“Oh my!”Jim-Bob heard Susie murmur just next to him. “Oh my, just look at that.” She was shaking her head, moving her poufy hair heavily from side to side, and holding a chubby, pale hand over her open mouth. He looked past her through the dirty window of the van that had picked them up. A messy conglomeration of blue, white and grey shacks filled the right side of the road.
“Shacks” was a generous word for the ugly mess tarps of and poles that made up the camp. The view was temporarily blocked as a tap-tap covered in a gaudy painting of the Virgin Mary with the words “Meet Your Maker” in bright turquoise splashed across the top of her head squeezed into the narrow space between their van and the curb. The vehicle was open in the back and sides and had two long rows of seats facing each other. It was packed tight with people. A goat hung upside down-silent and still–it’s feet tied to the roof.
It was all so unAmerican! So… exotic!
He had made it. He was here in Haiti. A local church had helped them find rooms in a hotel—appropriately named “Paradis”. He wondered if it would be on the edge of the bright blue water they’d flown over.
Here he was in a van, in Haiti. Haiti! He couldn’t get over it. Jim-Bob leaned back and allowed himself to daydream.
He was sitting under a tree on a small wooden stool. He was handing out generous bags of food to hungry Haitian women. Beautiful smiles lit up their faces and they said, “Mon dye va beniou” – May God bless you. Or at least that’s what he thought they said. He’d tried to learn some Haitian phrases before he came out but kept getting them mixed up. He smiled back and as they walked past, they gently touched his shoulder in gratitude. And then, Mary-Anne saw him. She was shocked that he was here, saw how grateful and happy the people around him were. She noticed how brave he was to come to this God-forsaken place—poorest place in the Western Hemisphere. A small child leaned against his knee. Mary-Anne would cry out, “Oh Jim-Bob! What a terrible mistake I made! Would you take me back, please?” She’d run over to him, wiping tears from her eyes, “oh babe!”
Jim-Bob opened his eyes. It was getting hot in the van. He looked out the window. They had barely moved 100 yards since the camp. He craned his neck and looked out the dirty windscreen. Traffic was jammed around a roundabout, vehicles kept trying to move in without letting anyone move out. For a while, Jim-Bob and the other passengers found it amusing.
“Lord have mercy, he did not just squeeze that jeep in there,” Susie exclaimed. “He is not trying to….oh my. Oh me ,oh my!” Her eyes formed perfect little “ohs”, matching her words, her poufy hair again shaking from side to side. She leaned forward a little and Jim-Bob saw a dark patch on the back of the chair where her head had been. “We are never gonna get out of this one, Jim-Bob! There ain’t no place left to move!”
She was right. Cars on the edges of the roundabout kept inching forward until they’d come to the side of another vehicle. Soon, the lanes of traffic began to resemble a parking lot at a Grateful Dead concert—post concert. Cars faced every which way and everyone was honking their horns.
“Look, Jim-Bob!” shrieked Susie.
It was a sight worth seeing. Well, for about ten seconds. A truck piled high with sacks marked “USAID: From the American People” was at a complete standstill to the north of the roundabout. A group of young men were smashing the lock on the back door with a hammer. A crowd started to gether. They broke the lock and slid open the doors. The crowd cheered. The driver of the truck jumped out and wound his way through the stationary traffic on foot as fast as he could go away from the truck. A couple of the young men leapt nimbly into the back of the truck and began throwing sacks out of the truck. Some sacks landed on the road but most landed on the cars directly behind the truck. The hoods were getting dented and some of the sacks burst, spilling clouds of flour. People in the crowd were running up trying to grab the sacks, while the drivers of the dented vehicles cursed and shouted but also grabbing sacks and stuffing them into their trunks.
Haitian police appeared on foot and then the blue-helmeted MINUSTAH soldiers showed up from another direction. Camoflague appeared–it was soldiers from the U.S. military. They were all on foot. The crowd around the back of the truck began to run away. There was a loud ‘BANG!”
“Gunfire!” squealed Susie. But it wasn’t. Sounded like someone hit a car with a metal rod. The scene went back to being a giant traffic jam with three different sets of people giving conflicting orders. The Haitian police were trying to get one line of traffic moving while MINUSTAH, around the other side of the roundabout, was directing traffic in a different direction. The U.S. soldiers were moving out asking vehicles to back up. It looked like pure chaos. It was pure chaos.
