Climbing the concrete stairs, ducking under an overturned mattress and making my way up to the third floor revealed the tin-roofed Monrovian slum below. At the top I was introduced to Sarifina, my host and the best-friend of my ex-girlfriend Leanna from 13 years ago. She was sitting on the catwalk with her 18-month-old, talking with a friend, an African man of about 30 who was clearly stoned and they offered me a seat.
Sarifina looked much older than Leanna, though they were the same age. Leanna grew up in Liberia in a family that ran a successful restaurant. With that came creature comforts and rest. Even with her own baby, she had two nanny’s working in shifts that spared her the full exhaustion of motherhood.
Sarifina did not.
All the doors of the house had holes punched in them. All the door handles were missing and looked like they’d been ripped out with crow-bars. None of the doors latched. They just hung. Even in the bathroom you had to move a laundry hamper in front of the door so it wouldn’t swing open. Then you had to pour a bucket of water down the toilet to flush. The apartment was probably raided for scrap before she moved in. On the couch in the living room was a man who had passed out stoned on the couch. It had been arranged for me to stay on the couch, though I’d been upgraded to her son’s room and she said we could probably come to some arrangement for a long-term stay—She’s a single mother after all, and could use the money.
This was supposed to be a friendly favor— to let a friend of a friend stay over to spare him the long drive into the city, not a hotel. Fortunately, I had an alternate arrangement to spend the next night at one of the most heavily guarded compounds in the city with one of my interview subjects, so I was able to perry that offer.
I got settled in my accommodations—a room with a crib, an ironing board, and a mattress in the corner, and then rejoined them on the catwalk to take some pictures while they rolled a joint. She played with her little boy and was teaching him new words. He kept staring at me, so she’d point at me and look to him, saying, “See da white man? WHITE MAN.” This was a new thing for him, and he stared.
As the boy lost interest she took to sprinkling a spliff with her guest. I didn’t fault her for any of this. What the hell is questionable parenting anyways? She asked where I lived and when I told her she said she’d like to come to New York. She’ll come stay with me, she said. “Of course,” I told her, if she doesn’t mind staying with four men in cramped quarters.
“That’s no problem.” she said. “They see me and BOOM! They go rock hard.” She laughed and flexed an arm at her waist, imitating a hard cock.
She was tall and thin and pretty, but had a face that was tired, and something about this whole arrangement made me certain I wouldn’t have room when she visited.
I couldn’t tell if she was sleeping with these men. I wanted to say no, but there’s something about the laissez-faire affections in stoner friendships. It’s none of my business, anyways, but I did want to know if someone else would be sleeping in the house with us tonight—they would not, she said.
The last thing I asked her was what time was too late to come back. These places are dead bolted shut and there’s never a guest key. “It is never too late.” She said. “12, 2, 4, 5, it don’ matta. Jus’ call me on ma phone and I come open tha doh.” And then I left.
After an evening spent with the Colonel, he had his driver take me home. It was only three blocks away, but he insisted on sending me in a car. He knows who’s been robbed, killed, or in one case a few months ago, sodomized (he says “sssssodomized!” with exaggerated S). I accepted the offer of a ride, but before I left, I asked him if he had a sleeping pill. I’d left a bunch of things at my last place to pick up later and I didn’t realize how much of a tranquilizer I’d need at Sarifina’s place to get to sleep. He didn’t have anything for sleep, but he offered me an increasingly powerful buffet of painkillers, from Tylenol to Aleve, to OxyContin (you know which one I took).
I made it back at 10:10pm. I climbed the stairs of the catwalk in the dark, doing my best to avoid debris and scattered junk. I scared myself half to death when I reached for a handrail and realized it wasn’t there, with only my wits keeping me from slipping to the floor below. I approached the door when a disembodied voice said something in Liberglish. I made out a figure in the dark.
After 30 seconds of poorly understood Liberglish, I learned that Sarifina wasn’t there. I called but her phone was off, or, more likely, dead. It was explained that Sarifina had gone out. Something about something about something. I couldn’t quite piece it all together. The neighbor said she would call her, and since I’d failed to establish to the neighbor that I was welcome inside without Sarifina, I waited. A few minutes later the neighbor returned, saying she couldn’t reach her. But that she’d try again. She told me to ‘wait small small,’ so I waited, small small.
After another five minutes passed, I went to go inside but I couldn’t. Where there was a splintered wooden door before there was now a steel panel with a few bars at the top, like a prison cell. It was locked and Sarifina had the only key.
I looked out at the slum and practiced taking long exposures in the dark. There were no lights except for the occasional flashlight. I thought about how bad the mosquitoes were at dusk and was grateful I was indoors for those hours. I thought about malaria. Coming back at 10 meant the mosquitoes had already quieted down for the night.
Sarifina arrived at 1am, clearly intoxicated and annoyed with me. The neighbor must have been messaging her along with my previous host whom had introduced us. It was a Saturday night and and even in Liberia, that’s the night to party. Here I was throwing a wrench in those plans. She was apologetic to me, initially, but with the haranguing from her neighbor she was protesting to me and everyone that she had waited until 10 and I didn’t come back. That she had to miss dinner at a friend’s house because of this burden. I felt bad, cramping her Saturday night light this, but I also remember what she’d told me when I asked what time I should be home.
She was only there long enough to let me in and go back out again. I laid down on the mattress in her son’s room. It was hot. The windows were closed because there was no screen on them, and the humidity was such that I was dripping sweat. My clothes stuck to me and I wanted to strip down but I wasn’t certain about how sanitary these conditions were. It was too much in the end and I caved to whatever fate befell me. If there were lice or bedbugs or fleas, no button down shirt or pair of Gucci jeans are going to protect me. I hung my clothes up to dry, stuck the OxyContin under my tongue and waited for the hazing effect of the legalized heroin to allay my concerns. In the dark I could hear phantom mosquitoes and feel them landing on me. The building and the slum outside its walls were making strange noises, thuds and creaks. I told myself to sleep, and I did, dripping sweat with the windows closed, sprawled out spread eagle in my underwear.
I woke up to Sarifina coming in around 4am.
I woke again at 7 when she had to tend to her morning motherly duties, zombified in that no-sleep-no-coffee stumble. She came in to get some of her boy’s clothes and was very apologetic about the night before. Afterwards I could hear her on the phone, sobbing, crying those desperate tears you let go when it’s just too much, then she’d get angry or defensive, yelling at the person on the other end, then crying again. I just laid in bed, imaging I was somewhere else.
It’s gotta be hard, being a single mother. It’s gotta be even harder in Africa, let alone Liberia. The economy is on pins and needles. If it isn’t war, it’s ebola. You get pregnant, and that’s it. There’s no system for child support. I remember that from before. The local workers I would talk to after the war would tease one of them who had gotten a girl pregnant. He wasn’t going to be any part of the child or the mother’s life. That was just how it was. You don’t want to be a father? Then don’t! That’s what Sarifina was dealing with.
Having some man passed out on the couch or blazing up with a friend on the front porch, leaving the kid with mom so you can go get loose wherever the local Monrovian scene is, this could be more than just getting crazy on a Saturday night for her. Having to come home to let this favor of a houseguest in could be keeping her from finding a man, some security for her and her son. She has this two bedroom apartment, even if it does have shattered doors, but it’s clear that money is an issue, and 20 feet away is the next step down: Tin shacks and open windows and bucket-baths in the street, all there to remind her what’s at stake.