Stories

Al Pacino – Meghan Lamb

She is afraid that she can’t give him what he wants. She has this flicker of a reservation, reading, and re-reading, and re-reading her host’s cryptic confirmation message on the website: I look forward to sharing my home and showing you a good time. ; ) It is the ; ) wink that sparks her fear. The ; ) wink implies a promise. It implies some mutual agreement about what it means to share his home, about the nature of this good time, and about conditions upon which her short-term stay might be contingent.
        She has a bad taste in her mouth. It is the the bile rising in her throat: late-night falafel with too many pickled onions, with too many shots of brandy she was pressured into drinking with some other young men who were staying at the hostel.
        She made a mistake with the last wink-message she received from an apartment host, the mistake of assuming it was meaningless. But there was meaning, in the meaninglessness—novocaine-limbs, nothing-brain—the fog that she inflicted on herself. Between the moment he began unbuckling his belt—proclaiming, I’ve been waiting for this—and when he stood back up, and re-buckled his belt, saying, what did you expect, and what a disappointment, and—this resonates the most with her, within her—I have never been with such a dead fish.
        She doesn’t want to be a dead fish. She did not set out to travel on her own—so brave, her ex-boyfriend commended her—to be passive thing. A thing that doesn’t feel. A thing that doesn’t learn. A thing that doesn’t move. A thing that doesn’t come to life.

_

And so, she shuffles through her backpack for her one clean pair of sexy underwear (a bright red thong, which matches nothing that she brought), her one clean bra (which isn’t sexy, but smells least of cigarettes) and puts them on, under the cold and greenish bathroom light.
        She puts on several layers he would have to peel off: fleece-lined tights under jeans, three long-sleeved shirts, a flannel hooded sweatshirt. It is necessary, since the only coat she brought—coming through western Europe, in the Autumn—is inadequate. She doesn’t mind, though. There is something in the ritual of wrapping herself up—shifting the heavy backpack on her shoulders—that reminds her, I am in a new place. I am carrying a lot with me. One layer, damaged, lost…it doesn’t matter.

_

It’s early morning, still dark. Right around the time when she’d be getting up for work, if she had kept that miserable office job. She’d rush through showering, and swallowing some hurried mess of breakfast, tear the hairbrush through her hair, the toothbrush through her teeth, and rush around, panicking, looking for the ever-disappearing keys, afraid of being late, losing her boss’s favor, losing her job, and some other deeper, unidentifiable loss buried in those losses. Well, thank goodness she is done with that.
        She pours a Ziplock bag of dirty coins into her hand, and sifts through them, various sizes, imprints of mysterious seals, mustached men whose names she couldn’t even start to guess at if you asked her, Who is that, and what did he do for this country? She gets an instant coffee from the vending machine by the hostel’s entrance. Even instant coffee is so good, here. She sips slowly, savoringly, thinking, it will be so hard to go back to the States, where good coffee is never cheap.
        She shrugs her backpack on, and shifts her shoulders to adjust its weight. Tramps down the main street, through the Old Town with its brick square, shuttered wooden market booths, an ancient church with gable points that loom like open jaws, a glazed roof, tiles gleaming, like the scales of a dragon. She feels content to shuffle through the cold and empty streets. Content to find a rhythm in the crunching of her boots. Content to see the concrete blocks, rising along her path, the concrete station, stretching out before her, with its rusted sign, Cyrillic lettering.
        Content, mostly, to see the stray dogs and the homeless men, collapsed in heaps like garbage bags around the concrete station. It is sad to see, of course, but here, she feels a certain lightness. They are not her people, after all, and it is not her problem.
        Content, mostly, whenever she gets quivers of that morning dread—residual, and inescapable, knowing that she can’t be like this forever, moving aimlessly forever, deeper, deeper into Europe, where it’s cheaper to prolong her stay—imagining the stories she will tell her ex-boyfriend, when she returns, and he returns—to her—about the beauty of the cold fog, and the beauty of the concrete towers, and the beauty of these sad things—yes, an unsettling beauty in the sad things—over there.

_

She will not tell him how she botches all her interactions with the locals, like the woman working at the ticket booth. She tries to come prepared, her message pre-translated, pulled up on her phone. Presses the phone against the plexiglass. One ticket, one way, please.
        The ticket woman makes a look like she just farted in her face. No good, she shakes her head.
        She writes a message in her notebook—in Cyrillic—from the phone translation. Presses it against the plexiglass, and points up to the wall clock, which is broken.
        The woman repeats, no good, with an irritated look. Says something in her language. Coughs. Does not cover her mouth.
        She sighs, and messages her contact, hoping he’s awake, aware that she is adding to the list of what she owes.

