Today The Classical Girl has once again put on her fiction writing cap. Now, if you read this August blog post of mine (http://www.theclassicalgirl.com/classical-girls-black-ivory-soul/), you’ll know what this is about. If you haven’t read that post, well, please go do that. Because that’s chapter one of Black Ivory Soul, my novel about a ballet dancer who’s set off to Africa for two years, more or less as a dare to herself, and to escape a problem back home. Of course she lands into a bigger problem here.
Here’s chapter two; I’d love it if you gave it a read. Fiona, ever the fish out of water, is learning how to teach English. Or not. And make friends. Or not.
Having two chapters on my blog now will afford me the opportunity to see if readers are going from one posted chapter to the other, which would designate interest, which would give me positive data for the pending self-publishing decision. So, if you liked it a whole lot, feel free to hop back and forth a couple times, which will make the viewing numbers rise and concurrently fuel my Classical Girl ego. And for my ballet readers: note that there is a “ballet” scene in this chapter.
Enjoy, and tell me what you think!
BLACK IVORY SOUL
Chapter Two – Training
Twelve Gabonese students regarded me as I approached the front of the classroom. Through the open latticed walls that doubled as windows, I could see across the dusty courtyard into another classroom, where a fellow English trainee was performing the same show. I turned to face my students, adolescents in blue and white uniforms. They sat at their desks, eager and expectant, their hands folded on the wooden desktops. Aside from the shrieks of nearby roosters and the rattle of trucks over potholed roads, silence reigned. The girls’ dark eyes, fixed on me, seemed both innocent and worldly. The boys looked younger, painfully shy. Whenever they stood to speak, their hands swooped down to cup their genitals. Nerves, maybe. Who knew?
It was the first day of practice school, after three weeks of preparing with trainers. My voice shook with nervousness. Sweat dampened my cotton blouse. The students, all here voluntarily, repeated the five new English vocabulary words after me. By the end of the hour, they were turning to each other and asking, “What’s this?”
“It’s a pen.”
“No, it’s a pen.”
“Oh. Thank you for the pen!”
And like that, they were chatting in English, these kids who’d never spoken a word of the language before setting foot in this classroom. They could greet me, confirm whether a pen or pencil was in my hand, thank me and say goodbye. It felt like a small miracle.
Beaming, I looked to the back of the room to see if Christophe, my trainer, could appreciate how well I’d done. He stood there, arms folded, his face cool, assessing.
I’d blown it when I first met him, but in my defense, I’d had other things on my mind. Like survival. We’d arrived late at the Lambaréné training site, three weeks previous, after a pulverizing day of travel. A crowd of staff members had cheerily accosted us, propelled us toward a crackling bonfire and thrust Regabs into our hands. New faces and names, both American and Gabonese, flashed past like roadside billboards on an overlong trip. The compound, ghostly in the shadows beyond the bonfire’s light, was a collection of low buildings grouped around a courtyard, all bordered by rainforest. A sagging wooden dormitory completed the illusion of a tropical summer camp. Bleary-eyed, I slapped at mosquitoes and listened to conversation swirling around me until I could excuse myself, find my assigned room and collapse onto my cot. As sleepiness descended in billowy waves, I vowed to be more social the following day.
But the next morning, a bout of killer diarrhea commenced, complete with fever and chills. I stumbled back to bed after every trip to the public bathroom, a fluorescent-lit, yellow tiled room with the sour, bitter smell of a zoo on a hot afternoon. Staying in my dorm room for two days made me miss the orientation and the “get to know one another” events that followed. While the other trainees grew friendly with the Volunteer trainers and African staff, I read, wrote letters home and dreamed of air conditioning, cushiony beds and sit-down toilets.
I tried harder upon recovery. The morning of our first teacher training session, I helped Marguerite, the coordinator, move surplus boxes out of our classroom. Unable to see around my last stack, I bumped into someone when I approached the door. The boxes tumbled to the floor as both of us recoiled with murmurs of annoyance. When we straightened, we met at the same height of five-foot eight. I hadn’t seen this man before—I would have remembered. The other Africans were vibrant, well-dressed and confident, but still friendly and accessible. This man seemed as polished and unapproachable as a movie star in his starched button-down shirt and tailored trousers. His skin was the color of melted Hershey’s chocolate. Startling green eyes punctuated his regal, fine-boned face.
