The neighborhood was without power again. They sat outside on the patio around the little blank TV, Grandmère and Isis and Mirielle and Phillipe. After three months, Isis was used to this, to the uncertain electricity and the scarce water. Tonight, like most of the nights she’d been here, the sky was not black, but instead lavendered by smoke and dust. Across the yard, Olivier, the gatekeeper, sat in a plastic chair near his room, a windowless outbuilding whose fourth wall was part of the high stone fence. He listened to music on his cellphone, a sort of tinny racket, held it up near his ear, moved his head back and forth.
Mirielle sat on the ground near Grandmère’s feet. Grandmère bent to braid her hair, her fingers deft, quick. Phillipe held up a flashlight so that she could see. Isis sat, listened, her hands quiet, resting on her camera in her lap. Earlier, they’d wanted her take their picture – they’d posed, Mirielle and Phillipe with their arms around each other, near the fence, near the front door, near the TV, out on the street in front of the house. They’d tired of it quickly, went inside, brought their dinner out to the patio to watch TV but then the power had gone out and left the house dark and gaping,the TV empty and the sky big and painted.
Grandmère finished Mirielle’s braids and the three of them went inside to bed and left Isis alone with Olivier. She wanted to stay outside a while more. She loved this darkness, this quiet, the buzz of crickets laid over the sounds of the city – cars and motorcycles and music. Olivier came to sit beside her, took Grandmère’s chair. He was around Isis’ age, early twenties. He made her an omelet every morning for breakfast and washed her shoes and boiled water for her tea and when she tried to help him clean up, he’d say, non, laisse ça, laisse – leave it. They’d fallen into the habit of sitting together in the kitchen when she got home from University in the evenings. She’d eat or read and he’d listen to the radio. It was a quiet, gradual friendship, the type that creeps like a fog and then is, out of nowhere, all-consuming.
He turned up the song on his cellphone, moved his heels up and down and then his shoulders.
“Tu aimes danser?” He said.
Isis laughed, shook her head. She liked the way he looked at her, his eyes staying too long on her skin and her hair.“I can’t dance the way you can,” she said.
He stood up, reached out for her hand, tugged her up.
“No, no,” she said, laughing. “Really, I can’t.”
He moved his hips, his feet. She pulled her hand away, stepped back, held her camera to her eye. The flash broke like lightening. Olivier held his arm over his eyes.
Olivier’s ringtone cut through the music. He stopped dancing, picked up his phone.
“Alo?” he said. He looked at Isis. She focused the camera, pressed the button. He turned away, spoke low and soft. The voice on the other end was a woman’s, high and quick. Olivier moved away across the yard and disappeared into his room.
Isis held her camera out, flicked through the pictures and stopped on the first one. Olivier, smiling like a child.
On Thursday, Isis told Grandmère she was going to dinner with a friend from the University.
Instead, she and Olivier went for beers in a neighborhood called Titi-Garage at a white tiled club, its exterior stained with dust and dirt like an old bathtub, a sink left dry too long. They sat in a corner on the second floor. He ordered two Castels, glacés. The waitress shook her head, her hair stiff and straight.
“Non,” she said. The refrigerator was broken. They’d have to be warm.
He shrugged, nodded. “Ça va.”
He looked at Isis, smiled. His eyes were pale, almost green and they struck her as cold as glass, a type of toy ring you might get at a carnival or fair, tricked into paying too much for something that would break of its own accord, no mishaps necessary.
There were other couples and groups of friends, their tables littered with bottles and cigarettes. The women wore tight and studded outfits, their breasts like balloons, their butts like bubbles.
He leaned close so that he could speak into her ear because the music was loud Nigerian and Senegalese pop, mixed like a haphazard and beating heart.
Outside, it rained. A torrential downpour, a violent dumping, a big, screaming rain that fell brief, but incessant.
They stayed until it lost its grip on the sky. He paid for their beers and guided Isis down the crooked stairs, his hand on the small of her back. The others watched them, blatantly curious at their mismatched skin.
Outside, night had fallen like a muffled blanket, the sky mute and purple. The vendors emerged from beneath their umbrellas and plastic tarps where they’d taken refuge during the storm and went back to sitting and selling. On the corner of the avenue, a boy unfurled a blanket and laid out pairs of spiked and shining heels. He had a bad leg – bent and bowed like warped wood.
They shared a taxi with a woman whose face wrinkled like a blanket, her eyes milky brown. When she smiled, a small, creeping, caterpillar smile, the spaces between her teeth gaped like doors. She held a pink plastic purse in her lap, clutched it tight until Isis slid across the backseat to sit beside her. The woman moved her hand, ran a finger along Isis’ arm, her touch like a murmur.
“Tu es belle, ma fille,” she said. She gripped her purse again, leaned forward so that her chest swallowed it, cocked her head sideways to look at Olivier. “Is he your husband?”
Isis shook her head. “No,” she said and thought of the call he’d made yesterday, the voice inside the phone that came through like a song.
