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Wednesday, June 29, 2022

From Appalachia with love (Part 1)

A story of love and infinite bliss
By Ardain Isma
CSMS Magazine
The essay that follows is an unedited version of a novella to be part of a collection of short stories I’m putting together. I’m dedicating it to all my diehard readers like Junie Pierre-Philippe, Naomie Deliard, Constance Joseph, Dr. Philicia Parker, Rosedad Saint-Fort, Dolores Telson, Tiroro Guerrier, Dr. Gary Joseph, Shedelyne Bien-Aimé, Ardine Isma, Maryse Isma, Ardy Isma, Ardain Junior, Jessica Cambar, Mimi, Astwood Jean, Reggie, my Facebook and Linked-in friends  and the list goes on. Finally, it is a special dedication to my readership scattered around the world, especially in the US, Canada, France, Haiti, The Bahamas, Nigeria, Dominican Republic, Martinique, Guadeloupe etc…
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He has been living in this part of the world for more than two years, now. He has yet to move on with his life. He has yet to leave behind his Gothic world of Nantes, his Breton frame of mind. He seems trapped in a monotonous existence that brings nothing but bittersweet memories of a time he wishes to relive no further. However, in his furtherance of unspoken nostalgia, well aware of his exacerbated melancholy and having to work tirelessly to blend in his new surroundings, he begins to search for the path to salvation, the road to assimilation.

Along the foothills of Appalachia where he now lives, the opportunity to resolve his ordeals seems endless and priceless. This has been long factored in; but he lives in a surreal world mired in outright exuberance and utter luxury. Henceforth, his struggle proves to be far harder than he previously thought. At school, his English heavily slurred in French doesn’t help, for the minute he opens up his mouth, there is always this question: “Where’re you from?” An introverted individual that he is, this unwanted ask has completely morphed him into a Haitian Wonté , this little reddish plant with thorny stems that closes up at the first touch of an admirer. Consequently, he suffers in silence.

His name is Alain Barlatier, a slimly tall young man of 6 feet high in his mid-twenties who walks in gigantic strides on his way down the college courtyard and whose trimmed texture hued in a golden tan makes him look out of place in the rolling hills of Macon. He is the product of a union that locks his father Louis-Jeune Barlatier, a psychologist of Haitian origin—from Saint Louis du Nord to be precise—with Marianne Saint-Preux, an olive-skinned Martiniquaise that Louis-Jeune met while in college in Nantes, France, in the Loire valley where he was raised.

They now live some 60 miles south of Atlanta in the exclusive suburb of Willow Lakes in Monroe County, just north of Macon. Alain’s parents relocated there three years ago after they left their French country town to settle near Macon, Georgia, pursuing a more lucrative and more promising professional career. Louis-Jeune has signed a contract with Mercer University where he is now a Psychology professor with tenure track. In his quest to emulate his dad, Alain majors in Psychology as well, where he hopes to achieve dual-degrees after graduation: A licensure in Human Behavior (Behavior Analyst) and a Ph.D. in Psychology proper.

Alain has always been a vibrant student since high school, but more and more he finds himself in a bitter struggle with his authentic engagement toward his college obligations and his desire to fully immerse into the new culture. Where he mingles, there are few Haitians, and he rarely speaks to them because his Creole is as rusty as his English. All that seems to be changing when he meets Claude, a young fellow from Port-au-Prince, who informs him about a little place called Café Lakay in Northern Atlanta where one can go every Friday night to savor delicious Haitian pastries and party all night long, weaving through the beat of sweet Konpa-Zouk love.
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Friday Night in Café Lakay
Hordes of cars line up a two-lane road that herds the partygoers to the entrance of Café Lakay, a two-story building painted in beige that sits on a raised upland next to a strip-mall about a mile from Interstate 75 on the road to Tennessee. Some impulsive lads, anxious to get in, try to circumvent the busy traffic by threading down a graveled pathway, carving Café Lakay’s majestic parking garage, few feet from the lone doorway of this this majestic building.

Guided by his global positioning device and after a hefty long ride up the road, Alain finally makes it to the tail-end of the line around 9:30. His golden draw drops in mounting anxiety, and he begins to think that he needs to turn around. When he glances over his rearview mirror, another 15 vehicles have already lined up behind him. “I’m trapped,” he mutters between clinched teeth, and he starts biting his nails compulsively. He bends his head down toward the steering wheel as if wanting to smack it out of disappointment. Soon he hears chatting voices of fancy young ladies, strolling to the direction of the Haitian nightclub. He is reenergized. Their swaying hips shed an awesome glee to his heart.