“You’re tall.” He spoke the words with disdain, easily pronouncing the “r” that plagued the other African French speakers on the compound.
I was accustomed to exceptionally attractive people, having shared a home with one for many years. I’d learned not to feed their egos. Furthermore, this man had knocked down my boxes but now frowned at me as though it had been all my fault. “No,” I matched his tone, “it’s just that you’re short.”
Silence followed. Shocked outrage swept over his smooth face, as if I’d pulled up my shirt and flashed my breasts at him. Before either of us could apologize or introduce ourselves, however, Marguerite breezed in and surveyed the scattered boxes. “Whoops,” she said, “Christophe, how about taking this last load for Fiona?”
“I’d be happy to help Fiona.” He glanced at me again, his expression now unreadable. So this was the Christophe, the government minister’s son. I’d just insulted one of the most important Gabonese in the Peace Corps community. I wanted to cry. Instead, I slunk outside to the dirt courtyard and hovered out of view behind the plane trees until class started.
Our interactions carried an exaggerated formality after that. Or perhaps he gave it no more thought and it was just me, acutely sensitive to his presence. Even that was no surprise—he was the kind of person who could seize the attention in a room and redirect it to shine down upon him, all without saying a word. This kind of charisma, I understood. Even while I resented it, I accepted it. What I couldn’t understand, however, was the reaction it produced in me—a sadness, a pain, like trying to touch an enormous diamond, scintillating and beckoning, set in the midst of a blazing fire.
In the classroom, we were all business. He was, I had to admit, a highly-qualified trainer. He’d taught English in Gabon for four years and spoke perfect, idiomatic English from his years of living in Washington, D.C., where his father had been a high-ranking diplomat. But I disliked the style he advocated: overly structured and unsmiling. I thought teaching English should be more like a show. I’d spent the past decade performing onstage—I knew you had to smile and act lively in order to engage your audience. His method made no sense. When I complained in a training session, he asked me who the trainer was here. I whispered to Carmen that he must have forgotten who the native English speakers were here. This elicited a snort of laughter from her, but glares from Christophe and Keisha, another one of the trainers.
Following the first practice class, Christophe met with me to discuss my teaching. “You see your ‘entertainment method’ working right now,” he said, tapping his pencil on the critique form for emphasis, “but you had twelve students, all of whom wanted to be here. At your post, you will have anywhere between forty and eighty students in a room the same size. Once the novelty of having a pretty American teacher wears off, they will grow bored, undisciplined.”
The determined set of his face left no room for further discussion. But that had never stopped me before. I raised my hand timidly. He frowned. “There’s no need to raise your hand like a student. What is it?”
“Well, if they grow bored, then aren’t you, as the teacher, responsible for presenting something more interesting?”
His face remained composed, but he took a long time to breathe in and out before replying. “The teacher’s job is to teach.” He spoke with great deliberation. “That is the role for which I am training you. Please endeavor to focus on that.”
I offered him a bright stage smile. “Well, then, thanks for the feedback! I’ll be sure and keep it in mind.”
He didn’t smile back. “I hope you do.”
French class and cultural awareness sessions followed practice school. Afterwards, I escaped to the dorm room Carmen and I shared, a room composed of a desk, plastic chairs and two rickety metal-framed cots. I dropped onto my mattress, a pad with the thickness of sandwich bread. Carmen found me there ten minutes later, reading.
“You spend too much time in here,” she said. “Robert and I are going into town for a drink—you should join us.” She and Robert, another English-teacher trainee, had become close friends, hitting it off from the moment he’d admired her combat boots. Carmen ran her hand through her hair to freshen her spikes before nudging my cot. “C’mon, I won’t take no for an answer.”
