by Susan Morrissey
Spencer stood at his balcony rail, six floors above the blue-green Arabian Gulf. In the unsparing dazzle of afternoon, he squinted at a faint horizon through silver hair teased from his ponytail by the wind.
Behind him, Tala adorned a lounge chair with her neat curves and long legs. She ate an apple with chomping, slurping, irritable ferocity. He pictured the dark, sulky bead she undoubtedly drew on him, her lips and chin glazed sweet with apple juice. Stay strong, he told himself, stay focused. The conditions of partnership were treacherous in pleasant asides. Geography or culture influenced climate, ritual, grub, and garb. Times like these proved that nothing in the world altered the nature of women.
Validation of his experience in a universal sense was insight he wouldn't have thought possible when he'd taken the job. Co-workers had warned that he would suffer a lonely boredom in Kuwait. There was no nightlife other than movies, where single women sat in the family section and single men in rows far removed. Restaurants served only soft drinks and water, however elegant the fare.
No alcohol and no women, but the contract had been a generous one, padded with allowances for car and housing. It looked like a gift package to Spencer. His then recent and third divorce, although intoxicating in emotional rescue, had scuttled his financial plans for carefree retirement. Determined to endure eight months in Kuwait, he immersed himself in his work. He analyzed the telecommunication needs of the hospital he had come to service, acquired network-enhancing equipment, and assembled a tech team in five months flat. Word spread wider than a mullah's call to prayer. A police department sought a system for archiving emergency calls, a bank wanted recommendations, then a school, a museum, on and on. Back home in Dallas, his employer was impressed, kept the monetary perks flowing. Maybe Spencer could retire after all, possibly a few years early.
Of course, if descriptions of expatriate life had been accurate, he wouldn't have stayed after the hospital job. The intelligence, however, must have been gathered by good family men, because they'd gotten it only half right. True, there were no clubs or bars, and when a Kuwaiti woman gave him a glance, it was often literally veiled and communicated things incomprehensibly Islamic, mingled with disgust. But just beneath the apparent, beat an expatriate subculture skilled at prospecting life's basics for winemaking ingredients and gear. Spencer met Americans, Britons, and Canadians who, with airs of sworn duty, shared recipes and techniques. He progressed rapidly from grape juice fermentation to experiments with coconut milk, onions, and rice. He wandered grocery aisles, inspired; prowled hardware stores for filters, siphons, and pumps. He hadn't known a pastime as absurdly uplifting since those blurry first years after Nam, when he nurtured an illicit jungle in his basement with grow lights and manure. And the marvel that outshone all of that was the non-Western, non-Muslim portion of Kuwait's expat community. It churned with single women. Indians, and Filipinos like Tala, were secretaries, maids, seamstresses, and shop clerks, swimming single-mindedly against the currents of fate in a reckoning for connections to a better world. Their dreams starred Western guys, and even guys closer to sixty than fifty, like Spencer, angled with certain reward.
Tala's apple chomping stopped. He heard her shift her position in the creaky lounge chair, and he laughed inwardly at his odds of her coming to him in reconciliation. It was more likely that she had shifted position to better aim her glare, that tingling he felt at the back of his neck.
She had hurled blame at him for so many months, he hardly remembered the time when things were opposite. Today he kindled her annoyance by canceling their dinner plans in favor of taking his nephew and a couple of his nephew's soldier buddies sightseeing. PFC Billy had arrived in Kuwait months ago and ever since had been corralled by lockdown at the army base or deployed to war games in the desert. This afternoon was Billy's first chance to get a look at Arabian life, and Spencer had explained to Tala that a soldier's time off wasn't a flexible, negotiable thing. She remained unsympathetic.
"Look," he said, still gazing at the Gulf, "I can't say no to family."
Her apple core whizzed past his ear. He whirled around, feeling righteous, hoping to unnerve her with his sudden movement.
"I tell to you, Spencer, you make it wrong prior... prior or..."
"Priority, Tala. Pri-or-i-tee."
She ran her fingers through blue-black curls at her temples, whisking away the only softness from an expression that would have colored with chagrin just weeks ago. "You guess what I mean. Good for you smart man." She'd gotten over his jabs at her English as completely as she'd lost her will to ride out the bumps of their togetherness.
"Sorry, Tala. I've no right to make fun of—"
"First work is make you busy. Then friends too important. Now family too important. Every day I make nice for you. Every day you tell to me later-later not now."
There it was in a capsule, Spencer's experience with women. What passed time and again without comment became intolerable overnight. Maybe the upheaval was a ploy pinned to security, the point when a woman figured she had coerced him to a dependence suitable for rehabilitation, renovation, whatever.
