A Writer Writes

Self-Defense
by Melissa Moses (Lesotho 2002–04)

I AWAKEN WITH THE ROOSTERS, just as the closest stars begin to fade from the sky. Another day. Fifteen hours or so to survive. With a sigh, I push off the numerous blankets that must be used to stay warm. Time to run. My daily ritual. Many give me grief for running so early but I tend to find reasons not to go if I give myself the time. And the thirty pounds that I’ve gained, eating my blues away, are making me even more depressed. This morning is no different than others, and I fight off the fleeting temptation to stay in bed — cozy and warm. The rest of the day will likely be spent there.
     I put on my running clothes — a bit smelly as I’ve been running in them for three days now. This morning is my bi-weekly long run and I prepare a bottle of Gatorade to carry with me. I’ve tried to go without but begin to feel hallucinatory and shaky after about two hours. A package of cookies awaits my return — carb replacement, I tell myself, yet the instant they are devoured I will begin to feel guilty.
     The air feels like a second skin — no longer chilly, not yet warm. I walk through my still sleeping village to get to the road. Restless animals eye me as I pass and renegade chickens flee from my path. They throw rocks at the creatures here — all of the larger animals have cuts or scars on their flanks from the beatings. I can see the despair in their broken eyes. I claims to be numb to this, yet just yesterday caused a ruckus for attempting to rescue a poor puppy being thrashed by a group of young children.
     I set off at a steady, constant pace. No one is out yet and I savor this time. To think, to breathe, to soar. I’ve turned down numerous offers from people who wish to accompany me. The whole concept of alone time is unheard of here. I try to refuse politely, jokingly. There are cultural and linguistic barriers that I do not care to delve into. My previous attempts have failed; either the explanations were met with blank eyes or, worse, laughter. I cannot bear this reaction when my morning run is my salvation. The one thing that gets me out of my hut. The one thing that keeps me from smoking so much pot that upwards of three days can pass by in a sleepy, groggy stupor. With the sound of birds being the only thing disrupting the silence, the sun creeps over the peaks, illuminating the landscape with a soft light that grants everything beauty. For a few brief moments, I am able to appreciate this “Switzerland of Africa”.
     I leave early to minimize the number of people that may be encountered. This lessens the potential for harassment. The run helps me to burn off residual anger only when there is no cause for it to bottle up during the course of the jog. Passing a bar where drunk men leer, “hey baby/sweetie/sissy/mama”, or children scream, “hey white person, give me money,” these dreaded occasions trespass on my brief feelings of freedom. They cause me to erupt in anger, telling quintessential starving African children to “fuck off”.
     An hour passes. My route is defined. I run by distance and rarely glance at my watch. People are awakening and I am happy to turn onto a road that is rarely populated at this hour. A downhill stretch. My body is floating. I’ve fallen into a pleasant rhythm that allows my thoughts to flow without focusing on my body, my breath, the amount of time remaining.
     I notice the group of men approaching, three of them. They are quiet and do not appear to be amongst the throng of men who stagger home from the bars at daybreak. There are no bars out this way. I am not frightened. Men often head out early to tend to their herds, walk into work, etc. Still, my body becomes alert. Tense. An ingrained response in me, perhaps in all women, when confronting a group of men alone. I contemplate turning around but choose to continue, moving to the opposite side of the street. My eyes on the ground, my demeanor screams, “leave me alone.” It does not translate.
     They begin calling out, “run, run, white person, run!” I feel my jaw clench and my fingernails dig into the skin of my palms. They start to run with me. I pick up the pace, hoping to discourage their pursuit. Laughing, they match me. I am not laughing. I turn and yell, “No, stop!” My hands are unconsciously thrust out in front of me, palms out, creating a physical wall in what I now know is the basic stance taught in self-defense. They stop, their faces fall, and their offense is obvious. A wave of exhaustion floods over me. I’m so tired of this.
     Feeling the bitch, I turn and head towards home. I can’t take anymore. My serene state of mind is now busily calculating the amount of time remaining until I am able to go home. Home is personified by my mother. Twenty-four years old and all I want is my mom.
