“Ten Days To Hold You”
by Richard Prins
There are no arrival cards to scribble in, no scanner for my fingerprints. Just two ladies at a desk. One asks the questions, the other stamps passports. The questioner wants to know if I’m here “on business”.
“No, just visiting.”
“Who are you visiting?”
“My daughter is about to be born here.” I still feel a thrill saying that word, Daughter. Back home in New York, only my closest friends know about you, so I haven’t had much opportunity to say the word out loud. “I guess I’m visiting her, even though she doesn’t exist yet.”
Your mother called me after her third ultrasound. It’s a boy, it’s a boy! she shouted into the phone, her voice lilting with an enthusiasm I didn’t know she still possessed. It was early morning. I tried to mumble a groggy reply. She started hiccuping laughter. April Fool’s! She’s a girl!
On our first April Fool’s together, your mother tried pranking me with a pregnancy scare, but spoiled it when she burst out laughing. That was four years ago. That’s how long we’ve been subliminally conjuring you.
The woman’s eyes are trained on her paperwork. “Your wife is Zambian? You will take her with you?” I don’t answer. I know she’s asking a question. But the question isn’t applicable. I don’t have a wife. I have a pregnant ex-girlfriend who drove me crazy and might be crazy herself, though she hasn’t reported any psychotic episodes since she left New York and she didn’t sound too paranoid last time we spoke on the phone. The question repeats, “Will you be taking them with you, Sir?”
“No. I will return alone.” That word, alone, tingles in the back of my throat and reverberates in the base of my brain, as if I just snorted it.
My duffel bag is already spinning on the carousel of luggage. I snag it and spot your mother right away, waving at me with her chipped-tooth smile, tentative, but resplendent. A bright red and yellow muu-muu hugs the convexity of her belly. You’re due next week. I’ve missed her embrace. But I don’t let myself relax inside it. I give your grandmother a hug, too; she welcomes me “home”.
Your auntie Violet tells me I look different. On her left stands a wobbling toddler, your cousin Isaac, almost two years old. I can tell by his very serious expression that he either possesses preternatural wisdom or he just woke from a nap. “Yes, you’ve put on weight,” your grandmother agrees. Back home in Brooklyn, none of my friends believe I’m cultivating a beer belly. In Africa, it’s the first thing anyone notices, and I don’t think that’s because my dashikis have gotten more billowy.
We pile into the taxi they took to meet me. “Sit with Uncle Richard,” Violet places Isaac in my lap. He is calm there, plucking at the hairs on my wrist. His diaper is thick against my thighs. I don’t know whether he has filled it, or if that’s just what diapers feel like.
I look out the window and remember Lusaka. It doesn’t excite me the way Dar es Salaam does. Everything is too rectangular. The roads are paved in irksomely clean right angles, lined with towering violet blooms of jacaranda trees. The dust of a dry season billows at the flanks of traffic. The houses are fenced on grassy little estates, their hedges sculpted like green poodles. Shopping malls everywhere. But fewer people are walking, talking, or hawking their goods. And they don’t speak Swahili, the language I spent years perfecting. Nyanja, the urban lingua franca, tantalizes me with its similarity. But I can’t understand it, so it only confirms how foreign I am.
In the gravelly parking lot at Mutende Lodge, an old man heaves my duffel over his shoulders, even though it has wheels. He leads us through the courtyard, past an alcove bar where bottles of Jameson and Johnny Walker linger and sparkle in the corners of my eyes. “You may inspect,” the old man bows with deference, then shows us to my home for the next month. The room is cramped. The top half of its concrete walls is painted white, the bottom half a scuffed turquoise. The plastic tiling on the floor is skidded to shreds where the bed’s stumpy legs rest. The door doesn’t have a handle. “So you open like this,” he jabs the key in its hole and drags the door open. “It will be fixed.” Outside there is a toilet (a proper toilet, not a pit latrine) and shower stall (no door, no curtain) whose knobs may summon occasional water, though I don’t test them.
“I’m just resting a moment. Your friend is dancing.” Your mother sits on my bed. I stay standing. She looks down at you in her belly. “I also have intense stretchmarks. But I don’t know if you’ll ever see that part of me again.” Our unsettled tension has been acknowledged. We both know what could happen if we let down our guard. “Is there anything you think we should talk about?”
