New England Review - - Testimonies - Lenore Myka

We came from many corners of the globe, though in truth they were corners found pri­mar­ily in North Amer­ica and the Euro­pean Union, which is to say, the corners of the globe that mat­tered. We were em­ployed by our gov­ern­ments or the big acronyms—irc, UNESCO, USAID, ICRC, Who—and like twins who cre­ate a lan­guage only they can un­der­stand, we dis­cussed IFBS and RFPS, the OAU and OAS; the new­est IO part­ner­ing with a lo­cal NGO.

We’d come via other corners of the globe, but those corners were places that hardly mat­tered—so­ma­lia and Bangladesh; Su­dan and Afghanistan; all the many refugee camps scat­tered like bread crumbs, those pur­ga­to­rial, in-be­tween places. Hard­ship posts, though the more sanc­ti­mo­nious among us re­fused to call them by such a name, in­sist­ing that we’d never gone any­where more beau­ti­ful ( The moun­tains! The sea­side!), more rich in cul­tural tra­di­tion and history ( The pot­tery! The ru­ins!). Once, a Swede—a baby—de­clared that he loved Pa­pua New Guinea. We snig­gered. It had been his first post af­ter grad­u­ate school; he’d only ever been there and here; it was too soon in his short ca­reer for him to re­al­ize that he was ly­ing, most es­pe­cially to him­self. The rest of us un­der­stood that say­ing you loved Pa­pua New Guinea was like say­ing you loved it here, in this coun­try with its clay roads naked chil­dren ran about and shat in, its miles of tin shanties you averted your eyes from when­ever you took an air-con­di­tioned car to or from the air­port. Say­ing you loved Pa­pua New Guinea was like say­ing you loved this place where you couldn’t buy a de­cent loaf of bread much less a bot­tle of Bordeaux; where you lived and worked be­hind high walls and locked your­self be­hind bars, fas­ten­ing them over the win­dows and doors of your home at night, and found your­self eye­ing the guard at the gate, the gar­dener and house­keeper and cook, won­der­ing if one of them hadn’t been re­spon­si­ble for the dis­ap­pear­ance of the opal pen­dant you’d in­her­ited from your grand­mother or the fifty eu­ros you’d sworn you left in your trousers last Satur­day night when you’d come home from the disco drunk and reek­ing of other ex­pa­tri­ates’ sweat.

In the city’s main park, in the midst of an af­ter­noon stroll from the Bri­tish Em­bassy to the ad­min­is­tra­tive of­fices of Médecins Sans Frontières, we’d all be­come ac­cus­tomed to see­ing the men with their tat­tered trousers pud­dled around their bare an­kles, their hands as stiff and hard as the mem­bers they held, work­ing out their frus­tra­tions in public. A na­tional pas­time, mut­tered Natalia. We won­dered: did she mean the jerk­ing off or the de­spair? For that’s what it

was—frus­tra­tion, des­per­a­tion, de­spair. An­dres would laugh at the sight of them, wave his hand as if to join the club, but Natalia would bark at the men in a di­alect the rest of us hadn’t both­ered learn­ing ( We’re here two, three years tops, we ra­tio­nal­ized. What would be the point of all that ef­fort to learn a lan­guage we’ll never use again?). What­ever it was she said those men were quick to stop, pulling their trousers up and dash­ing off into the wild over­growth that lined the side­walks crum­bling be­neath our feet.

An­dres and Natalia were the only two lo­cals among us. Our mas­cots, we called them, but be­hind their backs of course; we knew bet­ter than to say it to their faces. We in­vited them to our par­ties, the dis­cotheque, the coun­try club. We asked them ques­tions about lo­cal cul­ture and food, the history of eth­nic ten­sions in the East, try­ing our best to ap­pear con­cerned, united as we were in our hu­man­i­tar­ian mis­sion of mak­ing this cor­ner of the globe a bet­ter place.