_

She boards an old Soviet train—a beautiful train, like a model toy—with booths and sliding doors, curtains that smell of smoke and dust. Corpses of coffee cups, boot-crushed in sludge, along the floor. An ancient metal radiator, rattling away. She settles in, propping her feet up on her backpack. Watches as the train pulls from the city center, through the suburbs with their boxy little cottages, free-roaming chickens, goats milling and bleating, and the mountains darkly rising in the distance. All of the air above her chest is ice-cold, and the air below her knees is hot, thanks to the mighty little radiator. The old device makes ghostly vapor-steam, a halo, hovering. The old Soviet train makes phantom trails of exhaust.
        She puts her headphones on. Puts on a mix of Roma music her ex-boyfriend made for her when they first broke up, for his Fulbright. He left to do some study on the Roma people, something about music and migration. She does not remember, now. But she remembers how the three months that she spent with him—meandering days, musty-smelling bookstores, buying records off the bottom shelves—felt like the closest thing to home she had experienced, and she was hurt, surprised, to learn he didn’t feel the same.
        She wants to understand this music, build some kind of kinship with these vibrant voices and this galloping percussion, but it never seems to want her, never seems to want to let her in, and always feels like it’s moving too fast, running out of reach.
        The mountains, meanwhile, are now looming closer, closer, and the train is climbing up a slope. She feels a hard wind, shivering the walls. She tells herself to be brave. She is brave, for being here, alone. She doesn’t feel brave, though. She feels very, very much alone.
        Until, quite suddenly, the Roma music is disrupted by the shudder of the sliding door, and then a clanking rattle. A thin blonde man with craggy skin and hollow cheeks sits down across from her, holding two bulging canvas bags. One bag is filled with tinny-looking metal kitchenware. Pots, pans, and spatulas, a kettle, and a cutting board. The other bag is filled with fruits and vegetables. Round shapes like onions, apples, and potatoes, muddy-looking fronds, dark rope-stems coiling down into his lap.
        He sits in silence, looking at her for what feels like a long time.
        Reaches in his bag.
        Takes out a small, dark apple.
        He regards the apple, dangling it from its stem, pinched in-between two fingertips.
        Shifts side to side, twirling the apple round and round.
        He rubs the apple on the frayed hem of his sweater, reaches down into the other bag.
        Pulls out a small, sharp knife.
        He points the sharp end of the knife toward her for a flicker of a moment before slicing down into the apple’s skin.
        He drops the strand of peeled skin onto the floor.
        Swallows the small, white nub of what remains.
        He barely needs to chew it.
        Clears his throat.
        Says something in his language that she doesn’t understand.
        Oh, sorry, she says. Sorry, um…hello?
        He claps, sending a tinny shiver through the kitchenware. Aha! English!
        She lowers her voice. Um, American.
        Aha! American! He claps again. Fucking American! You fucking bomb Iran, fucking American! His teeth are bared in what appears to be a smile.
        She can’t judge his relation to the statement he just made. He doesn’t look Iranian, she thinks. But what does she know, after all?
        She can’t begin to take account for all she doesn’t know, let alone take account for all she doesn’t know she doesn’t know.
        Moments like these—when she has no authority to read the situation, to respond correctly, to respond safely—she takes a kind of panic-inventory.
        Feels her gut clench. Glances at his knife.
        Feels her hands tighten. Glances at his Adam’s apple.
        Feels her knees quiver. Glances at his groin.
        He sees her glance, and cocks his chin.
        She realizes she has not responded verbally.
        I’m…sorry. Well, I…didn’t bomb them, personally.
        He makes eye contact.
        Pale blue fog.
        She can’t find the core of what he’s feeling.
        Flecks of moisture gleaming in his hair.
        His smoky breath—in ragged waves, in and out, in and out, between them.
        She smells something acrid, something acid, something in the soil darkness of his breath, lingering from the apple.
        And then, he claps his hands again. Articulates a fake laugh.
        Ha. Ha. Ha.
        Do not worry. It is good, American.
        He rolls a cigarette, and lights it.
        Sucks in.
        Shuts his eyes, like he has just ignited something sweet that he must savor.
        He breathes a stream of smoke around her.
        Stands to leave.
        He tips his head.
        Good day, American. We hold no grudge, here in my country.

_

After a few stops, the train pulls up to the station that her contact named for her to get off at. There is no sign post, but she sees the name in metal lettering across the station’s roof. She’s so unsettled by the conversation that she almost misses it.
        She disembarks, thinking, thank goodness that I noticed it. She sets her bag down on the platform. Wood boards, slick with ice. She stretches, yawns, and looks around. The station’s smaller than it seemed from the train window, just a concrete shelter. And there’s no one else there. Only her.
        And there is no town, not the kind her contact mentioned. All she sees are hills and birch trees, streams of distant smoke from far-off chimneys.
        A hard gust hits her, and she feels like she’s been slapped.
        She realizes, no, this isn’t right. This can’t be right. I’m in the wrong place.
        I’m in another country, all alone, and in the wrong place.
        I’m cold, and all alone, and in the wrong place.
        But by the time she has this thought, the train has started pulling out, and it’s too late to change her mind and get back on.
        Bare platform. Bare trees. And a dirt road, like a jagged scar, just barely gleaming through the snow. She tells herself, don’t panic. Breathe. She forces herself to breathe deeply, from the gut. Counts back from ten, the way her therapist instructed, when she had that office job. Closes her eyes. Feels cold air bristling. Opens her eyes. Searches around her bag, and finds her cell phone. There’s no service. She stares dumbly at the useless bar of plastic in her hand, and takes a gulp of air—so desperate, so deep—she almost gags.
        The cold air stings her throat, her wide eyes, and she thinks, a dying fish, a dead fish, dead fish, dead fish, dead fish, dead…She keeps repeating dead fish in her head until it is a rhythm, something separate from the meaning of the words.
        She manages to catch her breath, somewhere within this rhythm. Sees there is a gas station a few kilometers off down the road. She takes one last deep breath, and hoists her backpack on her shoulders. Shifts, and starts to march along the scar-dirt road, toward the station.

_

The walk is farther than it looked. She bows her head and grits her teeth. Her heavy bag digs down into her collar bone. The straps pull back against her shoulders and her chest, like two strong arms, and every step feels like a struggle to escape. She gets a sharp pain in her neck that radiates down through her shoulders, starts to travel through her veins, into her wrists, her fingertips. When she at last crosses the station lot—moving from sludgy dirt to gravel—she can barely grip the handle of the door.
        Inside, it’s warm, and oddly dim. There is a woman with a thistle-colored head scarf, singing softly as she sweeps the floor. A tall man with a buzzed gray haircut stands behind the counter, which is filled with packages of cigarettes, and loaves of bread. There is a Nescafe machine and stacks of paper cups. A single rusty chair, tucked in a corner. Nothing else.
        The man’s face softens instantly when he turns toward her. He says something in his language, and looks worried when she doesn’t understand. He repeats what he said, more slowly.
        I’m…American, she says. American English.
        He shakes his head. Ah, ahhh. American.
        He takes a paper cup and fills it from the Nescafe machine. He points to it—mimes that he’s drinking—points to her.
        American? Starbucks cafe? He says.
        That’s right, she says.
        American? Coca Cola?
        Uh huh, she says, not quite sure what he’s getting at.
        American? American football?
        Mhm, American football.
        American football, number one. He pats at his heart.
        She takes the Nescafe and drinks it gratefully. It’s scalding on the first sip. By the second, somehow, it’s lukewarm.
        You, where, American? He points out at the window, shrugs. You, where?
        I took the train, she points in the direction of the tracks. I took the train out here, and I got off at the wrong station. Wrong…station? She nibbles at her lip, not quite sure what to say, or how to say it. I am lost, she says. She points a finger toward herself, and taps her chest repeatedly. Wrong station. I am lost.
        He seems to understand lost—or, he seems to think he understands—because he turns toward the woman with the head scarf, says something to her in his language, and rambles for awhile. They both look and sound extremely serious.
        American, you come. He makes a beckoning gesture. You come. My home, you come.
        She says, oh. Oh. She’s caught off guard. It dawns on her that she trekked out here with no real understanding of what she might need—or get—beyond the vague notion of help. And he is offering to help. She does not want to seem ungrateful, or insult him, or to make him think, a typical American. He makes a sweeping motion with his hands, then walks toward the back door. He opens the door, then holds it for her to walk through.