After 10 minutes of sluggish moving, Alain at last pulls into the parking lot. In one leap, he bounds out the car, remotely locks it, and double-checks it to make sure its alarm system is fully armed. He is an unfamiliar terrain and he is far from home. There is no place for blunders. Tonight, he trades his tiny gray corolla for his mother’s white BMW fit for a bachelor like him, especially at gatherings like this one. So cautiously, he paces toward the front door, and a tall man with a robust posture meets him. “How much is it?” Alain asks with a grin.

“It’s 10 dollars, man,” the giant fellow quickly replies vaguely, eyeing not on him but on a line of ladies pushing toward the entrance. Alain pulls his wallet out of his back pocket, retrieves a 10-dollar bill and hands it over to the man who grabs it without looking. He then raises his arm and lets Alain in.

Facing him from the entrance is a huge poster board framed with strobe lights hung onto the opposite wall just below the high ceiling, adjacent to the entry door. “No ripped or baggy jeans, no chapeaus, no athletic outfits, all gentlemen MUST be in their latest footwear,” it reads. Alain takes a sharp look at his clothes as if to vet his own posture. “I’m in full compliance,” he discretely mumbles. His Pierre Cardin brown belt seems to be in perfect harmony with his moccasin pair of shoes and dark socks of the same brand. He swaggers sideways while pushing through the crowd of young people condensed on all sides of dance platform.

The place is crammed to the max, and he wonders how he is going to find a seat. The partygoers outnumber the tables by 10 to 1, and slow-draggers on the dance floor simply remain motionless, their dancing bodies intertwined under the weight and rhythm of this hot Afro-Caribbean beat of Konpa-Zouk Love. The blaring bass makes the room vibrate. Alain stretches his arms downward and glances at his light blue shirt well tucked inside a navy blue pair of pants. He wears no necktie, but a burgundy cotton scarf folded around the nip of his neck and down crisscrossed under a fashionable navy-blue jacket. All of which are the latest from Yves Saint-Laurent.

It’s late March, the beginning of spring when new stems and flowers sprout, but on the hills above Atlanta, the chill has yet to release its grip on communities hidden in the foliage. Around Café Lakay, the cold tightens, and the Zouk lovers take shelter indoor.

Café Lakay is a fashionable hotspot per average standard. It is one of the most stylishly hip lounges around, offering stellar cocktail concoctions, an innovative bar menu, and a seductive blend of music spun by savvy DJs. Every Friday night, the young people rendezvous there for a time to remember. If it weren’t for the overcrowded issue, the place could have been the perfect venue for a comfortable night in paradise, Alain thinks.

He tries desperately to find a seat. His eyes squint and he begins to take aim at an empty stool near the bar, but he has to cut through the dance floor to get there. The multicolored flashing lights on the dance floor make his profile seem shivering, but they are not bright enough to reach beyond the frame of the marble platform. As he pushes his way to the bar, dancing sweaty bodies press and rub up against his clothes. He doesn’t appear to mind; this is the quickest way across the room. Just when he is about to reach the other side, a young woman comes rushing from the opposite direction and hits him on his chest. “Oh, I….am so sorry,” she utters, almost out of breath. “Did I tear your jacket?” She adds. A sudden blush beams on her creamy coffee face.

“Don’t worry. It wasn’t your fault,” Alain says with a grin. But the girl’s coyness prompts him to ask for help. “I’m new to this place. Can you please tell me where I can find a comfortable seat?”

“Comfortable seat? There’s no such thing here. Look around you. Unless you wanna go upstairs.”

“Up where?”

“Follow me.”

Without saying anything further, Alain turns around and threads the young lady down the same alley he has just crossed. He then follows her up to a weather-proofed balcony with clear, glass windows all around which offers a stunning view of the valley below and the twinkling lights near and far and around trees and houses. Here, there are well-heeled, comfy booths to sit and chill. “Thank you mademoiselle, you’ve just spared my life from one of my harshest moments,” Alain admits with a subtle smile. His demeanor betrays him as his eyes revolve to survey his new surroundings.

“Are you new to this place?” The young woman asks.

“Very much so.”

“You can join us here, then.” She strolls across the room toward her boot. Alain follows a pace behind. He is led to meet two other young women at the boot, chatting and gossiping. The chat abruptly stops upon seeing this young man trailing their friend. Their eyes suddenly glue on Alain who looks quite perplexed, but certainly not intimidated by their charms and elegances.

