The polished, aged wood cooled her temple, and she exhaled in the form of a long, cleansing sigh. After a long exhausting week, all the energy she could muster was just enough to sit as still as possible and admire the woodgrain in the bar supporting her head. She stared through her empty glass of beer at the distorted images of people laughing raucously in preemptive celebration of the weekend and felt as distant from that scene as the view through the glass made it seem.
She was entering her seventh month working in Botswana as a critical care physician specializing in children. With the longest track record of civil stability of any country in Africa, Botswana had the added benefit of a rapidly expanding economy. Right in the middle of its most accelerated economic growth, the HIV/AIDS epidemic had hit Botswana hard, and the country was responding with a vengeance. As part of a collaborative partnership between Princess Marina Hospital in Gaborone and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, she trained local pediatricians to care for seriously ill children with pneumonia, diarrhea, or whatever else happened to show up on their doorstep. Although the work was grueling, especially when resources became limited, Alex had honestly never been more in her element. At the end of every day, she was grateful to be part of the team learning to care for these children and promote their long-term survival.
After a long week of holding teaching sessions, rounding on the wards, and staying well past midnight to stabilize a few of the sicker children, Alex found herself as she often did on a Friday evening—lightening the burden on her heart with the magic elixir of a good beer.
“Alex …. alexandraaaa!”
Her name resounded, high school musical style, from across the bar. She had always preferred Alex to Alexandra, a name she reserved only for life’s necessary pomp and circumstance. She enjoyed simplicity, brevity, and names that one could utter in a single breath. Her mom, a lover of television dramas, had christened her “Alexandra” after her favorite character on her favorite television show, which she just happened to be watching when she went into labor. Thoughts of her mom brought a twinge of homesickness. Months had passed since she had seen her mom, and she could still clearly see her encouraging yet distraught face through the open passenger side window as she had waved Alex into the airport.
“Alex … Alex, that better be you.”
As if emerging from an underwater dream, she surfaced back to the present. Reluctantly picking up her head, she swung around in her barstool to see one of her favorite people shimmying through the crowd to take the empty seat next to her.
“Hi Rox,” Alex said warmly and was folded into a spectacular hug with her friend and kindred spirit. She had only been in Gaborone for a week when she serendipitously met Rox at the hospital café one morning, both in search of a much-needed caffeine jolt. Rox had ordered a flat white in a wonderful Canadian accent and a voice that made Alex think of warm maple syrup. Alex had sidled over to the counter where Rox was distrustfully eyeing a display of lumpy mounds of fried dough on little plates. Before Alex could get a word out, she whipped her head around, revealing a huge crooked smile, and assessed Alex with a pair of sparkling eyes, made up to perfection.
“I’m Roxanne…Roxanne Clarke. These things look awful. So much worse than last week. Ten times worse than anything I have ever eaten. Come on then—let’s walk down the street. I know a great little place where they sell flat cakes.”
Words tumbled around Alex’s mouth, but nothing actually came out. After an awkward pause, she finally started, “I’m Al—”
“Alexandra Wilde! I know! I heard all about you from Dr. K’s secretary—you know the hospital director guy. Anyway, I am so glad I ran into you. It was meant to be.”
Rox could not have been more correct. They spent the next few weeks grabbing coffee, meeting for drinks after work, cooking awful dinners, and overall becoming inseparably bonded for life. Rox was Canadian to the core but had trained all over the world as an obstetrician. She had finished up her residency in Australia and then hopped over to London for a prestigious fellowship in high-risk pregnancy. Her passion for improving care for mothers and babies in less resource-rich parts of the world had landed her in Gaborone. This was her “single gal gig”, as she put it—working in a setting with a high incidence of complicated deliveries until she met the man of her dreams.
Alex had never met a more thoroughly beautiful individual than Roxanne. Her heart and personality were magnanimous. Outwardly, she was tall and curvy with muscle definition from growing up on a working farm in the middle of nowhere, Ontario. She laughed loudly and loved fiercely and had quickly become Alex’s best friend. She told stories like she was unveiling a movie plot and had everyone hanging on the edge of their seats until she revealed the climactic finish. Much to Alex’s chagrin, she was thoroughly obsessed with the opposite sex and had no qualms showing it. In a room full of people, Rox was the sun.
Ending their hug, they each plunked down on a barstool, ready to settle in for a night of venting, gossiping, and reveling in the fact that neither one of them had work tomorrow.
“I’ll take two more beers, Jeff.” Alex flashed two fingers at the robust, bald man tending the bar. Jeff was the head bartender at the popular local bar where all of the ex-patriates in Gaborone seemed to gather on a nightly basis. The appropriately named “Ex-Pats” had become a proverbial stomping ground for Alex and Rox, who frequently met there on Friday nights to enjoy the music and libations in the alfresco patio under the southern hemisphere sky.
