Oneirism

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After all, Keza has been exercising omnipresence for some time: why should one more city be a problem? Saturday kicks off with a job interview over Zoom that she’d told Ganza would finish by 12 at the absolute latest; three quarters of an hour past noon, she’s still there, her tongue coated with the minutiae of her value as a computer programmer, pert as ever, full of assurances that the location is perfect. If she’s hired, she’ll be in Seattle right away, yes, yes, no problem, it’s practically next door, there’s nothing tying me down here.

Much as he tries not to eavesdrop, Ganza overhears each of Keza’s promises, and the mere thought of her departure saddens him. He tries to focus on cooking: he long since finished the mimosas (they will be watered down), the pancakes (they will get cold), the fruit (it will go brown), the scoops of ice cream (they will melt). His patience is wearing thin, but he knows that this is a great job opportunity for her, but he doesn’t want her to leave Nebraska, but in reality it’s less than four hours by plane, but he’s tied down here, but it will be a great place for an electrical engineer once he can go, but he hopes she stays, but hang up already, goddamnit, but.

When Keza finishes, it’s obvious that the interview has left her drained, but she revives herself with that watery, cold, browned, melted and love-filled brunch prepared by her Ganza. The culinary shortcomings go unmentioned and they thoroughly enjoy the start of the birthday weekend, despite the incessant pinging of notifications, which Keza ignores, but which irritate Ganza, so much beep-beep-beep, beep-beep-beep. Keza doesn’t even bother glancing at her cell any more: at nine o’clock at night in Central Africa, her aunts have finally finished the daily grind and are free to flood her with advice in the form of photos and memes and videos and copy-pasted texts full of painful misspellings about how to wash your hands, the benefits of eating meat, anti-epidemic robots in hospitals, the evils of thinness, the horrors of too short a dress. And they also send selfies, many selfies, every day, with lighting and perspectives that would inevitably accentuate (or create) double-chins on even the best of aunts. Not all are really her aunts, of course: in Rwanda, every baby is raised in the bosom of the community, family or not, and the women involved in that upbringing are generous enough to bestow their precious advice ad æternum, no matter how old the baby grows. The non-aunt aunts of WhatsApp are the antonym of silence.

Despite the aggressive beep-beep-beep, the volatile mix of champagne and vitamin C starts to have its effect, but just as things are really progressing, a call comes in. Ganza tells her not to take it, come on, it’s not your birthday until tomorrow, but she knows all too well how the twenty-four hour phone and internet packages work in her homeland: if she doesn’t answer now, they may not talk for another week or two.

It’s Keza’s mother. You know the drill, shhhh! I couldn’t wait until tomorrow, how is Maine, very good, very good, quiet, here it’s the same ol’ same ol’. Her conversations with Mom verge on the soporific, now more than ever since she fully dedicated herself to lying as a narrative form before, at least, the half-truths gave her a rush of adrenaline. She recounts to her mother what she would be doing in Maine by reproducing her day in Nebraska, changing the backdrop a little, imagining herself confined in solitude in that apartment she hasn’t seen in weeks. She no longer gets nervous when they talk because she is at peace with this compassionate white lie. In case Mom calls that day (since it is winter in Rwanda, she always asks if it is cold), Keza has gotten into the morning habit of checking the weather in the city where she pays rent but hasn’t set foot since March.

Keza considers it perfectly normal not to reveal the whole truth about her romantic situation, which is still tender, uncertain and fragile, but to lie about the weather somehow seems to her the nadir of shamelessness, because that would be to deny nature. Feeling Ganza’s skin is also part of nature, but it happens in a modest recess, not exposed to the totalitarian sun and wind. She would never do that to her mother, so in Omaha, Nebraska, she always dresses in accordance with the meteorological whims of Portland, Maine, to remain faithful to the woman who gave her life, even if it means sweltering occasionally. Besides, science assures her that both cities have temperate continental climates, so who’s she to quibble about 10 or 15 degrees?

Keza changes the subject as quickly as possible: everything is fine here, everything is the same, the usual, how about you? Life in Rwanda has changed with the virus, of course, and at first she was interested in keeping up-to-minute on all the daily ins and outs, but now it has all begun to blend together: the family businesses are still struggling to stay afloat, people are swarming around without masks or remorse on their motorbikes and in church, and most are living hand to mouth. Dad likes to think he’s the one saving the day because he’s bringing some money in here and there from those ventures he’s always tangled up in that Keza and the rest of the siblings are kept blissfully ignorant about. Mom keeps things running smoothly: she doesn’t merely do housework that’s a perk of the rich she works at the gas company, has savings, and ensures her husband thinks that yes, yes, without you, we couldn’t manage. So the usual, but with a pandemic in the background. 

Her parents are not really aware of what is going on in the United States Dad is not at all aware, let’s not delude ourselves; he never calls. They know about historical slavery and stop telling us about it: they have no idea about the current injustices. They’ve never heard of George Floyd, much less Breonna Taylor, and Keza doesn’t tell them about #BlackLivesMatter, or protests around the country. What for? To make them worry? Everything’s all right, Mom; the usual, Mom.

Her mother knows the basics: that Keza works from home (home? “home”), that she does something with computers, something, that Ganza exists, that he is a Tutsi, obviously, that it hasn’t rained today. She doesn’t need to know anything else: delving into the intricacies of daughters’ lives is overrated.

