Secluded and Completely Exposed

I feed the line in with my left hand so that it hangs slack from the rod just above the reel and begins to coil at my feet. I pinch the line above the slack part with the trigger finger of my right hand so that I will feel if there is a strike and the line will be taut when I jerk the rod to set the hook. It is the late morning and there is a high, warm sun and a sharp, cool breeze. There are no sounds except the river and the birds and the rustling of leaves. Where I stand in the river the water comes to just below my knees. It is cool and slow moving here where it pools shallowly beside the main channel. When I have fed in enough line, I retrieve the fly from where it battles the current and, with a few swift flicks of my wrist and forearm, I dry the fly in the air and then cast it back upstream to where I think there might be trout.

‘If there are fish, this is where they will be,’ I have told her, pointing to a similar section of river some ways upstream. She is there now where I left her after I set her rig and saw from the first cast that she knew what she was doing.

‘I’m going a ways downstream,’ I said.

Jessica fishes at San Juan River

‘OK. When I catch one, you’ll have to come back to take it off the hook,’ she said.

‘When you catch one,’ I said, ‘I’ll show you how to take it off the hook yourself.’

‘OK but I don’t want to touch it,’ she said.

The fly runs quickly down the channel passing through all the good holes as I intend it to. As the current takes it, I feed the line in to keep it taut. When the fly has passed through the good section and is dragging in the current, I jerk it free, sweep it dry through the air, and send it back to the top of the run as I have done several times now.

As the fly runs downstream and I begin to feed the line in, I think about how quickly the time has run passed. It is our last full day in the mountains outside Telluride where we have spent the last week. We only just got here, I think, only it feels like we have been together a very long time. Then I think about how this is our third week since leaving South Sudan and how far away that feels and how it has all happened very quickly and quite unexpectedly.

Something happened around the New Year, I think as I watch the fly float passed, because we had mostly ignored each other before that and then after we began slowly to be friends. After the New Year, we met a couple times in Juba when one was coming and the other was going and once when there was a coordination meeting for several days at the head office. After that we began to exchange text messages in the evenings as we lie in bed before turning the lights out. I suppose it was a way to get to know someone slowly without the pressure of a proper telephone conversation. It was a fun thing and it helped to make the time pass and it gave you just enough to get you through the lonely nights.

‘So why did it take us a year of knowing each other?’ she asked when we reminisced about it a long time after.

‘I think we were both getting ready for something,’ I said. ‘It’s like our orbits needed time to synchronize.’

‘It sounds nice when you say it that way,’ she said. ‘You’ll have to write it down so I’ll remember it that way.’

Then it happened that we gave notice around the same time so that we would both be passing through Juba at the end of the month on our way out of the country. She drove up a few days early from where she was working in the south to help them in the head office to do payroll and a few days later I flew down from the north. The office had held a party for me the night before and afterwards some of us drank and I drank quite a lot. So in the morning I felt very bad in my head and my stomach but it helped that I was looking forward to seeing her and I did not feel so nostalgic for leaving.

‘I’m a bit hung over this morning,’ I wrote her in a text message as I waited to board the flight.

‘So I don’t get the sharp you?’ she responded.

‘Just the mild cheddar version,’ I wrote back.

When I arrived, she was having lunch at the Indian restaurant where those who worked at the head office went for lunch because it was the best thing within walking distance and not too expensive. When I arrived she smiled and said hello and then went back to her conversation. She mostly ignored me during the lunch and most of the walk back to the office so that I started to wonder if I had read the situation wrongly. Then she caught up with me at the end of the walk and she was very friendly now as if the ignoring me before made the being friendly with me now more seemly.

‘I felt like people were watching!’ she said a long time later when I asked her about the ignoring.

‘Maybe,’ I said, ‘but, if they were, it was only because it looked like you had a grudge against me.’

Jess and Maureen in Juba

We spent the rest of that day in the common office and we chatted very easily as we completed the last pieces of our work. Then, in the evening we arranged for one of the drivers to take us to a restaurant. Giorgio who was the new director sat in the front passenger seat and, when we got in, he announced that he was going out for dinner.

‘What kind of food is it where you are going?’ he said in his very strong but understandable accent.

