July 4 2020
Exiled at Home
funny, isn't it, for me to write about being in exile? i've hardly ever even left this room. you probably don't even know me. in fact, if you ever needed to find out how close you are to my family, here's an easy test: if you know about me at all, that is proof that you are very close, indeed. i am mostly a family secret.
you see, i am the akale-sinkul in my family...ankassa, shenkala, miskeen you can call me whatever you want. the measles, they say, is what did it to me...they tell me that i was a beautiful baby. all i know is that i can't hold a spoon with my right hand without spilling - my left hand is worse. i can't walk without help and my speech is slow and slurry. no wonder no one thinks i have anything to say that they would want to hear.
but my ears work just fine, and i hear what THEY say. "Mot yishalal!"; i wonder if my mother agrees. i'm getting big now so she can't lift me as easily as she used to. and she has so much more work to do. THEY suggest the magical healing powers of this or that TSebel, this or that abesha medhanit. we've been everywhere. "Wiy! Indew bimot yishalew neber!"; sometimes i wonder if i agree.
i know with my head that they keep me away from everyone to protect me from the unkind people who will ridicule me...to protect me from a life on the outside where no one cares if i fall or break. but i can always hear what THEY are saying, anyway. my ears work just fine. i feel with my heart that they keep me out of sight because of the guilt - maybe they're afraid that they might have done something wrong to be burdened with me and all my problems. but in my stomach, where i feel everything, i know that i am out of sight so that, even for a brief moment, my family can pretend that everything is all right.
i want to sit in the sunlight that i can see soaking into the flat stones of our front gbi. i want to greet people when they come into our house. i can bow my head, almost as far as my brother can, and I've been practicing how to say TenaysTiliN very very quickly.
i want to feel my father's hand on my shoulder and hear him say it, just once. "Meet my son."
The mirror never lies; it tells me I am, indeed, the fairest in the land. Wavy brown hair falling in cascades to my waist, long fingers made for these lovely tri-colored gold rings, long legs worthy of those lovely shoes, long languid glances from behind these lovely eyelashes. What's not to like?
There are quite a few like me...Giovanna, Sylvana, Jordana, Elena...not always identical in looks, but the na at the end of our names an irresistible come-hither to the mulu-bemulu Ethiopian men. Several are a-buzz around my macciato-colored temptation of a body even as we speak. Who could resist?
Ye-Talian kiliss-a woman caught between two worlds; both pulling at me, but neither ever hard enough to claim me as its own. A woman invariably attracting the major "playahs" from InToTo to Mekanisa, never at a loss for what to do on a Saturday night.
The quiet boy in my math class never dared ask me out - even then, back in high school, the playboy with the Alfetta had my full and undivided attention. It was Anbessa atobus vs. Alfa Romeo - what would YOU have choosen?
It took me years to realize that my most intimate moments with the men in my life had all been, and were being, played out in public: the mating dances in the living rooms of the never-ending parade of foreign diplomats and their house parties; the deep, deep kisses in the dark but not the darkest corners of the trendiest night clubs; the heavy petting and more...in the back seat of someone's car or in the tent on the shores of Langano; or the shameless departures from the well-known albergos in the bright morning light. All for show. Maybe I should be stuffed and mounted on the wall of some prize hunter?
Don't get me wrong. I love the attention - I once went somewhere where I wasn't such a standout, and I didn't like that much, either. It is quite strange how you can develop a taste for something that isn't all that good for you. But I dream of the quiet boy in math class...the one my teenage blinders did not allow me to see. I think of who he may be holding now, privately, protectively - who he seeks to draw deep into the shadows away from inquisitive, acquisitive eyes...whose love he jealously guards for himself. Who knows - maybe I could have developed a taste for that.
A confusing life, albeit a not unhappy one...even if I will never meet the mother of the proud, quiet boy in math class.
The chair I was given was as far as you could get from the TV without being in the kitchen. My ill-fitting clothes were clearly hand-me-downs from you, the privileged child of the house, even if "addis libs'ko new"; was the much-repeated comment I grew to hate. I was officially ye-zemed lij though hardly anyone ever asked what the relationship actually was. You didn't know my favorite color, or what my hopes and dreams were, or which girl I thought was cute...these are not really allowable for the poor relation from ager-bet. And it all took place in that middle ground between the contempt of the citified and the politeness of the geTerE...I didn't know how to tell you to stop looking through me. You didn't know how to look.
You may think you and your family were open-minded and liberal, yeNa teramajoch, but look in your own backyard before you speak...chances are, that's where I was digging in the garden to get the Qaria that you required for your after-school meksess. The phone rang around the clock for you, but don't think I didn't notice the glances that everyone exchanged when I got the rare call. Shocking, isn't it, that I might actually have had friends and outside interests?
I had big dreams once. I wanted more than anything to be able to attend secondary school. I craved having a really nice radio-cassette, and maybe even a TV. I hoped to have a good income from yebiro sira where I'd be able to help my family out of its dire straits. I wanted to read more, see more...live more. Go to a night club...drink whiskey as much as I wanted. Someday, I thought to drive a car. It cost nothing to dream.
The burden of eternal gratitude does not sit well with me, since it clearly is a one-way street. I wonder who'd come out ahead if, at some point, someone calculated the relative contributions that you and I have made to the household...early morning errands I ran while you were still sleeping; unpleasant tasks about the house that you were never ever expected to perform, the implicit vow I took to never discuss family business outside these four walls even as I was locked out of discussing family business inside them.
Yet, my desire to move on and live my own modest life was seen as the ultimate betrayal. It is not a surprise that we're not even on talking terms -- me still here in Addis Abeba...you there, of course, in America. Tell me, how are YOUR dreams doing in America? Have you been able to go to school? Were you able to buy that really nice stereo? Do you own a color TV and have jolly friends to go club hopping with? Are you a manager yet with a corner office? Do you drink whiskey every evening? Do you read more, see more...live more?
Tell me, do you drive a big car?