Thus, on this average weekday in East Africa, a rare scene: a house in which middle-class men and women untouched by the epidemic sat beside men and women who had crossed over the great divide.
The hard rain pummeled the roof, stirred up the courtyard, and sent herds of barefoot little kids galloping past Haregewoins open door.
I was unhappily wedged in a love seat beside a fierce-looking old woman in a cocoon of homespun cotton. Her dark, pendulous skin and droopy eyes were pulled up and back by a head scarf, giving her an expression of alarmed disapproval. I didnt know if she was frowning against the upward yank of her face or because she had been stuck with me. Over the long hours, we became reluctant familiars, like strangers on an all-night bus trip. We secretly shoved each other over disputed millimeters of territory, but faced forward politely.
The wind sprayed mist through the open door. The whitewashed brick room seemed to dip and sway as if we rode a houseboat whipped by dark waves. The mummified dowager at my side slowly gained ground, as her long cotton shawls began to unwind.
It had taken me a few weeks to get the hang of this. On the long afternoons when the air fattens to water in Addis Ababa, the citys animal lifegoats, sheep, donkeys, stray dogs, woodpeckers, catbirds, swallowsfall asleep standing up in crevices and bowers, or with their heads bowed in the deluge. That is when I long to trudge up the stairs to my room in the tidy Yilma Hotel, peel off my muddy shoes and socks, drink from a liter of bottled water, fall across the bed with Bahru Zewdes History of Modern Ethiopia, and sleep while the tall, sheer curtains drift into the room full of the scent and weight of rain.
But I was stuffed into a love seat in Haregewoins common room and there was no getting out of it. The group inertia overwhelmed me. Now? everyone stirred and asked in bewilderment. You want to go somewhere now, in this weather? Some were thinking, Im sure, The ferange [white] has to go somewhere now? My friend and driver, Selamneh Techane (Se-lam-nuh Te-tchen-ay), who was rolled forward with his head resting on his hands, sat up and looked at me with bleary confusion. Every time I tried to stand up, the materfamilias beside me sloughed off another layer of shawls.
Better just to sink down, everyone implied; well get through this together. So together we sank through the endless soft drone of the afternoon rains. The demitasse cups of coffee, thick with the sliding brown silt of sugar, somehow knocked one even faster into a somnolent state. The conversation, after we returned our empty cups to a wooden, four-legged tray on the floor, dropped off steeply. When the dim lamp flickered off, nobody thumped it. Nobody turned on the dusty television under its yellowing doily and vase of plastic flowers. (There was nothing to watch on TV: nearly all day, every day, the government-controlled TV station broadcast traditional dancers leaping and shimmying under harsh studio lights.) My impregnable seatmate, in an advanced state of coming unraveled, was snoring.
Haregewoins cell phone rang and she answered with a crisp Allo? Abet? (Yes?) The coffee table was spread with papers, and there was a landline telephone, which often rang, too. Haregewoin Teferra was not weighed down by wind and rain and drowsiness. Things were happening in the city, even at this torrential hour, and she was deep in negotiations. Or perhaps the message she meant to relay to her old friends was You see? I am still alive.
She put down the phone for a moment and looked out, calculating.
What is it? someone asked, as she knew someone would.
It is the kebele [a local council, like a county commission]. They ask if I have room to take in a child.
Excerpted from There Is No Me Without You, (c) 2006 Melissa Fay Greene. Reproduced with permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury USA/Walker & Co. All rights reserved.
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