A Short Walk from the Congo River
Elizabeth practiced saying his name again and again, letting the letter N slide back to the farthest point. She would let the letter N slide just to the edge of swallowing it. Even then, she would let the letter linger, feeling the vibration of N tickling her throat.
After nearly swallowing the sound of N, Elizabeth would let the rest of the name swim from her mouth. Ganga. Like a river, that part of the name. A dark, slow-moving river filled with thick silt, a thick river shaded by ancient trees. A tropical river winding through heat. That kind of river is how Elizabeth pictured the rest of the name, Nganga.
Nganga was born only a short walk from the Congo River, in the city of Brazzaville, in Africa. He appeared taller than the measure from the top of his head to the slight arch in his foot. He was lean as a long-distance runner, with arms built for a body accustomed to hard work. In certain light, Nganga’s skin appeared almost blue, he was so black.
Elizabeth was pale as certain sea-worn shells. Her short hair fell in white-blond wisps around her face. She had eyes the color of lake water under a thin layer of ice. When Nganga made love to Elizabeth, he held her leg up next to his chest, her skin luminous next to his.
It was Nganga’s face, though, that Elizabeth felt inclined to recall at moments when her mind drifted. His cheekbones were high, beckoning her index finger to slide down them. When he smiled, Elizabeth thought his face must be that of a favorite first child.
There were some who accused Elizabeth behind her back of having an obsession with black men. But it was Africa, a country she’d visited once as a child and forever after craved, that attracted Elizabeth to men such as Nganga.
Her friends understood that the men with their bead-wrapped hair and easy joking ways provided Elizabeth an escape from her stiff Minnesota Lutheran upbringing. The daughter of a devout minister, Elizabeth had been drawn to art because on good days, the press of a paint-soaked brush against canvas made her feel free. Too often, though, the pious, overly shy girl she’d been slipped onto the stool in front of the easel, causing Elizabeth’s brush to stall and bringing on a storm of angry tears.
Nganga spotted Elizabeth the moment she walked into the club. Watching her dance, Nganga thought of the reeds that bent down by the river in the quiet breeze back home. He could see how she let the music ride her, from her feet on up to her hips that rocked like a boat over small waves and her arms that swayed and her hands that sometimes cradled the fingers of her partners.
Elizabeth couldn’t explain even to herself what drew her to the little club at the end of the road that ran all the way to the airport. She couldn’t recall how she’d heard that two nights a week the club played African music from nine until two and attracted immigrants from all across that vast continent. But Elizabeth knew how she felt the moment she stepped in the door and heard the drums’ fierce rhythms and the haunting wail of the horns and the sweet high sound of Youssou N’Dour singing.
Nganga didn’t say a word but simply took Elizabeth’s fingers in his hand and started dancing. He was pleased to see that she found the rhythm almost instantly and they moved into that place where music and steps, her hips and his, couldn’t be separated. It was that joyous place he came to in the dark and he knew without speaking that this lovely thread of a woman had gone there with him.
When Nganga told Elizabeth his name, after handing her a glass of wine, and then said that he had been born in the Congo, Elizabeth tasted the N for the first time on her tongue and afterward wetted her lips with several drops of Chardonnay. Right after that, as Nganga took her hand and said he wanted to dance some more, Elizabeth knew she had entered her place, the Africa in her mind. The weather was hot and thick with mosquitoes and damp from the humidity. Everyone moved slowly there, in bare feet, and women languorously swayed their wide hips. Africa was not ever cold or lonely. The people were all around her. Children played with her hair. Their fingers couldn’t get enough of those platinum locks. Africa was bare-armed and playful, smiling and warm. And Africa was there in that club, with a man whose teeth gleamed in the low light and whose fingers held hers so easily.
Nganga too felt himself traveling back to Africa, before he’d left everything behind. He didn’t like to think about his family there and he especially didn’t want to think about his mother. She had begged him not to go so far away from home. She had warned him that life would be hard.
But Nganga had fallen in love with a woman named America. With that woman, Nganga knew he could be free. In America, he wouldn’t have to worry about his family. In America, he wouldn’t even have to marry. He’d go to America and learn to fly a plane. Then he could travel anywhere. And when he wasn’t flying Nganga would ride, his very own horse that he planned to buy, because what Nganga dreamed about even more than flying was becoming a cowboy.
