On the Jetty
Nobody was better than Afram at entrances. Stepping into the garden at the ambassador’s residence in Abidjan, she commanded the attention of the diplomatic corps. Men and women alike were taken by her lithe beauty, her proud hair, the white dress whose crisscrossing straps tantalized but did not flaunt. Six months ago, all that admiration would have gratified the man on whose arm she entered. Young Black woman, old white guy. Her beauty, his pride. Tonight, Anthony Beard felt it slipping away.
At the head of the receiving line, Ambassador Hanks welcomed them. “Good evening, Afram, Anthony. So good of you to join us.”
Anthony took the hit and kept smiling. They were late. That was bad form, a violation of Diplomacy 101. At official events, all American officers were to be in place before the guests began showing up.
“Madame Ambassador,” he said, shaking Hanks’ hand.
Hanks joined the service the same year Anthony did. From a distance, he had watched her rocket up through the ranks of Africa hands at the State Department as he plodded along, unheralded. In her dark blue cocktail dress and her pearls, she was gaunt. Too many meetings, too little fun. It gave her a ruthless look she did not deserve. Despite his misery, enough self-awareness remained in Anthony that he did not blame the woman for achieving what he had not.
She gave him an assignment.
“Koffi is here. I told him you would look him up… the moment you arrived.”
Auben Koffi was deputy minister of finance and a diplomat’s dream. He was well-connected and willing to share solid information.
“I’ll find him,” Anthony promised his boss.
He escorted Afram into the garden. After all these years, all the countries, the charm of the place had not entirely disappeared. Novelty, intrigue, flirtation; anything could happen. He was here, and here was sweetly strange. In Hanks’ groomed garden, under festive strings of tiny white lights, impeccable waiters circulated with silver trays offering drinks and canapés to the mix of diplomats and Ivorian government people, development types, and a handful of journalists. A photographer snapped pictures for the social page of one of the local papers.
Already Afram was swimming in the convivial flow, at ease and loving it. Her youth, her poise, gave the Ghanaian woman power, and power gave her confidence. Anthony watched her for a moment as she engaged, expressing interest in people that just might be genuine. Then he snagged a Campari and soda and went looking for the deputy finance minister.
It would end badly. Anthony knew that. One day Afram would wake to find an old man snoring in her bed, hairs sprouting from his ears. In each of the three years they had been together, he lost more ground than he had the year before. By chance, they shared a birthday. It was coming up next month. Turning thirty, Afram was growing full force into her beauty. As for Anthony, fifty-six was one more mile marker on a road from which there was no exit ramp.
He found Koffi gesticulating with a glass of pomegranate juice, talking enthusiastically to Travis Klein. It figured. Travis worked for Anthony. A gifted young cellist from Minneapolis, he had traded a shot at the musical big time for the foreign service. He had manners, an iconoclastic intelligence, a fresh face. In his year at the post, Anthony had discovered no defects in the man. He stepped aside when Anthony showed up, allowing the senior officer to take over the conversation.
Koffi was a self-deprecating short man with a bullfrog face and the voice to go with it. He knew Anthony was grilling him; whatever he said would become grist in the State Department’s mill. That didn’t bother him, and Anthony went to work with chilly efficiency. And zero enthusiasm. Lately, he could not get anything done or done right. The lead of indifference was leaching poison into his system.
He was relieved to get away from Koffi, finally, and go looking for Afram. He had been on the alert for the beginning of the end, and suddenly here it was. In the shadow of a palm tree stood a pilot with a glass of red wine. Emirates Airline. He was forty and had a competent look you wanted in a man into whose hands you delivered yourself, boarding a jet. Self-assured, good-looking, laid back. Anthony watched the woman he loved heat up in his glow.
Later, at home, he could not resist irritating his self-inflicted wound. “You seemed to be having a good time tonight.”
