Issue 93, Fall 1984
The name she was unable to remember was torturing her. She kept coming up with Bechamel, which was ridiculously wrong yet somehow close. It was important to her that she remember. A thing in a book by this man lay at the heart of her secret career as a seducer of men—three hundred and twelve of them. She was a seducer, not a seductress. The male form of the term was active. A seductress was merely someone who was seductive and who might or might not be awarded a victory. But a seducer was a professional, a worker, and somehow a record of success was embedded in the term. “Seducer” sounded like a credential. Game was afoot tonight. Remembering the name was part of preparation. She had always prepared before tests.
Male or female, you couldn’t be considered a seducer if you were below a certain age, had great natural beauty, or if you lacked a theory of what you were doing. Her body of theory began with a scene in the book she was feeling the impulse to reread. The book’s title was lost in the mists of time. As she remembered the scene, a doctor and perhaps the woman of the house are involved together in some emergency lifesaving operation. The woman has to assist. The setting is an apartment in Europe, in a city The woman is not attractive. The doctor is. There has been shelling or an accident. The characters are disparate in every way and would never normally be appropriate for one another. The operation is described in upsetting detail. It’s touch and go. When it’s over, the doctor and the woman fall into one another’s arms—to their own surprise. Some fierce tropism compels them. Afterward they part, never to follow up. The book was from the French. She removed the Atmos clock from the living room mantel and took it to the pantry to get it out of sight.
The scene had been like a flashbulb going off. She had realized that, in all her seductions up to that point, she had been crudely and intuitively using the principle that the scene made explicit. Putting it bluntly, a certain atmosphere of allusion to death, death fear, death threats, mystery pointing to death, was, in the right hands, erotic, and could lead to a bingo. Of course, that was hardly all there was to it. The subject of what conditions conduce —that was her word for it—to achieving a bingo, was immense. One thing, it was never safe to roll your’s. She thought. Everything counts: chiaroscuro, no giant clocks in evidence and no wristwatches either, music or its absence, what they can assume about privacy and le future. That was critical. you had to help them intuit you were acting from appetite, like a man, and that when it was over you would be yourself and not transformed before their eyes into a loveleech, a limbless tube of longing. You had to convince them that what was to come was, no question about it, a transgression, but that for you it was about at the level of eating between meals.
She was almost fifty. For a woman, she was old to be a seducer. The truth was that she had been on the verge of closing up shop. The corner of Bergen County they lived in was scorched earth, pretty much. Then Frank had been offered a contract to advise African governments on dental care systems. They had come to Africa for two years.
In Botswana, where they were based, everything was unbelievably conducive. Frank was off in the bush or advising as far away as Lusaka or Gwelo for days and sometimes weeks at a time. So there was space. She could select. Gaborone was comfortable enough. And it was full of transient men: consultants, contractors, travelers of all kinds, seekers. Embassy men were assigned for two-year tours and knew they were going to be rotated away from the scene of the crime sooner rather than later. Wives were often absent. Either they were slow to arrive or they were incessantly away on rest and recreation in the United States or the Republic of South Africa. For expatriate men, the local women were a question mark. Venereal disease was pandemic and local attitudes toward birth control came close to being surreal. She had abstained from Botswana men. She knew why. The very attractive ones seemed hard to get at. There was a feeling of danger in the proposition, probably irrational. The surplus of more familiar white types was a simple fact. In any case, there was still time. This place had been designed with her in mind. The furniture the government provided even looked like it came from a bordello. And Botswana was unnerving in some overall way there was only one word for: conducive. The country depended on copper and diamonds. Copper prices were sinking. There were too many diamonds of the wrong kind. Development projects were going badly and making people look bad, which made them nervous and susceptible. What was there to do at night? There was only one movie house in town. The movies came via South Africa and were censored to a fare-thee-well —no nudity, no blue language. She suspected that for American men the kind of heavy handed dummkopf censorship they sat through at the Capitol Cinema was in fact stimulating. Frank was getting United States Government money, which made them semi official. She had to admit there was fun in foiling the eyes and ears of the embassy network. She would hate to leave.
