by Jennifer Spiegelshag fuck Bourke’s Luck
I sit between Nick and Ingrid in a Range Rover. Dylan sits with the Swazi game park ranger in front, the Germans are in back, and we’re in the middle. Jens, a quiet man, is wearing a Nine Inch Nails t-shirt and Lena, the self-possessed Botticelli, is wearing one with the Sprockets from ‘Saturday Night Live’ on it. We’re in Swaziland, in the Mkhaya Game Reserve. We’re waiting for the Range Rover to go somewhere. We want to see animals. All desires in life boil down to this.
Nick and Ingrid are debating whether or not truth is absolute. I didn’t start it, I swear.
‘Look.’ Nick’s annoyed. ‘There are no absolutes. There is nothing eternal. Meaning is all relative.‘
Ingrid is chomping at the bit, which scares me. I’m afraid of combat. I look off to the side of the road. A goat nurses her kid.
Nick isn’t done. ‘My experience determines what’s real. My world rests on myinterpretation and I can only know the world by what I have experienced.’ He doesn’t seem too upset about it. He’s a happy existentialist. I’ve never met one who’s happy before. It disturbs me. Throws me. Where’s his misery? Why doesn’t he threaten suicide? Metaphysical ambiguity usually bothers people.
‘You’re egocentric.’ Ingrid is matter-of-fact. ‘Surely you can’t live as if you’re the center of the universe?’
‘That’s all I have.’
Philosophy, philosophy. We’re all gonna die.
Our Swazi guide starts the car. The other half of our group is in another vehicle. The Germans say nothing, indifferent observers to our melodrama. They cuddle while we argue. Dylan twists her head back. ‘You stop now. Fuck the questions.’ Dylan just doesn’t care. This gets me. No matter what I say or do, I care.
Nick and Ingrid are almost panting. The Range Rover begins moving over dirt. I whisper’I don’t know why I whisper’to Nick, ‘I respect existentialists.’ Our legs touch. The proximity is tantalizing. ‘In fact, I slept with one for eight years.’
He whispers, too. ‘I could argue about it all night long.
‘Maybe, later, we will.’
We never do. We drop it. We drop it because it is only seems like it would be fun. We take this’that I have slept with an existentialist and that he is one’as the thing that makes our proximity electric. Not the difference of opinion. Argument isn’t really sexy.
* * *
hair beard tremble shiver
The Range Rover drives through Swazi jungle. I’ve never seen anything like it. Hluhluwe-Umfolozi didn’t do it. We fall in love. We fall in love with Africa, with each other, with animals, with the planet. We cannot help but love. We see elephant, giraffe, zebra, rhino, ostrich, hippo, buffalo, impala, and bohemian warthog. ‘The ostrich is the Toulouse-Lautrec of the bird kingdom,’ I say. ‘Those feather skirts, those skinny legs.’ We get out of the vehicle because our guide tells us we can. Slowly, quietly, we step over branches and weeds and grass to follow elephants. We make no noise except for crunching sounds with our feet. The elephants touch each other with their trunks. ‘Elephant foreplay.’ Nick raises his binoculars to his eyes. Our mouths open wide in unadulterated smiles. Their hulking elephant bodies are beautiful. The giraffes, in graceful swoops, whip long necks against each other. The rhinos frighten us, make us tremble, and it’s an awesome fear, a fear without ugliness. We are fragile. We are delicate.
We’re no longer so certain we’re the center of the universe.
Ingrid snaps photos. ‘This is what the fear of God must be like.’
The African landscape tells me I’ve been right about certainties all along.
* * *
Zachary’s infidelity is like fluid around my heart.
Sitting on the back of a boat that’s sailing from Catalina back to the California mainland, we’ve just had a horrible day. We never get it right.
‘This squid tastes funny,’ I said on the balcony of a Catalina seafood restaurant, the gentle sea breeze blowing through my hair in such a way that would look seductive to other men but went unnoticed by Zachary, who merely drank a daiquiri.
‘I forgot my wallet.’ He searched his pockets.
I paid the bill and my stomach killed all day.
