My mother dragged me halfway around the world just to see a fucking desert. She had an affair she was stupid enough to confess to Dad, and then a complete mental breakdown and mid-life crisis when my father dumped her for—get this—his secretary. So here we are in the ruins of a thousand-year-old fort in the middle of a desert in a country nobody has heard of in Central Asia.
It’s close to sunset now and Tamerlan, our tour guide, has led us up a hill to stand on a mesa edged with red adobe walls, pocked and eroded like a sand castle after the tide has washed in. He strides to the edge of the fort and the tour group follows him. The walls crumble down a dizzying drop.
Tam is the only good thing about this tour. His cheekbones are so sharp and high that I want to cut my tongue on them. He’s probably ten years older than me and his ass looks good in his jeans.
One of the British tourists—an assistant headmaster whose parents picked the most British name they could, because, really, is anyone named Ian at home—has been monitoring the temperature at every stop and plucks his thermometer from the shade of a crumbling wall. He says, “45 degrees Celsius.” That just means it’s fucking hot because who even knows or cares what Celsius is.
As if the temperature reading were her cue, Mom slaps my hat on my head. She’d bought us matching blue wide-brimmed travel hats before the trip.
“Sunscreen,” she whispers and tries to stick a tube into my hand. I ignore her, yank a misshapen brim down over my forehead, and move away from her to stand next to Tamerlan.
In a blue polo shirt and Levi’s, he isn’t even breaking a sweat, even though he’s toting along a briefcase slung over his shoulder to carry the money he needs to bribe people or pay entrance fees or buy us dinner because no one takes credit cards here. He squats on his heels and shows us pits that were once rooms and scars on the walls from statues. I feign interest at the stupid holes and bend down, the V-neck of my T-shirt gaping. I wore a white lacy bra today; it makes me feel naïve and innocent. Tam turns to say something to me, but his eyes fall on my cleavage. A slight blush stains his cheeks and he looks away. If Mom only knew.
Tam stands up and I do the same. He stares at the desert without sunglasses, squinting against the glare. On a lower plateau is the yurt camp we’ll stay at tonight. The desert stretches to the curve of the horizon, the red of dried blood. The thin ribbon of a highway carves through, the white line dividing lanes cut by dunes blown onto the asphalt. From here, the whole world is desert.
The tour group crowds around Tam. He points to a smaller ruin perched on a hill beneath us. Crenulations top portions of the walls like worn molars.
“Archeologists believe this ruin was look-out to watch for invaders.”
Behind me, Ian says to Mom, “Summer and you look like sisters in those hats.” He’s in his fifties, traveling “sans wife.” He reminds me of that chef on television who goes to different countries and eats bugs and intestines and makes snarky comments. That chef is hot for an old guy, but Ian is not as good-looking, uses way too much product in his hair, and smells like unfiltered Russian cigarettes.
“Well, thank you,” Mom says. Really? This guy has got to be putting her on. We have the same blonde hair (she dyes the gray out) but she’s so much older. If she believes Ian, I’m obviously a better judge of character than she.
Tamerlan says, “Fort abandoned more than thousand years ago. Archeologists found evidence of huge battle, probably with a Mongolian conqueror years before Genghis Khan, Isfan Khan.”
“Can you believe where we are? Traveling is brilliant,” Ian says.
“Isfan was ruthless. Leader of the town executed. Molten silver poured into ears and eyes.”
“I feel—so free,” Mom says.
“Townpeople’s heads would be piled into huge pyramids and left to birds and sun.”
“So true,” Ian says. “On vacation, I can be exactly whom I am instead of pretending.”
I give her a dirty look. She twists a ring around her middle finger, the wedding ring my grandmother left her, with a square emerald flashing against white gold. Playing with the ring is a new habit after the divorce. I don’t know why she wears it. An appraiser told her the emerald is just glass.
Another British tourist, wearing a dorky vest with a lot of pockets, says, “According to the guidebook, the fort was abandoned because a river shifted course.”
