ELLIOT GUNTHER, between twenty-five and thirty-five; all-American: confident, attractive, athletic
ILISHA GUNTHER, between twenty-five and thirty-five; artsy in a stylish, self-conscious way
ILISHA and ELLIOT are sitting on a sofa together in a living room. Throughout the scene they alternately address the audience and each other, as if they are telling their story to a jury.
ELLIOT: Before we start, I want to make one thing perfectly clear. There was no direct correlation between our visit and the baby's death. They are separate and distinct events that happened to coincide. [He pauses.] Well, I read an article somewhere about the study of chaos, which described how if I drop my watch in New York it can cause a tree to fall down in Yosemite. In light of that, I suppose that theoretically we are responsible; as responsible as you, for instance. But I'm not going to sit around and blame myself. Can't you see it wouldn't do any good?
ILISHA: Elliot, we have to start at the beginning. [to audience] It was going to be our honeymoon. We had been married for nearly a year but could never find the time to go away. Elliot has one of those jobs.
ELLIOT: I'm a senior producer of Channel 2 News at Five.
ILISHA: [Laughs.] News at five! [She looks at him.]But he loves his job, and he's good at it. I wish I could make half as much money.
ELLIOT: How many times have I told you that you've got to have a sense of entitlement when it comes to your earnings? You haven't even begun to tap your potential market--
ILISHA: He wants me to make art for the lobbies of big office buildings.
ELLIOT: If you really try you can do anything. [to audience] Someday I'm going to retire and she's going to take care of me.
ILISHA: I paint and I teach painting. I suppose we get along because we're so different. We complement each other.
ELLIOT: I wanted Ilisha to see Africa.
ILISHA: Elliot had been there before.
ELLIOT: Only once, after I graduated from college. My folks bought me one of those round-the-world airline tickets. I was allowed to stop in six cities.
ILISHA: We didn't meet until years after his trip, but his apartment was still full of African paraphernalia. You know how men are--they've got to have a hobby that sets them apart from everybody else. It was quite an ordeal to convince him to move the "birthing chair" to the basement. I can't tell you how many times he told me--
ELLIOT: It's the male-dominated Western medical profession that concocted the idea that women should lie down while giving birth.
ILISHA: My little feminist. [to audience] It was an escape for him, all the traveling. Suddenly he wasn't following his father's footsteps. I know it sounds clichéd, but it's true. Who wants to turn into his parents?
ELLIOT: Tim came with me for the first month of the trip, but he had to go home after Europe to start his job. I went on alone.
ILISHA: What a different trip it would have been if he had gone with you.
ELLIOT: I wouldn't have met Esleen.
ILISHA: Tim is Elliot's best friend. He and his wife, Susan, have a big house in Rye.
ELLIOT: Not that there's anything wrong with the suburbs. But we're city people.
ILISHA: Tim and Susan thought we were crazy, going to Africa on our own for a honeymoon. It sounded too risky. But that's what we were planning: it wasn't going to be an Abercrombie & Fitch safari, you know, with cases of wine and servants and carpeted tents. As I said, Elliot had been there before, and I wanted an adventure, to meet people in their own environment rather than watching zebras through the window of a Land Rover.
ELLIOT: When I was there the first time I hooked up with an old hippie who worked for the Peace Corps. He took me to this community up in the hills, two days' drive north of the capital. I met one family in particular who invited me to stay, and I ended up spending three weeks with them.
ILISHA: Esleen is part of that family. She's the one we visited.
ELLIOT: We kept in touch for years. I wrote to her and told her Ilisha and I were coming. She was so excited.
ILISHA: Her family lives on a farm with no electricity.
ELLIOT:[to ILISHA]No one has electricity. [to audience] It was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
ILISHA: But right before we left, I got sick. It was a particularly bad winter. Everyone had the flu. I was walking up Fifth Avenue on one of these bitter cold days and the street was absolutely empty because there was so much snow. I could actually hear flags flapping on the tops of buildings. It should have been a thrill, but instead it was eerie, like everyone had died. [She laughs nervously.] Somehow the quiet left me with too much room to think. I couldn't wait to get out of New York.
ELLIOT: What do you mean by that? Too much room to think.
ILISHA: You know. Things were not so great for us, between us, that whole year. Don't look so hurt, Elliot.
ELLIOT: [miffed]Well, what did you expect? [He recovers.] Well, there was a nasty strain of the flu going around, and Ilisha managed to pick it up from one of her students.
ILISHA: At least that's what I thought it was. On the day before we were supposed to leave, I couldn't sit up in bed, let alone think about traveling. When I look back . . .
