My friend Ricci is a bit of an inspiration. She’s reading this so I’ll refrain from using clichés. When we first started at the same newspaper in Sarasota we were instructed by the editor to avoid clichés like the plague.
Like the plague.
The first time I set out to write a novel I started a chapter about Ricci that went something like …
“She was frazzled. Maybe she was nervous, or the opposite of nervous. Now that I know her, I know she’s what my father would call a sparkplug, but like the blue scooter she bought one month earlier from a man in North Sarasota, sometimes Ricci’s would misfire. When that happened if we were there for her, she’d be OK. On her first day of work she took out a watermelon, sliced it in half, pulled out a shaker of salt and doused it right there at her desk.”
We became fast friends. We signed up for salsa-dancing classes. We swam opposite laps in the same lane at the YMCA pool. At Halloween we carved disturbing faces into pumpkins. We took photographs of each other jumping in the air for no reason other than the pictures looked cool. We drank two-for-one vodka cranberry tumblers at the same bar downtown. When I started riding a bike, Ricci got one too. We shared clothes. We fought. The worst fight we ever had was on top of the Ringling Bridge and I swear on my father’s temper, I never fought with anyone like I did with Ricci that day. We yelled at a decibel so fierce passing coots on Bird Key shot us the stink eye. Then we moved on.
When Ricci announced last year she was moving to Africa I never doubted it. Senegal, she said. Dakar, to be exact. She had a plan, but it was a Ricci plan. She’d photograph Senegalese women and freelance for any outfit that would pay while living with an African family in the city. She’d live there for three months, return to the states, move to Chicago and start working for American newspapers again. Two months in she called me using another American journalist’s international cell phone.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I’m going to extend my stay.”
It’s been six months. She’s back in town for just a week to shoot a wedding in Jacksonville. My grill master friend Roger threw her a BBQ Wednesday night and because Ricci’s a tough one to tie down for more than 15 minutes I managed a partial interview.
What American thing do you miss the most?
R: Diet Mountain Dew.
(Roger butts in and says, “That’s a direct affront to me because I forgot to buy you Diet Mountain Dew for the party.”)
What was your biggest worry on the flight back to Sarasota?
R: That I’d be that girl. The ‘This one time in Africa’ girl.’
R: It’s a lot easier though. I don’t talk as much as I used to. In Africa I don’t speak the language fluently so I guess it’s easier for me to stay quiet now.
Has anything changed here in the six months you’ve been gone? (Roger butts in again and says, “Yeah, I got better looking.”)
R: Yes. Roger got better looking.
How do you describe Sarasota to your peeps in Senegal?
R: There’s a lot of money and a lot of white people in Sarasota who don’t dance well. I have a proven theory – the more oppressed you are the better you dance. Dancing and money are inversely related.
What’s it like buying the necessities in Senegal. Like tampons?
R: There are too many choices here. I don’t deal well with decisions, you know that. In Senegal it’s like you have one brand. One choice. I prefer that.
R: The jokes about Islam.
Do you rock that yellow dress in Senegal?
R: The lady I buy vegetables from gives me a hard time if I show my knees.
Is it weird as a journalist to come home to journalists?
R: Being around journalists … you guys listen better. Not to sound like a jerk or anything, but journalists are better listeners. I think there is a greater appreciation here for stories. Nobody’s eyes are glazing over when they see me.
Do the Senegalese have dogs?
R: No. There are no cute dogs over there. Mangy, mangy dogs. Nobody really has pets. Some foreigners have dogs. My friend has a dog but he keeps him on the roof. They’re not as nice to their dogs as we are over here. They kind of have a lot more shit to deal with, you know? Dogs aren’t extensions of their lives.
What’s the nastiest thing you ate?
R: The goat intestine. That process … it was … well, to see the goat alive, being killed, dead and then eaten. I don’t know. It was weird because the night before the goat was killed I had a dream that I died.
Did you use a fork to stab the goat innards?
R: Everyone eats with their hands. But it’s like whenever they pray their hands must be clean and since they’re Muslims they pray fives times a day. The cab drivers keep sanitizer in their cars. And with eating you usually end up eating with everyone out of one giant bowl. At first it bothered me but it doesn’t anymore. Not after I realized how clean everyones hands are.
R: I’m more calm now. I’ve got more faith not just in God, but in myself.