Of all the things Alice is good at, she is the best at leaving. Jobs, lovers, apartments, things when they get difficult. There is not enough time in life, she thinks, for living and for trying to fix things that can’t be fixed.
Now she is in Arusha, in Tanzania, in the shadows of Kilimanjaro and Meru, and she is conflicted. Arusha is the middle of her travels, and going past the middle means getting closer to the end.
The young batik salesmen swarm around her, feinting and charging with their batiks like matadors.
“Hello sister,” they say. “Good price.”
They’ve followed her across Old Moshi Road, dodging the wild traffic that screeches around the rotary. Here come the men with mass-produced bracelets that say JAMBO in beads. Nobody says jambo except the tourists who buy these bracelets.
“Hello sister,” they say. “Utapendeza,” they say, even though she won’t understand. A man trots over with a bag of raspberries for sale. There is no word for raspberry in Swahili, so the man just holds them out and nods at her.
They are standing in front of the sad little clock tower, and cars whiz past her around the rotary. There’s no clock on the clock tower anymore. But there is a sign.
“This spot,” it says, “is exactly half way between the CAPE & CAIRO.”
Alice bumps her backpack higher on her back and tightens the shoulder straps. A pair of shoes buckled to the side of her pack smacks a batik salesman in the arm, and she worries for a second that he’s trying to take them.
“Excuse me,” she mutters. The moment is over. There’s nothing to immortalize here, and if she gets her camera out, there will be an even bigger commotion. Alice squeezes past everyone and starts walking down Sokoine Road toward the bus yard. The salesmen watch her go. Arusha is crowded this time of year with Europeans who like to wear shorts and Americans who have been forced to see, suddenly, the bigness of the world.
Alice walks past whitewashed buildings, change bureaus, shoe shiners, a patisserie, and a river bed where people wash their bicycles, their animals, themselves. She has a bus ticket for Dar es Salaam and then she will buy a boat ticket to Zanzibar. And so on.
Back when they thought they owned it, the British perceived the African continent as stretching from south to north. They decided it needed a road — Cape to Cairo. But Alice is going the opposite direction — Cairo to Cape. It’s a big continent that she thought would last forever, or at least change her by the time she got to the other end. But here she is. Halfway through and exactly the same.
Dar es Salaam is menacing. It is large and chaotic and crowded. Alice hopes Zanzibar isn’t like this. She can’t figure out where anything is, and she hates it from the moment she steps off the bus. She starts sweating immediately and the close air smells like rotten vegetables and rank bodies.
“Hello sister,” a cab driver motions to her. “You looking for the boat? Good price.”
Alice shakes her head. She uses the inset map in her guidebook to find the port and the guidebook’s suggestions to find a good boat company that won’t rip her off. A sign on the ticket seller’s wooden shack tells her the trip is 15$US, which is more than the guidebook said it would be, but the book is a few years old so she doesn’t dispute it.
The boat skips along the Indian Ocean, smacking down on the surface of the water and then bouncing up again. Alice doesn’t usually get seasick. But the boat trip is longer than the two hours she had planned on, and she spends the last leg of the trip clutching her backpack on the deck and willing the island to inch closer. As the water slap-slaps against the hull, she molds an image in her mind of Zanzibar. It will be ornate buildings and spooky alleys, women covered up to their eyeballs and beaches like soft skin.
It is all of these things. It is exactly as she imagined, and she is not disappointed. This, Alice thinks, is a good sign.
She wanders the tight, confusing streets of Stone Town, turning the same corners and ending up in new places. She finds a leper selling handmade pillows. She finds a man turning sugar cane into juice. She sees an American woman in very short shorts haggling over a JAMBO bracelet in a loud voice. Suddenly Alice’s enjoyment feels flimsy; something dark creeps up behind her heart. This life is repetitive, the craving for newness an unquenchable addiction. She gets a beer and a sunset and feels better after.
The muezzin lets everyone know what time it is. The concrete walls of Alice’s tiny hotel room are sky blue and glossy. She writes in her journal about how everything is new and tries not to feel like a fraud. She tentatively mentions feeling different. She doesn’t look back at her old journal entries, all of which start the same way. She clacks the pen between her teeth.
