Cheryl J. Sim
Agathe and Philippe aren’t my aunt and uncle, and I’m nothing to them. I call them tante and oncle because it’s how we respect our elders. For the past five years, I’ve cared for tante Agathe’s children. No one has ever explained why Agathe fetched me from my village and brought me to the capital. Perhaps one of my father’s city relatives told someone who knew Agathe that we were four daughters, and I—Claudine, the eldest—could tend children.
My life with family ended when Agathe’s SUV, with its dark-tinted windows, stopped in front of our house. Agathe slid from the rear dressed more finely than the beauty pageant princesses we watched on television. My father’s happiness at her taking me away made me cry. The truth only came slowly to me these past years—he traded me for money Agathe promised to send him for my work.
Sometimes my mother and sisters visit me in my dreams. I hardly remember their faces when I wake. Do they think of me? Would they recognize me now that I’m a woman with rounded nénés and, as Roger teases, a derrière a man can grasp?
According to Roger, I’m not pretty. Then again, he doesn’t think Agathe is much to look at either, despite being tall and fishbone-thin like fashion models in magazines. When she’s gone for the day, I experiment with her make-up that covers the table in front of her bedroom mirror. If Agathe didn’t use it, she’d look like everyone else.
Photos from a beauty contest she entered years ago cover one table in the living room. They show her spider legs, bulging neckbone, and perfect crocodile teeth. Roger said Agathe wouldn’t have won because her nénés and cul are too flat. Maybe he’s right, but Agathe’s smile isn’t honest, even when she’s happy. I’ve watched enough pageants to know that unkind faces never win.
Roger and I have been sexing for months, but no baby will come because Roger uses a préservatif. He says a baby can wait. Perhaps he knows best because he graduated from trade-school and has a paying job—he’s a mechanic. I only attended my village school.
Still, I read and do math better than Roger. When Agathe’s oldest son puts his schoolbooks aside, I study them. When Philippe tosses the newspapers into the trash, I take them. Sunday’s papers are my favorite because of the colored wedding pictures. I look at how the brides fix their hair—if I could do anything, I’d style hair.
Mostly, though, I pray for the day when I leave Agathe to live with Roger—I even found a juju woman in the market to buy some magic to make it happen. Roger says we’ll marry once he moves out of his parents’ house. We meet on Sundays after Church—that’s where I first noticed Roger sitting alongside his mother two pews ahead of where I sat with Agathe and her children. When Agathe’s two youngest started to whine and poke each other, he turned. Instead of glaring, he winked. He claims I winked back.
Agathe abandons me on the sidewalk when Mass is over. Until last year, I went with her to a hotel or club—Agathe enjoys parading her boys and girl in front of her relatives. She never explained why she stopped taking me. If Agathe remembers, she gives me a few coins for a moto back to the house. I pocket them.
Roger claims he studied how Agathe left me before he walked over to ask if I wanted lunch. Sometimes, we eat at an open-air restaurant or see a Nollywood film from Lagos if it has French sub-titles or we go to his house if his mother is out—that’s when we sex.
As for mon oncle Philippe, he never attends Mass. He works for the President, so he’s always busy. When the President travels, Philippe goes too. My favorite newspaper often prints stories about Philippe’s family—they have money and influence. Roger claims they married Philippe to Agathe because they thought they were marrying their prince to a real princess. Even with his important family’s power, Philippe has no idea how Agathe amuses herself.
Whenever Philippe is out of the city, Agathe has a rendezvous with her French lover. Only once did she dare bring him inside Philippe’s home. Before the children returned from school, a stranger’s moans came from Philippe’s bedroom. I peeked in. Agathe’s legs were wrapped around a man’s waist as his pink cul bounced on the bed. Roger roared when I told him.
“What? She fucks a blanc when she’s married to one of the President’s aides?” His fingers, with their nails darkened by motor oil, tapped my breast. “Did you see the Frenchman’s zizi? I bet it looks like a small escargot.” Roger laughed at his cleverness as he kneaded my néné until it hurt—when I grabbed his hand, I wondered what would clean the oil from his cuticles.
One evening, Agathe accused Philippe of sexing with a foreigner. They didn’t know I was around the corner, listening quietly so that my lungs almost exploded from holding my breath. Philippe shouted loud enough that one of his bodyguards knocked on the door to be sure all was well. If I were Philippe, I would’ve slapped her, hard—the way I remember my father hitting my mother.
Last week, I caught the oldest boy rubbing his petit zizi in the bath. When I told Roger, he rapped my head and said I should’ve offered to do it.
