Portrait of Mara introduces an extraordinary sequence of events that begin in Nairobi, East Africa, moves to the island of Mauritius and, eventually the USA. Mara, an exotic woman of color, marries international businessman, John Barton. John is unaware that his wife has a latent sexual disorder. The psychosis erupts when his friend, artist Robert Cutre, arranges Mara’s nude figure in a classical pose. The lustful incident tests the sanctity of an already complex mixed marriage, including a family’s disappointment with her marital choice, and a psychotic infidelity. To be sure, two interesting twists, but not the story’s dramatic high points. Mara finds out she’s been living a lie, and breaking down in front of her sisters. Dr. Alston, confesses, “I’m not your real father, your biological parents were Eurasian. You are not an African-American.”
Nairobi Kenya, East Africa
In the wooded area, next to the Nairobi National Railway Museum, are several ancient steam locomotives. They lay around in the weeds like sleeping old sows. One of the relics, a Hedley locomotive built in 1890, is sheltered inside a barn. The engine’s black paint is freshly bright. And the gilt, lacelike decoration around the cab, still has its golden glitter. Coupled behind are its two diminutive passenger cars.
Climbing aboard I sat down on one of the cane-backed seats. While sitting there I envisioned turn-of-the-century travelers, men in belted khaki coats, ladies in simple muslin dresses, intrepid souls who gazed out upon a landscape unlike any in the entire world.
Finished with my reverie I got up and wandered over into the museum. Curiously, I was drawn to an ornate mahogany pedestal. Inside its glass-topped case was a yellowing card, and pasted on it were the scimitar-like claws of a man-killing lion. Below I read the following account:
Reported 1897 British East Africa
The huge predator jumped throughthecar’svestibule causing pandemonium and terror among the passengers. Like a cat would snatch a canary, the lion seized an Englishman, mauling and killing him before the beast was finally shot.
That horrific scene flashed across my mind as the lion landed half on the open Land Rover and half on me. I felt the bone crack as she clamped down on my shoulder. At the same time, her claws ripped into my thigh. She spewed spittle into my face as I smashed at that massive head with my camera, but it was weak and ineffective. I closed my eyes to the horror of it all…and then, mercifully, I slipped away.
1 - KENYA, EAST AFRICA
"Gods and men, we are all deluded thus!"
BARONESS KAREN VON BLIXEN
— From Out of Africa
What in life can be more deluding or self-serving than that of a failed marriage and what can be done to overcome it? The answer is simple: exchange the old disenchantment for a new enchantment; fall in love again. At 30,000 feet I pondered the first unaware of the fact that I was on my way to the second.
Coming from a liberal San Francisco Nob Hill family, I was induced to enroll in a progressive Northern California University, albeit I left that elitist institution before I could sit for a degree. (It was then that I knew I wasn’t going to be the person they wanted me to be). And the reason for leaving was because I refused to be re-shaped by that college’s regulatory structure; teachers whose ethos and personal biases were too radical for me.
It seems that nearly all higher institutions of learning today are given over to teaching materialistic expediency, and I didn’t want to become another barbarian. So I opted to leave and plant myself in a college that stressed career rather than academic programs. As a result, I was able to skirt most of the Humanities whilst majoring in Engineering and Architecture. Now, years later, I was sitting in the dim cabin lights of a British Airways jet, on my way back to Kenya, East Africa.
Four months ago my company, J.B. Engineering, a California based corporation, entered into a joint venture with EADA, the East African Development Agency. At that time, we were awarded a contract to build a food processing plant in Nairobi. Negotiations were determined and strong-minded, for Kenyan’s are tenacious and wily negotiators, but I too can play that game. Not that I believe in throttling a client beyond unreasonable equity, but I do understand the virtues of serving your own interests.
One of the agency’s concerns was that of completing on-time, and I was coming back to see that we would meet our deadline. Our company has never been the litigant in a liquidated-damages claim (legalese for missing a completion date), nor, have we ever been involved in a cost overrun. J.B. Engineering designs and builds factories that process edible products for human consumption—fuel for humanity. On our roster of completed projects is a plant in American Samoa that cans blue fin tuna. Another is a stick margarine facility in Brasilia, and a duplicate of the Samoan operation in Rio de Janeiro. As owner and president, one of my jobs is to monitor our company’s financial worthiness. Another is to see that its internal framework, namely engineering and manufacturing, is the best that it can be. We manufacture equipment to operate these facilities, such as fillers, can making machines, and hydrostatic cookers-the complete turnkey operation. FYI hydrostatic cookers are huge cylindrical vessels that are filled with thousands of cans and then pressurized with high temperature steam. Steam not only cooks the product but also sterilizes the can’s contents. It keeps you from getting a fatal dose of e. coli.