“Here’s to the start of a glorious weekend,” said Rox, tipping back her beer and taking a generous gulp.
“Cheers!” said Alex and let the cold frothy liquid fill up her mouth with foam.
“How was last week?” asked Rox in a slightly more somber tone.
“It was—,” Alex started and had a flashback reel of late nights with crying children weak with fever, sometimes straining to breathe. “It’s over. Let’s just have fun tonight. I desperately need a break from sick babies.”
“If distraction is what you want, distraction is exactly what you will get,” taunted Rox playfully. “I happen to be an expert in the art of making things fade into the rearview.” She pantomimed adjusting the rearview mirror of a car and tossed her blonde bob provocatively.
“Yes … you absolutely are,” Alex muttered, thinking of all the times she had woken up with a throbbing headache after a night of putting things in the “rearview” with Rox.
Rox generated fun and drew people in like shrimp in a net. Where Alex was quiet and prone to pensiveness, Roxanne Clarke was exuberant and lively. She tended to draw in a crowd where Alex was, quite literally, forced to manage the overflow. Not that she minded. Rox was confident and trendy and knew how to create the best smoky eye that Alex had ever seen. Alex was content to be along for the ride.
Running her hands through her long deep brown locks with outgrown layers, she eyed Rox suspiciously. “What do you have in mind?”
“Tequila…salt…limes.” When the middle-aged bartender didn’t respond fast enough, she leaned her voluptuous top-half over the bar and yelped, “Jeff, this is a bloody emergency!”
Four empty shot glasses and a carnage of limes later, Alex’s head was a floating balloon attached to her body with a mere string. The bar had exploded with a hefty crowd jockeying for drinks, and a guitarist started plucking loud rhythmic notes into the air. Her brain welcomed all the stimuli that served to drown out the memories of last week.
“So, Roxy,” Alex said a little too loudly, “how are things with Fen?” Fen was a general surgeon at Princess Marina, or “PM” as the local physicians called it. Rox had been shamelessly flirting with him for weeks, much to his discomfort.
“Fabulous. I have, in fact, been invited on a date this weekend.” Rox gave a sly grin and ran a hand through her textured layers. “We are going to a concert and then out for drinks and then hopefully to breakfast.” Her brilliant hazel eyes sparkled with delight. Rox loved a challenge, and Dr. Fen Mosweu was quiet and intense but ridiculously attractive. She had played subtle predator to his prey for weeks now.
“I’m thrilled for you. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” teased Alex.
“Oh, I plan on doing lots of things you wouldn’t do,” she teased back.
Being the more introverted of the pair, Alex felt herself often living vicariously through Rox’s romantic interludes. Focused and ambitious to a fault, she had never minded being alone. Growing up in a small town with a small life and very little financial comfort had pushed her to rise to an incomprehensible level of self-expectation. She had been born with an enviable work ethic—one that catapulted her to the top of her high school class, then her college class, then her medical school class.
Alex was now completing her specialty training in critical care medicine at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and, in a little over a year, would fulfill her dream of being a pediatric intensivist. She would be able to take her place among the heroes that she so admired, the doctors who walked into the chaotic maelstrom of a dying child and saved a precious life while calming everyone in the process. This opportunity to come to Botswana had been her godsend. Alex had traveled many places to care for sick kids, but here she had discovered a second home. The minute she disembarked from the plane after landing in Gaborone, she inhaled the warm dusty air, and it settled in her soul forever.
“It’s been a while. I am definitely in a dry spell,” whined Rox, bringing Alex’s focus back to the present and the humming bar that had become even more crowded in the last hour.
Alex threw up her hands. “When have you ever been in a dry spell? You might as well be the freaking rain forest, Roxanne!” They both shared a dizzying laugh. “I, on the other hand, have taken up permanent residence in the Sahara…during a drought.”
“You don’t have to, you know,” she said through pursed lips. “You could live a little … thaw the ice for a bit, sister.”
Alex sighed and stared down at the salt, now crusted into a little pattern atop the woodgrain. She felt like a lost cause somehow, but the desire to be intimate had never outweighed her desire to remain invulnerable. Being invulnerable had saved her. Real intimacy came with a price that she could not afford. She picked at the salt.
“But it’s so much fun having a ringside seat to your impeccable shenanigans,” she retorted, not able to keep a smile from gracing her features. A devilish expression crossed Rox’s face, and Alex’s tequila-ridden brain took a minute to process her next words.
“I think it’s time to play the game.”
