There hasn’t been many Hollywood movies in Ethiopia when I was growing up. But, somehow, by some weird reason [namely, my uncle being in the entertainment business as well as a close friend to the owner of “Rahi Video”… Mr. Rahi?!], I’ve watched them all. I’ve started with Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and gone through every shit, from every genre, Hollywood came up with [Back to The Future, Eyes of Laura Mars, Django]. A curiosity fueled by “Police ena Ermijaw”, plus 42 of Agatha’s Christie’s books, I’ve always been inclined to read and watch movies with “twists” in them: Twisted minds, twisted kids, twist-endings.
If I paid “Arada” a visit and decided to drop by “The British Council”, I hunted for books about serial killers, self-appointed Messiahs who led their followers to mass-suicides and/or unsolved murders. I fed my lust for pain and suffering [for “Pain by itself is just pain. But Pain + Distance can = entertainment, voyeurism, human interest, cinéma vérité, a good belly chuckle, a sympathetic smile, a raised eyebrow, disgusted contempt”] by browsing through the “Suspense/thriller” section of “Philips Video”, which I was the proud member of despite being intensely disliked by one of their rather-plump, rather-cute, rather-sophisticated sales representative who didn’t hesitate to show how she felt about —- anybody [these were the “take it or leave it”/”Kebele”/”ration” days in which the only thing in shorter supply to goods & services was the tempers of those who “provided” them]. Alas, did her distaste to my “smarty-mouth” [i’m only guessing here] stop me from striding in and taking the book, the movie, the audio-book home? Nossar it didn’t! Take them I did. And read/listened to or watched them – through gaps in the blanket, between my fingers, over the shoulder of my mother or somebody older/braver who kept asking, while trying to free their back off my vine-like presence, parasitic and persistent, “yemitferi kehone lemin tayiwalesh?”.
Ofcourse, the shoulders won’t always be there. A time would come when I’m left alone.. a few minutes before I fall asleep or need to go to the “shint bett” after hours [which just happens to be located at the back of our house, infront of the piece of land dedicated to “arem ena muja”; the spot where the “berenda mebrat” doesn’t get to]. For those times, I fashioned what Darwinians might call “a survival mechanism [for those paranoid fucks to whom “rationality” isn’t always the option]”. “These killers”, I reasoned with my myself, “are fictional. There is perhaps half a dozen crew members and two hundred by-standers watching this guy follow that woman down that dark alley [and no woman in her right mind would walk down a dark alley at night. Right? Right?!]. Even if it’s based on a true story,” continued I the self-monologue, “it’s happening in America. The killer would have to cross continents to get to me. And what are the chances of that happening really!?”.
Ofcourse, there were “ghost” stories. THEY can cross borders. THEY can watch you when you can’t see them: tickling your 6th sense, making you shoulder heavy, the hair on the back of your neck stand. But Ghosts were evil spirits, right? And America is bound to be full of them due to its lascivious living. Which is why you don’t hear about ghosts and people with split personality disorders in Ethiopia. We have the fear of God, we abeshas. “People of the book”, so to say – “Are ye not as children of the Ethiopians unto me, O children of Israel?”, and all that. As for the remnants of stories from your childhood (of “qorits”, “erkuus menfeses” and “gAneNs” who attack young girls in their sleep), doesn’t their presence, by default, mean that God exists too? And that Angels are real? And what’s an angel for, if not to protect thee wee lamb [True, you were a sturdy 13 pounds the day you were born. And haven’t been exhibiting a “wee-lamb-like” yewahinet since 3rd grade. Alas, what are your uncharitable deeds: cynicism, atheism, breaking the 3rd commandment atleast twice a day, compared to the sins of others?!. People like Hitler! John Wayne Gacy! And Nietzsche.. who not only had an incestial relationship with his sister but actually declared God “dead”!?]. Time to get your Pslams 23 going.
Bihonim.. Bihonim… I tried to avoid watching scary movies at night. When it’s something haunting, like “The Omen”, like “Far From Home”, something that stays with you for days, and creeps up at night when you are most vulnerable, I feared freely. I kept the lights on, I wrapped my self in the blanket – not leaving a breadeth of hair out in the “unsafe world”, I glued my back to the wall, to it’s fortress-like quality (thy rod and and thy stifness they comfort me oh mighty wall). Still.. I kept getting jerked out of a feverish sleep – by something squeezing my chest, racing my heart, making me breathless.. its over-whelming power turning my bones to mesh. No curse more than the curse of being a chicken with imagination. I drew the scariest scenarios. And shook, shamelessly, like a leaf.
It was, therefore, “inconcevabl-ish” to me to imagine how Americans “beselam wet’tew beselam endemigebu”. Whenever I met people online, Ethiopians mostly, I asked how they can go to sleep at night. “Do you not fear somebody has broken into your room, camouflaged themselves against your wall and are waiting for you to nod off [“When a stranger calls back (1993)”]?”. “Aren’t you scared someone is watching you through the trees in your back yard, a peephole in your door, through the shutters of your closet; waiting for a chance to do you in?!.”
To those such possibilities actually occurred, and it does not occur to many, it was all about “mekrem.. mesenbet”. “You don’t think about those things,” they would say dismissively “You will get used to it”.
Regardless, whenever I thought of life in America, I thought of it as a place where girls aren’t safe to take showers at night [somebody would turn the door knob slowly… ominously.. to rip the curtains open and fatally stab them]. As a place where children can not play safely in the yard, or ride their bike around the block without being molested by a friend of the family. As a place where young women can’t walk down the street in the evening without being shadowed by a shady character/can’t have a busted tire without meeting members of the Manson family nor take a room in a hotel without the clerk turning out to be a psycho who dressed like a woman at night and went around rooms looking for whom to carve the word “mommy” on.
