger than Jake at thirty-three), and bawdy, she cheerfully told him about her unpredictable love life. Religion was like a yo-yo to Karen, and she used these trips as a way to reaffirm her faith…and she admitted that it needed constant reaffirming. She had traveled to South America, Europe, Russia, Israel, always in the cause of the church and always after some disastrous relationship. It was an impressive mix of sin and salvation and made Jake feel like his life had been extremely boring in comparison:

“Tell me about you,” Karen had asked him, that first night.

“Well, I’m from Baltimore.”

She nodded. “And?”

“I guess that’s it.”

Karen took the thermometer with her free hand and examined it. “Ninety-nine. You’re doing better. The dysentery should almost be gone.”

“I don’t know…that thermometer tasted funny. I might get it again.”

“You’re an idiot,” Karen said, cheerfully.

Jake had spent his days working in fields to the east of the village while Karen treated the sick to the west, and so they only saw each other in the evening. His days were lonely without her, but at night he and Karen would lie on a blanket behind the camp and Jake would occasionally find himself amazed that, a mere year ago, he had been sitting in a Baltimore row house, recently divorced, relentlessly depressed, and now he was in Africa, under stars so bright they made him squint. And Karen was easy to slip into love with, with her big laugh and simple prettiness; the way, when he wanted to have sex, she simply smiled and shrugged her religion away; the happiness he felt when he walked up the hot dusty dirt road toward the village and saw her small silhouette in the searing African sun. It was only a few nights after they first met that they slept together, his mouth full of strands of her brown hair as he tried to kiss her ear and cheek and shoulder and everything about her while her heels pushed into his back, pulling him deeper.

“Goddamn,” she had said afterward, rubbing the mound of her vagina with her palm, “that was nice, wasn’t it?”

“Are you sure?” Jake had asked, surprised, “you should say goddamn?”

Karen laughed. “God’s probably more pissed that I just had sex lying on a rosary.”

“What?”

Karen poked his side. “Christ, I’m kidding.” And then she added, seriously, “But you’re right, I probably shouldn’t say goddamn.”

Jake’s nights were happy but the idea of another day’s work would broach him in the morning, another day of working in a country that, for all intents, seemed like it had been thrown down a flight of stairs. Another day under the brutal sun, under attack from swarms of insects while building houses that were so small and hopeless they depressed the hell out of him and, again, he would feel those flickers of depression, the dejection that had dogged him ever since his divorce. Africa had been a mistake, and the naked woman lying next to him didn’t change that. But she almost did.

“I’ve been asked to go to Johannesburg,” Karen said, suddenly.

“Who’s she?”

“She’s a city in South Africa. There’s a mission there, and they need more people with medical training.” Karen paused, then added, hopefully, “I’d rather stay here, though. With you.”

“I want to stay with you too.”

“You keep telling me you want to leave,” Karen said.

“That was the old me.”

“That was two days ago.”

A mosquito buzzed listlessly in the corner. “Anyway,” Jake said, “I don’t know how I would.”

“How is easy,” Karen said, a little sadly, and she brushed her hair away from her face. “Hitch a ride from a truck to Addis Ababa, and from there sneak off to the airport and head back to the states.”

They were silent for a moment while Jake tried to figure out how she had come up with such a good plan.

“Would you come with me?” he asked, hesitantly.

Karen looked puzzled. “How could I?”

Jake was at a loss. “Well,” he began, slowly, and then brightened. “Have you tried drinking from the lake about a mile east of here?”

“I meant, how could I leave these people?”

“What people?”

“The Ethiopians,” Karen said, her voice exasperated. “You know,” she continued, “I’m here for something other than you.” And she walked off.

Jake watched her leave, and then he used the bed sheet to wipe sweat from his face, rolled off his cot and wandered over to the fat sleeping Ethiopian woman. He passed a cloudy mirror hung above the sink, glanced at himself, frowned and ran a hand through his tangled mass of brown hair; it looked like an upside-down bird nest was sitting on his head. His body, still long and lean from four years of swimming in college, had darkened; the white t-shirt he wore sharply contrasted with his brown arms. And his face was surprisingly thin, gaunt and empty. He sat next to the Ethiopian woman and she slowly woke, grimacing as if waking was an effort for her, and looked up at Jake through tired, crusted eyes.

“I hate your country,” he told her. “I don’t know how you live here.”

The woman coughed, squeezed her eyes shut and tugged down the thin sheet covering the top half of her body. She was naked, but Jake was more surprised at the amount of sweat on her than he was by her bare breasts. Especially because, even in this heat, she was shivering.

Jake walked to a small sink on the other side of the room and picked up a washcloth, returned, sat next to the woman and tentatively dabbed her forehead. She lifted her chin and seemed to almost smile and, encouraged, he rubbed the towel over her neck. He started thinking about Karen’s plan, the possibility of ditching his ride after he made it back to Addis Ababa and somehow sneaking off to the airport…but those happy thoughts kept getting interrupted with images of Karen. It wouldn’t be easy to forget about her. He had only made love to three women aside from her, and he had never fully finished inside anyone except for his ex-wife–the other times he had been wrapped in a condom–but Karen wanted him to. She had held his hands over her breasts when he fucked her from behind and she sank to her elbows. “Don’t pull out…don’t, please,” she told him, and he didn’t.

Jake realized he was rubbing the woman’s right nipple.

The Ethiopian woman’s eyes were still closed and she didn’t seem to notice his fingers. The movement in his pants surprised Jake; he didn’t think he found this woman attractive. Still, he had a vision of standing and pulling down his pants and burying his penis between her…

“Jake?”

Karen was standing behind him.