‘It’s a Thai restaurant,’ she said in a tone that might have been meant to make it sound less appetizing.

‘Thai?’ he said as though it was a lot to consider. ‘Yes, that sounds good. Can I join you then?’

He saw that we both hesitated and then he quickly added, ‘Unless it is private or something.’

Neither of us knew what to say but eventually I managed to speak.

‘No, of course not,’ I said.

At dinner Giorgio did most of the talking. I expected to be very annoyed that he had come along and at myself for not telling him to find his own restaurant. But, I decided later, it was actually for the better.

‘I think it let us just be there together and, since he did all the talking, we did not have to put any work into it,’ I said a long time later when we were reminiscing on it.

After dinner the driver took Giorgio to the residence and then dropped us at the staff house. Her room was the one beside mine in the block of concrete units outside the main house. In the night, she came over in her pajamas and we put on a movie and we watched some of it together. We watched on my laptop under the green mosquito net that we tucked under the mattress on all sides after we got under. As I think about it, standing in the cold river holding the rod and the fishing line, I remember how the strange green net made the bed feel like an island or a ship at sea and anyway it felt very private and much more romantic than a concrete room with bare walls and a drab curtain had a right to be.

During the movie, we lay beside each other and I was terribly nervous. I was more nervous than I could ever remember being. Also, the nerves had gone to my stomach, which was already bad from the excessive drinking after the going away party the night before, so that I felt very bad and very nervous and very awkward. Each time when we looked at each other and spoke during the movie I hesitated because I was nervous and, missing my opportunity, I became more nervous.

What’s wrong with you, I thought, lying there not watching the movie and being very nervous. You’ve done this before, haven’t you? Why does this one suddenly have you so inside out?

Finally, when the nervousness was so bad that more of the nervousness would be worse than any possible alternative, I turned and I kissed her on the mouth. It was very sudden and very awkward, but she managed not to be too surprised by it.

‘Very bold,’ she said after that first long kiss.

‘I couldn’t wait any longer,’ I replied.

A long time later when we reminisced about it, she was rather more critical of my first performance.

‘Wooosh! You just came out of nowhere!’ she said. ‘It’s like all of a sudden there was this face in my face and you were attacking me!’ she said, laughing at the memory and being very amused to hold it over me.

‘I know! I was horrible!’ I conceded. ‘My nerves were shot and I was just glad that I didn’t bash your forehead or teeth or something!’

In the morning we took one of the vehicles into work. She was supposed to leave that day but she decided to miss her flight so that we could have one more day together. So, in the afternoon we had the driver take us to the airline office after she had already missed the flight. She smiled and chatted with the clerks and made them feel that she was very grateful to them.

‘Of course they changed your booking for free!’ I said when we walked out of the office and she carried a new ticket. ‘You have this thing that you do that’s like a Jedi mind trick or something.’

‘I’m just very friendly,’ she said more innocently than was genuine.

‘I think that’s why I was so standoffish with you at first,’ I said when we were remembering it a long time later. ‘I thought that you would use your mind trick to take advantage of me somehow. I can’t stand how it feels to be taken advantage of, especially by a woman, so I guess I was too cautious.’

‘Really? And I always thought you were very intimidating,’ she said.

That was our last day together in Juba. We had planned to go out for dinner alone that evening but when two colleagues invited us out we decided it was easiest to accept than make excuses. We went to the nice place that is opposite the pumping station where they make the Greek pizza that was very good the first time I had it and never quite measured up after that. We sat in the outside courtyard and had drinks and waited a very long time for our dinner. Mostly we talked to each other while our colleagues talked about work between themselves. I was still nervous but I felt very good and I noticed that she and the courtyard and the drinks and even my pizza were very perfect that night.

After dinner she came to my room in her pajamas.

‘You are utterly incapable of staying properly dressed when you come home,’ I observed a long time after.

‘I know! It just feels wrong to be at home in your outdoor clothes,’ she said.

‘It was that way right from the beginning!’ I said.

We went under the green mosquito net and we began to watch another movie. In the night I lay awake with the nervousness bad in my stomach and I thought how I liked everything about her and there was nothing that I did not like.

She has you turned all inside out and very quickly, I thought later in the night when I slipped outside while she slept soundly under the bed net. I stood outside in the warm, still air with my stomach clenched in knots from the nerves and I thought how it felt different than too much to drink or bad digestion.