I think I’m going to leave tomorrow, she writes. This seems romantic.
Then, in very small letters at the bottom of the page, she writes:
I can’t remember the last time I had a conversation with someone.
Zanzibar isn’t technically on her way to Cape Town, but it wasn’t on the way to Portugal or Oman either. That didn’t stop the Portuguese and Omanis from snatching up things and people in Zanzibar and bringing them home.
Alice learns about the Time Bungee on the train ride to Mbeya. She overheard a conversation between a German boy, two French girls, and a Japanese boy who had brought his own soup bowl. They sat next to Alice in the dining car and didn’t invite her over.
They were on their way to Lusaka for the solar eclipse. There was going to be a rave in a game reserve to celebrate the event and they were all traveling there for it. Alice sipped on her Safari Lager and transcribed their conversation. The French girls were taking turns touching the German boy’s arm.
French #1: I think it is the only way to see something new in this world.
French #2: I’m still scared. Do you think it’s safe?
German: A friend of mine did it. He’s alive.
French #1: Did he say what it was like?
Japanese: It isn’t really something you can explain.
French #2: Have you done it?
Alice looks up to see French Girl #2 put her hand on the Japanese boy’s hand across the table. He looks at her hand and then her face, which is pretty.
French #2: It’s real, isn’t it? Not just a touristic thing?
Japanese: It is real. And dark.
French #2: Dark?
Japanese: I went at night.
German: So you couldn’t see anything?
Japanese: [long pause] I could see… enough.
French #1: Have you done it?
Alice realizes, when no one answers, that French #1 is talking to her. She smiles, panics, says “Um, no” and then yawns hugely, an attempt at an apology for her impending escape.
Alice watches the eclipse from the courtyard of her hotel in Lusaka. It’s not as dramatic as she had imagined. She wonders about the rave, if things looked more dramatic from there.
She couldn’t even see the moon cover the sun until it was directly in front of it. It looked like just a less-bright sun, lighting up the sky like a dim light bulb. But the horizon was pink, and that was nice. Alice waited until the diamond ring appeared — that moment that the moon skewed a degree past its apex, uncovering a small jewel of sunlight — and then returned to her room.
The eclipse was magical, she writes. Then she closes her journal. She looks at the journal cover. Its edges are fuzzed and dirty. She opens it again. I’m supposed to go to Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and then South Africa, but now I just want to go to South Africa. For the thing.
She can’t bring herself to write “Time Bungee” because it sounds stupid and also because she doesn’t really know what to say about it. It lets you see the future, but when, and how, and how much? She wishes now that she had asked. Would it really have been so hard to talk to them?
Alice skips Zimbabwe and Botswana but forces herself to stop in Namibia. She consoles herself by thinking she can always come back, that these countries will still exist in the future. But doing something twice would mean admitting she had done it wrong the first time. And repetition is staleness. Repetition is failure.
Alice’s time is running out, she is running out of continent, but she can only think of the future, its unimaginable newness. What it will have to show her. Whether it is the thing she has been searching for all this time. She is cautiously optimistic, restless, weary.
Alice fidgets through a tour of the Namib desert. The dunes shift and cover up footprints as soon as they are made, and the wind makes patterns in the deep red sand, but it’s always the same sand. Always the same patterns. Dead Vlei is full of dead trees frozen in time. They will never die; they will never change. There is nothing to decompose them, and so they will stand firm in their desert basin forever, gnarled and awful, while everyone takes pictures. Alice is unnerved.
Namibia is only recently free, and the freedom is both too little and too much.
It is two long bus rides to Cape Town, and Alice takes the next ones out. Swakopmund to Windhoek. Windhoek to Cape Town.
It’s easy to forget that Cape Town is an African city. If it wasn’t for the miasma of rage that hangs over the streets, for the seething looks that people don’t give each other, it could be anywhere. Cape Town has its feet stuck in the cement shoes of history.
