There was silence. He flicked on a Petula Clark tape.
After he took my money, outside departures, he said, We don't need no fuckin' grief from some old bitch.
The flight back to Europe was very long. I sat in the dark with my eyes open and grainy while the other passengers slept. The man beside me had slumped to one side, the napkin from the meal still tucked into his collar, like a baby's bib.
I was ashamed of myself at first for the egotistic way I reacted to the children in the middle of the road. They made me think about myself - me, me, me as usual - instead of the injustice of the world. But then I thought, Isn't it some kind of good, that a person can be shocked into truthfulness, even if it's only for a few hours and only with herself? I sat in the thick night air of the plane and I thought, If anyone had said to you, all these years, are you interested in sex? you'd have said, haughtily, No. I'm interested in passion. Passion. I murmured the word half out loud. What passion? It was never real excitement that got you into bed; it was hope, like some stubborn underground weed. Look at the way you've believed every time, at the first brush of a hand across a breast, that the roof over your life was sliding back and a dazzling, starry firmament was just coming into view. When it never happened. When a one-night stand has never, in all the years, done what you wanted it to do. What's more, the whole thing is getting more and more pathetic. The truth is, I said to myself, that the older you get, the more grateful you are for being wanted on any terms, by anybody.
But if I stopped all that, how would I ever meet anyone? If I didn't have this kind of sex life, I'd have none! Then I thought, But should it even be called sex? Look at the businessman in Harare. You're not even giving them any pleasure anymore, never mind getting any for yourself.
Then I started to smile, remembering Harare, at something else that had happened there. I'd got talking to a big, warm woman who was hanging out the guesthouse laundry while I was sitting on a back porch, working at my laptop. I helped her with the flapping sheets. Later I walked across town with her to see the room in a township that she'd raised her family in. We sat on the bed telling each other our life stories while she leaned across to the cooking ledge and made a stew. She took down a plastic carrier bag from a nail on the wall and showed me her treasures. Her radio that got two stations. Her conical pink bra, for best occasions. I went with her when she poured the stew into a bucket to sell around the big, bare beer halls. She made a wonderful sexy comedy out of offering it, and after a while I stopped being shy and joined in the spree. The men laughed their heads off at the sight of us two women and scooped the stew into tin bowls beside their bottles of beer. We danced around and shrugged and rubbed ourselves in a parody of excitement, and wiggled our bosoms at the fellas. By the time the whole pot of stew was sold we had a band of children following us and we were weak with laughter.
I do still know how to live, I said to myself.
On the plane the man who was asleep in the seat beside me had let his head somehow fall onto his plump fists - a wide band on one finger gleaming in the dark - and he was making grumbling noises in his sleep at the discomfort. I eased him into a better position as carefully as I could. In the end, I slept, too.
In London I tried to raise Jimmy on his mobile. We'll have to face up someday to all the awful things in the world, I wanted to say to him. If he'd allow me. He hated me getting serious.
Jimmy sure wants things kept cool, I once said to Roxy, the office secretary.
Well, you're a bit too emotional by any standards, she said to me.
Roxy was so exceptionally stolid that I didn't have to take this remark very seriously. But I had squirreled it away to examine it. No one in my life told me anything about myself except Roxy and Jimmy and, occasionally, usually crossly, Alex. In that way the three people I worked with were my family.
Reprinted from My Dream of You by Nuala O'Faolain by permission of Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 Nuala O'Faolain. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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