Chapter Excerpt

From Chapter One

I changed my mind somewhere between Paris and Dakar. Had I been driving overland in the notorious Paris-Dakar race, I would have stopped the car in the desert, dropped out of the race. I had the urge to signal the steward on the Air France flight and demand that the pilot turn back. I heard my mother's plea: "Sarah, please don't go. Don't meddle in that marriage. Don't do something that you'll regret." And my father's question: "I'd really like to know why you have to move to Dakar?" Antonia Dale, my friend and colleague at Boston University, had said adamantly, "I wouldn't go. I'd send a cable -- ask him for more information about the circumstances. But I definitely wouldn't go."

Although I had tried to persuade everyone that Dakar was a place where I could do my best work and assist Ibrahim Mangane with his projects, I had convinced no one, not even myself. Still, I had bought a one-way ticket to an uncertain future and had left Ibrahim's post office box number as my forwarding address.

I closed my eyes. The gyration of the plane rocked me to sleep. Startled by the grinding of the landing gear, I woke up, looked down and saw the beckoning finger of a peninsula in the Atlantic. Dakar. I reached into the seat pocket for an airsickness bag and emptied my ambivalent stomach.

Born in a country and social set that seemed alien to me, I knew at an early age that I was meant to exist elsewhere. Juvenile fantasies about a Senegalese girlhood evolved into a fascination with Senegal and my future study of Senegal's major writer, Ibrahim Mangane. I fell in love with his books, his characters, and their lives in Senegal's cities and villages. His works invaded my dreams, evoked my prayers.

I was not religious, but devoutly I prayed to go to Senegal. I was neither unstable nor possessed, but Senegal was constantly on my mind. I closed my eyes and imagined myself a character in a Mangane novel amid throngs of women, draped in cloth of many colors, ambling through crowded markets where women farmers and their children sold mangoes and coconuts, red peppers and peanuts, sacks of rice and beans yielded by their sometimes meager, sometimes abundant harvests. A flock of pelicans in flight flapped overhead. I heard a "riot whisper tales about an ancient village in a language I did not understand to a circle of children, mesmerized by his words, squatting in the sand.

I daydreamed about walking at night with Ibrahim Mangane along endless beaches lit by a forever full moon. Scenes from his novels flashed continuously on the screen of my mind. Ideas from his works invaded my imagination. Ibrahim Mangane, a man I had never met, made a place I had never seen more vivid than the everyday reality of my life in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and more engaging than my marriage to Abraham Lincoln Thompson.

Lincoln and I had been married two years when he began to view my study of African novels and films as an obsession, and I began to question the nature of our marriage. I was a graduate student in comparative literature at Harvard. He was studying engineering at MIT. We lived on Trowbridge Street in a second story studio apartment with an alcove for a kitchen and an ancient bathroom.

Furnishings were bought at thrift shops or gathered the night before trash collection on prosperous Francis Avenue. Selected from heaps of tastefully worn, discarded household items: a mustard-colored convertible sofa bed, a mud-brown overstuffed chair, a red metal kitchen table, four kitchen chairs—each with a different design and provenance, a desk with the initials of previous owners scratched in a drawer.

Lincoln bought a hi-fi set. We stacked our records and books on shelves of boards and cinder bricks that stood on a dirt cheap, cocoa-colored carpet. The apartment looked like a stage set for a drama about a drab student marriage in a university town.

Schedules of classes and seminars, reading assignments, and examinations regulated the rhythm of our lives. Up early on weekday mornings, scanning our notebooks over cornflakes and coffee, we had few words for each other. "Pass the milk." "Your turn to do the laundry this week." "Please turn off the radio -- I can't concentrate." At eight o'clock, Lincoln left for MIT. I read at the kitchen table until it was time to go to a seminar from ten until noon on Mondays. On Tuesday and Thursday mornings, I attended lectures on non-Western literature; and on Fridays, I met with undergraduates to discuss the lectures and readings. Friday afternoons found me engaged in sherry hour repartee about Camus, Sartre, and Wittgenstein in Brattle Street book-lined living rooms of uncommonly homely professors. Saturday mornings were for errands, and Sunday mornings for the New York Times. Most evenings Lincoln was at his MIT laboratory and I was in Widener Library.

Our marriage was like many student marriages. The apartment that we called "home" was a place to store books and papers, share an occasional meal, play chess, scan the newspapers, watch television, make love in haste and detachment, then fitfully fall asleep.

In the fantasies of our parents, whose mortgaged Washington, D.C., rooftops sheltered wall-to-wall carpets, china closets, Duncan Phyfe copies of chairs and tables, and black bourgeois dreams, Lincoln and I floated in the air against a star-studded Cambridge sky like a Chagall-painted bride and groom. They thought of us as the ideally matched couple living happily ever after in the perfect college town. Our marriage had made our parents' favorite dreams come true.

We had known each other since childhood. The Stewarts and the Thompsons lived in the same neighborhood, shopped in the same stores, worshiped at Calvary AME Zion Church. Lincoln and I had attended the same high school where he was two years my senior. I knew him from a distance, not as a classmate, but rather as an older boy whom I very much admired. He was tall, handsome, athletic, intelligent, and well mannered. He stood when adults entered a room, opened doors for girls, and tipped his snap-brim tweed cap to my father when they passed on the street. When he walked me home, he insisted on carrying my books and tennis racquet. He asked me out on my first date -- a Saturday afternoon movie at the Booker T. Washington Theater. We ate a jumbo box of buttered popcorn, held greasy hands in the steamy dark balcony, stole glances at each other, and looked occasionally at the screen illuminated by Audrey Hepburn's amble through Breakfast at Tiffany's.

When I was a Wellesley College freshman, Lincoln was a junior at Dartmouth. Parties, football games, tennis matches, and holiday festivities brought us together at black college student events in Boston, New York, and Washington.

I enjoyed being seen with stately, handsome Lincoln Thompson. His features had irregularities: one eye slightly larger than the other and a slightly crooked mustache, which accentuated the near perfection in his six-foot-two model of lean masculinity. We reveled in the company and conversation that whirled about us when we entered parties -- I in my ruby velvet strapless sheath and Lincoln in a tuxedo with a ruby bow tie and cummerbund. That people fell in love with the image of us made us feel that we had fallen in love with each other.

Our wedding, an important social benchmark for our families, afforded public recognition of their accomplishments and ours. In the wedding album, our parents, Lincoln, and I were Kodachromed in the traditional poses of the grinning wedding party. Between plastic leaves in the back of the album we kept clippings fromJetandThe Washington Afro-American.

Copyright© 1996 by Florence Ladd

Excerpted from Sarah's Psalm: A Novel by Florence Ladd
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