Why Zaire

by Lawrence D Weinberg

It is a typical Friday evening at the Bilmonts and Esther is trying to crush Harvey’s dreams. Esther is cleaning the dishes in the porcelain double sink while Harvey is in the living room finishing up last Sunday’s New York Times crossword puzzle. He reaches to the small table on his right but his cigars aren’t there. Esther runs downstairs to grab a fresh bottle of dish detergent so she is a few minutes off her mark of finishing them by 6:45. She walks into their living room and Harvey asks her if she knows the name of a city in Ohio that is six letters and begins with "Ran". Esther doesn’t know and then Harvey realizes that 26 across was wrong and that the city is "Canton". Esther picks up the March issue of People and, before opening it, asks the question she has asked every third Friday for the past three years.

"Where are you going this week, Harvey?" This he mimics to himself, knowing that if he answers Esther, his wife of seventeen and not quite a half years, won’t understand.

"Zaire." He answers. What a beautiful name, he thinks. Zaire, a land where he can become one with nature. Where he can go out into the jungle and explore. Explore until he sees the beauty of simplicity, caring for one another, nature, spirituality, or whatever it is that he knows in his heart that God means for him to learn out in the jungles, or swamps of Wherever. Then he will live in a village among natives whose only desire is to get peacefully to the next day. Zaire, a land where all his troubles can’t follow. Where he can live the life that he had read about in National Geographic when he was younger.

"What’s Zaire? A country or a city?" Esther asks.

"It’s a country in Africa."

"You can’t go to Africa. It’s too hot, your gout would flare up, besides, you don’t speak the language, how would you ask where the bathroom was?" She always has an excuse. To her it’s a routine. Every third Tuesday, Harvey picks a place to go . She doesn’t know how he picks them, she only knows that every three weeks she has to put up with Harvey’s silliness. She doesn’t mind it because she loves, if not understands him. It seems like a waste of time and energy to her. A week full of nonsense. He gets all the brochures he can from Traveler’s Helper on Wednesday, that’s her cribbage night at the Kirklands so he can look at them at home alone. Sometimes he gets books out from the library, whenever he’s been particularly bored at work. Harvey talks about his new Shangri La until Friday night when she explains to him why he can’t go. She’s been going through it for almost three years, ever since Harvey’d turned forty and lost half his mind. Maybe it’s one of those mid-life crises she’s read about. Esther doesn’t mind it much. Anyway, she figures that he’ll stop when he runs out of places to go.

The routine is the always the same, every three weeks Harvey goes off like a cuckoo clock. Except once, about a year and a half ago, one time Harvey was into his third week and didn’t say anything. Not a word about his escape of the week. Thursday afternoon, right after "Guiding Light," she called Travelers Helper to ask if he’d been by. He hadn’t.

"Where’re you going this week Harvey?" she asked as if he had been mentioning it since Tuesday.

"Nowhere." Nowhere? She wondered. She panicked; he must have somewhere to go, she thought. She hadn’t expected the ritual to end so soon. "There must be more places in the world," she thought. "What about Turkey, that’s exotic, or Bulgaria or Spanish Guyana."

That night, while Harvey slept, she searched through the house covering all the places she thought Harvey would hide something from her if he ever had the need. She went down to the basement and went through his tools. She got oil on her hands from his power drill which he never used anymore but kept oiled in case he felt like fixing things around the house like he used to. Harvey always seemed the happiest when he was building something. But, when the foundation of the deck he built gave way and collapsed, Harvey stopped fixing things. The last thing he did with his tools was to dismantle that deck. She looked in the box where he kept his brochures, there wasn’t a new one at the top and she couldn’t bring herself to further search her rival.

In Harvey’s sock drawer she found not only brochures, but a first class TWA ticket to Singapore. The next morning she cashed the ticket in and returned the money to their joint savings account. Harvey didn’t mention anything and the routine never changed again.

But, this week it’s Zaire and it doesn’t seem to Harvey that the heat would affect his gout that much. A little pain’s a little pain, what more could the heat do? And, Harvey said a long time ago that language wouldn’t be a problem because he’d learn. He’d have all the time he needed to learn.

"What about all the trouble they’re having in Africa? You want to go off to find a dream and get killed?" Harvey knows Esther says this because she loves him. She smiles with the left half of her mouth slightly higher than her right, the look that made him ask her out nineteen years ago. She has a few wrinkles but is the best looking 40 year old woman Harvey’s ever seen. "Most men could never dream of leaving such a beautiful woman," Harvey thinks. "If only she wasn’t so damn practical."

"That’s only in South Africa." It’s always seemed to Harvey that she could come up with an excuse not to go to Heaven.

