I want you to know that the first time I did anything, I just wanted them to suffer some easily remedied discomfort. I didn’t care that he, too, would have to suffer for as long as the others did: a whole day before I recommended the turmeric and milk. They must have called their doctors, applied useless lotions squeezed out of tubes; and I liked picturing all of it. I wallowed in how it all felt to me, that silent, lonely, despicable act perpetrated against people who called themselves my friends in that way Americans have of swilling about sacred concepts in their mouths like they mean no more than mouthwash.
That was the first time I realized that running away had not fixed me. I had come to this country, alone, at the age of 11 and I had grown up anyway; family is what family does, and there are enough aunts and uncles among the galaxy of immigrants and refugees lumped under a single misnomer, Indian, Arab, Latino, you choose, to make one feel not merely at home but positively stifled by kin. I had done what I had to do, never mind that I stumbled upon it accidentally, or that They frightened me just as much as I, or an imaginary version of me, frightened other people. There was enough anger in me to help me overcome any aversions I may have had. There always is.
Still, I wish the boy hadn’t come. If he hadn’t come, things would be different; I would have contented myself with small interruptions to the ordinary days of my new life among new and dispensable people; a safe haven of my own creation. What his particular disorder was I could not tell; only that his tongue thickened his words and that his hands felt swollen like some improbable bloom swaying on a thorny stem. It was at the Rachel Carson conference and I was just a last minute add-on to Manage The Small Children, the smallest accompanied by parents though really, they just should have had the good sense to leave them home. Every now and again one of them would walk over to me so I could pin paper cut outs of fruit and vegetables onto two maps to indicate origin: America and the world. America, of course, took up as much space on her map as did the entire world and her, on its. He slipped off his mother’s lap, this boy, Adrian, his name tag declared, and came to me, pudgy and with a too-young face for a six-year-old boy. I had knelt down to take his poorly colored paper fruit, a single orange – the colors racing off in jagged smears outside, way outside the lines, when he did it. He dropped his paper and he put his palms over my face; his fingers spread apart, slowly, and the tips of his fingernails
grazed my eyelashes so I shut my eyes. He examined my face form my hairline to my chin, but not like a lover would, with just the fingers; Adrian used his entire hand. It made me go quiet inside, as though I was in a deep meditation, revealed yet safe so long as his hands stayed on my skin.
“Brown…” he said, with great effort, and the word was round and deep and loved in his mouth.
He waited for me to open my eyes and perhaps he saw some tenderness in my expression, or perhaps he missed it and just wanted to know: he pointed at the world map and asked in that same, labored manner, “where do you grow?” and the quietness turned rotten like dead bodies in bad movies because I lied, and I could tell he knew I was lying; there was resistance in that pointing palm when I took it in mine and redirected it to the red, white and blue edged one to our left.
I couldn’t forget him, you see, which is how I knew that I had failed. I had not escaped, I had simply taken my habits with me.
And so, having woken up the fifth morning in a row with the sensation of two young palms upon my face, sometimes caressing me, sometimes suffocating me, I have decided that today I will do it. Today I will begin the next phase; go from playing with to being done with. And you won’t understand; you who are not me. You don’t know the uncommon hatreds I carry behind my acquiescence, my participation, emersion, merging. I am the slim, slivered bone that buries itself in an unreachable part of your throat, just when you thought the chowder tasted good. Yes, there is a price for demanding a pound of my flesh, cut close to the heart, to flavor your palate.
I stop at the Dunkin’ Donuts for American coffee and a blueberry muffin. I order six, because the last time I tried to make an informed selection of five, I was told it would be cheaper to buy six. They take credit cards now, so I don’t have to hunt for change. I ask for cream. It’s a price I am willing to pay. Price of cream in my Dunkin Donuts coffee? Bloating. Price of pork? Diarrhea. Feeling of bliss drinking Dunkin Donuts coffee and eating pork? Priceless. Yeah, I’m worth it.
My companions say I’m a closet Moslem. I was a Moslem in my past life, or will be in my next. I’m okay with that. I pass. I tell them I’ve only just started reading the Qu’oran. And reciting Arabic words aloud off the internet. And, I bellydance; so well, with such natural talent, my teacher intones religiously, which makes me want to scar her face with a bronze coin from my hip-scarf, deliberately, so she would know I meant it.
My coffee looks too small. I think about reordering it in a medium. Do they sell medium? Or a large. Could I finish a large? What would happen to my stomach? My muffins are in two bags.
“Could I have these in a box, please?”
“Er…we don’t do boxes.” She is puffy and bleached. A two-for-one crime.
“We used to,” she adds, helpfully, “a long time ago.” She must be twenty-five. So not young enough to be my daughter. My sister, perhaps, if I were as pale as she is, a quarter as wide. And she won’t shut up either. “Way back when I started here, we did them. About six years ago.”
“I wasn’t here six years ago,” I say, and look into the distance, which isn’t far because the post office is right across the street and it’s a big one. Why do small towns have such imposing official edifices? The Thank God hangs in the air.