It was easy then for Elizabeth and Nganga to step out of the club and expect to see one another again. On the corner of a napkin, Elizabeth wrote her name and phone number. She watched as Nganga looked at what she’d written. Then Nganga folded the small bit of paper even smaller and smiled when he said, “I will call you.”
Nganga’s friends thought he was only interested in Elizabeth for her white skin. But Nganga understood something more. Elizabeth was the woman Nganga had fallen in love with long before he had ever left his home, a short hot walk away from the Congo River. Elizabeth was the woman he’d known then only as America.
Nganga and Elizabeth drank bottles of red wine, staining their teeth and causing them to sleep late into the afternoon. Nganga lived in an apartment with bare walls, where he and Elizabeth made loved wrapped in sky blue sheets. When they made love Elizabeth said his name, Nganga, after letting the name soak in the dampness at the back of her throat.
“I am very black, no?” Nganga said to Elizabeth the first time they made love. “In Africa, we do not have so much mixing like you have here. That is why we stay this way. Black. Very, very black.”
Elizabeth wanted to tell Nganga how beautiful she found his skin. She yearned to say how happy it made her, watching him walk naked in the white room, but then Nganga would start kissing her again and touching her in ways that made her lose all thought for words and only sounds could slide out through her lips.
Each time Nganga left Elizabeth, a melancholy would wrap around her and the mood wouldn’t lift until she heard Nganga’s voice on the phone. She could feel herself grow lighter as soon as he began the soft French dusting of her name, when he took a long time to say Elizabeth, resting in the center, before moving on to the th at the end.
Sometimes weeks would pass without a call from Nganga, weeks in which Elizabeth could barely get out of bed. She didn’t tell Nganga what happened to her when he didn’t call because she knew he feared her needing him.
“You want to know too much about me,” Nganga said to Elizabeth over dinner when they first met. “I feel like you are shining a bright light in my eyes.”
Later, Nganga explained, “I like to have my freedom.”
When Elizabeth wasn’t around, Nganga listened to country and western music and dreamed of becoming a cowboy. He checked books on black cowboys out of the downtown library and even went to a rodeo when the black cowboys were in town. Nganga always wore blue jeans and a pressed blue work shirt, with a polished pair of cowboy boots, which he pulled off using a special wooden device.
Nganga never told Elizabeth that for him, making love was like riding a galloping stallion, feeling the power of the animal beneath him, the muscles moving warm and wet with sweat. Those muscles gave up their strength to Nganga, up through his thighs to his chest and his arms, making him feel like he could do anything. That power would build and flood Nganga with a light, and just when the light became almost more than Nganga could bear, there would be an explosion of color and a melting in his thighs, that would cause all the power to rush out of him. That power would storm headlong into Elizabeth, as her light soaked his up.
That’s when Nganga needed to get away from Elizabeth, to pull his shadow back.
“They say that black is beautiful,” Nganga said one night to Elizabeth, his naked body stretched out on the blue sheet. “What do you think? Do you think that black is beautiful? Do you think that Nganga is beautiful?”
“I think that Nganga is like a dark river,” Elizabeth said. “The river is beautiful because we can’t see the harm it can do.”
“What are you saying? Are you saying that Nganga is dangerous?”
“I’m saying that beauty can be dangerous. Everyone has a fascination with darkness. But sometimes there’s a price.”
“There is no price for me,” Nganga said and laughed. “I am completely free.”
“But freedom comes with a price. Don’t you see? The way you become free is by taking power from me.”
“I take your power? You can do anything you want. I am not stopping you. I do not care if you see another man, as long as you do not tell me about it. You are free to do whatever you like.”
Nganga stopped talking for a moment and looked into Elizabeth’s eyes.
“It is you who is giving up your power,” Nganga said. “It is you who does not want to be free.”
A month passed after that without a call from Nganga. Elizabeth stayed awake nights, brooding about his absence. She ran through her mind the names of the men before Nganga, men who had left her, each of those men taking a part of her away.