They were relaxing on wicker lounges in the screened patio at the back of the house, looking out into their own garden, a pleasant space kept pristine by a one-handed gardener. They had a nightcap. Afram was drinking a Cosmo; she preferred sweet drinks. As they stared out into the darkness, the insects of Côte d’Ivoire did their best to soothe Anthony’s frayed nerves. They failed.
“Isn’t that the idea, to have fun?”
“Technically speaking, no. The purpose of a diplomatic reception is to advance American interests.”
God, what a boneheaded remark.
“Say it,” Afram said.
“Do I want to fuck the pilot.”
She slammed her glass down on the tabletop and flounced into the house, pretending to be outraged at the question she goaded him into asking. He waited a few minutes, then joined her in the bedroom. Sometimes after an argument, their lovemaking was more tender and more fervent. Sex was the green field where their differences were stripped away: white and Black, old and young, diplomat and clerk in a cell phone shop, which was what she was doing when they met in Accra. This was a romantic indulgence on Anthony’s part, the only way to make sense of the miracle of feeling that happened when their bodies touched.
She was sitting in a small, upholstered chair in a robe of pale blue silk, reading Paris Match, ignoring him as he undressed.
“Marry me,” he said.
If sex was their free space, marriage—the idea of it, the threat and promise and combustible dream of it—was their field of battle. It had to do with power. On Anthony’s side lay the practical virtues of American life. Comfort, security, places to shop. A car. Those things were important to Afram, who grew up in a house without a bathroom, on a street that became a sea of slick mud in the rain. Getting to work without spoiling her clothes took ingenuity and resolve. The prospect of a secure life tempted her.
If she were more calculating, she might marry him on spec, riding her luck as long as it lasted, seeing what came next. But Afram was impetuous and proud. She fiercely resisted any implication that she would trade herself for such ease. Well, she enjoyed flexing her muscles. The power that youth and beauty conferred was a fine thing in itself.
She stood. Stepped out of her robe.
Twice divorced, bound hand and foot by alimony and child support, at the fraying end of a mediocre career, Anthony Beard beheld the only perfection that would ever descend to touch him. Slender lines, high breasts with black raspberry nipples, a face across whose genetically demure features humor flashed and then flashed again.
“I love you,” he said.
She laughed. “The pilot.”
“What about him?”
“He smells of cigarette smoke. Anyway, he is still a boy.”
In the African night, they made love in Anthony’s embassy-provided bed. There was recognition in it, the drive to touch and be touched leading them to say without words, I see you, see me too. No negotiation, no diplomacy, no computation. Afram fell asleep instantly afterward. Anthony lay awake. He ought to figure out what came next after the foreign service. He had one more year as a class-one officer. Then, if he was not promoted, he was out. He needed a plan. None presented itself. Luxury, that night, was letting it go.
The next day, at the embassy, he wrote up his talk with Auben Koffi in a memorandum of conversation and passed it electronically to Edith Hanks’ deputy, Taylor Forbes. Forbes called Anthony to his office.
“I’ve heard of burying the lead in a story,” he said when Anthony obediently appeared in his doorway. “I never heard of not putting it in at all.”
Taylor Forbes was upwardly mobile. He had a career ahead of him and would make ambassador. Discipline was part of it, along with a certain fastidiousness. He flew to London every year to have his suits made. His parents owned a gas station in Binghamton, but Forbes had been born with a patrician look that didn’t hurt his chances.
When Anthony looked blank, Forbes said, “I get it. Koffi didn’t tell you, did he?”
“Tell me what, Taylor?”
“You’d better go ask Travis. Next time…”
“It wouldn’t hurt to run what you write past Travis. He was there, for chrissake.”
Walking back to his own office, Anthony felt floppy and not quite in control of his limbs. Punching in the code to the Hirsch lock on his office door, he understood it was the indifference accreting in his gut. Some poisons worked slowly.
He sat at his desk and called Afram, driven by an urge to tell her he was afraid. Of what? Of dying, of not caring? Of the cold of age? She must sense his desperation even if she was too young to know what to make of it. He mouthed the words into the receiver, Save me. She did not pick up.
