Girls Without: Brussels to Bujumbura

Life-searching questions arise at night, after sunset, and not just on park benches along river banks. Watching rushing water, reflecting upon its cleansing qualities, can soothe. If only I could have been near a river or even back at some frozen spot at Lac Léman, anywhere other than in a cold, drafty, stifled-coffee smelling airport, sitting down in front of a rain-tattered window, reflecting the blackness of the stark night, asking myself the existential meaning of life.   

Why do I keep doing this to myself? I thought, and rubbed my sleeves over my arms, trying to block from my mind images of an unsmiling spouse.  

“Why do you always leave me? Don’t think I’ll just wait around for you every time you take off.” Sharp remarks always slipped in his parting words.  

I said, “I want to contribute to something, too.” I couldn’t survive forever in the shadows of my editor-in-chief husband, the local hero of the small town newspaper. I have a degree in psychology after all; I should use it.  

My words “back by summer” did little to attenuate the inherent challenges which lay ahead, including justifying my choice to my prince charming husband who was sweeping me away from the picture I wanted to have of myself.  

I had been trying since graduation to land a steady job. At best I found only short-term, low-paying contracts which took me away from my only constant. No one ever understood why I always accepted such contractual conditions nor why accepting them meant looking for a new job just months later. Not even me. And especially not my mother-in-law, “ time to have a baby....”  

I watched the rain splatter long cords of water against the window pane, crying like a child to get in. Virginia Woolf had wondered why women were poor, and the child that I pictured at the window was indeed a girl. A smallish girl with long, black, braided ponytails and a pink hat. I thought, Girls trying to get in. 

I had three hours to entertain myself before boarding the flight for Bujumbura in the wee morning hours. My book proved an unwillingly companion, the illusory girl at the window an over willingly one.   

The calling of the little girl nagged at me, though consciously, no matter how many times I turned my head, I knew no child stood there. Yet the image turned over and over in my head, as though the girl spoke directly to me. At least her mother thought of giving her a hat, I tried to comfort myself. 

I shifted in the cold, hard plastic seat. Even if I was trying to get “in,” I didn’t actually know what “in” meant. Psycho-support centers awaited my engagement, the boss sought know-how for connecting parentless children in play. Work meant increasing need despite dwindling resources.  

“If we get funds, maybe we can extend your contract,” my boss had said.  

“Tempting, but I can’t stay away long.”  

But then funds had surfaced. After Christmas break, I found myself heading back to the orphanage.  

“Stay home, you’ll be plenty busy once we have a child,” my husband had implored me. I steadied my gaze ahead, lest I should see the crying girl at the window again. 

The flight was pronounced delayed. The closed shops gave me no excuse to walk around. Even if open, their wares promised little use for where I was going, save the impermeables. I fantasized about accepting a large donation from a brand-name company and delivering it in hand to the orphanage.    

Other passengers started to take seats at the gate. Mixed couples with small children appeared: mothers bearing myriad, black, crimped braids and fathers flashing pale faces held down multicolored backpacks as their children pulled out teddy bears head first. 

A thirty-something woman sat down across from me. Must be on her way home. The glint of the woman’s gold caught my eyes. The woman, barely older than me, was obviously married to a rather wealthy man. An oversized diamond ring embellished a long, tapered ring finger amid other gold-fitted rings and long, red, rounded fingernails. I glanced at my own modest wedding band and unpolished jagged-edge nails.  

The lady placed bags of brand names around her feet. Each bag was packed with tissue paper; occasionally a yellow ribbon fell outside of the bag, to which the lady responded by gingerly placing the ribbon inside, as if taking a child’s hand into hers. 

Not wishing to be caught in a stare, I plunged into my book. I struggled to make my reading take me outside my seat, outside the airport, but something about the woman drew me  back. I snuck sidelong glances. Was it the flashy tropical garb—the gold boubou—despite sub-degree temperatures outside? The sparkling head-wrap or the abundant perfume? The ears drooping from the weight of the golden earrings or the swaddling gold chains, reminiscent of ghosts of Christmas, around her brown neck?   

No, it was the lady’s gait. Her eyes, cast down upon her knees, did not portray the sparkle of someone who had purchased so many parcels, nor the cheer of someone who was carrying gifts to cherished ones so far away. Her body hardly stirred. The red-polished fingernails did not lead any fingers from their post beside her lap.   

The girl from the window all grown up, I thought, and forced my eyes back to the printed pages but speculated about the lady’s husband. Curiosity needed not wait.  

Up the aisle, seated in a metal wheelchair, sprouted with oxygen tubing and a silver oxygen tank dragging behind, came the husband. He was old, shriveled and took short, immediate breaths. His heavy glasses, wider than his sullen face, slipped down his nose, to which a frail, bony, spotted hand, labored back towards his wrinkled eyes. He strained his wheelchair next to his young wife.  

He was the husband alright; he, too, bore a diamond wedding ring. The old man motioned to the young woman to approach. Instinctively, eyes fixed upon the knees, the young woman lifted every one of her ten brand-named bags and moved towards him. He lay a limp hand in her lap.  

Best she can hope is his imminent death, I thought. She can spend the money on her family—probably why she married him in the first place. I stole another glance. If she isn’t in, she is definitely in it. The young African woman stared at her feet, hands motionless at her side, the senescent man staring at her.   

I hardly slept on the flight, as I kept thinking, Are we different, that woman and I? I twisted within the confines of my economy seat. Was the lady more comfortable in business class? The packages she carried seemingly came sponsored and surveyed by her husband. And I was reminded that the orphanage had to ask wealthy men for donations. I had left, temporarily, my husband’s cocoon, his warm embrace, a cottony, lambswool life.  

Twelve hours later, landing in Bujumbura, the project driver came to pick me up. “Welcome back! All the kids keep asking about you, especially Philomena and Edwina.”

Bringing girls in, I thought, like throwing a lifeline to the crying girl at the window. I knew why I left home to work there.


Giulianna Di Nenna’s work has appeared in Italy, a Love Story, Susan B & Me, and Offshoots. She won poem of distinction in 2011 at Writecorner Press. She draws inspiration from the women with whom she has worked all over the world.

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