ELLIOT: I told her-- [He turns to ILISHA.] I told you we could call off the trip.
ILISHA: I called the airline and the lady said it would be best to leave right then. She said not to wait because the weather reports predicted more snow in a few days. You were taking two consecutive weeks off for the first time in years. And I was on my fourth week of anti-malaria drugs, not to mention all the shots we had to have before we left: yellow fever, rabies, typhoid, cholera, gamma globulin, hepatitis B. It was our little window of opportunity, you might call it.
ELLIOT: Ilisha, I said we could put it off. I insisted. It's not my fault. [He pauses.] Well, it's not!
ILISHA: Forget it. Let's just go on.
ELLIOT: Anyway, we decided to go for it.
ILISHA: I must say I was a little nervous. I was pretty out of it the day we left. But I knew that Elliot knew what he was doing.
ELLIOT: Let's be honest: neither of us knew anything. We didn't speak the language--
ILISHA: But Esleen was going to speak English. She had been educated.
ELLIOT: Their education system is not what ours is.
ILISHA: Yes, but you two were able to communicate, you said. When you went the first time.
ELLIOT: [to audience]You know how it is when you're in another country--at the hotel or walking through the marketplace. Part of the excitement is figuring out what the hell the other person is trying to say. [to ILISHA] We spent the first night in the capital city, in a nice hotel.
ILISHA: It was nothing like an American hotel. The towels were scratchy and the bedspread had seen better days. Not that I cared about that kind of thing on the trip. I'm just mentioning it.
ELLIOT: The first day I took her to the tourist spots: the marketplace, the souvenir shops--
ILISHA: We had coffee at a famous café where all the foreigners used to leave each other messages pinned to a tree out front.
ELLIOT: And then we found a taxi that would take us on the first leg of our two-day journey to Esleen's town.
ILISHA: I guess you'd call it a taxi--we went to the corner referred to in the guidebook as a bus depot, and a man there assigned us each a place in a little car! I have to admit it was a bit scary as we left the city behind. It was undeveloped, though not unpopulated. That was the scary thing. Crowds in the city seem less frightening than crowds anywhere else. No gas stations, no houses, no towns as we would think of them. But lots of people. A quote-unquote village consisted of a line of shacks with one long, tin roof. You couldn't buy a cold soda, and I couldn't help wondering what would happen if I felt any sicker and I needed to see a doctor. I tell you, it was nothing like home.
ELLIOT: Of course it's nothing like home, Ilisha. This is the quote-unquote third world.
ILISHA: In the taxi I started to get a little nervous. We came upon a terrible car accident, and, mind you, up until that point our driver was speeding.
ELLIOT: It looked pretty bad.
ILISHA: None of us was wearing a seat belt.
ELLIOT: There had been a collision.
ILISHA: Bodies laid out on the side of the road, covered with blankets or coats or whatever. It was raining. We drove by, and it looked as though the accident had occurred some time ago. You expect to hear something then, a fire engine in the distance, an ambulance--but there were no sirens at all. Just this terrifying nothingness. As if no one had just died.
ELLIOT: There's no money there for fire engines or police cars.
ILISHA: The survivors of the crash ended up helping to load the bodies into someone's car, and they drove the dead to their families. That's all. It made me think how protected we are.
ELLIOT: People die in America. They put the bodies in a car or a truck here as well.
ILISHA: Yes, but someone official always comes to help. Someone always wraps the body up in a white sheet and rushes it to the coroner or to the morgue or wherever. There are experts to take care of these things so that the dead are given a little dignity.
ELLIOT: Dignity? [to audience] Remember the terrible plane bombing seven years ago? You'll probably think I'm melodramatic, or using this story simply to get attention or sympathy. [He looks at ILISHA.]Well, I'm not, so I might as well tell it. There was a girl on that plane: the baby sister of Marty, one of my old friends from high school. About six months after the bombing, we went to visit my mother in Pennsylvania and on the way we stopped in on Marty to see how he was holding up. So we're sitting there on the sofa, trying to be upbeat for Marty, when the phone rings and it's the airline saying that the medical examiner has positively identified Marty's sister by comparing her dental records to a tooth attached to a piece of jawbone that they found in a field or in a lake or some such place. Can you imagine that? This is six months later! As if Marty didn't know she was dead already--as if he hadn't seen the re-creations on TV of the plane being blown to smithereens a mile in the air, for God's sake--and this phone call just opened everything up all over again. A lousy phone call. That's American dignity for you.
ILISHA: [to audience] Sometimes bad things just happen for no particular reason.
ELLIOT: American dignity, Christ. Well. Where was I? We spent the first night in a little hotel on the edge of a tea plantation.