_

Outside, he unlocks an old, boxy vehicle: gray-blue and rust. Two thin red strips that wrap around the base, even the bumper. Bare, long branches of the trees, in chopped reflections on the windows. Gleams and shadows in the dust. Dark shivers. Black and blue veins. She gets into the back seat, sits on an ornate tapestry rug that has been draped over some flecks in the upholstery. She sees a dark brown stain, edging out from the rug. A burst. She traces it. Her heartbeat catches in her throat. She thinks, I’m making a mistake. But he has turned the key, now, and she hears it click. She hears the engine coughing, smells exhaust. She knows it is too late.

_

As they drive through the snowy fields, steep dirt mounds, she thinks, it isn’t as though this is the first strange thing that has happened on this trip. There was the time her shampoo burst inside her bag, and she went to a laundromat where everyone took off the clothes that they were wearing, tossed their shirts, their skirts, their trousers, into the machines, and stood around—near-naked—waiting as their clothing sloshed and frothed inside those round screens.
Tall, thin men with hairy nipples.
        Short, stout men with bald heads, thick necks.
        Women with tired eyes and worn slips, shades of irritated skin.
        And, so, of course, when they looked over at her—curiously or judgmentally—she took her sweater off, her blue jeans off, her undershirt off, until she was almost naked, too. And she felt naked—fully naked—standing underneath the droning lights, her goose-pricked arms, her hairs vibrating on-end in the cold. But they looked back at her approvingly, like she had done the right thing, and she felt that she had done the right thing, felt a certain pride in her resistance to the part of her that cried, no, no, please, don’t expose yourself, a certain twinge of masochistic pride at overriding her Americanness, her own internal modest squirmings, to the end that she began to want to take it all off, stand bare-breasted, bare-assed: Are you satisfied, now? Am I one of you?

_

This is the same, she thinks. He’s doing what he thinks is right. It’s kind of him. And who am I to turn away his kindness simply because he is unfamiliar, and I am uncomfortable? I have been uncomfortable before. I was fine.
And furthermore—a little spark flickers, and builds, warmer, and warmer in her chest—this is a story, this will make for a good story. Getting lost, and getting rescued—a good story, when she tells it to her ex-boyfriend—how life is different, over there.

_

They pull up to a plaster-white house with clay shingles, to a set of wide, wooden garage doors. He unlatches them. Shifts into the garage. She hears the key click, sits in stillness, waiting for him to get out, come to her side, open the door for her.
        He leads her through the garage to a room with honey-colored wood floors and a bulky built-in entertainment system. The system swallows most of the room with a set of shelves and drawers, big-screen TV, big expensive-looking speakers. There is a tiny octagonal coffee table made of glazed mahogany, the kind of thing her grandparents had in their house. There are two mis-proportioned couches in dark brown velour, a window with lace curtains that are drawn, letting in grayish light.
        He takes his shoes off at the door, places them on a shelf with ballerina flats, high-heels, new-looking athletic shoes. He turns toward her, gestures questioningly toward her own shoes.
        Oh, I’m sorry. She looks helplessly down at her filthy mud-caked boots.
        He smiles. Ah, no. Please.
        He kneels down and motions for her to extend her foot. She turns her body to an accessible point for him. He gently slides her boot into his hands, and takes a handkerchief out from his pocket—white, lace trim—and spits into the center.
        She watches awkwardly, unsure if she should stop him as he scrapes the delicate kerchief along the soles of both boots, catching clumps of muck, until it is entirely mud-sodden, soaked and ruined, and her boots are barely any cleaner than before.
        He reaches in his other pocket and takes out another delicate white handkerchief. Unfolds it, spreads it on the shelf. He sets the boots down on it, rolls the soiled handkerchief up like a mummy. Tucks the soiled mummy in a nook behind the shelf. There’s something in the way he does this—something in the tender ceremony, something in the weirdly pointless sacrifice—that makes her shudder, makes her stomach quiver with uneasiness. But she corrects herself. She thinks, don’t think like that. Don’t question what you don’t know.
        He goes to rinse his hands.
        She tries to follow.
        Ah, no! Please, he shakes his head. No, please, he holds one finger in the air, and shuffles off. She hears the groaning of the pipes as he turns on the tap. She hears the sound of slick flesh, squirting, water splashing, bristles scrubbing.
        She hears a drawer slide open. Slide shut. He returns, holding a pair of petal pink velveteen slippers on his open palm. He pets the slippers, soothingly. Extends them to her, like an offering. Yes? Please, American.
        She takes the slippers. Thank you.
        She bends her knee up, like a stork, and carefully removes her wet sock. Rolls it tightly, sets it down beside the kerchief mummy. Her hand brushes against the mummy, and she shudders. She removes the other sock and slips her naked feet into the slippers.
        She hears some muffled speaking in their language, hears the creaking of a door. A middle-aged woman emerges, tip toes mousily into the room. She wears a wrap dress with a turtleneck beneath it, and a stiffly coiffed hairstyle, hands folded in front of her. A thin girl follows her, head bowed, her shoulders slouching low, as though she wants to duck into the woman’s skirt. It’s difficult to tell how old she might be. She is tall, with strong, sharp bones, but wearing what appears to be a child’s pastel sweatsuit. Another door creaks, and a young man joins the family procession. He is tall and trim, wearing a striped athletic warmup suit. His side-swept hair is sweaty, and his skin is slightly pink-flushed, like he’s just been interrupted in some physical exertion.
        The father introduces them, pronouncing names she can’t pronounce. They nod toward her, each in turn, grave-faced, as he pronounces them.
        For her, he simply points, and says: American.
        Their faces brighten, and they take a few steps closer.
        Ah! American!
        The father hovers by his son, and puts his hand upon his shoulder. Presses down. The son’s lips fold together, like he’s pressing hard. The father murmurs something in the son’s ear, in his language. The son whispers something that sounds like hissing.
        The son reaches his hand toward her, timidly. She clasps it. It is warm. She feels a callous, and the sharpness of a scab. He grasps her own hand with a worried firmness, as though he is catching something—slipping—that he doesn’t want to break.
        Good afternoon, he says, enunciating very slowly, carefully. Good afternoon. Good afternoon. How do you do?
        I’m doing well, she says.
        He tilts his head ambiguously. Doing well, he repeats. I am listening. Studying. English language.
        There is a beat of silence. She can hear the radiator crackling and bubbling, the wind howling outside.
        He clears his throat. Now, I am practicing, he says. Now, I am practicing. Practicing. I am practicing…His voice trails off.
        She nods. She feels her facial muscles twitching. Straining. Worries what her mouth and eyes are telling him, against her will. He looks like he is waiting for her to say something, so she offers, I got off at the wrong station, and your father drove me to your home.
        Welcome. Welcome to our home, he says, squinting at her, like he’s trying hard to replicate her accent and her emphasis. Welcome…to our home, he corrects himself, a little strangely. I am fine, thank you. Thank you. Thank you, he says. He blinks.
        Thank you…for the kind welcome. She looks down, regards the small nubs of her toes shifting inside the velveteen skin of the slippers. She feels wary of them: these strange, velveteen-skinned animals, an unfamiliar species she has never seen before.
        She wonders just how long this play of guest and host will last. She thinks about her contact, how she hasn’t contacted him, and about how if she doesn’t make contact soon, it will get dark, it will get colder, and she might be without a place to stay.
        You are most absolutely welcome, he half bows. I wish someday to go abroad. To go someday to the United States.
        Where would you like to go? She asks.
        Los Angeles, he says. Or Delaware.
        Delaware? She stifles a chuckle. Why?
        He looks confused. There is a silence as he processes her question. Perhaps it was unfair of her to ask something like that. It was not so long ago, after all, that this country was a mere name on the map for her, an outline full of mystery.
        He smiles with a sudden warmth, though. An aha look, like she’s given him a gift, something surprising, unexpectedly desired.
        Delaware is near the ocean. The Atlantic, he says. I do wish to see it. Very, very much. The ocean.
_