“Guidebook outdated,” Tam says.
I won’t have to deal with Mom or this tour group much longer. Tomorrow, we fly back to Tashkent—probably in some scary ex-Aeroflot plane—and the tour ends.
But that means my time is running out to seduce Tam.
The British snap photos of the view. I walk to the center of the fort, to a hole dug out like a shallow grave. It’s kind of cool to be in the center, with everything happening all around me, until Ian and Mom follow. Can’t they leave me alone?
As they come closer, Ian says, “Madeleine, why did you choose to vacation here?” Everyone asks that question: the gold-toothed teacher we met in Tashkent who wanted to “practice his English,” the teenager who took our photo on her own camera in front of some ugly-ass statue, the tour group. Everyone’s amazed we’re here willingly.
I wonder what kind of spin Mom’s going to put on our trip. If she told the truth, she’ll have to talk about her affair—I can’t even imagine her having an affair, I didn’t even think women her age had affairs—and about Dad dumping her. She’ll have to tell him about all her ridiculous self-pity, refusing to get out of bed for days, canceling her classes, and waiting until her hair was greasy dreadlocks to wash it. She didn’t cook or pay the bills. I did everything. And then, after about a month, she started collecting brochures of tours to Central Asia. I thought it harmless. She talked with a false brightness; I suspected anti-depressants. Insisted that everyone call her Madeleine instead of Maddy, the nickname even her students used. It was not until she paid the deposit and handed me flashcards with key Russian words (water, please, coffee) that I knew it was serious.
“Oh,” Mom says, “I’m interested in Islamic architecture.” The breeze blows her crepe skirt against her legs. She’s dressed to avoid any contact with the sun—long-sleeved peasant shirt and a hippie skirt she bought at Venice Beach.
“And you, Summer?” Ian’s smile reminds me of the Cheshire cat.
If Mom wasn’t there to catch me lying, I’d tell him my great-grandmother escaped the Nazis by traveling east from Poland to Tashkent. It’s harrowing story. I’ve told it several times.
Mom doesn’t let me answer. “After the divorce, we needed some girl time together. We used to be so close,” she says. When I was younger, and Dad was working late, Mom would lie in my bed with me as I fell asleep, her voice rising and falling as she told me fairy tales. Curled against me. She would tell me she wasn’t sure where her body ended and I began. I could feel a rope knotted around my ribs tying me to her.
“What sixteen-year-old gets to go on this type of vacation? You’re lucky,” Ian says.
“What sixteen-year-old wants to go on vacation with her mother?” I walk away. I don’t want to see her face. In one of the fairy tales she told me, a witch cast a spell on two sisters: when the good sister opened her mouth to speak, diamonds and roses fell out, when the bad sister spoke, toads and snakes. Sometimes I don’t know which daughter I am, which daughter I want to be.
The sun sinks lower. We make our way down the hill from the fort, the older British lagging behind in their sensible shoes, my mother in the middle, and Tam and I up front. The path crumbles into loose scree. Wind feels like a blowdryer set to high.
I wear my own sensible hiking sandals, the kind college kids wear home from Berkeley. Mom bought them and they are the ugliest shoes I own. But they are great hiking shoes. The British slip on the path; my feet are steady. I pretend to stumble on some loose rocks, leaning into Tamerlan to keep my balance. He steadies me with his arm. His touch is solid and I feel slight heat coming off his skin. He smells like the almond-scented pink liquid soap in school bathrooms.
“I didn’t think you’d trip in those shoes,” Ian says. I wonder how much this guy notices.
“Why don’t you go talk to my mother instead of bothering me,” I say.
Silhouetted against the lavender sky, a raptor surfs a thermal. Tamerlan sights it with his hand. “Eagle.” The tourists stop behind him.
“Seems too small to be an eagle,” says Ian.
Although I hate to agree with Ian, Tamerlan is wrong. I may not know the difference between a madrasa and a mosque, but I know the bird is too small to be an eagle. I’m not sure if Tamerlan is playing the British or truly can’t tell an eagle from a hawk.