That was odd. Afram never left the house without her phone. He waited ten minutes before calling again. No answer. There was no answer all that afternoon. Her silence rattled Anthony, but he put the woman out of his mind and called Travis into his office, where he barked.
“You forget to tell me something?”
Travis looked blank. “I’m not sure….”
Because Travis was genuinely puzzled, it took a while to get to the heart of the matter. Auben Koffi was being promoted to minister. He had expressed interest, through Travis, in a package of reforms the embassy had been advocating to the man he was replacing.
Anthony berated the younger man for the sheer relief it gave him, even though he believed him when Travis said he thought Anthony knew about Koffi’s promotion; he had mentioned it to Taylor Forbes in all innocence. Anthony felt a vicious satisfaction, seeing tears of perplexity glisten in the young economic officer’s eyes.
At five, he drove the Land Cruiser home in a foul mood. He had bought Afram a used Fiat the color of a plum. With his multitudinous financial obligations, it was all he could swing. But she loved the car, the independence it gave her, even the color. Anthony honked, and the gardener swung open the gate. Driving in, he saw that the Fiat was gone.
He changed out of his suit and went to the backyard with a scotch. It tasted like betrayal. The second one tasted like what came after. The third coincided with Afram’s arrival in the sticky warm evening. She kissed him hello. He studied her for telltale signs of…what, sex with a pilot? But she was never less than immaculately put together. And, well, she would know what to hide.
Her quiet ebullience hurt, but he held himself back from asking where she had been, why she hadn’t answered her phone. He mixed her a Cosmo. They were both aware of the power shift going on. It was accelerating now, filling Afram’s bucket as it drained Anthony’s.
“I told Giselle to leave something on the stove,” Afram told him. “Chicken and rice.”
Giselle cleaned for them and sometimes cooked.
Anthony nodded. “Would you like another drink before we eat?”
“Stay where you are. I’ll get one for both of us.”
Anthony’s fourth scotch of the evening opened the floodgate to his imagination. That was a good thing and a bad thing.
With wrenching clarity, he saw the woman he loved spread-eagled on a king-sized bed at the Radisson Blu. On her back, Afram was laughing; she would not stop laughing. The pilot had a bemused expression with some cruelty in it.
“When we leave Abidjan,” Anthony began.
Afram’s tongue licked the rim of her glass, scouring sweetness.
“We’ll go to Southern California,” he told her.
“The weather is heaven, year-round. I have a friend there. In Laguna Beach. Gil has invited me to join him in his business.”
“What business is that?”
“He sells sailboats. Part of the job is taking customers out on the Pacific, showing them what the boats are capable of.”
“Do you know how to sail a boat, Anthony?”
“These are big boats. They come with a crew. You will go with me, of course. Twice a year, we will do an extended cruise. Gil’s wife is Japanese, very sophisticated. You’ll love her.”
This was foolhardy. He had no friends in Laguna Beach. They went inside to eat their dinner, all through which Anthony appraised her. Did she believe him? Would she call his ridiculous bluff? At the same time, she was appraising him. At that point, the scotch fire failed him. He could not begin to imagine the terms on which she was taking his measure.
Afram slept in the guest room that night. She said she had a headache. It might well be true. She had suffered from migraines since she was a kid. There was a delicacy of constitution about her that he loved. It was not so much frailty as an exaggerated sensibility, more pronounced than that of any woman he had known. She was a princess in the strictest sense.
In the middle of the night, she shook him gently awake. She climbed on. The love they made was like being in dark woods, stumbling across a trail, following it to the huntsman’s cottage, where delight lived.
The next day at the embassy, Taylor Forbes summoned Anthony to the executive suite again.
“Close the door,” he said as Anthony came in.
Anthony did as he was told to do, and they took seats across from each other in the deputy chief of mission’s burgundy leather chairs. On a sleek coffee table, fresh flowers looked traditional in their vase. Anthony waited, but not long. Forbes was famous for getting to the point.