We lock eyes. “I wasn’t here six years ago, so I wouldn’t know.” She looks carefully at my face. Did she think I said I wasn’t born six years ago? Does she wish I hadn’t come, wouldn’t stay, cluttering up her landscape, reminding her of other places and cultures she will never understand? Perhaps she wonders if I learned my English at the Let’s Talk Language School on Main Street.
“Have a great day.”
“Yeah, you too.”
I drive off with what I consider to be verve, but the verve is hampered somewhat by the narrow curb-edged space between the Dunkin’ Donuts and Main Street. From stocking books at Index on 7th Avenue to…well, life in a Main-Street-having kind of town. In Central Maine.
I’d been doing well, all things considered: somewhere to sleep each night on the fringes of what could be called SoHo without coming to blows with anybody, beautiful hair, solid teeth, people to run with who knew what tapas meant, a couple of boyfriends who could stay the night after tapas if the need arose, a job among books. My problem was what I loved best: kites. A vice that seemed so innocent and childlike, and so divergent to the harm I did to bring each one of them home. Bad things. Pre-meditated, well-planned, carefully executed evil that I became used to, after a while; the way they tapped into the existential crises that bubbled and froze and fell apart in shards inside my own body, slashing my character, making my insides cry. It makes you cruel to live the way I was doing, unseen and unknown. Not in the way people see and know you among the trees and houses planted in the country of your birth. And then again, this particular nation is particularly blind. So, as I said, it became not so bad after all, taking those orders, carrying them out without qualms.
But when he walked in to the bookstore, I had seen a way out. And now that I think about it, maybe that was unfair: to ask a man to be an escape route from things he could not know, even if his name was Tusker.
I’m at Marty’s. Marty’s, unabashed salvage store, is what has, for the last two years, made life on Livacoc Avenue, Turlow, bearable; especially now that they have consolidated all three salvage stores into one gigantic diorama of bargains. I go there for designer clothes and snappy jewelry scooped off the shelves of some sad bankrupt store, or rescued from the rising flood waters of bayou towns. I also go to linger in less innocuous aisles; among poisons and toxics, mostly to remember, sometimes to imagine what I can inflict with my secrets, my knowledge.
The doors haven’t opened yet. That’s okay. I park in the closest-barring-the-handicapped-areas spot and have breakfast. It’s a quiet day, for me. A day for living deliberately and with attention, open to the ideas that come to me when I reveal myself to be present, waiting, willing.
It had been on a day like this that I had decided to buy the 3 gallons of generic cleaning solvent with its quantity of n-Hexane. I had come here with the expressed intention of buying mini paper umbrellas for the mixed drinks, but I’d made an additional purchase. Mostly because Tusker had said:
“Sameera, do you want to plan my annual pool party? You can do whatever you like. It can be a Moroccan thing. Or, like…what was that place you told me about once? Sheik something or the other, I always forget it?”
“Sharm el Sheikh. You should be able to say it by now, given how many international peace conferences have been held there.”
“Right, right, the City of Peace.”
“You want me to recreate Sharm el Sheik in your backyard?”
“Oh, even you could never do that babe! I just mean, you know, get a theme or something going with that in mind.”
A theme, he had said. A theme! Out of a city that had been captured and recaptured and passed between nations like a precious gem and whose people had spent fifteen years in the not so distant past living not in their Sharm el Sheikh but in someone else’s Mifratz Shlomo.
So I had nodded and, as I did, felt the splendor of Ras Mohammed National Park rise up to the surface. I had stood there, watching him, my eyes calm, my mouth relaxed, while the lush brilliance of fiery coral reefs came up inside me, higher and higher, from the dark of the Red Sea. And, along with the memory, and counter to its upward movement, I had felt my feet beginning to slide in to sin. The same sensation I’d had when I had dived in Egypt’s waters, seeing my way along the near vertical cliff that dropped 2500 feet down to the ocean floor.
A theme party, eh? I gave them a party so perfect, so exquisite that months later they could not disentangle their enjoyment from the pain they could never associate with me. Salads with avocados and olive oil and onions and chickpeas, a cold beetroot and fennel soup, lamb Kebobs slathered in goat curd and sumac made at home from the hard dried fruits bought by the ounce online, almond bracelets and, just to make them squirm, Mihallabiya with extra rosewater. I watched them gag and reach for more almond cookies. Ooh, try dipping the cookies in the pudding! They exclaimed to each other. Do people eat it that way in your…where…your country Sameera? They asked me.
“It’s a sweet after all. We can’t be oppressed by our desserts, can we? There’s no proper way, sweet things can be eaten any way you like.” And it put them at ease, that easy way I have of not-answering, not-judging. They laughed and felt understood.
And that meal, those drinks, all prettied up for them, the alcoholic ones as well as those I’d created, the fruit lassis and raspberry mint coolers, delighted them; made them want to leap in and out of the pool.