The fact that serial killers were average looking people who were married and sometimes had kids; that they turn up in the oddest place like “sa’ma” and that you can never tell the psychosis or dementia of people in America until it was too late led me to believe that was one country in which you can rub shoulders with a Hannibal Lecter on a daily basis and not know it. So it’s no surprise that I:
(1) Never really wanted to come here before I married an American.
(2) Started seeing eyes from the corner of my eyes the first time I had a hush brownie, which Chris pushed over as a piece of birthday-cake from his office, and had a bad high [making me go through half a night of delirium; shaking and whimpering the immigrant’s version of “the cops are coming.. the cops are coming” between sobering flashes of sanity, a persistent “it’s just chemicals playing games with your brain, there is no such thing as evil spirit, you are just stoned. If you can get to some sleep/milk/”shiro fitfit” you’ll feel much better”].
(3) Felt like chuckling the first time I was offered free food in the “break room” of where I work; wondering, “do they seriously expect me to eat that? What if it was poisoned?”
Seeing Amber Dubios’ “missing” photo the second night I came to America didn’t help. It was after 23 hours of flight, an overnight stop at gloomy ole DC, a meeting the in-laws and being shown to our new room, full of chandeliers, big red curtain “Gone With the Wind”‘s Mammy could fashion a fabulous post-civil-war dress for Scarlett from, that I sensed a sudden tug at the bottom of my stomach. It was a tug the evening’s excitement has made me over-look. I was hungry. And since the whole family has gone to sleep, making their dinner offer null and void, I asked Chris if we can order some chinese food; it being something I’ve watched people do in movies and on the top of my list-of-things-to-do-in-america. That made Chris laugh, the fact that I thought food-stores would be open 24/7; with luckless immigrants laboring at their kitchen all night long. The only restaurant that would have a take-away at this time of night, he said, was “Alberto’s”. A mexican restaurant that was a few blocks from there, with the best “burritos” in the country. I didn’t know what burritos were. But, unlike most of my college class-mates, and against my stern abesha upbringing, I wasn’t afraid to try new things [or .. new food, to be exact]. So I concurred.
When we came out, to my surprise and disappointment, the streets were deserted. “Maybe we should just go to sleep”, I suggested, fear replacing starvation. This was, after all, America. There maybe a killer lurking in the dark. Or members of the KKK. Or some gang-bangers roaming the streets looking for lonely couple to play wicked games on. To prove my fear, and as soon as we parked our car infront of the speaker from whence a dull gargling voice asked us what he can do for us today, I saw a movement from behind us. We’ve been trailed closely by a car (it seems) with a person whose face I can not see in the driver’s seat. I nudged Chris, interrupting him from his order of nachos, jamicas and tacotacoburritoburrito, bringing his attention to the faceless might-be assassin. I didn’t suggest the man m.i.g.h.t.b.e. Stuntman Mike from “Death Proof”. But that was what I was getting at.
Chris didn’t even bother to check the license plate that I was looking for a pen to jot down. “He’s waiting to order”, he said, sounding already exhausted by my paranoia, “they are open 24 hrs. So people come to order throughout the night.”
“You’ll get used to it,” he reassured me later.
Then we decided to get a movie, “Coming to America”.. perhaps? “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”?. Something funny. Soothing. “Blockbuster opens until 11.” he said confidently, checking the watch “if we hurry, we’ll get there before it closes. It will help you go to sleep, after all the excitement”. The area outside blockbuster was well-lit. There seems to be frantic activity indoors. I got out of the car, patting my thighs to revive them, and walked to the door. Ever the gentleman, Chris reached for it, expecting me to go through it. That’s when I saw the “afalgugn” tiri. The photo of a “Missing” girl. “Teenager”. “Amber Duboise”. “14”.
All the old fear of being surrounded by monsters came flooding back. “She’s dead”, I told Chris on our way back. “No no..” he waved. “She’s run away. Her father married another woman, and she’s run away. Everybody in Escondido knows that”. That’s how it was spun around in Escondido back then, I guess. That she was mad at her dad for remarrying. Grabbed a duffel bag. And run away. Nobody imagined she was abducted, raped, killed and buried two days before I boarded the plane.
Nobody, that is, until a year later, when another beautiful young girl went missing.
By then, ofcourse, I’ve gone from a girl who couldn’t go to the bookstore down the street in mid-day without fearing every car is stalking her, to a woman who didn’t need rides from her female colleagues after work as long as there was light outside. I’ve hardened my skin against fear. I’ve told myself that the psychos only go after little girls who can’t defend themselves. That if it was meant to happen, it would happen. No use fretting ’bout that.
So I walked home whenever Chris can’t give me a ride. Through the farmer’s market, with its festive spirit, it’s lighted winters, it’s Latino guitar player whose “felice navida” made the cold December Tuesday-nights bearable. I walked past street lights, past closed shops, past “The Metaphor” with its hoard of skate-boarding, marijuana-smoking, weird-hair-style-sporting teenagers way past their bedtime… thirsting after the artist in them or mixing and matching with those around. Past drivers waiting for lights to change/a woman to come out of some office/the homeless guy who sits outside 7/11 charging his laptop. Walked past them, being seen by them, with no clue who they are, what they are doing there and what they look like.
I have gotten used to it, secure in the knowledge that I was going to an apartment we fork 1,100 dollars a month for (due to its location in the “safest” part of old Escondido; far from new-neighborhoods and the gangs they breed), to a fully lighted room, where Chris has labored on some rice-related meal for my benefit, to warmth, to coziness, to safety.
Now that zat life is no more, I wonder, would the fears return?