A BORING LIFE
by Barbara Borst
“You’re not really going, are you?”
Laura wasn’t sure which of the guests milling about her living room had lofted that question over the din.
“Of course not,” she replied to them all with a laugh. “Not until next week.” She spun around as a man leaned in and kissed her on the cheek. “Andre, mon amour.”
Her daughter Isabella forged her way through the crowd to scold her mother. “We’re out of guacamole.”
“Check with Jeremina. See if she’s making more.”
“Hey, baby,” Paul said with a Western twang, slipping his arms around her from behind as she answered Isabella.
Laura sashayed in his arms for a moment, careful not to spill her Jameson’s. “I’ll be back,” she promised as she escaped to check on the bar arrayed on the porch. Ezekiel had it all in hand, except he needed more beer.
Citronella candles lined the edge of the porch, to ward off mosquitos carrying malaria. Laura leaned against the railing and surveyed the garden. The last rays of equatorial sunlight sliced through the avocado and mango trees and made stripes across the lawn. More things to miss when they reached Boston, along with the world she had built for herself here out of the ruins of a marriage.
Laura forced herself out of such reflections. After all, few things tasted worse than anti-malarial medicine. She turned her attention back to her guests. She stepped down into the garden and went around to the kitchen to ask the staff to bring out more beer, cold for the Westerners, warm for the Kenyans. She checked with Jeremina about dinner preparations.
“Me, I shall have everything ready. You don’t worry,” Jeremina assured her, adding a little quiz, “Which of those boys you going to miss most?”
Laura laughed off the question, but she did think to herself about calling them boys. As the foreign press corps cycled through Nairobi, they were getting younger, and she was not. She moved on through the dining room, where the sideboard was set for a buffet and the long table waited for a crowd, and back into the living room.
Gracefully winding her way among her guests, Laura dished out hugs and kisses-on-the-cheek to diplomats and rebels, aid workers and opposition leaders, macho journalists and the young women of the moment some had brought along.
“Assistant foreign editor,” Martin, a junior diplomat from Britain, congratulated her.
“The title’s nice. Don’t know about the job yet,” she replied as she stopped to chat with him and his wife, Sarah.
“But you’re moving up.”
“And leaving all this.” She gestured to the guests, the house, the gardens and beyond.
“When you Americans go home,” Sarah remarked, “at least you have open space and wildlife, whilst we must return to our damp and crowded island.”
“Now, dear…,” the diplomat began.
“Yes, plenty of wildlife in Boston these days,” Laura interrupted to save the woman from being ‘corrected.’ She noted how proper Martin tried to be, unlike the United Nations diplomat she had married, who had brought them all to Kenya, then run off with another woman, denying his wife even the dignity of a divorce. A diplomat above the law, or at least outside its reach.
But that was old news. And look what she had done on her own, she thought as she turned to survey the gathering. Friends. A career. Three brave daughters, though she wondered if they were ready for the change.
Reverend Njoroge, who often spoke publicly about the failings of the Kenya government, came up to wish her well in her new job and to introduce his wife, Rose. The leader of the Kenya national women’s group, Edwina, joined to say how much she appreciated Laura’s reporting on women’s initiatives.
A young freelance journalist named Bart popped up to announce to Laura, “I have lots of story ideas to pitch to you.”
“Probably good to give me a day or two to get my bearings,” she told him, glancing toward the ceiling. “But do pitch them.”
A grand entrance drew their attention to the front door. The Reuters bureau chief, a tall Nigerian with a voice as big as his personality, greeted each guest as if he were the host, gradually making his way over to Laura, resting an arm around her neck and inquiring for all to hear, “Why are you abandoning me?”
“You had your chance to hire me as news editor, Muhammad,” she reminded him, knowing she would never have taken a job as his vassal.
Nick, an Australian photographer with a new girl tucked under his arm, stepped in. “We’ll miss you on those endless jeep rides to nowhere.”
“I’ll leave you my silk cushion,” she joshed.
Jeremina’s son came up and spoke to her quietly. “Madam, the dinner is ready.”
“Thank you, Jeremiah. Please tell your mother we are coming.” Turning to the gathering, Laura clapped her hands loudly to draw attention. She stood before them in a safari shirt wide open at the neck, tight-fitting khaki slacks and long brass-and-bead earrings, and called out, “My friends, my friends,” as the conversations gradually stopped.
“Welcome. Karibu. Thank you all for coming. A bit of a last hurrah, or at least a last drunken revelry. Please join us for a buffet supper, or at the bar, whichever is your poison. Then find a seat wherever you please.”
The crowd split, some to the food and others to get another drink to fortify themselves as they waited in the buffet line.
Cara and Emily ran into the dining room.
“Guests first in line,” their mother reminded them.
Andre waved a goblet of red wine in front of himself as he regaled the guests at the dining table, along with Laura’s daughters.