The mother scurries to the kitchen and returns holding a tray with dishes: one with gingerbread cookies, one with some broken pieces of a chocolate bar, one with a block of marzipan, and one with thin-peeled slices of an underripe pear. The mother sets the tray down on the octagonal coffee table, motions for them all to sit around the tray, and eat. The mother takes a tiny piece of chocolate, nibbles it performatively.
        Oh. She takes a chocolate. Thank you very much.
        The father also takes a chocolate. Good, American, he says. You like? He gestures toward the television screen.
I like…TV? Yes, sure, she says. I like TV.
        He beams. Ah, good. TV is good. He turns the television on.
        The screen dawns on some kind of old soft-focused rerun. It appears to be a kind of European Lawrence Welk show, with a dozen men and women twirling round and round—in puffed sleeves, aprons, floral print suspenders—to a man playing accordion.
        The father quickly changes channels. Ah. No good. Clicks through a beer commercial for some local version of Budweiser, through a McDonald’s ad for some local burger with some paprika spiced ketchup. Lingers strangely on a dubbed ad for Great Lash mascara. She has seen this ad in English, she now realizes. Seeing it, here, in their language, she feels oddly threatened by the close-up, blown-up bulbs of eyes, the architecture of these big, black lashes, coiling out like cables down across the screen.
        Click. Click. Click. Click. A man with dark, disheveled hair, waving his arms around, in white sleeves. Oh! She recognizes this!
        It’s Dog Day Afternoon! She points. That’s Al Pacino, there, the actor.
        Al Pacino, the son murmurs. Al Pacino.
        It is the moment in the film just after Al Pacino’s taken hostages inside the bank, in desperation, hoping to gain leverage amidst a poor-planned robbery gone wrong, the first time he approaches the policeman to negotiate.
        The actor, Al Pacino, he is scared, she narrates. He just tried to rob the bank. No good. All wrong. So, here, he tries to fix it.
        The son’s eyes gleam with understanding as he retranslates her summary into their language, and his father, mother, sister nod.
        The camera pans around the buildings, taking Al Pacino’s point of view as he surveys how helplessly entrapped he is. Snipers positioned on the eaves, in front of him, and flanked on all sides, and a thick crowd of policemen at the ready. Pacino’s eyes are deep set, wide. There’s something in his aspect, like a man caught in a tunnel, looking up into what little light there is. Pacino’s mouth moves, but the voice that comes out isn’t his. It is some overdubbed translation. Stiff and tinny. Wrong for him.
        The policeman who’s negotiating with Pacino then responds. His overdubbed voice also sounds all wrong, amusingly high-pitched. Pacino’s eyes ignite. He makes a kissing motion.
        Oh! She gleams with recognition. Oh! So, here, he’s saying, kiss me. When I’m being fucked—she giggles with uncertainty—when I’m being fucked, I like to get kissed a lot.
        The son explodes with laughter. When I’m being fucked, he echoes.
        When I’m being fucked, she echoes back his echo. Yes, that’s right.
        He stammers something in his language, and the family laughs with them, and he makes a kissing motion. When I’m being fucked!
        Pacino is now chanting Attica, Attica, Attica, rousing the crowd to chant along in unison, Attica, Attica, Attica, louder, louder, louder, drowning out the cops, and slowly gaining some kind of control.

_

The light behind the lacy curtain blooms to red-gold.
        The mother brings a pot of coffee, which she feels obliged to drink.
        Meanwhile, the son retreats into a corner of the couch, cradling his smart phone, with headphones on, and grinning privately.
        Over her shoulder, she can see he’s watching clips of scenes from Scarface, The Godfather, other scenes from Dog Day Afternoon.
        He looks up intermittently, whispers conspiratorily, American, American. I’m being fucked.