“Don’t be stupid, Clo-Clo.” Roger pulled me on top of him once the préservatif was on. “Think how much money tante Agathe and oncle Philippe might pay if the petit-prince puts a baby in you.”
He likes the idea, but I’m not stupid. Agathe would throw me out just like what happens to those other servant girls who write to the Docteur d’Amour advice column in Saturday’s newspaper. The docteur advises nothing good ever comes from sexing with a patron or his sons.
* * *
Claudine has been with us since the birth of our youngest son. She was twelve or thirteen years old when Agathe brought her from the countryside. Claudine’s had a better life with us than what she would’ve had in her village—or that’s what I tell myself. When I’m honest, which isn’t often, the truth is we didn’t send Claudine to school, she hasn’t seen her family in years, and I don’t know what Agathe pays her.
During the President’s meetings, my boredom-induced fantasies never include Claudine. But today’s droning presentation from a foreign delegation about child labor irked him and reminded me of her. With their easy solutions, these experts have no comprehension of our nation’s rural life. But do I? Who am I to judge, given my family’s privileged life? The President caught my eye when my cynical chuckle turned into a cough. When the meeting ended, he didn’t ask what amused me. I doubt I would’ve answered that I was laughing at myself.
Still, Claudine and her ilk flicker through my thoughts on the drive home. How will our country move forward if we don’t value female empowerment?
Ouf! That was Michelle’s point when she begged for the appointment. I cajoled the President into the meeting because I enjoy sitting across from Michelle. She often accompanies her ambassador when he comes to harangue the Boss. When our glances cross, it’s as if we share a secret language. I imagine how her lips would crush beneath mine, how our legs would intertwine should we find ourselves . . .My chauffeur glances in the rear-view mirror. Perhaps I sighed aloud.
Everyone is upstairs when I arrive home. Claudine oversees the children’s baths. Agathe sits at her vanity with its Hollywood lights, leaning toward her reflection while she pulls her eyelid sideways to apply liner. Before reaching for her mascara, Agathe acknowledges my presence in the mirror. Her mouth opens as she sweeps that black tar across her lashes, a habit that intrigued me when I first witnessed her beauty routine after we married. Watching her now is as dull as our sex life.
Agathe claims she’s going to her parents for dinner, but the sultry eye make-up hints of other plans. I don’t press for details. She doesn’t care that I’m going out without her. The light bounces off her mirror onto her teeth—there’s something reptilian about her mien.
“Will that woman. . .What is her name? Yes, Michelle. Will she be there?”
Her interest in, or jealousy, of Michelle arouses me. “Perhaps.”
My wife shakes her finger at me. “You have a crush on that woman—tiens-toi bien!” I place my hands on Agathe’s bare upper arms and bend to kiss her neck. This woman, who once craved my touch, rolls her shoulders as if repelled.
“I always behave myself.” I turn away, doubting she does the same. “Have the children eaten?”
“An hour ago.” She stretches her upper lip over her teeth to coat it in purple-hued gloss. “I told Claudine they are allowed to play their video games for an hour and then bed.”
She shimmies into a skin-hugging dress and layers gold chains around her neck. The final act—a spray of musky perfume—whispers someone will fornicate with her tonight; he just won’t be me.
Hunger propels me into the kitchen. The remnants of fried chicken and greasy frites inside the refrigerator repulse me.
“May I prepare you something, Uncle?” Claudine startles me.
“Bonsoir, Claudine.” How impolite that I don’t even acknowledge her with a glance. Instead, I forage until I find cheese to put on a bit of baguette. “Thank you, but no. I just need a snack.”
Claudine sees the cheese and goes to the cupboard for a plate. Nothing compels me to tell her not to wait on me. I sit at the table where she and our other servants take their meals. When she stands on her toes to reach for the dish, her yellow tank top rises, exposing smooth skin up to her breasts. Those nénés are unrestrained by a too-small black bra that must be one of my wife’s cast-offs. Dish in hand, she opens the cutlery drawer for a knife. She bends to take a napkin from a lower drawer. Claudine’s tight papaya-colored skirt stretches across her derrière. Merde. Until this moment, I’ve never experienced the force that propels men to mate as if they were animals with their servants. What would she do if I pulled her onto my lap?
“Claudine!” My seven-year-old daughter’s voice shatters my lust-filled thoughts. She throws a haughty look at Claudine. “Papa,” she whines and circles my neck with thin arms, “I asked Claudine to bring me a drink. She’s taking too long.”
“Patience.” I push her away, fearing she might notice the tent in my trousers. “Claudine was helping me. You’re big enough to get your own drink.” Her contrived pout is just like Agathe’s. My youngest son’s cries, coupled with my eldest’s laughter, cascade down the stairs.
