“The angel of the Lord encamps all around those
who fear Him, and delivers them.”
— Psalms 34:7
I come from a long line of doomed women. My great-grandmother worked as a cook for a corrupt politician. She was murdered by thugs at the service of a political opponent. One night, at dinner time, as she came out of the kitchen to serve him a bowl of soup, the goons sneaked into the dining room and assassinated them both. A two for one. According to the police report of the crime scene, their bodies were soaked in a mess of blood and broth.
My grandmother was the secretary to an anthropologist. According to hearsay, she was reaching for a book from his shelf when a globe, encrusted with lapis lazuli and African jade, fell on her head. She was found dead by the mistress of the house.
My cousin Marie-Dominique, who walked me to elementary school every day until she finished high school, acquired a certificate in refrigeration and air conditioning. Not having found work in her field, the poor soul spent ten years scrubbing toilets in the headquarters of a pharmaceutical company at the edge of the Trans-Canada Highway. The constant contact with chemicals messed with her head. She hasn’t been the same since.
Manmi, on the other hand, rarely leaves the house, except to go to work or walk around the neighbourhood with Marie-Do, who gets bored as hell. According to Manmi, evil is upon us. She insists on reciting a bible verse every time I lace up my sneakers to go out.
As for me…I bide my time patiently. So far, my life has been exempt of the drama that typically torments my generation: chronic unemployment, frustrated hopes, psychopathic American presidents, all of it. During the last recession, I spent five years hiding inside the university. I steeped in it, comfortable in the soiled folds of James McGill’s panties. I don’t pretend that the university campus wasn’t brimming with the same pettiness and abuse that bloom in society at large. But at least it’s contained to a space and managed by a (however symbolic) matrix of rules and policies.
After graduation, I was lucky enough to land a mediocre but steady job. When I noticed the slow flux in the job market, I clung on to all sorts of lousy jobs (Starbucks, Frenglish tutor, security agent, etc.) to avoid the unemployment wave that ravaged my peers. Trust, I’ve showed up for many job interviews since I left university, but I’ve systematically received the same response: insufficient experience.
Still, I was always aware that, somewhere, somebody was probably eating more shit than me. Not everyone has a mother as loving and tyrannical as mine. So I appreciate my cozy bed and my bowl of hot chocolate every morning as much as her never-ending flow of criticism.
What is a call centre? A roof. A heating and ventilation system. Some computers. The cheapest desks you can find in an industrial furniture catalogue. Fireproof carpeting. It’s also my lifebuoy. Most people in this city have spent some time in a call centre, except those who are sheltered thanks to an inheritance, an insurance windfall, or a pretty face.
Among these ingrates, I’ve noticed a tendency to behave as if customer service is a punishment. Sure, like among boarding school residents, prisoners, or psych ward patients, you posture, pretending that real life is elsewhere. The work is tedious, definitely, but it’s stable. I’ve spent ten years here without any worries, and I would spend ten more if it were only up to me.
However, there’s the Naïka question. As soon as she walks through the door, armed with a thermos of ginger tea for her throat, the air becomes fresher, my chair cushion softens, the office mellows and envelops me. Her very presence bewitches me. Or is it her delicate pigeon-toed gait? Her hair, coaxed into sensuous finger waves, made up like she’s off to the club. On her wrists: bangles that produce an unapologetic jangle. I hear it every time she gesticulates, even from the other side of the office, a Pavlovian trick of stomach-knotting and salivation.
In addition to her charm, she also possesses a real knack for holding a conversation with a stranger. Outstanding charisma. Every day, even if she shows up thirty minutes late to her shift, she gets away with it thanks to her extraordinary productivity.
Since I’m the most senior employee in our division, I was charged with training her when she started. The protocol is quite simple: The phone rings. You pick up. You recite the approved texts. You repeat them until the client is appeased. You stick to the script. And woe to those whose service ticket puts forth a complaint! In my case, it took me a year to get acceptable numbers. Naïka, on the other hand, learned how to hone her calls without compromising her numbers in less than three months. The student surpassed the teacher.
One thing about me? My breath stinks. Especially at the end of my shift. But for a few weeks I’ve been trying to summon the courage to ask her out. The last time I tried to summon the courage, I nearly vomited my lunch onto my keyboard. Anyway, today I get off my ass, make a beeline for the water fountain, and discreetly gargle with cold water before sidling up to her desk where I mumble a few confused words. Without even looking up, she shrugs and agrees to have a bite. With me and my funky breath!
