Three days ago, I started thinking of an old friend from 43 years and 8,000 miles ago, wondering if there was any way I could locate him. We had known each other in Africa, both having come to the U.S. when Ethiopia fell into its violent civil war, leaving our mutual friend (my lover and his friend since childhood) in Africa. He had worked diligently to get his friend to leave Africa and I had urged him to as well, but he had repeatedly refused to do so.
Half a country apart, we met only once after coming to the States and talked twice on the phone—the last time when he informed me of the assassination of our mutual friend about a year after I’d returned to the States. Since then, I’ve gone on to new loves and new lives, but I’ve written many times about those years in Africa, idealized my lover and imagined him to be the hero in death he’d always been to me in life.
Then, miraculously, two days ago (one day after I’d thought of trying to locate him myself and over forty years since I’d last talked to him on the phone) I received a message from my old friend asking me to friend him on Facebook and yesterday, we shared a two-hour phone call. Much of that phone call was taken up by his telling me the whole truth about my lover’s death in Africa forty-three years ago.
“He loved you, Judy. He really loved you, and he was a different man with you. Perhaps if we had both stayed in Africa, his story would have turned out differently, but when we both left at once, he was lonely and looking for friends. They saw his charisma and charm and they drew him in. They gave him power.” This was when he told me the part of the story he had not told me so many years ago. This is when the truth of what happened after I left Africa came out. It has been a hard truth to swallow. My sister, who visited me in Africa and who knows more of that story than most, told me I should perhaps not talk to anyone else about what I had just revealed to her—to remain quiet for awhile and think this out for myself. Perhaps to write about it.
It is hard to write about such things without trivializing them, and I have tried for the past 24 hours to avoid doing so just as I’ve tried to avoid thinking about it. Neither plan seems to have worked. It was what I thought about all day, the last thing I thought about before I fell asleep, the first thing I thought about upon awakening when I saw today’s prompt, and it is what I’m thinking about now as I write the introduction to this poem. What do we do with old shattered memories that we’ve held in esteem for more than half our lives? What do we do with the favorite photographs? How do we write about a love story turned into a horror story? I guess we do the best we can. This is my first attempt to deal with that whole truth.
My life for now grown raw and hollow,
this bitter pill I cannot swallow.
Which path of memory to follow?
That handsome man, arms filled with flowers,
love-filled nights and fun-filled hours
held fast in each others’ powers.
A small-town girl who lived through books,
twisting on romance’s hooks,
could not resist your charm and looks.
I could not guess the other side—
the violence your looks belied—
that truth that I must now abide.
New truths cast old beliefs asunder
as they gut and rip and plunder
those short years of joy and wonder.
Your truths are painful—sharply tined.
Miscast as hero in my mind,
you chose the other side, I find.
This is what your old friend said.
He said your power went to your head—
so many slaughtered the streets ran red.
How could the one who turned my heart
liquid from the very start
have torn so many lives apart?
These stories spun far in the past
have come together here, at last,
can’t be forgotten, the die is cast.
Beware the truths that you might seek.
Truth has a non-discerning beak
that rips asunder the frail and weak.
Be careful what you ask and do
in opening the past anew.
The truth you swallow may swallow you.
The prompt word today is swallow.