Within the van, the excitement faded into boredom. The van grew hotter and hotter. The comments fizzled out. Jim-Bob’s troops were getting demoralised. Susie decided to do something about it.
“C’mon, y’all! It’s time to sing!”
The goat hanging on the tap-tap next to the van opened one eye as the strains of Abide with Me floated over his head.
Jean-Philippe blinked his eyes against the late morning sun blazing through the branches of the frangipani tree. His head felt as if it was splitting open, his tongue was dry and swollen. He must have passed out and spent the night sleeping on the ground in the teamhouse courtyard.
“Merde!”, he muttered to himself as he struggled to his feet. The world seemed to spin sideways as he stumbled towards the teamhouse steps. Jean-Philippe could not remember the last time he had been this hungover… Phuket, maybe? Freetown? He fought back a wave of nausea. “Merde!”
As he collapsed onto his cot on the second floor of the MSF teamhouse, Jean-Philippe struggled to remember the events of the previous night. He had, apparently, lost his dark blue shirt at some point last night as he was naked from the waist up. He groaned and held up one muscled arm over his eyes to block out the light. He remembered a crush of people and loud music. He remembered sharing a stale Cuban cigar from “Giant Supermarket” with that guy from Oxfam… He remembered doing shots of tequila with Rolf…
Then it all came flooding back. Fabienne.
He remembered their crushing embrace, her hand working its’ way up his inner thigh, his lips pressed against hers. He remembered sinking to the ground in the shadows of the frangipani tree, her soft weight holding him down (not like he tried very hard to get away), the sweet smell of alcohol on her breath, her chest heaving, her impassioned moans of pleasure as their bodies entangled. After that, though, the memories were indistinct.
But there was one more memory. Mary-Anne. She’d looked beautiful, comely – actually – in an aid worker sort of way, of course, in her cargo pants and combat boots, slightly tipsy, exhaling through her nose the smoke of a bummed cigarette. He could still see her face tilted up to his with those brown, hesitant eyes that made him want to protect her. But he knew too of that smoldering fire that burned, hidden inside of her demanding something other than just protection. Last night he’d wanted to pull her to him, to brush back the wisps of hair from her face, to insert his tongue firmly between her tonsils. How had he ended up under the frangipani tree with Fabienne?
Jean-Philippe involuntarily cursed himself. Why? Why was he so smitten with this woman? He’d been with more disaster zone floozies than he could specifically remember, and a few he wished he could forget. Why couldn’t he get Mary-Anne off of his mind? Why did she unsettle him so?
Another wave of nausea, as he rolled from his cot and slowly crawled toward the bathroom.
* * *
Randy’s brown furrowed as he read the message from Sam’s Purse HR. “Unbecoming conduct”, it read, “and violation of the organization’s ‘no-drinking’ policy.”
He knew that the incident would probably not result in any concrete disciplinary action. He’d get a good scolding behind closed doors, a slap on the wrist. He’d probably be asked to take down the photos. But still, it was not the kind of thing he wanted to be known for. He was building a career in humanitarian work – he’d been called – and this was the sort of thing that could haunt someone for life if not managed properly.
Thank God the ones of Mary-Anne didn’t show her holding a beer or smoking, though she did look a little out of it. He didn’t want her to get in trouble because of him.
“Note to self”, he though. “Do not post pictures to Facebook while drunk.”
* * *
“Everybody! This way!”
Jim-Bob shouted as he made a quick count of the yellow T-shirts. Fifteen. Everybody’s here.
“You need this form filled out and ready to hand over.” He held up his own completed customs form for the group to see. Some of them nodded fervently and fumbled for pens in the travel organizers dangling from their necks. An overweight, 50-something man was turning red and sweating profusely. A teenage girl was trying to surreptitiously take photographs of the inside of the customs hall with her cell phone. They were not even out of the airport, and already the trip to Haiti was an adventure for the “Disaster Relief: Kentucky” team.
“Everyone have this form ready?” Nods all around on eager faces. Jim-Bob turned and led the way towards the customs desk at the Port-au-Prince international arrivals terminal. He could see the press of earnest, dark-skinned faces just outside the double-doorway.