Esther puts down her magazine and looks at Harvey sitting in his father’s recliner. It is the one piece of furniture that Harvey took from his parents’ apartment when his father died. The chair still has the arm covers, in the same shade of burnt orange-brown, that they had when it was built in 1915. The seat cushion has never been reupholstered and is fraying a bit where Harvey’s thighs touch it. Despite its wear, the chair doesn’t have a sag and Harvey says it is the only chair that he feels comfortable in. Esther wants to make sure Harvey never leaves that chair. "They’ve got plagues all over Africa, Harvey. You’ll have to get lots of shots before you could go. You’ll probably have to get water pills so you won’t get sick. You don’t exactly have a cast iron stomach Harvey, at least admit that."

"Yes dear." She is safe and she knows it. Those two words are always a sign that Harvey is beginning to cave in. Whenever they discuss anything, buying their house, having children, where to go on vacation, or Harvey’s loony travel plans, if Harvey starts to give in a little, he ends up giving in all the way. If she weren’t there to protect him Harvey would have probably gotten himself killed years ago. She wishes that she could say, "Harvey you can’t go to Zaire because I won’t go and I need you and you need me." But, Harvey doesn’t need her. He has his dreams from his childhood. They were all he needed when he was nine and his mother died and his father stopped caring about everything; they’re all he needs now. The way Harvey kisses her on the cheek and bites on her earlobe every time they see each other shows her he still loves her, but as she realized when Harvey asked her to marry him, on a stylized bended knee, love is not need.

Harvey gathers his brochures and goes to put them in the box where he keeps the rest of his dreams. He walks into their guest room, what was supposed to be the children’s room, he thinks as he does every third Friday. On the wall opposite the crank opened window is a bookshelf that houses a set of cookbooks that Harvey gave Esther for their fifteenth anniversary. They are exotic cookbooks. Each has the cuisine from a different country. Some well known with well known foods, like how to make perfect egg rolls or charoses or curry, some with dishes that no one has heard of but have tastes that are so singular that they never leave your tongue. Esther has never opened them but, she manages to dust them once a week. The wall is covered with photographs of Esther’s sister’s children. Mike, as an onion in his fifth grade play. Jacqueline, swinging in the tractor tire that Harvey strung up for her in her backyard. Judd, the oldest, in his leather jacket that he saved a year and a half to buy since Esther’s brother-in-law "don’t believe no teenager should be wear’in no two hundred dollar jacket."

Harvey opens the closet and pulls the little chain to turn on the light. He put the light in himself which he learned from Time/Life’s "Fix it Yourself" series. He pulls out the box that holds his three years of brochures. There is a bumper sticker across the top of the box. He bought it at a dime store after his third planned trip. It says, "I’M NOT CRAZY YOU ARE" in black letters. Zaire fills the box.

Harvey looks at his dusty, full, cardboard box. It is filled with exotic places, historical lands, adventures that other people wrote about so people would take their vacations there. Harvey has only been out of the country once; he spent the summer after his junior year in high school in Spain on a four week exchange program. After his second week, Harvey caught a virus and spent the better part of the next two weeks in bed with a tumultuous stomach which has never left him. He still insists that they were the best four weeks of his life. "Before I was sick, Esther, I saw the Atlantic Ocean as Columbus saw it. I saw Africa across the Straits of Gibraltar. Even when I was sick, I was in Spain. I caught a Spanish flu and lay in a Spanish bed wondering if I would die in Spain, not here in god-damn Newark."

He closes the box and goes back to the kitchen where Esther is playing two deck solitaire. "I’m going out to get myself cigars. I smoked the last one during The A-Team."

"Could you pick me up a dozen eggs, I’m going to bake a cake."

He wonders what kind of cake and more importantly why she is going to go to all the trouble but he doesn’t feel like asking, "Sure dear."

Harvey starts the blue ‘84 Chevrolet and begins driving to Pathmark. It is only about ten blocks away but he always drives anyway. It is the same direction as the airport, just an extra three quarters of a mile and he could hop on a plane to anywhere. "The journey of a thousand miles begins with but a single step", thinks Harvey. "Eggs," thinks Harvey. "She probably needs milk too." They never keep enough milk in the house. Harvey isn’t sure how much milk she would really need anyway.

"Holy shit," he yells. A drunk driver is on the wrong side of the street. Harvey swerves to miss the car and drives onto a lawn. He lets the engine idle and sits for a moment in shock. He looks at the tree he almost hit in the same way Adam and Eve would have looked at the tree of knowledge had they not eaten from it. He finally blinks and breathes after four or five long seconds of blank thought. He backs off the lawn and continues driving to the store. In his mind races, "Eggs and milk." Lost in thought about that cake Harvey passes the Pathmark without even realizing that something within him is driving him to the airport.