Shortly after my arrival in Nairobi, negotiations were completed and ground was broken. Work was started on the construction of a high-speed food processing plant. One that would be capable of producing more than five thousand lithographed cans per minute…four color, eye appealing, aseptic containers. Cans that would be filled with Kenyan green beans, okra, and stewed tomatoes.
Now, I was returning for the start-up and in the dim lights of the cabin and monotonous drone of the engines I mused over my failed marriage and divorce.
During these interludes, far from marriage’s conveniences, I invented a bogus theory of self-deception. I told myself that due to the remote circumstances, any extramarital affair that happened would be written off as being purely a clinical requirement. At a cocktail bar, or parties, I had my own, veiled, classified ad that professed my requirements: CONCUPISCENT, LONEY WHITE MALE, 6’1’ 175lbs, nice looking, in early 40s. Seeking an attractive female. One who is high-spirited and looking for fun and excitement. Must be intelligent, and trim, whose Body Mass Index doesn’t exceed 24. I certainly didn’t want some roly-poly lover.
Of course, there were times when those extramarital affairs became overly involved and emotional, but most were without guile and were not looking for a long time engagement. To my surprise I found out that such extra-marital dalliances do not work the same way for women as they do for men. However, Kay, my wife’s, came close to it. Kay was one of those women who needed constant adoration. I had met Kay on a cruise to Catalina and found out she belonged to the same beach club as I. The Deauville Beach Club had an Olympic sized pool indoors and one outside in front of the beach. It also had dancing on the weekends. One of the people that I had met there was a man who had a large machine shop. Its success, as a maker of hardware for the aircraft industry, had apparently made it possible for Julian to buy a sleek fifty-foot cruiser. On occasion, he liked to have lively people sail with him to Catalina, and often I was one of the participants. It was on one of these trips that I met Kay who happened to be the sister of Julian’s wife.
In making headway over to the island, there was the constant tossing and movement of the swells. Huddled together on the deck, I quickly found out that she was single, and during the two and half hour cruise, we learned much about each other.
On the return trip, before we had anchored back at the marina, she agreed, to meet me later on for dinner at the club. On weekends, there was dancing and our highflying relationship quickly turned serious. To make a long story short, in no time at all, I asked her to be my wife, and she agreed.
In describing Kay, she was a tall, attractive blond who always drew long looks from men. Knowing this I reasoned, that when I began to travel and was away for long times, she too might adapt to her own kind of self-deception, one that would fulfill her own ‘lonely hearts’ requirement. Strangely, due to the fact that my own extra-marital activities were oceans away, I didn’t have any problem getting back into a normal routine when I came home. However, as I found later, it was not so with Kay. One of her misalliances was revealed by a covert letter, which I happened to open. When I confronted her with it, I was shot down by a hot and tearful defense.
And there was our daughter, Ashley, which made the problem even more complex. It wasn’t good for a five-year-old to witness parental disputes that came close to a physical confrontation. It was apparent that our marriage had been weighted heavily with these negative encumbrances, yet I’ve known marriages that have survived such stressful separations. I knew another international businessman whose wife reasoned, that playing the flesh game out, was better than going through a cruel and costly divorce.
Kay and I both continued to sail along in these dangerous waters. She finding male propinquity a physical and emotional need, while, conversely, I was doing the same in far away places. But as time went on, the insidious circle kept widening. Finally, that which was fated to happen did. While I was on a lengthy project in South America, Kay took Ashley and moved to Palo Alto. She sued for divorce, and not to my surprise, re-married the week after it became final.
I didn’t contest the divorce, which was based on irreconcilable differences and desertion. However, the simple truth of the matter was that Kay needed constant attention, an adoring, uninterrupted relationship, and I wasn’t able to provide it. Marriage, for whatever time it lasts, locks in a 24-7 connection and I felt its loss. It’s a strange kind of loss, a vacuum, an emptiness that comes from no longer having a conjugal regimen. I missed sleeping under the same roof with the same woman, breakfasting and dining with her, even arguing with her. Now I was alone, back in the company of those who are single; an ocean of totally self-oriented individuals, a sea I hadn’t sailed in for several years.
