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Thursday
Mar212019

Hotel California

 

{Hotel California is the story of Malakai, a biracial American, civil litigator by day and jazz pianist by night. 'Kai' as he's informally known, is in the midst of an early midlife crisis after spending the first part of his adulthood as a devoted pacifist and decadent; his head in paperwork, jazz bars or a bottle of whiskey - But by 35 the old answers-- drinking, smoking, lazing about, responding to all hostility with irony isn't satisfying him anymore. He is bored to tears. Convinced that the cure to his paralysis would be found in throwing himself into a new life, he decides to take a major whistle-blower case in the Democratic Republic of Congo - his mother's birthplace and last time they ever saw his American father.}

 

 

 

 

1.

Mom arrived in America expecting peace and love – She’d entered the country the way one enters any grand love affair: with no exit plan. She once told me that she knew a girl of fifteen who burned herself to death because her parents refused to allow her to marry the boy she loved. For Mom, love refines truths.

And so begins one of the most wretched and mesmeric love stories…

**

A man in a shiny black training suit appeared determined to demonstrate his sobriety. He sat stiffly straight with his arms folded over his chest and his eyes fixed in a hard squint, aloof and appraising. He asked my name in resolute, robotic English, each syllable precise and curt. I told him, “Malakai.” “Ah.” He clutched my hand. “Like in the book of Malachi in the Bible?” “God’s messenger,” I said. “A prophecy,” he pronounced. He dropped my hand. His lips bunched up tightly, and he considered me with his humorless stare. Then he said, “I would like you to know that I’m a pygmy from the forest. But I learned English from a Catholic priest.” “Pleased to meet you mr…?” “Seki, Seki Ngay. I’m your local contact and the manager of the guesthouse where you’ll be staying in Lubumbashi. Mrs. Molly sent me to pick you up.

**

 Something in me was drawn to the voyage. A poor country, underdeveloped, utterly foreign -- this much I knew. I was prepared for the dysentery and fevers, the cold water baths and having to squat over a hole in the ground to pee, the electricity going out every few weeks, the heat and endless mosquitoes. Nothing more than inconveniences, really, and I was tougher than I looked, at least this much I knew for sure, tougher than even I had known myself to be. And anyway, that was part of what had drawn me to the Democratic Republic of Congo after Mom gave me my father’s personal journal after graduating law school.

So much water had passed under the bridge, after all the tears, the years of depression, therapy, and after all the years spent with my step-father, the promise of something new and important, helping rebuild Mom’s birth country beyond her reach; fate had brought me here. Don't follow the cry of riches to be; don't trek to the place where promise is made, for there you will find wolves and lions, my father ironically wrote in one of his journal entries. Man cannot stand a meaningless life; sooner or later, man discovers that he is the mastergardener of his soul. I wish I could meet him. Mom told me that he saw me just for a few hours two weeks after I was born. Man is a social animal, characterized by cronyism, nepotism, corruption, and gossip he later writes in the entry. That’s the intrinsic blueprint for our ethical behavior he concludes. It’s pure biology, I guess - So dark the con of man. I like to believe that I belonged to that race of privileged minds who are always right. A race of deep convictions, believing, among other things -- that we don’t know what justice is, and we don’t know what history is. There is no such notion as absolute justice; there is no history, which cannot be written in different way. I work with an international law firm -- our cases are so often about American companies committing harm overseas which they would not do in the United States of America. The reality is that there are companies out there that seek to profit from other people’s vulnerability. As a team of individuals seeking truth, we passionately believe that as a first world country we have a responsibility not to take advantage of people who aren’t in as fortunate a position. We are not afraid to take a stand, and we want to show there is a better way. In the Katanga province, where my mission was consigned, rich in cobalt and copper, some Western industrial mining companies operate provoking significant pollution of water sources, seriously affecting the local population. Although there is a lack of comprehensive data available, several studies conducted by local civil society show environmental, health and socio-economic negative effects. This is how Seki, my local contact described the situation to me upon my arrival: The invisible python came again this year, staring into the murky waters of his childhood fishing hole. It swallowed our food, guzzled our friends, and made away with our livestock. They say the python lives in the mountain, in a big hole, where people used to ditch deformed babies, albinos and people with leprosy. But people don’t do that anymore. So when this python is hungry, it churns and groans under the surface of the earth, sometimes making the world tremble and shake. When it becomes angry, it creeps through the dark nooks of the earth and finds its way out in one of the rivers that come down from the mountain. It creeps into the flow of the river, manoeuvres in its tide, vomiting volumes of water that it carries in its belly. The python rushes like gushing wind and consumes everything it finds in its way. It wreaks havoc on houses, slashes down trees and crops, sweeps away land, and swallows humans and animals to feed its hunger. It joins the river and runs down the valley to kill those of us who reside the concave of the country.