“The game” was somewhat of a social experiment that Rox had picked up while living in Australia and was her favorite way to torture Alex after a few drinks had muted her frontal lobe inhibitions. Fiercely competitive, she had never deferred a challenge, but this game made her stomach roil. The rules were as follows—one friend chose a guy in the bar for the other friend to kiss. The guy should be unattached with no wedding ring or girlfriends in sight to avoid unnecessary drama, and the kiss must happen spontaneously—without asking for it with words. Whoever received their kiss in the least amount of time was declared the winner. The loser had to buy the drinks for the rest of the evening. Alex always ended up buying the drinks.
“It’s time to end that losing streak, dear. Don’t be the Red Sox or the Cowboys or whatever that team is that loses all the time.” Rox gesticulated into the air with each sports reference.
“Rox, do not pretend you know anything about American sports,” Alex muttered.
“Truthfully, I don’t care about sports...except for the sport of foreplay.” In response to Alex covering her face with her hands, Rox continued, “It is a sport, Alex, with a special set of skills that can be taught…even to an ice queen.” Rox widened her hazel eyes and batted her lashes a few times for effect.
Alex could not help but be filled with an overwhelming wave of admiration for her friend. Her boldness was infectious, and she knew how to accentuate her curves with her outfits, most notably with a large piece of jewelry that led the eye to the top of her cleavage. Tonight, it was a string of enormous turquoise beads.
“Now—choose a man and let me show you how to be the MPV.”
“MVP, Rox. Most…valuable…player,” Alex corrected.
“No, sweetie. Most…powerful…vixen,” said Rox as she slid off her stool and applied a coat of gloss over her petal pink lipstick, all in the same fluid movement.
With her head still spinning from the tequila shots, Alex leaned over in a fit of laughter, tears threatening to leak from her closed eyelids. Abruptly straightening, she feigned intense concentration as she scanned the bar for an ex-patriate that might be up for the challenge. She skimmed over the jacketed businessmen smoking in the corner—too stodgy—and past the unshaven backpackers sharing a table in the back—too dodgy—until her eyes rested on a tall fellow in jeans tipping back a beer bottle while he glanced periodically at the television.
“Him.” Alex pointed toward the sandy-haired loner. “He looks in desperate need of some entertainment.”
As Rox sauntered off to pounce on her prey, Alex ordered another beer and settled in for the show. Upon sensing her arrival, the man turned his full attention to her, as if her face were some sort of homing beacon. She noted a few sideways glances from Rox, one head toss, and a single well-manicured fingertip trailing the man’s muscular forearm. Exactly one minute and thirty-two seconds later, Roxanne’s parted lips were greeted by a second pair of lips, the unsuspecting sandy-haired man shocked by his own kiss. Not surprised in the least, Alex shook her head in admiration. He had not stood a chance. Satisfied, Rox turned, and without a backward glance, strode over and slid into her seat.
“You are a force to be reckoned with,” said Alex, a touch of awe in her voice.
“It’s the lip gloss,” said Rox, winking and intensely dissecting the various groups of men for the next worthy candidate.
“You know I hate this,” Alex whined. “Why do you like seeing me squirm?”
Rox continued to scan the crowd. “Because it’s the only time you do squirm. You are so in control all of the time.” She made actual air quotes with her hands.
“It’s my job to be in control,” Alex grumbled through gritted teeth. “And it’s not easy to turn it off.”
“Consider this a therapy session,” said Rox patiently, “like getting over your fear of heights or spiders or clowns. I will make you do uncomfortable non-Alex behaviors until they feel normal.”
“Since when did you trade in your speculum for a psych degree?” teased Alex.
“Him,” said Rox assuredly. “He is the one.”
“Where?” asked Alex, twisting her head from side to side.
Rox pointed to an elevated patio through the screen door leading to the back part of Ex-Pats.
Dressed in dark jeans and a black t-shirt, he leaned casually on the small outdoor bar with his left forearm. Alex could barely make out his profile but could see that his face was relaxed underneath his dark aviators as he talked on his cell phone.
“Go on, then, love.” Rox nudged her encouragingly and winked. “Don’t take less than a hundred.”
Alex stiffly removed herself from her barstool and began making her way out to the back patio, hearing Rox’s soprano in the background. “Pretty woman, walking down the street…”
She cast a few furtive glances back toward her friend, who shooed her forward like a mother hen. She wished she had opted for anything more glamorous than bootcut jeans and a blue t-shirt that read Baby Blue’s BBQ. As Alex drew nearer to the stranger, she saw that his hair was dark, so brown that it was essentially black, and styled in a messy fashion that made it look like he had just rolled out of bed. His muscles were lean under the black V neck t-shirt, and his jeans hugged his hips seductively. When she ventured close enough, she could feel the heat emanating from his back and could smell the hint of freshly washed skin mixed with a touch of sweat. Alex froze like a gazelle that had just detected the whiff of lion—this man was dripping sex. In the instant that it took her brain to signal her feet to start backing away, he turned and smoothly removed his sunglasses to reveal the most heart-stopping eyes that Alex had ever seen.