Keza mentioned him once months ago, a friend, and then didn’t breathe a word when she moved 1,000 miles away to hunker down through the uncertainty and loneliness of the pandemic in his house, all timelines accelerated. At the beginning, she always made sure to Skype from in front of a white wall, to avoid arousing suspicion, but little by little she has managed to assemble a reproduction of the living room of her apartment in Maine, a stage designed with a click, so perfectly identical that Keza moves through it, phone in hand, with a mixture of comfort and repulsion. She doesn’t know why she has gone to so much trouble; in the end her conversations are made up of pixels, echoes, endless repeating, and what, what, what?

Today lying seems unusually daunting for some reason: she invents a parallel birthday in Maine, where her sister still lives, and recounts to her mother in great detail the plans they have together, but soon she gets caught up in the fabrication and is able to visualize every detail, even the color of the non-existent confetti at her imaginary celebration.

They end the call, and so much dissembling leaves a bad taste in her mouth. No matter she’ll steel herself by the next call and continue to hide her omnipresence and talk about the weather, gaslight her mother if she remarks on anything off about the furniture and patiently explain once again (and again and again) how to activate the front camera.

Keza is living in a joyful glow. She really cares about Ganza, but it must remain a secret, because she has grown up listening to “don’t go out with a boy until you’re married” and “hide your fiancé from your father until the wedding day.” And that’s why she must omit him, separate him from the world shared with her mother. By verbalizing an imaginary reality in which she is single and confined in solitude, she has unwittingly created a double life that overwhelms her sleep-weakened defenses to erupt into her nightmares.

They’ve barely been dating for six months, but for Ganza this is the most special weekend of the year. He gives her his first gift: a surprise dinner with friends on the terrace of the African restaurant downtown, her favorite of the city. The evening starts with gloves, mask and air kisses and inevitably ends with photos of abandoned social distancing and santés with spit-covered glasses. The cherry on top of a perfect night is his second gift, which the whole group gets excited about: traditional Rwandan outfits with matching prints. The couple quickly changes in the bathroom, making them look even more hopelessly like lovebirds, and their garb ends the night stained with toasts and laughter.

They sleep spooning, without taking off their soiled clothing, in an improvised, unspoken, and enveloping gesture of love. Keza lives in flyover country, pays rent on an empty apartment in the Northeast and has her sights set on working on the West Coast. Sometimes she gets lost in nocturnal musings, questioning the tangibility of her existence, but today she drifts off with the absolute conviction that her true home lies in that secret embrace.

She awakes to the pleasure of a foot massage, a barrage of celebratory kisses and the smell of coffee and reheated dinner leftovers. Keza rouses herself and looks at the outfits that now marks their unity as a couple, and she feels happy and calm. Her objectives for today: tranquility and repose no work emails or competition over who folds the laundry faster.

Although on Sundays they usually start the day discussing current events with mouths full of solutions and breakfast, Ganza tries to keep things trivial, steering the conversation away every time a fraught topic comes up, because today is a happy day, we should talk about something else; today you wanted to relax, right? But Keza argues that there is nothing more worthy of her birthday than words, their only power, in fact: as temporary residents of the United States, they cannot risk going to demonstrations, since getting involved in any hint of politics could easily end up in deportation. They can’t even feel secure walking in their residential neighborhood at night, because they are at the mercy of any white neighbor who deems them suspicious and calls the police.

They love to see the system finally teetering, but they have to resign themselves to a struggle from the shadows and take solace in talking about what’s going on around them, watching videos of police brutality, stirring up consciousness on the Internet under pseudonyms, patronizing African American and African businesses. Their trench is built of those little gestures. They want to help and participate, because they have become a part of this country over the years, even if they don’t plan to stay forever, in this place as full of opportunities as of contempt, this place that has defined their identities from a perspective they never could have conceived of in Rwanda. They both reject from the core of their beings any possibility of raising children in a land where merely to be black is to be in constant danger.

But for now they see no reason to return to Rwanda: their careers are going well, each of their siblings is scattered in a different country, all their friends have emigrated, and every visit means hundreds of dollars in gifts. When they return, in the future, it will be to open their own business, but their present is located somewhere in the vastness of the United States. Better not to protest, no.

Ganza is right: on this day it is better not to think about any of that. Forget it, it doesn’t matter, the agenda for today is to immerse herself in utter relaxation. But in the midst of her mani-pedi, Keza remembers the pepper spray that the police used against demonstrators last Thursday; as they watch a matinee, a racist comment from a man in the street a couple of weeks back races through her mind; and even trying to read a book (with the incessant beep-beep-beep symphony in the background), her eyes glaze over as she reaffirms to herself that people only listen when there are riots, and she feels devastated that she cannot be there.

It is only when they cook the special birthday dinner together isombe, ubugali and waakye that Keza becomes completely immersed in the glow of tenderness that has been a gift of the lockdown and stands watching Ganza dipping the sorghum leaves. She forgets about Seattle or Portland and for once is fully present in Omaha, and the scene radiates so much beauty that it becomes an oil painting: the blending of colors, the perpendicular light that divides his face, the shadows that infuse the cabbage and tomatoes with drama, the atmospheric perspective created by the sfumato of yucca flour.

The still life is shattered by a sudden ringing. As soon as she picks up the phone, Keza has a mysterious premonition that her mother is no longer living in ignorance. She feels ridiculous, tiny, insignificant. She doesn’t know how she knows, but she knows. A hunch, what do you want me to tell you, kid? The thought lasts for a second should I tell her or not? but then she returns to constructing a simpler life, thanks her for the well-wishes and focuses on the staccato questions with precise answers: no, Mom, not at all cold, not at all, the weather here in Maine today is gorgeous. 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

More tales of the pandemic based on real stories at
Love in the Time of Coronavirus,
by Patricia Martín Rivas.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

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