Public Key (Lxxxiii)

She took off her backpack and put it on my floor. She sat cross-legged on the ground beside it. She made it look like she was sitting on a throne. She did that.

I climbed into my hammock and rolled until I was sitting up. If there was a regal way to do that, I hadn’t seen it.

How have you been? she asked.

Very well, I said, trying to slow my heart rate which had jumped for a number of reasons. How about you?

The same.

What brings you back here? I asked, then bit my tongue right off.

Just passing through, she said.

How far did you travel?

Maseru. I caught a pickup truck that was going the whole way. It took a while, he was a little drunk, he kept stopping to pee on his tires. The roadblocks slowed us down too.

I tried to keep my face impassive. Roadblocks?

There aren’t any out here?

Not that I’ve seen.

They stopped us about every ten miles. Shined flashlights in our faces and in the back of the truck. They wouldn’t say what they were looking for.

I forced myself to shrug.

Then I walked to Teyateyaneng, she said, then to Mapoteng, all in the lowlands. I hitched to Mphorosane, on the shores of the lake they made when they dammed the river. Then to Thaba, then back up the road to here.

You’ve seen more of this country than I have, I said.

You don’t seem like you’re here to see the country.

No, just to live in it.

There you go.

Still, I’m envious.

Then why don’t you go and see it? she asked. You have a backpack, you have shoes. Even a knife, if I remember.

You remember.

So go.

I can’t. I’m…

Yes?

I’m needed here, I said.

Why?

Oakley – the guy who owns this place-

We’ve met.

I help him out, I said, my tongue thick in my mouth. He needs me here. Because. He might need me. To help him with things.

How tautological.

Big words from someone whose name is a palindrome.

You’re dodging the question, she said.

No! I mean. Well. Yes. I suppose I am.

You are?

I suppose… yes.

She waited for me to continue.

Right then, right there, I wanted nothing more in the world than to tell her. Get the weight off my chest, get it off my shoulders. Tell her everything.

I looked down at her. She looked up at me.

I couldn’t.

You’ll have to believe me, I said. I just can’t.

Okay.

I just can’t.

I believe you, she said.

I waited, but nothing else seemed forthcoming. Then I realized that I was the one waiting.

Thank you, I said.

Sometimes a friend is a person who just says okay.

I guess so.

When I told my friends that I was taking a year to walk unescorted through southern Africa, they all thought I was mad. When they asked me why, I told them it was just something I had to do. Then they were sure I was mad. That didn’t stop them from asking me questions until they were out of breath.

That must have been…

Maddening? she asked, smiling.

I suppose so.

I thought that I’d miss them, she said. Since I’ve been away, I’ve just realized how much I don’t.

I thought of my friends, of Luc and the rest back at home. There weren’t many I wanted in my thoughts. But there were a few. And I said so.

You’re lucky, she said.

Yes, I guess I am.

You envy me my wandering, she said. I envy you your residency. You’ve made friends here. You’ve made this place your home.

I suppose I have.

It seems very… comforting.

It is, I said. I didn’t add: even if I can hardly go out my front door.

But more than that, I see it gives you a different perspective. When we went out, when you were my guide, I saw things differently than I had from the road. From there I am distant. An interloper, an antigen. As a resident, it is…

Yeah, I said. Just different.

I would like to see more of the world like that, she said.

I looked into her eyes, to see if she meant what I thought she meant. All I knew was they were very pretty eyes, and they were looking at me, waiting for a reply.

So would I, I said.

I took a breath and let it fall. Then she nodded.

Then I must go to bed, she said, getting to her feet. We should start early to cover as much ground as possible. Unless you’d prefer we camp somewhere. My tent should-

Wait, I said.

She stopped with one hand on a strap of her backpack. Yes?

I don’t think I can.

What?

I felt a great weight settle on me. I can’t go with you. Not just now.

Not even for a day trip?

I don’t… no, I don’t think so.

She let the strap fall. What do you mean?

I’m… I can’t stray far from camp, I said.

Not even…

I could see that she was cross with her tongue. I smiled gently, or at least I tried to.

I don’t think so, I said. I’m sorry.

We don’t have to go tomorrow. Will you be free the next day? Or the next?

I couldn’t bring myself to say the words. I just shook my head.

She stared for a while, not at me. Her face were blank. So were her eyes. And it broke my heart.

I’m sorry, I said. I’d, I’d very much like… I’d love to-

It’s alright, she said, looking back up at me. A friend just says okay. Right?

I couldn’t speak. I was paralyzed. Was this what I was doing? Was this my life? Had I let my life come to the point where I couldn’t take a walk with a girl, a girl like this, like-

I should still go, she said. I have to leave at dawn. But I will be back, in the evening. Maybe we could… for dinner?

She didn’t sound very hopeful.

Yes, I said. I’d like that. Very much.

She nodded. Alright. She hoisted her backpack onto her shoulders, opened the door and stood there, framed in the doorway, matted by the night.

Have a goodnight, she said.

Turned, and left.

 

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~ by davekov on 12 March 2011.

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