Short story: Trip Toe by Mon Kris
“If you smile so much the guest will call security. Control yourself.”
The young trainee server’s grin grew wider.
“Also you must not sing while arranging the dishes. It is possible. Observe.”
The square exquisitely chased turquoise table came alive with olives, miniature sweets, rolls of golden bread and an enormous jug of pomegranate juice. She watched, delighted, as Tafa’s fingers flew around the table, stopping now and then to meet hers in the diamond shaped mirrors below. In this place where her accent did not precede her she could speak.
She had never seen him smile. Nor, it appeared, did he expect her to as she had discovered during her maiden ride in the disturbingly ornate service lift from her room on the eighth floor, down to the lobby. In the days that followed she had run into him on several occasions gradually growing to savour the prospect of not having to immediately respond when she did, the beginnings of a release from that distinctly American compulsion to react to oncoming humans. That forced shaping of the lips that was often very nearly a grimace, a shield thrown up against the terrifying possibility of contact, as if to look someone in the face without a smile was too intimate an exchange.
“Come on! You have to do this! I don’t want to spend our last few days together fighting.”
“You’ll visit him, won’t you? And it’s just for a year.”
“You’re being diff__”
“It’s not even my field.”
“Just whip something together. You’ve two full days. And I don’t think they care. It’s just a poster. Andy’ll get you in.”
I do. I care.
He’d moved away now, joining Hippolyta’s other children as they permeated the dining hall like the tendrils of steam rising from her coffee cup. She didn’t think he was curious about her. He was her exotic vacation, she just another workday. Yet, it seemed, there was a certain absence of indifference lapping at her senses. Whenever she’d turned her attention to it, she’d found him alert, prepared to withdraw at the first sign of discomfort, hers or his own, she couldn’t tell. It really was quite perfect and it made her a little sad that she didn’t want more.
“You are Diana?” Abundant black eyebrows loomed over luminous brown eyes, serving up a disconcerting mixture of seduction and mockery.
“I, I’m Diane.”
“I am Toni. I wait for you 20 minutes. You say 9:30. I am here 9:30.”
“We go now, yes?”
Toni deftly made his way through the narrow, crowded lane, and out into the equally crowded main street. Diane turned eagerly to stare at the string of cafés to her left, arched glass doorways flanked with golden minarets leading into a world where feta cheese and croissants jostled with kebabs and hukkahs. Young women in their ankle length skirts worn rather fashionably over pants flowed into the dusty street. They might have been undergraduates at a Manhattan college, books clutched in one hand, a bag slung over a
shoulder. Their outer robes, mostly blue, grey and beige; the exact shades of respectability made her think that perhaps behind every pinstriped shirt was a beautiful Egyptian.
“You are close, your friend and you?”
“Tina. Close, yes.”
“Then why she not come with you?”
“Missed her flight.”
Toni chuckled. “Are you sure?’
Kids, masked faces, brandishing knives at her. The smell of stale tomatoes. Hands pulled behind her. Ropes biting into her wrists. They had waited like that for about ten minutes. A faded old fiat had pulled up near them. Loud talking. ‘Americaine! Americaine!’ The kids ducked a slap. More talk. “Noire!”
She had longed to simply roam the streets but there hadn’t been any time. The last two days had been spent pointing at tourist sites from the hotel bus which she’d come to loathe, like an indispensable spouse of many years. She moved to gaze at the Mediterranean stretching out to the right and recalled with a pang her wild dash to the beach across from the hotel. Even in the soft, early morning light the low walls of the Marina had gleamed white. She had leapt over them rather than waste precious minutes walking to the gate, and galloped towards the water as only a woman of five feet and eleven inches can. Once there she had rolled up her hair, taken a deep breath and begun swishing the water about with her feet, an activity that had continued for the next half hour or so owing to the fact that she couldn’t swim. She had sighed from time to time, raised her arms to the sky, sneaked hopeful looks at the hotel windows facing the sea and returned with joy in her heart and sand in her corduroys.
“Andy says you’re a true aristocrat. You just don’t care.
You should, you know. Care. People notice.”
“You are rich? Hippolyta, it is much money.”
“God, no. It’s all paid for by the conference.”
“You student or professor?
“You give lecture?”
“Ya. But this trip was very last minute. I’m worried about my talk, my lecture.”
Toni’s grin filled the rearview mirror. “You not worry about you look young?”
They’d let her go just like that.
“How long to the airport?”
Toni’s substantial shoulders rose. “Three hours, maybe less… maybe more,” he said, directing dark looks at the drivers around him. “No discipline in this country. I hate it!”
“Andy and I are going out for a walk. Want to come? Come. It’s gorgeous outside.”
“Can’t. Have to work on my talk.”
“Your ta_. I thought… Oh.”
The palatial lobby was silent except for the late shift singer, swaying and smiling at the enthusiastic applause from her solo patron.
“Automatic Routing Systems and Braess’ Paradox”
“The Effect of Braess’ Paradox on Automatic Routing Systems” “Automatic Routing in the Context of Braess’ Paradox”
“The next and final speaker of this session is …. Oma Omane.” Elderly Prof. Masuda struggling to make out her name in the dimly lit hall.
“Diane. It’s Diane Livingstone.” Americaine.
“Braess’ Paradox and Automatic Routing Systems as a Multi-body Problem”
Too black for business?
“We nicely bookended that session, Di. The rest were rubbish.”
“You try this.” The tall and wide silver shop owner slipped the engraved band around her finger.
Engaged! Tina mouthed silently behind him, clasping her hands and doing a twirl.
“I don’t know… Those earrings are pretty but kind of expensive.”
“You buy this and I marry you.”
“I have to find my third wife.”
“Are the first two not to your liking?”
“I must have four wife. Only two, people say I am lazy. Man must work hard for wife. Buy house. Good clothes. Good food.”
“Gold. Gold for woman. Man wear silver in Egypt. Only silver. No gold.”
“No Madam, we cannot let you keep the key. I’m sorry.” Diane reluctantly handed over the small plastic card with the raised mosaic design. She wasn’t taking home a single souvenir. Nothing to remind her of this trip. Nothing, except her colour. Noire.
“Miss, do you need anything?” Tafa.
“Di! Di! What are you doing here? What’s going on?”
“I just__” “They’re loading the bus. Andy’s already there. They’re going to make a stop on the way. Some old church. Andy’s been raving about it.”
“Yes, Miss. It is the Church of the Black Madonna.”
Diane is a black American. Due to past life experience, she expects her colour to be held against her. The potential kidnapping strengthens this perspective. The reason her potential kidnappers let her (“a noire”) go is that they hold the Black Madonna in great reverence. Their reverence extends to those with very dark skin. It is exoticisation, favouring, othering. It is complicated. Such reverence is not desirable, for it is the flip side to a racist coin, yet in this one instance, it kept Diane safe.
The story is set in Alexandria, Egypt, which has historical ties to Greece and France. Hippolyta, although known to be a figure from Greek myths, is portrayed sometimes as a victim and at other times a warrior. This ambiguity in her agency parallels Diane’s own fluid sense of self.
Like the moon, Diane can make herself small or large and bright, or disappear altogether by allowing others to decide for her, as when Tina pushes her to make the trip to Egypt for her own needs. Diane can also suddenly decide to shine with her full potential – as when she plunges whole-heartedly into submitting her work and is rightfully acknowledged for it.