"Why don't you come with us? Billy and his buddies are looking to buy shisha pipes. I thought I'd take them downtown to the old souq; you like to shop. And later we can grab a quick bite. Shwarmas, maybe. Yeah, Billy should definitely try the shwarmas. They always remind me of the soft tacos I used to buy for him when—"
"No fun to me. I work in city. Eat a lots a shwarma. I go for lie down. Head hurt." She stomped from the balcony, slid the door shut with a glass-rattling thump.
Not as bad as it might have been, unless this was intermission. The last time he imagined he had skidded to a truce, he later discovered his batch of wine in process contaminated with dish soap. If this wasn't intermission, maybe her restraint was resignation to the inevitable end. Everything ended for one reason or another. She wasn't getting what she wanted, and he wouldn't submit to a makeover. His crust of three marriages was built from crap like that. Once she figured out that her complaints couldn't break him, it would be just a matter of time. She would leave him.
She might have already decided to go. In Spencer's experience, women needed to prolong the breakup, the exhausting misery of it. While each left in final minutes as singular as herself, what seemed to matter most was the rehashing of divides too immense to bridge, the filling of her misery coffer. Tala's final minutes would be dramatic, and maybe her recent piling of complaints was groundwork for a final straw rant. That required planning; it was more likely she would lever a face-saving situation, a foul or oversight by Spencer that she could spontaneously recast as a warranted red carpet runway to the door.
On the pretext of slicing cheese and opening a box of crackers for Billy and Billy's buddies, he went inside. She was on the couch, somehow sleeping through her usual writhing and snoring. Her skirt had twisted and bunched around her waist, exposing one smooth, bare thigh. The scene knocked hard at his ribs. And her throaty purr—that resonance of an idling tractor—he would miss that, too. It played with precision in his dreams of teenage summers, the sweaty ache of farm work, and the adventuress who restored him by night, in the back of her daddy's pickup, under the big, Texas sky.
He crouched beside the sofa and kissed Tala's forehead.
She lurched awake. "I mad at you still."
"How about we plan something for tomorrow?"
"You take me and my girlfriends for breakfass. You make it promise."
"Ah! We see."
The doorbell rang, and Tala trotted ahead of him to the foyer, straightening her skirt, fluffing her hair. She flung open the door as if she expected the prize patrol. Maybe that was exactly how she felt at the sight of three brawny, young men in jeans and polo shirts.
"Welcome to which one soldier nephew."
"Thank you, ma'am. That would be me," said Billy. "And this here is John and Doug."
"My name Tala." All smiles, she bounced on tiptoe to throw her arms around Billy's neck, kissed both his cheeks.
"Hey, Uncle Spencer," he said, but his eyes were on Tala, sizing her up like maybe Spencer had arranged some kind of practical joke.
"Hey, guys. Come on in," Spencer said, drawing Billy across the threshold with a combination handshake and one-armed hug.
"Spencer is make party," Tala announced. She inserted herself between John and Doug in a cozy linking of arms and escorted them to the couch. "Spencer come-come. Bring drinks for soldiers."
He could annoy her by saying they didn't have time to party, or take a chance on her brightness outlasting a couple of drinks. "Sure thing," he said. As he started for the kitchen, he heard her, spirited and flirty.
"You have girlfriend in Kuwait? I have a lots a friend like to meet big-strong soldier."
Spencer took glasses from a cupboard and a bottle of his homemade wine from the fridge. Billy strolled in a few minutes later, smirking quizzically. It made Spencer wonder whether three years in the Middle East had changed him in ways that everyone back home would find amusing. Maybe it was time to take a vacation, reconnect with the West. If he planned a trip without Tala, maybe she'd see it as her red carpet reason to stomp out the door for good.
"Awesome apartment, Uncle Spencer. And your Tala sure is a friendly gal."
"Actually, I think she's getting even; we've been at war. Like your grandpa used to say, there's two theories 'bout arguing with women and neither of 'em works."
"Yeah, sure do miss that ole codger's take on the world. And, hey, if that's real bona fide alcohol in that there bottle, you can count me happy as a hog in slop."
Spencer poured two glasses. "Homemade wine; it gets to tasting better the longer you live in this sorry sandbox."
Billy grinned. "My spirits just rose like a corncob in a cistern. Even the army base is drier than happy hour at the Betty Ford."
They slapped hands, up high, and Spencer lifted his glass. "To Texas."
Tala breezed in, bestowing Billy with a wrinkly-nose smile. "What you wait for?" She seized the bottle. "Come-come."
