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“The Sportsman” by M. Neelika Jayawardane

“The Sportsman” by M. Neelika Jayawardane

The Sportsman

On the night train to Mombasa, she slept on the top bunk because he was afraid of falling. Inside their cramped quarters, she shaved her armpits to stave off the reek. She didn’t want him seeing her with bottle-bottom spectacles, so she kept her contact lenses in, their plastic gripping her corneas and gritty from city dust and Nairobi’s winter dryness. There was a toilet that emptied onto the tracks below as the train sped through the bush between Nairobi and the coast. She didn’t want to take her toothbrush into the shared toilet, and didn’t want Julian to see her with rivulets of toothpaste and spit all over her mouth, so she saved brushing her teeth for the cabin sink when Julian went to take a shit. She climbed onto the bunk, getting a leg-up from the metal sink near the cabin window.

These are the surreptitious rituals one engages in when indulging in a fling with a man with whom one merely wants to have some sex, in between seeing one’s parents and returning to the business of pleasing one’s parents by getting a degree in America.

When she woke up, he was still asleep. She clambered down and got new knickers out—white cotton ones. The sweat she anticipated on the coast, only a few hours away, made her chuck out any desire to look Nairobi-fuckable in yellow silk. She flip-flopped her way to the toilet, armed with a sodden pile of toilet paper with which to wipe herself. The water would already be out in the toilet sink by this time of the morning, so she had to use her supply of bottled water. Already, there was a queue of men waiting to piss. All of them were damp with the night’s sweat. She caught the whiff of unwashed sex through pyjamas.

The train moved along, making little heaves and jumps. The men shifted a little with every movement of the car, the choreography of their dance determined by gaps in the rail-road ties. She waited her turn for the toilet, lurching along with this grimy chorus line. The pile of tissue in her hands dripped between her legs. A gap in the floorboards showed a blur of rail ties speeding by. After she had her turn in the toilet, she went to the observation area in the back of the train, held on to the railing, and thought about how the ambition that drove her to get to the next thing, then the next, meant she couldn’t stay with any one thing. Maybe she searched out things not worth staying with, just so that she’d have to leave.

They’d get to the coast by one in the afternoon. It was barely seven-thirty in the morning, but she could feel the heat rising. The sun was high already. The light seeping through the drawn curtains was dry, plains bright. It reminded her of eastern Montana’s wheat farm country, where the vast, flapjack-flat expanses betrayed not even a hint of the Rocky Mountains rising in the west. But here, the light was a white-out that no northern American plainsman could imagine. This was the light stored away in her memory, sustaining her through the grey days of American winters. Some of her childhood friends from the Rift Valley Lakes region had a pocket of fat skin along the lower eyelid that drew up the lower rim of the eye to the iris when they blinked or laughed, shading the eye from the sun. When they smiled, their eyes joined in, the lower lip of the eye moving in unison with the curving mouth. Even now, when she saw a random international student at her university—a Kenyan, a Northern Zambian—with those smiling eyes, she felt something like homesickness, but also a desire to move to the other side of the room. That longing was something she’d fought hard to leave behind.

She got back to the cabin to dress. Julian slept on, snoring a little. Awake, his dark brown hair was tailored for his contours and his eyes shrieked blue above the peeling brown of his cheekbones. He had a tan only seen on white men in Africa, spreading as sly and smooth as their intentions. Such a man was never so beautiful in England.

Asleep, his features fell, gathered the deepening wrinkles about his mouth and eyes. He golfed nearly every workday in Nairobi, barring rain, leaving work at about three in the afternoon. On weekends, he had polo at some country club or other. The sun that made him stunning when awake, with smiles and wiles intact, made him look old and diminished in sleep.