We walked to a park. I saw an old couple sitting in the lawn. The old man fondled the old woman’s breast. ‘Look.’ I pointed. ‘Old love. Old sex.’ I raised my camera to my eye.
‘They can’t see me.’
Zachary turned beet-red. ‘I can’t believe you.’
‘Why do something like that?’
We boarded the boat at night, glum, weary.
We never get it right.
You get it right with other girls, I think.
He pulls out his Walkman.
It must be me.
We lean back in our seats. A spray of water trails after us as the boat slices the ocean.
‘Listen to this.’ He gives me one of the earphones and together we listen to a song by a morose English band that kids all over the world choose as their dirge if they kill themselves. He’s my husband and he’s charmed by death.
‘It’s good,’ I say.
We’re silent. The boat bounces up and down on the water, a gentle motion that lulls me, comforts me. I am with him and it’s where I want to be, but I’m still alone.
In the distance, two lights stretch out’two beams of light, broken by the water, the chop of the waves. They stretch out and meet at an angle, a point in space. Broken lines, disjointed, coming together in the distance.
‘Do you see those rays?’ Zachary points.
I tilt my head, lift my chin. ‘The ones over there?’
‘I see them.’
‘They’re like us.’
I turn to him.
‘They’re all broken and bent and they stretch out and away, but they meet in the end.’ He looks at me carefully in the dark. ‘They meet at the end.’
I don’t know what to say to him. I don’t know what to say. I think: Zachary, I can’t wait that long.
We lean back and our bodies touch and it isn’t the electric charge of touching the unfamiliar. The lengths of our bodies meet and we’re silent, staring at the broken beams that meet at the end.
He takes me back to our ugly apartment in Buena Park. He takes me back and he makes love to me in the shadows of our room. He makes love to me and it’s the solace of the familiar, the solace of the long-standing.
I love him and I love him and I love him still.
* * *
flick lick Sabie River
We share a tent.
We arrive at Mlilwane Animal Sanctuary in the middle of Swaziland. ‘Pick your tent-mates wisely.’ Elmer hands out tent poles. ‘You’ll be sleeping with him or her for the next ten days.’ We pick each other. I don’t feel strange about it until I notice the other women looking at me. The novelty will wear off, I think. I’m not a slut, I want to say.
Elmer makes us pasta and we eat it inside the campground recreation room. We play Shithead again, but this time we call it ‘Impala.’ Whoever loses has to imitate an impala for Nick. The first one to lose is Jens. He refuses to imitate Bambi. Ingrid, pink from too much wine, gets down on her hands and knees, puts her behind up in the air and says in a proper English accent, ‘You do it like this, Jens.’
We drink wine and play. The conversation gets increasingly lurid. Dylan, over her cards, when others are engaged in the ongoing chocolate, sex, and women debate, looks over at me. ‘Nick?’
The other girls catch the tail-end of the exchange. Catherine stares at us. ‘What? What are you guys talking about?”
‘They’re being catty girls.’ Nick puts down his cards. I bet he heard the whole thing.
‘Are we?’ Dylan acts insulted.
I stay up till midnight for fear of bedtime. Finally, I can’t take it. ‘I have to go to sleep.’ I rise, shy like a bride, and Nick catches my eye.
‘See you later.’ We exchange goofy smiles.
He gives me a head start. He leaves me alone in the tent for a good fifteen minutes. I rush to take off my jeans and put on sweatpants. I rush to get into my sleeping bag and zip it up. By the time I’ve casually arranged myself, I’m in a sweat.
He crawls in quietly. He sits on the edge of his sleeping bag and takes off his shoes by the light of the moon. When he zips up the mosquito net and tent door, it’s pitch black inside. I hear him get into his sleeping bag. We can’t see each other. There’s no source of light.
‘Tell me the most extraordinary moments of your life.’ That’s what he says.
In seven nights, I answer seven questions.
‘You tell first.’ I push my socks off with my feet.
I listen to the sound of Nick’s voice, think about Nick’s presence. Here he is. Man. Male. Then there’s me. Divorced woman without muse. Sounds like an ad in the Classifieds. What if I’m wrong about certainties? What if nothing is certain? What if we can do whatever we want within these tent walls, and there is no consequence, no lasting effect’only the phenomenon of skin on skin, the hiss and lick of rapture: sexual, sanguine, quickly over? What if it’s only that?
