Two Talks

Hours must have passed because his dreams fragmented and became more vivid, and were finally corralled and hijacked by a symphonic chorus of crickets. He opened his eyes to brilliant sunlight flooding his room at the Halcyion Suites. He groped for his phone and killed the insistent chirps. He couldn’t remember exactly how he’d made it back. The bathroom mirror and tentative fingers on his throat revealed nothing unusual. Looking out the window he saw his car three stories below, parked askew. The driver’s door was open, and a front wheel had mounted the curb and wedged itself in the glossy vinca minor.

His lecture was in an hour. He reviewed his slides over hurried chunks of buttered baguette and black coffee, and made it to the meeting room in West Hall A in good time. Pharma reps and postdocs in jeans tapped their phones between talks. At the podium, he coaxed details of bacterial pathology from the projected data as his ruby laser danced across the screen. But his thoughts were overrun by images of Fairouz skipping with him through thunder showers, and their ardent nuzzling to Di Sarli tangos. Fairouz breathed intimately into his ear, her crisp boleos and sensual barridas flawlessly reflected as they swept by the mirrors. Her joy in Tango was the universal joy of women no longer deprived of their need to be enfolded in love. Max fielded a question or two, then headed out to the Islamic women’s rights convention.

He sensed a tangent into novel experience as he queried his phone and saw that women’s rights were in East Hall A. Max had long grown accustomed to inhabiting parallel lives that came and went as naturally as day follows night. His days began with recollection of evanescent dreams, followed by a drive across estuarine sea-marshes into the city. One day he would listen to a sober public news station, thinking about scholarly tasks awaiting him at work. The next day, he’d listen to Argentine tangos by Canaro, Di Sarli, Troilo, Pugliese, and D’Arienzo. The music diverted his thoughts into a life with clear priorities: listening more intently, dancing perfectly aligned with his partner’s close embrace and her flying high heels, and carnal daydreams.

For long minutes he traversed glass-fronted concrete galleries and drifted down silent escalators, coming at last to a darkened packed auditorium. He made his way closer to the stage, and found a seat between an overweight lady who appeared to be asleep and an earnest younger woman with her hair in corn-rows. He listened intently for a minute or two before realizing that Fairouz was speaking, poised and matter-of-fact behind the podium. She was crisp and business-like in an ash gray jacket and skirt, and a tiny microphone was clipped to the creamy open collar of her blouse.

“Tens of thousands of Somalis died when Ethiopia invaded my homeland. Hundreds of thousands were forced to flee Mogadishu. To defenseless Somalis, the marauding aliens were incarnations of the Woyanne, the US-backed Ethiopian vampire regime that deflected criticism of horrific human rights abuse by going after Al-Shabaab jihadists in South Somalia.”

Her laser pointer cast a fluorescent green spot onto a grainy image of a desert landscape. Skeletal women and children huddled in the sparse shade of thorn trees. In the next slide a column of light tanks and SUVs bristling with machine guns and AK47s hurtled through an abandoned village of thatched huts. And then her laser picked out a young girl struggling in her mother’s arms as a turbanned elder probed between the child’s splayed legs with a curved and bloodied knife. Max felt an uncomfortable stir in the darkened auditorium, and marveled at Fairouz’s composure as she recited statistics of genital cutting in Somalia. Such things were not uppermost in the educated placid minds of her audience.

When the lights came up, the moribund lady on his right came to life and challenged Fairouz on US complicity in East African affairs. Fairouz methodically cited her sources, thanked everyone for their attention, and turned towards the door. Max followed her out to a terrace overlooking a distant marine theme park. Vivid blue water slides towered over diminutive tiki bars and sun umbrellas lining the scalloped edges of a mega-pool. Shading her eyes, Fairouz leaned against the parapet and smiled. Max remembered their involuntary recoil and easy surrender at the first tentative bite.

“Fairouz,” he said, “What did you mean, the Ethiopian vampire regime?”

“Ovidio and I took you home last night,” she said. “You were a little out of it; you seemed to think that we preyed on others. Tango is pretty elemental, I agree, but really…? The Ethiopian vampires? A useful metaphor for those who oppose genocide.”