“Names and money,” I answer without a beat.
Your mother wanted to name you Moselle last time we spoke, but now she is vacillating. She likes the sound of it, the allusion to Moses, but worries Zambians will tease you and call you “mademoiselle.” She also mentioned Grace, but we agree it’s too common.
“How do you say ‘grace’ in Lozi?”
“I haven’t talked with mom about Lozi middle names. We haven’t talked much lately. I’m glad I came home.” She always called Zambia home even when we made a home together. “But it’s been a lonely time.”
“So you haven’t talked with her about money either?” I sound impatient, because I’ve broached this topic several times.
“I don’t need a lot of things,” she lets her voice trail off. “It’s impossible to forecast.”
“That’s not helpful,” I frown. It would be just like your mother to feign self-sufficiency, then hit me up for some outrageous sum next year.
“Mom’s going to want a discussion with you at some point. About our relationship.”
I exhale nervous disappointment. That could mean it’s about marriage. Your mother emits an acrid crepitation that might be a kind of laughter. “She asked the other day if you expect me to wait for you. You know Zambians have this concept of damages.”
She mentioned these “damages” in an email. Pity money paid to a family for having “damaged” their daughter and her chances at a favorable marriage. My jaw clenches against its desire to sneer, is that what you want? A lump sum then I disappear?
“Violet was ranting how hard it is for her, how lucky I am you’re supporting me.” Isaac’s father showed up once to meet his son, but he was drunk and hasn’t acknowledged paternity. “And I was like, yo, Richard’s no knight in shining armor! I still gotta support myself!” I lift one eyebrow as if to query, Do you now? When was the last time you supported yourself? “There’s a certain type of lady I’m trying to be.”
That sounds like one of your mother’s self-improvement projects, wherein she convinces herself that by sheer willpower and a new set of ephemeral principles she can boost her attitude, karma, and life trajectory.
“I haven’t had anyone to confide in. I’m glad I can tell you some things, but I can’t tell you other things. Because of your calling.” She rolls her eyes. She means that if she tells me something, I might write about it. The father of her child, a spy for enemy forces like poetry and literature. “I told mom and Violet you wrote about us. They weren’t pleased.”
I breathe deep and lean back against the wall. The divide between white and turquoise slices at the midpoint of my spine. “I don’t think we should talk about this.”
“But we have to talk about it. I’ve made my peace with whatever you write about me. And I suppose this little one,” she pats her belly, “can find out one day what your perspective was. But the rest of my family? They didn’t ask for this.”
I didn’t ask for this, either, I could say. You told me you were using birth control. I was tricked into being a father. That’s my get out of jail free card. But I don’t want to play it now, when I’m so close to meeting you.
“I saw you take out your notebook earlier. If you write anything, promise you won’t send it out. Because if you publish anything about my family, there will be problems. Remember, they’re your family too.”
My voice quavers, “I can promise to take what you say into consideration.”
“But you can’t promise to just not publish anything?”
“You know you’re asking me to…” my hands grip the air, hoping the right phrase will materialize. Kill my baby is the first that comes to mind. “Like, upend my entire identity,” I settle on vacuity, then take refuge in existentialism. “This is who I am. Or at least it’s who I know how to be.”
Any dream is a nightmare once it collides with truth. If you ever read this, maybe that means I wasn’t allowed to see you. Maybe you were told awful things about me. And maybe those things were true. When I started writing about your mother, I had no idea you were going to happen. But it’s easy to look back and see how my subconscious was already begging you into existence.
At four a.m. I wake up and have to pee. I grab my toothpaste and dental floss for the walk to the bathroom. The newly-repaired door handle snaps off in my hand. Cheap plastic, painted silver to look metallic. I try pulling the door open with the key, but it won’t budge. No matter how I twist the key, the latch is stuck, catching against the doorjamb when I tug. I chug the water bottle and ease the head of my penis inside it. The bottle turns humid in my grip. I unspool a footlong strand of dental floss and bind the snapped-off handle to the plastic stump jagging out of the door. This allows me to turn the handle, but not to pull while I’m turning. The bolt won’t yield. The lightbulb on the ceiling flickers dead. Power’s cut. Pitch blackness. A generator coughs and hums in the distance. But the filament stays dead.
