“It’s our plague,” he says while chopping an onion, stopping every few seconds to blink away the sting in his eyes. “What was it—a third of the population died?” “Something like that,” I say, standing in front of the open fridge. The kitchen is small, so we’re practically back to back while he’s at the counter. I forget what I’m looking for and shut the fridge door. No wait. More cucumber soda! Ice cubes. That’s what it was. This gin isn’t going to freshen itself up.
“It won’t be you or me,” he says, moving on to garlic. The garlic has a papery brown skin, the bulge of root a little lighter than normal. I found it today at Whole Foods—the cashier woman didn’t know the code for it, so she gave it to me for free. It lent a very clandestine air to the whole trip, as if I had somehow both cheated the system and discovered something marvelous at the same time.
“Is it supposed to look like this?” he holds up an inky purple black clove. Soft curls of the shell cling to his finger, the sticky of the meat coating the tips. I nod. “It’s black garlic.” He smells it, then squishes it. “It’s really soft,” he tells me. Try and mince it anyway, I think, and he must read my mind because he doesn’t say anything else. There’s an old-fashioned by his elbow and he reaches for it, after he reaches for me, pressing his face into my shoulder while I move to the table. “No,” he says matter-of-factly, “It won’t be you or me.”
I sit down and close my eyes. We’re still only three feet away from each other, the kitchen small enough to be our enclave of heat and the sweet smelling tang of garlic. I’ll get up in a minute when it’s time to start the sauce, but for now there’s a breeze here, the big window just behind me thrown open. Beyond us night creeps over the little side yard, slowly shadowing the tangle of blackberries and weeds and one flower I saw the other day that live by the window, and the lights in the big house next door start flickering on. They’re on the second floor, odd for them at this time of night—normally the four of us all start dinner at the same time, their kitchen and his kitchen eye-level across the fence.
“It’ll be marginalized populations, third world countries.” It’s almost time to sauté, he’s worked his way through a pile of vegetables tonight, evenly, methodically. I’ve never been that good at it, my fingers always get in the way, but he’s good with his hands. I know this. I also know he’s right, but it’s irritating to hear it said out loud anyway because what does it do? How many ways can a person be assaulted by the unfairness of the world in a day?
“Doesn’t seem right, does it?” I ask the room, and the shadows outside, and the couple across the fence. I know the answer, we all do, but I’m irritated enough to ask anyway. No, it won’t be you or me, or anyone we know. Even if it came here, we’d be fine, holed up in houses and health systems. It will be that open, broken and beautiful place, the raw land of the piece of Africa I called home for awhile that will pay the world’s price in blood and children. There’s a map on the wall overhead. I lent it to Darren because I was tired of sitting in a kitchen so white it hurt your eyes. Now the map—I dug it out of a dumpster behind our local middle school, the ethnocentricity of it no longer PC, as it featured an enormous North and South America in the middle of the map, with Russia, Europe and Africa shoved off to the sides—has been staple-gunned to the wall above, the fluorescent colors of each country a welcome relief from the onslaught of white. Nothing seems that far away when you’re looking at a map, I discovered long ago, everything looks so close together, Pangaea a not so distant dream. Here the curve of South America’s coast could so easily be nestled against the concave of Africa, here Alaskans and Russians could reach across the Bering and touch.
There is no truth in a map though, not really, not even ones you trust, staple gunned to a wall. Maps can’t tell you how it feels to stand looking down on a dusty, rising, dirt-road city and cry to the sound of your mother’s voice, maps can’t tell you how it feels to see the stars change place over a sea vaster than the human mind can imagine. And nothing in this map, nothing in the newspapers when I’m sitting at my desk at work, no matter how close it looks, will make that awful reality sweeping the continent feel closer to me. How, I want to choke out, can I make that hurt mine? How can I make it matter?
Now the garlic’s in the cast iron, turning the onions a dark brown, little onyx gems bleeding into everything else in the pan. They smell darker than normal, richer somehow, an oaky, musty smell that makes my teeth ache a little. Darren’s telling me about his day and I listen, letting the familiar sounds of his voice and cooking noise wash over me, drifting past ebola and gaza and ferguson, Missouri, all the pain of those people somewhere outside this kitchen, some other place. It won’t be you or me, no. Not us, my heart. It will be someone, somewhere else—but where does that leave us, the survivors?
Black is the night outside when we finally sit down to dinner, soft strains of guitar coming from the stereo, the crickets in the side yard acting as back-up vocals. We grasp hands and bow our heads over plates of rigatoni and a fresh tomato sauce, and I squeeze gently to let him know he should start tonight. God, he says, hear our prayer. Thank you for this meal, this woman and this night. Thank you for the garden that gave us these tomatoes. Thank you for the weather and for our health. Please keep the victims of ebola close to you. Bless this food to our bodies so we may go out and continue to do good in the world. Amen. I whisper amen and tell him good one.
Later, lying in the dark, listening to the fan whir and click, I think maybe this is the only answer. In a world of fear and suffering, indiscriminate in its harshness, we must search for the moments of light, the good we can do for those around us and the hope that somewhere someone is doing the same. Where there are no answers to the unfairness of it all, I find myself retreating into the cool comfort of gratitude for my here and now, the soft place I have to land. Questions with no resolution will wait for another night, those of why not me and how could it feel so far, and when I sleep it is without dreams.