“What the fuck were you thinking?”
Anthony shook his head. He had no idea what the DCM was talking about.
“Travis is first rate, Anthony. He’s as good as the foreign service gets.”
“I know he is.”
“I’m glad. Because that means you also know you should be protecting our investment, right? Ask yourself the question every officer seeking promotion to the senior service has to ask: am I doing everything possible to bring along the next generation of leaders?”
This was meant to be humiliating, and it was. Anthony was curious to see how far Forbes would push it. He wondered how he had learned about Anthony going off on the younger officer.
“It’s about leadership. When I write your evaluation, I need to be able to say you are exercising it.”
There were things Anthony could say. But the immense indifference he felt trumped his diminishing sense of self-interest. He got by with minimal acknowledgment, wanting only to get out of Forbes’ office.
At lunch, the woman who ladled a bowlful of stew for Anthony had Afram’s eyes or the astute and slightly tired eyes she would have at fifty. By process of suggestion that he did not follow, the look behind those eyes gave him an idea. Back in his office, he called Afram, relieved when she picked up on the first ring.
“You need to put on a nice dress tonight,” he told her.
“We’re having dinner at the Lebanese place.”
Among the expat community of Abidjan, the Taverne de Cèdres was currently trending. It was dark, and the artwork was kitschy: paintings of conventional camels and gaudy Arabian nights. The cook was fat and surly. The waiters were thin Ivoirians who moved like cats. All of that gave the place an authentic feel. You knew you were elsewhere, and elsewhere was pretty cool.
Afram was stunning that evening. The green sheath of a dress she wore gave her eyes a just perceptible greenish cast. She changed her hairstyle all the time. Lately, she was letting it grow out, and it was long enough to impress. Sitting across from her, Anthony took measured comfort in her conquering glow, the stir of admiration she inspired. Taylor Forbes was there with his wife, and Anthony was comforted by the puzzled look on the DCM’s face. How does a guy like you rate a woman like that?
When the wine arrived, Anthony took an envelope from his pocket. From the envelope, he slid out a ring, a gold band with a triangle of rubies.
“Give me your finger.”
She gave it to him, and he slipped on the ring.
“This was my mother’s,” he told her. “My father gave it to her when they got engaged.”
That was not true. Anthony had found the ring in a drawer after his mother died. He was not a particularly deceitful person, but embellishing for Afram was becoming an obsession.
“Engaged,” she echoed.
“You know, if we’re married, your visa situation gets a lot less complicated.”
She was studying the ring. “You don’t have a friend in California, do you?”
“I think you should fly home. See your family. Stay as long as you like. When you come back, we’ll get married.”
The idea of a trip to Accra could not help but appeal. Afram didn’t care who knew where she came from, that her father was out of work, her mother cleaned the houses of international aid workers, her brothers scrabbled to get by, and one was in prison. Her pride was one of the things Anthony liked best about her.
“And if I do not come back?”
He shrugged. He poured more good Lebanese wine for both of them. Their feline waiter deposited a platter of meze on the table between them. Out of the corner of his eye, Anthony could see that Taylor Forbes was bored.
“I remember the first time you let me pick you up at your parents’. It was raining. You came out of the house in a yellow dress. You took off your shoes to keep them clean. You told me your brother had just been arrested for stealing a motorbike. You cried on my shoulder.”
She took off the ring, placed it on the table, and looked at it. “When you die,” she said, “your money goes to your ex-wife.”
“Some of my pension goes to Janine, yes. It’s the law.”
“Afram, I don’t plan on dying any time soon. I’ll figure out a way to protect you.”
She looked at his chest as though seeing through it to his heart. She put the ring back on.
“It is beautiful, Anthony. I will wear it as I think.”