I give Tam a gift. I invent an eagle species. “It’s a juvenile crest eagle,” I say. “You can tell from the scalloped striations on the stomach.”
Tamerlan nods at me. He accepts my gift. He knows I’m lying. “They live in national park, protected Turgai forest. Not far from here.”
“Lovely bird,” Ian says. “Emma, I didn’t peg you as a birder.” My name isn’t Emma. He only calls me that because I’ve been dragging Madame Bovary around as assigned summer reading.
“There’s a lot you guys don’t know about me.”
Behind us, ragged breathing. “Tamerlan,” says the woman married to the vest guy. She has the posh accent women have in movies based on Jane Austen novels. “The itinerary says that we can have camel rides here. Where are the camels?”
She hasn’t noticed the camel shit on the side of the walkway, although we’ve seen no camels.
“They’re dead,” Tamerlan says. His voice is short and clipped. He doesn’t want to be bothered with camels, talking to the wranglers, arranging rides. He’s playing them.
And I am playing Tam.
A few days ago in Samarkand, Tam presented the Registan to us like it was a big deal, but it was just three madrasas with minarets and turquoise-domed towers standing on three sides of a plaza. It was only the second city of the tour and I was already sick of old buildings starting with “M.” Tam called them the “M&Ms” although there are actually four categories: mosque, mausoleum, minaret, and madrasa.
We followed Tam into the madrasa decorated with mosaicked stars. Tam led us to a narrow store near the entrance, telling us it sold “traditional clothing.” “Traditional” must mean clothes for either drag queens or Jewish grandmothers living in Florida: bright ikat silk robes, sheep fur hats, and long coats embroidered with metallic thread. Almost everything sparkled.
Tam stood in the doorway looking cool as usual, blocking the breeze. My mother sweated under the blue tie-dye scarf she wore inside every historical building, although Tam said it wasn’t necessary. I penciled my hair into a bun.
“Before USSR,” Tamerlan said, “if woman went out of house, must wear horsehair veil and cape. A paranja. Like Afghani burqa.” He held up a black veil. Over his arm, a cape of forest green velvet spilled to the stone floor. “Anyone want to be model?”
I stepped forward. “Sure.”
“Ah, I’ve finally got Summer’s attention. Clothes, but I think not your style.” I wore a sleeveless shirt and a calf-length skirt Mom believed was proper for a Muslim country, but I rolled the waist so the hem was over my knees.
The old Brits laughed. They think he’s hilarious.
“Can I?” he asked, pulling the pencil out of my hair. The bun unraveled. It was an oddly intimate touch and, for a second, I couldn’t breathe. And then warmth rushed between my legs.
Tam winked and set the veil over my head and face. It fell to my hips. He placed the green velvet cloak over my head, draping it down. I couldn’t see my feet unless I held the veil to my stomach. The horsehair made my face itch.
“Come look in mirror.” He turned me around, his hand light on my shoulder.
Looking through the horsehair veil was like peering through smoke. I was a green and black blob.
“It is said that Timur first one to make wife wear veil,” Tamerlan said. “Builder of mosque kissed wife’s cheek and left burn mark. Timur forgave wife, but made her conceal shame with veil. But that is just story.”
“How horrible!” said the woman with the posh accent.
“Think of the women who still wear these,” Mom said. I don’t know why everything has to be a lesson.
Tam said, “Soviets made women burn veils. Words from official Uzbek Communist Party ‘poet.’” He used the air quotes I taught him a couple of nights earlier. “Uleg Beg Rakhim, who was told to make poetry about—what you call it? women’s lib?—‘Burn the horsehair / Old ideas spiral into sky like smoke / Let our sisters stride beside us.’”
In the mirror, I was an anonymous shadow—no face, no body, no legs. I felt as if something slipped from me and panic rose from my stomach, although I’ve never been claustrophobic.
“Help me take this off,” I said.
