"We go out," my friend Humaiya told me one day, "just us married ladies."
"We go dancing. We leave our husbands at home. Sometimes I'm out so late I give the children their morning bath and then go to bed."
Humaiya, like me, has three children. She's a devout Muslim, originally from Ghana but so used to speaking French (her husband's Belgian) that she's lost most of her English. In a country where men are often polygamous, girls are married off as teenagers, and some women are fully veiled, Humaiya is the most uninhibited African woman I know. She's flamboyant, witty, and an incurable flirt. "Mathieu would kill me if I ever cheated on him," she confided in me one day. "And I never would."
Dancing. The idea was so delicious I felt a shiver run down my spine. I've always loved to dance. But I married a man whose idea of a good party is sitting around drinking single malt scotch and talking about Finnegans Wake. The blaring pop music that inspires me to shake my booty gives him a headache. In fact, since we've met I've danced precisely two times: once in grad school when two girlfriends and I got drunk and boogied on his bed, and once at my friend Nathalie's wedding when James took our toddlers back to the hotel and I partied for hours with the groom and his Heavy Metal loving friends.
"I'm going with you next time," I heard myself say. Until Humaiya mentioned it I hadn't realized how much I missed dancing. But then I started to worry: did I still remember how? Would I be the oldest lady in the nightclub and garner a hundred angry stares from nubile young thangs with bare midriffs? Would men hit on me? Even worse, would they ignore me altogether? Did I really want to do this? Wasn't I too old to have "fun"?
That Saturday night I spent 45 minutes at my neighbor Dina's figuring out what to wear. Frilly T-shirt dress with jeans? Too Portland Grunge for an African nightclub. Flowery mid-length sundress? Too Ladies Garden Party. Lingerie-like top and black jeans? Too revealing of my post-nursing-three-children-saggy chest.
I finally decided: black mules, my husband's black Levis with the button-down fly, Dina's black halter top with a halter bra, and a smart purple jacket with a silver zipper that I've had since I was in my twenties.
"It's not too risqué?" I asked Dina. From the front, all I was showing was some neck and shoulder. But the halter top scooped low in the back, revealing a lot of skin.
"It's perfect," she said.
"Us married ladies" turned out to be just Humaiya and me. Since nothing gets started until after midnight in Niamey, we had a drink first. I chose a rum and coke, to keep myself awake. Humaiya smoked cigarettes and gossiped about the waitresses. "That one with the big behind was pregnant recently," she whispered in my ear. "She didn't know who the father was so she had it taken care of."
Normally my life is defined by stress: I'm either at work worrying about my kids, stressing to meet deadlines and prepare classes, or at home worrying about work, stressing to get the kids to bed, make the lunches, sign the homework book. But tonight I was drinking at a terrace bar, watching high-heeled ladies ("They look expensive but those shoes only cost eight bucks," Humaiya said) hanging on the arms of their handsome dates. I was chatting about other people's problems, the world of work and motherhood far from my mind.
After one drink we went to the nightclub below the bar. It was packed with partiers, people like us escaping their everyday lives for a night on the town to "faire la fête." Humaiya knew the owner who ushered us to a reserved section by the bar. The music pulsated in my body -- lively African zouks and Senegalese pop.
"I'm going to dance," I screamed in Humaiya's ear. There was no room on the dance floor so I elbowed my way to the darkened corridor by the emergency exit and I danced, pouring my soul into the rhythm of the music, feeling like the luckiest and happiest woman in the world.
Two guys in front of me, who'd been swaying to the music and watching the dance floor, turned around and began matching their movements to mine. This was why I used to party in gay nightclubs. Dance like a wild woman? Yes. Pick up guys in bars? No thank you.
"You live in Niamey?" the taller of the two asked.
"I'm here with my family," I said.
"Your mom and dad?" he asked.
"No," I burst out laughing. "My husband and three children!"
I guess I didn't look too old after all. We stayed until 4:30 a.m. I danced so much my clothes were soaked by the time we left.
Did I have any regrets? Oh, yes -- especially when my 3-year-old son woke me up for the day only an hour after I went to bed. But then I remembered the feeling of the music in my body, the gossip, and the fun of dressing up -- my opinionated girls rejecting outfits and bouncing on the bed, Dina's 9-year-old adding her two cents, and my 3-year-old flitting in and out of the room.
I waited as long as I could, but it was only 10:00 a.m. when I called Humaiya to see when we could go out again.