Natalia had a PHD in mi­cro­bi­ol­ogy from the Na­tional Univer­sity, was a spe­cial­ist in in­fec­tious dis­eases. She’d spent time in Washington at NIH and had been a post-doc in Mar­seille be­fore re­turn­ing home to, as she put it, Im­prove the sit­u­a­tion on the ground. She worked too much, ate too lit­tle, and be­lieved in change, her faith and fer­vor ri­valed only by the mis­sion­ar­ies sel­dom in­vited into our so­cial cir­cles. We rolled our eyes and smirked at each other when she launched into im­pas­sioned ser­mons, in­evitably quot­ing Mar­garet Mead, Ma­hatma Gandhi. We loved and re­sented Natalia. She was al­ways mak­ing us wist­ful for a time when we had wept tears of joy over the re­lease of Nel­son Man­dela or had marched in protest af­ter protest—to stop famine in Ethiopia, the geno­cide in Rwanda—a time be­fore ex­pe­ri­ence had taught us bet­ter.

An­dres was the first cousin of the for­mer dic­ta­tor or so we’d been told; he nei­ther con­firmed nor de­nied this as­so­ci­a­tion. He was hand­some in the way bear­ish, preg­nant-bel­lied men some­times are, quick to flash his over­sized smile, straight white teeth set into the smooth dark hills of his face. With An­dres cook­outs be­came dance par­ties. He’d turn up the mu­sic, get­ting us to tear up the lawn, de­spite the in­suf­fer­ably hot nights, wak­ing small chil­dren our nan­nies had tucked in dis­tant corners of our cav­ernous homes only hours be­fore. If ever in An­dres’s com­pany we com­plained of be­ing un­able to se­cure a reser­va­tion at a pop­u­lar va­ca­tion des­ti­na­tion, a week later we’d re­ceive a mes­sage con­firm­ing an ocean-view suite for our de­sired time. Af­ter try­ing for months to get on the Min­is­ter of Ed­u­ca­tion’s sched­ule, An­dres would make a call, tell us to be there to­mor­row at eleven.

An­dres drank im­ported Scotch none of us could find any­where in coun­try; he car­ried a small sil­ver flask of it in his brief­case. Now and then he pulled it out, of­fered it up. The first time he’d done this we were cer­tain the bot­tle was filled with the ghastly lighter fluid found at ev­ery kiosk in this wretched cap­i­tal city. How wrong we were! Vel­vety smooth, it coated throats dry with dust and heat and petrol ex­haust, soothed mouths tired from all the ne­go­ti­at­ing, de­bat­ing, and per­suad­ing that never got any of us any closer to some­thing re­sem­bling suc­cess.

Lenore Myka

An­dres was a use­ful friend to have, though it was al­ways un­clear what use we were to him.

Once, at an event cel­e­brat­ing the start of a new ir­ri­ga­tion pro­ject in the North, Natalia pointed her wine glass at An­dres. One day, she said, that man will run this coun­try and a few of our neigh­bors along with it.

We all laughed; all of us, that is, ex­cept Natalia, whose mouth was set in the straight­est of hori­zons. She blinked in turn at each of us and it seemed that to meet her gaze would be as dan­ger­ous as star­ing di­rectly into the noon­day sun.

Most of us had been do­ing this for a while, with the oc­ca­sional stints in Par­adise. Lon­don, Paris, Rome, New York, Geneva—hell, even The Hague was par­adise for us. We yearned for func­tional plumb­ing, re­li­able elec­tric­ity, public trans­porta­tion that ran on time (though with cars and driv­ers this was a su­per­flu­ous com­plaint), stores that had daily fixed sched­ules and car­ried items we’d ac­tu­ally want to pur­chase. We missed movie the­aters, the opera, bars with beer served ice cold, and restau­rants with food worth pay­ing money for—spicy saag pa­neer, fresh sushi, foie gras. We missed bagels, black cur­rant scones, and a per­fectly flaky crois­sant, peanut but­ter and mar­malade and Vegemite. Oh how we suf­fered for our work! When one of us left the coun­try for a busi­ness meet­ing, a fam­ily fu­neral, or­ders were taken. What shall I bring back? What do you all want?

