It’s 4 o’clock and Oprah, dressed in spring hues, cheeks brushed pink comes on the T.V. Emilie is watching, with her long fingers placed together in prayer position, on her lap, decorated in weathered, fading colors of traditional African fabric.
‘I like her a lot.’ She says to me in French. ‘She is bigger, she has something you can hold onto.’
It’s similar to the comment she made earlier, when I had told her I was finished with my cleanse. She had tried to pinch a handful of flesh at my ribcage, and found little satisfaction in my thin build. She motioned how easy it would be to throw me around, making me laugh uneasily. Emilie lifted the lid of her giant pot and showed me the steaming; glistening with fat, lamb stew. She poured rice into another oversized pot, and topped it with oil from a mammoth container. ‘You are staying for dinner.’ She half asked and half lifted one eyebrow, indicating that she wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Part of me wished that I didn’t know African cultural norms, and that I could respond in American manner, ‘No, I’m busy...I have plans’ etc. but I couldn’t, so I put my hand on her shoulder and said ‘Oui, Mama. Bien Sûr.’
It was Friday and I was exhausted, and she obviously hasn’t been practicing her English – as we moved through the same letters of the same little book, with the same pictures – getting the same, confused and tired responses from Emilie.
‘Did you talk to the agency about finding me a job?’ she said. I told her I did, and that they gave me the same response as always...There would be no job until she could speak enough English to have a meeting with the employment office. I didn’t say it with such a harsh tongue as the person who had said it to me, but Emilie could feel the definiteness of the response.
‘Who said that? I will go there and ask Amanda, she will help me.’ I told her she could try, but that it would be very hard to work without the knowledge of reading and writing.
‘I want to take care of someone’s children. Or even in a kitchen, making food’ I tried to respond positively, but recognize how many people there are in this city, seeking work at the bottom wrung. I tried to get us through the alphabet, but she wasn’t taking initiative – she wanted me to sound the letter, for her to mimic. Which I did, but I started thinking, how much is she becoming dependent on me? Emilie is tired after 15 years of displacement and resettlement, struggle and strife, hunger and discrimination, departure and distance from kin. She wants me to turn the pages, to sound out the letters, to help her move out of her past, she want us to eat together, to drink wine...she wants to laugh.
‘That’s enough’ I say, as she puts another giant spoonful of rice and stew on the mound on my plate. I haven’t had meat or cooked food since before my cleanse, and although I am a bit fearful of my stomach’s reaction – I dig in. I have no choice, we have prayed to God, blessed the food in Jesus’ name and now Emilie is looking at me, moving her fork to mouth in quick movements and telling me to ‘mange,’ which is the French command to eat. She disappears to the kitchen and returns with two glasses and fills them with wine. A few hours later I am still there, we haven’t done anymore with our English lesson – and we are drunk. I have tried to leave after each glass of wine, and each time, she had used the French equivalent for just one for the road.
When Bour got home from visiting a family member, and a long day of physical therapy at the hospital he was pleased to find me there. Pepe, their son had also returned home from his 10-hour workday at the factory and had bought another bottle of wine for us from the corner shop, and a few Guinness for him. Pepe turned on a music video of West African worship/dance music – where they are dressed in traditional garments and the singer is backed up by a group of women who shake their hips in the appropriate dance. Bour tries to show me all the bills from his hospital visits, held together in a blue envelope of mysterious English, and demanding balances. I shake my head at him, and tell him his wife has gotten me drunk – and that I can’t work anymore tonight. He laughs and pours himself a glass of wine, and fills mine, saying one for the road. I have never been sicker, the lamb and drink were overkill to my pristine system – and my head was spinning; how do I help them without hurting anyone?