Tam lifted the cape and veil off. He winked at me again and smiled. A wholesome, innocent smile, a little shy and crooked. I’ve seen it before on other guys.
I smiled back.
Ian moved close to me. He hadn’t spoken to me yet during the tour and asked, “How did that feel?”
Instead of saying, “What’s it to you,” I told the truth: “Scary. No one could see me.”
“Ah, you like being seen, do you?” Ian asked.
I couldn’t tell if his tone was kinda pervy. “I also like seeing,” I said.
“Summer, are you feminist?” Tam asked.
Being a feminist is so 1970s. As if anyone is one now. I shrugged.
Mom said, “Of course she is. Aren’t we all?”
“Of course,” Tam said. He handed the paranja to the shopkeeper and led us through the madrasa.
In the middle of the courtyard, bird cages with parakeets hung from branches of mulberry trees. Tourists sat around reading guidebooks in French and Korean; I hadn’t seen any other Americans. A guy walked with a Russian girl; her snakeskin skirt barely covered her ass. I don’t know why Mom made such a big deal about wearing long skirts to respect “local customs.” Even the guidebook said Russian girls dressed like sluts. Case in point.
Mom played with grandma’s wedding ring. A pale brown mark stained the back of her hand and the skin had started to get crinkly and thin.
“I can’t believe that skirt. I used to wear nothing but short skirts, but not that short.”
I didn’t remember her wearing anything but long skirts. “That must have been long ago.”
Her lips straightened into a line; I’d upset her. But she just said, “In my twenties I vowed I’d never wear a skirt under my knees, and then I woke up about fifteen years later realizing everything I had was long. And now I can’t wear anything short.”
Her voice shook a little. She does have pale purple veins on her calves. Maybe she should wear a paranja.
After we return from the fort and the sun sets, we eat inside one of the yurts. The yurt is a patchwork of uneven pieces of felted wool. Even though the wool has been peeled back to expose the frame and a slight breeze blows through, it isn’t enough to cool the yurt. I’ve winged my eyeliner, dressed in a halter top with a plunging neckline, a long hemp skirt (in my pocket, a condom, just in case), and a pair of silver bangles Mom bought me at a bazaar because I fell in love with the sound they make. Small raindrop charms ring at the slightest movement.
I’ve maneuvered to be next to Tam at one table; my mother’s a bit further down, with Ian between us. We sit on cushions on the floor around the low tables. I don’t understand why they couldn’t’ve brought some folding tables and chairs into the yurt. The brochure had promised to give us “an authentic nomadic experience,” but it can only go so far. After all, this yurt camp is here only for tourists to pretend they’re nomads.
Christmas tree lights hang on the walls and across the supports. The woman with the posh accent claps her hands in excitement and calls them “fairy lights.” They’re the kind that when one bulb burns out, the ones after it burn out too, so half of the lights are dark. Everything about this country is always done half-assed, as if someone stopped caring in the middle of the job.
Scattered around the table are small plates of those chalky pastel colored mints old people always have, circles of flatbread, and cold salads of vegetables no one ever likes: eggplant, beets, and cauliflower. “What are we having for dinner tonight?” I ask Tam. I know the answer though. It’s what we have most nights.
“Plov. You like?”
Plov’s a poor excuse for a national dish, just rice, shaved carrots, and gristly mutton, and, if we get lucky, some chopped dried apricots.
“Yes,” I say.
I must not have been convincing, because he bursts out laughing. He leans close and his breath smells like mints.
“Tomorrow, you go to Russian restaurant in Tashkent. There will not be plov. That will be sweet, yes?”
“Yes, sweet.” I’ve been teaching Tamerlan American slang. Although he spent a year at an American high school and supposedly worked at an investment bank in Manhattan, he’s woefully lacking in his ability to talk to a person younger than fifty.
“Sweet,” he repeats. His eyes are the deep brown of the deer that eat Mom’s roses at home. I press my thigh against his under the table, so slight that he could mistake it for an accident. For a second, between one long breath and the next, he leaves his leg against mine, the pressure sending a shiver up my spine. Then he shies away, gestures to one of the waiters.