In looking back, the marriage seemed to have ended as quickly as it had started, and now it was over, receding into the past. From that experience, I learned a lot about my erring life, and Kay’s too. The debacle gave me a new set of rules for the road; for sure, I would not let myself become trapped again in a life, wherein, I became snared in a cocoon of deceit and duplicity.
As the engines droned on, the whole mess was a dismal picture and I finally traded it for the lighter memories of my youth. I saw myself twelve years old…in front of our family home…standing with my brother Sam. Between us was my dog, Scotty, an overfed Airedale.
In those days, I spent a lot of my time tinkering with clocks and mechanical gadgets. Then when I was fifteen I shifted that interest to girls. There was Betty Ormsby and Caroline McKaye, who, years later said I was the first boy she ever kissed. And Blanch Sweet who had a twin sister named Sherrie. I was never quite sure which one I was talking to, they were so perfectly alike.
On weekends I went swimming at the beach. I’ve always loved the ocean even though I nearly lost my life in it one time. It happened near Malibu when my pal, Bob McIntyre, and I decided to swim out to what we thought was a raft. When we finally got there, it turned out to be a submerged lobster skiff. It was a long swim and upon arriving, we were totally exhausted. We tried to climb aboard and rest, but just the least weight caused it to sink. It was cold and getting late, and there was nothing to do but turn around and swim back. Halfway there I started to go under, and Bob grabbed hold of me. He held my head out of the water and made me paddle along with him. We finally made it to shore and I passed out on the beach. When I regained my senses I saw that there was a large gathering of onlookers and strangely among them was a priest. I suppose he saw the crowd and was curious. I remembered that he gave me a sip of wine, which warmed my cold body.
As the engines droned on, I thought of my mother, who’s gone now, but I could still see her clearly. Born in Olathe, Kansas, she was a lovely and deeply religious woman who made me go to Sunday school every weekend. The hour in class seemed like forever and I disliked having to wear a suit and tie, but it was her plan to see that I had a high sense of purpose, a spiritual foundation. She was a caring person, and, through her spiritual approach to life, became deeply philosophical. When I used offensive language to describe a predicament, she would say, "You should elevate your thinking…don’t hold evil thoughts."
During the long flight from London to Nairobi, I had plenty of time to think about holding, if not evil, at least disquieting thoughts. I pondered over recent female alliances, break-ups and disappointments, which always left me with a bleak sense of desolation. I remembered my mother saying it’s easy to form strong attachments but hard to put them out of your mind when you lose them. The romantic closures always brought me back to the cold, clear light of reality—where, once again I was alone. I began wondering if I was becoming a misogynist.
Suddenly, the engines were cut back. We were approaching the Great Rift Valley. And looking through the Plexiglas window I could see the blue Ngong Mountains off in the distance. Further west was misty Lake Victoria.
The jet lurched and shuddered as we began our descent to Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Shortly, I heard a grinding, whirring sound. I glanced out the windows and saw that the slats were being deployed. Instantly, there was a blunting reaction as if a giant hand had tugged at the plane. A wing dipped down and the plane’s tossing around brought an anxious silence that settled over the passengers. Some became noticeably uneasy as the big jet struggled to keep a beeline on the runway. I glanced at the old man sitting next to me. Both his hands were clasped to the arms of his seat and white knuckles showed through the thin delicate skin. I gave him a reassuring smile as if I had some guaranteed insight that everything was under control. Then the turbulence smoothed out and the descending glide became straight as an arrow. In seconds, the landing gear was deployed. As we swept past the long white terminal building, there was a chirp and, at the same time, an arresting jolt as we touched down. It was a long flight, slightly over twelve hours since we left Heathrow Airport. I looked over to the old man, and he gave me a relieved grin.
We came to an abrupt stop in front of the main building. Passengers rose up and began gathering together loose items and carry-ons. There was a long line coming from both the business and the aft sections of the plane, and for several minutes, I just stood there queued up with a couple hundred passengers. While ground personnel were attaching deplaning equipment. I realized that months had gone by since I was here last. At that time, I had come with Doug Wilson, our Contract Specialist, and Chuck Bradshaw my Chief Engineer. After discussions over construction costs and scheduling hardware, the contract was finally definitive and Wilson and I returned to the States. Chuck stayed on to oversee the erection of buildings and the installation of equipment. Now that all that had been accomplished, I was back again. The construction crew was laboring away with Kenyan workers and technical personnel. But along with all the new faces and the plant’s pre-operational state, another person was about to enter the scene. A man named Amis Cunningham. Amis was co-owner of a nearby coffee plantation, the harbinger who was bent on derailing my romantic destiny.