_

The light behind the curtain dims to violet.
        Anxious fear coils in her stomach, tightening, and tightening.
        She knows the window for polite departure is now waning, has now waned, but she’s afraid of seeming impolite, ungrateful to her hosts.
        She makes eye contact with the father. Sir…the train? The bus? I think…I mean…perhaps? She gestures feebly to the door.
        The father shakes his head, pulls back the curtain in response. The sky is blurred with snow and wind, an inhospitable landscape.
        The mother beckons them into the kitchen, and the fear coils tighter in her gut. She is a vegetarian, and she has learned from past experience that dinner is a very, very fraught time for potential high offense with hosts who eat meat.
        She stayed with one host who looked worried when she didn’t eat the stew. He pointed to his ribs, his collarbone, and pointed to her. Eat, please, eat. She tried to soothe his worry, downing extra wine, and had to then excuse herself to vomit in the bathroom.
        Another family she stayed with tried to serve her rice with ham, and when she raised her hand to signal, please, no thank you, I can’t eat this, the host mother’s eyes welled up, and she then made a heart shape with her hands over her chest, and mimed it breaking, shattering.
        But there is clearly no escaping this arrangement. She is led into a brightly tiled kitchen, to a dining table with a lace embroidered cloth. Her stomach growls as she surveys the table, surprised and delighted with the range of dishes she can eat: fresh-baked bread with a basil and tomato spread, a beet and apple salad, spinach pie, grilled eggplants trimmed with pomegranate seeds and pureed walnuts. She allows herself to exhale, sitting down to join the family, not quite believing she could be this lucky.
        Then—of course—the mother shuffles to the stove top, and brings out a giant platter of coiled sausages in shades of violent black and red. Charred crisps of cracked intestine. Pools of bloody juice and fat. The puckered, burned tips of the skin sacks, like so many sets of pursed lips. As the father spears a sausage, gleefully, she hears a sickening pop-hiss of air, inhales a sulfuric smell. The sausage drips a splat of red grease right into the middle of the fresh-baked bread. He spears another sausage, offers it to her.
        She shakes her head, defeatedly. I’m sorry. I’m a vegetarian.
        He moves the spear closer as though to say, no, I insist.
        I am a vegetarian. I don’t eat meat, she says, more urgently.
        He laughs, for some strange reason, and the mother also laughs.
        The son makes eye contact with her, and seems to understand what’s wrong. He reaches out, snatches the spear, and lays the sausage on his own plate. He says something in their language which makes all of them stop cold. The father’s eyes darken. They argue, back and forth, in their language.
        The son points at the father, makes a mocking monstrous face.
        And the father points at his son, makes a gesture with his hands like flapping wings, waving his fingertips around like little feathers, or like something delicate is drifting through the air.
        American, the son grins wildly, and winks. He takes a knife into his fist, and beats a rhythm on the tabletop. Attica, Attica, Attica, Attica, he chants. Attica, Attica, Attica, Attica, Attica!
        The daughter giggles, takes her own knife in her hand, and starts to chant along with him. Attica, Attica! And soon, the family is chanting, Attica, Attica, Attica, and all the hostile tension is forgotten.

_

After they’ve finished dinner, the son beckons her into the kitchen. You will want coffee in the morning, I believe. He shows her where to find the stovetop percolator in the cabinet, and how to measure just the right amount of grounds. He even demonstrates for her, using the stove. The coffee starts to hiss, then bubble, then it makes a stronger churling sound. The churling dissipates into a low, deep growl.
        When it is making this sound, says the son, you know.
        She nods. That sound means it is done.
        He guides her to the bathroom, taps a white box mounted on the wall. This is the mechanism that supplies warmth in the water. I believe you do not use it, in America?
        She shakes her head.
        You have to do this—-he points to a dial, turns it—many minutes, 20, 30, before washing.
        What if I forget? She asks, feeling a flicker of that old, familiar morning dread.
        He wraps his arms around his shoulders, mimes that he is shivering, teeth chattering exaggeratedly.
        She laughs.
        He opens up a drawer in the sink that’s filled with unwrapped toothbrushes. It’s strange, she thinks, that they would have a full drawer, dedicated to this. Surely they don’t host a lot of travelers, living remotely as they do. And yet, now, here she is.
        He leads her to the last door on the left side of the hallway. You will sleep here, with my sister, I believe, he says. He passes her the toothbrush with a strange intense look. Turns over his shoulder as he crosses the hall, into his own room.

_

The daughter’s bedroom is a kind of sickly pale pink, with faded, water-damaged wallpaper, a print like pastel doilies. There is a blood-dark shape within the center of each pastel doily that resembles an anatomical heart. There are two twin beds, and the sister claims the twin bed on the right, peeling her sweatsuit off, and tossing it down on her mattress. She’s wearing weird, high-waisted, nubby flesh-toned cotton underwear. Her breasts are timid little skin puffs, mostly made of nipple.
        The daughter watches her as she unzips her backpack and removes a pair of soft gray leggings, an old t-shirt that used to belong to her ex-boyfriend. It’s a t-shirt for a band she’s never listened to. That he no longer listens to. He said that she could have it.
        The daughter takes the pastel sweatshirt she was wearing, holds it up over her naked body like a paper doll. She points down at the old band t-shirt, then points at the backpack, points to herself. Cocks her head a little to the side, questioningly.
        You…want to wear one of my t-shirts while you sleep?
        The daughter nods enthusiastically.
        Okay…um…Is this one alright?
        She offers up a marled maroon shirt with a cartoon illustration of an owl that reads: I DON’T GIVE A HOOT.
        The daughter nods, and takes it. Slides it on slowly, and reverently. It fits strangely on her, too short and too wide. The daughter sweeps her hair back, shimmies side to side, like she is modeling.
        Oh…nice, she says, not quite sure what to think.

_

That night—as every other—she thinks of her ex-boyfriend. Sleeps on the left side of the small bed, out of habit, estimating—in her memory—the sliver of the space his frame would occupy, sleeping with his back turned toward her, on the right side of the bed. She breathes in deep. There is an unappealing night smell in this house, something like stale, old root vegetables, and rust. And it is cold. She burrows down into the feather comforter, the cold rust-root smell muffling into a nest of animal warmth.
        Why am I here? She shuts her eyes and tries, and tries, and tries to replicate the smell of him, to trace his warm smell through her memory, the smell of her own body, through the smell of her own warmth, this warmth that stirs a haunting in this blanket of dead feathers.
        Outside, the air breathes hard frost, battering the window with a high-pitched, keening whine. Inside, the sister’s making strange sounds in her sleep, dark-throated sounds from somewhere deep within her body, somewhere deep within her night-body, its own mystery language.
        Why am I here? Why am I here? Why am I here? Her mind echoes into the dark, until the question bends and warps into Why him?
        Why him? Why here?
        She doesn’t know. She never did know why, or what he might be thinking, with his back turned toward her in the dark.

_

She makes a point of waking early, just before dawn, so she will not interrupt her hosts, so she will have plenty of time to find her way. She has been lost before, of course. The main thing is to get your bearings, get over the shock of being somewhere that you didn’t plan to be. She moves softly along the hall, into the bathroom. Sets the dial carefully, satisfied by the low hum that it makes. She tiptoes to the kitchen, gently opens up the cabinet, measures the coffee, the water, measuring the sounds of wind against the window, all the creaking groaning of the house, shifting in on its bones, listening for the creaking of a door, a footstep, or a voice.
        The whisper of a boil.
        The hissing, churling, bubbling.
        And the insistent growling of: remove me, I am done.
        She stands and sips, trying to still the nervous twitching of her curiosity—Why am I here? Where am I?—shivering within her veins. She starts to pace a bit, inspecting, opening the metal breadbox, opening the boxy little fridge. The inner-fridge appears innocuous enough, some plastic baskets of light yellow peppers and tomatoes, bottled water, bottled wine.
        She shifts around the living room. Peeks out the lacy curtain and confirms her fears: they are in utter isolation. There is a long dirt road, mostly obscured in snow. Some frozen wheat fields, in the distance. Snow and wheat. And that is all that she can see.
        But, most alarmingly: she notices a metal object on the door, a metal bar spanning across the door frame to a space above the doorknob. At first, it looks like an ordinary door latch one would lock and unlock manually from inside the house. But there is something else, there, on the hinge piece that’s supposed to latch and unlatch, an opening for some kind of turn key.
        A part that cannot be released without the turn key.
        A part that cannot be opened without permission.