She met Julian on her way back to America, to college, and the boredom of a whitewashed writing programme locked in the spine of mountains running along the middle of the country. She’d returned for the requisite visit to her family, who lived in a tiny mining town. Her father continued to bumble along in a company job that helped support her meandering miseducation—twenty-odd years after his first arrival, in misadministered happiness with a mining company that paid for his long lunches with his somewhat faithful Bemba girlfriend. He saw himself amongst all those Great Men of Africa: Kenyatta, Soyinka, Banda, and Zambia’s own white-kerchief-waving Kenneth Kaunda. Her father, fortuitously having arrived almost straight after the glory days of independence, believed he was secure in his job, and that his position as the medicine, alcohol, and advice dispensing Big Bwana of the Copperbelt was ironclad.  

At the end of her visit, she was hugging her father goodbye on the runway, wiping her eyes as an afterthought. She was dying to leave that regional airport, the customs that still weighed one’s luggage on a massive scale with a quivering black needle, the attendants to whom her father slipped bills in order to get her contraband package of ceremonial masks on the plane without a hefty fine. She gave him the side-eye. The money goes to this man’s family directly, her father reasoned with her, trying to appease her newly found Western righteousness. (She didn’t think her righteousness had to extend so far as to not take valuable ceremonial masks out of the country, or pay a tax for that privilege.) Instead, she wisecracked: It’ll go to his chibuku carton. Her father gave her his this-is-not-the-time look and kissed her on the cheeks, on the forehead, and on the mouth, sucking in air, tasting her scent, for memory. He knew she wasn’t going to return for a long time. She was taking a look at the handsome man in the immaculate suit who had just arrived, breathing frosty clouds into the late July morning as he got onto the twin engine that was to take them to the capital. She would catch her plane to Nairobi a few hours after arrival.  From there, a flight would take her through Dubai to London, and back to the U.S.

Such were the trajectories back then, to escape landlocked families. The routes were difficult and long, and entry points policed by representatives of powerful countries who were charged with keeping the likes of her out. Any exit strategy involved a series of waits in airport lounges. Ambitions, fortitude, and bank accounts would be thwarted long before most deserters got halfway out.

There was open seating on the plane and, even though she was one of the last to get on—she lingered with her waving father who pressed a wad of dollars into her palm at the last moment, telling her to buy a “watch or something” at her Dubai stopover—she got herself two free window seats on which to lounge. She took off the Nomad rucksack, lifting it easily into an open cabin storage unit, ignoring the protests of the gallant attendant. Her midriff was bare above her low-slung jeans as she heaved a second bag up.  Looking down, she saw the suited man staring from his seat, two rows down. She deliberately sat as far from him as she could, knowing him already: High Council staff, or pharmaceuticals—a travelling salesman, either way.

Through the square of double panes, she saw the blurred figure of her father, flirting with a good-looking woman with the hips and breasts of a fertility icon. She had escorted her husband to the airport. Her heels had clicked along the polished concrete of the airport floor as she accentuated the sway of her high buttocks—it was never safe to let your man forget how good you looked, even when his plane was scheduled to take off at seven-thirty in the morning. The woman was throwing her head back, nose in the air, mouth stretched open, quavering in response to some ribald joke—her father, the consummate charmer.  

The flight attendants were already plying people on board with Drambuie and Campari. She got drunk, happy, careless on the flight.  Eventually, she fell asleep, waking up when the aeroplane droned onto the runway at Lusaka.  

She decided to get through customs as fast as she could to avoid the long queues which built up before international departures, and wait in the international lounge upstairs. She tried to start reading Coetzee’s Barbarians, but ended up perusing style magazines instead. Long, fitted grey coats were the next big thing for autumn. She could get a sample coat through a friend who was a publicist, a woman who’d kissed her at a party, passing a spearmint Tic Tac with a knowing tongue. She didn’t take the fashion publicist’s advances seriously because she was seeing two different men on the gymnastics team at the time; and anyway, although she enjoyed kissing and being fondled by women, she didn’t think she could go all the way into sex.