They passed a river, bloated and swift. In the dark, Isis made out the figures of men, naked, washing in the water, scrubbing under their arms, in between their thighs. They passed a patisserie, the light in its windows bright. A man whose leg ended at the knee sat on the sidewalk outside, eating a baguette, his hair matted and long. They passed a dumpster, piled high with burning trash. The flames licked at the sky, the smoke curled up like a flag, wavering in the wind.
They stopped beside a restaurant called Obama Fan Club to let the woman out. She leaned forward, passed her coins into the taximan’s waiting hand, then tugged and jostled herself out onto the street. Before she shut the door, she turned to Isis, said, may god stay with you and although Isis did not believe in god she held onto the blessing, felt it linger like a rock in her chest.
Olivier and the taximan spoke in Medumba, back and forth, quick and harsh. Isis could pick out only a few words, the ones that Grandmère had taught her – kijuu, to read and mbwe, goat. They seemed to be arguing, but as they neared home, Olivier burst into laughter, bent, clutching his stomach. The taximan laughed too, caught Isis’ eyes in the rearview mirror. He tried in English: “You American?”
Isis nodded. “Yes,” she said. “I am.”
He said something to Olivier. Olivier replied.
“You want to marry me?” the taximan said. He swerved to avoid a child who stood too close to the road, holding up packets of peanuts in thin plastic sacks, selling them for 100 francs.
Isis shook her head. “No, thank you.”
The child saw her white face in the window, ran behind them for a while, his flip-flops flapping like fish.
The rain had turned their road into a thick orange paste that stuck to their shoes and crusted them like a cast. It squelched beneath their feet, reminded her of the squeak of rubber. He walked with his hands in his pockets – she held hers out at her sides to keep her balance. The Castel had made her head light and the road was uneven and slippery.
The neighbor, Fabien, sat outside in the rocking chair on his porch, eating. His home was small, a little square house made of mud bricks. He raised his hand in a wave.
“Venez!” he said. “Come. See the new baby.”
She’d been born the day before in the hospital.
Olivier looked to Isis. She nodded. They crossed the road and went to the porch. Fabien stood to kiss Isis on both cheeks. They pulled back the fabric that curtained the doorway and crossed the threshold. Inside, it was warm and clean. Two little boys sat on low stools eating rice and fish from bowls on their laps. They looked up at Isis, their eyes big, and continued to eat using their fingers to pull meat off thin white bones. The news played on a small TV in the corner of the room. Heléne, the mother, came from the back room, the baby in her arms. She wore a T-shirt that said I Heart NY and a green patterned skirt that fell to her ankles. Her feet were bare, the soles thick against the dirt floor.
“Bonsoir,” she said. She told the older boy to get off his stool and give it to Isis.
“No, no, it’s okay,” Isis said, but the boy had already put his bowl on the floor, gotten up and was pushing the stool towards her. He sat on the floor cross-legged and watched Isis while he chewed. She sat on the stool, low to the ground so that her knees pointed up. Hélene pushed the baby into her arms and stepped back, smiled, crossed her arms beneath her breasts. Her fingers were stained dark at the tips – she’d worked in the field today
Olivier stood near the door. He nodded to Heléne.
The baby slept, swaddled in a pink blanket, a little gray hat on her head. She was soft and warm. Isis wanted to fold her body around her, swallow her up, press her cheek against the baby’s.
“What’s her name?” she said, looking up at Heléne.
“Liza,” Isis said and pressed a finger into the baby’s tiny palm. She stayed sleeping, her eyes squeezed shut, her chest rising and falling like a slow wave.
On the TV, police busted an illegal market that sold motorcycle parts, disassembled like wanting limbs. Olivier watched the footage, his arms crossed over his chest. He stood, legs apart like a sentinel. The men on screen, the perpetrators, looked heavy eyed at the camera, waiting as the police gathered up piles of stolen parts, loaded them into trucks, and carted them away.
When they returned home, the house was dark – the others had gone to bed. Olivier pulled the iron gate shut behind them. It clanked and woke the dog. He barked and scratched at the door of his pen. Voices came from the apartment on the hill behind them. Laughter. Singing.
The front door was already locked and so Isis followed Olivier around the side of the house to the kitchen door. He jostled it open and flicked on the light.
“Tu as faim?” He said, looking over his shoulder at her.
“No,” she said. She stood for a moment by the door. Olivier went to the stove where the dinner leftovers remained – rice and sauce arachide. He twisted the cap on the gas, reached for the matches, struck one and lit the burner beneath the rice. He turned and leaned against the sink.
“I am,” he said. “Sit down. Eat with me.”
“I’m not hungry,” she said, but she slid into a chair, took off her
purse and set it on the table.
Olivier added more palm oil to the sauce, stirred it.
“Do you have sauce arachide in America?” he asked.
“Yes,” Isis said. She played with the strap of her purse. “It’s called peanut sauce. It’s thicker though, and we don’t put in fish.”
“No fish?” he said. He got them plates, scooped on the rice, then poured over the sauce.
“No, no fish.”
Olivier set a plate in front of Isis, got a fork from the drying rack, pushed it into her hand.
He sat across from her.
“Eat,” he said.