He knew he could not push her. Still, the ring changed things between them. Over the next few days, she was more cheerful. She was attentive. Twice she met him at the embassy cafeteria for lunch. She knew he liked being seen with her. At home in the evenings, after Giselle left, she went around in pastel lingerie, singing West African pop songs. Meantime, Anthony struggled to come up with a plan that did not involve selling imaginary sailboats. He got an email from Lance, his son from the marriage with Janine. Lance wanted his father’s help buying a car. Anthony put him off. That made him feel guilty, but he was in no position to do anything for a son living under another man’s roof, not when that man was pulling down half a mil a year as a patent attorney.
On Friday night, Anthony and Afram went to a concert by a Malian musician who played a complicated stringed instrument and told griot stories, a connected series of West African legends. The music put Afram in a buoyant mood, and driving home, she asked Anthony to tell her the truth.
“The truth about what?”
“When you go home to America, what will you do?”
Not a moment to lie.
“I have a small apartment near Washington. There are companies there. They call them Beltway bandits. Some of them do economic work. I can find work with one of them.”
“And will it be… like this?”
“It will be nothing like living in Abidjan, the way we live here.”
“Will it be exciting?”
“Not a bit.”
Being straight with her made him feel better, even as it dampened his hope that she would go with him. Truth recaptured for him a modicum of the power he had lost to her over the past year. Or at least some integrity. She took in this useful information, filed it in a secret place. On Monday morning, as he was leaving for work, she held up her finger so he would see the ring and told him she would marry him.
“What about Accra?” he asked her.
“Soon. I will go home soon.”
They kissed sedately, conscious of formalizing their relationship, but it was enough to blind Anthony. Tears came to his eyes. He held her. She allowed herself to be held. Everything felt right except for a slackness in her body, a kind of sinking away as though the terms of surrender weighed heavily on her. She kissed him again.
He put his full concentration that day into writing Travis’ annual performance evaluation. It was the best bit of writing he had done in Abidjan and guaranteed the guy would be tenured, then quickly promoted. Travis knew it.
“I appreciate this, Anthony.”
“Forget it. You deserve it. Did I tell you Afram and I are getting married?”
“Yeah, well, God knows I don’t deserve a woman like her, but that doesn’t mean I’ll give her up. We’re celebrating the engagement this weekend at Grand-Bassam. Join us.”
Travis nodded slowly, and Anthony told him to bring a guest. That afternoon, he called around to invite a few more people, expats, all of them, nobody from the embassy. He expected the idea of a party to please Afram. She was more social than he, and sometimes he worried she was bored, staying home. But she took the news guardedly as though there was a trap in it.
On Saturday, they drove out to Grand-Bassam, east of Abidjan. The city always depressed Anthony. It had once been the colonial capital of the country, and the U.N. had deemed it a world heritage site. But the blocks of mostly empty stone buildings separated by broad sandy streets had a desolate look. Like every other place he had seen in Côte d’Ivoire, people in Bassam were scraping by. They moved slowly in a trance of heat and low expectations.
The Land Cruiser blew past the city to the Oiseau de Mer, an outdoor restaurant on the water with tables and chairs under thatched cabanas. The view of a placid Atlantic counterbalanced the melancholy sight of the city and boosted everybody’s spirits. Soon enough, a party was going on.
There were eight of them, including the hosts. A retired South African rugby player and his raspy-throated, hard-drinking blonde wife. A Lebanese immigrant who sold electronics in the company of a languorous Asian woman Anthony did not remember. Travis had brought along an earnest, thin American woman researching tribal identity politics. Looking around the table, Afram whispered to Anthony that she liked them all. Maybe, he thought, this is going to work.
They drank Castel Beer and ate tray after tray of tiny fried fishes whose name Anthony never could recall. They were served by a man with a limp, the result of a machete attack during a period of civil turmoil ten years earlier.
In the heat of the afternoon, the congenial company of expat homies, the proximity of an ocean whose vastness he felt a presence, Anthony roused himself to hope. Afram was at her vivacious best, plugging into people, listening and laughing, drawing them out.
More Castel, more delicious little fishes. More Castel.
