Wednesday, September 19, 2012


Cars and cement and shiny plastic red shoes, spikey and garish and dull, how much do you think those cost he said.

“$500? no, $150?”

No, [laugh] “$1,400”

Judging the shoes and judging the mall, seeing tiny frail bodies pressed into the soles, little languid wrists tumbling out.

Stop! Drama queen!

Walking past Versace, Michael Kors, sparkling dresses and shiny silver and maroon suits, who would buy that I said,

Versace is more Miami, he said, Italian elegance.

Just landed and tired and am I dreaming, walking through one of the most opulent malls of America. 

Skeletons peering out from behind suits, swaying and dancing, little sharp bumps under folds of rich emerald fabric. 

I smell pretzals, and pretzals smell good, I don’t want any. I’m not actually here.

Cultural anthropology.

Into a Nike store, rows of neon green, construction orange, gray lined with bright pink, giant photos of perfectly perspiring models staring down at me in black and white grim and frozen in time. 

Can I help you find anything, he said

He had a headband around his forehead, I wonder, have you ever been in 120 heat?

She is walking out of Bloomingdale’s before us.  Twisted black bra strap, black designer sunglasses, lips rich and red,  tiny pinstriped shorts with a high waste line, high gold heels, slim white top, am I in the circus?

Am I in the circus, or am I the circus?

Feet swollen from the airplane, top of right food angry and red, spreading pink from a quarter sized infected bug bit, pus and grey and red and it’s just another bug bite and that’s disgusting, he said.


I won’t tell you about all the fungus and spreading purple rashes and hundreds of bites and a 2 months heat rash stinging my back and how that’s just another day.

Come with us to the mall,

Do I need to change?  Well, yes. 


Why did I ask?  I shouldn’t have asked.  I don’t need to do anything.

Took off my Tchad jersey and blue hospital scrubs, wearing a tight black shirt and pants, looking skinnier, not skinny enough, is this okay?  Or this?  Why do I need to ask anyone what is okay to wear to one of the fanciest mall in America? 

Green scarf and African bag, nice touch he said, except it’s not an accessory, it was the only thing left of me.

Putting on makeup, briefly liking the girl staring back, yet makeup wasn’t the panacea I dreamed it would be.  I thought I would be more beautiful.  I want to take it off.  

Crocs on my feet and going to the mall. 

This is my car.  I don’t know about cars.  It was black and sleek and shiny.  You could change the music from the steering wheel.  Tan leather seats and rain slapping the windshield.

I hate the rain, he said

The city, the city, so glad I am not driving, going down the hill, the lights turn green and it’s a trippy strip of color shining back and pouncing into our eyes as we speed through slick black streets.

Searching for something in common.  He is nice, I like him.  No, I didn’t know Kim Kardashian was divorced.  Or ever married for that matter.

I felt safe in Tchad, I said. 


Safer than the city.

Feeling a black despair creep in with the rain, my pants are too tight and I don’t see any cows.

Swiping my credit card at CVS, yum, zing, altoids, I want those too, 7 dollars. 

A fighting match between a tall fat woman and her slouchy husband man, ordering him out of the store, I don’t know if he goes.

Wait, did I buy it, let me help you, he said.  Is it debit or credit.  Oh, um, smile, sorry I just back from Africa.  No, really. 

She is older and has grey dreadlocks.  Why do I feel racist saying “Africa?”

Did you like it? 

Yes, sure, yes. 

Push credit, I forgot there were so many steps.  The receipt is like magic. 

Sorry, I said, in my tight black shirt, I’m kind of like a kid right now.  Following him wherever he went, past the perfumes and the shoes and the mall was so clean and so much space and smelled like roses at a funeral.

Are you having a good time? [anxiously]

Yes! I’m fine, I’m just looking at everything….

Thank-you.  really.

Why am I such a cliché? 

Why did I think, that I am above culture shock, somehow stronger than that.

I’m thinking in cliché, stop seeing the children, stop! but there are children in every dress, they are tiny and in the next few hours they are going to die and I wonder the hard plastic mannequin knows that reaching wrinkled hands are wrapped around her waist, that she is wearing more than Abercrombie.

Checking prices of a purse of his friend.  How much did she pay for it? 

Well, that depends.  The question was met seriously.  Suade and leather, or all three pieces are leather, and it depends.  Also, it has increased in value.  Last year it was $1900, now it’s $2400.

Is that something that she gets asked a lot?

Atlanta is the LA for black people he said.  We push past people.  Heels clicking.   The mall is dead now.  Dead?  You should see these girls on a Saturday.  Decked out, beautiful, and he lists in what but he lost me. 

Why would you pay $5,000 for a wig?

I want to knock it from your head.  But you are beautiful.  Like I wish I was.


I come home, I slurp up vegetable soup from a serving spoon, the carrots are perfect and crunchy and I’m consuming large amounts of squash and zucchini do I like those now?  Seriously, this soup is amazing.