At my suggestion, we head towards Al Taib to get shawarmas. Captivated by her gestures, I discover the way she eats. First, she removes her rings and puts them on the table. She keeps her bracelets on. She unwraps the shawarma with her long fingers, dissects the ingredients, and eats them piece by piece, eyes closed, humming to herself. As if she’s alone in the restaurant, bracelets tinkling away. It’s almost obscene. Twice, the waiter returns, pretending to wipe the table next to us only to leer at her with thirsty eyes.
Typically, she doesn’t talk much. However, during this first meal together, she gravely explains to me that my aura is the colour of crystal, which is neither good nor bad, but that I should surround myself with reliable people. I digest her words while she grabs a piece of baklava and starts the play with her food all over again. I’m suspended, waiting until she’s done. Before she puts her rings back on, she studies me a while longer while sucking her index finger and then her thumb.
A few minutes later, at the bus stop, she leans into me and licks my nose. Her tongue smells like honey and garlic mayo.
In case you’re wondering, I don’t quite know if I’m this, that, or whatever. Either way, what interests me most urgently is Naïka. She intoxicates me, like everybody else she rubs shoulders with who wants to possess her.
Like Ricardo, the fool with glassy eyes who was hired in our section a few weeks after her. An absolute degenerate. I know. I’m the one who trained him. At the end, when I asked him if he had any questions, after a glance through his big glasses, he retorted: “So what are you, a guy or a girl?”
On top of that, he thinks of himself as an activist, constantly complaining that Dustin, our old manager, gets off on an overseer fetish at the office. Apparently, it turns him on to psychologically whip us. But Naïka never protests when Dustin gives us unsolicited advice or forces us to take the night shift. For Ricardo, this is further provocation. Accordingly, he has built an entire system that relies on the perception of reparations against social inequalities, which he translates to an extra twenty-five percent charge on his freelance “apothecary” business. His principal clientele are douchebros and bougie folks from the nearby university campus. According to Ricardo, they can rarely distinguish the quality of his product, can’t even distinguish between pills, mushrooms, and the strains of cannabis they consume on their cheap IPA benders. They are seduced, rather, by the persona of the seller, the brand. Ricardo feeds them endless stories that they fully eat up. He is the commodity.
When Ricardo is not stinking up our office corner with his haze of cannabis and sweat, his second favourite pastime is hitting on Naïka just for sport. It disgusts me how he finds excuses to be around her. A cup of coffee. A languid look. Another cup of coffee. Non-consensual sharing of viral videos. Toilet break.
My problem with mediocre guys like Ricardo is that they think what they have to offer, essentially low-grade weed, is comparable to my love and devotion. Thankfully, Naïka seems generally polite but not particularly interested in him. But then I see him doubling down on his efforts. To my horror, one afternoon, after a few of his cheap smirks, she accepted his invitation to smoke his stash in the parking lot. I watched as they both came back with glassy red eyes, and how he just went ahead and brushed her lower back … like she was his. I wanted to knock him out. Instead, I went after his physical appearance.
“What’s with the shirt filled with holes?” I said.
He noticed the condition of his sleeves, and clapped back: “What’s with the pleated trousers? You hitting a game of golf after work?”
“Dress for the job you want,” I replied.
“You wanna work in a call centre?”
“How who begets a scoffer
does so to his sorrow.”
— Proverbs 17:21
I come from a single-parent family. After a few years of hell in an oppressive marriage, Manmi never remarried, preferring instead to yoke herself to her Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Not bad at all as a stepfather. Except He’s been taking up more and more space now that Marie-Do is no longer with us.
The poor woman takes issue with my lifestyle. You know what it’s like to be woken up on a Saturday morning by a mother who screams at you to clean the house? Last weekend, she blasted gospel music and started to wipe the blades of the ceiling fan with a rag. Her movements were so vigorous that it fell off the hook and nearly collapsed on her head. My heart skipped a beat. When I ran to pick up the debris, she grabbed me in her arms and started to wail a prayer. Almost choked against her chest, I wondered if I was indeed on the righteous path.
Manmi assumes that behind my loner façade, I lead a wild, secret life, that I roam around the most squalid spots in town to dance all night. She can’t imagine that her only daughter, albeit a dyke, sleeps for long hours simply because she is depressed.
Oh, to live my life like a music video ho. Making cameos, dressed to kill, in slow motion. To cheese seductively while executing a tight little dance routine. To then fade into the background.
Koffi Olomidé is on the TV above the counter. Working hard. The dancers more so. Impeccable make-up under studio lights. Blue, pink, violet leggings. Gyrating hips. Revolving pelvises. Seated across from Naïka in the casse-croute, I watch her finish her portion of plantain. She wriggles in her seat, eyes fixed on the restaurant television broadcasting these theatrics on a green screen. Over the course of the meal, the repertoire has shifted from a small Konpa, which then wandered into afrobeat, interspersed with bursts of Soukous from the 80s.