She tried walking, entering shops. The lounge was as wide as the airport building, taking up almost the entire second floor. Handing over a portion of her father’s money, she bought a silver ring in a gift shop: a wide band with a square of emerald, made by one Cecil Roberts in Kabwe. As if she had the kind of money to buy jewellery made by struggling expatriate artists who had come to Africa with their hippy fantasies.  She had to pay rent when she got back but she’d spent nearly all her  savings, and she hadn’t worked that summer.  She bought a pack of Dunhills, and chain-smoked. The lounge attendant told her, when she asked if she could smoke there, “You can smoke, madam. It’s a free country.”  She laughed and shared smokes with him, watching, through the enormous glass panes, for the Kenya Airways insignia on the plane that was to take her away. White people who craved the sun must have designed this place, in a country whose inhabitants wisely tried to find shade wherever they could.

She watched the haze and bubble of mirrored air above the length of tarmac. Three hours to go for the plane to Nairobi. A Kenya Airways 747 docked into Gate 9. Bored, she thought of slipping into the bathroom to masturbate, or—who cares—in a lonely area of seats in the lounge. There were hardly three people around.

For the month that she’d been home, she’d been desperately horny. She masturbated all the time, reckless, allowing herself to climax even when she heard footsteps down hallways. Mostly, she sat around with her father in his mining company headquarters office—this seemed to please him immensely.

In the office, her father was surrounded secretaries vaguely connected to the company who came and went all day: carmine red bee-eaters, lipsticked, stockinged, and dressed in smart South African-made Woolworths clothes. Her father was distracted by minor work-related conundrums and women.

She watched Jonathan Mulonga, the man in the office next door. Sometimes he returned in a ceremonial hard-hat and green overalls after an inspection of the mines—showing visiting dignitaries how well run everything was. He’d started to talk to her once he realised that she would sneak out to smoke on the pretext of going to the little public library in the town square which had the same British classics (Dickens and Austen) that it had on the shelves when she was ten years old.  Once, she perused the so-called “adult” section which still titillated kids because their library cards didn’t let them check books out of that section. She found only Maxim Gorky’s The Artmanovs, which had a scene about a naked woman dancing on a piano—but she knew about this already, because her father let her buy the book with money she won for reciting poetry when she was thirteen years old. Back then, the state-run television station, which only came on at five in the evening (four on weekends), cut out all the kissing scenes from American shows in order to thoroughly protect the youth of Zambia from any unnecessary activations of their libidos. The Artmanovs first introduced her to sex. The piano scene pushed her into a frenzied series of masturbations.

She guessed that her father might have asked Jonathan to follow her to see what she was up to, because he knew that she would be up to something other than library visits.  Once, she wandered down to the Second-Class area—a business district left over from colonial days—to get chibuku. She’d never had the nerve to try it before she’d left for college, and without the requisite list of risqué experiences involving home-brew and township ganja, she felt, somehow, not Zambian enough around other African students who boasted about their exploits. This was her chance. She sat on a bench, bullshitting with some guy who bought her a carton, acting like she was a regular at the joint. She told the local lothario that she was an aid worker with USAID—she couldn’t tell him who her father was. He knew better but played along. Jonathan Mulonga swooped down at that moment, asking her what the hell she was doing in this part of town. His admonition: Did she know that 99% of Africans were infected with HIV? The line was a classic of her father’s, a man who wouldn’t even carry out first-aid on a fellow worker if he was black (once he reprimanded his daughter for treating a minor cut on an office worker’s hand).  Jonathan had graduated to special status immunity, because he had slipped easily from HIV-African to expatriate circles: he was high up enough in the mining company hierarchy to ensure that their contracts were extended well beyond the company’s initial agreements. In turn, he got to be HIV-free, and received discrete envelopes of Foreign Exchange brokered by her father who got to feel self-important.

Jonathan took her to a restaurant bar in the town’s poshest hotel.  It was owned by Indians, so the story about her having a drink with a black man was doubtless spread throughout the Copperbelt Province even before they sat down.  He told her how much her father worried about her. There she was: past her mid-twenties, without a job, no marriage prospects even though she had had the opportunity to study in America; her father had heard about her boyfriends “through friends”—other Zambian kids studying in “Zambianised” American universities.

