As the ferry reached the midpoint of the crossing, he first began to enjoy the trip. He had none of the motion sickness or general anxiety that troubled him at the start. He walked freely, almost buoyantly, along the deck and paused to gaze back at the retreating land. The whitewashed houses crowded on the shore still shone in the dazzling sun. The towers of the minarets remained sharply etched, pointing straight into the sky.
A strange land that was, he felt as he stared at the range of mountains that surrounded the city. Clouds like wisps of smoke shielded their peaks. He had looked forward to the opportunity of being in Africa. He willingly accepted the business assignment that led to a week of conferences in a sleek, ultra-modern hotel. Just the chance of adventure in following the winding paths through the ancient part of the city was incentive enough. He was not disappointed. Africa was different because he wanted it to be. The human similarities he pushed away. He craved what difference he could find or make.
He moved away from the stern and sat down on a lounge chair. Further down the deck, three dark, turbaned men in long robes gazed silently at the sea. For a long time, he thought of Marguerite, the translator assigned to him. She was of European parentage but reared on the soil of Africa. She spoke French and English but easily converted to Arabic at the slightest need. Her eyes, dark and liquid, could have peered out over a veil. Her jet black hair was wildly textured and hung richly to the middle of her back. Every night he sat with her in the bar of the hotel with the call of the muezzin sounding in his ears. He knew from the first moment he saw her that he would pursue her, but he could as well have wandered through the old section of the city without a map. He followed a tortuous path in his effort to find her out, yet she eluded him at every step. With her, it was one minute yes, one minute no.
On the other side of the crossing was familiar Europe. In a matter of days he would meet with representatives of the branch office then fly home. Fly home to whom? The separation from his wife was transforming into a divorce. Their “incompatibility” had been her ticket to freedom. He couldn’t begrudge her that, could he? Wasn’t that what he wanted for himself? He looked upon Africa as a means to freedom--and casual sex.
He watched the waves pound against the flank of the boat. Nothing on earth was ever really casual when animated by human blood. He struck Marguerite by accident. He meant only to make a point but succeeded in bruising her cheek with his hand. That had happened on their last evening together. After they had made love, and were quietly resting side by side, he had turned to her and said, “I must see you again. Tomorrow night?” She gave a small sweet smile.
“I’m sorry I cannot,” she said. “I have an engagement I cannot break.”
“How about during the day? I can take time off.”
“Also impossible. I’m sorry. I will see you soon. Don’t worry.”
He sat up stiffly.
She smiled as if to say that only more of an agonizing search would produce an answer.
“You’re so cool, aren’t you? This means nothing to you.”
“What do you really want it to mean? Do you really want me every minute?”
“I...I...We have to make an effort, don’t we?”
“Don’t overexercise,” she said with a laugh.
It was then that he tried to reach for her but his hand was wayward and caught her cheek. He turned away from her and said, “I’m sorry,” in a tiny voice as she quietly dressed and left the room.
He looked up. Slowly the high cliff of Gibraltar came into view. The promintory stood out amidst the swelling water. He admired the noble, veined rock that was the harbinger of two cultures. If only he could capture this moment. He felt the sea breeze waft over him as he watched the arcing motions of birds.
A new translator was assigned to him. Marguerite, he was informed, had asked for another assignment. He accepted the news with a surface calm and went mechanically through his work. Yet, at the first free moment, he clutched at a telephone and began to dial her number. He paused at the last digit wondering whether to approach or retreat. When he remembered that he would be leaving the following day, he completed the call. Her voice stirred him at once. He rushed his phrases, telling her that he needed to see her at least one more time. At first, she was quiet but then she said yes she would meet him if she could at the old square. He made her promise to meet him in the morning, to see him before he would sail away.
“I promise--if possible,” she said.
He wandered all the following morning through the old quarter. He passed darkened rooms where women quietly worked. Young men with trinkets to sell pleaded for his attention but he brushed by them without a word. For a time, he stood in the middle of the square with the intensely blue sky above him. The clarity of the light made the houses gleam. He looked at his watch. She should be there by now. He studied the long street approaching the square. None of the cloaked figures walking under the terraces could be Marguerite. To believe her or not believe her, to be her slave or be rid of her, to be naive or bitterly cynical--more and more antinomies arose to pull him apart. He knew that whatever choice he made, there would always be a tinge of regret.
Though it was not particularly hot, he started perspiring heavily. He went into a small shop and, in halting French, asked for a telephone. He dialed her number and heard the singular sound of a phone endlessly ringing. He dialed again and again. At last, he put the phone back in its cradle and walked out of the shop. He continued walking until he reached his hotel. From there, after collecting his things, he went to the ship.
He recalled the tension he had felt as a younger man between the need to remain at home with his family and the desire to break away and forge a life of his own. The time came when he had to decide. He had been given the opportunity to study abroad. The morning he was to leave he sat with his bags beside him and looked at the sky beyond his window. He couldn’t move. He was hypnotized by the light and the clouds. When he had to board the plane at last, he did so like an automaton. Only later, much later, did the numbness wear off but he was always drawn to the moments of quiet in which he would gaze at the sky and the soft, motionless clouds.
He gazed now at the broad expanse of water. “Can’t somebody stop this ship?” he almost cried aloud. Between two shores he was content. His reverie broke when someone near him shouted, “Look, we’re coming into port!”