The waiters parade in, holding platters mountained with rice and meat. No dried fruit this time.
The woman with the posh accent asks Tamerlan about the local ethnic group.
“We are all Uzbeki,” he says, which is how he answered her question, at the beginning of the tour, if he was Uzbek or Tajik. She should have known he wasn’t Uzbek anyway since he doesn’t have any gold teeth. “People here are poor and backward. Although illegal, men still sometimes kidnap girls to avoid paying dowry. In olden days, by horse. Now, by Lada. After a night together, they are married.”
“Are the girls willing?” Mom asks.
“Sometimes, sometimes not.” Tamerlan shrugs.
“Do girls ever kidnap men?” I ask. Mom purses her lips.
“Perhaps when you get home, you start fad.”
On the other side of me, Ian asks, “Has Emma Bovary taken that carriage ride yet?” His nostrils flare. One long nosehair curls like an earring.
I could care less about who Emma fucks in a carriage of all places. I’ve already looked at the ending and cannot wait until she kills herself.
“Isn’t an assistant headmaster a vice principal? You know, the guy the students always hate?” I turn away, but not before I see him smile like he enjoys my insults.
A waiter turns on atonal pop music. Tam passes out shot glasses. Mom leans forward over the table and frowns at me. At home, she does not drink. She holds up one finger, and, just in case I don’t get the hint, whispers loudly, “Only one.”
Tamerlan pours shots from a bottle with a Russian label, a picture of a cheesy onion-domed church on it. I don’t recognize the brand and it is not chilled. He stands up and we raise the glasses in a toast.
The vodka tastes horrible but I want to impress Tam. I drink down the shot in one go without coughing.
Mom sips her vodka like wine. She’s put mascara and eyeliner on and for once doesn’t look like she’s trying to relive the summer of love, a year she wasn’t even old enough to enjoy. She’s wearing one of my shirts, without my permission, and it looks far better on me.
“Georgia, I think, is our next trip.” Mom leans towards Ian.
“I adore Georgia! The icons are exquisite.”
I don’t understand this fascination with ex-Soviet backwaters. And why would she care about icons of bearded old saints? We’re Jewish.
My mother pushes back her hair. It’s a gesture my friends call the Patented Summer Flip and I can’t believe she’s using it.
“Have another shot, Madeleine.”
“I haven’t even finished this one. And I’m such a lightweight.” She clinks her glass against Ian’s and downs the rest of her shot. Ian gestures to Tam to refill their glasses.
Tam touches my bare shoulder. “Another?”
My mother talks in a low voice with Ian and does not pay any attention to me.
I hold my shot glass out. My bangles clink together, a clear sound. I like the sound they make: it makes me feel solid, as if I’m not going to disappear.
The vodka he pours into my glass is from another bottle, this one covered in perspiration, with a different label: an image of the Registan. He fills the shot glass almost to the brim.
“The good stuff.” He sticks the bottle under the table, away from me. The vodka is chilled thick. It tastes exactly like the bad stuff.
He moves the bracelets up and down my arm so they chime. “These are bracelets brides wear as dowry.”
This time when I press my thigh against his, he doesn’t move away.
After dinner, there’s Uzbek dancing. Tamerlan is the first to dance. He needs to show everyone a good time. Tamerlan’s graceful and fluid and what’s cool is that at home a guy his age would be embarrassed to dance like this in front of strangers, but he’s not.
The British should be embarrassed. They are all awkward limbs that don’t move in time with the music. The men flail arms and need to be avoided. My mother is no better. She dances close to Ian and moves her hands as if she’s seeing tracers.
“Dance with us,” says Ian. I roll my eyes at him. He grabs my arm; his fingernails are a little too long and dig into my skin. I shake him off. “Feisty, aren’t you, Emma.” His voice is low and no one, not even my mother, would hear him under the pulsing pop.