“If I can speak freely,” Seki said, “in a way you can understand,” he added dramatically. “In this stream, the fish vanished long ago, killed by acids and waste from the mines, pollution caused by copper and cobalt mining has not only poisoned the river, but has also caused widespread illness.”

2.

For the Africans, one of the most terrible things that could happen was not to have a proper burial. The only way the dead can find peace is when the body is covered and placed deep into the earth. Every so often, things happen to us that we just cannot fathom. The world can be cruel and harsh, eventually, it breaks everyone. These happenings sometimes become the gateways to our fate - many are strong at the broken places; but those that will not break, it kills. I could not stop thinking about Mom, and my father’s journal. That summer solstice, it rained every day, the sun-shower brought fear to the villagers: some said that a hyena was giving birth, others said that the devils are getting married and although many said it was God’s wrath because the villagers had opened a casino next to the church. I knew that it was my fault, nevertheless, and mine alone, for I had learned to lie and my lips still retained the last words spoken by Mom before my voyage: “I never loved your step-father, but truly loved another man, who, I was told, had gone mentally ill; look for him and tell him my last thoughts are for him, for he is your real father.”

I would go back to my hotel room where the mini-bar was stocked, sometimes not. The air-conditioner would clatter, or not work at all, or be set too high or low with a fixed dial, and I would attempt to relax on an undersized bed with limp pillows, listening to the conversations from next door or to strangers whispering in the corridor. I would lie on the hotel bed and hark back in time, looking for mental and spiritual strength, remembering the day my step-father took me hiking in the Mojave Desert in southern California’s rugged mountains, woodlands, and canyons. It must have been the last week of October of 1994, I might have been ten years old; and we strenuously hiked through to the main Lava Tube cavern. As soon as we hit the main cavern, we were greeted with the fantastic view from the light cascading elegantly into the cave floor. We were enamored by the dramatic lightning and dark hardened lava. My step-father gently rested his muscular arm around my shoulder and said, “The very cave you’re afraid to enter turns out to be the source of what you seek,” my step-father quipped. “Your sacred space is where you can find yourself again and again, but by all means, do not tell anyone about this sacred space,” my step-father warned.

“Not even Mommy?” I remember asking.

My step-father sighed, hiding behind the sad smile that followed him like a shadow through life. “Of course you can tell her,” he answered, heavyhearted. “We keep no secrets from her. You can tell her everything.”

3.

Before we eat Mom switches off the television, the window is open, the breeze cooling our backs and we start to eat in silence. My mother had come to hate loud noise. Every year on the 4th of July she had to take sedatives and go to bed. To Mom, silence is love. So in turn, I learn to love silence; although, lying is done with words, but also with silence. Besides, unexpressed emotions will never die. Like energy, they are buried alive and will come forth later in peculiar ways. When Mom beat me she would sometimes call me by my father’s name. I didn’t know how to respond, and when I tried to tell her that I wasn’t my father she beat me harder because pain changes people. She clicks her teeth and rolls her eyes around as if I’m a complete idiot, then inserts the cigarette for a painful drag. She holds my hand, “I just want you to know, I don’t hate you,” she whispers. “I hate your father.” I didn’t say a word. “I hate him for bringing me here, and I hate him for giving me hope.” I nodded. “Never, ever lie to people who believe in you, Malakai.” I nodded. In time, it made me think about my biological father, who, when the right time came - swiftly managed to abandon my mother as she was pregnant with me. My mother would famously accuse him of having lost his soul and not to expect much from him whenever I asked her about him, “Anyone can be heroic from time to time, but a gentleman is something you have to be all the time,” she would add. I would imagine, with my innocent ten-year-old mind, my biological father in a bar, lifting a cool beer bottle to his lips, asking someone the time. Naturally for the rest of my life I longed to see him.

4.