“Haiti, here we come!” yelled one of the men in the back.
Mary-Anne, here I come mouthed Jim-Bob silently.
“Almost done”, thought Mary-Anne. She had a full working day on Saturday and half a day on Sunday and then…
“I’m outta here and going to sleep sleep sleep!”
All Mary-Anne could think about was having a week of waking up late, lying on the beach and sleeping as much as she wanted. The bags under her eyes now seemed a permanent feature of her face. But in just two days she’d be taking the tiny UNHAS plane to Santo Domingo, where she had already booked a room online at the ”Dreams Palm Beach Punta Cana.” “Beautiful! Gorgeous beaches…..fabulous food!” raved an online review. “I was treated like a princess!” gushed another.
It sounded like exactly what she needed.
“Let’s party tomorrow, Mally!” Randy interrupted her dreams of being treated like a princess on the beach. He was looking over at her from his desk three feet away. “C’mon! You’ve been here six weeks and haven’t gone to a single party yet.” Seeing her hesitation, he continued, “Mally! You’re leaving for R&R Monday! You can afford to relax for two minutes!”
“OK.” she consented. “I’ll go.”
Randy rewarded her with a big, happy smile. “Get out your little black dress and your high heels, girl!”
This will be awesome, thought Randy to himself: MSF had a reputation for throwing great parties.
* * * * *
Mary-Anne tied up the laces of her combat boots and took a last glance in the mirror. Her dirty-blonde hair was washed and curled wildly around her oval face. A little mascara and eyeliner highlighted her eyes. She swiped a stick of Chapstick over her lips–who’d have thought to bring lipstick to a disaster? Bummer. She’d forgotten to ask Randy where the party was, but assumed it was one of the UN agencies. Mary-Anne wrinkled her nose at her reflection, popped a Tic-Tac in her mouth and walked out to the door to the white Land Cruiser, where Randy was waiting.
“Like the dress, Mally,” teased Randy, looking at her khaki pants and black T-shirt as she gracefully swung herself into the passenger seat. The engine roared to life and they started down the road, chatting amiably as Randy negotiated the dark but crowded streets that zigzagged up the hill, away from central Port-au-Prince towards Petionville.
The city lights spread out below them, twinkling through the night. Randy slowed down to turn into a steep drive and Mary-Anne cried out in horror, “What are you doing?!”
It was the gate to the MSF teamhouse.
* * *
Mary-Anne was through her third Prestige in almost no time. Standing with her back to the crowded room, she could feel the alcohol taking effect as she smiled brightly and flirting outrageously with Randy. Even so she was still inwardly horrified at the thought of seeing Jean-Philippe and enduring his mocking gaze. She cringed at the thought of her humiliating behavior just a few days ago. She had thrown herself at a man who went through women faster than he went through jerry cans at an NFI distribution. If it hadn’t been for the vehicle that had interrupted them…
So she determinedly kept her back to the room and tried to look like she was having fun.
“I’m dying for a cigarette, Randy.”
“Stay here, I’ll get us some more beers and see if I can bum a couple of cigarettes off of someone,” said Randy, peeling himself off the wall and moving towards the coolers.
“Salut, Mary-Anne,” said a deep voice behind her. Mary-Anne flinched and turned around. Too fast, though, as she could feel the color rush to her cheeks and saw too that Jean-Philippe had noted it.
“I’ve been thinking of you since… since the other night. How are you?” he continued. He looked unbelievably handsome. He was wearing a neatly ironed dark blue cotton shirt that stretched against his broad shoulders. A pair of soft, worn jeans covered his long, lean legs. His dark hair looked damp and he had shaved. She saw that he wasn’t quite as young as she had first thought, as there was a sprinkling of grey around his temples. Her lips parted involuntarily and she resisted a ridiculous urge press herself into the breadth of his chest and savagely pull his body against hers.
She finally summoned up the courage to look into his face and saw for an instant something unguarded in his eyes. But then he blinked and it was as if the shutters came down. His lips curled into a mocking smile as he leaned very close and whispered against her ear, “Finished looking?”
Before she could speak, a hand clutching a beer pushed between them. “Look out everyone, beer coming through!” As Jean-Philippe stepped back abruptly, Randy handed her a beer and then gently placed a cigarette between her lips. “How’s that for service!” he exclaimed as he lit the cigarette for her. Placing an arm around her, he turned to face Jean-Philippe. “Hey, JP. I see you’ve met my girl, Mally.”