Mom doesn’t take her eyes off Ian.
I watch Tamerlan’s perfect arms and fingers. I lean to his ear and whisper, “I’ll be under the canopy.”
He nods. He’s not even sweating. His eyes scorch me as I move away. My hips sway more than usual.
The kitchen shack is outside the dining yurt; two waiters squat near its side and smoke cigarettes. A few bare bulbs gleam over the kitchen door, on the cinderblock outhouse, and between the yurts, creating small halos in the dark.
Mom follows. Maybe she bought me the bangles so she can always hear where I am. Her eyes are bright with vodka.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m hot.” I pretend to be sober.
“Don’t wander away.”
I wonder if it’s okay to leave her alone with Ian. “I think you should be careful of Ian. He’s kind of creepy.”
“What do you mean?” Mom says.
What can I say? That I have a feeling? That he talks to me about the sex scenes in Madame Bovary? Mom would blame it on my “imagination,” And maybe I’m wrong, maybe he’s just being British, not super creepy.
“Has he done anything?” Mom asks.
I’m walking a fine line now, convincing her to turn Ian down without getting put in lockdown.
“It’s just a feeling. He’s married.”
“He and his wife have an open marriage. That’s when—”
“I know what that means. It means they can fuck anyone they want.”
“Summer, language please. And that’s not quite correct. He’s a nice guy, Summer. I know it’s hard to think that Dad and I have moved on, and that someone else may be interested in me. This is not about you.”
The thing about anger is that it never truly dies. It’s been a long time since anything has been about me. When my parents were busy having affairs, I took care of myself. I made dinner, paid the bills, indulged her stupid whim to go to Central Asia. She cheated on Dad so I shouldn’t care if she fucks a creep.
She balls her hands into fists. “We’ll talk later, Summer. I’m not going to let you ruin the night for me.”
The raised platform is on the side of the plateau, a threadbare carpet thrown over a concrete slab, topped with a blanket canopy. When we arrived at the yurt camp, we sat in the stifling shade; the drivers cleaved melons and handed us slices of sweet green flesh. But now, the desert below us has turned into a huge black ocean, the moon not yet risen.
I pull the hem of my skirt up to my knees. The carpet scratches my skin.
Two figures emerge from the dining yurt. Ian grabs my mother by the waist and twirls her. Her long blonde hair whips in the harsh light of bare bulbs. He dips her into an apostrophe and her laugh is larger than the two of them. I haven’t heard her laugh like that for a long time. He pulls her up and they stand close together, arms around each other’s waists. Please don’t.
He takes her by the hand and leads her to a yurt on the far end of the plateau.
I don’t want to think what they’re doing. I look at the sky.
The Milky Way is so bright that I want to lick it.
The moon rises, full and swollen—its brilliance bleaches the sky, fades the stars.
Perhaps Tam won’t come.
The music stops in the middle of a wailing note. As people exit, Tamerlan directs them to the sleeping yurts. We don’t even get our own rooms; I’m sleeping with all the women in one yurt.
Once the last goes to bed, Tam’s next to me, holding out the bottle of good vodka. There’s no longer perspiration on it and it’s less than half full.
I reach for it, but he moves it to just beyond my fingers.
“How old are you?” he asks.
He hands me the bottle; I sip from its mouth. I don’t want to be too drunk. He takes a swig.
“Teach me more slang,” he says. He doesn’t seem drunk.
I start with the ridiculous outdated slang Mom uses when she’s trying to be cool: awesome, tubular. I describe surfers snaking into the tube of a wave. I define hang five, hang ten, goofyfoot, and grommet, show him shaka. This is one of the two double landlocked countries in the world.
“Tell me about surfing,” he says. It’s funny—at least on three shots of vodka—how his accent sounds like he’s speaking through cotton balls when cotton is this country’s biggest export. I stifle a giggle.
When he hands me the bottle, his hand pauses on mine.
This time, the vodka goes down easier.