When Benjamin Blustein first met Henrietta, my mother, in 1983, she was twenty-five-year-old and had just finished studying History & Philosophy at the University of Lubumbashi mainly to please her well-learned, strict father. She’d developed several interests as a teen, including singing, fashion design and modeling. She auditioned and joined a Latin funk-soul band before going to University. After graduating, while secretly working on her singing career, she spent her days working as a front desk attendant at a small boutique hotel that mainly catered to European and American staff from their respective embassies in Kinshasa. The hotel belonged to one of the president’s valet, turned-businessman, a promising young lad in the eyes of the military dictator, Joseph Désiré Mobutu, or, to give him his proper title and pay him due homage – Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ndbendu Wa Za Banga; ‘the all-powerful warrior who goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake’-- both men members of the Ngbandi ethnic group. Benjamin was a young diplomat working at his first diplomatic posting in Kinshasa as a political analyst for the State Department. In the 1980s Zaire emerged as a key strategic outpost for the Reagan Doctrine. Reportedly, the CIA used an airstrip in the remote Shaban town of Kamina in order to channel covert weapons into neighboring Angola. President Reagan hailed Mobutu as "a voice of good sense and good will." Benjamin was handsome and had a powerful presence, which struck with all who met him. Prepared for the worst, Benjamin was amazed to find that life in the American or European enclave of Kinshasa was not hard to take. He opted for the modern apartment in mom’s hotel and lived there quite happily for the entirety of his one-year assignment. Food prices were high, but the assortment of French cheeses and charcuterie flown in almost daily from Europe was mind-boggling. At first glance, life inside the embassy seemed very American. The canteens sold tuna melts and chicken nuggets; fliers advertising pickup softball games. But the barred windows and armed guards were reminders that the Foreign Service was not like living in America. Overseas, staying safe became a way of life. Most of what Benjamin had been told about the government was true. The government of Zaire under revered strongman, Mobutu, had a reputation for corruption, deviousness, and indifference to the plight of its people that was unusual even by African standards. Nevertheless, the embassy staff and other donors were able to accomplish a great deal by working outside the official structure.

**

The neighbors would say,

 “Mr. Malwaa’s daughter, Henrietta, loves a white man to whom she submits in everything. This white man works at the American embassy. He is her lord. She asks for nothing, demands nothing, except a bit of whiteness in her life. If you ever try to determine if at least he is handsome, or ugly, ask her and she will answer, all I know is that he has blue eyes, blond hair, and I love him.”

** Mom welcomed Benjamin upon his first day on the African continent, and gently ushered him to his new dwelling. Mom’s charisma and calm nature was refreshing like rain in the morning. She could be demure when the occasion demanded, which was most of the time, but underneath her composed exterior she was bursting with suppressed energy. She caught his attention. When Benjamin first walked into the club where Mom was playing with her band, he recognized her from the hotel and definitely knew there was something about her. She had an erotic effect on men, partly because her vulnerability induced a feeling of protectiveness in the onlooker. Mom would sing with her band every Thursday evening through Sunday at the popular open-air night club in La Cite Indigne. The event would be called ‘Karaoke Night Avec La Bande Henrietta’. Urban music became a valuable vehicle of disseminating political ideologies throughout this African nation. To Mobutu, the role played by popular musicians was an endorsement of his authority and power. Music was a vital tool for the success and survival of his Cultural Revolution. In 1971, Mobutu embarked on a project he called ‘authenticity’, creating a new form of nationalism that drew from Congolese and other African traditions. The country was renamed the Republic of Zaire. The capital, Leopoldville, was renamed Kinshasa. Western names were rejected in favor of traditional ones; Zairians were required to call each other ‘citizen’. Most foreign music was banned. The first decade of the Second Republic was a period of unprecedented developments, including a rapid rise in the number of young musicians, particularly in ensembles that revolutionized local music by incorporating traditional melodies, rhythms, harmonies and dance movements into their compositions. Henrietta’s band had some rough, homemade four-track demos of their own original songs that sounded like a funk band playing free jazz, reminding me of something out of reach, a half-revived memory of a previouslyforgotten loss. It was basic, but the songs were good, evoking a feeling that had less in common with music than it does with literature – a sensation of doomed love set against the thrum and hiss of the jazz age, underscored by a non-specific melancholy, as though Henrietta’s world had been soured beyond hope. And then there was mom’s voice, a contralto vocal range; the smokiest, most sultry voice you have ever heard emanate from a human being. I've always thought there are certain voices that make people feel better: Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald. But when Benjamin heard mom’s singing, he really felt she had it. Mom was a beauty; she also had an amazing effect on people in the studio, on stage, both men and women, her charisma and how she looked, with her almond shaped eyes, oval face, lustrous skin, and her sylphlike waist.

5.

