She’s 22, I’m 70 — she says it’s my baby… now what?
Love, like, sex, youth, gerontology, gynecology, urology, and irresponsible responsibility: a Haitian who-dun-it
Episode 1. Inconceivable!
“Ansent… Ansent?” I said, diving for my phone and Google Translate. “Wi,” she said, mouth grim and nodding her head in that matter-of-fact way she has. Danise (rhymes with Louise) made a doming hand motion over her belly.
Dani was my Haitian ex-girlfriend, and I got the message without the kreyòl translation. “You mean yon ti bebe?” “Wi,” she said, with eyes lowered at the floor tiles as if it were her fault she was pregnant. Grabbing her hand, we marched over the river and through the woods to the free medical clinic.
I was just days away from flying home to Seattle after 3 months holed-up on this island trying to finish a book. Ile a Vache is a tiny, idyllic island off south Haiti, once the base of pirate Henry Morgan as he plundered the surrounding Spanish and French landholdings.
Small farming and fishing gird the market economy that keeps the Lavachwaz (as the Islanders refer to themselves) more or less fed, but they’re cash poor. Super cash poor. No roads here, no cars — only a few motos, the motorbikes that now seem to plague half the world. The island is a patchwork of microfarms with the three villages connected by a network of footpaths. Boats — sail and motor — haul some to the twice-weekly market in Madame Bernard, the largest village. Otherwise, they walk. And walk.
But for some individual’s solar panels and the generators at the few tourist guesthouses and two small hotels, the Lavachwaz live in the dark. Running water is for those who can afford large, rain-catching cisterns — rich folk, and there are few of those.
But I was one. I was the rich blan who lives on the hill. My rented house had cisterns for a shower; solar panels kept my Ipad and phone charged. I had oil lamps for light. Three meals a week were cooked for me. I lived in all the privilege and convenience my Social Security checks could buy.
The earnest Haitian doctor pronounced the pregnancy test positive. Danise was a month along, he said. I winced. But for my pathetic wincing and the rattle of the palms outside the window, it was quiet in the little room.
“Can you help?” he asked, knowing that as a foreign man, a blan, I could walk away without legal repercussion. “Wi,” I said, shell-shocked. My travel cliche has always been: ‘take nothing but memories; leave only footprints.’ I’d always used that as an excuse for not bringing souvenirs home for loved ones, but if this baby was mine, what I’d left in Haiti was a footprint a mile wide and deep.
That I should be the father, I protested, was, er, inconceivable. I explained (to the doctor who spoke no English) I had a 25-year-old field-tested vasectomy and hadn’t thought about birth control since the first Clinton Administration. And if that’s not enough urology — after a transurethral resection of my prostate (TURP) I have what’s called retrograde ejaculations — the semen goes backwards into my bladder. The Haitian doctor said it was “enposib” I’d impregnated Dani, but by email, my Seattle urologist wrote that it was indeed posib, though the chances were “slender.”
Sweet Jesus. My daughter is 49, my son, 30. I have teenage grandchildren.
I cannot lie: I’d pursued the arrangement for sex, and Dani had been presented to me as a prostitute. This term is unfair to her. There’s no “street” or even street corners on Ile a Vache. There’s sex trafficking in Haiti, but here there’s no obvious culture of prostitution, no drug scene that I could see. I’m sure if these things were for sale, I’d have been approached soon after my arrival. Dani’s hooking was opportunistic, unorganized — maybe not a one-off, but certainly not a lifestyle. It's more about situational poverty.
As a couple, Dani and I were together for maybe a month and a half. More than sex developed in our us-ness. It was fun and funny; I felt a genuine connection despite the age, cultural and language abyss between us.
I’m a widower, and live by myself as a writer. The tugs of this lonesome baseline feed my creativity; I’m not forlorn, but loneliness is what it is. With Dani, I was able to put away some of that… for awhile. Did I mention she was 22 and we had no language? Guess I did.
I made sure she always had cash in her pocket. In the markets, it was expected I buy dresses or housewares, a phone with minutes or whatever Dani (or her mother) wanted. It was small change really, but I struggled to keep her expectations realistic. But what did either of us owe each other in this hybrid arrangement?
As December-May relationships often are, ours was a negotiation. I was nice to her and she’d return the favor. We were generous with each other, but I made no promises of a future as a couple. In fact, I rejected the idea of marriage from the start, despite intense pressure from her powerful mother.
Unlike many East Coast cities, there aren’t many Haitians in Seattle. Would it be a kindness to bring Dani and a baby to live with an old man in a cold and baffling culture so distant from family, friends, and her own rich culture? On the other hand, do I leave a child — my child — to grow up on an island of an island, where not even my checks can buy a good education or first rate medical care?
In my Seattle neighborhood, we’d have Dani in prenatal yoga as soon as she finished her kale smoothie. We’d have the kid on the list for Baby Yoga before she was born. Haiti’s a little different — babies are mostly birthed at home, and prenatal care is uncommon. The excellent free clinic on the island can handle normal pregnancies, but for problems, the Lavachwaz must go to Les Cayes, the little big city 40 minutes away by motorboat. Worrisome for me: Haitian infant mortality is more than 40% of live births. I’m in contact with the doctor… I might know something, if she goes to the clinic, and doesn’t rely solely on the voudou priest or home remedies if she gets sick.
Before this pregnancy, I was to send her to school in Les Cayes for computer training and English. This opportunity is now shelved or perhaps gone forever. My money isn’t big enough to support a child and her mother in school. Haiti lost here. Regardless of paternity, loss of the potential of an employable Dani is sad and hurts her and her family in the long term. I hope to remedy this.
The baby’s paternity is unclear. Is it right for me to offer money only after the child is born and the paternity settled? Although 42.7% of Haitian mothers are unmarried, there’s stigma attached to unwed or single moms in Haiti, so what of Dani’s future on Ile a Vache?
Exploitation — was it going on here? If so, who was exploiting whom? I was caring and generous with Dani throughout our time together; I took her to primary care doc, a gynecologist and two hospitals; I bought her a phone and furniture. What were my responsible options?
I could easily have slid out of this. Her pregnancy, and my alleged participation could have gone no further than the shoreline had I so chosen. But I promised to do the right thing if it’s my kid — I’ll return to Haiti in November or December, and we shall see who’s whose. Between then and now, advise me please, as our story grows apace with Dani’s belly.
Am I a rat with women, a cad, a dirty old man? Before your judgements harden, let me show you around the island, introduce you to the people and the shape of their days, splash you with the colors of the Caribbean, invite you on warm evening swims off empty beaches, and, most of all, let me tell you the story of Danise and me. Earnest, sweet, girlish, womanly, mysterious, fecund, and now pregnant Dani.
Stay with me on Medium as this drama unfolds and crescendos with the help of DNA. It’s a who-dun-it with diverse cultures, ethical conundrums, and an uncertain outcome that could shape entire lifetimes — even generations. I’ll tell the story of Dani and my life in Haiti, make updates as they come in, and wrestle with the issues around my part in this.
And oh yeah: I’ve changed the names to protect the principals, and though this account may include photos of Haitians, none will include the recognizable faces of “Danise” or her family.
Meanwhile, I agreed to a sit-down at my house in the village, Kai Kuk. It was to be a cage match between me and Wilma, Dani’s fierce mama; Toto, her soft-spoken father, and refereed by a very politic and grandmotherly French neighbor-lady, Madame Janeuve.
As gripping as all that sounds, I was not looking forward to it.
Episode Next: Family confab