One morning when the month was nearly at an end, Elizabeth noticed a mauve light saturating the sky. She headed out of her apartment and walked one block west toward the park. After passing under the first of the tall eucalyptus trees, she took a right turn and headed for her favorite spot. The lake was at the top of a steep path and when she arrived next to it, she stopped and studied the patterns of early morning light reflected in the silent pool.
Elizabeth spent the whole rest of the day outside. In the late afternoon, she stepped through sand on the beach, listening to the gulls cry and noticing how the sun at that hour seemed to pull the light right out of the water and drop it in her eyes.
Elizabeth stayed on the beach and watched the sun fall down toward the horizon, until a ball of orange rested at the top of the sea. She continued to watch the sun drop and spread its rays through the water, turning the sky into a pastel palette. Sometime later, the moon came out, bright and full. She watched the reflection of the moon hover over the ocean.
“This is Cowboy,” the voice on the other end of the phone said that evening after she returned home.
Elizabeth held the receiver to her ear without speaking.
“This is me,” the voice said. “Don’t you know who this is?”
“Of course I know who it is.”
“Well, how are you?”
Elizabeth suddenly felt the warmth she had pulled into her that day slip out.
“I’m very gray,” Elizabeth said.
“You should go out more,” Nganga said. “Go out and sit in the sun. You are too pale. Some sun would do you good.”
The next morning Elizabeth set her easel by the window for the first time since she had met Nganga. She stretched a sheet of clean canvas over the thin plywood slats, pulling it tight at the corners and smoothing the surface with the palm of her hand. She thought about the canvas, clean and tight like a drum, and wondered if she still knew how to move the images from her head onto the brown-flecked surface.
The light fell from the window in a bright thick swath. Elizabeth prepared the surface for painting, applying layers of shiny white paint until the canvas gleamed. Holding the wooden palette in her left hand, she mixed black with burnt sienna and imagined a dark river, curved and thick like a leg. She imagined the river might explode and run with an uncontrollable force that would shatter everything in its path.
Elizabeth painted one leg of the river on the canvas and then painted another. Two legs stretched out and spread. Then she thought of volcanic hills, silent now, but holding fiery passion within them. She painted the buttocks smooth and round and thought of a jaguar moving, its strength so effortless, a ballet of hip and leg.
“I keep calling you, but you do not answer the phone,” Nganga said, several weeks after Elizabeth started painting.
“I’ve started to paint again. I don’t like to be interrupted when I’m painting.”
Nganga wasn’t sure why, but when he hung up the phone, he felt an unfamiliar sorrow slip over him. The sorrow pushed down hard on his shoulders, making him dizzy and weak. He lay on the bed and the sorrow washed over him like a fever. He put his hand on his forehead, but the skin felt cold. He didn’t know what was happening to him, but he forced himself up to dress, stopping on his way to Elizabeth’s apartment to buy her a white rose.
“I miss you,” Nganga said, holding the rose out to Elizabeth as she stood in the doorway.
Elizabeth’s white hands were spotted with dark brown paint.
“I think you are beginning to turn black,” Nganga said, pointing to the spots.
“I don’t know what’s happening,” Elizabeth said. “I just know something is going on.”
In the dark, Nganga whispered, “Something is happening to me too.”
“What is it?” Elizabeth said, stroking the side of his face.
“I think that I,” Nganga said, slowly pulling the words out of his mouth, as if he would find what he wanted to say as soon as the words emerged.
Elizabeth listened to Nganga’s breath, rising in the still air.
“I think I need you,” he said.
Elizabeth made love to Nganga that night as if he were a beautiful black jaguar she’d decided to ride. She wrapped her thighs around him, letting his heat warm her. From Nganga, Elizabeth pulled power and energy into her calves and up to her thighs. She rode Nganga, taking his name like a hot lozenge on her tongue and, as the name melted to liquid in her mouth, she swallowed. She let the force of that dark river swirl through her and then pulled out its thick wet sound.
The next morning she could hear the sound of it, like a drum skin stretched tight and rubbed with the wet tip of a thumb. She lay in bed after Nganga had gone, the call of his name a soothing echo to the comforting rhythm of her heart.