She yawns and scrolls on her phone. I start to sweat like a sinner in church. Fearing that I am boring her, I treat her with random facts. “Did you know that listening to music for one hour every day can eliminate chronic pain, even post-surgery depression?”
She nods but doesn’t reply.
We’ve been hanging out regularly over the past few months. When she shows up in front of my cubicle, waving me over with her commanding fingers, asking if I have plans after work, I never have any except to bask in her presence.
Just when I open my mouth to share another “did you know,” she flashes a blinding smile that makes my heart sing. But her eyes follow another line of sight. I turn around. Through the window, Ricardo’s big head looms, wrecking the vibe.
He comes in. “Hey, buddies!”
The evening takes an unbearable turn. I’m relegated to walking beside Ricardo and his vintage bike he brags about having reassembled himself. Douchebag.
No way am I leaving Naïka alone with him. In theory, I understand that she is no one’s property, that she should not be the object of a psychological power struggle between two enemies. Except I can’t miss out on the chance to spend some extra time with her. And I’ve already missed the last metro.
I wouldn’t be surprised if he had planned to crash our rendez-vous. First he offers to smoke us up, which Naïka eagerly accepts. Then he mentions a nearby party, which seems to thrill her. I perceive a glow in her eyes that I’ve never seen when we’re together. This jabs at my heart.
“I’ll take you there—you just gotta come with me for my last errand. Watch out!”
I jump out of the way before getting stomped on by a woman in a ball gown. Her train covers half the pavement. The streets are packed. Boulevard Saint-Lo is teeming. For whatever reason, we come across many groups of women having bachelorette parties, and I swear, each is a replica of the other in bridezilla mode, wearing baby pink T-shirts with hats and penis wands.
Ricardo puts forward the theory that our times overlap with others. According to a philosopher he can’t even name, time is just a horizon and progress is just an illusion. For him, this explains not only “the fact” that Tupac is still alive, but also why he is continuously being murdered, in a loop. It’s supremely ridiculous, but for once, I ask myself whether there is a hint of truth to what he’s saying. Three times, an ambulance barges by suddenly and nearly hits a red car. All along the route, Ricardo alludes to strange motifs in this city, recurring personas, borne by a lazy scheme that draws a complete world. Either that, or we are on the receiving end of a writer’s block.
He rambles on until we stop in front of a building. “Wanna come in?”
“Yes.” “No.” Naïka and I reply at the same time.
I follow them. Once inside, I realize it’s an art gallery. White box. Statues everywhere. Free wine and everything. While Ricardo vanishes into the crowd to meet his client, I stare at one of the sculptures. It looks back at me. I extend a finger to touch it, but Naïka slaps my hand away.
“Leave it alone.”
“I just wanted to…”
“You don’t know where that shit came from.”
Ricardo emerges from the crowd and, with a nod, directs us towards the exit. In a single long gulp, Naïka empties her wine glass. We get out of there.
When we finally reach our destination, the protocol is more complicated than at the airport. We wait in line. We pay cover. We get stamps on our wrists. We check our coats.
I’ve never seen this place before. Actually, it isn’t a place as such. More like a pop-up. A bunch of containers, barely concealed, attached to one another, overflowing with bodies.
The DJ is set up on a platform, giving the impression that she is reigning over the dance floor. I don’t recognize any of the tracks. It’s white noise, like an echo inside a cave. But loud. Ricardo screams in my ear. He tells me that the DJ mixes the best parties in town. Father god, his breath!
Naïka immediately befriends a stranger.
Or do they already know each other, this woman and her? They hold each other’s wrists, shout compliments at each other over the music. They drag each other onto the dance floor and I lose sight of them.
I cannot make sense of this crowd. The space is populated with undefinable types. In grey. In black. In sweatpants. There’s no way of knowing if they’re bus drivers, postal workers, accountants, or what.
When I see Naïka again, she is on the DJ platform, gyrating and twerking. Pushing against the crowd, I make my way towards her. I refuse to lose her again. The dance floor is a collection of elbows that hammer at my ribs. I propel myself into the mass.
In the throng, I have a flashback of myself as a foetus. My mother’s uterus. Its vibration. Its dark and humid walls. Its pulsation. Its swelling.
Then everything explodes. The music stops, followed by banging and shouting. A line of cops comes crashing in from the door. They seem out of place in their uniforms, yelling at people, and they pierce through the centre of the dance floor, amidst the breakdancing.
I look for Naïka. She’s no longer there. Only unknown faces. I slip towards an emergency exit that draws an escaping crowd.
