Blame the touba coffee, poured after a platter of djebou djem they stopped for on the way, in melting plastic cups. With cardamom and black pepper, slipped out of the adult world into tiny cups by waiters who assume every tenth grader finishes lunch this way. They are big people: fifteen-year-olds. Tall. With shadows of mustache, breasts poking through t-shirts, even Xan’s, though she minimizes the best she can with tight sport bras. A girl her age is married in the village near the pink lake where the restaurant was, pregnant and carrying water for a household. Coffee is the least of her worries. The waiters thought they were giving the group their money’s wort, no idea the chain of events they would set off.
The road towards Sobo Bade is faster and greener than the slow chug of the stretch outside of Dakar. Instead of low-slung industrial wasteland they pass sprawling white homes behind the shag of grass, spiked aloe, and blood-orange hibiscus. Animated by coffee and sugar, paper airplanes fly from the back of the bus to the front but never as far as the Director’s head.
A tap on the shoulder. “I swear, Miss. If this bus doesn’t stop soon, I cannot be responsible for what will happen to the floor,” said Ben, whose parents usually forbade him any kind of caffeine.
Delilah turns reluctantly. “It’s about half an hour to the hotel. I’m sure you can make it. There’s nowhere really to stop, unless you want to pee by the side of the road.”
“I mean, those bushes look fantastic to me.”
She stands up to face the back of the bus. “How many of you would like to make a pit stop?”
A bouquet of sticky, Sharpie-stained hands shoot up. Xan has been organizing something back there.
Delilah walks to the front of the bus and whispers to Rob, who startles at her proximity. They have not spoken since the wax spilled. During lunch, Delilah sat on the opposite side of the long table.
Rob does not pause to collect his thoughts now. “It really isn’t protocol.”
“I’m pretty sure Starjuin can’t see us in his magic mirror.” Delilah is not going to back down. She was unable to stop Rob today, and she is just as angry at herself for not being more assertive as she is at him for not learning anything from last time. Or from the petition, which clearly had not made any impact. Despite all his pauses to think. What was he thinking about?
“You are proposing we let a bunch of foreign kids pee in public? Isn’t that just inviting trouble? What if someone drives by? They will think kids from the American school have no respect for their country.”
Delilah can’t tell if he is objecting to the bathroom question or to her, but she is dismayed to feel once again like she’s fighting with her husband. Rob and Bashir don’t seem to share any traits. From the outside, Rob is khaki where Bashir is Deisel jeans. Rob is running in the morning and Bashir is sleeping till ten. Why are their fights so familiar?
Ben appears by her side. “Mr. Rob, I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t a true emergency.” Ben cranks it all the way up, sweetness layered with icing-sugar innocence. “Please, sir.”
Rob relents and signals for the bus driver to pull over. Scott grabs two rolls of toilet paper out of the first aid bag behind the back seat. Delilah surveys the scene. There is a clump of trees across the road next to a half wall in an L-shape that offers some privacy.
“Girls, why don’t you crouch behind that wall?” Delilah points. “Boys, go behind the trees.”
“Miss, I want to but I can’t,” Xan confesses. “Not in front of all the rest of the girls. I don’t want them to see my butt.”
Delilah laughs, launching straight into a little speech about how they are all girls, nothing to be ashamed of, a good challenge for her, a hurdle to overcome, but it is nothing more than the acme of hypocrisy. Delilah is also bursting and has the exact same reservations as Xan. But as a teacher she really can’t show her butt to the students.
Rob’s proximity doesn’t help. The idea of being seen crouching from behind. That view. A few minutes later, when most of the girls return, and Rob takes a turn behind the trees, Delilah pulls Xan closer. “I’ll stand guard for you if you do the same for me.”
“Miss!” Xan looks even more distressed at the thought of being pee buddies with her homemade clothes-wearing, free-love teacher.
“What? You think teachers have some kind of special valve?”
“Fine. It was the coffee. I’ve never had to pee so badly in my life.”
As the two of them cross the street, they almost collide with a cyclist zooming by. A young man, hair cut close to his head, with a basket of silver fish strapped to the back of his bike. The fish are still flapping, slapping wet scales against each other.
“Whoa! Watch where you’re going.” Delilah holds her hands up and he turns around to scowl.
“Why is he scowling at us? He should watch where he’s going.” Xan’s bladder has taken over.
“He wasn’t expected two toubabs to walk across the highway,” Delilah shrugs. “He’s in a rush. Those fish are still alive, the sun is out, and there’s no ice until Sobo Bade.”