Spencer and Billy picked up the glasses, Spencer watching Billy's preoccupation with Tala's departing strut. Maybe she needed to find a new man before she dumped the old one. Maybe Spencer could accelerate the inevitable and roll out her red carpet by bringing home more single friends.
In the living room, she went straight to the couch, nested herself between John and Doug. After Spencer had poured the drinks, she raised hers and cast around a mischievous glance. "Now you know where to come for fun time. Here's to you come again."
Maybe her manhunt had already begun. Those nights she spent at her girlfriends' apartment—so she said—more often lately and always after a big argument. Or maybe she really was getting even, gauging his jealousy, and reminding him of her potential. Whatever she was up to, he felt relief when Billy, John, and Doug had finished their drinks, and she turned down their invitations to tag along on the shopping trip.
Spencer never tired of the old souq. It was down-home Kuwait, an everyman, folksy slice of life. The marketplace central buildings combined the air of a farmer’s market and Wal-Mart for a field trip of people watching, endlessly enriched by the many women who chose to cover. He liked to imagine them, hefty and thin alike, testing the seams of stretchy pants and blessing belly shirts with generous jiggle beneath their black abayas. All he would ever know for sure was that fantasy feasted on things openly hidden, and therefore, his musings were as acceptable as a dinner guest's hearty appetite.
Beyond its central buildings, the souq's commerce overflowed along surrounding, ancient alleys. Originally trimmed with mud brick buildings, they were plenty wide enough for the donkey-drawn carts that once clacked through them. Spencer had explored those alleys. He knew shortcuts through public courtyards and stairwell entries to a subterranean shopping world where a person could find everything from the shisha pipes Billy, John, and Doug wanted, to clothing, perfume and incense, silk carpets, and more.
His patronage had earned him the rank of Friendly American, and it would pay off today at the tobacco store. Hassan would feel honored by Spencer bringing family to his shop. He'd treat them to the back room, the choicest shisha hubbly-bubblied through iced lemon water. He'd serve cardamom-flavored, pale coffee and the creamiest Saudi dates, the whole shebang of Arabian hospitality. Ultimately he'd offer a discount, and whether the price break amounted to much or not, maybe Billy would sense the hearthstone of a society clever in trade. If Billy thought Spencer had changed, maybe he'd appreciate the influence, the captivating side of life around these parts.
Spencer parked his Ford Explorer across the street from the plaza that stretched in spacious separation of the old souq and the gold market. While they waited out traffic in a crowd at the crosswalk, he said to Billy and buddies, "Just remember, you're the funny-looking foreigners. You'll get stared at so much, you'll wonder if you forgot to zip up."
A few feet away at the curb, an abaya- and headscarf-covered figure turned her veiled face. Gloved fingers pressed to hidden lips, she drew a shrill breath and surveyed Spencer and the soldiers with twin oases of lapis-blue. Spencer prickled mildly with self-reproach for his crass reference. Amid the ubiquitous babble, it was easy to forget that most residents of Kuwait spoke at least a little English.
When the traffic light changed, a short, muscular Indian man clutched Blue Eyes' arm and jerked her into motion. Billy, John, and Doug exchanged glances and shrugs and started across the highway as well. In a volley of ribbing debate, each declared himself the man she had sparkled at for a second longer than the other two. Spencer lagged a quiet pace behind, attempting to deny his bruising at their omission of him as a contender. He sucked in the paunch at his gut, squared his shoulders, laughed at himself. For the hundredth time in recent months, he wondered what procession of compromises Tala had viewed from every which way before she'd settled for him.
He used to feel grounded by the idea that what she expected from their partnership was comfort beyond her grocery store cashier means. Their situation was beautifully forthright, elemental give and take. Prior to the past few months, he might even have said they had conceived an affectionate bond. What was love, anyway? Not the durable goods of any relationship. Not in his experience. And damn it all to hell; he hated being backed against the wall of reevaluating life and routine.
It looks like the end of the rainbow, he heard Billy say. The young men stopped, sun-blocking hands at their brows, and looked across the plaza at a blaze of goods on outdoor racks in the gold market.
Spencer could taste the shwarma he planned to eat, sitting on the pillow-strewn floor of Hassan's back room. "We can stop by there later, if you want," he said.
If they did make it to the gold market later, maybe he'd buy a new anklet for Tala. She mentioned she had lost the one he'd given her for her birthday. On second thought, no. A gift of gold would look like a concession. And maybe she didn't really lose it. Maybe she was selling all the baubles he'd given her. While he was dreaming up a plausible red carpet for her exit, she might be cashing out on a schedule set for departure. Maybe he could speed up the inevitable by buying her an anklet, a necklace, and big, dangly earrings too. Was she that calculating? It wouldn't hurt to check her jewelry box.