ILISHA: For the first couple nights I couldn't sleep, what with the jet lag and all. I guess the fact that Elliot slept soundly was comforting, but I also felt very alone.
ELLIOT: The next morning we walked to the town center with our bags. I arranged for a ride to Chebet, which is the nearest town to Esleen's.
ILISHA: It was extraordinary. We rode in the back of a funny white truck. It had a name painted on the side: FRIENDS EXPRESS, although it was hardly an express and we were all too squished in there to be friendly. No one else seemed to mind. There were goats and babies and staring boys and baskets of live chickens.
ELLIOT: About four hours later we arrived in Chebet. I asked the driver for directions to Esleen's farm. To be honest, I didn't recognize any of it.
ILISHA: The village was bustling. Women were crouched over campfires, baking corn on the cob to sell. I tried some--it was very good. But it felt somehow, muddy and gray. It reminded me of a painting by Brueghel.
ELLIOT: Corn is the tribe's main cash crop.
ILISHA: [sarcastically] Cash crop. [to audience]The adults went about their business when we hopped out of the bus, but the children and the old people gaped at us. I was staring too. The scene felt frenetic and lazy at the same time. People were shouting and all these things kept happening: a truck got stuck in a ditch, a chicken escaped from a basket and a little boy chased it around, an old woman began to dance for her friends.
ELLIOT: We hired a kid to lead us to Esleen's. We followed a narrow dirt path off the main road, hopped a couple fences, across a field, up a hill, and there it was: it all came back to me. We were looking out over a valley and at the base of the hill I could see the farm.
ILISHA: The sun was just dropping and all I could see were the dark silhouettes of these strange huts with pointy straw roofs. The trees looked like knobby giants. I realized then that we were truly in the middle of nowhere.
ELLIOT: I gave the boy the equivalent of a couple bucks to compensate him for showing us the way.
ILISHA: He's so cheap.
ELLIOT: [to ILISHA]That's a lot of money to those people. [to audience]Then we made our way towards the compound, following a little path.
ILISHA: At the bottom of the hill two little boys appeared out of nowhere and offered to carry my bags.
ELLIOT: They were nephews, I'm pretty sure. Esleen's nephews. They looked vaguely familiar, but of course they were ten years older.
ILISHA: And then Esleen was running toward us. She held a baby in one arm and hugged us with the other. I think she was crying, she was so happy to see Elliot. She was beautiful. She had a dazzling smile and skin the color of, well . . . [She gropes for a word.]I don't know. I half expected her to be wearing an African headdress or something, but she was dressed instead as if she were going to an office, in a yellow blouse and navy skirt.
ELLIOT: [to audience] This part you think you know, right? You've seen the programs on TV where a British guy visits the witch doctor and eats a handful of fried ants. Well, let me tell you, the world has gotten a lot smaller. We brought Esleen a flashlight from Home Depot, but it wasn't as if she didn't know what a flashlight was. You see, there are no unexplored parts of the world anymore. The "wild stuff" is all here, at home. The men who sleep with their assistants on business trips and their wives who spend thousands of dollars on botox injections and chin tucks. They're the ones we should have journalists from the BBC investigating.
ILISHA: Oh, please, Elliot.
ELLIOT: What? It's true, isn't it?
ILISHA: Well then, admit that you're one of them.
ELLIOT: What are you talking about?
ILISHA: Oh, the airplane story, Elliot. American dignity. You are a producer for the local news, for God's sake. Would you be proud to tell that to your kid?
ELLIOT: There is no kid.
ILISHA: I know that.
ELLIOT: Don't start, Ilisha. If I didn't do what I do, you'd have to teach full time at a public high school and we'd be living somewhere horrible outside the city in an apartment over a pharmacy or God knows. We have to pay for our lives.
ILISHA: I'm just saying that we have to accept who we are, Elliot. This is how the world works. We live in a brownstone in the Village and someone lives in a tenement on East 106th Street. I drop my clothes off at the laundromat and somebody washes them. I throw out my lunch and somebody eats the leftover polenta that came with my arugula salad. We are rich people who visit poor countries out of curiosity. That's it. We're just as bad as the next people.
ELLIOT: There I think you're wrong. We are better because--don't you see?--we are trying to approach these things in a fashion that is not so American.
ILISHA: But you can't escape being American.
ELLIOT: I don't want to escape it. I'm trying to tell you that we are not typical. We aren't trying to force our ways on them.
ILISHA: It's unavoidable, Elliot. Look what happened.
ELLIOT: Esleen cooked us dinner.
ILISHA: Clearly that's not what I meant.
ELLIOT: She left us in the main hut with a lantern while she prepared the meal. There were about six or seven children hanging around the room, watching us and giggling.
