The Giraffe Knocking Over the Elephant Knocking Over the Leopard Knocking Over the Ostrich
by Gili Warsett
After spending a month volunteering in Filabusi, a small village in Zimbabwe, Harrison has just arrived back in New York. He helped the village build a water tank. He had never volunteered in his life. The pharmaceutical company that he worked for had needed the P.R. The company had chosen Harrison. His boss had promised him that the trip would not be work so much as fun. Either way, Harrison knew there was no choice; in order to keep his job, he would have to go.
Cheap wooden souvenirs that speckle the Brooklyn sidewalk offend him now for the first time. The people of Brooklyn know nothing of the African struggle, he thinks. They probably couldn't even tell the difference between Zimbabwean art and Kenyan art. He knows that he cannot tell the difference between the two, but he was there; he lived with real African people; that's the important distinction.
He listens to the messages on his cell phone.
"Shed everything you don't need," his older sister and only friend, Daphne, had ordered. He claps the cell phone shut and shoves it into his back pocket.
She says, "everything," and Harrison translates this to mean Camille. "Shed Camille." Or maybe the message is meant for Camille; she is the hairiest girl he has dated. And Daphne's right: he doesn't need Camille now.
Camille feels historical, part of his past, irrelevant. After all that he has been through, he is not used to sleeping with American women.
He feels the phone vibrate in his back pocket and he resists answering. He is sure that Daphne will continue to call all the way to Camille's until she fills up his entire voice mailbox. Daphne must be onto him, suspecting that he will be screwing Camille. Daphne is much too practical to understand the importance of a Final Lay.
Camille is sex now, not sex later. Harrison can get sex from someone new, but that will take time and work. Camille is an American girl, not like his African princess. When he thinks of Camille's creamy, eager thighs he wants to spit on the sidewalk, and so he does.
Right now Harrison is impatient and lonely and Camille is available. She will not judge him. She will not ask him questions.
Before Daphne has the chance to call again, Harrison shuts his phone off. He will be at Camille's front step in four long Brooklyn blocks. He stops at a corner store and picks up the only bouquet of flowers that is mostly alive and under ten dollars. He and Camille are not in love, never have been; it's a gesture.
He makes his mirror face in the reflection of the side of the ice cream truck parked outside of her building. He lost weight in Africa. It suits him.
He has forgotten condoms and turns back to the corner store. The Indian woman behind the counter tries not to give him the look and he tries not to expect it. His face is blank. Now, he sees that this blank face will come in handy in his American life.
He thinks of the sixteen-year-old African girl with the name he couldn't pronounce. She was thirteen years younger than him. She had a blank face, too. She taught him this face or maybe he taught her. Either way, Harrison is proud of himself for the face and for sleeping with such a beautiful and young African girl.
He shakes his head at the Indian woman and she looks old and unmoved by this strange gesture. He is shaking the memory loose, hoping it will release its grip on him once and for all. He thinks about his African princess, which is his secret nickname for her; he would not dare tell anyone, as he knows this nickname is politically incorrect, but in his eyes, she is truly a princess. He carries his brown paper bag full of safety measures, protection, which he had not bothered with in Africa, and hurries to Camille's.
She answers the door in a towel. The forwardness, the lack of modesty after all this time apart, irritates him. There was a politeness, a formalness that his African princess always carried with her. He does want access to a woman, and he has that with Camille; still, he wishes she was dressed.
She throws her arms around him.
"These for me?" she asks.
He holds out the flowers and gives her a fake smile. She doesn't notice that it's fake.
"Let me find a vase." Her apartment is small. She bends down in the hallway, which is also the kitchen, to rummage through a cabinet, and her towel keeps slipping. Harrison is watching her, and not watching her. He knows she wants him to watch and this makes him not want to, and so, in order to avoid accidentally looking, he turns toward the window, which faces the street on the far end of the railroad apartment.
"Africa changed me, Camille," he says, and is not sure why he tells her this. He does not like to talk to her about himself.
"You lost weight," she says. She leaves the flowers in the sink. He feels her behind him and when she wraps her arms around his waist, a sickening wetness slides down his throat.
"Come colonize me," she whispers into his ear.
He wishes she wouldn't say that. She doesn't know about his beautiful princess. Still, Camille's words feel accusatory. She is so present. This is the thing about American girls: they want to know you.
He is not sure that a Final Lay is necessary now. A sense of exhaustion pushes down on his shoulders and he wants to sit down.
He pulls her onto the couch and they sit facing each other. She throws her legs across his lap. She folds herself forward and begins to kiss him. Despite the feeling in his throat, he kisses her back.
He starts at the ankles and moves up, behind her knees until his hand is in between her legs. He swallows, and then swallows again, but his stomach isn't cleared. She does not feel as soft as the African girl. Camille reminds him of an old woman, though she is younger than Harrison. He isn't looking at her but trying to concentrate on the place where his hand and her skin meet. He hates when Daphne is right; he should stop talking to his sister, change his phone number, and start over somewhere new.
Harrison pulls Camille onto her back by her ankles and then lies on top of her. He unbuckles his pants. Then he unzips his fly.
"Did Africa bring out the animal in you?" she whispers.
Camille and Harrison joked about Africa in the weeks leading up to his trip. He does not want to laugh with her now. He wants her to stop talking.
He places his palm over her mouth. He pushes himself all the way in, not bothering with the condoms. She cries out under his hand and he presses down harder. She looks scared but also excited and maybe slightly amused, and he continues. While he is fucking her, she closes her eyes.
He looks out the window above the couch. Black garbage bags that look like body bags are piled high on the street. In Africa, the village burned their garbage.
He's bored. He's losing his erection. Sex with Camille is supposed to tide him over until he can find someone new.
Harrison closes his eyes and remembers the water basin in the hut where he lived all summer. During his second week in Filabusi, the old woman, Margaret, his hostess in the village, had filled the tub with cold water. She left him alone in the hut. He stripped and then crouched inside of the basin, shivering, but refusing to get out because he hadn't been clean for two weeks. Someone banged on the hut's metal door. He wrapped the small, ragged towel around his waist and went to answer. Margaret stood outside the door. Through gestures and the few English words she knew, he realized that the basin was for washing his clothes. She was still heating the water that she would bring to him for his bath.
She laughed at him, white and frozen, and Harrison had tried to laugh along. It was a simple blunder, a cultural misunderstanding.
His toes would not get warm in the hot bath that followed, no matter how long he stayed.
Margaret had told the sixteen-year-old girl about Harrison's mistake. That night, the girl came to his hut for the first time. She brought with her a pot of hot water and had slowly removed his socks, and placed them by the fire pit. He watched her, the way her donated clothes did not fit quite right; the way her extra bits of fat, small rolls, moved down from her stomach to inside of her pants. She held his feet in her hands and dipped them into the pot of water.
Thinking about her was not useful. Probably best to leave Africa in Africa and move on. Shed.
Now Camille bends over the arm of the couch, and no matter how aggressive he tries to be, shoving her this way and that, he is bored. He closes his eyes and thinks of the girl.
"I've got somewhere I have to be," he tells Camille. It is obviously a lie. He doesn't care.
She sits up and watches him buckling his pants. "This is it then? Harrison? You're done with me?"
He is in a cold metal basin, curled into a ball, shivering.
On his way home, he turns his phone back on and dials Daphne. He will forget the African girl. He will deny his trip to Camille's. It's what Daphne will want to hear.
On the sidewalk, he accidentally kicks over a wooden giraffe standing on a rug full of reproductions. He stops long enough to watch the statues domino: the giraffe knocking over the elephant knocking over the leopard knocking over the ostrich knocking over another giraffe.