Going to bed, I can’t sleep on silk sheets, pushing them off me, where is my tapestry, its static from being fresh and washed and I pull it over me, hairy legs peeking out and catching on the sheets beneath me and music, I need music,

Dylan?  No, he will make me so sad.  Clapton, no, there isn’t  enough soul in mine for Clapton…. Nickelback…..if everyone cared and nobody cried, if everyone loved and nobody died, fan blowing gently and contacts out and before the song is over I am sleeping


Waking up this morning and the shower is hot.  Its searing and steaming and feels so good between my shoulder blades.  The soap is luxury, probably from Victoria secret, designer shampoo, and it’s silky on my skin and then I go for the soap bar just in case.

Yesterday, I got pushed into the shower.  You smell rank, she said.  Shower so I can enjoy you.  Does everyone smell like that in Africa?  Feeling like I have to explain, it’s just that I’ve been traveling for 48 hours,

Did you shave your armpits, the question when I got out.  I thank her graciously.  And shaving my armpits was nice. 

My hair isn’t coarse anymore.  I want my Dr. Bronner’s.  Did you know you can brush your teeth with that too?

The dirt under my fingernails is gone.  I want it back. 

Pushing my pillow off the bed – you’re going to have to wash that, it still smells like Africa.  It’s not a bad smell….it’s just, I’m just letting you know….

Black coffee this morning, flowing brown pants and low green Bob marley shirt, its big and comfy and has been with me 5 years, I cut the collar out long ago and loved it ever since.  Okay, this is me. No makeup. I’m surprised. I don’t want it this morning

Okay.  That’s better.

Humid drizzly Atlanta morning.  The house across the gated suburb has a giant TV on the wall.  I can see through the cast iron porch slats, and they are watching TV at 7 am. 

I want Montana. 

I want my future Yurt. 

I want my people.  I don’t know where they or if they exist, but I want them.  The people that think dirt is clean and have lots of mosquito bites too. 

You have to be yourself, I told myself.  It doesn’t matter who is around you, you have to be yourself.  Don’t change your clothes for anything or anyone. 

And don’t judge. 


I DO judge you.  Not you, my friend who so kindly picked up and threw her arms around me and carried my heavy bags and bought organic vegetables and ordered me into her wonderful shower and let me use her shampoos and cosmetics. 

I DO judge you.  Not you, my new friend, my friend’s roommate, boy in all black with the funky black hat and the black BMW that likes the thrift store too, friend that let me follow like an odd ugly duckling, trailing through the mall.  Not you, the one that asked about the specifics of bucket showering, and typical houses, and listened when I told about compounds.  We finally found a CD we both loved and you let me burn it and that was so kind.  You are kind.

No, not you.

So, if I don’t judge you, who do I judge?  I guess I judge the faceless.  I judge the ones I haven’t met.  I judge the diamonds on your shoes.  I judge the existence of a mall.  I judge anyone that would pay that price for anything. 

But then, I’m judging most people.  I don’t want to be judged either. 

I don’t know how to stop judging. 

But, how can you pay that? How can you ostracize and exclude someone from your social circle that doesn’t pay that.  Is that why you pay? For friends?  Or were you that little girl, always on the outside looking in, and now, now that you made it, it’s important to you, so important.  Is that why you pay?

 Why are appearances so important?  It’s not your fault, it’s not, we are all a product of our environment and exposures and in this regard I have been lucky in this life.  But, how can you pay that?

But how I am supposed to tell you what a skeleton feels like.  Or the hunted eyes of a starving woman.  Or what it’s like to walk by a woman pounding millet, and she leans on her wooden pounding stick, and she is wearing purple and tired and sweaty with strong shaped arms and she just looks at you, and you just look back and you don’t wave and you don’t say hi, because the divide is too great.  This will never be your life and she will never have yours.  And to have those eyes, that look, that chasm, always with you. 

But should I tell you about that?  Should I become a mad street corner preacher, a moralizer no one wants to be around, should I be a dark rain dissolving your rainbow of happiness?  No! of course not.   That’s not fair.  To anyone.

Is it my responsibility to teach what I’ve learned, to convey it? 

Maybe not.  No.  Give others grace. That’s all you want, after all.

Wow, yes, I am the cliché.

I miss French.  I’m listening to French music right now. 

I don’t know.

But I will wear what I want.

I stood on my sticker covered trunk outside the airport looking for Buggy.  I was barefoot and very tall standing on it and my backpack was beside me and I was listening to CCR without headphones because in Tchad everyone walks around with their music blasting and I had messed up braids and a brown shirt and sweeping black pants with a thousand holes and I stood on my trunk in the wind and looked out over the cars and everyone was looking at me and I DIDN’T CARE.  I was me. 

And now, since I have no home, I am all I have.  So, I cannot abandon myself.  Never.  Never.  And if I don’t abandon myself, perhaps I won’t abandon them either.  The ones I promised to never forget.

I need to stop seeing sharp little racks of ribs stuffed into every opulent item.

But, then again, the more frightening thing would be to have the sharpness lose its edge.

And I guess it’s not your fault either, but I hate you, you spikey ugly high heeled red shoes – did you hear the skull pop and the squish of the brains sliding out in the hole you made in the eye socket as you stepped down?

Did you even know you were walking on bodies?

1 comment:

  1. Janna, after working for 9 months in Ethiopia, I can relate some to the things you've written about here. There's probably even more that's not written and never will be, but know there are others who have traveled this road. For me, the hardness is worth it. Culture shock is rough- I'm praying for you, God will be with you.
    ~Laurel (from SAU nursing class 2010)