     The rest of the run passes by in a haze of division. One-third of the way through this month, 2 months until I am halfway done, etc., etc. I round the curve that marks the beginning of my village and try to make my presence inconspicuous. I always cover my skin as much as possible, running in water-proof, canvas pants that cause sweat to accumulate in little droplets on my legs. A long-sleeved T-shirt disguises my arms. If I felt that it would help, I would rid myself of my blond hair — I ache to blend in. But my differences seem ingrained. Dogs snarl at me, the lone animal rights activist in a country whose population has more immediate concerns. I sometimes wonder if, were it not for my white skin that leads to assumptions of money and sweets, the people here wouldn’t snarl at me in the same manner. I slow to a walk — a short cool-down before I retreat to my house. At the shop, two of my favorite children run to greet me. They live in the huts next door. One, my beloved, has a smile that can always soothe my seething. Nicknamed Mootaka for his nudist tendencies, he was terrified of me when I arrived. I fell in love with his little bottom fleeing whenever he caught wind of my presence. Months ago, I was sitting outside when I noticed him approaching alone. “So brave,” I thought, “Had I finally won him over?” About fifty feet away from my house, he covered his face with his hands, peering under his fingers to the ground to check his progress as he continued along. When he had almost passed my house, his hands came down into a sprinter’s stance as he bolted to his nearby compound. I moved to watch him and caught a glimpse of his infamous grin, thrown my way. Not meant for me, he was exalting in the thought that he had escaped unnoticed. Today, he is with his younger brother, less than two years old but already a firecracker. I don’t understand a word from either of them but respond in a way that allows them to continue babbling on. I have never known such spectacular kids.
     I leave them with promises to draw later and approach the home of my appointed father in the village. His truck is in the driveway, announcing his infrequent presence. In my ten months of residency, I have spoken with him maybe three times — more of a father figure than he’ll ever know. His caretaker, who becomes, by default, caretaker of me, greets me with her usual ebullience. We know only about six words of the language of the other, yet she is one of three women that I care about in the village.
     A young man is with her. The driver? The son? Even now, I don’t know. He is my height and is dressed in the typical “business casual” style that is the norm in this impoverished country. Chino-esque trousers may have tiny holes in them from being dried on barbed wire fences, but one can rest assured they are clean and pressed. Polished shoes point out from under the cuffs and care is taken to match the pants with just the right T-shirt emblazoned with the latest NGO slogan.
     The young man appears reserved as I stumble through the requisite question and answer session, “What’s my name? What’s my work? Am I married?” The answer to the last depends on my mood. Sometimes I scoff and make it clear that I would rather die than be married. Other times I am honest in my affirmative reply, though I never expand on the tumultuous details. My village, however, is aware of the saga. They heard the fighting. The woman in front of me now once had to physically separate myself and my husband. They all gathered in a circle to watch as he moved out.
     The young man speaks a bit of English, but I’m not in the mood to chat. I begin edging myself towards my house, trying to extricate myself from the situation. Before I am able to make my escape, he offers his hand. I hesitate. Too many times have I given my hand only to have it clasped so tightly that I am unable to pull away. One month or so previous, after an old man used this leverage to pull me in for a kiss, I vowed never again to surrender myself in such a way. This declaration had not yet been an issue as I could easily walk away from strangers in the street, not caring if I appeared rude. When do I not appear rude in this country? But this? This is home. This is family. I have to do this.
     I give him my hand, smiling, always managing to outwardly express my ingrained American fakery, “Nice to meet you! I’ve gotta run!” He grips my hand and I am enveloped in grease and heat. Dirty fingernails that have been God knows where glide across my skin. One phallic finger is freed from his hand and lecherously twists in a circle in my palm. I let my hand drop, stunned and sickened. This is a signal. A signal expressing his desire to let his dick do in another part of my body what his finger has done to my palm.
     It feels like he is now twisting in my stomach.
     I search the innocuous eyes of my caretaker. Her smile is unaltered. While energy and body language carry us through our daily interactions, the flames of rage radiating within me do not appear to singe her.
     There is nothing to say. I turn and walk the twenty feet to my front door. There are kids outside of my house. More than content to amuse themselves with a variety of songs and games when I am absent, my arrival always causes everything to come to a halt. They call out my name and various desires; crayons, chalk, jump-ropes. The days when I actually used to play with them have long since passed. Now I just toss out the play things and wait for the polite knocking on my door that indicates their return. Today, I can’t even manage that. Shaking my head, I storm past them. What must these people think of me? I pull the door closed behind me. Self-defense.
     I can still feel his finger. Wiping my hands on my canvas pants, I have an overpowering desire to rid myself of everything affiliated with the event that just occurred. I strip off my running clothes — why didn’t the stench dissuade him? I pull on loose-fitting sweat pants — my favorite jeans no longer fit; a roll of fat spills over the waist making them impossible to button. A baggy T-shirt, then an over-sized sweatshirt. A crocheted hat is pulled over my greasy, unwashed hair. There is a tiny mirror in my closet and I glimpse my reflection — blank eyes staring out of a pudgy face that looks as      though a child formed it with play-doh.
I don’t understand any of this. I’m so obviously undesirable, yet am constantly told how beautiful I am. I’m so rude, yet have never had anyone hold a grudge against me. My mood changes instantaneously, yet my explosions in anger do not cause people to write me off. Do these people have the innate ability to see through my self-defenses to the kind-hearted person that I pray to God has not been lost? Or does my white skin blind them from who I have become — a person that I find difficulty claiming.
.