I lean back on the platform. I stretch, arms above my head, and my shirt rides up to show my stomach. I’m at that stage of drunk where I’m right at the edge, where everything is all glimmer and soft, and I’m invincible.
My heart beats so fast I can feel it in my hands.
“Once,” I say, “I decided to go out on a night surf. On a night like this, earlier this summer, with a full moon.” I describe the silver path rippling like mercury to the moon, the swell of the wave coming closer as I paddle toward it, the chill of the Pacific.
Pearls come out of my mouth.
I do not surf.
He touches my stomach and quickly moves his hand away. I’m surprised there’s not a thin red line branding my skin. That touch is almost enough to sidetrack me, but he wants a story.
“The wave is full of bioluminescence.” He raises an eyebrow. “It’s these little microscopic animals that light the water when there’s movement. So, the wave glows.”
This is what I want him to think of me. The girl poised to surf a wave under the heaviness of the full moon, the ocean around her radiant with light.
“The wave is way too big for me. I’m not that great of a surfer and it’s night.”
I sit up. Lick the dryness off my lips. Do I fall, the force of the breaking water holding me under? Do I sail through the tube? Do I see a glowing shark under my board? There are so many ways to put myself in danger. So many ways for me to succeed.
The moonlight on his face plays on his cheekbones, his nose. He has the face of some long-ago emir, like the faces on the money. But the emirs were cruel. Tamerlan’s great-great-grandfather was a chancellor for one of the emirs, the one who threw those British spies into the Bug Pit. If they were as annoying as the British on my tour, I don’t fault the emir.
The vodka scatters my thoughts. All men are the same, whether they live in a desert or not. And although he’s as hot as the cutest guys at school, the ones the ninth grade girls are always throwing themselves at, I bet he doesn’t get laid that often. This is that kind of country.
I wonder what he would say if I asked. It’s so easy to make things up; look how I just created a new image for myself. Tamerlan always goes into these little details about whatever building we’re looking at—the people who got thrown from some minaret, how to pray at a mosque, whether the tile work on a mausoleum has Persian or Indian influences. What if everything he told us—everything that couldn’t be checked against the guidebooks or explained away by “outdated” books—wasn’t true? That would serve Mom right.
“I’m onto you,” I say without thinking. I must be drunk because this is hardly a way to seduce him. He’ll probably be pissed off.
“What do you mean?” he says. His English is now only slightly accented.
“How much of what you say is made up?”
The whites of his eyes gleam. “Enough.”
I don’t think he means that as an answer.
He pulls me up to stand against him. The world tilts around me for a minute, then steadies. My bracelets ring as he leads me away from the canopy.
Past the cinderblock toilets, the last bare bulb haloed by small fluttering moths. Skin electrified: touch me and you’ll be sparked. My hand in his, a strong grip that I don’t think I could escape if I wanted to, his thumb rubbing against the side of my hand.
Those girls kidnapped and forced to be someone’s wife. Will it be the horse or the Lada?
He takes me to the far side of the bus, out of sight from camp. The desert night is liberating. I can do anything I want, be anything I want. My mouth is on his, my hips press against him. My bracelets ring with every move.
He tastes like those old lady mints.
He pushes me against the side of the tour bus, still warm from the sun. His fingers move under my skirt, on my hips.
“You’ve been driving me crazy,” he says. He has no accent at all.
“Slow,” I say, but he’s already stripped down my panties, and topples me to the sand, bracelets so raucous in the dark I bet everyone can hear them. His body is heavy on mine, his hands pushing my skirt around my waist.
“Wait, I’ve got a condom,” I say, but he cuts me off with his mouth.
The sand under me is gritty—rocks dig into the small of my back. I will bruise if he lasts much longer. I figure that I’m okay pregnancy-wise, due for my period in a less than a week. I try to focus on the moon but the bus smells of heated rubber and exhaust. He pulls my legs up so they cross at the small of his back. Just as it’s starting to feel good, he’s done. His back is clammy with sweat. He smooths my hair from my face. He’s about to say something. Probably something corny about how great it was for him.