“How’s your boyfriend?” he said.
Isis shrugged. “He’s good,” she said. She thought of Fynn, his blond hair, his blue eyes, the glasses he wore when he took out his contacts.
“What is America like?” Olivier said.
Isis considered. She mixed the sauce and the rice together on her plate. “It’s far away from here,” she said.
Olivier took a bite, worked the food in his mouth, then spit out a thin, almost invisible bone into his palm and wiped it on the table. “Be careful of bones,” he said. “You might choke.” Isis scooped a chunk of rice onto the tip of her fork then turned it over to let the pale pieces fall. “Everyone wears seatbelts,” she said.
Olivier laughed, that same gut laugh he’d had in the taxi. “What’s so funny?” she asked, smiling, almost laughing too. “You Americans are too afraid,” he said between breaths. “Afraid of everything.”
They finished eating, left the dishes in the sink for Angéle to wash in the morning. He walked her to her room, stood in the doorway for a moment, reached out, touched her cheek. His skin was rough, thick, calloused. “Bonne nuit,” he said.
She woke in the middle of the night to the sound of a cockroach. Its wings, buzzing against the wall, its feet, scuttling across the tile floor. She threw off her sheet, scrambled to turn on the light. Fear jumped, tingled at the ends of her limbs. The fan had broken and so the backs of her knees, the crevices between her fingers were moist with sweat. She’d been dreaming of a birthday cake, sunken and sweet.
She grabbed a shoe from her closet, jumped back onto the bed. She waited, poised, shoe held high. There it was, by the door. She got off the bed slowly, moving like syrup, then quickly, smashed, smashed, smashed it until she heard a hiss, then backed away. It twitched, little jerky movements. She smashed it one more time just to be sure then covered it with the shoe. She’d have Olivier get rid of it tomorrow.
She woke late, the others had already gone to work and to school. Grandmère had left to visit a friend in Biyem-Assi, she’d be back in the evening. Isis went to the kitchen, expecting to find Olivier there so she could ask him about the cockroach. Angéle was there, washing dishes, but Olivier wasn’t so Isis made herself some tea and an omelet, took it to the balcony. She ate and watched the road, the women who passed with baskets on their heads, the moto-men who roared by on patchy motorcycles, their passengers squished and bouncing on the back. There went Angéle toward the market. She waved down a moto-man and hopped on back – they zoomed away.
Olivier came out onto the balcony. His feet were bare and he wore cut-off jeans.
“I’m sick,” he said. “I have a fever.”
Isis offered to make him tea, told him to go back to bed. He shook his head, looked down at his feet, brushed his toe along the floor. “Are you going out today?” he said.
Isis shrugged, took a sip of her tea. “I don’t have University. I wanted to hang out with you.”
Olivier stayed silent, his eyes cast down. “I’m going to get medicine later,” he said.
“Where?” Isis asked. “Can I come with?”
“I don’t want you to get sick,” Olivier said. He turned, shut the door behind him.
When she’d finished her breakfast, Isis wandered back to her room, closed her door, locked it, lay sprawled like a starfish on her bed. She took out a book, opened it, read. The cockroach and the shoe lay unmoved on the floor.
She woke again when it was already dark to a banging on her door. She rushed up, unlocked it with a click, opened it. Grandmère peered into her room, looked around, wild.
“Are you missing anything?” she said.
Isis didn’t understand. Grandmère pushed past her, kicked the shoe on her way in, sent the corpse of the cockroach skidding across the floor.
“Are you missing anything?” Grandmère said again.
“No,” Isis said. “No, I’m not.” She moved to her closet, opened the doors, checked for her computer, for her camera.
“Olivier est parti,” Grandmère said. “He’s gone.”
Isis closed the closet doors, quiet.
Grandmère moved to the window, closed the curtains in loud snaps. “He took the DVD player, my jewelry, the money I’d saved,” she said.
“But he was here this morning,” Isis said. “I was here all day.”
“It’s all gone,” Grandmère said and moved into the hallway, left Isis alone.
The police came and offered to help after Grandmère paid them 200,000 francs. They asked Olivier’s name, and his age and the languages he spoke. They asked his height and the names of his friends, his family, his village. They asked if Grandmère had any pictures of him.
They all sat in the living room in those stiff leather couches. Angéle had stayed late, brought them plates of fried plantains covered in a vegetable and chicken stew.
Grandmère looked to Isis, where she sat with her knees up, held close to her chest.
“Tu as pris des photos, non?” she said.
The policemen turned their eyes to her. They stared, blatant.
“Eh, la blanche?” The fatter one said. “Tu parles, non?” His eyes reminded Isis of her father’s. They were deep and brown and naked.
Isis shook her head. “I don’t have any photos of him. Just of the house.”
Grandmère called for Angéle to bring more plantains. “Tu es sure, Isis?” she said.
Angéle brought more plantains. The policemen heaped them onto their already bare plates.
Kirsten Aguilar is a native Californian. She graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont and recently moved to Chicago where she is quickly learning that there is more than one type of cold. She writes short stories and is trying to build her stamina so that she can start (and finish) a novel.