A Writer Writes — “The Roads Are Closing” by Patricia McArdle (Paraguay)

A Writer Writes

 

THE ROADS ARE CLOSING

By Patricia McArdle (Paraguay 1972-74)

Winner of the Foreign Service Journal Summer Fiction Contest in 2009

How did I let her burrow so far into me that twenty years later she still lingers just beyond the daylight, curling around my mind like tendrils of sweet cigar smoke, distracting me with the soft clink of ice cubes in her sweating glass of gin and tonic. The thing is, I never should have spoken to her the first time.  She was not my type, not part of my plan.

Oh yes, my plan.  Finish my masters in International Relations, pass the Foreign Service exam, hustle my way to the top — marry the right girl, which I did, but it didn’t last. I married even better the second time — the daughter of a former ambassador, but that didn’t last either. I even got my own embassy—a small one in Africa, but even that minor victory could not dislodge the memory of her that I will forever savor and regret.

So you’re curious about her, are you?  Order another drink and I’ll tell you the whole story.  This is a long flight and I assure you the movie is a bore.

I remember how miserable I was that long ago Saturday morning in December — suffering from a perennial weekend gloom that was rapidly becoming a bad habit. I was twenty-five, single, on my first overseas tour of duty in Asuncion, Paraguay — a newly minted political officer issuing non-immigrant visas. I had degrees from Georgetown and Johns Hopkins. I tested at a 4/4 in French!  Why in God’s name did the State Department make me learn Spanish and bury me in the consular section of this South American backwater?

My air conditioner had given out three days ago. It was six a.m. and already 85 degrees inside my house. The early morning rain hammered on my tin roof.

If the rain stopped, the Embassy pool would open at 10 a.m. The econ counselor’s daughter would probably be there. She was tolerable, and pickings were slim in Asuncion. Would she wear a one piece or a bikini? I only had three weeks to work on her before Christmas vacation ended and she went back to college in Boston.

Why had I been chosen to administer the Foreign Service exam today? Does the most junior officer in the embassy ever have a choice? Would anyone even show up today? Probably not. Three days of rain had closed roads all over the country.  I switched on the radio and toggled over to the short wave band. VOA had too much static, but the BBC was coming in loud and clear.

Haldeman was testifying once again. Bob Hope would be leaving soon for Cam Rahn Bay to entertain the troops for the Christmas holidays. I switched it off. None of it seemed to matter much here.  No one wanted to talk about Vietnam or Watergate. My student exemptions had shielded me from draft and I was thousands of miles from both places.

Oh, I’ve put you to sleep, have I? No problem. I’ll pretend you’re listening.

I can still recall the taste of her lips — that hint of mango and yerba mate, those musty, hand-rolled cigars we shared in the evening after dinner, the limes she plunged into her gin and tonic. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The newest batch of Peace Corps volunteers had arrived in September and the DCM asked me to give them the standard ‘political briefing’ before they went off to their villages.

The Peace Corps had never interested me. It seemed like such a waste of time. The thought of being out in the middle of nowhere for two years, speaking some godforsaken indigenous language and trying to improve the lot of a group of puzzled locals did not seem like a useful stepping stone for someone with my ambitions.

There were thirty-two of them. A scruffy lot. They filed into the library in their jeans and sandals, laughing, looking at me like I was an alien with my tropical suit and tie. The girls looked like the ones I didn’t pay much attention to in college — dangling earrings and no bras — not that I minded.

I warned them that the Stroessner government was still a fairly brutal dictatorship, and gave them their instructions from the ambassador — stay out of Paraguayan politics, don’t advocate contraception or distribute the pill, don’t use drugs, make your country proud and don’t come to the embassy unless there is an emergency.

When I had finished my talk, I asked them how many were taking the Foreign Service exam in December. They all looked at me with blank stares.

One volunteer raised her hand. “What’s the Foreign Service exam?”  Her headscarf, a cobalt blue, matched her eyes perfectly. I was staring. I blinked, looked away and explained to the whole group what the test was and how to sign up for it. “Would any of you like to take the exam in December?”

She raised her hand again as did three of her male colleagues. Brave woman, I thought. Only a year ago, the State Department had dropped the rule requiring female FSOs to resign if they got married. The four hopefuls filled out the necessary paperwork and departed with the rest of their colleagues.

I took the applications back to my office and read hers. Katherine Delaney, twenty-six, from Portland, Oregon. Born June 7, 1946.   Her father must have returned from Europe right after VE Day.  Mine had been delayed for a year in Japan.