“Hi!” Jake shouted in alarm.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“She was hot.”

“You seem to think so.”

It took him a moment. “I mean…she wanted me to wash her.”

“You’d be a lot more convincing,” Karen told him, “if you would let go of her nipple.”

Jake looked down and realized that, yes, he was still holding on to the woman’s right nipple. He brought his hands shamefully into his lap. The woman appeared to have gone to sleep.

“I can’t believe,” Karen went on, “that you’re taking advantage of a dying woman. That’s…that’s sick.”

“I didn’t know she was dying.”

“That doesn’t make it right!”

“Well, no.”

“You shared a room with her for days and never asked anyone about her condition?” Karen asked, her expression indignant. “Do you even care about the people you’re here to help?”

“I was, I mean, I am, sick too.”

“I knew I shouldn’t have gotten involved with you,” Karen told him. “People told me you were weird.”

“The Catholics? You know they don’t like me.”

“I meant the Ethiopians.”

“They talk about me too?”

Karen’s eyes were cold.

Jake didn’t see her the rest of that day, and he had an uncomfortable feeling that everyone had been made aware of his groping fingers. No one visited him except for one of the priests, and he only echoed what Karen had said: a truck would be able to take him to the capital city tomorrow, if Jake still thought it was necessary to go. “Very necessary,” he said, and he spent the rest of the evening staring out the window, watching the sky fade from blue to orange to red to black. He fell into an uneasy sleep and dreamt that he was crawling through a house, sticking his tongue into all of its electrical sockets.

The next morning he woke to the sound of the truck rumbling outside.

Jake washed himself, dressed and sat next to the dying Ethiopian. Her mouth was set in a hard grimace, as if rigor mortis was already stealing her away. He touched her hand and her eyes slowly opened.

“Don’t worry,” he told her. “I’ll keep my hands where you can see them.”

She frowned. Jake stayed with her for a few more minutes, realized he was useless, and then walked out of the tent. Another hot morning, so hot that he could feel the heat rising from the hard dirt. A scrawny goat walked by and balefully glared at him. Jake headed toward the truck and the driver, leaning against the door and smoking, squinted at him.

“Ten minutes,” the driver called, and Jake nodded and kept walking up the dusty road toward her tent. His stomach was settled but something else creeped inside of him, something unpleasant, something worse than his sickness. The door flap of her tent opened just as he reached it.

“What are you doing here?” Karen asked. She glanced up at the sun and shaded her eyes. She looked disheveled.

“Did you just wake up?”

“No,” she said, “but wow, you’re quite the charmer.”

“I wasn’t trying to feel up that woman yesterday,” Jake hurriedly explained. “Honest. I was just rubbing a rag over her and I kind of started daydreaming or something and my hand wandered…”

“It’s okay,” Karen said, and her eyes flashed back up to him and they seemed too intense, too angry, for everything to be okay that easily. “I didn’t think you were. That would have been too much foreplay for you.”

“Ha. You’re kidding, right?”

She ignored his question. “Aren’t you leaving today? I heard your truck’s here.”

He nodded. “It’s waiting for me.”

“So this is goodbye?”

Jake shook his head. “I don’t want to leave you,” he said. “I need something here. I think you’re it.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

Karen studied him.

“Feel like breaking a commandment?” Jake asked.

She smiled and pushed back her bang. “You’re really going to stay?”

“I am.”

Karen took his hand, and then looked intently at him.

“You were kidding the other day about Johannesburg, right?”

“Oh sure.”

They walked past the tents and into the small wooded area behind the camp where they went at night, one of the few places of clustered trees in the desolate stretches of brown dirt, and Karen kissed him. They hadn’t slept together since Jake grew sick, and her body now felt new to his hands. Her lips dragged over his and she roughly pulled off her shirt and let it drop and unsnapped her bra let that drop; he bent to her breasts, and her skin tasted warm. Her nipple slipped between his lips. She pushed her pants down and stood, nude, before him.

They lay on the dirt and leaves.

“Jacob? Your truck’s here,” a woman called, her voice too close, just on the other side of the trees, and they froze until they heard her walk away. Jake’s hand slipped between Karen’s thighs and they kissed again and she moaned into his mouth.

“Jacob?” a man called from further away.

Karen tugged him free from his pants and he grew in her hand. Her fingers hesitated for a moment, then wrapped around him firmly.

They kissed as they massaged each other, and she slid her hips over until they were so close that their knuckles bumped. Karen used her other hand to push down his pants and Jake clumsily helped her until they were off. Their kiss was deeper now, penetrating, without pause. Emotion was stirring in Jake, and his free hand held the back of Karen’s head and he rolled onto her.

He felt the sun on his back as her legs wrapped around him, as her body sank deeper into the land, as her breasts pressed between their bodies like fruit being crushed. When he slipped inside of her it was as if he had slipped inside a dream or a drug.

The roar of a motor brought him back; he realized she was shivering underneath him. The ground under them rumbled while the truck drove past.

“You’re missing your ride,” Karen told him.

“It’s okay,” he said, and he realized he was lying. “I’m staying.”

“Really because of me?”

“Yes,” Jake lied again, and he looked down at her as the sunshine splashed over her beautiful face, the sunshine sprinkling through the leaves and trees above, and he knew she would leave him.

_______________

Gwen Wilson is a previous contributor to Sliptongue, and his fiction has also been published in Bewildering Stories, the Menda City Review, the SNReview and will appear in the 2009 Mammoth Book of Best Erotica (the story that appeared in Sliptongue was accepted for the Mammoth series).

© 2009 by Gwen Wilson

 

 
     
     

 

 



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