Only one thing was sad. There was no one she could tell about her life. She had managed to have a remarkable life. She was ethical. She never brought Frank up or implied that Frank was the cause in any way of what she chose to do. Nor would she ever seduce a man who could conceivably be a recurrent part of Frank’s life or sphere. She assumed feminists would hate her life if they knew. She would like to talk to feminists about vocation, about goal-setting, about using one’s mind, about nerve and strength. Frank’s ignorance was one of her feats. How many women could do what she had done? She was modestly endowed and now she was even old. She was selective. Sometimes she felt she would like to tell Frank, when it was really over, and see what he said. She would sometimes let herself think he would be proud, in a way, or that he could be convinced he should be. There was no one she could tell. Their daughter was a cow and a Lutheran. Her gentleman was late. She went into the pantry to check the time.
For this evening’s adventure she was perhaps a little too high-priestess, but the man she was expecting was not a subtle person. She was wearing a narrowly-cut white silk caftan, a seed-pod necklace, and sandals. The symbolism was a little crude: silk, the ultra-civilized material, over the primitive straight-off-the-bush necklace. Men liked to feel things through silk. But she wore silk as much for herself as for the gentlemen. Silk energized her. She loved the feeling of silk being slid up the backs of her legs. Her nape hairs rose a little as she thought about it. She had her hair up, in a loose, flat bun. She was ringless. She had put on and then taken off her scarab ring. Tonight she wanted the feeling that bare hands and bare feet would give. She would ease off her sandals at the right moment. She knew she was giving up a proven piece of business—idly taking off her ring when the occasion reached a certain centigrade. Men saw it subliminally as taking off a wedding ring and as the first act of undressing. She had worked hard on her feet. She had lined her armpits with tissue which would stay just until the doorbell rang. With medical gentlemen, hygiene was a fetish. She was expecting a doctor. Her breath was immaculate. She was proud of her teeth, but then she was married to a dentist. She thought about the Danish surgeon who brought his own boiled-water ice cubes to cocktail parties. She had some bottled water in the refrigerator, just in case it was indicated.
Her gentleman was due and overdue. Everything was optimal. There was a firm crossbreeze. The sightlines were nice. From where they would be sitting they would look out at a little pad of healthy lawn, the blank wall of the inner court, and the foliage of the tree whose blooms still looked to her like scrambled eggs. It would be self-evident that they would be private here. The blinds were drawn. Everything was secure and cool. Off the hall leading to the bathroom, the door to the bedroom stood open. The bedroom was clearly a working bedroom, not taboo, with a night light on and an oscillating fan performing on low. He would sit on leather; she would sit half-facing, where she could reach the bar trolley, on sheep-skin, her feet on a jennet-skin karosse. He should sit in the leather chair because it was regal but uncomfortable. you would want to lie down. She would be in a slightly more reclining mode. Sunset was on. Where was her gentleman?The light was past its peak.
The doorbell rang. Be superb, she thought.
The doctor looked exhausted. He was greyfaced. Also, he was older than the image of him she had been entertaining. But he was all right. He had nice hair. He was fit. He might be part Indian, with those cheekbones and being from Vancouver. Flats were never a mistake. He was not tall. He was slim.
She led him in. He was wearing one of the cheaper safari suits, with the S-for-something embroidery on the left breast pocket. He had come straight from work, which was in her favor.
When she had him seated, she said, “Two slight catastrophes to report, doctor. One is that you’re going to have to eat appetizers from my own hand. As the British say, my help are gone. My cook and my maid are sisters. Their aunt died. For the second time, actually. Tebogo is forgetful. In any case, they’re in Mochudi for a few days and I’m alone. Frank won’t be home until Sunday. And, the Webers are off for tonight.
They can’t come. We’re on our own. I hope we can cope.”
He smiled weakly. The man was exhausted.
She said, “But a cool drink, quick, wouldn’t you say? What would you like? I have everything.”
He said it should be anything nonalcoholic, any kind of juice would be good. She could see work coming. He went to wash up.