There were four exams in the sealed packet that damp December morning as I waited with the Marine Guard at the entrance to the embassy. The streets were flooding, the rain incessant.  No one was coming.  I went back to the library, gathered up the pencils I had set out at the four testing stations and prepared to lock the exams in my office safe.  The Marine guard rapped softly on my door. “Sir, someone is here for the exam. She’s an hour late. Shall I send her away?”

“No sergeant, send her in,” I said, with enough irritation in my voice to conceal my excitement.

Her chestnut hair was streaked with ochre mud. Her sandals oozed water leaving damp imprints as she crossed the carpet. “I’m so sorry I’m late. They closed the dirt track through my village to all vehicles last night so I had to ride my horse fifteen miles down to the paved road.

“I left him with a volunteer in Carapequa on Route One and took an early bus into Asuncion. My host family didn’t understand why I would ride through the rain to get here so made up a story about meeting an important American at the embassy this morning.”

“So, Mr. Important American, do you have a pencil sharpener?” She pulled a stubby # 2 pencil from her macramé shoulder bag and began to laugh as she caught me staring at the water pooling around her feet. “I’m ruining your carpet!”

“I have pencils,” I stammered as my gaze rose to her thin cotton dress, which had been thoroughly soaked and made somewhat irrelevant by the rain.

“That’s OK, I’ll use my own.”

Her face, arms and legs were the color of my morning café con leche, but when she removed her soaked sandals at my suggestion, I could see the creamy white cross hatchings where straps had covered her feet.

No one else came to take the exam that day. She finished at two and I desperately wanted to invite her to lunch.  I was trembling inside as she handed me her essay and tossed the stub of her pencil into the trash.  Scanning my bookshelf she spotted Travels with My Aunt.

“Oh, I love Graham Green,” she cried.

I didn’t, but I told her I did. That copy had belonged to my predecessor, who met the author when he came through Asuncion doing research for the book.

I handed it to her. “Take it. It’s signed by Greene himself.”

“Oh, I couldn’t,” she said handing it back.

“He sent us a whole box of signed copies when the book was published,” I lied pressing the book into her hands. Take it.”

The sun had come out, summoning clouds of steam that rose like spectral ghosts from the streets and sidewalks. As she vanished around a brick wall draped in honeysuckle, I stood mute and immobilized in the driveway of the embassy.

“Is there a problem, sir?” asked the Marine.

I shook my head and went back to my office, where I fished her pencil out of the trash and dropped it into my pocket.

I locked the exams in my safe and headed for the pool where the econ counselor’s daughter was deep in conversation with one of the Marine guards. Feigning disinterest, I plowed through a month-old copy of The New York Times and worked on my tan.

On Monday I called the Peace Corps office to ask where she had been assigned. The Deputy Director told me she was the first volunteer they had ever sent to Acahay, a Guarani-speaking village seventy miles south of Asuncion. She was working as a health educator. Her village had no electricity, no running water and no cars.

“Kat usually comes in once a month to pick up her mail,” he said. “She was just here this morning. Shall I tell her you called the next time we see her?”

I said no and struggled to put her out of my mind. She was not my type. I had almost succeeded until the evening I accepted an invitation from several junior officers, who frequented the city’s discos, to accompany them to The Safari after a long and boring dinner at the ambassador’s residence. I’m not a big dancer, never have been, but I agreed to go.

The Safari was dark, crowded and noisy. I did not plan to stay long, until I spotted Kat dancing with a French coopérant volunteer, a tall skinny guy with dark, curly hair whose fingers meandered slowly down her back. She was laughing. I ordered a beer and hoped she would look my way so I could casually raise my glass in her direction.

An hour later she was standing near me at the bar sipping something with ice and arguing with her dance partner. She had not yet acknowledged my presence. The Frenchman suddenly slammed his fist on the bar. “Putain!” he hissed at her before storming out of the room. I was on my third beer. She walked over to me as I was about to order a fourth.

“So what books have you been reading lately?”

I stared at the hollow of her throat, then raised my eyes to meet hers, trying to remember what was on my nightstand.

The Winds of War, Herman Wouk,” I stammered, “and Crichton’s The Terminal Man.

“Guy books,” she laughed,  “Don’t you dance?”

“I’m really not very good at it.”

She stood and extended her hand. Wasn’t I supposed to do that? The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” was winding down. We melted into the crowd as Roberta Flack’s Killing Me Softly flowed across the room like warm honey. I put my fingers where the Frenchman’s had been and we danced, barely touching until Kat moved into my arms and we kissed again and again.

The Safari closed at 4:30 a.m. and I waited with her in the cool pre-dawn air while one of the volunteers hailed a taxi. Kat squeezed my hand, planted a farewell kiss on my cheek, jumped into the cab with her friends and called out the window as they sped away, “Meet me tomorrow at five — La Terazza hotel.”

