We are pressed inside the taxi van, arm against arm, thigh over thigh. Red dirt sticks to sweaty skin. The air is dusty. I breathe through a black-and-white polka dot handkerchief that looks ridiculously out of place amid the soiled rags on the refugees. I look ridiculously out of place there, too, white-knuckling my backpack as if clinging to the edge of a cliff. It doesn't matter here if I have the extra internal insulation pocket for the hydration pack. My water is long-ago depleted, and my breath smells like survival: iodine and hunger.
Outside, there is water, though. The sky hurls sheets of rain against the windows of the van. The water drops claw at the dirt road, leaving pockmarks that meet other pockmarks that collapse into deep caves. Now there is no more space on the road for holes, but the rain will not rest. Now I cannot see the road, just fields of water. I move my polka dot fabric over my eyes and focus on the breath -- on the stillness inside that is still dry and untouched by the storm. The word "breathe" has saved me before, but here, the air is too thick and musky. I can taste the sour smell of too many bodies, garnished with the bitter spice of my own fear. I try to swallow it, but right then the van -- surfing the mudslide -- loses grip and nearly tips onto its side. Fear lodges itself in my throat. My breath is a choke.
I peek past polka dots and see on the side of the road another van, crumpled onto its side, human arms and legs waving out the windows like flags of surrender to the storm. But the rain mocks their resignation and fires harder. My window fogs and clears with my panting breath. The van is swaying from left to right, as it creaks over a steep decline in the road. I expect our bumper to hit first, but we slip back onto all four wheels and continue crawling along. I see another hill in our path. We can't make it, I think. Then they start singing.
At first, I think it's my imagination, but within seconds, it crescendos. Voices fill what little unoccupied space the van had left. They sing religious praises. They are clapping now. White teeth stretch out and join the celebration. The Africans are now laughing. They are clapping and laughing and singing. I don't know the song, but I can clap. The joy inside here is a great distraction from the mess outside there.
Maybe this is the real reality, I wonder. I drag out a smile from behind my polka dot mask. I release my clenching fingers and am surprised by how much energy that frees up -- enough to push that clump of fear the rest of the way down my throat, leaving an opening for breath. And suddenly we have arrived.
He waits outside for me. He does not complain. He waits, as if there is nothing else to do. As if he has nowhere else to be, and no desire to go anywhere else.
He never speaks about the hours and days he sits under the umbrella, waiting. He leans back in the same white metal chair, day after day, the metal frame burning under the sun, and he'll burn a cigarette between his lips. He'll slowly draw in the smoke and let it dance in his lungs. Then he'll let it slide out of his lips in a seductive fog. He'll go through a pack of cigarettes before I come down and drop him a fleeting kiss or wink, on my way to some crucial appointment. Sometimes, I'm in tears about something so distant and separate from his white metal chair and umbrella. Then I vanish, like a ghost, into the smoke trickling from his lips.
For nearly one year, he has been waiting. Solitary hours to see me for mere seconds. He does not complain. He focuses on the warmth of the sun, and the buzz of nicotine, and he dreams of getting more tattoos, and he smirks at the quirky people walking past, and he finds pleasure in waiting for something that he believes is worth waiting for.
He graffitied the word "Patience" in skinny black letters on his bedroom wall in his cool, unfinished cement basement. He sprayed the word silently, no complaints. Just a fact of art. "I am a simple man." That's what he tells me.
But I shake my head at that, knowing I could never do what he does, knowing that patience is the most painful and complicated attribute there is. That's why 1 Corinthians puts it above anything else when it proclaims, "Love is patient..."
"I patient you." That's what he tells me.
I think it might be true. He still waits.
I turn around the brick corner, clutching 12 pounds of papers, a beeping cell phone and tripping over my anxiety.
As I approach, I see him from behind, his relaxed, bare shoulders curled over the table. His body grows with the inhale and sinks with the exhale. His dark hair spikes up his neck and crawls over the top of his head, making him look like an iguana in the sun. He doesn't know I'm watching. I stop. I watch his breathing. I stand motionless and wait for him to feel my presence.
Passersby's urgent voices bounce down the narrow street. Coffee shops spew out caffeine to keep the legs racing. Bodies blur. He sits. I stand behind him, waiting and breathing, and slide closer so he can feel my shadow.
One expecting brown eye peers over his shoulder, and he nods me over to him. He trades my 12 pounds of papers for a cigarette. I sit across from him in a hot metal chair. Bodies stream past us, all running to get somewhere. But he inhales deliberately, as if in some secret understanding that he is the only one who is really getting anywhere.
A Christmas Letter
Thank you for breaking me and rebuilding me this year. Thank you for taking your time and doing it very fully and precisely. There was nothing wasted in this year. More growth than the first years of my life. I sit here today, with pink and red hair, colors bright and welcoming to the new year ahead, a completely transformed and stronger person than I have ever been.