He sits in the airport parking lot with his arms folded and his head on the steering wheel. He loves Esther. She’s an intelligent woman in her own way, and he can talk to her about almost anything. Since they were engaged, he has never thought about being with another woman, other than brief, normal curiosity whenever he sees a particularly nice smile. When he was courting her, he told her of his dreams of traveling and adventure. She was the only person who would listen to them. But, she wants different things out of life. She thought his dreams were "cute". They were part of what she said made her fall in love with him, but all she wanted was for him to be with her. He has always wanted more. It’s very important to her to be secure, to be settled. "Harvey, you know how to dream. You know how to make an ordinary life something special." She loved him for his dreams but that’s all she wanted them to be. He wishes that she could understand that dreams aren’t just an escape, they’re his focus.

He walks from the car to where the ticket agents are. He has to choose an airline. He has to choose a country. There is no line at the TWA booth and the ticket agent asks him, "How can I help you sir?"

"I’d like a one way ticket to Zaire."

"What did you say sir?"

He wants to yell, "ZAIRE! IT’S A COUNTRY IN AFRICA, I HAVE TO GO TO AFRICA BEFORE I DIE!" He tries to muster as much rationality behind his lost, green eyes as he can. He needs to be calm, no matter how difficult it is. He puts his hands into his pockets to keep them from shaking. "I’d like a ticket to any country in Southern Africa, preferably Zaire." He spells it out.

"Hold on a second." The attendant taps Harvey’s future into the airline computer. "Name please."

"Harv. . . Harrison Bilmont."

"When would you like to leave Harrison?"

"Now."

"Sir?"

"As soon as possible, I need to get to Africa as soon as possible it’s an emergency." He has to explain to her why it was so important for him to go. She has to understand why he needs to go to Africa. "I just have to go to Africa Esther, I hope you understand."

"Sir?"

"I need to get to Zaire, my father is dying."

"I’m sorry. All right, we have a nine o’clock flight to London tonight which gets into Heathrow tomorrow morning at 8:30. You can have a connecting flight to Johannesburg leaving at twelve and arriving at six that evening. Unfortunately there’s only one flight into Cambali each week and you’ll be stuck in Johannesburg for two days and three nights. I can book you on that flight and if you want I can make a hotel reservation for you through our planning service."

"That will be fine." He pays for the tickets with a credit card and wanders the airport looking for a way to spend the hour and a half before his plane takes off. He buys a Recess Peanut Butter Cup, a safari hat, and a National Geographic at one of the small airport stores. He wonders if he can get his subscription forwarded. He tries to read his magazine while waiting by the gate. He looks at his fellow passengers and wonders if they’re going to Zaire too. At 8:30 there is an announcement for all passengers on his flight to check in at his gate. "Good evening sir. Are you on the flight to London this evening?"

"Yes." His first true yes in years.

"Can I have your ticket please? Thank you. And your passport Mr. Bilmont."

"My what?"

"Your passport sir."

"I don’t have my passport." Oh, my God thinks Harvey, I don’t have my passport. He can’t even get it. He keeps it in a bank vault with Esther’s grandmother’s pearls and the bank book on his IRA.

"I’m sorry sir but I can’t let you on the flight without a passport. Would you like me to arrange a new flight or would you like to cash in your ticket." She is too friendly. Too courteous. He thinks, I don’t need my passport, I belong in Africa. You can’t take this away from me. He wants to cry but can’t. Not because he thinks it is wrong for a man to cry, but because it is his own damn fault. He doesn’t deserve that purge. "I’m sorry. I don’t believe I did that. Could you just cancel the flight. I paid by credit card so just wipe it out or whatever."

"All right sir. I’m terribly sorry."

Harvey walks down the concourse and back to his car. He passes a young couple too happy to be going anywhere. They walk out of step, arm in arm, but neither pulls ahead. He runs his hand across the hood to wipe off some dirt then gets in. Zaire. He starts the car. "Milk and eggs", he thinks. "I wonder if she has enough sugar?"

Harrison pulled into their driveway. On the driver’s seat sat his cigars, her eggs, her milk. His, hers. Just as the basement was his and the guest room was hers. Esther, why are we married? He never asked her. She would say, "Because we are Harvey, that’s the way its supposed to be and thank god that’s the way it is." Harrison, Harvey. Why doesn’t she call me Harrison? He wondered. Probably because I introduced myself as Harvey. I remember Stephen’s 21st birthday party at his girlfriend Ellen’s place.