She told Jonathan thanks, but that she liked her boyfriends, just like her father liked his girlfriends.

He laughed so hard that Mosi lager foamed out of the corners of his lips.  “Hmm. But you are rude, ha?” She saw her opening—he’d loosened up with the afternoon beer. She asked him about her father’s now long-term steady—he was probably so afraid of HIV that he’d been keeping to one woman for the first time in his life. She joked that the Zambian government’s “One Woman, One Man: For Life” posters must have worked on her father. Jonathan was enjoying himself.

She told him that her father’s friends were only his friends because he’s the Duty Free liquor supplier: Courvoisier, Napoleon Five-Star brandy, aged Dewar’s, and now, after the end of apartheid-era sanctions, second-rate wines from Paarl and Stellenbosch for the parties on Friday.  

She asked him, “Have you seen that he has white blood cells in his urine? I saw the Cuban doctor’s report.”

Jonathan stopped laughing and interrupted me. “Which Cuban?” As if he was going to eliminate this bad-news-bringing doctor.

“I know he has uric acid crystals in his blood. That’s why his joints hurt: he has gout. Jonathan, that’s from drinking too much, and too much meat.”  

Jonathan shook his head. “Emwe,” he used the diminutive address to insult her, “you are so smart.  Why didn’t you stay in science and become a doctor?  You could have helped your father.”

She decided to stop asking questions, and walked away, only to see Jonathan following her at what he probably thought was a respectable tailing distance.  They’d read the same James Hadley Chase novels.

Finally, the boarding call came. She was one of the first in line, trying to avoid the American missionary who accosted her with a Jesus speech in the lounge. Again, the plane was barely going to be peopled; she saw several empty rows to choose from. After she settled in, she noticed the suit from the earlier trip to the capital blow in—she figured he was running late again. He’d taken his coat off, and his sleeves were rolled up—a sportsman’s forearms.  She looked through the window, opening up Coetzee again, finally starting to get into the text before the aeroplane taxied out to the runway. She felt the plane straining, the propellers swallowing great mouthfuls of air. The engines screeched, high-pitched. The take-off was long and laboured, as if the vessel was reluctant to let go of the earth. She wondered if this was a sign of an impending crash, and realised that she didn’t care. When the country first acquired its fleet of aeroplanes, Zambians used to applaud the crew upon take-off and landing, the crew genuinely happy with honest congratulations. Now, world-weary after over thirty years of independence, people barely glanced up from their magazines.  

She tried to put her seat at rest position. It wouldn’t budge from ninety-degrees. Bloody busted, she thought, and just curled up sitting straight up. A hand tapped her from behind. She looked back, and there was fucking Romeo, leaning over the two rows of seats between them.

“You know, you can make the seat go back with this button,” he offered, actually leaning over to push the button for her.  

What does one tell a man with whom one instantly knows that she wants to have sex, but will despise for other, obvious reasons?

He smiled encouragingly, asked her to try another set of seats. He leapt over to the row behind her, testing the seats, telling her that they worked. She decided that if she moved, he might just shut up. She chose the window seat in the row behind her. Romeo parked himself on the aisle seat—he wasn’t returning to his original spot.

He slipped her the business card:

Julian Pearman
SmithKline Beecham, Kenya Ltd.

Ah, yes; a pill-pusher, just as she thought. A pharmaceutical salesman with a printer who didn’t know how to spell the name of his exclusive suburb properly.

“You going to stay in Nairobi a while? University?”  

“Nah. Going back to college in the US.  My flight leaves from Nairobi tonight.”

“I live in Karen, you know, that area outside Nairobi named after Karen von Blixen.  There’s great coffee in Karen; you’ll have to visit one day.” He talked like he came out of the movie that white people like him conjure up when they want to imagine what Africa might be like. “I can take you up in my Cessna. The forest nearby is absolutely untouched.  Still has these giant baobabs—you know what they are? The natives worship them; they think the trees swallow maidens and whatnot.”

