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Rwanda Suite: Jemima


by Steven Gowin


I should have suspected it early, but what did I know? I was a simple kid from the darkest Midwest.

I mean, they'd told us about green mamba strikes, failure to take our anti malarials, the insanity of alcoholic Flemish nuns. They told us about all kinds of stuff.

But although they hadn't covered this situation, we'd all handled it, one way or the other. Certainly my roommate addressed it better than I. He was more suited, a cosmopolitan, a tall blond from Orange County. He'd seen a bit of the world.

After a couple semesters in Austria, he'd already learned German. He'd picked up French quickly at stage, and spoke it fluently by training's end. He'd even managed a little Swahili.

Slated for Kasai Occidental, with need for another teacher in Rwanda, Washington switched his assignment. He'd go with me to the Université nationale. And once in Butare, we'd move into a long row of apartments called The Motel.

I was glad of it. We'd been friends at training. And that first night in Butare, we met our new neighbor, another new friend. A professor like us, but not a volunteer, he was everything you'd want in a French man. 

First, he spoke nearly perfect English with British pronunciations. And he'd travelled the world over in the French Éducation nationale. He'd earned two Sorbonne degrees, literature and pedagogy, and had manned the Saint Germaine barricades in 68.

He kept aperitifs, wines, digestifs, and everything for a killer cocktail. And was he ever put together! He dressed impeccably even if only in jeans and a v neck cashmere. He called his kitten “Minou,” and drove an unpretentious old Beetle.

Neighbor seemed so comfortable in his own skin you felt permitted comfort in yours. In his company, you felt yourself better than you are and better than you were previous to knowing him. I'd hoped that urbanity, a natural class would rub off; I needed some of that.

And my roomie, the blond Californian, he was that guy too, Mr. Personality, the best of America. Tall, irreverent, clever, fearless. Once, when the Papal Nuncio picked him up hitchhiking, Roomie'd asked if he should kiss his Excellency's ring.

His Excellency declined but invited Roomie to stop over at his Little Vatican in Kigali. They drank bottles and bottles of Rhône and played board games for two days. Roomie dominated the Pope's Man in French Scrabble and smoked most of his Havana cigars.

For a while, Roomie, Neighbor, and I had the best of times — drinks and singing and silly umbrella dances, Neighbor had a big reel to reel with everything from Jacques Brel to Van Morrison to Jimi.

Eventually really drunk last night, became a frequent excuse for Roomie's next door sleepovers. But I didn't care. I loved them both, not that way, mind you, but they were my best friends; why should I care who slept with whom?

At our first long break that year, Neighbor and Roomie decided on a grand adventure. They'd fly to Kisangani, take the riverboat down the Fleuve Zaire, and fly back from Kinshasa. I was not invité. I was to look after Minou.

Some little thing started the end -  who got the bathroom first, somebody not paying attention to somebody, close quarters for days and days. Whatever, the trip strained and broke the relationship. Someone had been too needy, someone too cavalier.

By the time they returned, Minoux had peed all over the house, and although I'd stayed ahead of that, I'd drunk a case of their beer which I somehow hadn't managed to replace. Roomie said the beer was unacceptable and that I hadn't let Minoux outside enough. Was I some kind of lowlife?

And unable to continue living so close to Neighbor, he found a new apartment. I didn't feel that Neighbor was angry, but he'd gone cold to me too. Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, I cried when the Sabena flight passed overhead en route to Brussels. Without friends, I was ready for home.

Finally though, Neighbor knocked at my door. He'd been sniffling, red eyed, crying. He couldn't understand how Roomie'd treated him so. Was it all curiosity, a dalliance. Yes he said dalliance.

Neighbor couldn't believe I didn't know what Roomie'd wanted in the first place or why he'd bailed. Hadn't Roomie told me? Hadn't I wondered? Why would I be left in the dark? But I don't ask such things. What kind of class is that?

By Spring, Neighor' assignment was done, and he returned to France. A couple of years later, I'd planned to visit Ireland for Christmas and hoped to spend New Year's in Paris. Neighbor and his new boyfriend, another blond, nicer I'm sure but less interesting than Roomie, were excited to see me.

Oysters, potage, entrée, salad, cheese and dessert, champagne, and then a walk in falling snow to the horlogue at the Conciergerie. When midnight had stuck, we shuffled through low drifts for frites Belge and beer across the bridge.

We'd laughed until the wee hours, and the subject finally arose. Had I heard from him? I answered. He'd left the Peace Corps early and enrolled in graduate school. He'd joined the foreign service, Malaysia, I think. He'd married; I'd attended the wedding.

When it was time to go, because neighbor and his new boyfriend loved American pancakes, I'd promised to send a case of Aunt Jemima. I had been sincere, but of course I never did. I am a fuck up and lowlife.

I spoke to Neighbor once more. A business trip. I'd telephoned, anxious to hear him well, still with the blond boy, content. I had kids now, in a lycee; their devoir had improved my French.

He listened quietly and finally said that hearing from me in this fashion was very bizarre. I left him my California address and phone number if he wanted to contact me. He has not.

Recently ideas have crossed my mind that Neighbor was only interested in me for information on Roomie and that Roomie'd only wanted acquiescence. But both were more. They were not lowlife fuck ups. They weren't like that.

Maybe I'll never know, but it's ok. Midwesterners tolerate mystery; I am not afraid of the dark.

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