Jean-Philippe smiled slightly, “Indeed I have, Randy. Now please excuse me, I need to check on the supplies. With people like you around, I expect we’ll be getting low on the beer.” With a curt nod to Mary-Anne, he turned and made his way through the crowd.
The rest of the evening passed in a miserable haze for Mary-Anne. Her heart hurt. All she wanted to do was go home and sleep. Randy was dancing with a few people—a couple of guys and a woman, maybe from the German Red Cross. Mary-Anne pushed her way through the crowd and leaned against a low wall near the swimming pool. There were a few people hanging out in the water, laughing and splashing each other. Two guys (maybe IOM?) were trying to coax a couple of giggling and obviously intoxicated young women (maybe Oxfam?) out of their clothes and into the water. And it looked like a couple was seriously making out deep in the shadows of a frangipani tree. They’re snogging she thought, testing out British slang. ‘Making out’ sounds better, she decided, ‘snogging’ has a nasty sound to it.
Randy reeled up with a camera. “Smile gorgeous!” he slurred as the flash went off. Amidst her protests, he took a few more photos and then agreed it was time to go home.
* * * * *
“You have been tagged in Randy’s “MSF Blowout” album,” her Facebook alerts informed her.
She opened the page and saw herself (looking startled, and, to be honest, more tipsy than she’d have preferred) standing in front of the pool at the MSF teamhouse. But it was the image behind her, in shadow of the frangipani tree that sent a terrible pain through her heart. The image–lit up clearly by the flash of Randy’s camera–of a couple intertwined, the man’s head bent over the woman’s, lips crushed against each other and every part of their bodies melded together in a frenetic passionate embrace.
It was Jean-Philippe and Fabienne.
Rev. Horace Earl Ulysses Thomas III straightened his tie, stood up and walked to the pulpit as the praise band held onto the final chord of “America The Beautiful.” The drummer rolled the crash cymbal while the enthusiastic young guitarist played drawn-out bluesy, pentatonic lick. One last thundering crash gave the old favorite a classic rock ‘n’ roll ending.
The congregation of the small, rural Kentucky church was on its’ feet, clapping and hollering “Amen!” An overweight woman in the front row fanned herself with a flowered hat and seemed to swoon. Someone reached out to steady her as she sat her rotund bottom back into the wooden pew.
The Reverend looked slowly around the room, pausing to look individual parishioners in the eye directly, for dramatic effect, and then quoted the words of the song:
“From every mountainside, let freedom ring!” He pounded his fist on the pulpit to emphasize the word, “freedom.” Several more “amens” and a “hallelujiah.”
“There are mountainsides where freedom doesn’t ring…” He went on. “There are mountainsides where death and destruction reign supreme. There are mountainsides where the Devil walks freely and openly, where our poor brothers and sisters are enslaved… enslaved and held fast by chains not of this world…”
Another slow look around the room, a scowl slowly darkening the Reverends’ face.
“There are mountainsides where people are suffering and dying, calling on the LORD for hope and salvation. And like the Macedonians of old, calling the apostle Paul, ‘come over to Macedonia and help us’, so are we being called now. Called to the shores of that desolate island of Hispaniola, called to minister to those poor, poor people of that cursed land, once more brought low by a terrible earthquake…”
He pulled a white handkerchief from his back pocket and mopped his brow. A burly trucker with long sideburns and a checkered shirt hollered “Amen!” from the back row. The Reverend nodded approvingly.
“But we have heard the call of the oppressed who sit in darkness. We will turn neither deaf ear nor a blind eye…”
“Thank you, Jesus!” It was a matronly widow about a third of the way back on the right, a loud, “mmmm-HHmmmm!” as a rejoinder.
“As you good people know, we are changing this years’ mission outreach program. Instead of Jamaica, we will answer the LORDs’ call in Haiti!” A murmur ran through congregation. The Reverend looked disapprovingly over the top of his spectacles.
“Oh, I just KNOW you’re not afraid… I just KNOW you’re not too busy… I just KNOW you’re not saying ‘No’ to the LORD…” The burly trucker hollered another “amen” and the large woman on the front row fanned herself faster.