It was, I suppose, too bad that the spouses, students and other invited guests with whom I had no specific bone suffered too, but I liked seeing that red irritation spread across their white skins like blood. Tusker fired the gardener and had to bring in some expert pool person to re-balance the pool. That’s what he said.
“We need to get this pool re-balanced, Sameera, and I don’t want you stepping in there until that’s done.”
“I won’t. Is it feeling any better?”
“Yes it is. Thanks for that tip about the turmeric and whole milk in the bath. I told the others too. They were so grateful.” He hugged me.
Oh the pernicious concern. Why does he always talk to me as if I’m some unwanted girl from a patriarchal society that he has rescued? Particularly since he believed the orphan story I fed him over our first Mai Tai at some fancy place he took me to. We used to do it in public places – that’s my thing. All over New York City, where else? But since we moved it’s strictly in the bedroom and most frequently in the missionary position. I think Tusker would prefer it if I toned down the low-rise jeans and plunging necklines. I think he would like me to be brilliant yet unheard, quietly gracious, an Asset rather than a Force. So I say,
“I bought a vibrator from Stacey at dance class.”
“You…you…used?” he corrects himself, pulling away and watching me watching him.
“No, not used, factory sealed. I bought it at her Pleasure Party.”
“Pleasure party?” He gives me one of those hmm-nods, the lips turned down, the brow slightly creased; a that’s-different-I’m-a-liberal nod.
“It’s a party where all the girls gather and pleasure each other…” I wait. He’s still listening, believing, one palm on the counter, his weight on that side like he’s holding off on a stroke until I’m finished. That, or keeping it from landing across my face. “It’s just a party,” I say, giving up. “Just a party where we can buy stuff like lingerie and massage oils and vibrators.”
And that was all.
So, after the feel-good wore off, watching their skin pique and color uniformly, their confused eyes brushing repeatedly over my legs and belly and arms all dressed for swimming in an orange polka dot bikini and not a drop of water on it, trying not to scratch and still, even at this point, unable to keep their hands off my food, my drink, I tried to occupy myself a little differently, to let things be, to say, this place is safe.
But then I met that boy. He didn’t know how I existed, poised between two types of dark: the benign and the malignant. And how once I’d known and fled the latter, I was a contaminant that could never really be comfortable with the former, just letting it be. No. I had to keep trying to see how bad I could make it short of turning them both into a single unalterable destruction.
That is why I had tried to make this work, this time with Tusker and all that he could not give me, why I had tried to hide my head if not like an Ostrich in the sand, then at least like a Canada Goose in the blueberry patches. No, the boy couldn’t see all that but he knew I was lying and that was going to trip me up sooner rather than later and I cannot allow that. If there is to be destruction, this once, I will be in charge.
You want to know who he is, this Tusker. Tusker Harris. Recently divorced Professor of Middle Eastern Studies, aged fifty-one. Two sons already graduated from college (it was a high school romance that peaked at 20 then hung on for-the-sake-of). He walked into Index, my bookstore, and because he didn’t say Tusker Harris, because he said Mr. T. Harris when he introduced himself to me, and because that made him sound like rap-star, though had I not been quite so desperate, so in need of running away, I would have noticed that he wasn’t young enough or cool enough and had too much hair on his head to be one, I picked him. On a whim, just like that. I stood up on a stepladder in plain sight of where he was and reached for air just so I could present my best feature to him, and at the right angle. I “struggled” with a few books. I dropped a couple. And then, because I could tell that a man holding a book that size about Islam would be a sucker for it, I murmured my thanks in Arabic.
He drove the economy sized U-Haul all the way to Central Maine.
Well, okay, not that fast. First I had to repay Chuck for all the advances he had given me for my kites. I’m not talking ordinary by-the-dozen-from-Oriental-Trading-Company kites, you understand. These were real kites. Kites that their makers did not want to part with. Kites that had to be pried loose from their souls and carried away with quiet reverence; slowly, slowly, and backwards like drawing blood from a thin vein. I know about that too, veins, specifically other peoples’ veins, veins of left-relatives in nursing homes for instance, people whose deaths could be grouped together the same way the newsmen group the dead from other countries: Deacon Jones, New York City Firefighter turned Lieutenant killed in Fighting in Basra, for instance, and, somewhere else, in a single line, this, for the rest of us: 29 Iraqis were killed in the fighting. Yes, I knew about veins and not what I withdrew but what I put in them; in my other life that still nips at my heels.
My first real kite had been a gift from a “cousin” visiting from Tacoma Park, Maryland which he called “hobo universe,” a reference I found to be somewhat ironic considering that it cost a pretty packet to live there and acquire the American affectation of a hobo complete with Persian rugs on the wall and exotic creepers falling over wrought iron railings, while one stayed clean with French milled soaps, were into aromatherapy and ate organic asparagus at $6.99 a pop. Yeah, right Iqbal, you go right ahead and call your friends hobos if you like. Just hand over the kite.