He took his time in the bathroom, which was normally a good sign. He looked almost crisp when he came back, but something was the matter. She would have to extract it.
He accepted iced rooibos tea. She poured Bombay gin over crushed ice for herself. Men noticed what you drank. This man was not strong. She was going to have to underplay.
She presented the appetizers, which were genius. You could get through a week on her collations if you needed to, or you could have a few select tastes and go on to gorge elsewhere with no one the wiser. But you would remember every bite. She said
“You might like these. These chunks are bream fillet, poached, from Lake Ngami. No bones. Vinaigrette. They had just started getting these down here on a regular basis on ice about a year ago. AID had a lot of money in the Lake Ngami fishery project. Then the drought struck, and Lake Ngami, poof, it’s a damp spot in the desert. This is real Parma ham. I nearly had to kill someone to get it. The cashews are a little on the tangy side. That’s the way they like them in Mozambique, apparently. They’re good.”
He ate a little, sticking to mainstream items like the gouda cheese cubes, she was sorry to see. Then he brought up the climate, which made her writhe. It was something to be curtailed. It led the mind homeward. It was one of the three deadly W’s: weather, wife, and where to eat —in this country, where not to eat. She feigned sympathy. He was saying he was from British Columbia so it was to be expected that it would take some doing for him to adjust to the dry heat and the dust. He said he had to remind himself that he’d only been here four months and that ultimately his mucous membrane system was supposed to adapt. But he said he was finding it wearing. Lately he was dreaming about rain. A lot, he said.
Good! she thought. “Would you like to see my tokoloshi?” she asked, crossing her legs.
He stopped chewing. She warned herself not to be reckless.
“Dream animals!,” she said. “Little effigies. I collect them. The Bushmen carve them out of softwood. They use them as symbols of evil in some ceremony they do. They’re turning up along with all the other Bushman artifacts, the puberty aprons and so on, in the craft shops. Let me show you.”
She got two tokoloshi from a cabinet.
“They call these the evil creatures who come to you at night in dreams. What you see when you look casually is this man-like figure with what looks like the head of a fox or rabbit or zebra, at first glance. But look at the clothing. Doesn’t this look like a clerical jacket? The collar shape? They’re all like that. And look closely at the animal. It’s actually a spotted jackal, the most despised animal there is because of its taste for carrion. Now look in front at this funny little tablet that looks like a huge belt buckle with these x-shapes burned into it. My theory is that it’s a Bushman version of the Union Jack. If you notice on this one, the being is wearing a funny belt. It looks like a cartridge belt to me. Some of the tokoloshi are smoking these removable pipes. White tourists buy these things and think they’re cute. I think each one is a carved insult to the West. And we buy loads of them. I do. The black areas like the jacket are done by charring the wood with hot nails and things.”
He handled the carvings dutifully and then gave them back to her. He murmured that they were interesting.
He took more tea. She stood the tokoloshi on an end table halfway across the room, facing them. He began contemplating them, sipping his tea minutely. Time was passing. She had various mottoes she used on herself. One was: Inside every suit and tie is a naked man trying to get out. She knew they were stupid, but they helped. He was still in the grip of whatever was bothering him.
“I have something that might interest you,” she said. She went to the cabinet again and returned with a jackal-fur wallet, which she set down on the coffee table in front of him.
“This is a fortune-telling kit the witch doctors use. It has odd things inside it.” He merely looked at it.
“Look inside it,” she said.
He picked it up reluctantly and held it in his hand, making a face. He was thinking it was unsanitary. She was in danger of becoming impatient. The wallet actually was slightly fetid, but so what? It was an organic thing. It was old.
She reached over and guided him to open and empty the wallet, touching his hands. He studied the array of bones and pebbles on the tabletop. Some of the pebbles were painted or stained. The bones were knucklebones, probably opossum, she told him, after he showed no interest in trying to guess what they were. She had made it her business to learn a fair amount about Tswana divination practices, but he wasn’t asking. He moved the objects around listlessly.
She lit a candle, though she felt it was technically premature. It would give him something else to stare at if he wanted to and at least he would be staring in her direction, more or less.