_

After she has the first hot shower she has had in weeks, however, she decides that she is being paranoid. Surely there’s some good reason for the inside lock, perhaps some practice or tradition she is unfamiliar with.
        She twists apart the little percolator, taps the muddy coffee grounds into the bin, and rinses off the spout, the base, the strainer. She arranges all these parts amidst the silverware and dishes that are drying out, already on the rack. She realizes she has stayed with several hosts, and never done the dishes, never made anything for herself inside their kitchens. It is satisfying, in a way. She looks forward, in fact, to learning why they have an inside lock. She looks forward, most of all, to telling her ex-boyfriend about the reason for it. A good story, she reminds herself. Yes, an experience.
        She hears the son wake first. He doesn’t leave his room, but she can hear him yawning, hear his bedsprings groaning, hear him putting on some music. Something loud filtering through his headphones, muffled roaring, muffled wailing, muffled static, a quiet cacophony.
        She hears the father and the mother waking at the same time, speaking softly in their language. Opening and closing drawers. They emerge after a few minutes, both fully dressed. The mother nods and beckons for her to sit at the table.
        The mother strikes a match, and lights the stove. Opens the breadbox, slices up the bread leftover from the night before. She fries the bread inside a pan, and sets it on the table with a bowl of fresh tomatoes and a dish of cream with dill.
        The father sits across from her, and takes a slice of bread, a scoop of cream, a few tomatoes. Passes her the plate.
        Good sleep, he says.
        Good sleep, yes, thank you, she replies.
        Good food, he gestures to the bread.
        She nods. Yes, thank you. It is good.
        The son emerges next from his room. He is wearing wired headphones. She can now hear the abrasive textures of his music. As he moves closer, closer down the hall, the music builds from hissing whisper to a sharp rain, to a maelstrom of static. He does not look up, at first, but simply ambles to the cabinet and grabs a packaged bar. As he unwraps the foil from the bar, he seems to notice her. His eyes widen a bit. He says something to his father, in their language, gestures in her direction. The father says something in response that makes his eyes enormous, and he jolts, yanking the cord out from his headphones. The kitchen suddenly explodes with doom growls, harsh guitars, and wraithlike shrieking, drowning out their voices as they argue.
        She cannot ask about the inside lock, of course, in these conditions. She stares down, passively, at the velveteen pink house slippers. She shifts her toes, and notices a tear along the hem, starting to open like a small mouth on the tip of her left foot. She feels ashamed. As though this little tearing at the toe, this little carelessness, this lack of early noticing, triggered the argument, somehow, and somehow led her to this room, this house, to this point in her life. She curls her toes—pinching around the hole—to hide it.
_

After the argument has dissipated, and the mother’s cleared the table off, the father nods toward her, formally.
American, you teach. My son. English. You teach. My son. He pats his son hard on the back. The son writhes underneath his touch.
        Oh…no…no, no, I’m sorry, but I must be going, she says. Could you take me to a bus? A train, please? She implores the father.
        The father simply pulls aside the curtain, and surveys the snow-blanketed landscape. Ah, no. Cold. Too cold, American.
        She turns toward the son with knit brows, trying to appeal to him with her eyes. I’m sorry. You have all been very kind, but it is time for me to leave.
        There is a silence.
        And the radiator rattles.
        And the wind blows.
        And no one acknowledges her.
        She clears her throat, intending to repeat her words, more forcefully, but something catches her, some flickering sensation of her future voice, replaying words that she just spoke, in her mind, in different tones and inflections. In a hard stern voice, Now, it is time for me to leave. A clench-toothed, threatening voice, NOW, it is time for me to leave. A sinister, maniacal one, an unleashing of her pent-up nervous energy, NOW, motherfuckers, it is time for me to leave. She feels the rush, the ringing in her head, the weird release of those words, all distorted, blown out of original proportion, and the shock of feeling them—of hearing them—come out, the instant between feeling them and hearing them, the disembodied purge, the crossing of a boundary. She can’t. She just can’t do it.
Does your father…not understand? She whispers to the son. The words don’t feel like a question, as she says them, as they sound. They feel more like a confession. Something she feels guilty for.
        The son gives her a pained look.
        I am sorry. It is no good.

_

The father pats the chair across from her.
        The son sits, stiffly, watching as his father shuffles through the kitchen, rummaging deep in the cabinets and drawers, searching as he murmurs, hmm, mhmm, mhmmmm, and comes away, seemingly satisfied.
        The father sets a Kit-Kat bar, a mini box of Oreos, a dusty glass bottle of Coca Cola on the table. He moves the objects with a look of concentration, hmm, mhmm, mhmmmm, until he’s spaced them out into a perfect, even line. He stands back, pleased with his tableau, sweeping his hand over the perfect, even line, declaring: American things.
The son says something to his father in their language, and the father snaps at him. The son looks tired. He looks down.
        My son. You teach. American, he says, enunciating slowly, like he’s patiently explaining to a child.
        She reaches out into the middle of the table, looking upward for approval, hesitating to disturb his little line. He nods his head, so she selects the Coca Cola bottle. Pulls it to her side. She leaves an imprint of her fingers on the glass.
        Good morning, young man, she ventures. How are you doing?
        I am fine, thank you, the son responds, still looking down. How are you?
        I am…okay, she says. But I am feeling hungry. I would like a Kit-Kat, please.
        The son looks up. He slowly reaches toward the Kit-Kat bar, making an utterly unreadable face as he takes it. Turns it over in his hand, flipping the Kit-Kat to its backside. He squints hard into the small-print listing of ingredients.
        Wheat. Flour. Cocoa. Butter, he pronounces slowly.
        Yes, she nods, encouragingly.
        Vegetable. Oil. Lactose. Milk. Fat.
        Yes, that’s right.
        Contains 2%…2% or…less of…lethi-lethi…
        Lethicin? She guesses.
        He nods, gratefully. Of lethicin. Salt. Artificial. Flavor. Baking. Soda. Yeast.
        He breathes in deeply for a moment, gulping air in, swallowing, like he has just finished an incredible race.
        He slides the Kit-Kat bar halfway across the table, until it is parallel precisely with the other objects, once again. She reaches out to take the Kit-Kat, brushing fingertips with him. His cheeks flush brightly as she slides the Kit-Kat to her side.
        I feel…thirsty, he says, softly. I feel thirsty.
        Would you like something to drink? She asks.
        He nods. Yes. I would like one Coca Cola, please.
        She slides the Coca Cola bottle toward the center of the table.
        He reaches out, brushes fingertips with her, deliberately.
        Thank you, he says. Thank you…very much. I am so thirsty.
        You are welcome, she says. I am very hungry.
        You are thirsty. I am hungry, he says.
        Yes, that’s right. Thirsty and hungry, she agrees, not knowing what she is agreeing to.

