Rumpus Original Fiction: Mutual Exploitation

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1.

Stevens worked odd jobs for Dr. Francois Moretti, retired physician, art collector, and landlord, doing whatever needed to be done around Kay Moretti: helping tenants move in, securing fans and refrigerators for them, but also carrying their groceries, washing their cars, taking out their trash for twenty gourdes, sometimes less if the blan was stingy. Newly arrived ex-pats—bewildered, sweating, pink in the face—often paid him in dollars or euros, handing him a fistful of crumpled, damp cash as if to say I don’t know how much I’m giving you and I don’t care, just make my problem go away. And he did, fixing faulty electrical wiring, buying Digicel minutes, plunging clogged toilets, directing tenants to Daphne, who sold them mangoes and eggplants at a markup. In this way, Stevens observed everyone who came and went at Kay Moretti.

Two French women lived in the apartment adjoining the main courtyard, where they sat every day making puppets out of empty bottles of dish detergent and recycled plastic tubing. Sometimes a Rasta with long locs joined them, twisting pieces of copper into the semblance of hands, mouths, eyes with his dust-caked fingers. Stevens often overheard the French women making love as he passed through the second-floor hallway, on his way to refill the cistern from which the American girls on the terrace drew their showers. One of the Americans was a beautiful dyaspora who wore thin cotton dresses and no bra, who looked at him when she looked at him at all as if he were some minor hassle given human form, even though they were the same shade of brown. The other, a snub-nosed blonde who taught at a local orphanage, spoke to him in a syrupy chirp both flirtatious and patronizing. She didn’t understand the difference between Haitian dollars and gourdes and so left him absurdly large tips. Before these women there had been a pair of microfinance experts from Mozambique and an old Belgian man, an aid worker, who liked little boys.

Stevens took online courses in the evenings, at a cultural center funded by some billionaire philanthropist. He studied English and economics and world history. One night while Daphne painted her toenails lime green he propped himself up on the mattress they shared and said, “What’s your opinion on socialism?” Daphne said, “I think it doesn’t matter what our opinions are.” Stevens said, “I think it’s good to question things. Important.” Daphne said, “Maybe. But not very useful. You could be working those hours instead.”

This disinterest—which Stevens saw as essentially selfish, further proof of Daphne’s defeatist superficiality—began to chafe him. He and Daphne had grown up together in Léogâne and moved together to Port-au-Prince after the earthquake, in which he’d lost his father and younger brother and she’d lost both her parents. Unable to find a job in the garment factories, Daphne had connected with an older woman who carried fresh produce in from the mountains between the capital and Jacmel, and Stevens had attached himself to Kay Moretti, persuading Moretti’s tenants to allow him to perform tasks until they saw that he was useful and the doctor was forced to regard him as a de facto, albeit unofficial, employee. Neither was old yet but neither was young anymore, and Stevens had been with Daphne so long, since birth, it seemed, that their love had cycled from passion to companionability to hatred to passion and back to companionability, again veering toward hatred. She’d miscarried the year before, a little red trail swimming out from between her legs and staining the geometric-patterned sheets they’d found in a cardboard box the Belgian pedophile had left behind in his abrupt departure.

Later he’d remind Daphne that it was her idea he started fucking the fat fifty-something white American woman who’d moved into the suite of rooms below Moretti’s, and she’d reply that she’d been “Joking, Jesus pig,” she’d, “rather be poor than marry a man who prostituted himself.”

 

2.

In the beginning, Stevens pursued Moira, and she’d only been pursued once before: by her college boyfriend, an earnest young man with a blonde bowl-cut who broke things off to pursue seminary school. Moira looked forty, forty-five maybe, but she wasn’t pretty and had never been. Her eyebrows, two straight lines, sat low over deep-set, tiny eyes and a pinched cipher of a mouth. She liked her breasts, which had developed early and for a brief time drawn the attention she knew she wasn’t supposed to crave, attention which she both loathed and desired, that felt hot and uncomfortable on her skin. Still her box-shaped torso, the knotted-up veins that protruded prematurely from her calves, the glossy boutiques that carried nothing she could fit into, had distressed her until she resigned herself to being unseen, to instead watching. There was a lot one could see about other people, when those people didn’t see them.