“I can manage, Claudine.”
She nods, pulls her top over her waist, pours a glass of water for my daughter, takes her hand, and returns upstairs.
Tomorrow, I shall tell Agathe to find someone who’s able to help the children with their schoolwork. Agathe can’t argue on Claudine’s behalf; she likely didn’t even finish elementary school. If Claudine stays, I fear I shall struggle not to become like other men who take advantage of their servants. I won’t admit this to my adulterous wife. I can play Agathe’s game, but not with an illiterate teenage maid.
* * *
A sudden downpour splashes through the veranda’s screens and water pools immediately in front of the door leading to the overgrown garden. Despite the wet, I prefer meeting my guests on my covered patio instead of in the over-air-conditioned living room. Dr. Jeannette and I stop talking until the rain finishes pummeling the veranda’s tin roof.
“Why is this girl with you, Michelle?” Jeannette’s skepticism about Claudine joining my household drips from each word. Jeannette is my closest friend among this country’s government officials. “Philippe had no business giving you this problem.”
In truth, I’m not sure why I hired Claudine. My daughter, Katie, is almost twelve and beyond needing a babysitter, let alone a nanny. Perhaps, I want Philippe to owe me. Or, I’m proving my point about female empowerment. Or, I’m suffering from white savior complex, and Claudine is my project. God, I hope not. After pouring coffee for Jeannette, I recount our adventures with Claudine.
After Philippe’s chauffeur deposited her, we set up Claudine’s room in the staff living quarters. Her transistor radio, Bible, and an odd assortment of clothes—all too small for her curves—took no time to unpack. Katie surveyed the bleak room, with its twin bed, side-table, armoire, and bare bulb ceiling light, and ran to the main house to find things “to make it nicer.” That’s Katie, always trying to make things better. My top priority, though, was Claudine’s dismal attire.
“Claudine, did Monsieur Phillipe give you severance pay?” Confusion crossed her face. She didn’t understand the term despite speaking excellent French. “How long did you work for them?”
“Five years, Madame.”
“You were how old when you started?” I sat on the edge of the bed and patted it so she would join me.
“Fourteen or maybe fifteen.”
“What did they pay you?”
She studied her toes as if her answer might upset me. “Madame Agathe sent my salary to my father. My payment was living with them.”
“Mom!” Katie burst through the door. “We can put this lamp on the table. I took towels and sheets from the closet in the guest bedroom. Claudine can use them, right?” Katie scrunched her nose. “It’s stuffy in here. We need a fan. And soap and shampoo for the shower.”
“Speak in French, Katie. Look in the other quarters to see if there’s furniture we can move in here.” My other employees don’t stay in them—they’re married with their own homes. I toss Katie the keys after removing the one for Claudine’s room and handing it to her. At last, a smile—she understood this space was hers.
After the girls left, I consulted Charles, my driver and jack-of-all-trades, about Claudine’s severance pay, supposing Philippe had paid her the legal minimum wage for five years. Eyes closed, Charles calculated the sum in his head. “Madame, are you going to force those big people to pay so much?”
My grimace was answer enough—I wasn’t letting Philippe off. After he and I spoke, I sent Charles to collect the money so we could take Claudine shopping. We came back with undergarments, outfits for off-hours, and several pairs of new sandals. For workdays, I purchased a couple of housedresses for her like those worn by my housekeeper-cook.
Jeannette interrupts. “Philippe paid? Mon Dieu, you must have him under a spell. That is quite a sum of money.”
“Spell? I don’t think so, but let me finish.”
We needed Claudine’s national i.d. card to register her for the government’s social welfare programs and open a bank account. Another phone call to Philippe. No surprise, they hadn’t gotten her one. Charles advised that we needed a trip to her village to retrieve her birth record.
Since it isn’t polite to enter a village empty-handed, Charles recommended that we take soft drinks, a local liquor sold only in emerald green bottles, and sweets for a large gathering. Katie went through her closet and filled a box with toys and books that no longer interested a pre-teen to donate to the school. I gave Claudine money to buy presents for her family. She chose blankets and flip-flops for her sisters, a twenty-pound sack of rice for her mother and a bed pillow, and a solar operated flashlight for her father. Claudine also packed a bag with clothes and toiletries if she decided to stay overnight with her family.
Jeannette interjects her observations. “These are practical gifts—Claudine has some sense. But Michelle! The green bottle liquor? I hope your man bought it from a reputable source.”
My eyes roll at her rebuke; the local newspapers often report on the dangers of home-brewed hooch. “Did you hear anything about a diplomat wiping out a village with bootleg alcohol?” As head of the country’s health systems, Jeannette would be the first to learn about such an incident. I forge on, even if Jeannette’s sighing signals boredom.