‘The preliminaries first, okay?’ Nick’s voice is like a PBS special.
‘My parents are Oxford-educated. My siblings and I were expected to do well in school and we lived up to expectation. Of course, I turned around and used my hard-earned English degree to launch the non-lucrative career of world traveler. In between backpacking, though, there is some room for teaching.’
‘Where have you been?’ I ask.
‘On every continent, except Antarctica.’
‘Tell me about one place.’
‘In Thailand, I took this three-day trek on the back of an elephant.’ I feel like he’s close to my body, my face. ‘Then, we left the elephants and took up canoes. I remember floating through caverns that were so low we had to lay down in the canoe and the top of the cave almost touched our faces.’ He pauses, thoughtful. ‘It was like floating on the edge of the world.’
‘Was that one of the most extraordinary moments of your life?’ I put my cheek on the pillow so I’m facing him.
‘No, it wasn’t.’
‘Where were you before Thailand?’
‘Baton Rouge, where I learned to do cocktail tricks.’
‘And where will you go from here?’
‘I should settle down.’ Melancholy slips into his voice. ‘I would write, but every time I have a great idea, I read it within days in someone else’s book.’ Futility. Next to uncertainty, it’s a killer.
‘What would you write about?’
‘I don’t know. The Romantics, tribal differences among African groups, Asian philosophy, Rodin, how to make a lemon martini. Have you ever had a lemon martini?’
‘I’ll make you a lemon martini.’ He’s next to me, propped up on an elbow. ‘I’ve been in love twice.’
‘You’re lucky for that.’ I stretch out on my back. ‘I think people are lucky if they’ve been in love once. Twice is practically a miracle.’
‘Have you been in love?’
‘How many times?’
‘I think I’ve already experienced the best love’I’m afraid I’ll spend the rest of my life approximating the kind of love I had and lost, all before the age of twenty-nine.’ He stops talking. ‘Losing it bothers me.’
‘You had it twice.’
‘It’s never enough.’
‘No, I guess not.’ I know he’s close, but we’re invisible in the dark.
‘I want someone to love me for my eccentricities’someone who understands my furious note-taking on James Joyce’and someone who appreciates my tendency to tell outrageous and obscene stories.’
‘Tell me an outrageous and obscene story.’ I put my hands behind my head, feeling a little like Huckleberry Finn.
‘Once, I went away with this girl for the weekend. A nice, romantic weekend, right?’
I try to picture the romantic weekend. Nick and a girl are at an English bed-and-breakfast near Shakespeare’s cottage. ‘Right.’
‘So while we were having sex, I felt this unbelievable pain”
He makes a wincing sound. ‘Right there. The family jewels.’
‘I was bleeding profusely.’
‘Rip in the foreskin.’ He speaks into my ear. ‘Ripped during sex.’
‘You’re kidding.’ Now, I’m lost in the image of the foreskin. He has one. No one I know really does.
‘I don’t want someone who only understands my eccentricities or who only laughs at my stories.’ He falls onto his back.
‘Tell me more.’
‘My family isn’t very affectionate. I can make my mother blush if I hug her too tightly.’
‘And why are you so affectionate?’
‘I don’t know. Are you very affectionate?’
‘No, I’m a cold fish.’ I want to add, Can’t you tell?
‘I enjoy sex very much.’
‘Yes. Shoulder blades and collarbones are a weakness.’
‘And what about your childhood?’ I change the subject.
‘I was a good boy. Reading by flashlight in the middle of the night, watching ‘Scooby Doo’ in the morning’always hoping that Fred and Daphne would finally get it over with and shag.’
‘When did you stop being a good boy?’
‘Only later. Only later did I show signs of irresponsibility, leaving jobs and girls.’ Wearing silly things like thumb rings, friendship bracelets. ‘I’m occasionally depressed.’ He sighs. ‘But it’s not pervasive’it’s not detrimental.’
It is not like Zachary and I.
‘Tell me who you are,’ he says. ‘Who are you?’
I tell him about Zachary.