“There is no Paradise without a forbidden tree, without strict vigilance of all pleasures, without the threat of expulsion. The authentic Paradise is always the one that has been lost, like Milton’s.” — Manuel Vicent
Her name was Cocoa. She spelled it like the beverage, not Jane Goodall’s gorilla. She looked Ethiopian with her cafe con leche complexion, high cheekbones, and yellowish brown eyes—most of the women at the party were Ethiopian. However, Cocoa was from Senegal. She had the poise and the figure of a young woman in her early 20s. He was stunned to discover she was seventeen—the same age as the high school seniors to whom he taught biology.
He was twenty-seven. He had married young and divorced young. He enjoyed living by himself, but had no trouble finding company when he wanted it.
The party was at the Manhattan apartment of his friend Fekade, who was from Ethiopia and was also a science teacher. Ethiopian women drove him crazy and Fekade would tease him about this:
—Don’t marry an Ethiopian girl: she’ll murder you before she allows you to divorce her.
Cocoa was hot. And she was a good dancer. She had brought CDs of Senegalese music—Baaba Maal, Raam Daan, Ismael Lô, as well as many artists he had never heard before. There was an immediate strong attraction, and after spending most of the evening together on the dance floor, they spent the rest of it in his apartment.
He was not unhappy when he awoke the following morning and found her sleeping next to him.
* * *
At first, they would see each other on weekends. They danced at clubs, went to parties, ice skated in Central Park, swam and worked out at the 92nd Street YMHA. They frequently ate at Awash, an Ethiopian restaurant on Amsterdam Avenue near 106th Street. The Ethiopian girls in Awash teased him about Cocoa; Cocoa teased him about the Ethiopian girls.
One warm Saturday evening in June, while they were watching a DVD at his apartment in New Jersey, Cocoa complained about not having air conditioning at her family’s apartment in Manhattan. He invited her to live with him for a few weeks and converted the small guest room into a bedroom and office. She moved in and she stayed.
* * *
Cocoa’s father was an anthropology professor at the University of Dakar. She had gone on expeditions and digs with him since she was a little girl, and she could speak about paleontology and anthropology like a graduate student. His specialty was evolutionary biology, so, in addition to the mutual physical attraction, they shared academic interests.
He wondered if her mother had been Ethiopian because of Cocoa’s skin color and features, but she never spoke of her mother. She lived with family in New York, but would not reveal exact relationships; nor would she at first tell him her address, last name, or any other first name than “Cocoa.” She did tell him that her father had a house in a place called Rufisque, a port city in western Senegal.
She called him “Malaika” which is Swahili for angel and the name of a song they liked that had been recorded by Angélique Kidjo.
Senegal is more than 90% Muslim. Cocoa’s family was Catholic and she attended a Catholic high school on the east side of Manhattan. After she moved in with him, he would drive her to the train station early in the morning so she could get to school on time.
He lived in the very white New Jersey town of Westfield and taught at Westfield High School. Cocoa was the only non-white resident of his apartment building and she was seventeen years old.
Parents of adolescent girls do not like to learn that their daughters’ biology teacher is living with a 17-year old girl. He worried about being fired and sent to prison. He worried about Cocoa becoming the target of racist remarks. Neither fear ever materialized.
He also worried that Cocoa would be accepted by The University of California or some other far away college. But although she was accepted at several good schools, she chose NYU so she could stay with him.
* * *
They had been together for two and a half years when she told him of her plans to visit her father in Rufisque during winter break. He had wanted to take her to Santiago, Cuba where his maternal grandparents still lived. But she told him that she needed to visit her father and that she needed to do it alone.
He hyperbolically described the hideous withdrawal symptoms he would suffer during their three weeks of separation. She laughed, told him she would e-mail or call every day, and warned him he should fear for his life if she called and an Ethiopian woman answered the phone.
He offered to drive her to JFK airport, but she said she had to stop at the apartment in Manhattan to pick up some belongings, so he drove her to the Westfield train station instead. As she got out of the car, she pecked a kiss on his mouth.
—I’ll see you in three weeks, Malaika.
* * *
When a week had passed without a phone call or email, he tried to call her but would only reach her voice mail. He left her brief, but progressively more desperate messages:
—Hi. Give me a call or send e-mail when you find a minute.
—Would appreciate a call or email to assure me that you’re OK.
—Cocoa. Please call me as soon as possible. I’m starting to worry.
When he got back from Cuba, the empty apartment in Westfield exacerbated his angst. He fought to constrain his anxiety when he sent emails:
—Would sleep better if I knew you were all right.
—Miss you. Call when you can.
* * *
She did not return the second week of January as planned. There were no letters, calls, or emails. He did not know the address or even the names of her family members in Manhattan. There was no one he could call to inquire about her.
Fekade put him in touch with some of Cocoa’s friends who provided him with the name and the address of her family. These friends too had lost contact.
He discovered that her “family” had moved and left no forwarding address. He decided to visit her high school and was appalled when the Mother Superior knew who he was. However, she told him that the staff of the school was relieved when Cocoa had moved because they suspected she was suffering from neglect and maybe even abuse at the hands of her “family.”
She further suspected that the people with whom Cocoa had been staying were not really family members, but merely members of the small Senegalese community in NYC and perhaps had been acquaintances of her father.
—Cocoa was healthier and happier after she moved in with you.
She had not heard from Cocoa since her graduation.
* * *
He considered visiting Senegal and appealing to the authorities, but asked himself what authorities could he appeal to? What would he say?
* * *
In February, his emails became non-deliverable because her account was no longer extant. Shortly thereafter, he could no longer call because “the number he had dialed was not a working number.”
Waking up in the morning was like feeling pain overcome the numbness of Novocain following a root canal. Consciousness brought awareness of her absence.
* * *
He had read accounts of relatives of plane crash victims whose bodies were never recovered. He came to understand their need for closure. For years he anticipated the phone call, the email, the letter that never came. It was unbearable to have her disappear from his life this way as if the earth had opened up and swallowed her.
His principal, a gregarious religious woman, would tell him,
—This too shall pass.
But it didn’t.
* * *
After several years, he gave her belongings to the Lupus Foundation. He avoided anything African—music, food, parties, and even old friends. He eschewed all activities they had done together.
He stayed in the same apartment and continued teaching at the same school. He took courses in administration and eventually got a job at another high school as Assistant Principal.
Time ameliorated his pain, but did not eliminate it. A part of him had been obliterated.
The authentic Paradise is always the one that has been lost, like Milton’s. His had lasted little more than two years.