After Charles finished packing the vehicle, I called the girls. Katie rushed out of the house, with Claudine trailing behind.
“What do you think, Mom?” Katie flipped tiny braids with multicolored beads over her shoulders. Claudine’s hair was wrapped in a scarf; she must have sacrificed doing it to work on Katie’s ashy blond tresses.
“Wow!” The braids in the back of Katie’s head were thicker than those framing her face. “Fantastic job, Claudine.” Katie jumped, so the braids bounced off her collar bone. Charles nodded his approval even though we both knew it wasn’t a good look.
“Madame? May I sit next to Katie so I can finish the backside?” Claudine held out her hand—beads rolled in her palm. After a three-hour-long drive, Claudine had braided Katie’s hair several times. The final product—a French braid without beads—was no reason to lecture Katie later about the cultural appropriation of hairstyles. Jeannette interrupts my recitation by snorting at my political correctness, but I continue.
We turned off the highway. Palm trees, banana plants, and other thick brush lined the unpaved road into Claudine’s community and provided a buffer for the fields. School was out for the day. Shoeless boys, in blue shorts and plaid shirt uniforms, ran alongside the car until Charles sped up.
“Claudine, did you wear that uniform in school?” Katie’s international school is the only one in the capital that doesn’t require uniforms. She’d like to wear one. Her father was in the Army; she keeps a photo of him in full-dress next to her bed.
“No,” Claudine said giggling. “Girls wear skirts.”
Claudine navigated Charles to her house, speaking in their native language. A group gathered. A vehicle with diplomatic license plates wouldn’t be a common sight, nor would a blanche woman and girl unless they were missionaries. Claudine’s father exited a minuscule, cinderblock house with a rusty metal roof. Two girls in school uniforms and a pregnant teen emerged behind him—Claudine’s sisters. An older woman came from behind the house. Older? She was probably five to ten years younger than me.
Jeannette breathes out in an exaggerated rush of air, forcing me to pause.
“Where is this village?” The health professional in Jeannette erupts. “Three younger sisters and one is pregnant? Did you pass a clinic?” Jeannette roots in her purse until she finds a pen and a scrap of paper. She’s relentless on the topic of family planning. I give her the exact location, then continue.
Because Charles had telephoned Claudine’s father, he knew why we’d come. He presented Claudine’s birth record to Charles, ignoring me. It had all the necessary stamps and signatures from the district office. According to the document, Claudine was nineteen years old. Her father also gave us Claudine’s school records; she had completed middle school the year before joining Philippe’s household.
We chatted with village officials, the school principal, and children for an hour before leaving Claudine with her family. I had invited some Catholic nuns to join us for lunch in a nearby town at a hotel with western-style toilets—something Katie only appreciated after she saw—and smelled—the pit latrine behind Claudine’s house.
When we returned, Claudine dashed to the car to tell us she wouldn’t spend the night. She hugged her mother and sisters while Charles spoke with her father. He made no effort to talk to Claudine.
After we arrived home, Charles relayed that Claudine’s father was angry. He claimed Agathe hadn’t paid him for two years. He asked what I would send him for his daughter’s services. Charles responded not one sou—Claudine was an adult. She would choose how she spent her money.
I stop, hoping Jeannette shares my outrage at Claudine’s father. Instead, Jeannette gives her head a theatrical toss that whips her ponytail through the air. She wears wigs to hide her alopecia. Last month, she could’ve been a stand-in for Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra. Jeannette studies my hair.
“Did Claudine put the French braid in your hair? It’s very chic.”
“Yes. Maybe Claudine should go to beauty school instead of training to be a domestique.” I’ve been toying with the idea of sending her to school. Her interest in the newspapers surprised me—she even reads the political stories.
“Maybe you should send Claudine back to Philippe. You heard his wife followed her lover to Marseilles, or is it Bayonne? Why go to France unless it’s to live in Paris?” Jeannette is a bit snooty. She has a medical practice with her French ex-husband in Paris. On most days, she probably wonders why she returned here. “They say divorce may be next. Agathe took the youngest boy and the girl; they were born in France.”
Philippe hadn’t mentioned marital problems when he asked if I could use a nanny. Jeannette glances at me through her double-thick false eyelashes as if I should be interested in the state of Philippe’s marriage. My marital status—I’m widowed—has been the subject of speculation in this fishbowl town. I’ve noticed Philippe’s interest in me. His lips land, then linger, too close to mine when he greets me with European-style kisses meant to brush cheeks. I don’t want to have a conversation with Jeannette about Philippe any more than I want to admit that I’m attracted to him.
