DISCLAIMER: This is a work of fiction. All characters are products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual people, alive or dead, is purely coincidental.
“Yeah, this is Jake, who is this?”
“Hey bwana, it’s Mike. Habari ya siku nyingi?” (How have you been for so long?)
Jake knew as soon as he heard the Swahili words that it was his old Peace Corps buddy Mike Simmons, whom he hadn’t spoken to in over a year.
“Mike! It’s great to hear from you, bwana! How’s life up in Michigan?”
“Just here, you know? Same, same. Still working for the Forest Service. Shane and I are still together, doing well. How’s everything down in the state of Missouri? Is it mzuri?” (good)
“Si mzuri sana. (Not very good) Misery is more like it. Pretty much sucks. My doctoral research isn’t working out like I had planned, I’ve got girl trouble up the ass, I’m broke and I live in a shitty roach-infested dump. Aside from that, everything’s grand!”
“Oh man, that sucks. Pole sana. Sounds like you need a break from all that. That’s why I’m calling. We are organizing a last minute get together over Christmas and New Years at my family’s cabin in the Upper Peninsula. Can you make it? Just like old times?”
“You know what? I haven’t taken a break in two solid years. That’s exactly what I need. Who all is coming?”
“Well so far it’s me and Shane, of course, Tom, Big Jim, and Derrick and his new wife.”
“What about all the chicks?”
“Carol is a maybe, she is trying to tie up some family business. Maggie’s down in Florida with her fiancée’s family and can’t make it. Jill is over in England now, and that’s about it. The rest probably wouldn’t come if we asked them, but we wouldn’t want them anyway!” he laughed.
“What about Steph Woods? She’s cool. She’s up in Cedar Rapids now, I could meet up with her on the way and we could drive together.”
“Shit, I forgot about Steph. She never liked me much, but you guys were pretty good friends. She’s totally welcome if she wants to come. Do you want to call her? I don’t have her number or anything.”
“Yeah, I’ll call her and see if we can carpool. I’ll let you know.”
“Great, man. Hey, I’ve gotta run. I’m really busy trying to take care of things before I go on holiday leave. Give me a call when you confirm with Steph and I’ll give you directions to the cabin. See you in a couple of weeks!”
Jake felt suddenly uplifted. Some time spent with his old friends was just what he needed right now. They had experienced so much together that even though they often went years without talking or seeing each other, the moment they were back together the years lifted and they eased back into comfortable companionship.
On Christmas Eve Jake was eating a cheap greasy breakfast at a roadside diner in northeastern Missouri. He was on his way to Cedar Rapids to pick up Steph on the way to Michigan. He was on his third cup of coffee, taking full advantage of the free refills, when he noticed that the waitress was staring at him. He caught her eye and flashed his most charming smile, which made her blush and look quickly away. He thought she was cute, but young. Probably a local high school kid. Doesn’t quite look old enough to be in college. He continued scanning through the local paper, pretending to be engrossed in its contents while occasionally glancing up to catch her looking at him. They continued their game of flirtation for a few minutes before she finally came over to his table.
“Care for dessert?” she asked.
“Well I don’t know, what have you got?” He was enjoying this. He had been on the road for five hours already and needed to unwind. “Something sweet?” he asked, smiling.
She laughed. “Well yeah, dessert usually is something sweet. We’ve got chocolate mousse, ice cream, and two kinds of home-made pie – apple or cherry.”
“Well, thanks. That all sounds good, but I’m pretty full. I think I’ll pass on dessert for now. Maybe just some more coffee.”
She was back in a minute with a fresh pot of black coffee. “I don’t think I’ve seen you in here before, are you just passing through?”
“Yeah, I’m on my way up to Cedar Rapids to meet a friend. I’m from Springfield, down south.”
“Really? My sister lives in Springfield. She goes to MSU. Maybe you know her?
He was wondering how he could find a polite way to tell her there were more than 20,000 students at MSU and it was pretty unlikely that he would know her sister, but instead he said, “Maybe, what’s her name?”
“Jen Tucker. She’s a senior, a Chemistry major.”
He nearly choked on his coffee. Jen had been in his summer Bio 101 class. She had driven him half mad with desire, flirting with him relentlessly, and she was absolutely gorgeous. Now he understood where her younger sister got her flirtatiousness. He had a strict policy about dating his students or he would have asked Jen out long ago.
