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The Sheltering Sky - Paul Bowles

"He did not think of himself as a tourist; he was a traveler. The difference is partly one of time, he would explain. Whereas a tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler, belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another."

Before meeting Port Moresby, I always thought of myself as a traveler, but after one particular late night discussion accompanied by inebriation, interrupted by a frolic in an exotic bordello conveniently located nearby, and then reconvened over tankards of yet more alcoholic concoctions, he managed to convince me that I was merely a tourist.

I was at a disadvantage, you see. I was not independently wealthy. I was still building a living for myself. I had three women I was seeing, all interviewing for a more permanent position as my wife. So yes, I was never able to linger while traveling, due to the fact that I always had a pressing need to return to my life, to shore up my business interests, and to keep my social relationships growing. I was, without a doubt, a tourist. Shamefully so.

Despite knowing this about me, Port did stop in one evening to ask me if I wanted to go with them to North Africa. I was disappointed that his wife Kit was not with him. I guess I might as well confess this now. I was in love with Kit. It was quite awkward actually. A psychologist might make a case that my inability to pick one companion from the available women in my life actually stems from a deep seated belief that eventually Kit would come to her senses, divorce Port, and fling herself into my arms.

”The head is like the sky. Always turning around and around inside. But very slowly. When you think, you make it go too fast. Then it aches.”

I don’t really know how it happened. I thought I had the inside track. I grew up with her. I watched the moth morph into a beautiful butterfly. We exchanged books and thoughts about those books. We hung out together to the detriment of our individual studies. We occasionally kissed with something more than friendly affection. I was on the verge of asking her to marry me when she abruptly disappeared on a whirlwind tour of the world. She came back with Port.

It didn’t take me long to discover that my ship had sailed and Port’s had docked.

I was always watching (analysing) him whenever I was around him, trying to discover what exactly it was about him that had so quickly convinced Kit that he was the one for her. I was more shattered than I could ever reveal. It was only later that I realized that my life or at least the thought of a life with me was something she would have found horribly confining. Port’s attraction was his shiftlessness. His lack of roots. His avoidance of responsibilities. Anytime anything became TOO REAL. He moved on to somewhere else. His money was a buffer between himself and dealing with any of the tedious expectations that others may have for him.

He was free. I was burdened.

I was still considering the North Africa trip. It would have been a perfect opportunity to spend some time with Kit because invariably Port would disappear on some side trip in search of greater meaning. I didn’t say yes right away. I’d assumed I’d have more than a few minutes to give Port an answer, but as usual I underestimated his impulsive nature. They left with a fellow named Tunner.

I had met Tunner, only in the most casual sense. We’d once occupied the same space at a party of mutual friends. I’d logged his presence only because of the way he looked at Kit. It was probably much the same way as I looked at her as well.

I only received one letter from Kit while they were in North Africa.

"She was content to watch the soft unvaried landscape going by. To be sure several times it occurred to her that they were not really moving at all, that the dune along whose sharp rim they were now traveling was the same dune they had left behind earlier, that there was no question of going anywhere since they were nowhere. And when these sensations came to her they started a slight stirring of a thought ‘Am I Dead?’"

Needless to say the letter was disconcerting to me. It reeked of disassociation and had me wondering if those vast endless horizons of the African desert were beginning to inspire some form of mental illness.

My worst fears, as it turned out, were mere childish angst compared to the trials and tribulations she actually suffered. I blame Port, of course, but I also can’t help but blame her as well. After all, she chose the wrong man.

The family, Kit’s kin, came to me and asked me to go fetch her in North Africa. They didn’t know anyone else with the connections to Kit or anyone possessing the wherewithal to make the journey. I guess a part of me thought this was finally my chance to be with her, but seeing the way she looked at me when I reached out to greet her was distressing. It was as if I were just part of the background of her life...a chair for instance that doesn’t exist until she has the need to sit. ”she tried to break away from him. In another minute life would be painful. The words were coming back, and inside the wrappings of the words there would be thoughts lying there. The hot sun would shrivel them; they must be kept inside in the dark.”

She told me everything on the journey home. The death of Port. The rape and worse, the acceptance of rape. She allowed herself to become a possession, a man’s plaything. For a while she even enjoyed it because she didn’t have to make decisions about anything. She traded sex for some semblance of peace. She tried a couple of times to crawl into my bunk on the way home, but I would only hold her against me, trapping her hands when they ventured near my groin. She found that particular solace with one of the young sailors or maybe more than one.

I went through all the stages of grief: fear, anger, depression, but by the time we arrived in New York I’d finally reached some level of acceptance.

The last I heard Kit was in New Mexico, but by the time a letter would reach her, she’d be somewhere else. I often wondered, late at night, with a warm snifter of cognac in my hand and a good book close to hand, whether if I’d agreed to go on the trip, would Port still be alive, and would Kit be a less fractured version of herself.

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