Benjamin and Mom’s cultural differences attracted them to each other initially. When they started dating, Benjamin was proud that she was from Africa. Benjamin thought that she was special and exotic. Not too long after, they would disagree over most of her ways of doing things. Mom was sensitive and shy. They just came from two different worlds. Benjamin was born in Sharon, Connecticut. Though he attended Catholic preparatory school St. John’s Beaumont School in England, he also spoke Spanish and French fluently and loved sailing, horses, hunting and skiing. He graduated Cum Laude at Yale University in American History and became known for his transatlantic accent and wide vocabulary. He wrote a nationally syndicated newspaper column.

**

 It was a Saturday night in La Cite, the great, reptilian slum in Kinshasa. Benjamin had made plans with his new friends at the Embassy when the car he had rented bogged down in sand in a dark place. Someone offered to help him push and luckily met up with the lingering, new friends: Raymond from finance, Percy the marine, Vergil the journalist and Jessica the social scientist. All night they talked, danced, drank -- strangers pushed together haphazardly, moving from place to place, through the narrow, sandy alleys, the sprawl of gimcrack homes pressed close together. The music throbbed with primal energy. Drumbeats followed them down darkened byways lit by kerosene lamps that spread white pools on vendors' wares -- cigarettes, kebabs. They halted at an open-air nightclub. You paid the entrance fee by handing cash through a slit in a concrete wall. The clientele was all African -- outsiders generally did not go there. The shack was brimming with bodies, thick smoke and booze. They sat on upturned beer crates. They talked and listened to loud, insistent music and drank beer from big, cold bottles. The pungent smell of strong marijuana filled the air. Suddenly, though, Benjamin’s hosts lowered their eyes in deference. A self-confident young man with gelled hair and plum velvet jacket had just arrived, accompanied by the beautiful lead singer of the band, Henrietta -- Mom. The place bowed to them. Although it took some time to realize it, the young man was part of the answer to the baffling question that drew Benjamin to La Cite and other places like it: How did Mobutu Sese Seko -- Zaire's rapacious President and the most durable of a breed of African dictator whose despotism spilled frequently into bloodshed -- get away with it for so long? The sleek young man was not only the owner of the nightspot, but also owned the Hotel in which Benjamin stayed-in during his time in Kinshasa. And Mom was his cash cow, his winning muse. More important, he worked in some minor function at the presidential palace. He might have been the President's valet, the man who pressed and ironed the presidential hosiery, privy to the mysteries of the boudoir. Whatever his job, the man drew power and position from the association -- enough to open a nightclub, a guesthouse; buy loyalty with largesse and spread the grip of the palace in his own small backyard for when a man gets power, even his chickens and dogs rise to heaven. The young owner presented Mom to Benjamin and his friends, and left her in the care of his American guests to attend more pressing business in the backroom. As the night progressed, so was Benjamin’s loss of inhibitions; his arm around Mom, clutching a beer and struggling to shout his point into Raymond’s ear -- an inaudible reply from Raymond brought a red faced gut laugh from Benjamin. Percy looked over to see what was so funny. Virgil bumped through the crowd half dancing while carefully balancing his jar of clear liquor. He bowed the drink to Mom, but Jessica’s hand swooped in to take it. Jessica waged a finger before taking an eyebrow raising sip at the stout stuff. She eyed Mom, who smiled back at her. Virgil pulled Jessica up to dance not forgetting to reclaim his drink. He proceeded to dance in a way that spread the crowd. Mom nudged Benjamin. They laugh watching his friends dance, they were happy in this place -- an ordinary beginning, something that would have been forgotten had it been anyone but her. ** One night Benjamin brought Henrietta to this colon-style house in the outskirts of Kinshasa. He was secretly renting it, but also, it was where he had decided to write a romance novel that he had long dreamed of writing. They decide to make love for the first time. ** In Kinshasa he had been so full of life, so eager with his plans. At night when Benjamin and Mom were alone, they spent hours together talking about their dreams—his of seeing the world, hers of being an artist. The more they spent nights together, the more they revealed their hearts to each other. One night, Benjamin told her about growing up as a boy during the Vietnam War, watching his eldest brother leave to join the army, hearing the news that he had been killed and forever feeling lost eversince, while the American troops set villages aflame. He emphasized that at that time the American public demonstrated faint concern about a tiny country on the other side of the world and after the death of his brother, depression crept in their family, slowly eating away on the little pleasures of daily life. Mom would tell him about the forgotten history of African women such as Angola’s warriors queen Nzinga, and warrior queen of the Congo, Llinga, armed with ax, bow and sword. Mom implored the need to promote gender equality in Africa. Indeed, the need is obvious as millions of women toil in dreary, largely unpaid and unfulfilling tasks, responsible for most of the farming, marketing and commerce of rural Africa in addition to their child-bearing and child-rearing responsibilities. Mom lamented on long history of powerful African queens, consorts and rebel leaders which seldom make it into current history books. The role of women in ruling African nations, fighting against colonial enslavement and supervising the policies of their heirs and offspring as they rose into political primacy is a suppressed and forgotten history. This is a history which deserves to be taught in the schools. ** She asked him, point-blank, a question which may have lead into a painful talk: “how do you feel about what is happening between us?” Instead of trying to describe his feelings in their ambiguity and confusion, he asked, “How do you feel?”