I had never been to that ancient hotel, favored by elderly Germans, shady businessmen and the odd traveler. It was a crumbling pink stucco confection perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Paraguay River.

Kat, dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, was lounging on a canvas chair that cast narrow shadows across the flagstone terrace in the late afternoon sun. The muscles in her long legs flexed seductively as she played with her sandals. She was reading a book by some feminist writer I had never heard of.

“Let’s go to the beer garden tonight,” she whispered, sliding her fingers around the back of my neck and rubbing my hair with her thumbs.

 

Kat called me whenever she was in town. I would take her to dinner, we would discuss the books we were reading, argue about Watergate, Vietnam and women’s rights and I would walk her back to La Terazza. She never invited me into her room and she refused to come to my apartment, but we inhaled each other’s kisses, which grew longer and more intense each time we parted.

In May I arranged to travel to Acahay for the day with an AID officer who was going to inspect a nearby agricultural project. I had sent her a note that I was coming, but I had no way of knowing whether she had received it.

Clouds of ochre dust chased our vehicle up the dirt road and settled on my hair and shoulders when I was dropped at the edge of her village.  Crossing the square in front of the church, I could see a group of very pregnant women seated on low benches in front of a mud and thatch building.  Kat was speaking to them in Guarani.  I gathered from the posters behind her that she was talking to them about birth control.

As the women struggled to their feet at the end of her talk, she turned and smiled when she saw me watching her.  “Well hello, Mr. Diplomat.  To what do I owe this honor?”

“Kat, you’re not supposed to be teaching these women about contraception. “You’ll get yourself thrown out of the country!”  I hadn’t meant to start our conversation that way.  I had planned to say how wonderful she looked and tell her my sister had mailed me a copy of The Feminine Mystique, which I had almost finished and wanted to talk to her about, but I was gripped by a sudden fear that she might be sent home for breaking this sensitive taboo. I didn’t want her to leave.

She stared up at me, hands on her hips, eyes unreadable. “These women are desperate. One came in this morning bleeding and vomiting. She had tried to abort her baby with a curandera’s potion.  She is twenty-nine, has eight children, was delirious with fever and was carrying her youngest, a one year old with dysentery. He weighed 14 pounds and died in my arms just two hours ago. The mother is still in the health center. The doctor can’t stop the hemorrhaging and we have no blood or plasma.  Hell, we don’t even have a refrigerator. How can I just sit and watch this?”  Dark clouds rolled in as she spoke.

“The rain will come soon and the roads will be closing.  You’ll have to stay with us tonight.”

Kat’s host family welcomed me warmly and one of the servants prepared a rawhide cot on the covered patio where I would sleep.  Soon after the evening meal of fried manioc and tomatoes, her family along with the rest of the village extinguished their kerosene lamps and went to bed.  The rain had stopped and I drifted into a fitful sleep until Kat, her face framed by a starry night sky, woke me gently, her fingers stroking my hair.  She was sitting on the edge of the cot wearing a thin silk nightgown.

“You will never understand,” she whispered.  “You shouldn’t have come today.” I reached up to touch her face and gently pulled her down.  She brushed her parted lips against mine and we melted into a wordless tangle of teeth and tongue. Kat opened the folds of her gown.  Her eyes closed and my hands moved slowly over her breasts until a door creaked inside the house. Rising quickly from my cot and pulling her nightgown around her she walked in silence back to her room.

When I awoke she was dressed and saddling her horse for the three hour trip to a school in the campo. Women in rural Paraguay still rode sidesaddle, but Kat had purchased an English saddle in Asuncion, trained her horse to accept it and was the only woman in the village, perhaps in the entire country, who rode “like a man.”

The morning sun had baked the road into a hard brown crust after last night’s rain. She swung into her saddle and looked down at me with tears in her eyes. “The roads are open again. Your friend should be here soon to get you. I am so sorry — about everything.”

As I reached up to take her hand, she wheeled her horse, kicked him into a gallop and buried her face in his mane.  He carried her down the only road out of the village and vanished with her into a stand of palm trees.

Several men on the Acahay town council did complain about her talks at the health center, and a few weeks after my visit she was transferred out of the country. Just before I went on leave the following December, a Peace Corps friend who knew us both invited me for a bowl of fish soup at the Lido. When we finished our meal and our beers he handed me a small package with a Lesotho postmark. “This came for you.”

It was a paperback copy of Norman Mailer’s book, The Prisoners of Sex with a note scribbled inside the cover.