ILISHA: The room was clean and stark, with sofas along three walls. It took a long time for Esleen to put together the dinner, and I didn't understand why until I saw the quote-unquote kitchen the next day. It was in a hut, with a dirt floor and an open fire in one corner. That night she must have lit the fire, peeled and cut up all those vegetables, cooked the beans . . .
ELLIOT: The food was really good. Country cooking.
ILISHA: After about an hour of talking I was ready to go to bed. Esleen showed us our hut. I really needed to sleep.
ELLIOT: You were feeling sick.
ILISHA: That and the fact that I didn't know anyone you two were talking about.
ELLIOT: [to audience]We were talking about the Peace Corps people we had in common. Esleen had taken many foreigners into her home.
ILISHA: One last thing. The bathroom. I had to ask Esleen to ask one of the little boys to show me where it was. Of course, it was in a hut all the way at the back of the yard, just a little hole in the ground with some cut-up newspaper in a box on the wall. It was dark and I had to borrow his lantern to see where exactly the hole was.
ELLIOT: Esleen and I stayed up for another hour, just talking. The next morning I woke up early. Ilisha had been tossing and turning all night. I slipped out of our hut, washed my face at the water pump and then found Esleen. She was making chapati over the fire--that's a kind of African flat bread--and heating up milk for tea. She looked older, crouched on that dirt floor, her hair wrapped in a scarf. I suppose I did too: more down here [Pats his stomach.], less up here [Touches his head.]. Esleen had gotten married since I last saw her. She'd had a kid. He was wrapped in a blanket, sleeping on the floor of the hut. Esleen told me her husband was visiting his sister a few villages away.
ILISHA: That night I dreamed I was back home, in Milton, and our house was burning. You were there too, Elliot. We were scrambling to get out of the house. We hopped into a rowboat and started out to sea, and after a while we both realized that there was an entire city under the water that we hadn't noticed, and everyone in it had drowned. The smoke from the burning house was everywhere. [She pauses.]When I woke up I could hear Elliot and Esleen talking through the walls, and finally I realized that our hut must adjoin the cooking hut, so all the heat and smoke from the fire were seeping into my room. I walked over and couldn't believe Esleen's baby was sleeping there in all that. I could barely see a thing.
ELLIOT: I told you they're tough little kids.
ILISHA: Well, I asked Esleen if it was all right for me to take him out. [to audience]Can you imagine?
ELLIOT: So there we were, finally. After all the planning and all the traveling, we were in the African highlands, drinking tea on little wooden benches next to a giant cornfield. Ilisha looked great outside with that baby.
ILISHA: The children were sweet and so curious.
ELLIOT: I organized a baseball game.
ILISHA: That was fun.
ELLIOT: [to audience]And she did these watercolors--some of her best.
ILISHA: I started with the farm, the huts, the laundry hanging on the wire fence, and then I moved out to the hills and fields, the balloon-shaped trees, the path leading to town.
ELLIOT: She never does people.
ILISHA: I'm in a no-people phase.
ELLIOT: One morning I took a little walk around and when I came back Ilisha had settled on a low wooden bench and was painting. She had on some sort of skirt with flowers on it. I tell you this so you can get the ambience. Ilisha was concentrating on her picture and behind her were two little girls from the village--they must have been around five or seven years old--watching Ilisha from a distance. Every couple minutes they'd inch a little closer until finally they were right next to her. Ilisha gave them each a brush and paper and pretty soon they were all painting together.
ILISHA: Theirs were better than mine--much less inhibited.
ELLIOT: [amused] Yes, they were much less inhibited.
ILISHA: All right, Mr. Elliot.
ELLIOT: That's what Esleen called us, Mr. and Mrs. Elliot.
ILISHA: Can you imagine?
ELLIOT: It's not such a bad idea.
From this point on, ILISHA and ELLIOT periodically slip in and out of the past, acting out what they remember. ILISHA is lying on a blanket, sketching.
ELLIOT: [to audience] So as you can see, despite Ilisha's flu and my anxiety about seeing this place again after so many years, our first week with Esleen was almost perfect. Ilisha painted and played with the kids, and Esleen taught us how to make chapati over the fire. [He pauses, picks up a book.]I guess you know what happens next. [He begins to read.]
ILISHA: Where's Esleen, hon? I've barely seen her all day.
ELLIOT: With the baby. He's been crying a lot.
ILISHA: Poor thing.
ELLIOT: Babies always have something to cry about. That's why they're called babies.
ILISHA: Maybe he doesn't like us.
