by Naira Kuzmich
First of all, don’t complicate things. You only need one card. If you’re a Persian-Jew, be Persian. If you’re a poor Arab, that’s great, that’s quite sad, but also a bit redundant. Just say which country, which village you’re from. If you’re mixed, pick the one with the most syllables or better, the one currently being bombed. If you’re American-born anything, remember: you are not American enough and you never will be. Pick a card and embrace it.
This is how it’ll go down. You’ll be at a lounge with your friends. You’ll be wearing a dress that is two sizes too small for your chest and barely manages to get around your hips. But don’t worry. This isn’t your fault. You’re not the target audience or the ideal customer. No one makes clothes for you but your grandmother, who still knits those unattractive blue and pink blouses that you wear from time-to-time to make her happy. Your friends think the shirts are kitschy and cute. They’ll be wearing designer jeans with holes in them, sporting cool and ironic tees that say things like “Talk Nerdy to Me” or “Save a Horse: Ride a Cowboy.” They like shopping at thrift stores, like walking down the streets of Silver Lake and Echo Park and feeling one with the people. They pay five dollars for two-dollar tacos from the Korean lady manning the truck ever since the Mexican was sent back. They say, Keep the change.
It’ll be hot and packed inside the lounge and the dress fabric will cling to your skin. You’ll be uncomfortable; you knew you should’ve worn pants but you don’t go out often and you wanted to make this night count. Of course, though you don’t want to admit this to yourself, by now, you know “making it count” means making men want you.
This comes easy for you. It’s in your blood.
The dress will do its job. Men will guide their hands to your stomach, piloting your waist as they make their way towards the crowded bar. They’ll drop their phones impossibly close to your feet. They will bend and rise slowly. You’ll smile meekly, sometimes meeting their eyes, more often not. Your parents raised you better, though not well enough. You’re here, aren’t you?
A faint blush will attack your cheeks, something warm filling your insides. You move your legs slightly closer together. Your thighs are strong and firm, like your mother’s. You’re a woman of the land. No explorer would leave your hearth for the dangerous seas. You are a find. Someone should say things like this to you. In this light, you are stunning.
You begin moving to the music, your neck rolling from left to right, dipping into a bare shoulder as your friend rants about that asshole in HR. You’ll cringe imperceptibly. She uses such ugly words. You don’t like to curse. Your mother poured chili pepper on your tongue when you were nine, when she heard you call your friend a “slut.” Two years later, when she asked you what a virgin was, she smacked you for knowing.
Your hips are your best weapon and they’ll rock and ripple in pleasure once the music picks up. You can’t control yourself. It just does something to you. It’s that beat, that rhythmic pounding, a reminder of distant drums and clashing cymbals; it awakens something in you — a secret throbbing, a fire. Your hands spin in shapes of delicate flowers and birds, of feathered creatures finding flight after periods caged. Remove that clip in your hair. Shake that dark mane of yours wild and free. Let it flood over the valleys of your shoulders. Let it relieve the yearning of your hard terrain. You’ll be an explosion of light.
You’ll see him. He won’t be like all the others. You can tell he’s an artist, someone who’s sensitive. Maybe a writer, maybe a singer of sad songs. He wears a scarf. You’ll try to catch his eye and when he finally notices, you won’t look away. There’s something in his gaze. There’s something there.
Your friends will notice, will push you playfully towards him. “Go to him, girl,” they’ll say. “You deserve a little fun.”
But they don’t understand. You’re not looking for fun. You’re looking for meaning. You’re looking for someone to save you.
Besides, you’re a little old-fashioned, aren’t you? A classy woman — a real throwback to those silent film stars, the beautiful damsels tied to railroad tracks. They don’t make them like you anymore. You’ll wait for him to come to you.
He’ll approach you confidently. He’ll have a beer in his hand and he’ll take a long sip from it when he finally stops in front of you. “You make me nervous,” he’ll say and you’ll be charmed.
Your friends will disappear. Good. They understand this game.
