Togo, je t’aime

You meet the Togolese nurse in a small café on the piedmont slopes of North Carolina. She swirls stories out of her coffee and onto your hand, places and people long forgotten. Animists animated from memory, voodoo curses, and the way black magic can determine the fates of men and nations. She tells you of child merchants plying their trade, un-hagglable, fierce at what they do these children. Of women dipping their babies gently into whorling ocean, surf clinking their anklets and reflecting dazzling light. She speaks of pre-med days caring for the old, the light that appears in the eyes of those so close to death, the way it changes you to see that. You tell her stories of unincorporated life on the edge of Chicago, swinging across creeks on strung-up rope, sledding down hills on the lids of trashcans. Of food trucks and the vendors who sell elote en vaso. Of skaters skitching behind cars, faded white Adidas running black from the tar they kick up.

You walk with her down to the mural carved out of an old tobacco factory’s broad wall, brick chimneys reaching up to black clouds now bleached white, white brick lettering to spell out the old company’s name, all of it condemned. You sit on the grass beside these paintings and run your fingers over the roughness of the brick made smooth. Take her hand in yours and guide her to the mortar. She tells you she hasn’t felt a man’s touch in years, since she left her little land in the west of Africa. Had forgotten its simple roughness, the firmness of it. She colors her stories with dabs of French, and you keep pace with what you remember. She smiles at your pronunciation and you want to kiss her forever.

She tells you she wants to take you to Lomé, wants to live there with you. You consider this great going away, this leaving everything behind, the homes you’ve settled before left like anthills abandoned on the cracks of a sidewalk, the cultures you’ve collected, languages half-spoken, as if in a dream. You study the stitching of her dress, form fitting, red and green and yellow with black trimming each edge where the colors meet, like mortar on a brick wall.

She goes with you to your house. You collect your things into suitcases and bags and trunks, crickets calling out into nothing, to a sky that grabs the stars and pulls them down to where they can be seen. Dew sits on grass blades and red clay earth sinews down gravel road where the woods line the boundary of your land. You take her onto the suitcases, sliding onto the floor, dress rising over hips as you do this thing together.

You picture the way your family will react when they see pictures of her, after you post them to your feed, her royal cheekbones and skin the color of the coffee she swirled onto your palm. Of the confused smiles and words muttered just out of earshot. Of this body she’s been given, and the one you’ve been given, as shells housing soul, and the millennia of hurt done to bodies by other bodies, l’extase et l’agonie, all for remediation of generational hurt that’s unfounded, passed through the ages, a taxonomy. And now, alleles of hate giving way to love, all of it sliding past and out of view, to the Buddhist concept of Pure Land, the animists giving wind and shape to the same thing, hard Chicago Catholicism and its state of grace, none of it different. Of joining together as you’ve done now, on top of the suitcases, and getting your ticket out of here. Of leaving your land, red clay kicking up under the tires, gravel after it, her hand in yours. Of going. Of arriving, having never left.

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CONSCIOUS OF THE SELF VARIETY

So we’re here. Here, here. Like, together. As in, I asked her if she’d like to consume food somewhere in my presence, and she ignored my dorky habit of doctoring up my vocab for humor and said yes. The sweat, too. She ignored the sweat that accumulated on my brow, the same kind that always forms whenever I’m around her. She’s gracious like that.

I’m sweating now, too. Only problem is it has nothing to do with her pulchritude and everything to do with the goddamn cold I seem to be coming down with. Seriously, universe? Of all the times you could’ve chosen to do your thing illness-wise, you choose now? When She’s here? The One? Her Pulchritude in the Flesh, and Every Other Capitalized Title You Could Think Of?

The snot’s already forming at the top of my nasal cavity. Dangling over the edge, really, like some kid who’s teasing his mom as she tells him to get down from there, wherever there is.

Anyway, she’s telling a great story right now, and I can tell it’s getting to the climax. To the big joke that’ll top it off, and with it an opportunity to laugh and look in each other’s eyes and maybe even be capped off by her putting her hand on mine or something. I know it sounds hokey, shut up. You’d wish for the same thing if you saw her the way I do.

But I’ll laugh, and the snot will fly, and it’ll get all over her food and be The Most Disgusting Thing of All Time, and I’ll just about die right here in my seat and just sort of be internally vaporized by the embarrassment.

Oh God, the snot’s already running. Code red.

Napkin’s too obvious. Out of the question. Pretending to scratch my face won’t work either.

I could bring curled forefinger to upper lip and thumb to chin in mock thoughtful contemplation. True, she’s telling a joke right now and that reaction might seem just a little fucking weird, but what other choice do I have? Stoic thinker it is.

Every move I’m making is wrong and awkward and terrible, and there’s no possible way she likes me at this point. I wish I was anyone else but me right now. Someone who could be as cool and calm as she is, and not have to deal with dangling nasal brats in the process.

I have to sneeze. I can’t stop it. And…

I feel surprisingly lighter. The cold seems like it went away, too. It was probably all in my head. Yeah, you know what? She totally digs me. Why wouldn’t she? I’m fairly diggable. And that wide-eyed look on her face, like she’s seeing me for the first time… Like all along she knew me as the dorky guy in accounting and only now that I’ve had this post-sneeze epiphany and gained confidence in my self has that self-confidence oozed out of my skin to show her who I really am.

But is that fear in her eyes? And why is everyone else in the restaurant staring?

“What’s wrong?”

My voice comes out as a weird falsetto, and I bring my hand to my mouth as if to stop the sound before it reaches her ears. My fingers feel a lot softer and daintier than what I’m used to. And when I pull the hand back, five delicately painted nails gleam back at me.

Her eyes go to my nails, then to my face, then back again. She reaches into her purse, pulls out a mirror, and shows it to me. At least I assume it’s supposed to be a mirror, even though I see her reflection in it.

Oh shit. The wish.

“Look, I…”

My falsetto is throwing me off, but I need to tell her. I plug my ears. Or rather, hers… on me… look, it’s kind of confusing, but this is what I say to her as I plug my ears like some crazy person:

“Look, I really like you. Like a lot. I don’t want to blow this, but it seems like I already have since I’ve turned into you and everything, so I’ll say this anyway. You make me nervous and unsure of myself, and that sounds bad, I’ll admit, but I mean it in the best possible way.”

I’m still plugging my ears.

“Anyway, I kind of wished I could be someone cooler, to impress you. It’s stupid and childish, I know, but at least now we have proof that I think you’re cool.”

Silence.

“So there’s that…”

Another sneeze comes. I don’t bother to hide it this time. It’s hopeless.

“Right. I’m gonna just go away now. Forever.”

“Wait.”

She actually puts her hand on mine. Like, actual physical contact. On my hand. And my fingernails are conspicuously nail polish-less. I’m me again. Holy shit, I’m in a Disney movie.

She takes her hand off of me and looks me over for a second, as if she might just see her double again at any moment.

“I say we start over from the beginning.”

“Sounds good to me.”

“This time with you being you and me being me. Deal?”

“Deal.”

Story by Chris Piszczek
Written by Nicholas Olson

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