He made that kite for me in my presence. He took me with him to buy the lengths of bamboo and colored tissue paper from Chinatown. Have you noticed that there is nothing that Chinatown does not sell? It’s as though the proprietors, while wishing to offer authentic Chinese items for authentic Chinese people (you know, things with cranes and dragons and pandas and peacocks, those sorts of things, preferably looking like they never moved, depictions, not representations), along with those, they like to sell other stuff for American tourists from Tacoma Park. Bags of tea that promise potency in everything from erections to kicking soccer balls, hair oils, perfumes that make you faint – or vomit – and fake pottery from the Tang dynasty. But bamboo and tissue paper – these crossed the divide. It was for the authentic, educated purveyor of all things Chinese.
Buying them together turned Iqbal into a true Chinese customer. He got authentic smiles and a call to the back for The Wife so she could bestow an authentic smile upon him too. I got nothing. Maybe because I was buying jasmine flavored green tea with ginseng, packaged somewhere in California.
Anyway, the point of all this is that I saw Iqbal bring the kite to life, and that was what seduced me. First, the way he lay it all down: the bamboo, the tissue, the homemade glue (rice flour, salt and warm water, if you really want to know), twine and scissors and knife. Then, the arch of his back as he knelt before his workstation: the floor of my room. I had only just got this room, finally separated from the boys in the house, and privacy not space had been of essence. It was nothing but a large closet, so I had to watch from the bed, stretched out, my chin on the edge, my hair pooling on the floor and getting in his way from time to time.
I was fifteen and I fell in love and there was nothing I wouldn’t do to find the money I needed to buy them from people whose distinctive touch and art I could see in the snap and twist of their kites. At first I took loans. But that was like buying time. Somewhere down the line, actual money needed to enter the picture. Iqbal came before the money did and he found the work. Maybe because he wasn’t a real cousin, a blood relative, maybe because he was simply part of the game they played to catch me and keep me. I had stored up just enough resentment to ripen my innards for what I had to do. And I had just enough need to make me do what they asked me to, but not so much as to make me careless. All I wanted was a steady paycheck, a sideline as it were. I was perfect. Until I wasn’t.
I came to work that day tired. Fatigued by my perpetual state of alertness; the endless searching of faces, places, street-corners, the complete inability to trust anybody at all, not even the ticket machines at Penn Station. I needed someone to take it away from me, the burden of knowing things, doing things, carrying guilt. And Tusker walked in. People like me don’t need preambles. We turn our feet where they need to go, leaving behind or taking in, it’s all the same to us survivors.
Tusker likes the color of my not-tanned-but-real-brown skin, my black hair, my preference for nose rings and waist chains and anklets that make follow-me noise. They make me exotic, and I make him interesting. Who can blame him for wanting that? A quarter century in academe could do that to a person; make him want to possess something real from Over There, that region he visits and visits and even calls home by accident but which never celebrates his attention the way he thinks it should. The Middle East. Only Americans could conceive of teaching classes about The Middle East; as though it were some kind of days-of-yore folk tale from the past, a sort of Hollywoodian version of a Tolkien fantasy, only in mumbo-jumbo lingo that sounds like it means something. As if men on camels and oil wells are the whole story. As if henna and sultanas and zils were irrelevant.
And you have to give me this: I tried to make Tusker see what he had in his home, whom he had given refuge to, could perhaps keep safe. He failed.
“Do you want to know how I afforded those kites?” I asked him. We were sitting at opposite ends of the living room couch, his feet stretched out and on my lap, mine propped up on the coffee table, my toes warm from the fire, my palms around a cup of tea, two sugar cubes on a saucer on the arm rest to my right.
“Hmm?” he said, his eyes lifting towards me, his fingers curling over his kept page.
I read the spine, vertically: The Arab Mind. Raphael Patai. I should have given up right then, but I pressed on: “My kites. Do you want to know how I got them?”
“I thought you said you bought them.”
“I did. How else would anybody get kites like mine?”
“You borrowed money; I know, I helped you pay it back.” And I stayed silent a long time which must have told him something even if it was the wrong thing because this is what he said: “You don’t owe me anything, honey. You shouldn’t feel bad about it. That’s over and done with. I wanted to give you the money. I wanted you to come with me as soon a possible, remember?” And he wiggled his toes against my breasts.
He failed. I had too. He had been a wrong choice. I gave up. I turned to him and smiled. I took one palm off my cup, and pressed his feet, as if in fondness, and moved them away from my chest, my heart. He went back to his book after resettling his shoulders, nestling deeper into the already deep cushions. I put a cube of sugar in my mouth and held it between my teeth and let the tea pour through sweetening itself, dissolving the sweetness, everything together and apart.