She’d become the chair of the anthropology department at Dartmouth at the record-breaking age of twenty-eight, sacrificed her desire for sexuality to her desire for venerability, for undeniable power over those classmates who might reduce her to nice tits, but unfortunate face. The hiring and firing kind of power. “You, ma’am, are a stoic institution,” an associate professor, a German man with a salt-and-pepper beard who she thought about when she masturbated, once told her, as if she were a nineteenth-century schoolmarm and not someone with a pulse, and she thought about his wife, an insipid, thin thing, how clammy her goose-bumped, translucent skin would feel beneath her hands.

She’d come to Haiti to do her first fieldwork in the early nineties; she knew the place well. When Stevens initially approached Moira, she thought he wanted her money. She paid the girl who she thought was his girlfriend what she knew was an absurd sum for a black plastic bag of small yellow mangoes, sweet but sinewy and cumbersome as corn on the cob, just to make him leave her alone. But the next day when she reemerged in the sun-stroked courtyard, dialing the number of an old NGO contact’s driver to take her to the rebuilt Caribbean Market, he was back at her, so she took him on as her fixer.

 

3.

The woman paid him to do essentially the same things his friend Levinson had been paid to do for the journalists who hung out on the veranda of the nearby Hotel Trianon: follow her around as she did whatever it was that she was doing in Haiti, whether it was sunning herself and reading novels over at the new upscale orange concrete monstrosity across the street from the fast food restaurant where all the asshole zouzoun kids got drunk and shouted a lot on the weekends, as if they were white Americans on vacation; or accompanying her to a vodoun ceremony in La Plaine, translating for her, waving over moto-taxi drivers who shot him dark looks that said You’re redundant, man, I could handle all parts of this operation myself; or else allowing her to purchase him an Italian soda which he sipped while she wrote furiously in a leather-bound journal at a restaurant in a restored gingerbread in Pétion-Ville.

She was researching something to do with sorcery, or with zombies, the usual things that interested white people. All that stuff honestly made him nervous, although he was careful not to say so around Moira, who might chasten him for “demonizing a beautiful, misunderstood religion,” who watched the disgusting masisi—those plucked, arched eyebrows, in combination with the houngan’s masculine, square jaw, especially made Stevens squirm—presiding over the ceremony with an expression of childish rapture, not even flinching as the chicken, neck broken, flapped reflexively. She spoke of her love for Haiti as if it were a mystical, predestined thing, and he thought, You only feel that way because you can leave whenever you want, but didn’t say so.

Stevens was surprised when she pressed her chapped, dry lips to his, when she leaned into him with that sudden urgency. He hadn’t thought she viewed him as totally human and not a pop-up apparition, a friendly computer-game guide. Truthfully, he wasn’t sure who’d initiated the kiss; he felt an unexpected tenderness toward this woman, who sunburned easily and sometimes cried speaking of the injustices Haitians suffered, whose face, round as a baby’s, always wore a lost, slightly panicked expression. Here was a woman who needed him, a woman who found his opinions useful, sometimes even taking notes as he spoke. “She’s studying us,” Daphne said. “Like scientists go to school to study bugs or bacteria.” Stevens thought of the kiss and wanted to scream at Daphne that she was wrong, only she thought of him that way: as something shameful, something small. So he felt genuinely hurt, not only embarrassed, when Moira made fun of him for the photos she discovered on her cell phone several months later, photos he’d taken of himself in various tenants’ apartments, posing casually on the sofa or with an original Duffaut painting (there was another Duffaut at the foundation where Stevens took classes, another brightly-colored city in the sky) purchased off that gimlet-eyed little bachelor Moretti, with his light skin and playboy demeanor even at age seventy; posing as if Stevens owned it all. By this point Daphne had left him, gone to stay with a cousin in Carrefour.