“This is my friend Colette and my cousin Martine, but everyone calls her Bouche-en-Coeur.”

“Bouche-en-Coeur?” Alain questions, bursting out laughing.

“Yes, I’m Bouche-en-Coeur, but only for my friends and close relatives.”

“I see, and I’m Alain Barlatier, a stranger from outer space.” He grins. The girl laughs. Alain then takes his seat near Colette, and his newfound friend sits on the opposite side facing him near Bouche-en-Coeur.

Alain feels out of place not because of the fanciness of Café Lakay, but rather for where he finds himself right now—never anticipated to be flanked so quickly by three beautiful Haitian women. His uneasiness springs from his near-ignorance about the culture of his fellow young people like him whose origins take roots in Haiti. The last time he was in a such gathering was five years earlier in the Parisian suburb of Chateau Rouge at a club near Marché Déjean where a girl named Marie-Jeannine took him on a wild outdoor ballad that almost stole his heart. In Paris, he was in a familiar venue—music, language, romance all blended in a culture he could relate to without a single mishap. He’d wished he were in Paris with these breathtakingly charming young women. He keeps his thoughts to himself, for now.

For a couple of minutes, they all sit there with seemingly muted mouths. Alain’s presence obviously brings the gossiping and laughing into an unexpected, grinding halt—only for a tiny moment, for Colette, the extroverted one suddenly breaks the silence. “Are you from Atlanta?” She asks, facing him with a foxy smile.

“No, I’m from a little farther south,” he replies while Bouche-en-Coeur and the other young lady authentically listen.

“How far south?” Bouche-en-Coeur asks; her forehead wrinkles.

“Hum, I think it’s around 60 miles, not sure.” He then tries to redirect the conversation. “Do you guys live near here?” He is stroking his wavy hair, eyeing on the girl facing him. But she looks sideways, refusing eye contact.

“Not far. Just about 15 minutes from this place,” Colette replies, preempting Bouche-en-Coeur who had opened up her mouth and readied to speak.

Alain is about to throw another question, but rushing footsteps coming from behind disturb him. Two gentlemen dressed in white jackets and bowties burst in and swiftly make a U-turn. Without saying a single word, Collette and Bouche-en-Coeur rise from their seats and follow them. As they reach the tip of the stairs, the departing girls turn around. “We’ll be right back,” they utter in unison. Then they disappear with their friends from the scene.

Alain is now facing the young lady who has just saved his life from the mist down below. He has yet to know her name, but her twinkly hazel eyes muse him. He is not sure whether they are fake or natural, but they shed a feline posture inexplicably difficult to ignore. Her golden hair—pulled back and wrapped in a bun—is of a perfect match with the hue of a milky coffee that molds the frame of her Creole body. She sits upright, and her small firm breasts stretch under the lustrous, twisted woven of her taffeta dress. Her oval visage, adorned by a golden pair of hoop rings, is breathtakingly stunning. She squints her eyes, and his heart leaps from the sudden vibe. He has never felt so vulnerable, like a hunted prey that would choose surrendering rather than relinquishing his rights to stay alive. She throws a smile, and her front shining teeth glitter under the ray of the florescent light bulbs. “So, what’s your name, stranger?” he asks with a repressed smile.

“Tatiana Célestin,” she replies. Her fat, sexy lips coated in red lipsticks pucker while her well-manicured nails fingering on the wooden table. She too feels overtaken by Alain’s out-of-the-norm demeanor, his gentlemanly faultless gestures, his carefully chosen words, his innocent grin etc… There is no blush on her face, but deep inside she feels as trapped as a fly that gets caught in a spider web.

“Are you a regular here? Alain inquires”

“What do you mean?” She utters, grimacing her face, in total displeasure. His statement seems too interrogative.

“Sorry if my question sounds odd. I simply wanted to know if you come here often. I love this place. It’s been five years since I was at a gathering like this.” His eyes widen, staring around the room as if to survey his new surroundings. Then, he continues. “Although I’m not new to Georgia, until now, I knew nothing about Café Lakay.” He is trying to repair the gaffe. Blundering on a first meet dreads him to the core. He senses Tatiana’s uneasiness.

“No, I only come once in a blue moon. I don’t like overcrowded places.”