And now, today, a single morning after, I have a new plan for the Department of Middle Eastern studies, with its faculty of four and one administrative assistant. That would be me, the assistant. Tusker finagled that, and thanks to him I have had the great joy of listening to Jess Boulus blather on about the impact of migrant labor on the domestic culture of Saudi Arabia, Pat Mather talk about Arab-Americans in the metropolitan cities of North America, Sylvain Q. Roberts (one is never allowed to forget that Q. ), teach Arabic, and Tusker, oh he of little faith, expound about Islam, all of whom have learned everything they know from books and from their five-star hotel visits overseas, and all of whom fawn over me variously just because. Four white people holding down the rag that is called Middle Eastern Studies. The Middle East, for those of you who might care to know, consists of parts of Northern Africa, Southwestern Asia and Southwestern Europe. It contains Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. And we are not a unified bloc. Most of all, it contains Palestine which means it contains Israel. And Israel is carved from the insides of our bones.
And because they don’t know this, I pick them. I’m discarding Tusker, too, but he won’t go alone. In one week the new building opens. There’s a dedication, a reception to follow. That is when I will do it, at the reception, but how?
I tuck my credit cards and cash into the back pocket of my jeans so I can be hands-free. Inside Marty’s there’s the usual arrangement: middle-aged women crowding the clothing aisles, middle-aged men in furniture trying out sectionals and trying not to look in the mirrors, old women stocking up on food and old men fingering batteries and hiking boots. At all times there are at least a dozen people looking up, scanning the store for their partners, some Bargain in their hand that they wish to show off. At all times there are at least as many replacing the item and shuffling on down the rows of stuff, hoping perhaps to be closer to their other half the next time around; it was a bargain, but not worth lugging.
I am always alone. Tusker has never been to Marty’s.
I am drifting casually towards the household goods section, open to being stopped by any possibility, when I come across the bin of real kites. There is nobody near it. It’s only April; and in Maine people are practical. Just me. Just me and the kites. I think about the kites I have used to decorate the unfinished attic in Tusker’s house. It was the first time I was able to have them all visible in a single space, and I was fleetingly grateful to him for that. I am again. I like the way they hang up there, colorful aliens in an alien tomb, only moving when I open the trap door and climb in to sit with them for a while, tea in my hands, the sugar clenched between my teeth, sweater, fleece slippers and all. I like their menacing presence. All that unmoving color suspended in the darkness. I own twenty-nine of them; most of them purchased in the three years before I met Tusker and decided to run away.
Yes, he gave me money, Tusker did. I only had to ask him once. He trusted me just like that. He thought I was repaying loans. I wasn’t. I was making them, buying time. The trick was skipping town without Them finding out where I had gone. Like I said, I was tired. I was tired of the drama and intrigue, the waiting for orders, the small acts of sabotage that we conducted usually in the broad light of day, the very fact of which was our best defense. It had seemed important when they first approached me, but after a while it became just another errand to run. And nothing changed as a result of it: no headlines about food poisoning, about arterial blockages in the labyrinthine transportation systems in and out of NYC, sudden deaths of middling people, not even the mass deaths in nursing homes. Nothing. Americans are too good at self delusion and for calling reality fantasy and vice versa. There was no kick, eventually, for peons like me and the others. Unless we were planning to disappear more people than we cared to, we were not going to be the small leaks that brought down the big ship. We were merely scratching at a steel hub; we were small fish beating our fins against an aircraft carrier, and that was a depressing thought.
Tusker did not even want to know about my kites. He just allowed me to pack them into the back of the U-Haul, commenting on the care I took, indulging me and them as if I were a hippie and they were hippie art; representative of an era but in poor taste. And here I stand now, kite upon kite tossed together as deliciously, as irreverently as a spiky tropical fruit salad! They are made in South Africa and are $5.99 a piece. I paid more than $300 for every single one of my kites but that first one that Iqbal gave me for free. For free except for the work I had to do for his friends in the city who didn’t know what Eclectic and Organic meant, but simply embodied both ideas as they went about their quiet business, serving hot dogs, couriering letters, hauling heavy packages delivered at worksites; in short, building America brick by conversation by ketchup or mustard covered bun. And breaking it down too; which is where I came in. In the end, I had enough fear to leave the city, but too much to continue to stay here.
There are arch-top diamonds, and Indian fighter kites which fly so easily in medium winds. I pick one up and feel perfection in my hands: featherweight. The cross spar is made of split bamboo and balances with no effort at the tip of my middle finger on its center-point. It’s tassels drape gracefully from the sides. The diamonds have tails clearly made by a master crafter. 150 feet of string with each kite. Five dollars and ninety nine cents?
The man who stops at the bin is tall, with a confident stare. Pale blue eyes, though, the untrustworthy, watery kind.
“You fly kites?” he asks, a pre-smile upward promise lingering along the corners of his mouth.
“No,” I say, “I collect them.”
“Collect them! What for?”
“It’s something to collect, right? People collect teddy bears and teaspoons, I collect kites.” And books, I want to add. I do collect books, and dust along with the books. “You don’t need as many to make the lot look good.” I give him The Smile. His vanishes and he narrows his eyes. I’m intrigued.
