Monday, February 15, 2010

Jungle Love

[This was my Valentine's Day post, that I didn't get a chance to post yesterday. It's the story of how my husband and I first met. I hope you enjoy it!]

The sound rumbled like sudden thunder, shattering the still African night. Vibrations coursed through my mud brick house with fingers that stripped me of sleep and forced me upright in the bed. I knew my searching eyes were open, but I was blinded by the inky air, devoid of light. In my confusion, I couldn’t get my bearings. Then I realized what I was hearing. The sound, coming in waves of intensity, was a car engine being revved on the dirt road in front of my house. Not a car, I thought, a truck. And then I heard a man’s voice call out.

“Pascal! Ouvres-moi toute suite!”

My heart, hammering in my chest from being shocked awake, skipped to a new tempo. Christian! Christian was here. I sprang into action just as I heard Pascal respond with a sleepy “Oui, Patron.” It would only take him a few seconds to open the wide bamboo gate and emit the Land Cruiser. I scrambled across the lumpy mattress to the edge of the bed and groped for the mosquito net. Clumsy, misjudging hands pushed hard against the coarse openwork, knocking a candle to the floor from its perch atop the three-legged stool outside the mesh, pushed up against the bed frame. No matter, I thought. I knew besides the candle and the book I was reading before I blew it out, there was a flashlight on that stool. At the edge of the mattress, I grasped two handfuls of the netting just as the engine cut outside, and silence rushed into the darkness around me.

I yanked up on the mosquito net and it came untucked from the mattress. I paused, heard Christian speaking in a muffled tone to Pascal, the Central African employed by the Peace Corps to guard my house each night. I wondered if Christian was scolding him for sleeping on the job. Christian was a Frenchman employed by an Italian construction company, working on a World Bank funded project to resurface the country’s dirt roads washed away each rainy season. Unlike me, he hadn’t been sent to the Central African Republic on a grass root mission. He was a boss man, un patron, a kota zo. Someone the Africans respected without question.

I pushed my legs out and let them dangle off the edge of the bed while I pulled the bottom of the mosquito net behind my head. I was naked. At just four degrees north of the equator, there were exactly twelve hours of daytime and twelve hours of night. At six in the evening, the sun slid below the horizon during a five-minute-long dusk that reminded me more of God simply hitting the wall switch. Darkness as black as midnight reigned for the entire twelve hours, but the intense heat absorbed by everything during the day radiated long into the night. Inside my stifling bedroom, pajamas weren’t an option.

There was a quick succession of raps on the door that I felt in my chest. Christian called my name through the rough wood. I shouted, “Just a minute.” My toes felt around for the flip flops on the floor, and my hands fumbled for the flash light on the stool. I was more awake now, and suddenly nervous as hell.

I’d met Christian the week before. I was riding my Peace Corps issued mountain bike back home, from the little town ten kilometers away where I’d chosen to launch my project. The day had been brutally hot, and no shade reached me as I rode along the wide, dirt road. Periodically, a bush taxi the size of a yellow school bus lumbered past. Each time I had to stop, straddle my bike, and cover my nose and mouth as a choking two-story-high cloud of red dust engulfed me. It clung to my sweaty skin, and I looked redder and redder as the day wore on. New rivulets of perspiration left tracks in each subsequent layer of dust. To add to my less-than-alluring appearance, my long hair was pulled into an unattractive ponytail, and I wore my glasses since the dust was certain torture for my contact lenses. I shudder imagining what I smelled like.

Christian pulled his Land Cruiser up alongside me. Through the open passenger side window, he introduced himself in French and commented on the heat. He asked where I was headed and I told him I lived in Bambari. I still had about seven kilometers to go, so when he offered me a lift I took it without hesitation. Plus, I thought he was pretty cute.

The conversation was surprisingly easy, considering my French was so bad. We laughed easily, and the ride was over too quickly. He lifted my bike from the back of his vehicle and propped it against the gate in front of my house. My smile stayed on my lips long after he drove away.

The next day, I saw him again on the road, and he asked me to lunch the following Sunday. I’d been in-country for almost a year at this point, and I hadn’t felt excitement like this since leaving the dating game behind in the States. I even pulled out my dusty make-up bag, vainly included when I packed but not taken out of my luggage since arriving. The mascara was clumped from the humidity, but I managed to coat my lashes just the same. We spent an amazing time together, and I didn’t make it home until Monday morning.

That was three days before, and I hadn't seen Christian since. In a world with no telephones, there was no way to talk to someone unless you were face to face. Those days following our date were torturous. I wondered if I’d ever see him again. I worried he’d lost respect for me, or that I’d lost respect for myself. As the days went by, I second-guessed every conversation, every look, and every touch. And now, in the dark of night, Christian was here, knocking on my door.

My heart pounded. Every nerve was alive. My hand closed over the flash light and I pressed the button. Nothing happened. In the dark, I jabbed the button over and over, but the flash light remained off. Shit.

“Nicole? Tu es lá?”

“J’arrive!” I called out. Goose bumps covered my body now. Reaching under the mosquito netting, I pulled the queen-size sheet off the bed. I stood, wrapping the cool, white cotton fabric around my suntanned back and under my arms. I held the whole thing about me like a giant bath towel; gathered fabric excess fell over my arm like a train. I could feel my long, bed-mussed hair drape across my bare shoulders and fall down my back. Shuffling across the gritty cement floor, feeling my way through the gloom, I made it to the front door.

When Christian tells this story today, he says that when I pulled open the door, I was the most beautiful thing he’d ever laid eyes on.