‘What did it feel like?’ she asked when we spoke about that night a long time after.

‘Well, not like how you’d imagine butterflies!’ I said.

I left the next day. Her flight was scheduled for later in the day so she spent the morning with me as I packed and, when the driver arrived, she came with me to the airport. Outside the airport, the awkwardness came back and I said goodbye and left her very suddenly.

‘I thought it might have just been a fling for you,’ I said a long time after when she asked about the abrupt goodbye.

‘No!’ she said. ‘I liked you and it was much more than that.’

‘Well, I know that now,’ I said, ‘but at the time I didn’t want to be the guy who gets all sappy outside an airport.’

Inside the airport as I stood in line with all my things about me, sweating profusely in the crowdedness and the heat of the terminal, I received a message on my phone.

‘Damn, I’m gonna miss you…’ it said.

I like you very much, I thought after I read the message, and I hope we are not through yet. Then I thought about the nervousness and the awkwardness that was in how I had kissed her and how I had said goodbye and in almost everything else I had done. It’s either how you’d ruin it or how you’d win her over, I thought, or maybe she just didn’t notice.

Some days later, when we were both gone from South Sudan and that life immediately felt very far away, we were speaking by telephone and I said, ‘We could meet somewhere between LA and Toronto.’

Then I remembered how one night in Juba I had asked her preference on holidaying: ‘Would you rather a condo on the beach or a cabin in the mountains?’

‘What about Montana or Colorado?’ she said over the phone, remembering that same conversation.

So we decided on Telluride and I found a beautiful cabin in the mountains above the town. It was rustic and modern and secluded and completely exposed to the mountains for miles around. It had high ceilings and walls that were mostly windows and the bedroom was a loft. It got the sunrise in the morning and the sunset in the evening and a view of everything all throughout the day.

Some mornings we went running or went for a hike but most days we stayed inside and we did not come out until late in the afternoon when we were desperate for food. Then we drove into town and found a restaurant, and we ate well and drank beer or wine and we never had a shortage of things to say to each other.

View from gondola at Telluride

‘You’re not finished?’ she said.

‘I think I am for now,’ I said.

‘But you’ve barely eaten anything,’ she said, ‘and this is our first meal of the day!’

‘I know!’ I said with exasperation. ‘I don’t eat enough when I’m with you. You make me lose my appetite!’

The next day, I went for a hike and she spent the afternoon at the spa and in the evening the awkwardness continued when we met for dinner. We sat at the bar and we ordered drinks and then she ordered a steak. I went to the

4 Jess and Greg in San Juan National Forest_edited.jpg

She nodded and smiled and did nothing to stop me from barreling into it.

‘I was thinking that I don’t want this to end,’ I said. ‘I want you to come to Liberia with me.’

She looked very happy and she waited a moment to answer while she enjoyed the feeling of it.

‘Yes, I’d like that,’ she said.

‘Good,’ I said and I must have looked very happy also.

‘That’s what you thought while you were peeing?’ she said.

That was only last night, I think as I stand in the shallow pool in the river and watch the fly float past. Then I hear a noise in the bushes upstream beside the river and I turn to see her coming. She emerges from the bushes and then stops beside a low tree to untangle the tip of her rod from one of the branches. It seems like we’ve lived a long time together but it has been almost no time at all, I think, and it’s all been so very good and unbelievable. I feed in more line until the slack part coils in the water at my knees. Then I whip the fly out, swing it overhead, and cast it back upstream. She comes alongside me and she looks for the fly in the river.

‘Did you get any strikes?’ I ask.

‘Not one,’ she says. ‘Did you?’

‘One good one that took my fly but nothing since then,’ I say.

I feed in line as the fly passes downstream and, when it drags at the end of the line, I reel it in. Then we stand there with our feet in the water, saying nothing and just being there with each other.

‘Are you getting hungry?’ I say eventually.

‘Very hungry,’ she says.

‘Where should we go?’ I ask.

‘The Blue Grass Festival started today so probably the parking will be impossible,’ she says.

‘So let’s drive up past where we turn off to the cabin and see if there’s someplace to eat out that way,’ I say.

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