_

The light behind the curtain rises to an icy white.
        They spend the morning like this, conducting a nervous English lesson underneath the father’s watchful gaze. He simply stands and watches them. He doesn’t pretend to be doing something else.
        Around the time the curtain light reaches its peak, the mother quietly removes the Oreos, the Coca Cola bottle, and the Kit-Kat from the table, and prepares a kind of glue-y batter-dough, boils a pot of water, over which she lays a tin slab full of holes. The mother spoons layers of batter-dough onto the slab, and scrapes them down into the tall pot with a spatula. Scrape, scrape. Pop, pop. Scrape, scrape. Pop, pop. The pot bubbles and boils as the mother looms, straining out noodles shaped like spider eggs. At first, she hopes, maybe the mother is preparing lunch for herself, or her husband, or her son. But, no. The sticky mound grows, and steam rises from it, ominously. Clearly, she is making something for the whole entire house.
        She’s meant to stay, and eat, of course. She has to. She feels stuck, already feels the gluey batter sticking in her gut. Her eyes shift back and forth between the door, the lock, the mother and her nest of eggs, the door, the lock, the mother and her nest of eggs.
        The mother sets the table, beckons father, son, and guest. She serves the spider egg-shaped noodles in a soup of curded cheese. The cheese is so fresh that it stings her nose, stirring around her dish. It has a very potent tang, almost like urine.
        Where is the daughter? She thinks, perking her ears for her to emerge. She hears a shuffle down the hall. A thud, like something heavy being moved. Doors opening and closing. More thuds. Finally, the sound of footsteps click, click, clicking gently down the hall.
        Oh! Ah! The mother cries.
        The daughter struts into the kitchen, grinning, beaming.
        She is wearing patent leather heels.
        And a face of garish, neon-colored make-up.
        And a cardigan, a button down shirt, and a corduroy skirt stolen from her backpack.
        Her clothes look strangely slutty, hanging off the daughter’s skinny hips. Do I look slutty? Have I somehow never noticed this? She wonders, as the mother claps gleefully, and the father grins exultantly. The son eats with his head down and does not look up.

_

The daughter scurries to and from her bedroom, all afternoon long, modeling different clothing items taken from the backpack.
        The daughter takes her warmest sweater.
        Takes her favorite pair of jeans.
        Unzips her favorite hoodie to reveal one of her dirty bras.
        Mother and father seem delighted by this little fashion show.
        Sexy American! The father calls out. Taylor Swift!
        What is she doing? What the hell is even happening? She thinks, as she sits, clapping and smiling along with them.

_

She used to try on clothing like this, when she’d try to get her ex-boyfriend’s attention, when he’d get so thoroughly absorbed in working on his dissertation. Sitting at his desk for hours. Staring his screen. Not even typing half the time. Just staring.
        She’d strap herself into some bandage of a black dress, or some flimsy little whisper of a blouse, without a bra, staring into the ghostly peaks of nipples—her nipples—beneath, shifting from side to side, assessing them, before the full length mirror. As though she might wear it out, like that, immune to things like weather, social etiquette. I do look good, she’d think. Why can’t I just go out like this, if I look good? And she would wonder, vaguely, what that meant, when she would feel the tingle of this question—Why can’t I?—feathering at her insides. Why can I look like this, why can I be like this, when I am inside—but not outside—this little room?
        She’d turn over her shoulder to see if her ex-boyfriend was watching.
        And, sometimes, he would look up, and say something like: nice.
        But mostly, he would just continue sitting, staring at his screen, feeling some private feeling, thinking thoughts about things that were not there.

_

The light behind the lacy curtain blooms to red-gold.
        And her inner panic flutters, like a trapped bird, in her chest.
        But she is not sure how to tell them that she needs to leave, without being insistent, without being rude, a rude American.
        She winces inwardly, imagining herself, blurting out, suddenly, I need to leave. Pushing toward the door. Ripping her clothing off the daughter…No, she can’t imagine that, telling the story to her ex-boyfriend, while thinking—privately—but I was rude to them.

_

Dinner, that evening, is boiled rolls of cabbage leaves with rice, tomatoes, and some kind of ground meat packed into the center. She does her best to pick apart the roll—to separate the cabbage, rice, tomatoes—without eating any meat.
        American, the father says—a little sternly, maybe…it is hard to tell—American, he holds four fingers pointing straight out, with his thumb tucked underneath them, like a beak, and makes a little pecking motion—peck, peck—in the air in front of him.
        The son pushes his plate aside. Says something in their language which ignites his father’s face, which leads to shouting.
        God, no, not again, she thinks.
        And then, the father says something that makes the son’s face wither with defeat.
        The son looks down. He sighs.
        American…he tells me that I need to study. English lessons. Study, now. With you.
        Okay…right now? Here, at the table? She surveys their faces, trying to decipher what is really being said.
        The daughter’s face looks blank.
        The mother’s face looks blank.
        The father’s face looks…possibly amused? A slight tinge of aggression.
        The son’s whole face is bright pink.
        Not at the table. No. Now, go, with me. He stands.
        He walks off down the hallway toward the bedrooms.
        He gestures with his hand for her to follow him.