“I lived here for a long time, once.” She thought saying that would end his performance, so that she could just enjoy his other, more appealing characteristics. She noticed, by then, the crinkle around his eyes when he smiled, the brown freckles on his cheekbones and nose.

He looked serious, even apologetic. “I’ve blundered twice with you already.  I noticed you with your father, in Kitwe, and wanted to talk to you since.  You looked so sad when you walked away from him.”

He had her then.

He got her to admit that it was only because her father came to Zambia back when all the expatriates got outrageously padded contracts that she was able to get her education abroad.

“Didn’t do anything for me anyway. I’ve frittered away my father’s—and Zambia’s—meagre pot.” She tried to sound worldly and weary.

 “There’s nothing else one should do with a trust fund except waste it,” he said so easily that she laughed for the first time in a month.  

She reopened her book after a while, and Pearman showed some interest: “Coetzee?” She explained the premise of the novel. “Ah, an intellectual, are you?” he frowned. Then, as if the two subjects were closely related, he began a long spiel about how the White Nile should be dammed, just above Lake Victoria.

“But what about the water that flows into Egypt?” she asked, really knowing nothing about any of it.  

“The flow of water from the headlands won’t be hurt; most of the Nile’s water comes from the Ethiopian highlands—from the Blue Nile.” He was suddenly an expert. “All the water comes from the swampy area north of the lake, all going to waste.”

She rolled her eyes.

“There’s no need to dismiss me, just like that.  Imagine the possibilities: Sudan has some of the richest, most fertile earth I’ve ever seen.  And I’ve been to thirty-odd African nations.”  

She asked about the wetlands: what would happen to them?

“Wetlands.  So, a bohemian intellectual.  I see the influence of American tree-huggers. You’re not vegetarian, too, are you?”

She was amused at his caricature-view of her, at how well she’d learned to coat herself with borrowed accruements of American ease and ideological belonging. Pearman’s willingness to buy this variation of her was flattering. But she knew she’d now have to do the difficult labour of keeping it up; that was the trouble with play-acting belonging.

As the plane approached Nairobi, he’d already tried to convince her to postpone her flight back to the States. She didn’t need much convincing. What did she have? A writing programme populated with the second-rate writers that first rate programmes had rejected—weekly debates where people who’d gone nowhere, done nothing, and met nobody but each other debated whether she should leave out words like “nshima” or include laborious explanations in footnotes—and the idiocy of sticking with something she didn’t really believe in, just so that she would have enough money to live on rice and red beans. She could put it all off, just for a fortnight. Julian was going to show her around, because Kenya was too lovely to pass up.  Besides, he added, Gulf Air, the company with which she was going to fly, made flight changes at no charge because it was run by filthy-rich oil tycoons who couldn’t care less.

She laughed at his insistence, but that night, he was the first person she called from the Nairobi airport when she wasn’t allowed on the Gulf Air flight. The queue of people shifted impatiently behind her as she argued with the gate agent. In an instant, she had become that person, the one from whom the Kenyans and Indians in queue tried hard to differentiate themselves, the one who reminded them that none of them were meant to leave these borders or be mobile. She was now that Third World Brown, with too much luggage and the plastic bags with food for the children and the unfashionable clothes bought second-hand in anticipation of the new country’s climate, hoping to pass without incident. Finally, the gate agent called for backup and some higher-up came, brandishing his badge. He took her up to his office, only to tell her: “This passport! It is rubbish! It cannot go anywhere. Why don’t you get an American passport?”

From him, she learned that people with her rubbish passport couldn’t fly through London anymore without having a special transit visa—a visa to sit in the plane, while it refuelled. Were she to get out of the plane and board another plane, all without leaving the airport, she needed another type of visa. Why? There was a civil war in the South Asian island of her birth and refugees from the ethnic group that was getting killed by her ethnic group had begun to show up at Heathrow, supposedly on the way to another country, only to demand asylum. So Britain no longer allowed any ethnic group from her island—along with Pakistanis, Iraqis and people from a couple of other failed nation states—to fly through without first being vetted. It didn’t matter that she’d only known Zambia as home; in the world of record-keepers, she had no claim on that country. Had she a Zambian passport, she wouldn’t face this trouble, but her father didn’t want them to become Zambian. That would have been a demotion in citizenship.