“Wow! Small world. Yes, I know Jen really well. I taught her last summer in Bio 101. Smart girl, she was one of my best students. Your parents sure made some pretty daughters.”
“Really? You’re a professor? You don’t look that old.”
“Well thanks, I guess. No, I’m not a professor, I’m a grad student. I teach as part of my assistantship. Helps cover my tuition. Jacob O’Neill,” he said, extending his hand and rising from his chair slightly.
“I’m Mary,” she said while shaking his hand, “Mary Tucker. Pleased to meet you. Maybe I’ll take your class when I transfer to MSU. I’m going to community college over at Moberly now.”
“Maybe so. I teach the summer session of Bio 101. I hope to see you there.”
“That’d be cool, Professor O’Neill. I bet you’re a fun teacher.”
“Please, call me Jake, I’m not a professor and we’re not in class,” he said smiling. “I try to make it exciting, but I guess it depends on the student. It’s hard to get an economics major excited about mitosis.”
“That is so funny! I’m studying economics!” she said.
“Is that right? Well good luck. Say, could you please bring me the check? I need to hit the road. Lots of driving still ahead of me.”
He left Mary an overly generous tip. He was happy, and he whistled as he walked to his truck. It always made him happy when a pretty girl flirted with him. Too bad she was too young. Her sister, on the other hand. He would have to remember to look up Jen after he got back. He cranked over the V8 engine of his old Jeep pickup truck and steered back onto the highway.
Steph Woods was ready and waiting for him when he arrived at her house in Cedar Rapids later that day. After a quick tour of her small house they loaded their bags into the back of her Ford Explorer and headed north through Wisconsin toward Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. They caught up during the long drive, and took turns driving while the other slept. They drove overnight and reached Deer Lake, Michigan, early on Christmas morning. They stopped at a convenience store, ate a quick breakfast of junk food and coffee, and filled up the gas tank before heading off into the Hiawatha National Forest on a narrow country road. They found Mike’s family’s cabin deep in the woods on the shore of Lake Superior.
“Ho ho ho! Santa’s here!” they shouted as they stepped out of the Explorer into the deep snow.
“Steph! Jake! Karibuni sana!” (You are very welcome) shouted Mike from the front porch, with Shane right beside him. “Come in and warm up by the fire! You guys are the last to arrive, everyone’s here now.”
They went inside the simple but cozy cabin and met Derrick’s wife Ellen, the only stranger to them. They exchanged hugs with Derrick, Big Jim, Tom, and were happy to find Carol sitting with her feet propped up in front of the fireplace with a glass of wine in her hand.
“Carol! So good to see you! I’m glad you made it!” Jake said sincerely, giving her a big kiss on the cheek and a warm hug. He hadn’t liked her the first time they met during Peace Corps orientation in Washington D.C. She was a loud and obnoxious woman who liked being the center of attention. She was about 60, overweight, with a larger than life personality. But over time Jake had come to adore her. She was one of the most truly genuine and empathetic people he had ever met. She was still loud and obnoxious, but he now viewed it as one of her quirky charms. Many times she had been there for him, offering advice and support during some really tough times.
The next few hours were spent drinking, reminiscing, catching up and exchanging rumors about others from their group. Everyone pitched in with preparing Christmas dinner and they feasted on a bountiful variety of Americanized Kenyan food.
Sitting in front of the fire after dinner, Mike said “So Jake, what’s this girl trouble you mentioned on the phone?”
“Oh, same old shit. There’s this girl I’ve been seeing for a while that I was starting to really fall for. I was just about to seal the deal when she gave me the ‘just friends’ speech a couple of weeks ago. Be thankful you’re gay, man, because women are nothing but a pain in the ass.”
Derrick’s wife Ellen blushed and was visibly taken aback. She hadn’t been a volunteer with this group and wasn’t used to their sense of humor. Both Carol and Steph laughed.
“What’s the problem,” asked Carol, “is she just a bitch or is she a goddamned idiot? How could she not love you, Jakey Boy?”
“Oh Carol, you’re such a doll. How come we’re not together?” he teased. “No, she’s not an idiot and she’s not a bitch. She’s just a confused and immature girl who doesn’t know what she wants. I need to find a nice mature woman like you and stop chasing these young girls who can’t make up their minds. You end up spending months in this emotional tug of war only to get this ‘just friends’ bullshit. Friends my ass, I just wanna get laid!”