6.

Benjamin would usually wash away long working days with a swim in the hotel pool, usually found in the bowels of the building. He would trek along corridors in fluffy hotel slippers, past rows of identical doors, almost naked under the bathrobe, both intimate and exposed. The pool would invariably be empty, and for a long time, the swimming ritual was helpful. But then, on one of Benjamin’s habitual cleansing ritual away after a particularly disorientating working day, Benjamin floated on his back, buoyed by chemicals and water, and heard an odd bright voice in his head offering up a simple suggestion. “I want to die”, it said. A calm, lucid voice, perfectly meshed with the flickering light reflections on tiles and the sound of lapping water, of taps being turned on somewhere else in the hotel. He flipped onto his stomach and began a slow breaststroke. “Go down,” it said, and so he did, swimming underwater with eyes closed until he nudged the edge of the pool. Almost nobody could have anticipated the apparent desperation of his inner life, or the caustic nature of his vision. He was a writer almost before he was a man. Benjamin truly believed that literature was the one indication of civilization. For him, a fine piece of prose could not only cure a depression, it could clear up a sinus headache. What he sought to heal most of all, what saturated his spirit more than anything, was his loneliness. The next time it happened, the voice was stronger, and the time after that, stronger again - An insistent, reasonable interior monologue. “Where am I?” Benjamin would ask himself. “Who am I? And how, I wonder, will this story end?” Random swimming pool, random country, “Whom do I know here?” Nobody, really, “Who would miss me?” Nobody, really. “Go down then, and let go,” said the unambiguous and sober voice that terrified him.

7.

There were evenings, unhappily, when Benjamin had to leave Mom alone in order to fulfill his social obligations. He would go to La Ville, the fashionable part of Kinshasa inhabited by the “European whiteys,” most of them government people and military officers. Among Benjamin’s colleagues, who like him had been marooned in the region by the containment policy of the cold war, some had managed to have their wives join them. Mom understood that Benjamin could not always hold himself aloof from them. She also accepted the fact that she was barred from this society because mom was a local; but she could not help being envious. An unforeseen aspect of their relationship arose as Benjamin explaining to mom that his private life was something that belonged to him alone and that his social and diplomatic life was something else, which was not within his control. Mom nagged so much one day that Benjamin finally took to her to La Ville. They spent the evening in one of those little villas that she had admired since her childhood, with two officers and their wives. As expected, there were plenty of disapproving glances. Mom was staggered, almost awestruck, at this condescension. The women kept watching her with a superior air of haughtiness that she found unbearable. She must have probably felt that she was wearing too much makeup, or that she was not properly dressed, or that she was not doing Benjamin credit, perhaps simply because of the color of her skin. They would ask: “So what does a guy of Benjamin’s caliber see in lowly local like her?” Such questions are best left in peace -- great love is never justified. Mom spent so miserable an evening that she decided she would never again ask Benjamin to take her with him.

8.

One Eastertide evening blooms away in 1983; Mom seems nervous watching the fading sun sink lower from the wraparound porch of a colon-style home. She liked to sit there in the evenings, especially after working hard all day, and let her thoughts wander without conscious direction. It was how she relaxed, a routine she’d learned from her father. Her eyes cast down. She’s beautiful. She picks her head up and takes a deep breath. Her big brown eyes are 18

soft in the light of the front porch, “I’m pregnant,” she says. Benjamin listens. He takes in the information. A smile breaks across his face, revealing a mouth full of white, perfect teeth. He quickly draws his lips over them, swallowing the smile. He begins to nod, a more reserved smile coming through, and says, “Good. That’s real good.” At this, Mom’s shoulders drop with relief. They sit close to one another on the front steps of the house. Benjamin takes her hand. Mom leans into him. An ominous sound grows in the distance -- A rumbling like thunder.

 

Copyright © 2019 Lionel Ntasano

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