When I wake up again, light is peering through the crevice at the bottom of the door. Owing to my nocturnal nature, light work schedule, and heavy drinking, it is rare for me to know the early morning. I can tell the air outside is crisp and peaceful. I haven’t yet made a complete mess of my room. It has the look of a respectable writer’s hovel with my unmade bed and upside-down poetry manuscript where I fell asleep beside it. The nightstand is just capacious enough to fit my tube of toothpaste, bug spray, two stacks of books I’m hoping to plow through, my wallet thick with hundred kwacha notes, plus the bottle of urine beside the liter of spiced rum. This could be the place I finally lose my mind.
In my hypnopompic reverie, I envision the simple act of turning a key and the door swinging gracefully open. I get up and try it. The lock won’t click open, but it won’t click locked either, until I give it some real torque. I turn it the other way and it clicks again. I pull it right open. If only life were so simple. I’m still an expecting father in Zambia, so I’m still trapped.
I take a long walk and get a little lost among the lush cul de sacs surrounding Mutende Lodge. I can tell I have landed in an upper-class neighborhood by all the ambassadors’ residences, fenced by stucco walls and rimmed with well-sprinkled grass. Before long, I am a little more lost among the auto body shops and scrap metal operations on Mosi-o-tunya Road. It’s approaching noon and I’m approaching dizziness. A car honks at me, “Are you lost, Bro?” It’s yesterday’s cabbie, the one who overcharged me to port my luggage to Mutende. The streets of Lusaka are brash and prickly in his voice. “You want I take you back to Mutende?”
I have already reached that point in travel where every human contact, no matter how fleeting or unremarkable, becomes a sacred pool of water on a desert journey. He has reminded me I’m here, existing. I must look absurdly aimless. “Nah, man. I’m just taking a walk, enjoying the sun.”
A ditch-digger pauses from swinging down his pickaxe to notice me and wave. An old lady with a bale of hay balanced on her head wishes me good morning. Three boys stagger by, passing among themselves a bottle of Mosi and resembling velociraptors with their swift, jagged gait. One of them wields a popsicle. Another cuddles a shy black puppy in the nook of his arm. The third looks up at me and blurts, “Are you black or a mzungu?” I tip my head back and my tongue darts giddily through the gap in my front teeth. “A mzungu!” I laugh, because I know from Swahili that it means exactly what I am: a white person. It comes from the verb zunguka, “to go around in circles”, as the first dizzy colonists seemed to do.
A minibus conductor shouts “Town! Town!” He stalls his vehicle, waiting for me to board, even though I’m walking in the opposite direction. I give him a dismissive wave and apologetic shake of my head. Two words are stenciled on the front of his pudgy van: “THE JEWS”. As it motors past me, I look over my shoulder and see “KING OF” stenciled on the rear window. Together, in context, the phrases make sense; taken apart, they’re alarmingly meaningless. Breaking up is hard to do.
Sunday evening, the music at Mutende is louder. A tall man in an unzipped track suit is staring down at his laptop, eyes crossing over his crooked nose, queueing songs. Two seats down, a younger woman in stylish red glasses swigs on her Savanna, a South African hard cider. She’s singing gorgeously along with Janet Jackson and swinging the long auburn streaks of her weave. Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s… I’m surprised to hear myself speaking out loud, “Damn, you’re playing my favorite Janet Jackson tune.”
“Joni Mitchell never lies,” the DJ quotes Q-Tip’s shout-out, nodding his head soulfully. “I’m Adam,” he offers me his large fist for a bump. “And I’m an alcoholic.”
A stocky man in a grey suit jacket claps me on the shoulder. “What are you drinking?”
“Just a Mosi.”
“Two Mosis for our friend!” another man flashes a peace sign at the bartender. “We saw you the other night. You’re staying here at Mutende? I’m Chembo, by the way, and this is Boyd. What brings you to Zed?”
Zed, I’ve learned by now, means Zambia. I’ve also learned that if I take a long sip of my beer and tell them my daughter is about to be born here, that will inspire a round of congratulations and probing questions. Your wife is Zambian? Oh, she’s not your wife? But you met in America? And where is she?