“That’s too bad.” I pour more coffee and push a plate of pastries at Jeannette. “Are you able to take Claudine to your clinic today? She should understand her birth control options. She has a boyfriend named Roger.”
* * *
It’s not fair that Mom won’t let me stay for Claudine’s wedding. Plus, she’s fixed it so I’ll be sitting next to Dr. Jeannette on the way to Paris. Two of my friends are on the same flight with their families in the economy section. Mom claims it’s better to be with Jeannette in business class than next to some random person in economy. Sometimes, I don’t know if Mom or Jeannette is the bigger snob.
“Katie, not another word. You have a business class ticket and the flight’s full. Adjust your attitude.” Mom’s tired of my whining, but I can’t help it.
The truth is, I’m scared that Mom isn’t coming. She must stay here even though the government’s about to collapse. Dr. Jeannette is leaving because those who have money and connections are escaping before the anti-government demonstrations turn more violent. Even the highway to the airport is unlit; protesters took over the route last week and shot out half the streetlights.
In our car’s dark interior, Charles’ eyes are bright in the rear-view mirror. He whispers something to Claudine, who’s next to him. “Katie,” he says, “The way you argue, I expect one day you will be a famous lawyer who wins all her cases.”
Claudine must have told Charles my ten-year plan: finish high school, compress college into three years, and go to law school, so I’m finished by the time I’m twenty-four. Of course, I only start high school next fall.
Charles drops us at the airport entrance and goes to park the car, but the security guards won’t let Claudine enter. People shove their way to the door, but no one passes without a ticket. Mom is an exception—everyone in this city knows her. She flashes her identity badge and tells the guard that she’s taking her child—child!—to the flight. She’s almost through the door, but I can’t leave Claudine alone on the sidewalk.
Someone pushes Claudine. I break from Mom to run to her; we find a free bit of space.
“I’ll miss you, Clo-Clo.” The frantic movement of people around us increases the heat and humidity, so my top sticks to my skin. “Promise to send me pictures of the wedding.” Charles approaches illuminated by the headlights of cars jamming the drop-off lane.
“I promise, ma petite soeur.” She embraces me with my chin resting on the top of her head until Charles gently pries us apart.
“Katie,” he says, “We know your spirit will be with us.” Charles speaks to Claudine in their language. She squeezes my arm one last time and fades toward the darkness of the parking lot.
I pinch the bridge of my nose and press on my tear-ducts so that I won’t cry. I’m not afraid for Claudine—she’s marrying Charles’ grandson, Yves. She’ll always be safe with Charles’ family.
“Where is your maman?” A demanding voice cuts through the jumbled crowd noises. It belongs to Dr. Jeannette. With her two bodyguards, she has broken through the throng.
“She’s there.” I wave my arm over my head at Mom. She’s standing on a cement planter that serves as a barricade scanning the crowd for us. Charles sweeps his arm through the air until Mom sees us.
“You must enter with Dr. Jeannette.” This isn’t the good-bye I expected from Charles, but the mad crush of people worries him. “Tell your maman the car is in the usual place.” He moves away, so my only option is to go with Jeannette.
People step aside for Jeannette’s bodyguards; Mom joins us. Once inside, the embassy’s airport expeditor hands me my boarding pass, luggage tag, and passport. We leave the congested ticket area, breeze through immigration, and arrive at the VIP lounge. Despite being in the lounge, people recognize Mom and force their way in to speak with her. They all say they just need a minute. Jeannette is on her cell phone with someone in Paris.
Finally, it’s time to board.
“I’ll call you in the morning.” Mom hugs me. “Remember, they’ll meet you when you exit the baggage claim area. You have their phone numbers where you can find it in case . . .?”
“Yes, Mother.” I stop her before she can finish. I call her “Mother” when she asks me the same question a thousand times.
She hugs and whispers into my ear, “I love you. See you in a few weeks.”
I squeeze her as tight as I can. “I love you, Mom.” I go down the air bridge to the plane. A flight attendant escorts me to my window seat. Jeannette follows a few minutes later.
Jeannette beckons the steward to bring the tray of orange juice and champagne. “Alors, Katie, I instructed my bodyguards to see your maman back to her car. She will be fine.” She takes a flute of champagne and a glass of water. She dips the edge of her napkin in the water and leans toward me to wipe my cheek. Even in the cabin’s low light, she knows I’ve been crying. “It was quite hot in the airport.”
I nod, unsure if she means the actual temperature or the fear radiating off the people trying to leave.
The cabin lights dim for take-off. “Tell me, who is meeting you?” Jeannette rubs my arm to comfort me.