In those mo­ments, our minds would go blank. We knew there was some­thing, an item we des­per­ately needed, were swiftly run­ning out of, some­thing es­sen­tial we couldn’t live with­out. We scratched our chins and heads, ran men­tal in­ven­to­ries of our pantries, our medicine and liquor cab­i­nets. What was it again?

On this par­tic­u­lar oc­ca­sion we were pool­side at the com­pound of a Spa­niard who headed a mi­cro-en­ter­prise pro­ject funded by a Hun­gar­ian bil­lion­aire said to be throw­ing his money around the de­vel­op­ing world. We floated in the kid­neyshaped pool, the dust of the city ris­ing from our skin and skim­ming the sur­face like gelatin boiled off bone. Some of us paused mid­sen­tence, cocked our heads— Was that gun­fire? Do you smell smoke?— then shrugged it off, re­turn­ing to our gin and ton­ics, our dirty mar­ti­nis. We ad­mired the well-tended desert rose­bushes and the terra cotta pots of birds of par­adise, felt the cool tiles of the pool brush against the soles of our feet. We con­sid­ered the pos­si­bil­ity of get­ting our own grant from the Hun­gar­ian’s foun­da­tion, the damp­ened fire of am­bi­tion briefly re­lit, for an all girls’ school maybe, or a nutri­tion pro­gram for young moth­ers, an ed­u­ca­tional cam­paign fo­cused on mi­nor­ity rights. We’d learned long ago that all it took was one well-writ­ten pro­posal and some con­nec­tions in the field. Per­haps, we thought, An­dres could lend a hand.

Ser­vants swung plat­ters of glis­ten­ing oys­ters and pink prawns; we gnashed their tails be­tween our teeth. If we squinted hard enough through the smog of the city, held our breaths against the sul­furous air, we could al­most imag­ine be­ing some­place else—bar­ba­dos, the Greek Isles. Duck­ing un­der­wa­ter, bur­bling through to si­lence, we fan­cied that when we broke the sur­face magic would have hap­pened and there we would be in those dreamed-up places.

The Spa­niard’s wife men­tioned she was off to Brus­sels in a few days and won­dered if we had any re­quests, some spe­cial treat per­haps, from Par­adise.

How about democ­racy? Natalia was al­ways faster than the rest of us. How about an­ti­malar­ial vac­ci­na­tions and potable wa­ter and books for our chil­dren? How about a cou­ple of qual­i­fied gyne­col­o­gists for my sis­ters dy­ing in child­birth?

Who rolled in the soap­box? An­dres slurred. He lolled on a chaise lounge, his Tommy Ba­hamas shirt unbuttoned to re­veal his ex­cesses, his fifth glass of san­gria tilted pre­car­i­ously in one hand. You must for­give my sis­ter. Our lo­cal women are known for their beauty but not nec­es­sar­ily for their wit.

I’m not your sis­ter, hissed Natalia, hold­ing up a hand when the Spa­niard’s wife of­fered her a plate of plan­tain cro­quettes. Look­ing on, we all silently wished she’d eat; lately, Natalia had be­gun to look gaunt, and the cro­quettes, we all agreed, were di­vine.

Lighten up, Natalia, said An­dres. He raised his glass to­wards a server old enough to be his grand­fa­ther, snapped his fin­gers. It’s a party!

We looked away, em­bar­rassed by An­dres’s be­hav­ior but also by the feel­ings bub­bling in our sated bel­lies. We wouldn’t say so, but we agreed with him. Hadn’t we spent enough time dur­ing the work­week think­ing about the prob­lems of the world? Was it re­ally too much to ask to give it a rest for a sin­gle af­ter­noon? Re­cently, Natalia had be­come less in­spi­ra­tional ac­tivist and more nag­ging spouse, lec­tur­ing us about the trou­bles in the East as if she were re­mind­ing us to eat our leafy greens, cut back on fatty red meats.