“But you must know kites well, then. You think this one will fly?” he asks, picking up a fighter, his neck bunching on one side as he tilts his head, mouth pursed. He reminds me of people in uniforms, their smug, lazy manner, obviously not charmed by me. I stay calm. What would a man in uniform want, or do, with the partner of a college professor in a college town?
“They’ll all fly, it depends on whether you know how to fly them.”
“A kite’s a kite after all.”
“Yes, but not all kites are meant to fly. These kites are, but some are meant for other things, like decorations and gifts and letters…”
“Letters?” The neck recollects on the other side.
“You know, communication between people who are not allowed to talk to each other for instance. You can send messages.”
“In-ter-esting,” and he looks carefully at my face, like the boy who haunts me, but unlike him. “Where are you from?”
I look at his well-used hands, the angle of his hat, the boots, and I am tempted, but his shirt stops me. It is crisp, ironed and in a solid color. Men who are harmless don’t wear solid colored shirts. That was one of the rules I had learned back when I needed to know whom I could trust, whom I could use. “New York,” I say, “but I live here now. My husband teaches at the college.” I slide my left hand underneath the kite before I say that, anticipating the glance.
His eyebrows lift together and he nods. “Originally?”
“Yes, New York.”
“What does he teach?”
“Religion,” I say, smiling again. This time he smiles back.
I wonder what he imagines; probably something involving slides of stained glass ceilings and cathedrals in Rome. Certainly not prayer mats or men wheeling in great rings, white robes ballooning around them. Like angels.
“Which one should I get?”
“Who will be flying it?”
“My son,” he looks up at me, “he’s five.”
No five year old could fly these kites the way they are meant to be flown; but I can’t tell him that. I can only select one no American boy born to a father like him would want to fly. I pretend to examine several, and finally pick out a pink and green kite. More pink than green. I hand it to him.
He takes it from me and turns it around from side to side, looking for a flaw, or perhaps a distinguishing mark that separates it from the rest.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, like you said, I know kites. And this is the best of them all.”
He nods his thanks and moves away, leaving me to stare at the bin. I stare and stare until it comes to me: The Plan. Oh, They would have been proud of me had They known. It isn’t truly satisfying to perform these acts of suicide without anybody to witness them. It’s like foreplay without the sex. My life is all foreplay these days, secret, tumultuous, desirous and unfulfilled. But it could be worse. I could be dead or discovered. I’d prefer the former over the latter with all its American-style melodramatic hysteria.
I pay in cash.
I wear red. Nobody suspects anybody in red of anything but shamelessness. And they are right on that count; I have no shame. My escpae and life with Tusker is all the proof they would need of that; if only they weren’t blinded by his distinguished looks and his money and my exoticism and assumed allegiances. Of course She would be attracted to Him, of course He would want to bring Her home. We are both, uniquely, trophies in this world, a winning combination of intellect and authenticity. The trouble with this equation being that we are taken for a Venn diagram whose circles intersect only in bed. But I know that Tusker shares my disdain for his nation of fools, and that he loves my nation of fools more passionately sometimes than I do; our only difference being that his version draws the line at doing something about his hates and his loves. Mine requires action for, with, against, about, you choose. My nation of fools despises inertia, his thrives on it. His prefers carpet bombing. Mine prefers carpets. His rains fire from above. Mine lays traps underground. His struts on a stage with fanfare and the national anthem screamed, badly, always badly, into microphones. Mine moves behind veils and whispers prayers deep into the heart of the earth. His unleashes tornadoes that weathermen plot for months ahead. Mine erupts in earthquakes that nobody sees coming. But we share our prejudices and our bed.
And I wear red.
They all agreed to the idea of releasing the kites. Why? Because I told them it was A Custom and the Department of Middle Eastern Studies believe those they think have a monopoly on its traditions. And Americans, above all, are afraid to offend in person unlike us Others who vilify in person but are kind to strangers.
“In many small villages in the Middle East, it is traditional to release kites into the air on a day of celebration,” I said, and everybody, caught up in the idea of it all, agreed that this would be a splendid addition to the festivities. Nobody asked me the obvious: which parts? Which villages? Why? They only asked me if I could find out where to get kites, and should they call the local papers? Yes, of course, to both.
“Marty’s has them. I can pick them up.”
“Don’t forget to submit the receipt,” they said, which complicated it all a little because I had to return the kites I’d already bought to Marty’s and then buy them again with the correct date imprinted on the receipt.
“Oh, I just wanted different colors,” I said, when the customer service lady asked.
And she was used to that and to me.