Harrison was twenty. He had changed his major to history and education the week before. Harrison would be a teacher, Mr. Bilmont. That lasted a year. Harrison was happy that week. He wanted to celebrate his new found calling. Harvey was in a class with Steve, The Old Regime and the French Revolution. And he’d been over to Ellen’s a few times with him. It was a Thursday night, party night at Binghamton. Over fifty people went to Steve’s party, most of whom Harvey recognized, but he couldn’t name a dozen. He didn’t want to drink because he had an 8:30 class on Friday and he’d gotten a ‘C’ on the last midterm. But, he wanted to celebrate so he went to the kitchen to get an orange juice. A brunette with a brown skirt and a tight butt, which only Harvey would notice through the corduroy pleats was rummaging through the fridge. She seemed to be bent over for five minutes, though Harvey was never a patient guy. "Excuse me! Can I get some orange juice?" He yelled to overcome the music. Nothing, no reaction. Harvey thought of tapping her on the shoulder, but he didn’t want to startle her and make her drop whatever was so important in the refrigerator. He wondered what could be so interesting in a refrigerator. He wondered what she could possibly want that would take her so long to find. "Hello! Can I get to the refrigerator! Please!" Again, nothing. Harvey wondered if she was deaf. the music wasn’t that loud. He would feel awful if she was deaf, since he was beginning to get kinda pissed because he wanted to make his toast and he couldn’t just shove her out of the way. "Excuse me!" He yelled and was about to tap her shoulder, "Can I please have the ..."

"Here." she sheepishly turned around with the orange juice in her left hand. As she turned the refrigerator door closed behind her. "Thanks." She was almost a foot shorter than Harvey, wore glasses, and looked toward to floor, but Harvey glimpsed her eyes each time they darted up to take a peek at him. She had the most beautiful green eyes Harvey had ever seen. Harvey’s anger dissipated as she handed him the orange juice. "Would you like a glass?"

"Do you think Ellen will mind?"

This struck Harvey as an odd question as fifty relative strangers were spilling beer on Ellen’s living room and dining room floors, yet he tried to answer. "I don’t think Ellen will mind. It’s a special occasion. Today I began my career as a teacher and I need to toast."

"Why don’t you drink beer like everyone else?"

"Oh, I drink beer. Don’t get me wrong." Harvey didn’t want this woman to think he wasn’t cool. "I just have a class at 8:30 tomorrow and I’m not going to miss it just for a few beers. I know when to and when not to, no offense." God I sound pompous.

"Did you get a job?"

"What?"

"You said you began your teaching career today. Did you get your first teaching job? You seem a bit young to be a teacher." Her eyes darted up and down from the floor to Harvey’s face. She held the arm of her cardigan in her right hand as she gestured with her left.

"No. I’m a sophomore. But today I officially became a double major in history and education. I am going to teach the next generation about the world. Summers off, traveling Europe. It’s gonna happen."

"Oh. I’m an economics major. I’m going to be an accountant. I realize that most accountants are accounting majors, but I want to have the grounding in macroeconomics in order to work for the government. I could double major but I’d rather take the accounting courses I need to work and that have electives."

Why is this fascinating? Chemistry between people always fascinated Harvey. Why is A attracted to B though C is better looking? "Cheers." They drank the orange juice, Harvey poured.

Harvey didn’t see Ellen again until the following Monday. "Ellen. Great party. Wish I could have enjoyed with a couple of beers, but classes must come first occasionally. Ellen. I wanted to ask you who the woman in glasses and a brown corduroy skirt. She’s got very long brunette hair."

Harvey called Esther that night at 9:30. They talked till 2:00. They dated. Most college students hang out, but Harvey wanted Esther’s courtship to be done right. It took eight months before she agreed to marry Harvey, though they didn’t announce their engagement till he graduated.

Esther no longer wore glasses. She wore contact lenses, the only testament to vanity she could be accused of. Harvey was startled as she knocked on the car window. "Where are you Harvey? You in Zaire? Come on in the eggs will spoil."

It was 11:30 Harvey had taken two and a half hours to buy cigars, eggs and milk. At ten Ester began to worry if Harvey was coming back. At 10:05 she stopped worrying. Harvey wasn’t dead. She could still feel his heartbeat. If he was going to Zaire, he’d be back. He couldn’t go anyway. He didn’t have his passport. He couldn’t get his passport because he didn’t know she changed safe deposit boxes after he almost left. But, that wasn’t her worry. She worried that he would really want to go to Zaire so much that she would lose her hold on him. The games were fun at first, but the tickets really scared her.

What would she do if he really went to Africa or South America. Harvey had such beautiful dreams. He should have been a teacher instead of an engineer. He would have inspired kids to greatness, when he had never achieved it himself. Esther knew Harvey was torn, in ways he didn’t realize himself.

"Harvey, I’m waiting for the eggs."

"Yes dear." Harvey grabbed their groceries and handed the eggs and milk to Ester as he got out of the car.

"Thank you Harvey," she said as she leaned up and pecked his cheek.

"I love you Esther."

Esther smiled. She tried to keep it to herself, as she thought and almost said the words I know.