Thank you for the silence. Thank you for allowing me to listen, and hear the quotes I needed to hear when I was open for them. Thank you for the holes created in my life that allowed space for better things to enter. Thank you for the people who left their coffee cups on the table to my left when they were done, so the table appears occupied and no one else sits there, allowing a brief pause in the rumblings around me for me to be able to sit here and embrace gratitude.
Thank you for those aha moments. Thank you for the pink in my apartment. Thank you for bringing me a guardian angel in the form of a poodle who models to me every day how I should love and live – freely, enthusiastically, unconditionally and insanely. Thank you for listening when I asked for peace and clarity. Thank you for the intermittent internet signal I can poach from my neighbors of special occasions, but not too often or I would waste my day rearranging my Myspace profile.
Thank you for hot tea and cookies and the smell of lilacs and for allowing so many to bloom for my birthday. Thank you for those times I laughed so hard I cried and cried so hard I laughed, and for the spectrum of emotions I sailed through so wildly that I sometimes created new emotions. Thank you for the beautiful shape of the eyes of Haitian children, and for how they spent hours braiding my hair, and for keeping me still when I was in the truck going to Mardi Gras and wondered if that was how I was going to end.
Thank you for recovery. Thank you for keeping my father alive and for his legs that walk, and for the drum set he pounds and for the rhythm of life. Thank you for awakening the fiery, powerful spirit in my mother, and for that night in Uganda when we laughed about the soap as I huddled under a mosquito net and she tried to bathe in a bucket of cold water. Thank you for the pink beads in Baby Aimee’s hair.
Thank you for the people in my life who lifted me up, anchored me down, cleansed me, reached inside me and forced me to examine my guts, for the people who fought for me and with me, my army of friends and loved ones who never stopped feeding me, pushing me, kicking me in the ass, as needed, and seeing me. For the people who accepted me and forgave me 10,000 times, and again, as I figured things out, slowly but deeply. Thank you for the arms that held me tight, the noodles that brought us comfort, the Diet Cokes that gave us an excuse to pause and think, the friends I lost when their lessons were done and my ability to accept people’s different and evolving roles in my life. Thank you for those church services that were perfectly written for me (that was really neat how that happened), and for the songs that were written for me, and for the birds that flew for me and the sunsets that dripped across the sky just to make me sigh.
Thank you for the ability to continue loving, and the dissatisfaction that keeps me hungry, and for the sentences I met along the way, and the words I gave birth to, and the smiles that people burned into my heart. Thank you for the funny guy holding a red balloon right now in the bookstore, and the quirky and confused and striving and random characters I met. Thank you for the dancing. Thanks for fingernail polish and shoes and beautiful things, like satin and wrinkles around eyes and curls and the way that things shine. Thank you for dresses with superior twirling capabilities.
Thank you for never being predictable, for turning tragedies into blessings, demons into angels, tears into lessons, strangers into friends, children into prophets. Thanks for the contradictions that make life interesting, the adventures that make life worthwhile and the beauty in authenticity, in finally finding yourself and giving yourself a hug, and maybe a high-five, and then being embarrassed that the true you is such a big dork.
Thank you for piano notes. For snow days. For game nights. For dress-up parties. For scarves and gloves on cold days. For love that never dies but does change. For circles. For forgiveness. For coffee shops. For the amazing way it feels when you stop and stretch your muscles and loosen them up for the next big task. For the word “journey,” even though it is so overused, and for the word “dope,” which is totally cool to say again, despite what all the haters say.
Thank you for this moment, and all of the moments that are glued together to make up a year, and all of the people that comprise those moments, and all of the beauty in those people, and the quirks that make up that beauty, and the lessons embedded in those quirks, and the way those lessons fold into your own being, like little etch marks in the portrait of who you are and who you are ever-evolving to be.
Thanks for one crazy year that has left me in a fur-lined sweater, tall boots and with pink hair, empty tea pot, slightly chipped nail polish and a lightness of heart. I think that feeling inside is a little something known as “hope.” Thanks for that, too.
This camp, she is his mother. A dirty, panting crackwhore of a mother. She does not want him, but the government makes her keep him. She hates him, but she holds him.
He doesn't have another, so he lets her hold him, even though her flesh is clammy and her embrace is flimsy. He buries his cheek into the stench of her body and he feels protected, a little. He is not.
Dorothy Anne meets him there. She is twenty-six and searching for something. An escape? Inspiration? Adventure? Yes, all three. She’d been working at the newspaper for several years when the chance found her.
“Will you write a story about my nonprofit in Uganda?” the young man had asked her. The eighteen-year-old had started filming a documentary on a refugee camp, but it had morphed into raising money to put the orphans through school. “I’ll pay your way,” he had offered.