Someone’s clapping breaks the silence of the desert. The sound is surprising, harsh. A flame and a glowing coal at the end of a cigarette. A dim figure draws closer.
We scramble to our feet. Tamerlan pulls his pants up, hopping on one foot, then the other. I pull my skirt down. I want to hide in the fabric. There’s sand everywhere, in the folds of my skirt, stuck on the inside of my thighs. I don’t know where my panties are.
Did he follow us? How long has he been there?
“What are you doing here?” I say.
“You want to tell her or should I?” Ian asks. He blows jagged circles with acrid smoke.
“Fuck, Ian. You said you’d stay hidden,” says Tamerlan.
I look at Tam, at Ian. My stomach tightens. Hands squeeze into fists. “What’s going on?” I ask.
Ian steps toward us. I move closer to Tamerlan. As if Tamerlan would protect me. The jerk. I shiver. I try to review the basics of self-defense, from the class Mom made me take. I can’t remember anything.
“It wasn’t my idea. He just likes to watch,” Tamerlan says.
“True. I’m not going to hurt you. I don’t go for rape anyway.”
I sit down, put my face in my hands. I think of exactly what Ian could have seen in the bright moonlight. Worse than watching us. He gets off at letting me know he’d watched us.
“Fuck you both,” I say.
Ian laughs, throws me my underwear.
I ball the panties in my hand. There’s no way I’m giving him any satisfaction of putting it on in front of him.
“What about my mother?” I say. I don’t mean to ask. I just blurted it out.
Ian inhales. I imagine smoke darkening his lungs. Cancer. Death.
“What about her? That mutton dressed as a lamb.”
The words hit me like a slap. She’s not that old. Perhaps she turned him down, pushed him away. But I remember her laugh.
And then I hold the phrase in my mouth like a secret, barbed and sour. Poisonous, like a viper. What kind of daughter am I?
“I’m going to tell her.”
“Go ahead,” Ian shrugs. His heel grinds the cigarette butt into the sand. “Just take her back, Tamerlan.”
Tamerlan doesn’t say anything to me as we walk from the bus. At the bathrooms, he stops. A ring of dead moths lies under the bathroom light.
“I just need money,” he says. “So I can afford a wife and kids. Pay the bribes for good doctors, good education, good grades. You weren’t supposed to know.”
“Bullshit,” I say. I raise my hand to hit him, bangles chiming. I’ve never hit anybody before and I’m slow; he catches my wrist easily, twists it behind my back. “I’ll scream,” I say. He lets me go.
“I know you are angry now,” he says. “But you wanted it.”
At the mouth of the sleeping yurt he kisses me.
As if this were a fucking date.
In the yurt, the other women are asleep on what the nomads call beds—thin, narrow mattresses on the ground. The blanket over the entrance has been tied back to let in the breeze and moonlight. My mother’s at the far end, blanket kicked to the foot of the mattress, hair fanned on the pillow. I sit on the mattress with my duffle set beside it. It’s only then I realize I’ve been quiet: my bracelets have not rung against each other. Only one circles my wrist. I’ll have to look for its lost mate tomorrow.
Mom mutters, face unguarded, vulnerable. My grandmother’s ring catches the moonlight; the fake emerald gleams. For the first time in a year, I feel that invisible tether tying us together, so tight that my breath catches in my throat. I get this sudden understanding, like when I’m trying to figure out a sentence in French and the translation suddenly slides into place: it’s amazing how alike we are. But don’t think that I forgive Mom and how she’s ruined our family. Words can drop from my lips like diamonds or slither out like snakes. I can wait as long as I want, whisper in her ear at some time of crisis, this is the truth.
One of the women snores; a rodent scurries where felted wool meets the floor of packed earth. Mom sighs, turns to sleep on her side, facing away from me. I slip onto the narrow mattress next to her, curl against her body, my stomach against her spine. I can’t tell where her body begins and mine ends.
Rumpus original art by Cody Bubenik.