Everything looks perfect when I stop in at the Lakin-Alder-Setzer House or LASH, as I prefer to call it, named for the people who gave all the money for the new digs for our department. The benefactors are the alumni-parents of two protégés belonging to Pat Mather and one, rather soulful boy, owned by Tusker. Pat, it is generally known, thinks that he has the real claim to fame in the department, particularly after those two buildings came down around our ears. Oh he had quite the run on NPR back then, quoted here, quoted there, misquoted elsewhere, called to testify about everything under the sun from one coast to the other and all because he knew about “Arabs” and their doings in American cities. He dropped out of favor though, after they rounded up the sleeper cell upstate that one time. Even I felt sorry for him. He kept trying to insist that there were no sleeper cells outside the cities and nobody believed him. Only I did, though I couldn’t say, because I know.
I know where the cells are.
I know who belongs to them.
I know that sleep eludes the hired zealot.
Downstairs in the foyer of the new building, there’s staff from Dining Services milling about. That’s inconvenient.
“Hello Sameera!” That’s Kerri, the head of the wait staff. I like Kerri. She is not that much taller than I am, but she’s round from neck to thigh. It is vital to have people like that sprinkled throughout the food service industry. Who wants to be served by thin people? Besides, she’s Irish and crinkly around the eyes and she loves me. She always sends the servers my way at these functions, particularly the ones with crabcakes, pours me my drinks without my having to ask her for them. Vodka with passion fruit and salt. Always.
“Hi Kerri! Everything set for tonight?”
“Take a look dear, what do you think?”
I’ve already seen, but I look around anyway, “Beautiful, Kerri, just beautiful. You do such great work.”
“You all ready with something gorgeous to wear tonight?”
I nod. She squeezes my upper arm and walks away, her head swiveling from left to right, taking things in, assessing, directing. I stand there and watch her disappear through the wide open doors and down the steps to the truck parked outside. I imagine the boy walking out behind her. I want them to leave this place together, this sole woman for whom I have developed a fondness, a fondness I have chosen to attend, and the boy with his knowing hands.
I watch and picture them safe. After a while, Kerri comes back.
“What are you still doing here, dear?”
“Oh, I’ve forgotten something,” I say, “and I’m hoping I’ll remember if I stand here long enough.”
“Want a little taste of this?” she asks, and lifts the silver cover on a platter and points. Inside are reddish brown sweet and sour meatballs glistening in gravy. She takes a toothpick and skewers a meatball, then turns to me and holds it up until I open my mouth. She uses the same toothpick to put one in hers. We stand there, our cheeks bulging, enjoying the particularly delicious taste of stolen food. She reaches over and wipes the corners of my mouth when I’m done.
“Good, wasn’t it?” she asks.
I put my arms around her and hug myself to her.
“Oh, you are a sweetheart,” she says, somewhere near the top of my head, and I nod, and squeeze her tighter one last time, then I let her go. She smiles and chucks me under the chin, wipes her hands on her apron and walks out of the building.
I continue to stand, trying to let these two people, Kerri, the boy, their lives, invade my plan, but it does not make me change my mind. I go to the van to unload the kites.
Urushiol oil. Who would guess? The common name for it, found on the labels tacked on to bottles of soothing creams, and on the lips of anxious mothers, sounds almost fairy-like: poison ivy. Yes, harmless, mostly, like everything else in small doses. It’s when things accumulate, pile on, stack up and reach a critical mass that life begins to break down. Then one needs just the proverbial straw. Or, in my case, one more leaf.
I wore one of my skin protecting suits from my Other Life, all sleek and black, ordinary sweats and a long-sleeved shirt on top, tucked my legs above my knees into gum boots, slipped on those easy-breezy disposable gloves and off I went. So easy to find the dark, shiny patches of poison, so easy to lay those strings down and stamp all over them; all over, reciting their names as I ground the strings into the leaves And lastly, a particularly furious grind for Tusker! Quite possibly for having been the one to affect my rescue yet not having the inner calm to inspire any confidences. It is hard, hard I tell you, to be so far away, to be only one, and to have nobody know this. What is a secret if nobody knows you keep one?
Once I’d worked up a good sweat, I picked them up, tenderly, and arranged them, one on top of the other, their poisoned strings coiled around their respective bits of wood, all of them stacked inside the plastic bag I had made, sealing the edges with the flame of a candle, crouched inside the attic with my own beautiful kites looking on. It had felt positively religious to me, that secret time. The way the colors danced in and out of the frames around my head and along the floor in the light of the single candle, the thin smell of singed plastic, the way it felt under my fingers, hot, then warm, then cold, almost instantly.
Now I bring them in, and leave them in full sight on the round, linen-draped table set aside for the purpose. Then I go home to dress.
By afternoon, the weather is perfect: only the occasional jet-trail cross-patching the bright blue, clear skies of Maine, and a brisk gusty wind that can carry man-made flying things. The food is perfect: stuffed mushrooms, fancy crisped pita triangles with silky hummus, meats wrapped in proscuitto, delicate pastries, cheeses arranged in circles next to bowls of fresh olive tapanade and elegant crackers, bundles of luxuries tucked into grape leaves and very good wine. I feel perfect; perfect, impenetrable and completely above suspicion. The silk gloves were a stroke of genius; just in case.