He took to fucking Moira as if he hated her. She loved it, made noises that reminded him of a goat bleating. This only made him hate her more. He stopped taking classes at the foundation, more preoccupied now with questions of sin and salvation than of political philosophy. Though he hadn’t been to mass since the earthquake (all the survivors who held their lives as proof of God’s existence were full of bullshit, because what about his father and little brother, did He not love them too?) he remembered Paul’s warnings about men who did filthy things with each other’s bodies. What he did with Moira was no better.

Do you love me? Moira asked dozens of times a day, and he reassured her that yes, he did, because he had a nice place to live and money to send his mother in Léogâne even if he’d lost the woman he’d loved since childhood, even if Moira’s naiveté and stumbling Creole had begun to enrage rather than charm him. He knew Moira knew he was lying—her initial handsy giddiness had been replaced by pensiveness, by distance—and this only made her more repulsive to him.

 

4.

Moira was surprised when Stevens kissed her, surprised and suspicious—he was, after all, quite handsome, much younger than her, and very poor, though he always smelled like the rectangular blocks of yellow soap Haitian laundrywomen used—but over time he melted all her reservations into the delirious peace that accompanies good sex. He had love-handles and a bit of a belly and sometimes picked his nose, flicking the crust onto the bedsheets, but he was hers. One night several months after Stevens moved in with her she overheard the striking Haitian girl and her cheerleader-looking (schoolteacher?) roommate, who she knew treated Stevens like an inconvenience personified, talking on the terrace.

“I saw them the other day, she was leaning out the window moaning, it was disgusting.” The cheerleader replied that that was “cruel, everyone deserves love.”

“Love?” The beautiful Haitian-American said. “She couldn’t find a man in America to fuck her like that.” Moira, under the overhang in the courtyard, sucked in her gut.

“He looked humiliated. Like he hated himself.”

The cheerleader said, “I think they’re sweet.”

“I don’t feel sorry for her.”the Haitian said. “She’s a cliché, really. Treating Haiti like her personal playground.”

“Don’t be mean,” cheerleader chirped, syrupy. “They might be in love. Maybe they’ll have kids someday.”

Back in the apartment they shared, Moira poured herself several generous fingers of Barbancourt rum before asking Stevens if he loved her. She knew she asked him too often. He lay in bed, the window fan turned on full blast, playing a game on the smart phone she’d bought him, something that involved stocking the stores at a digital shopping complex populated by tiny pixelated people. “Yes,” he mumbled, barely looking up, and Moira could have smacked him for the ingratitude, the entitlement, even as she knew he’d never leave her. She thought of the beautiful girl who’d called her a cliché and wondered if she was indeed preying upon the country, the people she loved. She’d always thought of unreciprocated love as a crucifix, never as a violation.

“They might be in love,” the other girl, the less intelligent one, had said, though perhaps not entirely sincerely. This might be love, Moira thought. She had little, after all, to compare it to: the memory of her college boyfriend’s wisp of a body moving mechanically above hers; a few dates with men she’d met online, stuttering conversations pretending toward shared interest, made tolerable only by wine. Watching Stevens play that stupid game on his phone, she admitted to herself that she needed but did not respect him; that she was willing to accept what the mango lady (she’d never asked Stevens her name, it was better if he believed she didn’t know) would not. She gulped the rest of the rum from her chipped mug and turned back into the kitchen to start dinner.

***

Photographs provided courtesy of author.


Jason Phoebe Rusch has an MFA in fiction from University of Michigan's Helen Zell writing program. He has taught composition at the University of Michigan as well as creative writing at Interlochen Center for the Arts and Bisou Bisou Haiti. Most recently, he has been awarded a 2017 fellowship from the Luminarts foundation. His first book of poems, Two in One Flesh, will be available from Hobart's SF/LD books in early 2018. More of his work can be found at www.jasonphoeberusch.com. More from this author →