“Here’s to getting laid!” toasted Mike, raising a glass of wine. Shane squeezed him on the shoulder, embarrassed. They had been openly a couple since returning to the US. Homosexuality is illegal in Kenya and they had been forced to hide their relationship while they were volunteers.
“Whatever happened to that cute Taita girl you were so serious about when we were in Kenya?” asked Steph. “Last I heard you guys were planning this big wedding and then suddenly you were gone.”
“Wakesho? Oh Steph, don’t make me feel like shit on Christmas. Anyway, it didn’t work out. She left me at the altar. We had planned this big traditional Taita wedding with her family, we had even bought a bull to slaughter. We went to the Embassy to apply for her US visa so we could come back home together. Then suddenly she just completely disappeared. Left me a note saying she couldn’t go through with it. She said she couldn’t marry me, and that I shouldn’t look for her. Even her family didn’t know where she was. I didn’t know what to do. I was devastated. Mostly I just wanted to get the fuck out of Kenya after that. So I took a job driving an overland safari truck down to Cape Town and then used my readjustment allowance and what savings I had and took off on that round-the-world adventure to try to forget her. Came home broke and broken-hearted. I haven’t heard from her since, in five years.”
“Now she was the stupid bitch!” shouted Carol. “Poor Jakey Boy, I feel so sorry for you, honey.”
“So what are your plans when you finish grad school, Jake?” asked Shane.
“I wish I knew, buddy. My dissertation research is falling apart. I’m starting to question why I even started a PhD at all, I mean I sure as hell don’t want to end up teaching for the rest of my life. So I don’t know. I hope I figure it out someday.”
Jake felt himself falling into a funk that he didn’t want. Thinking about Wakesho only made him feel miserable again. He forced himself to have fun for the rest of the holiday reunion, but he realized that seeing his friends again just brought back memories of old wounds that had not yet healed. When he parted with Steph in Cedar Rapids he was left alone with his gloom. As he headed back south he felt dread rising with each passing mile, growing ever more certain that he did not want to go back to his old life.
Jake found an all-night café and pulled in for coffee and introspection. He was alone in the place with only the octogenarian waitress who looked as though she had begun serving tables as a toddler and had been at it for the better part of a century. About halfway through his third cup of weak watery coffee, a band of drunken and unruly bikers came in, loudly demanding food and harassing the poor tired old waitress. Jake glanced up at the mob. The lead biker saw him sitting alone and looking glum.
“Hey faggot!” he shouted. “What the fuck are you looking at? You never seen a real man before?”
“Just leave me be, mister,” replied Jake calmly. “I don’t want no trouble.”
“Leave the pussy alone, Pete. He’s just some college punk,” another biker advised. “Besides, you’re still on probation.”
But Pete was very drunk and very stupid and he had already chosen Jake as his entertainment for the evening.
“You’re a cute little bitch. I bet you suck dick real good, don’t ya honey? I always wanted to kill me a queer, looks like tonight’s my lucky night!”
Jake motioned to the waitress for a refill of his cup. She pulled a fresh pot off the burner, steaming hot, and came over to fill his cup.
“Should I call the cops?” she asked quietly.
“No ma’am, no need. I can handle this.” Jake sat looking down at his coffee, hoping to avoid provoking the drunken idiot, and he put a five dollar bill on the table to cover his tab. But Pete continued his harassment, ignoring the calls of his buddies to back off.
“Hey boy! Look at me when I’m talking to you. I got me a PhD in ass-kicking and I’m gonna teach you a lesson tonight, boy!”
Pete drunkenly swayed and staggered over to the booth where Jake was seated, the first booth beside the door. Jake remained seated, calmly holding his cup of steaming coffee. Pete reached down to grab Jake by the collar and lift him out of the booth, but Jake tossed the full cup of scalding hot coffee straight into Pete’s face. He leapt up as Pete howled in pain. Jake kicked as hard as he could, planting his heavy leather work boot solidly into Pete’s balls. The drunken thug crumpled to the ground in agony, moaning and alternating between holding his burning face and his aching balls. Jake lost no time in running for the exit, thankful he had left his truck unlocked. He prayed that the tired old engine would start as he turned the key in the ignition. It fired on the first crank. He slammed the truck in gear and popped the clutch, spinning the rear wheels and throwing a stream of gravel over the line of choppers parked outside. The rest of the gang didn’t even bother to pursue him. They figured Pete had gotten what he deserved. Several of them even laughed.