ELLIOT: Maybe he doesn't like you. [to audience] For the next three days we barely saw Esleen, and on the morning of the next day, which happened to be the day before we were supposed to leave, we found that Esleen had gone. We were standing out in the yard, trying to figure out what to do, when a man suddenly appeared in the doorway of the hut.
ILISHA: I am Michael, he said. You are welcome here.
ELLIOT: Thank you. I am Elliot. This is Ilisha, I said. Your home has been very comfortable. But Michael, where is Esleen?
ILISHA: She left early with our son, he said. He is very sick and he needs the doctor.
ELLIOT: Did you take him to the clinic in town?
ILISHA: Yes, the clinic.
ELLIOT: You'll pardon my asking, but is there a real doctor there?
ILISHA: Yes. Even there. Now excuse me, he said. I must go to town.
ELLIOT: And he left. We watched him go.
ILISHA: [to ELLIOT] Is it possible that . . .
ELLIOT: No. A virus takes a good two weeks to manifest itself.
ILISHA: Well, it's been ten days.
ELLIOT: Babies don't get the flu.
ILISHA: For God's sake, Elliot. What do you know about that? What could possibly make you an expert on children except perhaps the fact that you are completely opposed to having them? Or that you bought a birthing chair last time you went to Africa?
ELLIOT: [to audience]The baby was in the hospital and all I could think about was our flight to the coast the next morning. I know it sounds terrible, but to me it seemed excessive to postpone our time on the beach to deal with Esleen's sick baby. I swear, that's what I thought. I didn't think about Ilisha sick in bed back in New York or about the way she was holding that baby out in the yard. I didn't think anything.
ILISHA: Did something cross both of our minds that day in the yard? A flicker of something? Recognition?
ELLIOT: That maybe you . . . we were being careless?
ILISHA: No. I didn't think of it. I felt better by then.
ELLIOT: Well, I don't know about--
ILISHA: The hut was full of smoke. I wanted to help him.
ELLIOT: Help him?
ILISHA: Yes, help. In the same way you thought it would help to buy them that expensive high-powered flashlight to use around the farm, only they can't afford the batteries. So then you promised to mail them batteries every year, but then one year you'll forget, and then what?
ELLIOT: [to audience]We were alone on the farm and it was raining. [The lights dim.]
ILISHA: Do you think they blame us?
ELLIOT: No, of course not.
ILISHA: Why don't we call the big hospital in the city?
ELLIOT: Ilisha, please.
ILISHA: What's wrong with you, Elliot?
ELLIOT: Fine. Let's walk fifteen miles to the nearest pay phone, which doesn't work, and then try to communicate in a language that neither of us knows to find out if there's anything we can do for the child's symptoms, which we haven't seen firsthand.
ILISHA: The baby is very sick.
ELLIOT: Hang on, Ilisha. This is not going to turn into anything. It just feels scary because we're far away from home. That's all.
ILISHA: Elliot, you know when you're walking along the street at night and you look up to some random window, and at the moment you look at the window, that split second, the light goes on inside?
ILISHA: What do you think that is? A coincidence? Don't you always wonder if there's a connection? [to audience] That day I wrote postcards to all my friends, saying we were having a wonderful time and that we were leaving for the coast the next day. I didn't know what else to do--if everything turned out all right, I wanted the cards to have gone out.
ELLIOT: We stayed in the hut all day. The rain had us bleary-eyed. At about five the dog started barking.
ILISHA: News at five.
ELLIOT: I stuck my head out the door and saw Esleen walking slowly into the yard, baby clutched to her chest. Michael hovered behind her, holding an umbrella over them. They looked tired.
ILISHA: We ran outside. Esleen, are you all right?
ELLIOT: Yes, she said. I am well.
ILISHA: And Gabriel?
ELLIOT: He received an injection at the clinic. May the Good Lord do the rest.
[The lights fade to black. A spotlight picks up the couple in the center of the stage.]
ELLIOT: Sometime during the night the baby died. Esleen was in a daze. Her sisters and friends all came to the farm to help. They bustled around, cooking vats of soup or stew and talking in low voices. No one paid any attention to Ilisha or me. We packed up our stuff, said goodbye to no one in particular, and walked out of there.
[ELLIOT walks off, leaving ILISHA alone.]
ILISHA: It's ironic, really. I'd brought an entire pharmacy with me: antibiotics, water purification tablets, snakebite antidote, aspirin, Pepto-Bismol, Ex-Lax, temporary tooth fillings, not to mention all the shots we had before we left. And here was this little baby, soft and dumb, able to protect himself from everything these drugs were meant to protect me from, and he ends up with the damned flu. Or not. Whatever it was, he was gone. So we left. What else could we do?