“Will we be like the patriarch Jonah? Do we need to spend three days in the belly of the whale before we heed God’s call? Or are we like the Apostle Paul?”
Another pause. “They’re calling. Yes, they’re calling, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’” Three more “amens” and a “hallelujah!” He pounded his fist on the pulpit once more.
“Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” The Reverend was quoting the prophet Jeremiah out of context, but no one seemed to care or even notice.
More “amens”, and a tattooed young woman in the middle of the left section stood up, hands in the air, shouting, “YES LORD!” More parishioners stood, more “hallelujiahs”, “YES!”s, and “Praise Hims”. The large woman in the front was fanning furiously by now, beads of perspiration visible on her neck and ample bosoms.
The Reverend mopped his forehead once more and then continued: “This year we will go minister to those oppressed by SATAN in Haiti!”The congregation was on it’s feet. “We will minister to those poor oppressed souls…” He turned around and gave a nod to the drummer who tapped out four clicks. The guitarist started a loud rock ‘n’ roll riff and was quickly joined by the bassist. The crowd was swaying now, everyone’s hands in the air.
As the congregation broke into a raucous rendition of “I Walk By Faith”, associate pastor (and son of the Reverend) James Robert “Jim-Bob”Thomas smiled to himself in the foyer.
He was going to Haiti.
He would see Mary-Anne.
She’d see that he could be a real man…
Jean-Philippe allowed Mary-Anne to press her full lips against his. He hadn’t expected this. Indeed, for the first time in years, he found himself completely at a loss as to what to do with a woman who was in his arms. Elle est naïve … comme une jeune fille. She doesn’t know what she is doing. A part of him tried to hold back. But then he breathed in her womanly smell and could restrain himself no more.
Gently, he flicked his tongue across her closed mouth. She didn’t move but stayed still with her eyes firmly closed. He ran his thumb gently across her cheek and softly, oh so softly! grabbed a handful of her hair. His tongue continued to tease her closed mouth, willing her to let him in. With a small sigh, Mary-Anne succumbed, parting her lips hesitantly, giving him permission to do as he wished. Never before had she been kissed so thoroughly, so exquisitely. His tongue was everywhere, never too aggressive, yet unrelenting. His lean hard body, his firm mouth and strong hands urged her to respond. Mary-Anne felt that every cell in her body was on fire, longing for more of him, for Jean-Philippe.
Moaning softly, she pushed back against him, pressing him back against the door as she leaned forward. Lying halfway on top of him, she ran her tongue along his neck–tasting salt and sweat–and then to his strong mouth. As she softly nipped his lower lip, she felt his hand moving down her back to cover her derriere, pulling her lithe body against himself. Their bodies began to move, attuned to each other, rolling like the waves that moistened the golden sands of the glorious Haitian beaches.
In that instant, bright headlights cut through the darkness and lit up the inside of the vehicle as brightly as if it were day. Unthinkingly, Mary-Anne leaped back to her seat, panicked.
“Oh my gosh! They’ll see us!” she cried, lifting her arm to shield her eyes from the light.
“And if they do?” Jean-Philippe raised a sardonic eyebrow, sitting up a little. “You are a woman. I am a man. This is natural, non?” His gaze covered her possessively.
Monsieur LaRochelle has many friends in Haiti… Many women friends. Amos’ words echoed through her head.
“How many women have you done this with?” she asked, regretting the words as soon as they were out of her mouth. Her voice sounded shrill. She crossed her arms over her pounding heart.
“Mary-Anne. Relax. Come back here. ” he said in that familiar, low growl, leaning forward to pull her back into his arms.
“No!” she pushed him away. “I can’t do this. I can’t!” She fumbled for the handle of the door. “I am not going to be just one of your many women!” stumbled out of the car and began running towards the dark gate of the team house.
* * * * *
Jean-Philippe sat very still, his heart pounding. He slowly reached for a Gauloise, bent his head and lit a cigarette. His hand shook ever so slightly. What the hell was happening to him? He was angry at her for running off, angry that his passion was left unsatisfied. But greater than that was the ache in her voice I am not going to be just one of your many women! Didn’t she realize that for some inexplicable reason she could never just be one his many women? Jean-Philippe exhaled slowly and started the Defender and moved out into the dark Haitian night.