“Mom’s closest friend from India. She and her spouse teach in Geneva. We’ll sightsee in France and then drive to Switzerland. Mom will meet us there.”
“Genève is one of my favorite cities.” She touches my arm again to make me look at her face. “What is troubling you?”
“I wanted to stay for Claudine’s wedding. Would one week have made such a difference?” Here I go, arguing my case. But, I’m on the airplane. It’s no longer moot.
“Your mother had no choice. Things can turn suddenly in this country.” She stops. The airplane is at the end of the runway poised for takeoff. The engine’s roar will make conversation impossible.
Once we’re in the air, Jeannette pokes my side. “Tell me about Claudine.”
What doesn’t Jeannette know about Clo? She’s the one who insisted Claudine use birth control and that her old boyfriend, Roger, get checked for HIV-AIDS. After meeting Roger, Jeannette described him to Mom as a grand problème. Charles didn’t trust him either. But I was the one who figured out Roger hit Claudine because she wouldn’t give him her salary. Mom forbade Roger from coming to our compound. She told Claudine that a man who loved her wouldn’t hit her.
After Mom left Claudine’s room, I went in and said we should put a curse on Roger—Claudine agreed. I asked Charles to drive us to the main market so we could find the juju woman who Claudine knew. After he dropped us off, Charles figured out what we were up to and stopped us. I’d never seen Charles angry before, but he didn’t rat us out to Mom.
A few months later, Charles learned that Roger had gotten another girl pregnant. Claudine cried and said maybe she should have had his baby. Mom said that might’ve been even worse. Mom told her the same thing she always says to me. “You cannot rely on a man to take care of you. You have to be able to support yourself and your children.” Around that time, Charles and his wife started including Claudine in their family gatherings; that’s how she met Yves.
Jeannette also knows Claudine enrolled in a beauty school—actually, the one run by Jeannette’s cousin. Everyone’s related in this country. Now Claudine has her diplôme de coiffure. Mom’s friend, Philippe, paid the fees and arranged Claudine’s pratique at one of the hotels. Philippe is also paying for Claudine’s wedding—I wonder if Jeannette knows that. But I don’t want to talk about Philippe and whatever friendship he and Mom have, or his guilty conscience over how his family treated Claudine. A safer topic pops into my head.
“I taught Claudine English hairstyling vocabulary.”
“Ah, bon? That should help her build clientele at the hotel.” Jeannette leans back while the flight attendant hands us damp towels before the meal service. The antiseptic odor keeps me from putting it near my nose and mouth; Jeannette tosses hers on the armrest between us.
“You know, I questioned your maman when Claudine came to you because you did not need a nanny.” Jeannette is always so matter of fact; I wonder if she’s different when she speaks French. “But now, I think it was a good thing.”
“What would’ve happened if Mom hadn’t hired her?”
“Ouf. Philippe might have sent her to some of his relatives with young children . . .She might already have had one child and be pregnant with a second.” Jeannette pauses as if this assessment might embarrass me. “She might have returned to her village. Certainly, she would not have her diplôme or know English hair words.”
Jeannette runs her fingers through my hair and stops when the attendant returns to place starched cloths across our seat trays.
“Claudine helped me gain the confidence to speak French out-loud,” I say in French. Jeannette purses her lips in surprised appreciation. “I learned a lot of other things from her, too.”
In truth, Jeannette doesn’t care what I learned from Claudine. The attendant serves our meals. I’ll concentrate on eating. I may never return to this country or see Claudine again, but in my heart, I know her life, like mine, is only beginning. We’ll both be fine.
* * *
Papa Charles paces from the sofa to the window and back—he’s anxious whenever Michelle rings us on Skype. He frets about the time difference, worries that the internet connection will fail in the rain, and fusses over what shirt to wear as if he is a contestant on a television show. Even though Michelle and Katie left eight years ago, Papa Charles wants to look nice for them. The truth is, I also plan on dressing Charlotte, our baby, and Théo, our five-year-old son, in their best clothes for the call. This is the first time Katie will see Charlotte; she was at university when Michelle called to congratulate us on Charlotte’s birth.
“Papa,” Yves says, “you’re making everyone nervous.” On cue, Théo bounds off the sofa, locks his fingers behind his back, and mimics Papa Charles’ gait. “Let’s put some cartoons on the television for you two in the bedroom.” Yves knows how to bribe our son. Théo grins at his now grumbling great-grandfather and takes his hand. Neither of them will remain in the bedroom for more than five minutes.
“Should we check the connection, Clo?” Yves has returned to the front room. Papa Charles’ anxiety has made Yves skeptical about the internet speed, but I’m using the computer to manage the hair salon’s accounts. I save my work so he can log-on and reassure his grandfather that everything is fine despite the late afternoon downpour.