I emerge from the club sweaty, my afro lopsided. An icy wind dries the perspiration on my forehead, pierces through me. Pacing to warm myself up, I wait for about twenty minutes in a parking lot nearby, observing the entrance of the containers. I see neither Naïka nor Ricardo in the crowd of people running away from the police.
Shivering, without my coat abandoned in the cloakroom, I wait for a night bus which arrives thirty minutes late. When I cross the threshold of the front door in the early morning hours, Manmi is waiting for me in a cloud of indignation.
“When they are diminished and brought low
through oppression, affliction and sorrow.
He pours out contempt on princes and causes them to wander
in the wilderness where there is no way.”
— Psalms 107:39-40
I’m destined to rot in hell. At the very least, I want to understand the following about suicidal thoughts: why do we make such a fuss about them, when we ignore the cases where people kill themselves progressively? Let’s take Mormons, for example. Many of them deny themselves the gratification of sex, alcohol, dance, and I don’t know what else, all while throwing themselves into a lifetime of sugar and diabetes.
Manmi is snubbing me. Slumped on the couch, she is listening to a cult of praise and worship on the satellite channel, live-broadcast from a mega-church in Port-au-Prince. The chants are bursting out loud and high on the walls of Jericho ki la kraze. In spite of her sulkiness, she shakes and taps her ankles to the rhythm. A spirited guilt trip.
My first bar experience was with Marie-Do, a few days after my high school graduation. I was wearing my mother’s lipstick, a Mary Kay pearlescent pink that was flaking everywhere. It was a pretty dingy place, with disgusting bathrooms, sticky surfaces, and music too loud to engender any warmth at all. I couldn’t believe people would come into this place to gather like moths.
As soon as we arrived, Marie-Do abandoned me and started spinning around a guy that she would for sure not have found attractive in broad daylight—he looked like leftovers from the previous night’s takeout. In the meantime, I started playing pool with a drunk guy who was gnawing on sunflower seeds and spitting them back on the floor in a way that turned my stomach. He was a former intercity bus driver who swore he could tell the future. He told me that he could discern that I was a troublemaker before I even set foot in the bar. I relaxed slightly in the moment. But I immediately tensed up again when he asked me if I had a boyfriend, a trick question.
I scanned the room in search of my cousin and spotted her in a corner, fondling the pants of the guy with the efficiency of an airport security guard patdown. Begrudgingly, I finished the game of pool with the former bus driver until my cousin came back, with an aura of power and her lipstick smeared. When she saw me, she burst out laughing and held me by the chin to wipe mine off.
Ricardo’s glasses are broken in two and stuck back together with Scotch tape in the middle. He asks me if I’ve seen Naïka. I reply that I haven’t. Apparently, he got out, but not without losing his whole stash. Frankly, it’s very much in character for him to bring the entirety of his inventory on an errand. He worries that his clients won’t stay loyal to him if there’s a gap in his services. Really, the patnè has chosen a Sisyphean occupation, taking care of people who would never do the same for him. Kèt. It must be hard to be so stupid.
For half an hour, Naïka’s cubicle remains empty. When a whole hour passes, I start hyperventilating. My brain launches once again into scenarios that have tormented me all night, in which she was assaulted by a bunch of thugs, swallowed in the human wave, or picked up by the police. It would be my fault. I should have stayed close to her. Would I have the means to bail her out?
When she finally arrives at the office, she looks blasé, doesn’t greet anyone. Blessed and unbothered, she slides onto her chair and puts on her headset. I breathe deeper.
Before I can get up to go see her, Dustin comes in and launches into a speech about this week’s analytical data, specifying that we should pick up the pace. Ricardo gives him the finger the moment he turns around.
When he finally leaves, I move closer to Naïka’s cubicle. “Did you get home alright last night?”
She shrugs, without looking at me.
“Well, evidently, you got back alright. You’re here.”
She taps on her keyboard, then turns towards me and responds with a derisive tone. “Yep. No drama.”
“It’s just that last night…”
“Don’t worry about last night.”
Ricardo gets involved. “Hey, at least it was cool, that party, right?”
“You fuck off!”
Naïka crosses her arms. “Okay, you two, please do me a favour and let me work. Go to hell.”
Hell? That’s precisely where I hope to find her. My other longing is to introduce her to Marie-Do, so we can dance together for all eternity. It would be the purest delight for me, and probably for Manmi too, to see her back in her element, liberated of all her problems. We’ll break glasses. We’ll flip off the demons. You’d best believe that the three of us will twirl around the flames in a circle, celebrating our wasted youth.
The Rage Letters will be published by Metonymy Press in Fall 2023. It can be preordered here.