“Ilia, are you bored?”
It was morning, and I was still snoozing. I had a pillow over my eyes and didn’t want to wake up just yet.
“Are you bored with your life? With me? Life in general? Do you ever feel any excitement in your life?”
I slowly opened my eyes. The sun shone brightly into the room. Danielle was sitting on the edge of the bed and looking out the window. I had met her twelve days before, while on the Okavango Delta safari. She was French, from the city of Avignon, and in her early thirties. She had long, straight dark hair, big brown eyes, and an aquiline nose. During the safari, we had sat beside each other in front of a campfire, drinking red wine while listening to the guide’s stories. It was a warm night, but with a light breeze blowing. Bats flew over our tents as the moon rose higher in the sky. Danielle and I stayed up all night talking about Sartre, Camus, Kierkegaard, and the idea of despair.
“What time is it?” I said, and finally sat up.
She didn’t respond.
“Nothing,” she said, still staring out the window.
“I don’t know,” she said, “I just feel…I don’t think I know you at all.”
“Don’t you think it’s a little too early for this kind of conversation?” I asked with a yawn.
Danielle looked at me and rolled her eyes. “Please.”
“What? You are saying you don’t know me. It’s only been twelve days since we met. What do you expect?”
“You know what I mean,” she said, and sighed. “I don’t expect anything from anyone.”
“That was a rhetorical question,” I grinned.
Danielle continued without a smile. “I’m just wondering…kinda thinking out loud. It seems like you live in your own world and don’t allow anyone in. Sometimes when I talk to you – like just now, for example – I feel that you are physically with me, but mentally somewhere else. Whenever I try to reach you, you slip away. You act distant and aloof to the outside world.” She shifted her position to turn herself towards me. “Maybe it’s fear? You’re afraid of something…or afraid to take responsibility for your actions? I don’t know what you are afraid of, I really don’t. I wish I knew. Maybe you don’t want to get hurt. Maybe you’ve experienced a brutal break-up and you still feel that fear of abandonment…I don’t know. I’m just playing a guessing game. But it’s really frustrating!”
“It really hasn’t been that long since we’ve known each other, but I understand why you feel that way. I think you could eventually figure me out with enough time.”
Danielle got up and opened the window. The room filled with the summer air. “I believe you are honest with me, but really, it’s not about what I believe,” she said quietly, her eyes turned down.
“So what do you think I could be hiding from you? And for what reason? Why would I want to do that?”
“Maybe you are avoiding the dark corners of your own soul.”
“You think I’m not honest with myself?”
“I don’t know, really; I just feel this way.”
“Can you be more specific?” I asked.
“Like just now. Right now, as a matter of fact,” she replied. “You want to know what I think? I like you, but not knowing what’s inside your head bothers me. It makes me uncomfortable, and forces me to question my own judgment. You like to say that we are the culmination of all the decisions we’ve made. Well, one day we will part ways, and I will look back on these days we spent together with doubt and uncertainty, and I will ask myself why I spent all this time with you. Your silence has an effect on my life, too, believe it or not.”
She got up, took out a bottle of water from the mini-fridge, and poured herself a glass. “A few years ago, I briefly dated a guy. His name was Jules. He was a nice man. Good-looking, well-educated, and with good manners. He was neat and kept his clothes clean, and he always smelled like fresh air. He had a good job with a decent salary. In short, he was what women like to call good husband material. And he loved me. But you know I’m very picky when it comes to sleeping with a man.”
“However,” she continued, “even though I wasn’t all that attracted to him, I was feeling lonely one night, and I slept with him. He was so happy. The next morning, he brought me breakfast in bed, and asked me to stay for dinner so he could cook for me that night. I’d never seen anyone so happy just to be with me.”
She took a few sips from the glass. “It lasted for two weeks. I got tired of him. From that point on, everything went downhill. He got on my nerves. The scent of his clean shirts made me sneeze. His sense of humor made me groan. I became short with him, and was annoyed by his obvious vulnerability. It got to a point where I flirted with another man in front of him to make him angry. Somehow, I wanted to make him hate me and show it.”
I raised my eyebrows. “What happened after that?”
“He accepted my behavior; accepted me for who I was! Even though it was clearly a betrayal of his own self-worth, he told me he was ready to be with me, with all my strengths and weaknesses. He even said I could sleep with the other man if I wanted to. He was desperate.”
“So you broke up with him.”