To Alice, Cape Town looks like San Francisco, scrubbed and shiny. This reminds her of home, which reminds her of going home. She freezes mid-stride on her way to the hostel. Just stands still in the middle of the sidewalk while people surge past her, bumping into her backpack on purpose. This is the end. There is no more Africa to explore, if there ever was. There is only a backlog of history that will never be sorted. Even the future is already spoken for. Alice tries not to think this way, but can’t quite shake her dread.
She wanders the city for hours, looking for a sign that will tell her where to find the Time Bungee. It’s a big city, and she doesn’t know where to look. The guidebook doesn’t say anything about it, probably because the book is so outdated. She doesn’t stay out past dark, because that would be dangerous. She scans the bulletin board at the hostel. Township tours, wine tours, safaris, Swaziland, Lesotho, Pretoria.
They lied, didn’t they. There is no Time Bungee. And now she has wasted all this time, all this space, for nothing. Alice backs away from the bulletin board and turns toward the staircase.
She bumps into the chest of a tall boy from somewhere.
“Sorry,” she mutters.
He shrugs. He looks at the bulletin board. “Find what you were looking for?” His accent sounds European, but she’s not good at differentiating the little countries.
“Yes,” Alice says, nodding.
Then: “No, actually. Not really.”
And then: “But I don’t think it really exists anyway. So.”
She takes a step toward the stairs, but the boy grabs her arm.
“They don’t advertise for it,” he says. “You’re looking for the Time Bungee, yes?”
She looks at his hand gripping her arm. It is freckled. She looks at his face. His eyes are close set and he has red hair. There are so many redheads in Europe. She nods. She realizes her jaw is slack and closes it, embarrassed.
“It’s on Table Mountain,” he says. “I’ll draw you a map.”
“Yes,” he says. He looks like he might say something else but then doesn’t.
She wants to ask him about it, what he has seen. She wants to ask if he’ll take her there, but instead she just says:
“It’s in a cave,” he says. “It looks scary but you’ll be okay.” In the split second before smiling, he grimaces.
Alice nods, taking the drawn map from him. The tip of her thumb touches his knuckle and the touch is amplified a million times.
“I can go with you if you want,” he says. “So you don’t get lost.”
“No thanks,” she says, backing down the hallway toward the door. “I’ll be fine.”
Table Mountain is flat on top like a table. Alice doesn’t reach the top because the map doesn’t lead her there. Instead, she scoots around the side of the mountain to a series of low overhangs that might be considered caves.
She has to fly home in two days.
Alice finds the cave tucked behind a ridge of stone shaped like a nose and stands awkwardly at the entrance. She fiddles with the corners of her hand-drawn map. A voice inside the cave clears its throat.
“Hello,” it says pleasantly. Alice is surprised that the voice is female. She can’t place the accent, though it is probably South African.
“Hi,” Alice says.
“I assume I know what you’re here for?” the voice asks.
“I think so,” says Alice, trying to see inside, but the corners are doused in shadow.
“Come in then! Would you like some tea?”
Alice ducks into the entrance and sees the outline of a woman. There are two candles and the woman lights them. She looks young, not much older than Alice, but that might just be the dim lighting. She pours water into a chipped mug and hands it over.
“It’s rooibos tea. Have you had it before?” The woman might have been smiling but there were too many shadows on her face to say for sure.
“No,” Alice says. The tea is red and tastes familiar and foreign, like a berry that hasn’t been invented yet. “It’s delicious.”
“Would you like me to explain the Time Bungee to you, or would you rather not know?” the woman asks. Her face is barely, barely in focus and it has a long nose. “Some people want that, the mystery. Some say knowing the mechanics of the act makes it less enjoyable.”
“I don’t know,” Alice says. “I hadn’t thought about that.”
“If you are the sort that gets upset when love is explained as a series of chemical reactions, you might not want to hear it. If you don’t want to think of yourself as a machine that someone else made, you might be happier just doing it,” the woman says. She sips loudly at her tea.
Alice is that sort of person. But also, she isn’t. She wishes the woman hadn’t asked her in the first place.