I’m standing on the wrap around verandah of the building when I hear the voice at my elbow.
“Red suits you,” it says. It’s the man from Marty’s, all cozy as if I myself had invited him to attend the celebration. “Newsman,” he says, holding up a pen (and no paper that I can see), in explanation.
I nod, my eyebrows raised in a proper demonstration of admiration.
“It’s a good day to be out of the office,” I say, smiling that smile again, and to better effect this time; it’s probably my clothing, the high heels, perfume. Men, wherever you find them.
“Indeed,” he says, looking out over the grass at the crowds on the lawn, then turning back to me, “and for kites.”
“I don’t think you’re going to be allowed to fly any this evening.” I say that and touch him, flat-palmed, fingers together on his upper arm, consoling, flirting. American men like that sort of intimacy from women they believe are too demure to touch strange men. They think it means we cannot, simply cannot, hold back our desire. I can sense I don’t yet have him on my side, despite the pleasure on his face.
“No, but I’ll be writing all about it tomorrow.”
And then, Tusker comes up. “Sameera, they’re looking for the kites,” he says, glancing at the man but not really interested in an introduction, which irks me, so I say,
“This is…what’s your name?” and again that smile.
“Samuel Herbst. Sam,” he says.
“Sam, this is Tusker Harris, my husband.”
This time Tusker looks at me, confusion in his eyes. “Well…” he laughs here, nervous and condescending, “not yet, but soon.” And he pats my hand. I am deeply glad that I am done with him and even more glad that he will fly at least one of those kites later this evening. So glad.
Sam looks at me with that same tilt-headed glance with which he’d used to try and see through me at Marty’s. I add the slow, knowing up-down to his head that he does not actually articulate.
“Soon, yes,” I say, and I feel it beginning to uncoil inside my body, the thing that I knew would come: flight. I look back at Sam, regretfully, so he’ll remember my regret, and speak to him, not Tusker: “on the table outside. The kites are there.”
“Well, I guess it’s time for the show,” Sam says, and rubs his palms together.
“I guess so.”
It is poetic justice that the wind kicks up with such sudden immediacy, that the kites are lifted and carried away effortlessly; as though the heavenly sky wants to save them. I hope the wind is laughing at how hard they hold on against that divine effort, how much they want to prolong this authentic, ethnic moment. I stand with my arm looped through Tusker’s just to give the impression that I had been present in equal measure, lifting my face up in a fiasco of joyful participation so nobody would notice that I touched nothing.
Afterwards, I see Kerri behind the serving dishes as I walk back inside. Her hands are covered up to her elbow in the transparent gloves of the waiting staff and this serendipity delights me. I smile and wink at her. She smiles back at me and turns to listen to some request. Mrs. Boulous is asking for more spinach and feta pastries.
“Kerri, these are amazing. I’ve had six already!” she says.
“Have more, Mrs. Boulus,” Kerri laughs, and slides three pastries into a paper plate.
I want Mrs. Boulus to leave. Leave Kerri alone, but she does not. She reaches over and touches Kerri’s face. “You’ve got a crumb on your cheek, Kerri. Naughty naughty.” Then, because now she has added the grease from her own crumb-covered fingers to that face, she keeps rubbing and rubbing trying to undo the first mistake.
I freeze, but there is nothing I can do. I swallow the salt in my eyes and I turn away.
Long after the kites have lifted and disappeared over the far trees and further over the low hills and beyond, I monitor the effects from the window of my new office. All I see are hands: long fingered hands, short stubby paws, gnarled ones, young, elastic versions, and neither here-nor-there varieties, all moving, touching, stroking each other’s exposed skins, their own, the eyebrows, the upper arms, the smoothing-over-faces gestures. I stay away because I can no longer tell where they have spread the poison, or when it may reach me.
But when I hear the door behind me, the stillness tells me it is Sam, and that he is not a newspaper man. It tells me he has kept his distance and that I am vulnerable. Still, I do not flinch; because there is more that I can tell. It is in the air: this is a public place and as good as any to end this time, to give him something that will disturb his life and prevent his truths from surfacing. He is not a newspaper man, but he is a man. And I am a woman more skilled in these arts than any he could ever find in his universe of paperbagged glossy magazines and underwear ads on TV. I carry my learning in the marrow of my bones, my practice in my mind; I come in layers like the sweets in my country of birth, the million threads in a single heavy carpet carried back as a souvenir for a preprogrammed love. So I do not move, I wait for him to draw nearer; I wait, motionless yet expectant, straight and unafraid. That is the first rule and the last.
Tonight, while this community sleeps, blessed by the happy dreams of provinciality, I will pray, aiming my body like an arrow towards the heart of God.
I will pray for the grace to leave the boy behind.
After midnight, someone untouchable will come for me, because I have nobody else to tell. Someone will come for me, and I will go, back to that deeper darkness, taking my kites and my unharmed skin.
“Sleeping Alone” was originally published in Virginia Quarterly Review.