My Star in Africa

I was living in Hollywood, doing freelance rewrites. My divorce was final and my ex-husband was receding in the rearview mirror of my life. My friend Jorah, a dialog coach, called me and told me she could get me onto a project that would put me in Tanzania with her for a month or two.

“Who’s going to pay me to spend a month or two in Africa?” I said. “That’s why Skype was invented.”

“A guy is doing me a favor,” Jorah said. “I’ve got to be on set every day and I want some company when I get off it. I’ve never been to Africa before.”

“I haven’t either,” I said. “I’d love to go.”

“They’ll pay you scale. The film is set in Dar Es Salaam.”

“Where’s that?”

“Tanzania.”

“Where’s that?”

“Just below Kenya. On the Indian Ocean.”

Which is how I found myself landing at Julius Nyerere International Airport on a sunny Saturday afternoon in September, with a Learning Swahili app on my iPhone. A driver was waiting for us, and for a couple of sound men and a locations scout. He loaded our luggage and some sound equipment into the back of a BMW SUV.

The temperature was in the 80s and the sky seemed a lot deeper than in L.A. It was pale blue and full of large fluffy African-looking clouds. We drove for an hour. The locations man, who was returning from a quick trip to Addis Ababa for another movie, told us that the hotel was half an hour from the airport, but the driver took a number of detours around traffic jams. It was my first time in a car driving “on the wrong side of the road.”

The streets were full of buses, trucks, cars, and motor scooters. Lots of folks on foot and bicycle. My initial impression was of a huge variety of short-sleeved shirts. We passed an unending mixture of modern buildings and ramshackle shops, on new roads and old, past empty dirt lots and skyscrapers.

We crossed a bridge and drove up along the ocean, past walled villas and embassies and a white-sand beach, and pulled up in front of the Sea Cliff hotel, on the tip of a peninsula sticking out into the Indian Ocean.

The movie to be made starred a current hot property – call him Justin. Jorah didn’t know much about him personally, other than that he was engaged to another star – call her Deborah. I liked Justin onscreen but had never met him or even seen him from a distance on the L.A. lots. Deborah was a high-visibility young actress favored by the paparazzi.

Jorah and I passed a quiet, jet-lagged first evening in the hotel bar. The next morning our crew was driven down in convoy to a temporary studio in the city, that would be used as a base for the location work. I wouldn’t be involved in the excursions to Kilimanjaro or the Serengeti. In fact, it appeared that I wouldn’t be involved in anything at all. I was there as Jorah’s gofer. She told me to take the day off for myself.

As I was leaving the studio, the power cut out. Howls from the gaffers. Electricity was rationed in Dar Es Salaam, or “Dar,” as the crew called it, but it came back on again as the door closed behind me.

I spent the day walking. Our travel secretary had told me that Dar was safe, even in the low-income areas, except for some pocket-picking and purse-snatching. According to local crew members, the citizens didn’t trust the police and took the law into their own hands when necessary. Either fear of the vigilantes or the local ethical code kept street crime to a minimum. I didn’t have any problems walking alone. The day passed with African sights and sounds, local food, and plenty of exercise. Crowds and traffic filled the roads and city sidewalks. The city was incredibly alive. Locals, Indians, Arabs, ex-pats, and back-packing tourists abounded.

It was warm, but not oppressively so. I had no problem with weather in the eighties.

I’ve always been quick with languages and I began building on my Swahili app.

When I returned to the set, evening was upon us. Cast and crew were making plans to sample the local nightlife in districts away from the center of the city. I told Jorah that I was ready to go back to the hotel.

“But keeping me company is what I brought you for,” she said.

“I overdid it today,” I said. “Give me a pass, just this once.”

“I don’t think anybody is going back to the hotel,” she said.

“I can give her a ride,” Justin said. He was walking past us.

Joran glanced across the room at the AD.

“I might have a date anyway,” she said.

Which put me in the back seat of a Mercedes, riding back to our hotel with the star of the movie. According to Jorah, Justin didn’t have a reputation as a lady’s man, but he was so popular and so handsome that I assumed he was used to having his way with women.

We chatted about this and that. I held back a little because I didn’t want to encourage a situation later. Not that I thought he’d be interested, but he seemed to be paying attention to whatever I said. Maybe he was just a good listener.

“Shall we stop for dinner?” he said.

“Sure.”

“A good place for dinner?” Justin said to our driver, a local man with limited English.

Just for fun, I repeated the question in my broken Swahili. The driver laughed.

“OK,” he said. “I know.”

We crossed the Selander bridge, passed the Russian embassy, and stopped in Oyster Bay at a restaurant obviously designed for tourists, ex-pats, and diplomatic staff. The cuisine was Western. We had a view of the ocean and in the light of dusk we could see a line of ships waiting their turn at the city’s port, which was too small to handle them all at once.

“Dar has been growing fast,” I told Justin. “It’s straining the infrastructure. Rural Tanzanians are flocking to work here. The neighborhoods on the periphery are expanding. It’s why the electricity is rationed.”

“You’ve been busy,” he said. “Jorah told me you haven’t been to Africa before.”

“That’s right. Have you?”

“I’ve made a couple of movies here. Never in Tanzania, though. What do you think of the city after your first day in it?”

“I’m not in Hollywood anymore.”