Back on the N1, the road is clear. Trees arch over, cooling the pavement. Delilah glimpses the occasional fruit seller and wishes she could stop for a banana or a mango, the rice, fish, herbs, and palm oil gurgling every time the bus bumps over a root under the pavement. The houses have changed. Instead of high and guarded, they are sprawling and lush, ease of low walls signaling resort territory. Fewer people in open spaces. Dangling blooms. Deli rests her head against the window, the roll and dip of voices around her lulling her into sleep.
Her first thought is of her Lebanese hairdresser who told her about his beach house last week, when he threw her on the back of his motorcycle. The salon was hard to find, tucked into a small alley, and even though it was odd to hold her metrosexual hairdresser around the waist before he had even put scissors to hair for the first time, it was also a thrill. Legs splayed, speeding through the city. She tries to imagines how a straight man with bleached blonde hair would decorate. Gold lame? Chandeliers?
Spoils of the opportunist. The Lebanese had been in Senegal, like the owner of her favorite grocery store, where things were stacked in no particular order, but she could find pomegranate molasses and stale baklava, or the women she’d seen on the beach, coiffed and bikinied, for over a century, running interference between the French and the Senegalese, translating Europe to Africa, Francais to Wolof. They were the assistants, the intermediaries, more approachable than the overlords. When the French left, the Lebanese had taken advantage of what was up for grabs and now owned restaurants, furniture shops, drugstores, and hair salons. How the middleman bides his time waiting for the chance to pounce.
Delilah can relate. The way she inserts herself between her children and her strict husband at the beach, playing them both. It’s not right that she hides things from her husband, that she is the one who knows what each side thinks. They know the rules. Sandcastles only. They won’t go in. And to her children: Not in front of your father. It’s not worth it. She sees no alternative. She can’t bring her children to a peninsula, surrounded by ocean, and keep them out of the water –– perpetrate a greater tragedy.
Between the students and Rob. Handing out imported paper for their petitions. Goading them with leading questions. Maybe you should write down your grievances. It might make you feel better. Had she always been this way? Maneuvering herself to the center, at the expense of everyone else?
Liberty Hill RV Park, Texas. Eight years old. Something was flying out the window. Nothing heavy, nothing that would cost more broken than whole. An old plate? A loaf of bread? Delilah doesn’t remember a crash, just flying. Delilah was lying on her bed in the back, singing Olivia Newton John with her eyes on the lawn chairs as her mother searched for the next thing to throw. You give more to them than to your own family, her mother used to say about the struggling musicians her father took on, trying to help them break into the industry. His own band had peaked when he was two, and this was how he kept his hand in the business, going to clubs to find new talent, driving them to auditions. Once in a while he would land a deal but the agent’s commission was never more than a drop in the bucket.
Another middleman. Just what the world needs.
She should really tell that to Mamadou, who thinks his marabout talks to Allah will protect him from evil spirits. As if such a thing –– Delilah’s head lurched as the brakes squealed to a halt. Snapped out of her reverie, she looked outside, hoping a stray cat was running across the road, but knowing as surely as she knew she was pregnant the second time the way roads in this country turn on a dime. You think you are driving into the smoke of a woman frying beignets but instead, a tire is alight.
“What’s happening?” She turns towards Rob, forgetting how angry she still is. Rob with his schedules and morning greetings and khakis and long, awkward pauses. She needs him to know.
“Why are we stopping?” Xan’s voice in a low panic.
“The road is blocked.” Rob at the front of the bus.
“There’s a log. Across the road.”
“It fell from a tree?”
“No tree. Someone’s put it there.”
“Kids, stay in your seats. We’re going to move the tree. Don’t worry.” Rob switching into a different person. “Delilah, you stay here with the kids while we move it. Scott, come with me.”
The driver follows Scott and Rob out of the bus. They pitch over the log, try to lift it. Scott stands to hitch up his pants, bends over again, six palms lay under where the log curves away from the earth like a spine, but the log is more like an elephant’s leg and they can’t lift it. The driver moves closer to Rob and Scott, to one end. “On one, two, three,” Rob calls, but they can’t even roll it.
By now the kids stand at the front of the bus and watch the three men grunt and heave. Ismael wants to go help them, and J-M, but Delilah is torn. “Stay in your seats, kids. I know you want to see what’s happening, but you can see them from your seats. Go back to your seats.” Delilah is watching her students turn around and file back into place so she doesn’t see who is coming from the trees. It’s Xan who sees first, who sees everything first.