“Well, I just stopped responding to his texts and phone calls. I didn’t even tell him that I was done with him. I didn’t care about his feelings at all; I found myself disgusted by his weak personality. I despise these weak men. I want a confident man who knows what he wants and knows how to get it.”
We were quiet for a few minutes. I knew Danielle expected me to say something, but I got up to put a coffee bag in the coffee maker. “Are you hungry? Do you want to get breakfast?”
“Are you sure? I’m hungry.”
“I said no, and if I were hungry, I would tell you,” she said in a cold voice.
“O.k. I’ll be in the restaurant. I’m planning on going on the Chobe National Park safari at 10:00. You can join me if you want.”
She gave me an exasperated look. “No, I’ll stay here. You go. I need to catch up on my reading.”
When I got to the restaurant, there was only one older couple there. I sat at a table near a fish pond and gave my order to the waiter. As I waited for my food, I thought about the conversation with Danielle. What did she want? I thought we were having a great time, but evidently, she wasn’t happy.
Suddenly, at that moment, five African wild boars entered the restaurant and started sniffing around. The waiter brought my coffee and saw the concerned look on my face, but he laughed and told me not to worry about it. Apparently, wild boars roaming the restaurant was a common occurrence, because no one else paid attention. I sipped my coffee and tried to ignore them. My thoughts returned to Danielle’s complaint. To me, it felt ominous. Maybe the current state of our relationship was no longer acceptable to her. Perhaps she wanted to move into my life, to be part of my daily existence. I could see that she hoped to expose my vulnerability, sensitivity, and what eventually in her eyes might be seen as weakness.
I had eaten half my breakfast when my local guide for Chobe National Park arrived to pick me up. He said he was eager to show me Chobe’s incredible nature. He suggested that a boat safari was the best way to explore the beautiful rivers, and that in the afternoons, we could expect to see herds of elephants and buffaloes come to the river to drink. We might also see hippos and African crocodiles, and he added that at this time of year, the river was a paradise for birdwatchers. I was sold.
In the boat beside me were five people: a young Japanese couple and a Swiss family of three: mother, father, and their teenage girl. I sat in the front seat and looked at the river before us, eager to discover what lay ahead.
“Expectations,” I couldn’t help but think, “Of course she has expectations.” It’s foolish not to have them. I wished Danielle could see that she sounded like a hypocrite. She was baffled and disappointed because I kept static dynamism in our relationship. But it wasn’t because I didn’t like her. I really did like her, but it didn’t go beyond that for me. I wanted to enjoy the moment, to live in the present, and just for a minute, to not have to think about future. Why couldn’t she be happy with what we had right now?
My attention was drawn to the sight of around two hundred elephants swimming across the river. Not far from there, we spotted a large group of hippos peacefully munching on water plants. According to our guide, however, it was the hippos who were killing the most people in Africa. These fearsome creatures were very territorial and could become extremely aggressive if someone got between them and their calves. And there was no escape from the hippo, because it was a good runner on land and could run up to nineteen miles per hour. It was also not unusual for a hippo to attack a boat and even flip over smaller boats.
“Crazy bastards,” the guide said with laugh, and then pointed at something about one hundred yards away. I stood up in the boat and looked closely until I could see seven massive crocodiles relaxing on the shore with their mouths wide open. Our boat slowly approached them until they were only ten feet away. The crocodiles did not pay attention to us, but simply continued their sunbath.
“Look at the crocodiles,” I thought, “They lie around all day with their mouths open. They are happy to be part of their ecosystem.” The crocodiles seemed to appreciate life. Danielle’s life, on the other hand, was a self-contradiction. As Nietzsche said, dominion over suffering is a person’s kingdom; that is where instinct directs him. That is where he possesses his distinctive art, his mastery, his kind of happiness.
The guide stopped our boat for a few minutes. I continued to stare at the crocodiles. I would have stared at them for a few minutes more, but I suddenly felt a touch on my shoulder. It was our guide handing me a cold bottle of water from the cooler. Our boat continued down the river, and the crocodiles slowly disappeared on the horizon.
The boat ride went on for a while, and I lost track of time. I had become hot, exhausted, and thirsty. I was ready to go to the hotel and relax for the rest of the evening. Finally we reached the area where the Chobe blends with the Linyanti swamps, and our guide announced that it was the end of the tour. He escorted us back to our vehicle and with a big smile thanked us for taking the trip.
I went back to the hotel and saw Danielle lying in a hammock with a glass of wine in her hand. The bottle stood beneath her, half empty, and she looked tipsy.