Lambaréné was one of Gabon’s main cities, a large inland island that bisected the Ogooué River. The smell of waterlogged foliage battled with the diesel fumes of rumbling trucks and overripe odors from the market, a noisy place choked with people, dust, chickens and produce. Robert led us through the crowds to his favorite bar, the backyard of a bright blue house on the periphery of the action. We found seats under the protection of a giant coconut palm, at a picnic table. Inside the house, pots clanged in dinner preparation. Outside, hens clucked, children giggled and shouted. A goat snuffled through nearby weeds. This was my favorite time of the day in Gabon. As the afternoon light grew soft, the golden rays mingled with wood smoke that curled up from neighborhood cooking fires. The air smelled sweet and comforting.
“Perfect,” Robert announced. He struck me as a person who knew these kinds of things. During our training in Washington, D.C., he’d smoked Gitanes and drunk Pernod, items as exotic to me as caviar and hashish. He was a native New Yorker and always wore black tee shirts, particularly ones advertising obscure rock bands. Today it was Cantankerous Wallababies. Yesterday, it had been The Zodiac Debriefers. The only rule was it had to be black. “It’s a New York thing,” he said, pushing his floppy brown hair from his face. I nodded, pretending to understand.
A woman sailed past, basket on her head, baby on her back and toddler clutching her hand. She turned without losing balance of her load and shooed away a group of loitering kids. They scattered, only to regroup around the bar, staring at us. One boy, older than the rest, took a few steps closer. He wore torn gym shorts and a grayish tee shirt displaying a fading, improbable Los Angeles Yankees logo. “Bonsoir,” he said.
“Bonsoir,” the three of us replied.
The boy stayed. “If you please,” he began in halting English. “The hair on madame. Is this the true hair?” He pointed to my hair, which I’d freed from its ponytail. Robert and Carmen swiveled around to study it as well, as if seeing it for the first time.
I hated my hair. There was too much, it was unruly, and the color defied categorizing. Strangers would approach me back in Nebraska and demand, “Just what color is your hair?” The answer was usually expressed in the negative: not brown, not blonde, not auburn, but an odd combination of everything. “Like sunlight filtering through autumn leaves,” Mom would tell me.
“Like dirty pennies,” Alison would scoff. Another thing it wasn’t: a duplicate of her honey-blonde tresses, groomed religiously to create a sleek curtain against her face. She got the enviable color, I got the scraps. Like our eyes. Hers were the brilliant blue of a cloudless winter sky, while mine were the palest blue possible, as if Alison had used up the pigment when she was born, thirteen months before me.
“Yes,” I told the boy, “This is my true hair.” He took a step closer, followed by the other children, who reached out to touch it. African hair, Malaria Rich had informed me the previous week, didn’t grow well. My long hair, he warned, would draw constant attention. The kids oohed and aahed before skittering away. The boy with the Los Angeles Yankees shirt flashed us a thumbs up before joining the others.
Conversations between the trainees always included two subjects: food and home. This one was no exception. Carmen griped about the previous night’s dinner, fish heads and rice. The first time I’d seen a serving pan of them, three dozen heads all staring up at me with glassy eyes, I’d thought it was just some practical joke, and that the real main course would be out once everyone had had a good laugh at Fiona’s expense. But the Gabonese server had only regarded me expectantly, repeating his question of whether I wanted one head or two.
“The thing that annoys me,” Carmen was saying, “is how you have to pick and dig at that spot between their eyes—do fish have foreheads?—to get any decent meat.”
“Yes, but the eyeballs are a delicacy, you know,” Robert said. “I tried one last night.”
I stared at him. “What was it like?”
“Crunchy. Piquant.” He seemed pleased by my reaction.
“Okay, so what food do you miss the most from home?” Carmen asked.
“Bagels and cream cheese with lox. From Zabar’s.”
“My mom’s green bean casserole.”
“Well, for me, I’d kill for some good Tex-Mex.” This led to Carmen’s stories about growing up in Dallas, an only child always trying to outrage her conservative parents.
“I would’ve loved to have been an only child,” I said.
“No you wouldn’t. I was lonely.”
“Better to be lonely than to always be arguing with them.”
“Do you miss them?”
I paused to fortify my response with a gulp of Regab. “I’m not sure.”
“Fiona… That’s an unusual name for a Midwesterner,” Robert said.
“My mom loves musical theater. It was her Brigadoon phase.”
“I heard you used to perform onstage.”
“Yeah, I’m a ballet dancer. Well… used to be.”
