His large, rough fingers crept up my thigh, and I held my breath, looking pleadingly at my mother. She smiled at me, unable to fathom what was going on under the table, and nodded encouragingly at John.
“It’s good to learn new languages, isn’t it?” she said.
“Wahad, tneen, talada…” I said obediently. His hand patted my bare thigh.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” I said, pushing back my chair so suddenly it fell over. I blushed and walked swiftly to the toilet, accompanied by one of John’s five daughters, who showed me the way, and handed me some toilet paper.
I sat there as long as I could, until I heard my dad coming to look for me.
“Audrey, come back to the table. We’re all waiting for you. Lunch is ready.”
Reluctantly, I returned, and saw a pile of small black fish on a large dish on the table.
“I’m not feeling so well,” I said.
“Sit down,” John said, patting the now uprighted chair, next to him.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Shukran,” he said. “Repeat: Shuk-ran.”
“Shukran,” I said, and sat down, moving the chair just a fraction to the right.
We played a game, our whole family, in that week or so we visited Sudan. We pretended we weren’t Jewish, we pretended we believed that John was really Christian and not Muslim, and I pretended that he wasn’t feeling me up, under the table.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We were John’s guests, as he had been the first person to meet us soon after we anchored in Port Sudan, and so, in his fashion, he had ‘claimed us’ and shown us what began as kind hospitality. My dad had written in his captain’s log: “We were actually making good progress after leaving Dijbouti when the triatic stay between the main and mizzenmast broke and we pulled into Port Sudan for repairs.”
We’d had many other people claim our friendship in the four years leading up to our arrival in Port Sudan. Each time, it was someone else, sometimes a tribal chief, sometimes a random stranger carrying bananas, and sometimes an expat, starving for conversation in English, even if we were ‘damn yachtees’ or used too much salt: “that’ll kill you.” The various voices of the people who befriended us are mixed together now, and were, on the whole, mostly caring, generous people. They saw us as a novelty: a family of four, with a cat, sailing on a 48-foot sailboat across the South Pacific.
On the first day, John took us to his house, a short walk from the port, and introduced us to all five of his daughters, his wife and his son. The son was about my age, and was particularly friendly. He shook my hand, and held it, just a little too long in both of his.
We took John to our boat, and his family too. We invited them to eat with us, and my dad kept testing John’s faith, or his own prejudices, by watching him drink alcoholic drinks, which John enjoyed immensely, and then offering him pork liver pate on crackers, which he became ill from later, when he discovered it was pork.
After that, John invited us to his house, daily, where his wife would cook up a storm, each day. A few times, she roasted small fish (Dad pointed out to me: “I’m pretty sure the small, black reef fish you were remembering we ate at Apia Samoa along with turkey tail soup.”) that you had to scale with your fingers and pick out the tiny bones from between your teeth, and salads and pita bread. It was good, home-cooked food, and the advantage for John was both that he was fulfilling his ‘duty’ of host, but also, that we weren’t feeding him any more forbidden foods.
One day, he met us as we rowed our boat to the dock, and with a few words of English and a lot of hand gestures, he took us to the neighborhood behind the port, and hailed a coal seller, who was sitting on top of a camel.
“Come,” he waved me over, “You sit!”
My parents and I watched, Margot hiding slightly behind Mom’s back, as the giant beast, with big yellow teeth, was pulled down by a thick cord around its neck, to a kneeling position on its front legs and then, with a jerk, settled its large behind on folded back legs.
John and the coal man gestured to me, and I, always excited to try a new adventure, climbed onto the blanket covering the back of the camel. With a roar and a snort, the camel lifted up, first its back legs, throwing me nearly over its head, and then with a jolt, the front legs straightened up too. The coal man waited patiently, as John led me for a short walk down the street, while I swayed back and forth, feeling like a princess of the desert, able to see the rooftops easily, and even the sea, in the distance. A light breeze floated over the intense heat of the dirt road and tin roofs.
The camel walk was over far too quickly, and we returned to the group waiting for us – my family and the coal seller. John helped lift me off the camel, before it would whip its head around and give me a nip on the legs.
A day or two later, when John and his son came to see us on the boat, I found that whenever I moved to a different spot on the boat – up on the foredeck, on top on the cabin, John’s son would come and sit right next to me, so close that our legs were touching. I got up, and stood on one of my favorite places, the bowsprit, where there was barely enough room for one. He joined me, his body touching mine, and I moved again. In the cockpit, he was next to me, smiling a broad smile and leaning just close enough that I felt his warmth. He was totally not getting the hint that it was already hot enough in Port Sudan.
I had just spent my 13th year in an all-girls Anglican boarding school in New Zealand, and while a lot of that time I had spent dreaming of getting close to a boy, this guy was not the one I was looking for. But he simply didn’t seem to mind the constant rejection. I was relieved when they finally left the boat and went ashore.
The next day, when lunchtime came, and I said I wasn’t feeling well enough to join the family to John’s, my dad said I was being rude, and that I should join them. I said I really couldn’t. My stomach hurt. I felt nauseous. This was partly true. But it wasn’t a stomach flu. Just too much familiarity that I couldn’t swallow.
They went to lunch without me, that day, but when they came home, Dad was not pleased with me.
“John was very insulted that you didn’t come with us,” he said. “And you know, we don’t want to insult these people.”
I couldn’t tell him the real reason I’d avoided John and his son, just as I hadn’t told my parents how miserable I’d been, after the first few months, at the boarding school. My job was always to put on a brave face, and deal with things. At school, I had few friends, and becoming the class ‘teacher’s pet’ didn’t help. I was laughed at because I didn’t shower every day, (on the boat we’d swim or shower in the rain, when we could), and because I was ‘weird,’ being American, Jewish and yachtee, the worst combination ever at an age when all you should strive for, is to fit in.
So, I said nothing about John’s horny son, and I said nothing at lunch the next day, when John decided to teach me the Arabic alphabet, while ‘encouraging’ me by rubbing my bare legs under the table.
John port Sudan Personal – The back side of this picture – with a greeting from John, and his children.
Finally, the repairs were done, and we could face the northerly winds that made us tack wearily up to the Suez Canal. There we had another yet another misadventure, as we had to temporarily relinquish control of our boat to the ‘trusted pilots’ of the Suez Canal…