You made that child to do that thing under the table, and someone should have stopped you. I should have stopped you.
Cabaret La Prospérité was only steps off Avenue de l’Indépendance, that pot holed asphalt stretch through town, the road north to Kigali and south to Bujumbura.
La Prospérité served smokey goat brochette and pili pili beans with rice. The patronesse swept the concrete floor many times a day and splashed it with disinfectant at closing. The Primus was always cold.
My roommate, my best friend discovered the place. Said we should take a chance. Always the ringleader, the instigator, the author of wild times. Do you remember scaling the wall at Maison d’Accueil for a midnight swim? Or hitching with the Papal Nuncio? You tried to kiss his ring.
After drinks one evening at Club Maribou, where Priska and Prudence Bébé, the “girls,” sat on our laps and teased us, you and I and a couple of the French volunteers, headed to La Prospérité. We were the sole patrons. The child would serve us. I say child; she was seventeen or eighteen, but simple.
She’d done nothing with her hair, I remember. No ties or braids, just unmanaged frizz, not the sexy fro. And instead of a beautiful pagne and matching top, she wore a dull, knee length skirt and print blouse with puffy sleeves as if outfitted by Mormons. She would have been wearing Bata sandals, plastic.
She was dark and skinny, not thin, there’s a difference, and vacant, disinterested, cold. Maybe her lack of engagement only evinced the gap between our being and hers, a great void that nothing could bridge. Or maybe malnourished at birth she was feeble minded, damaged. Whatever the case, she wasn’t right.
Arriving in Butare a year earlier, we’d expected the warmth of the Congolais with whom we’d trained. Instead, Rwandans filled the atmosphere with suspicion, intrigue, secrets. But this all accounted for disappointment only, not hatred. So why you made her do it, I don’t understand.
You waved a five hundred franc note and told her to go below the table and use her mouth, and you slid down your jeans suggesting we could all do the same. And she disappeared below and acted as you’d instructed, but you brought her up quickly.
She just stood there then, beside you. Dumb, dazed, waiting, no different than before, really. And finally you laughed and tucked the note down her blouse and told her to bring another round, and she flip flopped away. No one spoke. Nothing could right the wrong.
We never returned to La Prospérité. We never discussed it. I blame myself; I expected too much of you, always waiting for the story to tell. I don’t forgive you, but neither do I forgive myself. No grace can be found.
Steven Gowin is a corporate video producer in San Francisco. His recent publications have appeared or are appearing in Digging Through the Fat, The Santa Fe Literary Review, Revolution John, and Camroc Press Review.