“We were all creeping through Kampala after Museveni’s child soldiers took the city. Spying around corners,” he said, demonstrating how they ducked and peeked out, “trying not to get shot. We’d seen all the bullet holes in the walls. We were ready to put those holes in the headlines of our stories…”
“Yeah, I got a lot of photos of them,” Nick chimed in.
“…and then Laura said, ‘Those holes were here last time I came to Kampala, two years ago,’” Andre continued.
“Saved our asses from a rookie mistake,” Nick agreed, holding up his empty beer bottle in salute. “Laura, tell ‘em how you got the exclusive interview with Mahdi in Khartoum,” he urged her.
“And stared down Mengistu at that press conference,” Paul added, remarking to the man next to him that the Ethiopian dictator was about as tame as a rattle snake, and just as likely to strike.
She just laughed.
“What about that time we all rode with the Sudan rebels, hotter than hell, dust in every pore, bouncin’ on our butts in those Land Rovers,” Nick started anew. “Finally we get to some little hut to spend the night, and we smell so bad, and we all stripped down and…”
“Excuse me just a moment,” Laura interrupted. She turned to Cara and Emily and said quietly, “Time to tuck in.”
“Do we have to?”
“Say, ‘goodnight,’ girls.”
They did and followed their mother to their shared bedroom. Laura could hear her guests carrying on while she supervised the girls’ preparations for bed.
“Why does Isabella get to stay up?” Emily demanded.
“Because she’s sixteen, and you two are a bit young for that crowd.”
“We’ll be good,” Cara promised.
“We’ve stayed up late before,” Emily added.
“But not this time. Get some sleep so you’re ready when all your friends come over tomorrow.” Laura kissed her twins and then hurried back to the dining room to rescue Isabella from whatever braggadocio was under way.
“Did you manage to keep things civilized while I stepped out?” Laura asked her older daughter.
“Didn’t try,” Isabella said, glaring at her mother.
Muhammad boomed, “I kept them in line.”
The others roared at that fib.
“And then there was that Somali warlord you had an affair…” a journalist named Rob began.
Martin interrupted to say that he and Sarah needed to head home. The Njoroges also said good night.
That peeled the group down to the hardcore drinkers and tellers of tall tales, often true, much embellished.
“Let’s go relieve Jeremina,” Laura said to Isabella as her colleagues threatened with a raunchy tale.
“No. I wanna hear what you’ve really been doing while we got stuffed away in school,” Isabella snapped.
“Hope you’re ready.”
“So we’re flying in a Polish Army helicopter, worst tin can I ever rode in,” Nick started on a story the others knew because most of them had reported on the famine in Ethiopia that killed a million people. Maybe it was more for the girl who was with him, though he hadn’t even introduced her by name.
“And the government minder is trying to tell us some propaganda but we can’t hear a damn thing over the noise of the chopper. They won’t take us to the places where people are actually starving because the government won’t let the aid groups in, ‘cause those are rebel areas. They got three civil wars goin’ at the same time.
“We land on the edge of a camp. The minder keeps trying to tell us that people are happy they’ve been moved to greener areas where they can get food handouts and grow some of their own. Their faces tell a different story. Like prisoners. But none of us can get them to talk. Except Laura.
“When we get back to Nairobi and we all publish our stories, she’s got the big feature that all the papers pick up. How’d you get it?” he demanded.
Laura just put up her hands as if she didn’t know. Not her fault if the guys missed a story because they never thought of talking to the women. The minder had ignored her, too, because she was just a woman, so she had used sign language and a few words gleaned from the local tongue to ask the women about their families, how many children, whether they were well, whether any had died of hunger. They took her into their huts to meet the children. She remembered talking with one boy who looked to be about five years old. The mother held up her fingers to show that he was eight – the age of Laura’s twins, but only two thirds their height. The famine had done that much harm to him.
“Tell us about the Somali warlord,” Isabella insisted, leaning back in her chair at the dining table.
“Not a warlord, a rebel leader,” Muhammad boomed.
“It’s my story,” Rob insisted.
Muhammad ignored him. “Four of us, we are in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia. We want to go by road to Hargeysa in Somalia where the Somali dictator Siad Barre has bombed his own people. We are needing security. Laura made a ‘friend’,” he said, exaggerating the word, “who helped us out. He protected each and every one of us,” he emphasized, pointing to his three companions on the trip, Laura last of all.
The rest guffawed, even Rob.
Maybe they were trying to embarrass her, Laura thought, but she was not ashamed. She was unattached and free to have a fling with anyone she wanted. Just as they were. There was a slight chance they saw her as one of them, the foreign press corps. She had proven herself as bold as they were in war zones and famine camps, with dictators and rebels, in capitals and the back of beyond. She had beaten them on enough stories to earn respect. Or were they too sexist to give her credit? And, she admitted only to herself, there were a few places she might not have gone alone but felt she could go with one or more of them as company.