Then Travis’ date—her name was Melinda, she was working on her doctorate at the University of Chicago, she was enamored of statistics—looked at Afram and said, “Now I remember.”
“I saw you this week.”
“I don’t think so.”
“No, I’m sure it was you. At the Radisson? I saw you in the lobby, and I said to the friend I was with, there goes the most beautiful woman in West Africa.”
The multiple beer-fueled conversations under the cabana ensured nobody else paid any attention to what Melinda was saying except Anthony. Afram set down her glass of beer. She folded her hands in her lap and smiled blandly at the woman who had seen her at the Radisson. She blinked. The afternoon snagged, and Afram began crying.
“I’m sorry,” said Melinda. “Did I upset you?”
She thought the compliment she had just paid Afram must have been heavy-handed or possibly sexist. Travis knew better. He put a hand on Melinda’s arm and pointed to the ocean, where a container ship in the distance was reducing itself to a speck of insignificance. Now everybody knew something was wrong. They watched Afram stand up and walk quickly away down the shore, head down.
“Excuse me,” said Anthony. “Travis, will you hold the fort here?”
He went after Afram, who was moving as though she had a destination. He wanted to run. He was sweating. His mind was foamy with beer. His heart was constricted with hurt. The sun rained needles of heat on his head. He passed little kids who were playing an imaginative game with palm fronds. He called Afram’s name once, but she did not respond. She kept walking.
She wound up at a jetty. It was old, built by the French back when Bassam was a thriving seaport. Now the concrete was crumbling. The jetty ran a couple hundred feet out into the water. Someone had left an empty cooking oil container on it, the label erased by weather. Coat-hanger wire made a handle. Holes had been punched in the tin, which had once been used to hold little fishes like the ones served at their engagement party.
Anthony watched Afram make her way out onto the jetty. Halfway to the end, she stopped. She looked down into the water. He caught up and stepped onto the jetty. When she realized he was there, she told him to stay away.
“It’s the pilot, isn’t it?”
The shame of her betrayal was intense. His mind and his limbs were slow, and everything hurt brilliantly. He closed his eyes against everything. When he opened them, she was looking out to sea.
“Just tell me. It was the pilot, wasn’t it?”
“I can’t marry you.”
“We’ll work it out.”
He had been humiliated before in his life. One more time wouldn’t kill him. Because life without Afram would not be bearable. All his hands wanted was to touch her. He walked slowly in her direction.
“Stay back,” she warned him.
“I love you.”
“Go away, Anthony. I can’t marry you.”
He kept inching out on the rough concrete toward her. She kept moving away. When she reached the end of the jetty, she turned to face him. She was crying.
He came close enough to smell her perfume, which he had bought for her on a work trip to Paris. The crying had begun to make her face swell. She put up her hands to ward him off. She was angry now. So, he realized with a start, was he.
“So, you fucked him.”
She looked at him as if he were speaking a language she was hearing for the first time. “We were good, Anthony. You and me. We were really good.”
He raised his hand. He did not intend to hit her, and he did not. But the movement alarmed her, and she swung at his chest. He grabbed her arm and twisted it just enough that she couldn’t move.
“Don’t leave me, Afram.”
In the look she gave him, there was everything he needed, nothing he could live without: tenderness and spunk, sex and self-knowledge. Crowning and blessing all of that was a kind of wise desire. She had a life ahead of her.
The pain of losing her was the only thing strong enough to counteract the grand indifference that had taken him over.
She put her shoulder down and rammed him. Her anger made her fierce. It gave her strength, while beer and impotence made Anthony unsteady on his feet. He felt his legs buckle, but they did not give way. He held her fast and hard, aware of her terrible trembling. Intently, he wished his impossible wish, that the hurt would stop killing him and that it would never go away.
About the Author
Mark Jacobs has published more than 190 stories in a wide range of magazines, including The Hudson Review. His sixth book, a novel entitled Silent Light that takes place in the Democratic Republic of Congo, is forthcoming from OR Books. A complete list of his publications can be found at markjacobsauthor.com.