“How was the safari?” she asked me.
“It was okay. The heat was exhausting and you know I can’t stand heat. How are you doing?”
“I feel pretty good, actually,” she said with a laugh. “Most importantly, I think I’ve reached my age of reason,” she said, and poured more wine into her glass.
I didn’t reply. Danielle looked frustrated.
“You have a very puzzling personality,” she said.
“Do I? What I have done?”
“The problem is not what you have done; the problem is that you haven’t done anything. It’s actually worse.”
“I thought you judged people according to their actions.”
“Stop this sophistic nonsense. You know what I mean,” she continued, “I’m a straightforward person. For me, it’s not one specific action that matters, but the totality of the circumstances. At the end of the day, I need to know who you are, and what I can expect from you.”
She had started to irritate me. I didn’t know how to respond.
“I thought you didn’t have expectations…”
She looked at me with impatience. “Ilia, have you ever loved a woman?” she looked in my eyes and asked.
“Yes, I’ve loved a few women in my life.”
“Was it actual love or did you think it was love?”
“I don’t know what you mean by that, but…yes, of course I’ve experienced love in my life,” I said. “I still to this day love my childhood sweetheart, and I haven’t seen her for more than thirty years. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not like I feel physical attraction for her. No; no way! It’s just a platonic feeling that is still wandering somewhere in my heart. It got lost in time but never went away.”
“Nothing lasts forever.”
“No.” I got up and stood in front of her. “I’m telling you this because my experience with women has led me to believe in the saying, ‘that’s the way the cookie crumbles.’ Do you want to know how I see real love? This might sound cliché, but for me real love is an ongoing process that requires two people, and their dedication, consensus, commitment, and rational decisions. They live through problems, disagreements, and discord, but give up everything that brings dissonance or creates an antagonistic environment. It’s pretty rational and pragmatic and yes, I’m talking about real love, not short-term circumstantial romance.”
Danielle was quiet. She stared at the wall and played with the ends of her hair.
“My life isn’t a single story. It’s quite the opposite; it has many narratives, and one very important thing to me as a human being is to examine my life daily and deconstruct it apart from its contextual continuity. My perspective is that I no longer focus on the content of existence as it precedes essence. The past is past, and I won’t go back and re-live it. I realized a long time ago that I’m a social creature, and while functioning in daily routines, I am absorbing an identity and a set of values. Can my perception be integral and permanent? I don’t know. I often ask this question myself. Sometimes I think my thoughts are fragmental, sterile, and blind to the fact that my sublime reality is made up of only two things: sex and death.”
I began to pace back and forth.
“You said that for you as a woman, memory is very important. You have your life journey and you want to remember it to learn from your interactions with others. You want to keep your memories with you to help you understand the logic of reality. But what happens if one day a memory disappears, or becomes inconsequential? You might still remember certain things, like our time together for example, but you might realize that memories aren’t that important anymore. Like in the movie “Last Year at Marienbad,” do you remember? The characters of the film no longer remembered what happened the previous year, or they just didn’t want to remember it.”
“For me, even though memories are part of who I am, they are insubstantial, and I never look back on my life. I would never wallow in regret, or think I should have done that, or I should have acted that way. No, no, and again: a big no! My ideal life is to live in the present without any regrets; to be free and move freely in time and space. That is the only thing that is crucial for me at this time in my life. That’s why I am constantly traveling, always moving. It does not matter where I go, or what kind of landscapes, animals, or people I meet. The main thing is to travel, to be constantly on the road. The physical act of traveling is part of my spiritual journey, which has in itself already become a metaphysical transcendence of my identity, my misty path to the unknown.”
“The journey into your own existence,” Danielle said with a shaky voice.
I didn’t respond. We were quiet for a minute.
“It’s getting late. I need to go,” Danielle said, and got up. “I need to pack. I’m leaving for Zimbabwe tomorrow.”
I noticed that there were tears in her eyes.
“You’re leaving tomorrow?” I asked her.
“Yes, early morning, I already booked the transportation.”
“O.k., goodbye,” I said, and got up.
We stood face to face. Danielle looked down and nervously bit her lips.
“Come here,” I said, and hugged her. Her tears made my chest wet. “You take care of yourself, Danielle.”
“You too,” she said, and turned away.
Danielle went to her room. I got up, walked to the yard, and looked at the sky. It was a beautiful night, full of stars. I took my shirt and shoes off, lay on the grass, and inhaled the night breeze.