She was sweaty in her corduroys and long-sleeved shirt, the clothes planned for a cold aeroplane. She could feel beads dripping down her back, gathering on her bra strap.

“You, why didn’t you check this before?” Kenyan Airport Official liked to ask questions for which there were no answers. She felt a fool for not checking the rules but, bizarrely enough, on the way to Zambia from the US, no one had stopped her. Kenyan Airport Official duly noted this puzzling fact, then congratulated himself: “Ha! Those American gate agents didn’t stop you! Our people know better! An airline can get fined plenty for letting people like you on!” He spoke solely in exclamations. Fuck him. Does he think American passports were plucked free from the mango trees of Washington D.C.? Part of her did want just that—that magic blue book, offering a free pass to anywhere. But another part of her despised that country, resented whites who stood in line just as she did at airports but with none of the apprehension or the multiple visa levies burning holes through savings accounts. They stood in travel queues oblivious to worry, thoughtless about what it took. She wanted what they had and she hated them for being born into that ownership. She hated them more for knowing that she—like every Third Worlder with a rubbish passport—wanted to have their easy access.

In any case, there was no way she was flying that night. She had to go to the British High Commission in Nairobi early the following morning, stand in line, and supplicate for the transit visa. A fifty-pound levy for her to just sit in a plane on a runway in London.  If she were lucky, she could get it in one day, be back at the airport for the flight the next evening. She used the airport official’s phone to ring Pearman. She couldn’t get out of that office fast enough—its every shelf smothered in years of dust, its every light switch covered in a layer of detained grime. But not before Airport Official said, “So, you have a boyfriend, eh? Why not stay here with us a little bit? He doesn’t have to know!”

As soon as she arrived at Pearman’s house in Karen, she showered, then called her father. He was worried. She told him: “No probs, papa. I’ll get visa. It’s a formality to squeeze more money out of Third World people.” (Her father didn’t believe they were Third World people.)

She put on minimal make-up and walked back to the living room. There was the sportsman, poking a hot fire.  On the walls, two large paintings hung under lighting placed strategically to highlight the colours and the palette-work. These were not the ubiquitous scenes of bare-breasted women carrying a child or a pile of fruit. It looked like art school student work: self-aware, trained, very knowing about who will buy, nothing too risky. The swirling colours on the dancer’s skirt, and her full body, were painted for men like Julian, who knew their art, but wanted something that proved they had been in Africa when they returned to Britain.

“Isn’t this nice?” he asked, lounging on the floor.  “The boys even made a fire,” he nodded approvingly at one of his staff, who meandered silently on the wood floors in bare feet, setting the table.

“Karibu-sana, Ezekiel,” Jon lauded the man, adding, for her benefit, “My Swahili is atrocious.”

He was oblivious to the possibility that he might look the fool, making drinks, prattling on about a recent ex—a wealthy Kenyan Indian, heir to some vast fortune her father made off a canning factory in Nairobi—who got a tennis scholarship and went to study in the U.S. She had a British passport already but wanted an American one too. She was working with a lawyer to get one. The question was implied; the Canning-fortune heir had, so why hadn’t you?

What to tell Pearman? That only privileged Kenyans with British passports, canning factory fortunes, and tennis scholarships got to hire lawyers to get them a third passport?

Instead, she noted the more obvious signs of his ignorance: “You’re welcome, very much, Ezekiel?” You’d think that I’d know less Kiswahili than you, after all these years away, Mr. Expert-on-Africa, Mr. Let’s-Dam-the-Blue-Nile-not-the-White-Nile.