“I agree. The dance floor is too congested. I have to thank you, personally, for leading me up here.”
She smiles, but does not reciprocate to his thank.

“Macon is pretty far off. How did you know about Café Lakay?”She raises her hands above her head, fixing the bun that holds her golden hair. Her face aglow and Alain feels swayed, wanting to dive into her inner world, her stunningly natural beauty—pure, filtered, and unadulterated.

“A friend from school gave me the address. I was dying to find a place where folks from my ancestral land mingle.”

“You were not born in Haiti?”

“No. My parents met in France, where I was born. I’ve been to Haiti three times, to Saint Louis du Nord, a picturesque town on the northern coast.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard about that town where folks from there never stop bragging about.”

“Really?”

“You didn’t know that?”

“No. What I know about Saint Louis is only what my dad told me and, to some extent, what my cousins who live in South Florida used to tell me when I was younger. I’m not denying your assertion, for I can sense the pride and the emotion each time my father has to talk about his childhood reveries.”

“And you, Tatiana. Were you born in Haiti?”

“Yes, but I remember very little. I came to the US when I was five. I haven’t returned since then. I lived in South Florida for many years, until my folks decided to move up here 11 years ago.”

“What do you do, Tatiana?”

“I go to graduate school, trying to secure a MS in Pediatric Nursing. And you?”

“I’m a Psychology Major at MU (Mercer University).”

Tatiana closely watches his meticulous words, sounding like those of the uptown boys. His demeanor pleases her immensely. He is very assertive of himself with a gentlemanly manner not usually seen from the boys around here. “Your gaze is quite intimidating.”

Comment ça?” He mutters in French. How so?

What?”

Non, non, je’n sais quoi dire.” No, no, I’m speechless.

“My French is a little awkward. You don’t wanna hear it. We can switch into Creole if you want.”

“You don’t wanna hear my Creole, either. It’s too rusty and it’s Martinique-based.”

“You’ve lived there?”

“No. My mom is from there.” He pauses for a second and, without a blink, he asks her a very pertinent question. “Have you ever anticipated of going back to Haiti someday?”

“It’s difficult to say. I think about it sometimes. To be honest with you, I’m dubious on this subject.” She feels the sense of a patriotic guilt. Her head bent down, as she struggles to push the words out of her lips.

“I guess you and I are in the same boat, so to speak. When I was younger, I used to think of Haiti as an ordeal that was only my father’s problem. As I get older, I’m beginning to believe that WE as children in the Haitian immigration, have a historic duty not turn back on the motherland of our parents. It’s true Haiti has a myriad of problems, but I believe they will never be fixed, unless some of us who have the means to contribute stop taking a blind eye.” He quickly switches the subject. This is not the venue to express feeling of sadness. “I think your friends have gone forever,” he adds.

“No, not really. I’m used to them. As they said, they’ll be back, sweaty and exhausted.” She laughs.

He peers into her eyes as if searching for the source of confidence to brave his fear. He doesn’t know her or what pleases her or even what doesn’t. Understandably, he is sticking to the conventional code of humility and kindness. For a half hour, they chat and laugh about what young people usually do when they congregate. One subject, though, remains quite taboo in their conversation: LOVE. What is not said is sometimes what ultimately prevails.

Then, the blaring of a Konpa-love, Rèv Mwen (My Dream), a Misty Jean popular piece, reaches them up on the boot. She loves the piece and she begins to hum over the thrilling voice of Misty Jean.

Mwen pa ka tan lan nwit rive pou’m ka reve-w jan mwen vle
Sa’k nan lespri’m se ke’m selman ki konnen-l……

I can’t wait for nightfall to meet you once again in my dream
Only my mind knows what’s boiling inside, in my heart……

He thinks the moment is right to ask for a dance. “Could I please have a dance with you?” he asks, extending his hand and quivering with emotion. Without releasing a single word, she rises from her seat and, in an agreeable gesture, apposes her right hand to his left one, as they exit their boot and stroll hand-in-hand on their way to the dance floor below.

Halfway down, they come across Colette and Bouche-en-Coeur returning to their seats without the boys. “Wow, this is a first!” Colette exclaims, twisting her neck to face Tatiana going down . “I haven’t seen you heading down this way in a long time.” She continues. Bouche-en-Coeur says nothing. She simply smiles, awesomely. She is happy to finally see her cousin on the road to a new adventure.

Her hand is still locked in his—their fingers intertwined—Tatiana quickens her steps. “There’s a time for everything,” she utters, squeezing Alain’s hand as they step down. She does not look back.