Spencer led Billy and buddies into a rectangular, single-story souq building and then along an aisle manned by vendors who scooped customers' purchases from huge cloth sacks on the floor. The riot of scents, stirred by overhead fans, was stout with spices, roasting nuts and coffee beans, and competition from produce Spencer recognized only as exotic.
He decided to stop and buy a bag of pistachios for Tala. She liked to sprinkle them on ice cream and breakfast cereal, and nuts didn't grovel like gold. Anyway, maybe he'd eat them before he got home.
"Why don't you guys go on and nose around," he said to Billy. "If we lose track of each other, we can regroup in the alley outside the back door. From there we can grab some fast food and head over to the shisha shop."
"Fast like Burger King?"
"Shwarmas; faster and better. You'll see." Damn his craving for shwarmas, too. Spencer had been in Kuwait only a few months when it led him to Tala. He had taken money from his wallet, on his way to place an order at a takeout window. Hey 'merican man, a voice called, you losing it. There she was at the bus stop. Her presence dimmed all else to flat grey, and his dinar fluttered to her feet. He suggested that she'd be doing him a favor by joining him for a shwarma, that she could tell him the things a new expat should know. She laughed and took hold of his left hand, inspected his ring finger. In Kuwait you need woman, she told him.
Spencer waited among the jostling of souq shoppers four deep to buy the pistachios for Tala. By the time he made his purchase, Billy, John, and Doug had wandered from sight. He zigzagged through the building until he spotted them in the fruit and vegetable section. Within a dozen yards of catching up, he also spotted Blue Eyes, abaya hiked above sandals, jogging down the aisle from the other direction. They reached Billy and buddies simultaneously, and she stopped there too, caressed all four of them in a contemplative scan with her gorgeous blues. Then she flipped her veil up and back, onto her hijab headscarf, and tugged off both coverings. Long golden hair framed high cheekbones and full lips. The soldiers exhaled a cloud of weak-kneed sighs. She was young, late twenties at most, a good ten years younger than Tala.
"I'm a US citizen. I need your help." She gulped air, shot a look over her shoulder. "Here he comes; I don't have time to explain. What I need, to begin with, is for you guys to back me up. Please. Help me stand my ground."
It sounded like complications Spencer would sooner sidestep. Billy and buddies nodded in spellbound agreement. The squat, muscular Indian, who had yanked Blue Eyes across the street earlier, strode swiftly toward them, chin tucked down and eyes fixed like charging rodeo stock.
"He your husband?" Spencer said, but the young woman seemed wholly dedicated to stuffing her scarf and veil into her very large handbag.
The Indian came to a halt, nostrils flared.
"Gentlemen," Blue Eyes said, "meet my warden. My husband's driver." She turned to the fuming man. "These are my new American friends. I'll be spending the afternoon with them, so you can finish the errands without me."
"I beg you, madam, to abandon this foolishness. Come. I shall take you home." He grabbed her arm.
"Thanks anyway," she said, and she let fly with her free arm and large handbag in a lightning arc to his crown. He staggered backward, eyes watering and dazed, but didn't release his grip. Billy, John, and Doug closed in, faces lit with dare.
A murmur of shoppers rose behind Spencer, the tone condemning of public disturbance. He elbowed into the tightening knot, between Billy and the driver. "Okay, okay. Everybody! At ease."
The driver gave him a pleading look. Fear, or maybe the shame of fear doubled by a wallop from a woman, beaded above his narrow moustache. He released Blue Eyes' arm. "Please madam, I implore you. You dishonor your husband and household. I have turned a blind eye many times, but—"
"Turned a blind eye? You mean the trade-offs suited you!"
The Indian shook his head, eyes downcast. "I shall walk slowly to the car, madam, with the great hope that you reconsider. Otherwise I must report your indiscretion."
"Do what you have to do," said Blue Eyes.
As the driver slunk beyond the crowd of onlookers, she extended a gloved hand to Spencer. "Janet. Janet Cooper in my past and soon to be reclaimed life. So glad to meet you; glad beyond words. When I heard your conversation at the crosswalk, I knew this was going to be the day I've been waiting for, for so long."
Spencer introduced himself and the soldiers hastily, itching to see her head off to complete whatever her plan was. The soldiers responded in a chorus along the lines of What are you going to do now and can we do anything more, so he mustered his most congenial smile and spoke over them. "Well, Ms. Cooper, glad we could help. Best of luck."