He pulled her up from the fireplace and kissed her. She didn’t stop him, but told him that she didn’t have rubbers on her—she hadn’t planned on fucking anyone, but there she was, having engineered just such an opportunity. He begged her to believe that he was “clean”, tiddling with her nipples, saying that he’d wear two condoms if she wanted. She told him that she’d be the one to put the thing on. He complained about liberated women.  

When their clothes were off, when he was on top of her, he breathed whiskey in her face. “I want to fuck you,” he said in her ear.

“I think you already are, Julian.” Laughing at him was a turn on.

“Impressive,” he said, when she rolled the rubber over his penis in one continuous motion.

It was somewhat good first-time sex, satisfying in the urgency department. He told her not to make so much noise. She asked if it was because of “the boys” outside, but he admitted that it was because he hadn’t enjoyed sex this much in a long time and her sounds were going to make him come too soon. She quietened down but couldn’t care less about when he climaxed. She couldn’t come with a strange man’s penis inside her, although she generally enjoyed the friction. A while back, she’d decided that she wouldn’t pretend to orgasm as she once did, but went on having sex with men with whom she felt no emotional safety. Julian’s expertise at thrusting didn’t make a difference. She could tell he was disappointed.

The next morning, he came into her room, confused; she’d asked him to leave after sex, because she knew that she couldn’t fall asleep with a strange person in her bed. She knew she had to be the adult, so she acted like there was nothing out of the ordinary, talking easily.  He kissed her, then asked if he’d taken advantage of her when she was “vulnerable” from having just said goodbye to her family. She told him that her issues with her family were far more complicated than that. There was nothing she did that she didn’t want to. He looked disappointed again.

They decided to take the train to Mombasa after she got the visa to pass through London. She made a phone call to postpone her flight by a week. Her father thought she was waiting for the visa and staying with friends. She was out of his reach already.  

When they reached Mombasa, they took a taxi to the hotel, showered luxuriously and long, in ice-cold water.  They fell asleep in the air-conditioning, woke up to sex, and later, dinner by the pool.  She hugged him very tight.  He kissed her so well that she might have believed she could care about him.

The moon was a broad sickle; the beach, a sheet of white. The sea was just ten metres away, but the hotel staff told them not to go into the water at night—the incoming tide made the water too choppy.

She woke up to the sound of the muezzin calling the azan. Julian was completely unaware. His mouth was ajar. She put on a blue bikini, a sundress over it, and slipped out to the stillness and the water beyond. She waded through shallows towards what looked like a young reef. Further out, she could see the water breaking where the shelf of land fell into deeper water. Her feet touched the bottom, sand silting through—it was a heavier liquid. Water surrounded her senses. She could feel her heartbeat tighten to an always-present fear of water, then slow down. She swam out: easy, soft strokes. Past the shallows and through the breaking waves into the deep water. The small curve of land on her right side, which appeared reassuringly whenever she took a breath, faded away. She submerged her head, giving herself up to the water, into malachite opacity.

When she swam back to the beach, the sun was bright and high. Sand crabs scuttled. She sat cross-legged on a washed up coconut trunk. Its roots jutted out, disjointed, displaying its forced upheaval to the world. The sand crabs stilted about, inching closer on rose-coloured legs, their smokestack eyes glowering like molten metal. A slight movement, and the crabs sprinted away so fast—bits of white debris in a gale, shimmer-shining in the early morning light.

She wondered how she’d make a clean exit this time. She didn’t think he’d object too hard.

M. Neelika Jayawardane (@sugarintheplum) is Associate Professor of English at SUNY-Oswego. She was born in Sri Lanka, and grew up in the Copperbelt Province in Zambia; she completed her PhD at the University of Denver, Colorado. At the State University of New York-Oswego, she teaches transnational memoirs, fiction and visual art connected to immigrant experiences, including contemporary Southern African and South Asian work. Her publications explore the nexus between literature, photography, and the transnational/transhistorical implications of surveillance, colonialism and apartheid on migratory bodies. She is a senior editor and writer at Africa is a Country.

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