“Did you know the training compound has an auditorium with a stage?” Robert grinned at my open mouth. “It’s behind the other buildings, near the grove of palm trees. Nothing dramatic, just a big room with a stage.”
“Can anyone use it?”
“I don’t see why not. It’s not locked or anything. The only time I’ve seen it in use is on Wednesday afternoons for the staff meeting.”
“So you think I could slip in there and use it on Saturday afternoons?”
“Go check it out for yourself.”
On Saturday afternoon, I changed into a leotard and sweat pants, then grabbed my ballet slippers and cassette player. I hurried through the courtyard, dried leaves scudding in my wake, until I found the auditorium. The door was indeed unlocked. I trembled with excitement. Once inside, I opened the shutters that doubled as windows, letting light pour in. I surveyed the room, the size of an elementary school assembly hall. The stage, a narrow wooden platform rising three feet high, was hopeless. The floor, however, once cleared of chairs, made a perfect dance space.
I placed my leg on top of a stack of chairs and stretched over, hand around my calf, face against my shin. As the tightness in my hamstrings eased, a sense of unexpected happiness welled up in me. My chattering thoughts slowed. To the lilting strains of Chopin, I warmed up with pliés, tendues and developés. Every muscle leapt to attention, eager to please, hungry to be challenged. I felt the familiar pinch in my arched back as my leg arabesqued behind me. When the trembling leg reached its limit, I jacked it even higher.
Afterwards, I slipped in a cassette of Saint-Saens music, a piece I’d danced to in the spring concert. When the violin struck the familiar opening chords, something deep inside me seemed to realign, remolding itself to the music. Even without my pointe shoes or an audience, I slipped right into performance mode.
I’m back. I’m safe again.
For nine minutes, I heard nothing but the music, saw and felt nothing but the dance. My hands became more expressive, like independent entities that darted and sliced through the air, pausing only to cradle and then present the energy they’d found. The music encircled and entered me, transporting me.
And then the dance ended. As my arm swept down to finish and the final notes of music wafted away, so did the safety. The magic hovered in the air for a moment longer, just out of reach, before disappearing. Its loss felt as sharp and painful as a knife thrust. I slumped to the concrete floor, pulled my legs close and cried. Howled.
When my tears had subsided to noisy sniffles, I heard the rustle. It wasn’t an arriving kind of noise. It was the discreet throat-clearing kind of noise someone makes to announce their presence. A hint of expensive-smelling citrus cologne wafted over, dispelling any doubts as to the identity of my visitor. In frozen silence we sat, like two strangers on a city bus at night, staring straight ahead, the one in front willing the other in back to go away. Then rage boiled up in me. This was my space. Here, he was the foreigner, the intruder. He was waiting for me to speak first, to excuse myself or laugh off my tears. I didn’t.
Finally Christophe’s voice broke the silence.
“How long have you danced?”
I kept my eyes riveted to the wall in front of me. “Since I was eight.”
“Why did you stop?”
“To come here.”
“Did you ever dance professionally?”
I shook my head. “Just a local company.”
A minute later it was my turn.
“How long were you watching?”
“When I heard the Saint-Saens from the courtyard, I came over here.”
At this, I swiveled around to regard him with surprise. He was sitting on a bench by the door, half-hidden by a stack of chairs. “How did you know that was Saint-Saens?”
He frowned. “Do you mean, oh, how could an African possibly be familiar with classical music?” He waved away my stuttered defense. “My mother enjoys classical music—she’s half-French. She grew up in Paris and had a lot of exposure to it. When we lived there, we attended the symphony regularly. The ballet, as well.” He grew reflective. “It’s nothing I expected to see in the Peace Corps.”
“They don’t blend too well, do they?”
“Maybe not. But I see you didn’t let that stop you.” He smiled at me with genuine warmth. A moment later, however, his face grew stern. “This certainly explains that habit you have of performing in the classroom.”
This time, I could only laugh. As I tried to wipe the sweat off my face with my arm, he pulled a neatly folded, monogrammed handkerchief from his pocket, wadded it up and tossed it to me. I caught it with a grin and mopped at my face. I knew then—the way you know about a good pair of pointe shoes—that a friendship, however unlikely, had just begun.