Adam the DJ butts in, “And you traveled all the way to Africa for this? You must still be in love with that chick!”
“Or with my daughter,” I match the impish challenge of his smile.
“Maybe you just want to see the baby with your own eyes,” his grin rises up his cheeks. “Because if it’s black as me…”
“We did a DNA test. I know she’s mine.”
“So you just want to prove you’re a better man than all these punk African motherfuckers who neglect their children!”
Chembo creeps his fingers in the air, like little feet dashing away. “In your position, most of us would have scampered!”
I give a friendly shrug followed by a paroxysm of laugher. I don’t accept his stereotype of African men as neglectful fathers. But for all my flaws and everything I’ve fucked up in my life, I’m smug enough to think I’m handling this situation commendably.
Adam gives me one of his signature fist bumps, slow and vigilant, his eyes crossing as they focus on the point of contact. “We get each other. We’re both abstract. You won’t catch me in a suit like the other guys here. And I know a lot about the West. In fact, I already know a lot about you.”
“Oh yeah? Like what?”
“You’ve got money.”
Money’s what I came from, but I like to think I escaped. “Is that what I look like?”
“No, you look like a poor-ass hippie. But I can tell you’ve got money, because you like to drink, but your nose is straight.” I give him a puzzled look. “It’s never been broken,” he rolls his hands in patient explanation. “Poor white drunks get into fights. Only the rich white drunks are peaceful.”
I burst out laughing and slapping his back. I accept his comment as hilarious cosmic insight, even though it’s probably classist bullshit. “I think I owe you a beer for that one.”
“Make it a double Jameson,” he grins.
I slide into the seat between him and the lady with the smart red glasses and sultry singing voice. She looks at me and speaks, “You have interesting hair.”
“And you have a beautiful voice.”
“Why thank you!” Her laugh has a bubbly little squeal at the end. “They call me Ama. I do sing, professionally.”
“What kind of stuff?”
“In Zambia, you have to be versatile. But really, why do you ask? Are you a promoter or something?”
“I had an entertainment company in Dar es Salaam,” I embellish.
“But that’s not where you’re from. I detect an American accent.”
“So I’m correct!” she flickers her slender fingers and bounces triumphantly in her seat. “I have to go there one day. Just to eat at one of Guy Fieri’s restaurants.”
“You should come. I love showing people my city.”
“And I will go to a Strip! Club!” She rolls her tongue on the r and l and gives the counter two adamant slaps. “I want to get up there and pole dance too! I would be outstanding, with my big African bottom.” She asks what I’m doing in Zambia and soon we’re talking about parenthood and our exes. “Childbirth is beautiful, but I’m never doing that again! A question. You said you split with your baby mama. But now that you’re here, no chance you get back together?”
“I’ve been down that road too many times. It ain’t pretty.”
“Obviously, I know myself it isn’t always possible. Like when you’re getting eye surgery in Hyderabad and your baby daddy’s sleeping with your best friend the whole time, then hell no, it’s over! But of course I have to ask. It’s always best if both parents are together.”
I’m inept as a flirt, but I suspect she’s really ascertaining my availability.
Boyd interrupts us. “How do you two feel about checking out a few clubs?”
I feel like that’s a spectacular idea.
“You know Ama doesn’t want to stop drinking!” Ama throws up her hands and lets them dance in the crisp night air.
“To the Lounge!” Boyd jingles his car keys over his head. I recognize the name of a club I wound up at Thursday night. I’m not sure I want to go back. I got very drunk and did something I regret. Ama hooks her elbow in mine. Boyd gulps the last of his whiskey and sets the glass down in the gravel.
When we get there, Ama steps cautiously out of the car, balancing with her hands and stumbling in her heels. “You people are trying to kill me!” She hands me her Savanna and locks arms with me again. I feel radiant walking into the crowded, eardrum-pounding club with a glamorous diva on my arm. “That’s my song!” she whoops as we’re blasted with techno-tinged rap.
“Who is it?” I wonder.
