The Tower Journal

Carl Auerbach


The American Embassy

The American embassy in Kigali
is protected by a great wall
of wrought iron American fence,
a sea of green suburban American grass,
and a squad of young American marines.


To enter the American embassy
you must show the guard the badge
dangling from your neck that displays
a photograph proving you are you,
and a friend to the American embassy.


The American embassy is unreal.
The American embassy is safe.
It is safe because it is unreal.


The halls inside the American embassy
are clean and white and cheery, and hung with portraits
of American presidents. The staff is bright and eager:
handsome American men; stylish American women.
The library is well stocked with American history books.


To celebrate Thanksgiving at the embassy
they order food from the local market.
When the translator was home with a sick child
they had the Rwandan janitor place the order,
and gave him a bonus to buy something for his family.


The American embassy is unreal.
The American embassy is unsafe.
It is unsafe because it is unreal.


There are locked doors on the second floor
of the American embassy, only the men
with expensive haircuts and dark suits
who have the combination know what is said
and done in the sealed off rooms behind the doors.


The American embassy is not a metaphor
for our country or our lives, but if it were,
we should explore the secrets hidden behind locked doors,
the forces massing at the iron gates
and how long they can be kept at bay.


The American embassy is real.
The American embassy is unsafe.
The American embassy is unsafe because it is real.





Hotel Rwanda Redux

I’m having breakfast on the terrace of the Hotel des Milles Collines, Hotel Rwanda, once again a
   luxury hotel.
Across from me, on the other side of the buffet, a white American man and a black Rwandan
   woman;
his uniform—green Bermuda shorts, a football jersey number 85, and a blue baseball cap worn
   backward,
hers—gold platform heels, short red skirt and tight white sweater over ample hips and breasts.


Although she is laughing loudly at his jokes—part of her job requirements—it seems that he
   wants more;
More than just a woman with big breasts and ample hips, more than just a woman who will do
   what he wants done
to or for him; the wet dream of the chubby teenage boy he once was, and actually still is.
So he tells her he would like to meet her family and asks her where she lives, a question that
   clearly breaks the rules


of what is, after all, a simple quid-pro-quo transaction. “Over there,” she says, pointing in the
   general direction
of the distant Rwandan hills. And then she says, “I’m hungry,” which I take to be a way she can
   escape.
He freezes for a moment, as if he had been slapped, before he manages to say, “I’m hungry, too,
   for you,”
and it seems that he is hungry for something; to be loved or liked, or at least not turned away



But I doubt that he knows the skill with which she keeps the conversation going despite her
   limited English,
or that he asks himself why he is with this one rather than a stylish girl with elegant clothes and
   perfect English
instead of this country girl who is with him because it’s better than working in the fields six
   days a week
which left her used to hard unpleasant work like…well…this…which she wouldn’t say to him
   even if she had the English, not could he listen if she did.


So much unsaid, unsayable. I remember being thirteen, at a party at the furnished basement den
   of one of my rich classmates,
a make out party we called it then, where we paired up, the pretty girls and the cool boys
   choosing each other first
until the only ones left were myself and a shy girl with glasses and bad skin
and we did what we thought we should, made out, till the party ended.


The couple is finishing their breakfast. He gets up, says, “let’s eat,” and she laughs
   and they walk off, her hand in his back pocket, his arm around her waist.
And I think back to the make out party and wish some grown up had told me or us
you don’t have to do this, you can leave. But we didn’t have the language
to even have that thought. And anyhow there was nowhere else to go.




The Expats

Saturday night at Butare’s watering hole,
the Hotel Ibis, a flare of noise and light sent out
into the wordless whisper of the dark Rwandan sky.
Hendrick and Bernard, a Dutchman and a Brit,
two great whales of men, who have been slowly
drinking themselves to death for fifteen years
are having their weekly quarrel: this time about love.


Bernard, sitting behind a protective wall
of empty Mutzig beer bottles and overflowing ashtrays,
is a former professor of philosophy,
whose wife moved back to London years ago.
Paraphrasing Plotinus, Bernard defines love
as the spiritual union of two separate souls,
a bridge from the alone to the alone.
Hendrick’s huge hand drapes down across
the butterfly tattooed breast of his conquest
of the week, a researcher in African linguistics
from the University of Pennsylvania,
An ex-engineer and devotee of Rabelais,
he maintains that love is the union of two bodies
grabbing all the pleasure that they can.


Bernard, propriety offended, says to Hendrick
You are an egocentric pig. Bernard retorts
No, you are a self-deluded sentimental fool,
and they are up and at each other tooth and nail:
red face to sputtering red face, beer belly
to beer belly, rumpled suit to ketchup stained dashiki.
Hendricks’s girl stares in wide-eyed horror,
afraid the two men will come to blows.


But Bernard says to Hendrick Why are we fighting
when we could be drinking,
and Hendrick says
You’re right, my friend, we talk too much.
They hug, stagger back to their chairs,
light each other’s cigarettes and order two more beers,
while Hendrick’s girl trembles in bewilderment.


She has not lived long enough to learn
that men fight when they can’t bear too much love





After the Fall

This time around they were American,
so there was no need for a snake. They sat
on the speckled marble bench in the memorial garden
next to the mass graves, holding hands while reading
Julian of Norwich. And because
he still possessed the beauty of the boy
who had not yet spent hours in the bathroom
gaping Victoria’s Secret catalogs,
and her face still retained the freshness of the girl
who had not yet learned to gossip, or been tempted
by dreams of financed bridal gowns, and the orchids
in the garden were so lovely, and Julian had promised
All will be well, and all will be well,
and all manner of things shall be well,

and life had not yet happened, they were happy.
They did not yet know that she was pregnant,
that the child to be born and show such promise
would drop out of college, hassle tourists
for spare change, and before he was found
face down dead in a bathtub with a needle
dangling from a well worn vein would spend each day
blaming the failures and disappointments
of his unhappy life on his parents




Arrival

After I left here
to travel there,
After I took a taxi
to the airport making sure
to show up three hours early;
(it was driven by a man
from Egypt, not from here):
After I sat for twenty-four hours
in airplanes and in airports,
changing planes and watching
the color of the skins
change from white to black,
heard the language spoken change
from English to French
and Kinyarwanda and Swahili,
After I had silently endured
the fat man sitting next to me
whose sleeping head
intruded on my shoulder;
After I had listened to
self-improvement mp3s
until my mind went blank,
watched the TV on the plane—
at first the serious drama
then action adventures
and then just sitting in my seat
knowing that time would somehow pass;
After I had struggled
my way through customs,
and waited till my suitcase
which I worried would be lost
finally showed up,
having been so heavy, so packed
with emergency provisions,
it was unloaded last,
After Eugenie from the embassy
took me to my hotel;
after Joseph carried my suitcase
to my room
up endless flights of stairs
(how did he do it?
he was so small,
and it was so overweight);
After I checked the room
to see there was hot water,
and decided to lay down
and unpack later
and took an ambien
to get to sleep;
After I learned to say
yego—yes, and oya—no,
and ufite amazi—do you have water,
After I looked out the window every morning
and saw the houses
on Rwanda’s thousand hills;
After the desk clerk learned my age
and began to call me father;
I realized I was there.



Copyright © 2014 Carl Auerbach
Carl AuerbachCarl Auerbach is a Professor of Psychology at Yeshiva University, specializing in the psychology of trauma, with an emphasis on collective trauma and mass violence. His work has been published in many literary journals and he has been nominated for four pushcart prizes, three for poetry and one for short fiction. He lives in Manhattan, New York.

The Tower Journal
Spring/Summer 2014