Didn’t you say you’re off to Bel­gium? some­one fi­nally chimed in. How about choco­lates?

Yes! We all agreed.


An hour later, Natalia was pack­ing her beach bag, pulling her sun­glasses down over her tired eyes, wrap­ping her batik sarong around her hips. Leav­ing so soon? we asked. We felt anx­ious sud­denly for her to stay. There’s a re­port that needs fin­ish­ing be­fore I head out for a few weeks. She clasped the hand of her son. A quiet and somber five-year-old, he’d in­her­ited the same beau­ti­fully melan­cholic ex­pres­sion his mother wore most days lately, an ex­pres­sion that led the re­gional head of UNICEF to sug­gest they use him in pro­mo­tional photos for their next fundrais­ing ini­tia­tive. Natalia had re­fused, of course. Oh, Natalia! The pay would have been in eu­ros or dol­lars; that money would have gone a long way in a place like this. If only Natalia knew what was good for her!

Good­bye, Natalia said, kiss­ing the cheeks of the Spa­niard and his wife. Thank you so much for the lovely af­ter­noon.

It wasn’t un­til af­ter she’d gone that it dawned on us: Did she say she was go­ing away? Now the party can fi­nally be­gin! boomed An­dres. Some of us gave a hoot. Some of us raised our glasses, but our arms felt heavy with the ef­fort. Soon enough we were fold­ing up our tow­els and gath­er­ing

Lenore Myka

our fam­ily mem­bers around us, our sun­burns itch­ing be­neath T-shirts and linen tu­nics, the sun not yet set for the evening but our heads thrum­ming with ex­haus­tion. Thank you, we said to the Spa­niard and his wife, Such a splen­did party! and puz­zled over the bit­ter­ness pool­ing in our mouths when we ut­tered the words, the same thing that hap­pened when­ever we caught our­selves telling lies.

Back home, we’d left things be­hind. Ca­reers, for ex­am­ple, and apart­ments filled with de­signer cloth­ing and books and stain­less steel ap­pli­ances. Bi­cy­cles, boats, cars. Some of us had left pets—golden re­triev­ers and Si­amese cats and tanks full of trop­i­cal fish. Some of us had left re­la­tion­ships—girl­friends and boyfriends, even spouses and chil­dren whose photos we kept in tidy frames around our homes or fas­tened to bul­letin boards above our of­fice desks, serv­ing as con­stant re­minders of what we’d left be­hind.

We had jus­ti­fi­ca­tions. The ca­reers were dead-end and underpaid, were desk jobs, not like here where even if you did work at a desk you could look out your win­dow and watch gi­raffes or wa­ter buf­falo drift by like clouds, ob­serve ba­boons do­ing back-flips from the branches of aca­cia trees or pur­ple herons pluck­ing ro­dent-sized in­sects from their feath­ers, snap­ping their mandibles at each other’s eyes in some sadist mat­ing rit­ual. We com­plained that our wives had wanted us to buy them man­sions in the sub­urbs of Hous­ton or Dublin; our hus­bands had wanted us to cook them three-course meals at the end of a long work­day, to deny our worldly am­bi­tions, be­come kept women. Those of us who had left our chil­dren be­hind agreed they were bet­ter off with their moth­ers or fathers, their grand­par­ents or aunts or un­cles, be­cause to live in an un­sta­ble place such as this was no life for a child (never mind the chil­dren born into this place with no choice in the mat­ter), too dan­ger­ous for us to risk their wel­fare. Had the rest of us no­ticed the pro­lif­er­a­tion of sol­diers lately, heard gun­shots at night? No, we con­curred, our chil­dren were most cer­tainly bet­ter off back home, go­ing to school, mak­ing friends, liv­ing a nor­mal life, with­out us.

Those of us with chil­dren here seethed dur­ing these dis­cus­sions, silently sooth­ing our­selves with the knowl­edge that we were by far the bet­ter par­ents, that it was proof pos­i­tive we loved our chil­dren more to have kept them close be­side us.