You’ll exchange names. His will be something like John or Jack or Jim — something with a J, something typical and boring. If he’s smart, he’ll make a joke about this. Not like your name. So beautiful. He’ll ask for its meaning. Give it to him. Land of the Canyons. Bringer of Hope. Gazelle Returning From Water. Your people have such a way with words. It’ll excite him. He’ll tell you (you were right!) he’s a writer. You’ll be impressed. He’ll say you’re prettier than anything he’d write. When he goes outside for a smoke, go with him.
He’ll lean against the wall, cigarette in his mouth, and you will stand in front of him, between his feet. You’re tall but he’ll be taller, bigger. He’ll make you feel small and safe. A few bystanders will whistle appreciatively; one or two will say something about your backside. He will throw down his cigarette in disgust and grab your hand, whisper fucking assholes against your skin. He’ll want to defend your honor but you won’t let him. You’ve had enough with all of the fighting.
Lean over and kiss him. You’ll never have done this before but you can tell he’s an amazing kisser. You’ll worry if you’re doing okay — don’t. You’re a natural. When you part for air, he’ll growl against your neck. He’ll say, “What have you done to me?”
He’ll call you the next day and this is where things get difficult, but trust him, trust this — it’ll help you get through the tough times. Lie to your parents about where you’re going and who you’re meeting. Tell them it’s Zainah from Bio 310. Remember? They met her last year. They let you go to that engineering conference in Houston once they saw that she was a sensible girl. She has her head on straight, they said. Her hair covered. You’ll skip lab once or twice a week to squeeze in more time with him. Your grades will falter but if this all goes well, it won’t matter. He’ll take care of you. Stop going to those MCAT prep courses. Free your weeknights.
You two will talk and talk and he’ll hang on to your every single word. He’ll remember everything. He’ll ask a lot of questions. Did you guys have power at night? Did your parents ever protest the regime? What’s it like? He’ll want to know everything about you. You’ll find yourself telling him about some of your outdated traditions, about mother-in-laws waving bloodied bed-sheets like flags of honor or new fathers sacrificing lambs to ensure the survival of their sons. You’ll say some phrases you learned as a kid, sing a few lullabies, and they’ll roll off your tongue like stones thrown from Heaven, sounding lovelier than ever. He will lap them up like honey. Tell me more, he’ll insist. Say it again. But slower. Slower.
He’ll take you places. He’ll know his city like the back of his hand. He’ll love to travel. This’ll be yet another thing you’ll have in common. You come from a nomadic people and he is the son of conquistadors. You will kiss his eyes as he struggles to remember a poem in bed. You will hold his hand inside a tapas bar as he cries about his dead grandfather. He’ll talk and talk and you’ll listen. He’ll have an incredible speaking voice and though his life won’t be as exciting as yours, his stories will captivate you. You will never have imagined such intimacies. You were a product of an arranged marriage. Your mother’s wide hips sealed the deal. Your parents never really liked each other. But you — you have found love. Consider yourself blessed.
Your parents will find out about him. It won’t be your fault, or his — he just couldn’t help himself. He was being thoughtful. He will have sent you a Valentine’s Day bouquet in the mail. You won’t hold it against him when your father calls you a whore, throwing the flowers in your face, the thorns scratching your cheeks and giving them a nice, red glow. Was it worth it, he’ll ask. Did he make you feel special? Look your father in the eye and tell him yes. He’ll call you a fool. He’ll spit at your feet.
Pack your stuff while your mother weeps in the bathroom. Don’t forget to take your grandmother’s handmade quilt, the one collecting dust underneath your bed. Now you’ve found a use for it. Imagine making love to him on its rough surface.
Leave before they shut you out of the house. Because they will — you’re sure of it. You won’t look back.
When he comes to pick you up, he’ll say that he loves you, that he’s going to marry you, that he can’t wait to see you round with his kid.
But promise, he’ll say. Promise at the wedding we’ll slaughter a cow like your people do.
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The Cut by Nicholas Rombes
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Writer in Residence:
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