Dear Mr. Diplomat,
Read this.  You need it! – Love, Kat

P.S.  I know I was right to do what I did and so do you.
P.P.S.  You’re a great kisser! 

            I didn’t reply and never try to find her. I don’t even know if she passed the exam.  She was too impetuous. It would never have worked.  I am so sorry, Kat, wherever you are.

Reprinted with permission from The Foreign Service Journal. “The Roads are Closing” was published in their July-August 2009 issue.  

Patricia McArdle was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Paraguay from 1972 to 1974. After service as a U.S. Naval officer in Morocco from 1974 to 1977, she attended the Thunderbird School of Global Management, receiving her MBA and then joining the Foreign Service in 1979. She retired in 2006 after tours of duty in South Africa, Barbados, France and Afghanistan.

Since retirement, Patricia has been promoting the use of solar cookers in the developing world. Her fictional war memoir Farishta (inspired by her one year tour of duty in northern Afghanistan) was published in 2011 by Penguin Books. 

You can also read Patricia’s story on the FSJ website.

6 Comments

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  • A lovely story, but somehow I was hoping that the two would somehow meet in a tiny African village, and realize that they were “right” for each other, and that Kat would find exactly the right job with an NGO. In the early days, in Africa, I knew a few volunteers like Kat. But most were more forthcoming.

    John Turnbull Ghana-3 Geology and Nyasaland/Malawi-2 geology assignment, 1963-64-65

  • I agree that the story is lovely. It also has flaws. Patricia McA. doesn’t get the maleness of the narrator quite right … though she’s right for trying to do it.

    • I wondered about that. The woman Volunteer sounds so much more intriguing than those one finds in Peace Corps memoirs written by men. What was absolutely authentic was the Volunteer’s anguish as she described the plight of the young mother, desperate to control her fertility and her health and having no means to really do that.

      That voice is missing from all the public records I have seen. I have only seen a small number. However, I could describe what women told me about their problems and what they needed in the same terms McA’s mother did.
      I heard over and over again in response to the question “What do you want?” “I want to keep the children I have alive and I do not want to have anymore.” In our health survey, mothers would count their children – “First, children alive and then children who had died.”

      In those early days, I was not trained nor could I access resources to help very much with that desperate need. In our town, we had a good doctor, a clinic with almost no resources and there was not enough to begin to meet the need.

      Birth control was supposed to be forbidden in Catholic Colombia, although available in every pharmacy. The cost was way beyond the women with whom we worked. Furthermore, and this was not probably addressed in the story, there was a danger host country women would suffer consequences from listening to or attending any class in which birth control was discussed. In the story, the Volunteer was transferred out of country. What happened to the women who had listened to her? That is a central quesion which I have not seen answered in Peace Corps literature. I have not even seen it mentioned.

      Finally, I wonder if McA’s decision to make her character’s voice male, was precisely because she thought it would carry more weight being recorded by a man, and not a woman.

  • When I read these things, I’m continually reminded that being a male volunteer vs being a female volunteer, at least in Africa, dropped into strange, traditionalist cultures is a very different thing.(Gloria Steinem, the PC ain’t for you !).

    Still today, remembering the early years, I’m amazed at the deference accorded me, and the readiness of so many, even young African girls, to ask my opinion and counsel. Sometimes after reading European women’s magazines. Incredible trust. Then the eternal “hair discussion”. What did I think looked more attractive ?

    What memories ! John Turnbull

  • Patricia McCardle’s book, “Farishta,” has been reviewed here, but I want to add a report from the UN Women Gulf Coast Chapter, which I’ve been facilitating for fifteen years.

    The UN Women Gulf Coast Chapter Book Club met on Monday, August 12, 2019 to discuss Farishta by Patricia McCardle, the story of an American diplomat who is forced to confront the devastation of her past after her husband was killed in a bombing in Lebanon. She is assigned to a remote British army outpost in northern Afghanistan, where she must report back on meetings among military and warlords, and not divulge that she speaks the local language, Dari, fluently. Unwelcome among the soldiers and unaccepted by the local government and warlords, Angela has to fight to earn the respect of her colleagues, especially the enigmatic Mark Davies, a British major who is by turns her staunchest ally and her fiercest critic. Frustrated at her inability to contribute to the nation’s reconstruction, Angela slips out of camp disguised in a burka to provide aid to the refugees in the war-torn region. She becomes their farishta, or “angel,” in the local Dari language,and discovers a new purpose for her life, a way to finally put her grief behind her.
    Everyone enjoyed the book, McCardle’s first attempt at fiction and, as usual, we had a vibrant discussion about Afghanistan and many other matters.

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