Colette feels disturbed, but she does not dare showing it. Her reddish cinnamon face reddens even more, turning pale and rouge. She has been in the exit wring for some time, for her love is mired with a young man named Ronel Corneille, an eccentric punk from Decatur, who himself has been involved in a secret love affair with a buxom woman in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Every other weekend, Ronel has to make the 200-mile journey there, even as Colette vehemently opposes to the wild adventure and even threatens to leave him if he doesn’t stop. Bouche-en-Coeur understands her ordeals. “The good shepherd is hard to come by. Isn’t it?”

“Not so. He’s downstairs right now, dancing with Tatou,” she affirms. Tatou is Tatiana’s nickname. “I’m the unlucky one,” she continues.

“Dump Ronel and the romancero will come by. But you can’t play the dubious game. Be true to yourself.” Colette does not reply, but the emotion is clearly visible.

Meanwhile, down on the dance floor, the two circumstantial friends are having the time of their lives. It is near midnight, and the place begins to be decongested. Fewer partygoers remain on the platform. Boogieing on down and initiating the momentum, Alain holds Tatou by the waist and she wraps her hands around his shoulders while their feet crisscross, reticulating as they weave to the beat of the Konpa-love. He is not the perfect dancer, but he knows Konpa is not dancehall, and the hips can do the trick as a subtle collision avoidance tool. Tatou’s eloquence and self-assurance looks intimidating. To a point, he lets her lead him through the dance, but maintaining firm eye-contact to camouflage his deficiency. As their bodies swing, and Tatou’s firm posture caves in to his arms, an infinite bliss takes hold of his soul, like the forgotten prince turned conquistador in a stunning wild flickering light. One step backward, he spreads his arms and Tatou’s sharp, voluptuous and feline feature twists, stirs and whirls. Her hips sway like ocean waves in stormy weather, pushing his thirst for this girl to the highest plateau as they merrily dance their night away.

Just below the stairway, Colette watches in mounting anxiety. Bouche-en-Coeur, who stands next her, cannot hide her satisfaction. “Oh, I’m happy for her,” she mutters.

“My heart bleeds,” Colette reciprocates.

“Stop it. Be realistic, not selfish!”

“I know. I’m sorry. I want to make Ronel pay so bad!”

“Not by trading him with another man. You can only do that by simply trash him or flush him from your heart. What good it is to entangle your life with a loser?”

“I guess tonight is Tatou’s night, and I should be excited for her.”

Alain and Tatiana stay glued to the dance platform until it’s time to depart. He has to go, but he feels trapped, pinned down by the incertitude of the next hour. His night would be a complete failure if he lets Tatiana go without a reference point. “Alain, it’s been a pleasure dancing with you,” admits Tatiana, walking toward the bottom of the stairs where her friends wait.

“The pleasure was all mine, but can I ask you a question?”

“Sure.” She turns around facing him. She senses what the question is. She has been expecting it.

“Can I have a phone number?’

“You mean my phone number?”

“Yes. It would be the biggest blunder of kinship if I were to go home without a way to reach you some time in the future. I’m not sure if I…..”

She cuts him off. “What?”

“Never mind.” He yanks into his pocket, trying to get his cell phone, but the phone is nowhere to be found. Then, he realizes he has mistakenly left it in his car. So from his back pocket, he pulls out his wallet and retrieves a piece of paper in which he writes his number. He then holds Tatiana’s hand and offers it to her. Without a sign of hesitation, she grabs it. Tatiana does the same. She hands hers to him. They both then stroll over to Colette and Bouche-en-Coeur near the bottom of the stairs. They chat for a couple more minutes. It is time to leave. They all agree. Few recalcitrant partygoers still linger around the dance floor. They decide to exit. They all walk out together. The ladies watch him making his way toward his BMW while they pace toward their cars. Alain, in a gesture of pure showmanship, waits until the girls drive off. “Oh gosh! I’m exhausted, but I got a number,” he mutters to himself. He is now the happiest soul in the silent night. Within seconds, he is already on I-75, driving south to his home to face another worry, as his parents will surely question him for this long time away from home, especially in wee hours in the morning.

(End of part one.)

Dr. Ardain Isma is essayist and novelist. He teaches Cross-Cultural Studies at UNF (University of North Florida. He wrote this piece to appease the thirst of many of his readers thirsty for a new novel. He can be reached at publisher@csmsmagazine.org

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