The sin­gle among us said there was noth­ing re­ally to stay be­hind for and joked about our old high school and col­lege friends work­ing for the man or worse as café baris­tas, spend­ing money on tat­toos and body pierc­ings and bars and yoga classes, scour­ing online dat­ing sites for hours so they’d have some­one to get sauced with and fuck on the week­ends, some­one to hold their hands while they sat on the couch watch­ing the latest block­buster or ma­jor sport­ing event.

De­spite these dif­fer­ences we all agreed on one thing: peo­ple back home had no clue what was hap­pen­ing in the world. Peo­ple back home didn’t bother try­ing to find out, they were all get­ting fat on ig­no­rance and in­er­tia; none of

An­dres laughed. Where do you think the child came from—the sky? He wasn’t a good sort, one of An­dres’s friends said. Dis­sent only breeds more dis­sent. We can’t af­ford to have too much of that here.

Later, af­ter we’d left, some­one mur­mured: Wasn’t that the Mil­i­tary Chief? Wasn’t that the Min­is­ter of De­fense?

Some of us left dreams back home. The bak­ery we’d imag­ined open­ing; the non­profit arts cen­ter we’d half­heart­edly fundraised for; the theater school we might have ap­plied to had we been braver. These were the big dreams. The smaller dreams we’d left back home were sim­pler, purer; they made us ache in the deep­est mar­row of our bones. We dreamed of nor­malcy, of see­ing our kids off on bright yel­low school buses, greet­ing them when they came home for mid­day lunches of cab­bage soup and hunks of crusty baguettes. We dreamed of mar­ry­ing high school and col­lege sweet­hearts. We laughed rue­fully. The ones that got away. We dreamed of a time when we still lived at home, be­fore we’d ever thought of liv­ing any­where else, when we were close with our fam­i­lies and didn’t need to count the hours on our fin­gers when­ever we wanted to tele­phone them.

All of us dreamed of tak­ing a cook­ing class or join­ing a rugby team or learn­ing to play guitar. We tried, some­times, to re­al­ize those things here; some­times, for a short while, they stuck. There was a co­op­er­a­tive nurs­ery school, an in­terem­bassy football league, a rock band that called it­self The In­ter­na­tion­al­ists and per­formed at birth­day and cock­tail par­ties. There was the Parisian who held a read­ing sa­lon once a month.

We all en­joyed it—men and women, mar­ried and sin­gle, diplo­mats, econ­o­mists, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists, aid and hu­man rights work­ers. We all had come to rely on read­ing for those long stretches at air­ports and, more re­cently, on the week­ends when our em­bassies re­leased warn­ings that it was un­safe to leave our com­pounds, our flats, our gated com­mu­ni­ties. We had books shipped in by the box loads—nov­els and mem­oirs and bi­ogra­phies of fa­mous peo­ple, peo­ple we’d imag­ined one day be­com­ing if we had half an ounce of am­bi­tion. Books on the history of the con­ti­nent we lived on, con­ti­nents we in­tended one day to move to. Books on nutri­tion and art, re­li­gion and spir­i­tu­al­ism, some­thing to pro­vide just a bit of sal­va­tion in what was in­creas­ingly be­com­ing a god­less world. Bang­bang, the world out­side said, and we hud­dled in closer, di­rected each other’s at­ten­tion to page 57, page 214. We told each other we’d one day write books our­selves, books about our unique ex­pe­ri­ences, our lives as ex­pa­tri­ates liv­ing in strange, far­away lands.

But these ef­forts never lasted for long. The kids at the nurs­ery came of age and were sent off to board­ing schools over­seas or back home. The field where the football league had hosted its matches was dug up, the foun­da­tion laid for a new ho­tel. The In­ter­na­tion­al­ists dis­banded af­ter some drunken artis­tic dis­agree­ment.