“It’s all yours.” I start to rise, but Yves’ hands are on my shoulders, and he presses me into the chair. I still marvel at his perfect hands with their delicate fingers and clean nails. They were the first thing I noticed about him—so unlike Roger’s oil-stained paws.
Then again, everything about Yves is different from Roger. Yves is barely taller than me. After we became friends, he told me that the other kids teased him for being so small and bookish when he was young. No girls wanted him for a boyfriend—they preferred macho boys who strutted around as if they were actors in Nollywood films.
Other kids taunted Yves because he didn’t live with his father and mother in France. When they moved there, they left Yves with his grandparents, promising to send for him. But they never did. Yves hasn’t even met his younger brothers. Only after setting up Skype, has he seen them in real-time.
Yves doesn’t like to talk about his parents any more than I want to talk about my father. Unlike my father, at least Yves’ has some shame. Over the years, he sent money to Charles for Yves’ schooling and to build a house with inside plumbing. Yves’ parents claim one day they will return “to live in our house.” Should that happen, I tell myself we would welcome them. But Papa Charles has legal papers that deed the house to Yves when Papa joins his wife in heaven. He likes to joke that we should send the documents to Katie. Then he says, “But, they’re written in French.” He chuckles; I never laugh at Katie’s French. She spoke it well with me and him, for that matter.
Papa Charles still drives foreigners but insists his current employer will be his last. I work at the hair salon in the city’s largest hotel—the same place where I had my pratique. When we were first married, Yves was a bank teller; now he works in the bank’s accounts division. Combined, we have a comfortable income—even when Papa stops working, we will be fine.
Every so often, Dr. Jeannette stops in the salon with one of her wigs for restyling. She returned from France just before Théo was born. The first time she entered, I was with a customer. Even without seeing her face, that commanding voice of hers stiffened my back.
“Claudine, is that you?” When I faced Dr. Jeannette, she eyed me from my headscarf to my toes, with her eyes lingering on my belly. “When is the baby due? Is this your second? Third?”
My customer gasped, but I stayed calm. “No, Madame,” I said. “He will be our first. My husband and I believe in family planning—just as you taught me those years ago.”
Dr. Jeannette’s arms opened, inviting me for an embrace. I laid down my blow dryer and brush and went to her. “Well done!” she said. “I’m proud of you.” Then, she kissed my cheeks. Now that we’ve had our second baby, she’s asked if Yves would be willing to have “the procedure.” As the government’s Minister of Health, Dr. Jeannette is promoting vasectomies.
“What are you thinking about, Clo?” Yves has finished with the computer. My giggles make him laugh. He has no idea why we’re laughing; that’s one reason why I love him. He doesn’t need to hear about Dr. Jeannette’s plans for him—yet.
“I’m thinking about Charlotte wearing her dress that looks like a pink meringue, with her rose flower headband.”
“What about Charlotte’s make-up? Some mascara?” Yves jokes about my make-up. He thinks it’s silly, but it’s the one treat I give myself—not the cheap poisonous imports from China and India—but rather the brand-name products from France that I once took from Agathe’s vanity.
“No. But I need to put some on.” I go to the children’s room. There are twenty minutes until the call. Dressing Charlotte will be easy, capturing Théo may take a few minutes.
The chiming from the computer brings me back into the front room. Yves leans over Papa Charles to click the Skype icon. Théo sits on Papa’s lap, studying himself on the screen and pulling his mouth’s corners with his fingers into a rectangle that he thinks looks funny.
“Théo, stop that!” As soon as the words are out of my mouth, Michelle appears on the screen with one eyebrow arched.
A torrent of greetings tumble through the screen—Michelle’s French remains perfect. Yves puts a chair next to Charles for Charlotte and me. While Papa and Théo talk over one another to Michelle, I study her. Unlike the foreign women in their fifties who come to the salon, Michelle’s skin still appears smooth. Only when she smiles, does the skin around her eyes and mouth hold some lines. She’s piled her hair on the top of her head in what the fashion magazines call “un méssy chignon”—she looks good. Théo decides he’s had enough and jumps from Papa’s lap. I replace him with Charlotte, who stares at the blanche woman cooing at her. But where is Katie?
“Madame,” I interrupt. “Is Katie there?” A shadow moves behind Michelle.
“J’arrive, Clo-Clo!” Katie thrusts her smiling face next to Michelle’s and sits, but the shadow is still in the background. “Hello, Charlotte. Allô, bébé. I’m your tante Katie.” She mixes English and French, just as she did when we first met. “Wow, Clo, the baby looks exactly like you.”