We sat gazing out at the Indian Ocean, drinking dawa cocktails. Dinner arrived.

We talked about ecology and the planet’s woes, but eventually the conversation turned to our relationships. I mentioned that I was recently divorced.

“Are you still friends?” Justin asked.

“We were never friends,” I said. “It just took me a while to realize it.”

“I can understand that,” he said.

I raised my eyebrows.

“I’ve had a couple of drinks and I don’t know you,” he said.

“Meaning, you’re about to tell me something you shouldn’t?”

“Deborah and I met on a shoot. A romantic comedy. By the time it wrapped, I thought I was in love. The next thing I knew, we’d set the date and announced it.”

“And…?”

“She isn’t the character she played in the movie.”

I had no way of knowing whether this was true, or whether Justin was just manufacturing a little wiggle room for later in the evening. Not that I was going to fall for it if he was. He was convincing, but then, he was an actor.

Whether drink had loosened his tongue or not, his words reminded me that I was worried about The Moment. I sensed it coming – during dessert, or in the car, or back at the hotel. The Moment when the handsome star would expect me to help him finish off his day in bed.

Poor Justin. Engaged to one of Hollywood’s sweethearts against his will.

“What’s the matter?” he said.

“Nothing. Why?”

“Your expression changed.”

“I shouldn’t talk about my divorce when I’m drinking. Have you been married before?”

“No.”

“Engaged?”

“No.”

“But Deborah has?”

“Yes.”

“Why don’t you tell her the truth? That you aren’t sure, or that you’re sure you aren’t sure?”

“As a matter of fact, I’m going to.”

“Just haven’t gotten around to it?”

“I’ve been avoiding it. Dreading it, actually.”

“Call her tonight.”

“I need to be sober.”

“You’ll be sober before you go to bed.”

He thought for a minute. Or was that calculation?

“You’re right,” he said. “I will.”

Had I prevented The Moment or ensured it?

The meal was excellent. I made the driver laugh again on the way back to the hotel. Justin and I walked into the lobby together. Rode up the elevator together. Walked down the hall together. At my door, he thanked me for the evening. He thanked me for my advice about Deborah. He told me that he’d see me in the morning. Said good night. Walked away.

So much for The Moment.

I wasn’t the evening’s conquest. I was a bedraggled freelance rewriter on a boondoggle.

The second day passed like the first. I explored. When the day’s shoot ended, Justin and I again left together and stopped for a drink and dinner, in a different place along the way. Justin reported that he had called his fiancee, but when she sensed where the call was going, she refused to talk about it until he returned to California. He was totally believable as he told me this. I was torn between my attraction to him and my aversion to being the catch of the day. Or the catch of the second day.

Although, if I were to be that, Justin didn’t seem to be fishing very hard. I tried to accept our time together as just that. Time together. Ships passing in the night. He was so darn attractive, though. Intelligent. Engaged in the world. Such a nice guy. Maybe.

In the days that followed, I learned to use the dala dalas, which will take you anywhere in the city for a dollar, hence their name. I made my way around the outer districts – explored the elegant ones and those overflowing with immigrants from the countryside and those with concentrations from India, and Asia, and the Near East. The city was alive. New buildings were going up everywhere next to old. Office workers, street vendors, tourists, a multinational bustle. Signs in English and Swahili. Warm air. Food.

Justin and I ate dinner together four nights of the seven that week. For me, it became the essential part of the day. Jorah had her own thing going with the AD.

Monday evening, a week and two days in, Justin emerged from makeup with a gauze patch taped to his forehead. He had been doing one of his own stunts and got conked by a two-by-four. The studio brought in a local plastic surgeon to stitch him up.

“Deborah called me today,” he said at dinner with me that night. Instead of heading toward the hotel, we had asked the driver to take us to a popular Khoja Indian restaurant. We ordered yoghurt curry and were drinking a good South African Pinotage with it.

“Yes?” I said.

“The media has discovered us,” he said.

“Us?”

“You and me. ‘Justin Plays While Deborah Steams.’ We’re an item.”

“Oh, my,” I said. “You explained to Deborah of course.”

“I tried to.”

I looked down. One glance at my eyes and he’d see the excitement in them. I couldn’t help it. But Justin was doing more than glancing.

“Hey,” he said. “Look at me.”

I dragged my eyes up to his. This wasn’t The Moment I had anticipated that first night. This was that other moment. The one where your heart is stuck in your throat and you step outside yourself for a moment and feel like jumping up and down and shouting or falling down and weeping in a heap.

“This kind of snuck up on us,” Justin said.

Us.

I nodded, but who was I kidding? I lit the torch I was carrying for this guy the first night we went out.

He took my hand across the table.

“How do we want to do this?” he said

I was concentrating on the feel of my hand in his, the warmth and pressure of his palm and fingers. I was storing up the memory.

“Let’s think about it,” I said.

We finished the meal, making small talk. How had this happened? How was it possible? We held hands on the way out of the restaurant, but not in the car.

When we got out at the hotel, I stopped him. It took me a minute to speak.

“I should fly home, tonight if possible,” I said.

“Not my first choice,” he said.

“You get to make the next choice,” I said, “when you get back to L.A.”

That night on the plane, alone in the dark at three in the morning, I checked my heart. It hurt. I checked for hope in it, and found some.

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2 Responses

  1. Is this a true story?!

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