But she was quick in taking up with the soldiers. "First of all, I'd really appreciate a ride away from here."
"We don't have much time to spare," said Spencer. No one acknowledged his words.
Janet had trained her mesmerizing blues on Billy. "And then maybe you could help me think things through? I mean, I can't leave the country till tomorrow, even if everything works out." She fanned the air with one hand, as if to cool her face. "Oh... Oh my..." Her eyes rolled upward. Her big handbag dropped with a thud. She swayed and crumpled. Billy caught her by one arm, Doug by the other. "Oh, goodness," she breathed. "If you could just get me to your car?"
Spencer hesitated, hoping his reluctance showed.
"Aw, come on," said Billy. "We can't turn our backs on an American in trouble, especially a woman."
John hoisted Janet's handbag onto his shoulder. "Jesus, this is one serious piece of luggage."
"Yeah, okay," Spencer said. He wished he had thought to offer her money and assistance in flagging down a taxi.
At Janet's direction, Spencer parked in front of an optician's office. He hoped her best friend worked in that office, a friend able to supply whatever help she needed. He and shotgun passenger, John, turned to look over their shoulders at the back seat. Janet blotted perspiration from her face with her abaya sleeve, even though the air conditioner blasted. Billy and Doug watched in expectant suspension like puppies waiting for treats.
She stared at her handbag, which crouched in a formidable, leather heap on her lap. "It's really finally happening," she said, and she plunged her trembling hands inside it.
Spencer imagined the tearing sound that followed involved the bag's shiny, cloth lining. She fished out a brick-thick stack of money, waved it in his face, and dropped it back into her bag.
"I've been squirreling away cash for a year. About six thousand dinars. What's that in dollars? Nineteen thousand?"
"Closer to twenty," Spencer said, tempering his tone with disinterest. It was time for her to take her mess elsewhere, but as he watched the dumbstruck soldiers reject curiosity for disbelief and disbelief for admiration, he knew there was no way around helping her until she finally cut them loose. At least she wouldn't be asking to borrow money.
Digging again in her bag, Janet blurted a high-pitched giggle. "I know, I know. You wonder if I'm for real." She retrieved her hijab and veil and tied them in place.
"Why bother with the headgear?" Spencer said.
"Well, it's funny. Before I was married, my husband and his mother bent over backwards to assure me covering in public was a matter of personal preference. That's good, I thought, because I sure as heck don't want to do it. Turns out, they were sure I'd change my mind. When I didn't, they insisted, and things got worse and worse. Then, when I started planning my escape, I saw how covering could be a benefit. So I stopped fighting it. Even in this god-awful costume, though, how do I hide these eyes?"
"Sunglasses?" Spencer said.
"You're entertained by all of this, aren't you?"
Spencer considered an honest response, and in the second before words came, she covered her face with her black-gloved hands and shuddered and sobbed like her innards would turn wrong side out.
Billy patted her shoulder. "Uncle Spencer didn't mean anything. We're here for you. Is that what you're doing? Buying sunglasses?"
She nodded, sniffling. "Colored contacts, I hope. I ordered them a while ago when I came for my annual exam. I bribed the doctor to hold them till I could find a way to pick them up without the driver, so I could hide them like my secret money. My mother-in-law searches everything I bring home. I have to empty out my purse for inspection, too. It's just lucky for me that she won't touch my purse herself; she thinks Westerners are dirty. She makes the maids wear gloves and those air filter mask things when they clean my room. I just can't stand living there one more minute."
Billy patted her shoulder again. "How about I run in and pick up your lenses?"
"You're sweet to offer, but I'll be okay. Really. And after I pick up my contacts, I need to stop by the pharmacy for hair dye; its just a couple doors down the block. In the meantime, if you sense something's gone wrong, leave. Just drive away." She smiled a brave little smile and climbed out of the car.
Spencer broke the atmosphere with a sigh. He could be digesting his shwarma right now, kicking back with some fine shisha, showing off the comforts of his adopted hometown to Billy.
"What do you think, Uncle Spencer? Think she's overly paranoid?"
"Maybe not; you hear a story like that every once in a while. As far as Islamic Sharia Law goes, Kuwait is one of the more moderate countries, but it's possible Janet married into a fundamentalist family. I mean, when you think about religious observance back home, there's a broad spectrum. I guess it's the same in every country."
"How would an American woman end up marrying a Kuwaiti?" said John.
Spencer shrugged. "Wealthy Arabs send their sons to Western universities. That's the hookup story I hear most often."