Papa Charles and I laugh at her surprise—of course, the baby takes after me. We always thought it odd that Michelle and Katie have almost no family resemblance. Katie looks like the pictures of her father that she kept next to her bed. Her straight hair is cut into a chin-length bob with chunky blond highlights—a technique that I haven’t tried in the salon—it suits her. The shadow moves again.
“Someone is there,” I say to Papa Charles in our language. “I think it’s a man.”
After Michelle left, a rumor would appear in the newspapers from time-to-time that Michelle and Philippe would marry after his divorce. But, after the current government headed by his uncle come to power, Philippe returned from Europe to take a senior position. The shadow cannot be him; my favorite paper ran his photo welcoming a foreign delegation at the airport yesterday.
“Who is behind you, Katie?” Papa brings Katie’s and Charlotte’s baby-talk to an end. Yves swoops Charlotte off Papa’s lap and takes her back to the bedroom.
“Katie has big news.” Michelle wraps her arm around Katie’s shoulder and pulls her close. “I hope she tells you in French.” Katie pretends to glare at her mother before turning back to the screen.
“I am going to get married,” Katie says in stilted French. She holds her hand toward the computer’s camera to show us her ring. “His name is Jay. He’s standing behind us, but he doesn’t speak one word of French.” She motions to him.
Jay leans between Michelle and Katie. While Papa congratulates them, I study Jay’s black hair. It’s shaved close on the sides, with the longer top brushed off his forehead and styled with gel or perhaps mousse. Chic. I imagine his hands are also clean. His black-rimmed glasses reflect the glow from the computer, so I can’t make out his eye color. When he smiles, his round cheeks push up the frames. In contrast to Katie and Michelle, his face seems bronzed.
Michelle has taken over translating for Papa as he interrogates Jay. Katie looks at me on the screen and smiles—our secret smile that says she’s indulging her mother. From Papa’s conversation, I learn that Jay just graduated with an engineering degree, and his father immigrated to the United States from India years ago, which explains his complexion. He claims he doesn’t speak any foreign languages, including his father’s native tongue. He laughs when he says this. Even on a computer screen, Papa and I sense a warm personality. We are happy for Katie.
Still, I ask, “Katie, what about the ten-year plan?”
“It’s still there. The wedding is next year after I finish law school.” She turns pink. “Then, I’ll have to come up with the plan for the next decade.”
“What about you, Madame? Are you coming back?” Papa asked as he does each time he speaks to Michelle.
“If things go well, there is a good chance that I will be in East Africa next year.” When she says this, Jay moves away from the screen as if he understands this conversation is between Charles and Michelle. Katie pushes her chair back, too.
“Ouf,” Papa says. “You know the liveliest people are on the west side. Music, clubs, dancing, art—it’s here. They even play our music on that side.” Michelle covers her smile by tapping on her lip with her finger. Her silence allows him to continue. “Please say you will come to visit us.”
“I can’t make any promises, but Katie and I would like to invite you and Claudine to come to the wedding.”
My heart flutters at the thought of traveling to America. Could we afford it? Yves’ hands rest on my shoulders—I don’t know when he came back into the room. He leans down, so the screen captures his face. “Madame, send us the details in an email, and we will see what we can arrange.”
After we say our good-byes, Papa goes outside, and I go to the kitchen to begin dinner. Yves joins me to set the table. Since we had kedjenou—Ivorian chicken stew—with a tomato and onion salad for our noon meal, we will finish the leftovers with some alloco—fried plantains.
“If you and Papa want to go to Katie’s wedding, Clo, we can manage.”
I stop slicing the plantains to hug him. “The airplane is too expensive.”
“We don’t have to decide tonight.” He reaches into the cupboard for plates and glasses.
No, we don’t have to decide tonight, but I know in my heart that I will not go to America. Perhaps we can send Papa. Still, if neither of us goes, we will be with Katie in spirit. Tomorrow, I’ll see if I can find Katie’s and my favorite juju woman in the market—a little magic to help Katie and Jay start their life.
“Why are you laughing?” Yves stops laying the bowls on the table.
“I’m just happy.” The oil sputters when the plantains go into the pan. As I turn them, I thank the Lord for bringing Michelle, Katie, and Papa Charles to me, and I thank Him for Philippe and even Agathe. “Let’s take the children to Mass tomorrow. They can wear the clothes they have on now if you change them before we eat.”
“Yes, Boss!” Yves finishes putting the spoons on the table before going to find Théo to wrangle him out of his nice clothes.
At Church, I’ll pray for Katie’s happiness. There’s no rush to find the juju woman.