The Parisian got mar­ried to her long-dis­tance flame. She sent us wed­ding photos, she in a silk sheath, a white gar­de­nia pinned above her ear; her hand­some

am­bas­sador, say, or a day-long con­fer­ence meant to ad­dress ris­ing in­sta­bil­ity in the re­gion. He was serv­ing, he said, as a gov­ern­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tive. Still jovial and af­fa­ble, he con­tin­ued to of­fer us nips from his flask. But his pres­ence was ti­dier; his Ital­ian suits pressed, shoes pol­ished. He seemed to have lost weight.

There were ru­mors, of course, as there al­ways were. In the past we’d never taken them se­ri­ously, so why would we start now? Ev­ery place we’d ever lived be­fore had men like An­dres, men who knew how to get us what we needed with­out the rest of the world find­ing out about it, things we didn’t want leaked— drugs and pros­ti­tutes, yes, but also se­cret meet­ings with gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials or mem­bers of the po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion or heads of in­flu­en­tial cor­po­ra­tions in the re­gion. To us An­dres was no dif­fer­ent than any other man that had come be­fore him. But the way Natalia spit out his name, we all be­gan to have our doubts. You need to do some­thing, Natalia said. Use your con­nec­tions. Some­one laughed. What con­nec­tions? You have re­sources. Money. You can get the word out. You don’t un­der­stand, Natalia, some­one else said. It doesn’t work that way. It’s not our place. We’re just here to as­sist. Oh, please! cried Natalia. Don’t play games! We don’t have that kind of in­flu­ence, one of the Amer­i­cans said. We’re mid­dle man­age­ment. The rest of us nod­ded, mur­mured agree­ment. Mid­dle man­age­ment? Natalia snorted. What does that even mean? In help­less si­lence we watched her leave, pass­ing through the French doors and across the din­ing room, ex­it­ing the res­tau­rant, ex­it­ing our lives.

Our house­keep­ers, cooks, and nan­nies be­gan to talk back, to sneer. They swiped food from the pantry, slipped hot sauce into the soup. Our gar­den­ers re­fused to get on their knees and weed the gar­den; our guards got drunk and in­vited friends they failed to in­tro­duce to us past the gates. Just when we were about to fire them they quit, leav­ing dirty dishes in the sink, rot­ting food in the re­frig­er­a­tor, soiled linens in heaps on the bed­room floor. The front gates creaked back and forth in the wind, wide open to in­trud­ers.

At night, he­li­copters flew low over the city, strobe lights pointed down in search of we knew not who or what. Some of us sent our spouses and chil­dren back home for the short term, un­til we had a bet­ter sense of where things were headed. We got wor­ried phone calls and e-mails from home. Are you safe? When will you leave? The news over here is not good.

Among us, con­trac­tors and nonessen­tial per­son­nel left first. The Spa­niard’s com­pound be­came avail­able, but none of us would con­sider mov­ing into it now, not when there was the chance we might find our­selves pack­ing up again months later.

The elec­tric­ity went off once a day. Our mo­bile phones click-clicked when­ever we made calls.

CARE projects closed. WWF and USAID fol­lowed suit.

awake in our bor­rowed beds and thought of Natalia. We won­dered where she was and, though most of us were not the sort, prayed for her safety. We thought about those con­ver­sa­tions we’d had with her, what she’d been try­ing to tell us that we’d never un­der­stood. She’d seen it all along, but for us it had re­quired the gifts of time and dis­tance. What An­dres had needed had al­ways been there for the tak­ing, he took it with­out ask­ing, and we’d never de­nied him.

In the end, some of us did what Natalia had asked us on that fi­nal night to do. We sched­uled meet­ings, wrote letters and op-eds, sent checks to or­ga­ni­za­tions that were work­ing on the ground. Had we tried hard enough? Had we done all that we could pos­si­bly do? We thought so, though we could never be sure. Wasn’t there, af­ter all, al­ways some­thing more that could be done? We weren’t su­per­heroes. Even­tu­ally, we had to move for­ward, move on. Weeks and then months passed and more im­me­di­ate and press­ing con­cerns—the next job, the next home, the next coun­try—de­manded our at­ten­tion.

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