Still, she had a correction to make.
“I never had an affair,” she paused to specify, “with a source.”
They roared at that parry.
Laura glanced at Isabella to see her reaction, but the girl had turned away.
“Never lonely, that’s true,” Paul added, grinning at Laura. “Even when they made her eat alone – too exalted to eat with the women, but not high enough to eat with the men.”
“I got the interviews, anyway,” she countered.
As the drinking and storytelling continued, Laura turned to Isabella and said, “Let’s relieve Jeremina.”
Isabella got up reluctantly and followed her mother. In the kitchen, they found Jeremina working her way through a stack of dirty dishes.
“You’ve outdone yourself tonight, Jeremina,” Laura said. “We can finish up.”
“I am not tired,” Jeremina said. “I can say that I am angry.”
“About you. You are the one taking my girls away,” Jeremina replied, turning an exaggerated pout toward Laura.
Laura paused, leaning her head to one side. “I suppose they are yours as much as they’re mine,” she admitted. “I will miss you every day.” She moved to hug Jeremina, who lifted soapy hands from the dish water to return the hug. “You’ll make me cry.”
“I am crying already,” Jeremina said.
“So, why are you making us go, then?” Isabella grilled her mother, hands on hips.
Laura sighed. “We’ve talked about this. It’s the right time. Even your little sisters are ready.”
“They just think it’s gonna be Disneyland or the beach every weekend, like when we visit.”
“Just like you think everything here is safaris and poolside parties.”
“You’re making us move for your career. But I know I’m never gonna fit in.”
“I am saying ‘good night’ now,” Jeremina interjected, stepping out of their dispute.
Isabella gave Jeremina a big hug, then watched her go.
“I need the job,” her mother said. “How else can I pay for you three to go to college?”
“Who asked you to?” the girl replied, turning to scowl at her mother.
Laura looked at her daughter’s angry face. She wanted to remind Isabella how hard it had been to pick herself up after her husband deserted her. She hadn’t had the money to take the girls home, nor had she wanted to return in defeat. She had dived into reporting to build a career for herself and a life for the four of them here. Laura paused to realize that tale was just about herself. It wouldn’t help Isabella find the courage to forge her own future.
“Izzie, I love you,” Laura offered as her daughter walked away.
The storytellers were just beginning to head home when Laura returned to the dining room.
Nick stood by the door with his arm around the girl, but it seemed that she was holding him up and maybe should do the driving.
“Hope you didn’t mind all the ribbing,” Rob said. “Really gonna miss you.”
“Thanks. I’ll miss you, too,” she said and gave him a hug.
Muhammad wagged a finger at her and told her she would be back soon to cover the next bush war.
Andre whispered in her ear, “I must see you again before you leave.”
She left that hanging but gave him a kiss on the lips and a pat on the butt.
Paul waited until the others had cleared out, then offered to help her clean up. She took it as a proposal to spend the night, thought about it, felt the temptation, then told him she had fifteen adolescents coming the next day for the twins’ goodbye party.
He kissed her deeply. “Monday?” he asked.
“If you want to help us pack,” she teased, hoping he would.
Laura sat in the empty living room. The furniture still in the wrong places but the glasses and ashtrays and napkins all cleared away. She propped her feet up on the zebra-hide ottoman and leaned deep into the cushions on the sofa. She noticed that someone had left a pack with one cigarette inside. Although she hadn’t smoked since she was pregnant the first time, she lit the cigarette and took a puff.
Was she doing the right thing taking this job, wrenching her daughters away from the one home they knew only to return to a homeland they had barely seen?
Yes, she told herself. This was a real opportunity for her, but it was a necessity for them. Not so much a question of money, though that was the part she could explain to others. It was more that they needed a place they could call their own. Here, the girls felt comfortable, but they were expatriates, foreigners living the high life in someone else’s country. So many friends at the international school from countries all over the world. But those people were transient, too, moving on as their parents’ careers took them to the next emergency or diplomatic post. Life in a bubble. Leave before it burst.
And for herself? Could she manage a conventional life, leaving all this freedom behind? She had done harder things, she supposed. Maybe she could do this, too.
She stubbed out the cigarette and took another sip of whiskey.
About the Author:
Barbara Borst teaches at New York University in the Journalism Institute and in the master’s program at the Center for Global Affairs, where she leads study groups to Ghana, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda. Previously, she was an editor on the international desk at The Associated Press and frequently reported from the United Nations. While based abroad for a dozen years, in Nairobi, Johannesburg, Paris and Toronto, she wrote for Newsday, The Boston Globe, The Dallas Morning News, The Los Angeles Times, Inter Press Service news agency, and others. Her recent work appears on her website, CivicIdea.com, as well as on The Huffington Post.