"Well, shit," Doug said. "Kuwait might be liberal for the Middle East, but just read a paper or watch the TV news. A husband knocks off a cheating wife and only gets a couple of years because it's an honor killing. A man can marry up to four women, and if the current wife or wives aren't happy about it, it isn't even grounds for divorce. This stuff isn't kept secret. Who hasn't heard about the state of women's rights in this part of the world?"
"Who hasn't heard that love is blind," said Spencer. "And do you distrust someone because he hails from Dallas or New York City? Because you've heard about the crime there?"
The group sank into quiet. Spencer wondered whether Janet's husband might be the same guy he'd been all along. Like most young couples, they had likely married in the throb of untested love. Then time passed, love found earthly footing in the day-to-day, and culture shock set in. It could have happened that way. Maybe Tala, despite her steady aim to score creature comforts, had fallen in love with Spencer. Now that time had passed, love had morphed in its usual way, and she was disappointed with her clearer picture of him, of them. How ironic, how laughable, if she deemed their relationship inadequate just because she'd gotten sidetracked. Nothing with women was ever simple, and that was the real tragedy.
Janet exited the optician's office, dark contacts in place. She thrust a thumb skyward in victory and headed for the pharmacy.
When she returned to the car, she spoke with jittery excitement. "Can you tell I'm blue underneath? Really, do they look natural?" She turned and tilted her veiled face this way and that for inspection.
Everyone agreed. She blended into the general population.
"Where to now?" said Spencer. "The airport?"
"Well, I'm not quite prepared for that. Could we sit here a minute and talk things through?"
"Yeah, sure," said the soldiers. Spencer opened his bag of pistachios to pass around.
"Thank you," Janet said. "Really. Thank you all." She took a deep breath. "Okay. My husband keeps my passport locked up. I'll spare you the long story, but I've managed to contact the US Embassy, and they'll re-issue a passport and travel documents under my maiden name, if I can find a way to get to their compound. In other words, issuing paperwork is the only help they can offer in my particular situation. I've got my dark eyes, and now I need a place to dye and cut my hair before they take my passport picture. I've stashed a dress in the lining of my purse, at the very bottom of the bag. It's probably one big wrinkle by now, but at least I won't fit the 'last seen wearing under her abaya' description that my mother-in-law will give the police. My biggest problem is that the embassy wants at least twelve hour's notice." She took a handful of nuts and locked eyes with Spencer. "And as you know, a woman has a tough time checking into a hotel unless she's accompanied by a husband or male relative."
Spencer nodded. "My Kuwaiti driver license and residence card both show that I'm single. And I'm sure you can imagine a soldier—checking into a hotel with a woman—would raise all kinds of suspicions."
Janet swallowed loudly. "I assume you mean I'd be arrested for prostitution. Or adultery. Which is worse? Never mind. Okay. So you can't help me get a hotel room. Um, so, what I need is a place to stay the night, and a ride to the embassy tomorrow, and then a ride to the airport afterward. I know I'm asking an awful lot, but when I heard your conversation at the crosswalk, I knew instantly. You know that little voice? The one that's never wrong? But now I feel like such a beggar." She closed her eyes, soundless tears budding in the slits of her veil.
Spencer felt the soldiers' attention directed at him like an incoming missile. And in a brilliant flash, he understood his role as the red carpet for Janet's flight from Kuwait. That same flash illuminated her unwitting, reciprocal role as the red carpet for Tala.
"Hey come on, don't cry. You can stay at my place. Okay? My girlfriend lives with me; you'll like her." He smiled, hoping to project sincerity. What he felt was a virtual jumping for joy. All the pieces were there. He just needed to nudge them into place. If Tala was still upset with him, it shouldn't take much nudging at all.
Spencer's assessment of his plan flip-flopped between foolhardy and ingenious. If only he could have more time to mull over his presentation, hone it for optimal damage. With buying time in mind, he invited Billy and buddies to come upstairs for another drink, but the soldiers needed to make curfew at the base, so he and Janet waved goodbye from the sidewalk in front of his apartment building while Billy inched into evening traffic.
Spencer pressed the elevator call button and considered sharing his plan with Janet. She had involved him in her plan; she should be willing to help. If he could come up with the right spin on things, she might empathize. Then again, comparing their situations seemed farfetched, frivolous. It wasn't as if Tala held him prisoner. She simply had discovered that she didn't like the essence of him, his preferences and priorities, and he couldn't change the gist of himself enough to please her. Her areas of complaint, he knew from experience, heralded the end of a relationship. She had decided to leave him, he was sure, and at this point was stalling to collect misery.