“Nobody is going to force you,” the woman says. “This is your moment, and it can be whatever you wish.” As if Alice had already answered, the woman stands, begins to fiddle with equipment, piles pillows on the stone floor.
“Should I sit or lie down or stand?” Alice asks.
“However you want to end up when you get there,” the woman says, hooking up a small generator.
“Standing, I guess,” Alice says. She realizes she no longer knows how to maintain a conversation.
“I’m very careful,” the woman says, mistaking her silence for fear. “I’ve never lost anyone. And I only send people to the part of the future where there are no people. The end of time that isn’t the end of time, just the end of us,” she says. “And time keeps moving forward, so you will never cross paths with anyone else. You will always be the first to explore it. You will be seeing the very birth of the new. As unbeaten as paths can be. Wonderful, isn’t it?”
Alice is surprised to find that she doesn’t think it’s wonderful. She has that sick feeling in her stomach that happens when she has done something regrettable. “Have you been there?” she asks.
“Of course,” the woman says.
“What…will I see there?” Alice asks.
“The end of the world,” the woman says. “The only new thing left to discover.”
Alice still doesn’t know her name.
There is a sensation like a lasso around her midsection, yanking her around. She knows she has arrived somewhere else because of the change in temperature. The end of the world is hot. And dry. Alice steps out of the cave and there is no Cape Town below her. There is only the hot ocean bubbling over sand and muck and dirt. There is nobody and nothing. The mountain is bald of trees, but at least the mountain still stands. At least there is that.
Alice wonders what she is supposed to do here and how long it will be until she can go back. She squints up at the sky and immediately regrets it. It is so bright, so yellow and dusty and sweaty.
This is horrible, she thinks. When is this?
Her feet sink further in the sand, and the wind piles it up to her calves. She tugs her feet out of the sand and climbs up the mountain, running to keep from sinking. Sand sticks to her skin, her clothes, her eyeballs. She pants and stumbles and panics that she’ll never get back, that this is some awful trick, that she’s stuck here at the end of the world, that she trusted this person whose face she couldn’t even see, and Alice has never wanted to leave anywhere as much as she wants to leave here. She has never wanted to be home so badly. And now she might never get there. It certainly doesn’t exist in this reality. Alice begins to regret almost everything.
She reaches the top of the mountain, which is more like a sand dune now. She doubles over, wheezing and panting and watches the wind cover her footsteps in sand patterns. There is nothing. Nothing.
But there is something. Something coming toward her across the ridge of Table Mountain. It is a person. Sweat blurs her vision. The person is tall and smiling. Alice wipes her forehead.
He approaches her. His clothing isn’t particularly unusual. He nods.
“Hello,” he says.
He looks familiar, or maybe that is just relief. Laughter bubbles up in Alice’s chest, but it’s crazy laughter, and she is embarrassed. She keeps it inside. It hurts her chest. She wants to ask where the person comes from, how he is possible. He stands before her, a slight smile, curious eyes. She has never seen such beautiful eyes, but maybe that is just desperation. She wants to touch him. If she could feel his skin, this dread would break apart like the stains in a laundry commercial. The need builds up inside her, her body shakes. He smiles, he is patient. He waits.
Shame envelops her. She cannot embrace a stranger. So she settles on Hello. She is about to say, politely, Hello, I’m Alice, when she feels a tug at her midsection and is scooped backward through time. The man reaches out a hand, says something she can’t hear.
The future is receding forever, the stranger warping before her eyes. There can be no more waiting, no more right moments to imagine and then abandon. But what is there to say? Time presses against her. Time, that unwelcome lover.
She is released, gasping, into the present.
“Again,” she says.
More from Eden Robins:
In the grand tradition of underemployed artists, Eden Robins has been: a singing waitress, a dildo salesman, a dental assistant, an abortion clinic receptionist, and a Swahili teacher. Other recent stories can be found in Kaleidotrope and Shimmer, and she is a founding editor of the now-defunct Brain Harvest magazine. She blogs rarely and reluctantly at monkeythumbs.com.