Dozens of men and women in stovepipe jeans, t-shirts with Tupac or slogans written in glitter, flip flops, and Bata trainers, their faces covered with t-shirts tied around noses and mouths, just like the day on the road. All she can see is eyes and hair short and chiseled or braided. Wolof like hot clouds. A torrent of shouts and chants. How did Deli not hear them coming? It was so loud in the bus with all the kids talking at touba-coffee pitch.
“They have rocks,” Ben’s voice dissolving as the three men rush inside, pull the door closed.
Delilah walks from seat to seat. “Close all the windows! Everyone in your seats NOW.” The voice she used when her son almost ran into traffic on the Corniche, the voice she does not know is inside her until it emerges, only when it is summoned.
Rob goes outside. Delilah stops herself in time from calling after him. This is no time for the two of them to sound like they’re having another marital spat.
His hand extends, palm up, summoning. Who is the leader, among all these young people? Rob turns and summons the driver to translate. Rob’s requisite pause. If there was ever a time to gather his thoughts. When he opens his mouth to speak, addressing the crowd, his voice is as easy as if he were talking to the manager of the general store in his home town. Gorham, New Hampshire, where he would have no chance of talking a school shooter out of his mission. In a voice that reaches across the counter to the man behind the register and says there is no real difference between us, we’re all in this together. He asks to speak to the leader. He’s not smiling but he doesn’t look angry or afraid or even shaken, not the way the ‘Now!’ came out of Delilah’s mouth like this is what she’s been bracing herself for, dreading, ever since they arrived, when her husband is away, and she can’t see them coming, just like she couldn’t tell that tire was burning while her husband slept under a white Jesus in the nun’s mission and even here she missed the approach.
All she had to do was look out the window.
If there was no touba coffee, no distressed Ben, no prolonged pit stop, no man with the fish riding past –– alerting his people? Another ten seconds and the bus could have sped off. No masked angry strangers with rocks in their hands, while her children play soccer on sprinkler-fed grass under the watchful gaze of Aisatou, and she’s stuck near Lebanese beach houses in a growing forest in a place that sounds like sotto voce where there is no reception even if she dared to reach for her phone.
To the young man in a blue knit beanie who has stepped forward, Rob explains this is a bus of school children. School children. We are on this trip to learn about your country. There is no threat from us and nothing to be gained by harming children of Ambassadors; all the countries who support your struggle for rule of law. The bus driver, a thin man in a fez, totally out of his element, shaking in a way everyone can see, even though it’s only happening in his kidneys, in his appendix.
The leader tells Rob in French something about an Imam and Deli picks up the word prison and protest and Dakar. Their Imam has objected to the third term for the President and they are en route to Dakar, to make their stand. He will listen to us if we have bargaining chip, the bus driver translates.
If the bus doesn’t get through, the U.S. Ambassador will wonder where we are, Rob repeats, as if he had not already mentioned that.
The hands holding the rocks remain below the waist. Inside the bus students won’t get down like they were told, but stare because they don’t know that eye contact is the thing that will make or break their release; awe at what can happen between a pinkish lake where they rode on wooden carts pulled by donkeys and the resort that’s waiting for them with a three-course meal and a swimming pool overlooking the ocean. Infinity pool? is what they kept asking, because they’ve lived all over the world where there are always security warnings and unpredictable elections and warring factions and tribalism and random borders carved out without the consent of the indigenous people. They are never actually in the middle of the action until this moment right now. They just hear about it at dinner while the maid is serving the first course that the cook has prepared, usually soup but sometimes fatayer or canapés, or that talk is what their parents allude to after they’ve talked about how many goals they scored or what costume they want to wear for international day.
Someone is sobbing. Xan is shushing him. Ben’s sobs.
Tatoo rummages through the coolers at the back of the bus and a chain forms to pass the items down the aisle to Rob, who offers the pack of toilet paper, a case of bottled water, to the leader. Provisions for a successful journey to Dakar, where they plan to sit in front of the Presidential Palace. Two bags of jumbo marshmallows, which were going to be made into s’mores tonight, commissary booty, which are supposed to sweeten the deal but only draw the man in the beanie’s eyebrows together, perplexed.
Delilah is so singularly focused on Rob, who is rising to the occasion in ways she would have never predicted, who is no longer the petty, adversarial figure but the one who is going to deliver all of them out of this mess that she almost missed J-M, at the back of the bus, hanging out the window, chatting to the guy with the fish in his basket like they’ve known each other for years. Cuz.
“Marshmallows,” Xan calls out, because she can see the confusion in Djily Bagdad’s face, and now Rob has the word in his mouth.
“Marshmallows,” he says as the tree is cleared and the driver starts the engine.