Cold Milk

by Gina Perfetto

Today I’m craving milk in a way I haven’t ever before, not even as a young girl. Everyone knows you don’t desire something until you can’t have it. An interesting corollary is that you will suffer exquisitely, once it’s almost close enough to grab. I am in a bus in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, with friends, people I’ve known for a year and a half. We are in an old ‘78 Cacciamalli bus, the only decent thing the Italians left behind before abandoning their attempts at colonization. I sit between Dave the hippie Ohioan, and Kim, the chain-smoking New Yorker. We have swapped stories of teaching and outhouse catastrophes. My thighs feel like glazed sticks of dynamite.

I know that in Gambella, there is not only milk, but cold milk like the milk you have as a kid, after a hard day of play, skimming rocks, climbing trees. Kim last had cold milk on her vacation to South Africa. I keep going to hot-milk countries, and I look forward to Gambellan people that play checkers with cork pieces and the cold milk that I thought nothing of as a child but now look forward to with ludicrous zeal. I tell Kim how much I miss milk. “Tell me about it.” She exhales her smoke; she’s so urbane it kills me. Kim’s teeth are yellow-brown from cigarettes and perhaps from something else. She is only twenty-five but reminds me of aged painter whose dry humor is well-balanced with derision. It makes for an amusing package.

In the Addis station, the three of us sit in the front seat of the bus and wait while men work on the engine and bus attendants yell destinations like auctioneers. Dave gets off to relieve himself somewhere off the main road, probably in an outhouse behind a nearby souk. The bus is full, and balsa stools are pinned down the center aisle under the weight of passengers. Under the vast sky, girls sell oranges and lemons from plastic bowls; boys lug around metal pails filled with bottles of Coca-Cola and Sprite, but no one seems interested in buying. Kim smokes furiously while rivulets of sweat roll lazily down our faces, making white trails down our dusty skin. The trip is supposed to be fun. I have never traveled with a man before. I feel lucky because it seems rather an easy day.

“Thank God for a chicken-free bus,” Kim says sarcastically as she blows smoke rings. “I like the chickens,” I say. I open a window. As soon as I do, a middle-aged man of about forty-five starts yelling in Amharic, “Close the windows. The breeze will make me sick.” He is two rows behind us, and in the seat between is a woman breast-feeding her baby.

I turn around and say in polite Amharic, “The bus isn’t moving. Please, my brother, we are hot.” I try to think of how many arguments I’ve had with people over the year. The angry man is a highborn red, with the expansive, open forehead of the rich Ethiopians who live in the capital. He’s beautiful, with round, large eyes and an aquiline nose. He is adamant. He hovers over the woman with the baby while Kim says “Fresh air is healthy, it is the heat that makes you sick.” But the man stands up yelling and reaches forward in front of him, pushing the woman with the baby in his attempt to shove me from the window. He slams the window shut. The woman’s head wrap is undone and the baby, free of the nipple, wails in a round siren cry. I feel so angry that I stand and grab his arm.

“You push a woman and a baby because of a window?” I say. He slaps my arm away as I reopen the window. He shuts it and I open it again. I slap his hand repeatedly and he slaps back in what becomes a slapping match. Kim stands too and yells with me in Amharic, and the whole bus springs to life. The old men in cloth wraps, barefoot with walking sticks murmur to the man. The old women yell at us to obey, while kids giggle and point. The baby cries louder. Someone helps the mother climb over people in the aisles and sit on a stranger’s lap. I already know that I have lost. I can argue more, but eventually will tire and accept my defeat peacefully.

Kim is pointing in the man’s face and talking of God, and I am now screaming that I am hot and I am calling this man a du-riay, which means something like, “troublemaker.” All I want is to see Gambellans and drink cold milk from a glass. The thought is absurd in its simplicity — to be a child again and have that comfort. The thought makes me tired, and suddenly I don’t want to argue. I mutter “baka,” or “enough” under my breath and sit down as Dave walks into the fray.

Dave returns in the middle of the pushing. The man lowers his hands when he sees him and stops looking at us entirely. He says to Dave, “Tell them to close the window!”

Dave’s wide eyes, his open jaw and red face tell me this is completely new for him. He looks at us strangely and if I didn’t know better, I’d say he looks at me as my mother did the first time I got into a fight at school. Dave turns into an angry figure, full tall, moving in front of us, shoving us behind with a bold elbow and shoulder. I imagine a red cape slung about him. He yells in Amharic and breaks off into English because he can’t concentrate enough to yell properly. I want to tell him that it’s over, that I’ve lost my fight and he should sit down, but his indignation is palpable, and my mouth falls open with sounds breaking into useless syllables. He gesticulates, raking his hands through his strawberry blond hair. The son of a mailman and homemaker, he points in the man’s face and pushes the man’s arm back, saying in Amharic “You don’t hit women!” and “I don’t believe this!” The man is uncomfortable, puzzled. He sits down silently. The window is left open.

Dave shakes and mutters to himself. Kim and I are calm now. We look at Dave, then each other, exchanging quizzical glances, but when he sits beside me, I pull away on the seat and lean closer to Kim. She’s a good fighter like me; she knows how to accept both victory and loss. We have lost this battle together. I look at Dave, his white knuckles and crimson face. Everyone’s eyes are on him, and everyone is silent. The baby is still crying and the mother is across the bus-aisle looking at Dave blankly. Dave’s hands are trembling and he clenches them at his sides, turning back repeatedly, giving the man a hard stare and muttering “Fucking incredible. Unbelievable.” He’s angry over an argument not his own.

For a moment I feel bad for Dave, but then I suddenly hate him. I am angry at this virginity of his, his never having had to fight for things, his idea that my battles are his to solve. I want to punch him in the face. I look hard at the women and the little girls. I search for something that is not there. Their souls must have left their bodies to escape the heat.

I look at Dave and with one sharp movement, I slam the window shut. His blue eyes are wild, fierce. “Don’t close it for him,” he snaps, moving his hand to indicate the man. I say through clenched teeth, “If you weren’t here, I would’ve lost the argument. The window stays closed.”

Kim is silent, stunned with a realization, and says to Dave in classic Kim-fashion, “You’ve never had to fight, have you? The first time always hurts, doesn’t it?” Dave is tight-faced and steely; he slowly deflates as his eyes drift downward to his lap and his face grows flush and his hands release from fistedness.

Ten minutes later, we are off towards Gambella. The music is blaring and Dave’s face has grown pale. At the next stop I get a Coca-Cola for him, for Kim, a Sprite, and for myself, a Fanta orange. I buy the drinks from a girl, the same as a boy, since she has not yet developed. She is about eight, I think, and she is not wearing a skirt because she cannot afford one, not even the town-made ones with the cheap, fluorescent pink fabric. She has ripped shorts and the hole shows her bottom, though no one notices. I give her a tip, climb back on the bus, and give sodas to Dave and Kim. I remember it is still three days to Gambella, and all I can think about is a cold glass of milk.

Gina Perfetto is a returned Peace corps volunteer from Ethiopia. Currently pursuing her Master's in English and Writing, she plans on pursuing a Doctoral degree Ph.D in English with a creative dissertation option.

(c) Gina Perfetto

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