When she said “my song” she didn’t mean it’s a song she’s particularly fond of. She meant it’s her own God-given voice backing the chorus. Just the thought of you. A distant soprano wail over reggae-accented rap lines praising a lady’s looks. Then a harmonized and melismatic “hips lips thighs and eyes and sexy motion.” Now I feel like a quaking little poseur to be holding her famous hand and leading her towards the bar. And that’s when Meble spots me, waves at me, her eyes lucent with surprise.
I met Meble Thursday night. Herbert, the manager at Mutende, tipped me off that “Uncle Rex, Zambia’s best guitarist” was playing nearby. The band was smooth and jazzy. Soon I’d shared a few pitchers of beer with some new friends and jumped in the back of their pickup truck, speeding to the Lounge.
Sometimes when I’m drunk enough, I think God can hear me. I was almost there by the time Meble walked in with her streaming braids. I felt like a tornado had wrapped its arms around me as we spun and shook and dodged and bobbed. “Let’s go,” I gave her a raffish grin. “My friend is driving.”
“You’ll give me something, Baby, to get home?”
“Of course. I’ll put you in a cab.”
At Mutende, we had to bang on the gate and blast the horn until the old night watchman woke up and let us in. Meble rolled into my bed, then into my arms. “Baby, you said you would give me something.”
“Of course, I’ll make sure you get home.”
“So you give me five hundred kwacha?”
All the mirth and anticipation puffed right out of me. I really thought she was only looking for a good time. “I said I’d get you a cab, not a stretch limousine!” My tone was jocular. But my eyes cast a wary glare. “I don’t have five hundred. I’ll give you a hundred, and that will get you home. I can call a cab now, or just sleep here if you’re tired.”
This wasn’t a bargaining tactic. I had made a mistake. Now I wanted to extricate myself. She helped herself to a long swig of my rum and gasped at the burn. She kissed me with an unpersuasive moan. “A hundred isn’t enough, baby. Show me what you have for me.”
I emptied my pockets of a single hundred kwacha note and a wad of tens and twenties. “All yours,” I laughed dejectedly at my money, wrinkled and damp with beer.
She scooped the bills off the bed and stuffed them in the pocket of her dress, which she whisked off her body in one graceful motion. When I pressed my lips to her sex, she giggled and made me stop. I didn’t know how drunk I was until I went soft inside the condom. She pulled it off and took me bare inside her. Soon, I came to my senses and grabbed another rubber, but the same thing happened. I let her take it off again.
“I love you, Baby,” she cooed after I pulled out and came on her belly. “I hope you enjoyed.”
“I hope you enjoyed,” I chortled ruefully. “I think I was too drunk.”
“No, no, no,” she insisted. “You fucked me like a black man.”
I flashed a private smile. I don’t know what this smile looks like to other people, whether I appear nervous, arrogant, daft or solipsistic. Really all it means is I’m trying to conceal a storm of thought. I knew she only said it because she thought it was what I wanted to hear, because I had done something to make her think I harbored a psychosexual idolatry of black masculinity. Is that what everyone thinks of me as soon as they see my dashiki? She spat the words again with regal sass, certain now I had been waiting all my life to hear them. “You fucked me like a black man, Baby. Your friend said in our language I should come see him when I was done with you. He didn’t think you could please me. But I enjoyed! Ooh, it will be so nice if you come to the Lounge with me every night, and all my friends can see you.”
She lifted an empty water bottle from my wastebasket and filled it with rum. She threw her dress on, kissed me goodbye, and strolled out the door into the sun’s nascent glare.
When I woke up, my hangover was stretched like a cystic swim cap over my scalp. This wouldn’t have happened in Tanzania. I would have sensed where on the spectrum of transactional sex our dalliance would land, and talked myself out of it. But I was such a stranger here.
I went to shower in the outdoor bathroom. I turned the handle and heard a gurgle in the pipes. There came a quiet sprinkle of water. In lieu of a curtain, I propped open the toilet door to partially obscure my naked body bracing against the cold stream. I danced with surprise each time it struck my chest. I scoured myself with soap and whispered harshly, do you have a goddamn death wish?
Life is short, the sardonic voice in my head replied to itself. Why not keep it that way?
And now I’m striding gloriously into the same club, leading Ama towards the bar, and here’s Meble. I return her wave and make my eyes sparkle with glibness. As if I haven’t silenced all her calls.
