Hani tafash, Theo would say. Meaning, Long time no see. But also literally, You’ve disappeared. You’ve tafashed. You didn’t have to wait long to say it. You could say it after seeing someone only a couple of weeks before. You could say it after a day. Connections were tenuous here, so you grabbed, and you held on.
Tess is an American worker for an unspecified aid agency in Ethiopia. When the water line to their house fails and they are living on bottled water, she and her roommate Esther decide to throw a water party, where guests will bring a jerrycan of water instead of wine or beer. Tess invites Theo, her married lover (but he’s, you know, not really married, it’s more like he has “a roommate he never sees,” she tells Esther, not really believing it herself). He can’t come to the party. He’s researching the overabundance of a weed, crowding out the sorghum, in some area twelve hours away. They invite biologist Quinn, who has been researching gelada monkeys and living in his car in the Sheraton parking lot since his girlfriend walked out on him to count turtles. “‘Turtles,’ he sighed, shaking his head, as if that were the unbelievable part.” Tess uses some of the water they rake in to finally wash her hair, and puts on a dress Quinn gave her (presumably his disappeared girlfriend’s) when she ran into him at the Sheraton the day before. She goes after him. He follows, into the darkness.
As I read this story, I enjoyed the tiny details that seemed so authentic. Like the water situation. The feel of dirty, tangled hair. Using paperclips to raise the hem on pants so they won’t drag in the sewage by the street. Overloaded busses, passengers who crouch down when passing police so there are no tickets, and banging on the roof to request a stop. Tales of Harari newlyweds who are locked in a room for a week after the wedding, with food pushed in through slots. Tess tells of the send-off from her family, complete with a cake decorated in colors of the Ethiopian flag; Theo, who doesn’t really understand connections or goodbyes, is surprised at such a fuss. And we hear about the gelada monkeys, how they groom each other, and this forms the basis of their relationships. And when an old male gelada breaks his hand and can no longer groom his females, they leave him. These are wonderful bits.
It’s supposed to go from monkeys – their grooming, their relationships – to people, but I think the story is too short to make the jump. Quinn clutching his girlfriend’s clothes in his car came close. Winchet the landlady, the personification of that self-critical voice in the head, an observer of her tenants’ behavior, was a great idea, but I don’t think she had enough to do. I wanted to know more about the monkeys, the Harari, the busses. I didn’t care about Tess. She seemed silly, juvenile in this land where war is on the border and the embassy leaves messages on the phone: “the status on travel warnings, the likelihood of ordered departure, how fast the U.S. could lay an airstrip if the airport were taken”, where anything can happen any time, where an aggressive weed can cause starvation. Yes, I see the connections. And I understand that having these things revealed as matter-of-fact is quite a powerful way to state their significance. But in this setting, a lovelorn grad student isn’t really what I want to focus on. I wanted to know more about the work these people are doing – Theo and his agricultural observations, Quinn and his monkeys, Tess and her reproductive health programs. But Tess and her love life? No, it just didn’t make the jump for me. It isn’t a bad story – One Story doesn’t do bad. But it’s achingly short of what it could be.
In her Q&A with One Story, the author says she visited Ethiopia in 1999 where her sister worked at an aid agency and heard stories of a biologist, outrageous tales, and these never made it into the story. I’m thinking that would’ve been a far more interesting story to me than some kid mooning over a guy she knew was married, then making a beeline for another lovelorn soul. It gave this story an adolescent quality it never should have taken on. ” I’ve been trying to write an Ethiopia story ever since I took the trip. I tried it from different points of view and characters, but I couldn’t get it to work” says the author. I wish she’d kept trying, because I’m not sure this is the best story she could’ve come up with.