He followed Janet into the elevator. Maybe he should brief her so she'd be braced for Tala's fireworks. Though to share their relationship's vital signs with a stranger seemed like unnecessary treason.
"Here we are," he said, "sixth floor."
"You look nervous. Is it your girlfriend? What's her name?"
"Her name's Tala, and—"
"Let me handle it, woman-to-woman."
"No, really, that's not a good idea." Or was it? He pulled his key from his pocket just as Tala opened the door. She must have been passing between the kitchen and living room, heard his voice in the hall.
Janet stepped in front of Spencer. "Hi. You've got to be Tala; I've heard so much about you. I'm Janet, and I want to thank you for your hospitality from the depths of my soul. Please consider me your humbly grateful sister."
Tala looked confused, took a couple steps back. "You 'merican under there?"
"Yeah, sorry. I'm so pathetically used to wearing this stuff." Janet crossed into the foyer, tugging off her headscarf and veil. Then she removed her gloves and abaya and stuffed the entire wad of black coverings into her handbag.
Spencer stepped inside, too, hoping to channel the king of all sons of bitches, past and present. Doing his best to exaggerate a lascivious inventory of Janet's youthful perfection in tight jeans and tee shirt, he said, "I told Janet she could stay with me—"
"What happen to soldier boys?"
Janet started to answer, and Spencer cut her off. "Oh, they're gone, long gone," he said. "Had to make curfew at the army base."
Tala crossed her arms, stared hotly at him.
He smiled back, hoping Janet had gotten the message to keep quiet. "Anyway, as I was saying, Janet's having marital problems. I told her she could sleep with me—sleep here—"
"Ah!" said Tala. She put an arm around Janet's shoulders. "You marry in Kuwaiti family. They treat you bad. I hear sad story before." She steered Janet toward the living room. "Spencer come-come. Bring drinks."
Spencer went blindly, numbly to the kitchen, pressed his palms on the cool, stone countertop, and hung his head. Did either woman realize his failed plan? Time ticked in a clash of inconclusive thoughts. His numbness faded. He heard Janet in a one-sided conversation, probably her call to the embassy. Then Tala shouted to him; she waited for drinks. In a convulsive attempt to squelch his laughter, he sloshed wine into glasses and slapped together cheese and tomato sandwiches.
When he made his delivery to the coffee table, Janet was telling Tala, "I've lied and bribed and bartered in ways that fill me with shame."
"You survive," Tala said. "Not to be shame."
Spencer took a large gulp of wine and sat in a chair opposite the women, who faced each other from the ends the couch, legs sprawled across seat cushions. "If the sandwiches aren't enough, I could go out and pick up something else."
Tala ignored him. Janet arched one eyebrow, nodded absently. The three of them ate. Spencer wished they were somewhere else so he could go home, alone.
"The Embassy can see me at eleven tomorrow morning," Janet said, at length. "And I'll need to get to the airport by one-thirty. I hope that works for you, Spencer."
"Yes-yes of course," Tala answered. "Come. We take drinks. We make beauty saloon and fix up your hair."
Spencer carried his glass to the balcony and watched the sunset's final minutes purple to darkness. When had he and Tala forgotten how to have fun for the hell of it? They used to dash to the balcony at the first droning of evening prayer call and lift their glasses like disobedient kids. Had it been Tala who tired first of playfulness? He finished his wine in two gulps, went back inside, and followed the sounds of feminine amusement to his guestroom.
The women had pulled a chair into the adjoining bathroom, where Janet sat draped in a sheet. Her damp hair was newly brunette and cropped to chin length. "Just whack it off; I like short bangs."
Tala leaned in with comb and scissors, giggling.
Spencer recalled babysitting, years ago at a niece's slumber party. Little girls grooming each other the way they used to play with dolls, he remembered thinking. It was hard not to transfer the soft spot, momentarily, to Tala. "Looking good," he said.
Tala smiled and pointed her scissors at the mound of silken gold on the floor. "Janet say I can sell to wig maker for real money."
"Good idea. Can I help with anything? Top up your drinks?"
"Thanks, but I'd better not have anymore wine," Janet said. "I think I'll take a sleeping pill and turn in."
Spencer bid her a good night and told Tala he was going to smoke a cigar on the balcony, but he went first to his bedroom. Her mention of selling Janet's hair reminded him he wanted to check her jewelry box.
Nothing seemed to be missing except the lost anklet. Ha! If she had found a new man, she'd be able to keep her jewelry, wouldn't she?