She taps Ama’s shoulder and utters something I can’t hear. Ama nudges her out of the way with queenly distaste. I find us a stool near the bar. Ama reaches into my hair and snaps off the rubber band, securing it over her own wrist. My tangles hang longer and wilder than hers. “A question. Do you like to do hookers?”
“Not my style.” I wonder what the hell Meble told her.
“Oh, me neither. I’ll just stick to my Savanna then.”
I heard wrong; she asked if I like to do shooters, not hookers. She takes off her glasses and I really see her eyes for the first time. One of her pupils is dark, the other glaucous and opalescent. The folds beneath her eyelids are swollen. She looks positively oracular as she reaches towards the counter, feeling for her Savanna. She’s blind. Eye surgery. Stumbling out of the car. I should have realized. She asks where the bathroom is. I take her hand, “Let me show you.”
Why do you need to know how I was distracting myself those nights your mother was bursting at the seams with you? Why does anyone need to know I was preoccupied with my own damnable rakishness in the weeks leading up to the most transfiguring moment of my life? Why am I writing this, and why this cloying pretense of addressing it to you? You’re my daughter, not my confessor. Do I harbor a sick, subconscious urge to brag of my clumsy exploits, or do I just wish to publicly scourge myself?
A couple days later your mother is standing on a chair in the yard, picking lemons. She uses a long stick with a wire prong on the end to snag the green orbs and yank them off their stems. Each one falls to the earth with a soft thud. I screen a call from Ama. “She’s a regular at Mutende,” I explain. “She had me for lunch yesterday, after you asked me not to come.”
“Had you for lunch?” your mother questions my phrase. “She gobbled you up and shat you out? I don’t know about this Ama lady.”
“I’m not sleeping with her,” I blurt. That’s the truth, though I hope it won’t be true much longer.
“None of my business!” she waves her hands, shunning the topic. If she becomes fixated on my amorous activities, it could destabilize her psyche at this most critical moment. Why did I even speak Ama’s name? She snags another lemon and changes the subject. “Are you interested in learning Lozi?”
“Interested, sure. Though I think Nyanja would be easier. It’s closer to Swahili.”
“Maybe instead of thinking about the easy way, you should think about communicating with your daughter.”
That stings. I try not to show it. As if you won’t speak English. As if your mother speaks passable Lozi herself. She isn’t looking at me anyway, just stretching for a high and yellow lemon. I’m alone in Lusaka. That doesn’t mean I have to chase women as you are about to be born. It’s such a patently ugly thing to do. But I’m only trying to feel beautiful. Sometimes sin is just the way we claw for redemption.
It’s ten days past your due date. Your mother spends the afternoon getting whipped by “God’s lash”. Her term for uterine contractions. It’s the solstice; she wants you out before midnight. It’s also Father’s Day in America, a fact I’ve kept to myself. But after dinner, the contractions are still twenty minutes apart, so your grandmother tells me to go back to Mutende and wait.
Ama is at the bar with red wine in her glass and on her breath. After a couple weeks of carousing and clumsy courtship, a few nights ago, she had finally spelled out what I needed to do: get us a room in a guest house other than Mutende, so that she wouldn’t provoke her friends’ gossip by stumbling out my door in the morning. She fell asleep in my arms afterwards. I held her warm smooth body close and timed my breathing to hers until I fell asleep myself.
She greets me like we’re still just drinking buddies. “Any news? Is the baby here yet?”
“I know I keep saying this, but she’s really coming very soon!”
I clutch my first Mosi of the evening and resolve to drink it slow. The lip of the bottle has just touched my lip when my phone starts buzzing on the counter.
“Go, hurry!” Ama slaps my back. “I’ll call Eddie to drive you.”
Eddie’s her preferred night cabbie, a short guy with a husky voice and crooked teeth, a few of them missing. He also has two cracks in his windshield, identical constellations of rupture on the left and the right. “Damn, Eddie, someone come after you with a baseball bat?”
“Nah, I got fucked up the other night, after I dropped you guys.”
“Shit, what did you hit?”
“Oh, my head,” he rubs his bald skull. I see its impact glinting in the windshield.
“And the other crack?”
“My cousin’s head.”
“The baby’s coming,” I squint my eyes and judge him sober. “We’re going to the hospital.”