They left in three weeks, barely enough time for Dorothy to get her yellow fever shot. Freshly divorced and living in her car, getting ready for work every morning in the library bathroom, she had nothing to live for back home. She requested a one-way ticket.
Here she stands, balancing on the rusty spine of an old pickup truck, which is shaking through the camp. Next to her, Max doesn’t know where they’re bouncing. Questions are for sadists. All Max cares is the truck is moving somewhere, and anywhere is better than purgatory. Movement is life, it is hope. He saw a truck. He jumped on. Now, something will change, even if it's small or bad.
That’s where he found the wide-eyed white woman with long black hair, straight like sticks and smooth like the sky.
She tells him they are going to Hoima. That’s outside the walls of the refugee camp. Max has never been there before. It’s only twenty miles but the pocked dirt roads stretch out the trip for hours. The pickup bed is packed with bodies. They sing loudly and balance. Dorothy doesn’t know the words so she smiles.
Max’s bones are only nine years old, but his soul is already senile with pain. A senile soul knows too much, so much that it starts laying blackness over memories to paint peace. He forgets some things, like when his birthday is (or maybe he never knew), his last name, and whether or not he likes chocolate. He takes some from Dorothy anyway. It tastes like medicine. His preferences are useless knowledge, pushed out by sharper images, like his brother's severed head hanging from a tree. You see that, and birthdays and chocolate have no use anymore.
His black eyes are cracked. His feet are naked. But they can run. Fast. That is how he ended up here and not in a grave.
Dorothy calls him Max, but that’s because she can’t pronounce his full birth name: Usalama Maxwell. The former is Swahili for "safety" and "security." Either his birth mother had a lot of nerve, wishful thinking, or disgusting sarcasm. She died when he was seven. To Max, his African name is an empty promise, taunting. Hilarious. He’s glad White Dorothy ignores it.
Max is wedged at the bottom of about twenty bare armpits, which take turns crashing against his shaved head in time with the rocky rhythm of the dirt path. No one sees him down here, or more like they don't care. Their naked feet stagger and balance on top of several overstuffed bags, presumably the purpose of this truck. He also presumes none of them knows what's inside these sacks, or more like they don't care.
The singing climaxes. The African sky is bloated and pissing all over them, but it feels nice. It slices through the stagnant air. Movement, drop by drop. Drip, drop, bounce. Drip, drop, bounce.
White Dorothy clutches a notebook and pen tight against her chest like it’s a part of her. Occasionally, the pen flicks across the page, and Max wonders what she’s writing. Could she write his ticket out of here? He’s heard stories of refugees going to America.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” No one has asked him this before.
He thinks, while watching the jungle bounce by through a cloud of red dust.
“I want to be—” he pauses. “—anywhere else.”
This kind of living is the opposite of goal-setting, where you choose a destination and keep your eyes locked on it, with minimal account for the details. This is blind faith at its rawest. The future is shut your eyes and jump and hope you don’t break beyond recovery.
“Do you have chewing gum? The pink kind?” That’s what Max really wants.
Dorothy shakes her head. “Only green,” she smirks. She digs into her pocket and hands him a piece. Before he grabs it, she screams and drops.
This is when the slow motion starts. Max swears something magical happens when shit goes down. Like time wraps itself into a knot and goes so fast that it's in reverse. He swears he can feel his stomach jump so high out of his body that it punches the clouds, who spit out a burst water in surprise.
Right then, a knock on the side of the truck from a flying rock turns into a bullet. A raindrop melts into blood. Now he’s inside a red thunderstorm. Now he’s inside a human thunderstorm. Bodies plop around him, flop off the edge of the truck, pin him onto the mystery sacks. Body-drops are bigger than the raindrops and blood drops, but they fall just the same: with resignation and determination so matched that they negate each other. They all fall with nothing.
His armpit cave has collapsed. From underneath these screams, obviously he doesn’t know what is going on. Dorothy cowers next to him, her hands bridged over her head, protected under the lifeless and sputtering bodies of others. Her tears are sharp and silent.
Max doesn't know whether it's an accident, the government from his homeland, the commandant, rebels who live in the forest, or maybe even God, running a demolition over the camp to start from scratch, where He might have a chance at creating something less painful. Of course, at the time, Max’s thoughts sound nothing like this. This is how it goes, in live time.
Drip, drop, bounce. Duck. No. Run.
Max shakes someone's limp leg off his small legs and pops up, right in time to see: men with machine guns on the side of the road. Maybe rebels. Maybe neighbors.
Max’s legs win the short-lived battle with any instinct for self-preservation. He could hide. But he leaps over the edge of the pickup and into the line of fire. Dorothy will ache, wishing she could ask him why he did that.
Even though she already did. Minutes ago. He just couldn’t wait until he grew up to be anywhere else.
Death is movement. Now, at least, something will change.