He drained the bottle of wine left over from dinner, opened a second one, and had just lit a cigar, when Tala came to the balcony door.
"I turn in bed too. Janet give to me sleepy pill, so don't think of bother me."
Spencer woke to bodily grievances, familiar by decades of experience. As low as he felt physically, however, the worst part of a hangover was his rubbery mindset, vaguely penitent and slightly blue. It was always safer to sleep it off than risk knuckling under to anything he might later regret.
Yawning, he raised himself on elbows to the view of Tala's exquisite, lime green-clad behind as she rummaged through her wardrobe. It was Friday, the Muslim Sabbath, which they routinely spent lazily at home, yet she wore a dress she reserved for special occasions. "What's up?" he said.
"I guess you not take my girlfriends to breakfass when Janet is need help. I think to go alone."
"Oh, shit." What an idiot he was. He checked his bedside clock. Not quite seven. Had Tala hoped to slip from the apartment before he woke? "Since when do your girlfriends ever get moving this early on a Friday?"
"I sit and wait, drink coffee, think to myself. I tell to them breakfass your treat, so my treat now. So I need cash money."
Was she buttering them up as future roommates? Maybe she hadn't found that new man, yet. He hauled himself from bed.
"I need cash money."
"Yeah. Let me take a shower, okay?" He tried to smile as he crossed the room. What an idiot; he was in no shape to pick up the fight. She was going to run circles around him, and that was his only and repeating thought, throughout his shower. Absolutely, he deserved whatever happened today.
He pulled on a tee shirt and jeans and returned to the bedroom, feeling raw. Tala packed clothes into a small suitcase she had opened on the bed. She was beautiful. She was punisher and punishment.
"I think to stay with my girlfriends maybe a couple a days."
"Don't you want to see Janet off at the airport?"
"I tell to her good luck last night." She lifted the suitcase from the bed and started into the hallway. A swatch of pink lace, caught in the zipper, waved in time to the determined clip-clip of her spiky heels.
Spencer pulled twenty dinars from his wallet and hurried after her. "I thought you needed cash."
She stopped abruptly and snatched the money, tucked it down the front of her dress. Her face softened, saddened, and maybe it was pity. "What to do, I don't know. You are foolish and funny to think I don't see what you do. Ah! But sometime I make too much complaint. I am apologize."
"Really? Well, I guess I'm not the easiest guy to live with." He pried the suitcase from her hand, held her close, and nuzzled her ear. "Look, why don't you come back after breakfast. I'll take care of Janet, and you and I will have the rest of the day."
"I am wonder how much you mean it," she said, worming her hands into his front pockets, teasing even with her smile. She wriggled from his embrace and, in one fluid motion, pulled off her dress and whipped it to the floor. The twenty dinars peeked from her black brassiere.
She was the woman he had met at the bus stop. Had he given in to her complaints once in a while, maybe times like these wouldn't be distant memories. Damn, soft-headed hangover.
"Hey 'merican man," she said, low and sultry as summer.
Had she read his mind? Was she a greater part of him than he cared to admit? Damn-damn, damn hangover.
Striking an exaggerated pout, she coaxed her lacy thong, inch-by-inch, until it dropped to her shoes. He was about to scoop her off her feet, when a cough and the sound of movement came from the guest room, down the hall. Tala kicked her thong aside, snatched up her dress, and sprinted in a wild clip-clipping back to the bedroom, where she leapt beneath the sheets. He was a millisecond behind her.
Later, when they started down the hall again, he toted the little suitcase and Tala carried her shoes. "Not to wake poor Janet," she said.
"It's still early. You could call your girlfriends and cancel."
She opened the apartment door and, with a stabilizing hand on his shoulder, stepped into her high heels. "I make promise. I keep it."
"Come back after breakfast, then. Help me out with Janet."
Tala pressed herself against him in the briefest hug. "I help enough today." Then she took command of her suitcase. "I call you sometime."
"See you bye-bye Spencer." She walked slowly to the elevator. Not a single glance over her shoulder.
She'd be back; any other scenario didn't fit. Not in his experience. She'd be back, if only for a couple more rounds. He shut the door, wondering whether he hoped that was true. What he really needed was sleep. As he passed the guest room, he heard the shower running. Another woman anxious to leave. Then he spotted Tala's thong where it had flown to cuddle the baseboard, and he pushed the little bit of lace into his pocket. Had she gone without today? Had she anticipated breezes swirling beneath her lime green dress? He pictured her swinging along the sidewalk, smiling at the sensation, pink lace waving from her suitcase to passersby. Yeah, he thought, that's my girl.