In Zambia, they don’t let family witness the birth. At 12:35 A.M., I hear your cry. A nurse comes whispering “baby girl” with a proud gleam in her eyes. Your mother comes smiling so deliriously I can feel my heart pang for her the way it used to, before everything between us turned to menace.
And then I look upon you, bathed in drowsy oblivion as you pout and suck, a tiny, squirmy thing, swaddled in the hospital bassinet. There was no way to prepare myself for your beauty. Your skin is luminescent, as if a beaming lantern has been installed beneath the soft bones of your pudgy cheeks. I am ecstatically lucid and thanking the Lord for so providentially sending your mother into labor before I could swallow my first numbing sip of beer. You reach for my pointer finger and squeeze it in your tiny wrinkled paw. My heart detonates with joy that I am here to witness your living breathing beauty with my own hands and eyes. While that joy spreads through my body I feel it dissipating into regret as my limbs and toes and the skin on my face remember how soon I will be leaving you.
Ten more days and I fly home. Show me a more painful way to feel this much joy, and… hell, I can’t even finish that sentence. I just learned what little right men have to speak of pain. Soon you are sneezing. Such air expelled from your specklike nostrils. I’m terrified you caught a cold from germs on my finger, until Google tells me such sternutation is just how you infants clear your sinuses.
Within minutes, we decide you don’t feel like a Moselle. We agree on the Lozi word for “promise”. It was going to be your middle name, after one of your mother’s aunts. It’s often shortened to the Lozi word for “hope”. What is hope but an abbreviated promise? We call the nurse to amend your birth card. The nurse who exclaimed once she saw your paleness, “This is not skin for the village!” It was a funny comment, so shrill and quintessentially Zambian in its delivery. But it was also a reminder of just what a life you have ahead of you. I have no idea how to prepare you for it. I want to teach you about the world, but I’m such a stranger here. Life has its way of bewildering me. I’ve given my twenties to drink and dissolution, vacillating between sorrow and ecstasy. It makes all my convictions so murky. I can only hope your beauty might release me from my disenchantment.
It’s a small crowd when I return to Mutende the next evening. Ama looks tipsier than usual. Maybe because I’m sober. She wobbles to her feet and gives me twin high fives. “Finally! You must be so tired. We’ll do an official celebration tomorrow. I’m getting a push home. I had to stay long enough to tell you congrats!”
Her voice glides sultry off her lips. But I’m glad she’s leaving. Not because I want to snub her or forget about her. I just don’t want to think about her tonight.
Eddie’s hunkered down at the bar. “Congrats, man.”
“Thanks for the ride yesterday. You want a shot?”
Herbert looks at me askance. “Eddie has to drive.”
“Come on, just one,” Eddie protests. “I don’t have any customers.” Herbert pours us two doubles. Eddie stares into his drink. “I had a baby girl, too. She’ll be eight or nine now, but I lost touch. It was in London – you know I lived there?”
I shake my head. I didn’t know that.
“I was making good money at McDonald’s. But every time I got my paycheck, we’d call the dealer and not leave the house for days. Her mother was 16, 17 when we started, so she was really just discovering life. Smoking crack, having men in the house when I was in prison. I didn’t like that. And anyway, I got deported.”
My jaw twinges. I’m only beginning to sense how wrenching it must be, not knowing where your daughter is and whether she’s taken care of. “They could deport you, even if you had a kid?” Of course I know they can. Sometimes asking a dumb question is the only way I can think of to express sympathy.
“Yeah. Drunk driving. The first time, they gave me a warning. Second time, another warning. But the third time, prison. Those guys are strict. And no way they’ll let you take your kid. The women get all the rights. Anyway, you said you’re leaving soon?”
“Ten days. But I’ll be back.”
“Yeah, you guys always say you’ll be back.” Eddie kills his shot and drives back to the taxi queue.
Richard Prins is a lifelong New Yorker. Publications include Gulf Coast, jubilat, Ploughshares, and “Notable” mentions in Best American Essays and Best American Travel Writing. Arrests include criminal trespass (Trump Tower), disorderly conduct (Trump International Hotel), resisting arrest (Republican National Convention), and incommoding the halls of Congress (United States Senate).