_

The son leads her into his room, still flushed with pink.
        His walls are pink as well, identical to the walls in his sister’s room. Except they’re filled with band posters, all men with long hair, dressed in black, in leather. And a mat with free weights. And a mirrored closet wall. And—looming up above his headboard, in the place of utmost honor—is the classic Scarface poster: Al Pacino, high contrast in black and white, a kind of yin and yang reflection. Red text—Al Pacino—on the black side. Red text—Scarface—on the white.
        The son turns toward her, and she takes an inventory of his body, of the situation she might be about to enter into.
        Chest heaving—clearly, he is expecting something.
        Shoulders fluttering with breath—clearly, he’s nervous about what he is expecting.
        Blonde hair damp with sweat—she feels sympathy for him, and wants to calm his nerves.
        Lean muscles in his arms, his abdomen—and, yes, he is attractive.
        Yes, she is attracted to him, she decides. Enough, at least, to stay here in his room, and see what happens next.
        She looks at him, looking at her. He’s doing his own inventory of her body, scanning upward from her feet, her legs, her stomach—she clenches her stomach muscles, cursing inwardly, those glue-y little noodles—to her arms, her ribcage…stopping at her breasts. She takes a deep breath. Tries to arch her back, furtively. To arrange herself, appealingly. She feels her mouth twitching into a kind of reflexive, defensive smile. But he is not smiling. No, not at all. He’s assessing something he sees, very, very carefully.
        Do you…want me to take this off? She asks, tugging the hem of her shirt.
        He nods, slowly.
        She removes the shirt, and drops it on the floor.
        He nods in quiet affirmation. Still not smiling.
        And…she pinches at one of her bra straps, should I take this off as well?
        He gets a pained look, like he doesn’t want to go that far. Or, maybe he is not sure what to do, after this point. He opens his mouth, and he hovers for a moment before closing it. Holds up one finger, indicating, wait for just a moment.
        He kneels down before the mirror, searches through a box of exercise equipment. He pulls out some kind of posture belt: a thick, black band of fabric with a velcro strap and buckle. He glances at her, in her bra. Glances down, weighing the belt in his hand. He cautiously extends his other hand toward her, like he’s holding out a dish to feed some stray cat, trying hard not to alarm. He slides one finger diagonally down the line of her bra, feels for the clasp. Unlatches it, matter of factly.
        He removes the bra, brushing her skin with gentle care, but not with any special tenderness for what he’s touching. He takes a long look at her naked breasts, lips pursed, kneading together, like he’s contemplating a solution to a problem.
        American, you turn, please. Like this. He guides toward the mirror, mimes for her to stand, facing the mirror, arms held straight up, like an arrow.
        She does what he is doing with his body.
        Now, please. This, I place. On you, he indicates the thick black belt he’s holding in his hand.
        She stands, as still as possible, as he unwraps the black band of the belt. She hears the harsh teeth of the velcro, crackling. Her skin shivers. He wraps his arms around her sides, bending the belt across her breasts. She feels the metal of the buckle, cold against her back.
        Now, please, he swallows hard. She sees his Adam’s Apple, moving in the mirror. You tell me, please, if it is painful. Yes? Okay?
        Okay.
        He pulls the belt tight, and she gasps. He loosens, just a bit, and threads the velcro through the buckle. Presses it down into place.
        Such a strange feeling. It is difficult to breathe. She feels pinched, restricted. Feels her nerves, her nipples, skin, compressed. And yet, she also feels supported. Tightly bound, and held in place. Bound to her body. Tethered to herself, her own skin. She feels…safe.
        She sees his face begin to soften, in the mirror.
        It looks good. It feels okay?
        It feels okay, she says, a little breathy, still.
        Okay.
        He looks relieved, she realizes. His voice sounds relieved. He holds his finger up, again, like, just one moment.
        He slides open his mirrored closet door. His hangers click-click as he slides them down their metal spine, until he finds what he is seeking in the shadows. Ah! Aha! He says, triumphant. When he slides the mirrored door back into place, she sees he’s grinning.
        He holds a black garment bag, which he unzips to reveal a basic black suit, white blouse. It looks like the kind of thing someone would wear once, to a funeral. Perhaps he wore it to a funeral, she thinks. For some reason, this idea excites her.
        He hooks the hanger on his door frame. Searches through the top drawer of his dresser. Closes it, and comes back grinning wildly. He holds a white undershirt tank top, and a pair of cotton boxer briefs. He motions for her—fingers quivering—to put them on.
        She puts them on, and he regards her, and he laughs, softly and brightly. He looks like he is delightedly surprised. He mutters something in his language, and he gives her back a friendly little pat.
        Oh, oh, American! Oh, oh, ohhhhh, American!
        He dresses her up in the white blouse and the black suit. It is long on her, but somehow, not ill-suited to her frame.
        He bites his lip, again. A problem.
        He looks upward, at the Scarface poster.
        Oh! Aha! He chuckles, as though realizing something obvious.
        He unbuttons the top four buttons of the white blouse. Fans it out, stopping in just the spot the thick black belt begins. Aha! He points ecstatically to her reflection in the mirror. Al Pacino! Aha, Al Pacino, yes! Tony Montana!
She checks herself out, curiously, in the mirror, and adjusts her stance. Of course, she doesn’t really look like Al Pacino, or Tony Montana. But, she does look rather striking in the black suit, and she feels contained, compact, and strangely powerful.
        He bends in, close to her, eyeing the two of them, reflected in the mirror.
        He leans down and whispers tenderly into her ear.
        Say, all I have.
        All I have.
        All I have…he licks his lips. Say, all I have, in this world.
        She says, all I have, in this world.
        His eyes gleam with absolute delight. Say, all I have, in this world. Is…He looks as though he might die. He can hardly even take it. Say…my balls. My balls…and my word.
        All I have, in this world, is my balls, and my word.
        He clutches her shoulder tightly, and he moans with pleasure.

_

That night, she sleeps in bed with him—the right side—breathing in his scent, a warmth amidst the cold root vegetable rust smell. It is the smell of cheap cologne, and sweat, but somewhere deep within those other smells—if she pays close enough attention, if she breathes in deeply—she keeps catching drifts of something sweet, almost like cinnamon. Yes—there it is, again—and yes, it is almost like cinnamon. An inexplicable smell, coming from his body, in the dark, but for that reason—yes—it is all the more comforting.
        He sleeps, back turned toward her, with his knees tucked up together. Curled around a pillow, like a snail in its shell.
        She tries to sleep, curling toward him like a second snail, with the question—Why him? Why here?—curving in around her, in the dark.

_

She lets a week go by, like this.
        Giving him English lessons, by day.
        And—by night—taking dictations from him, standing by the mirror.
        I say what I mean, and I do what I say.
        I gotta hold onto my angst.
        Your life is your own.
        I always tell the truth, even when I lie.
        A wise guy’s always right, even when he’s wrong.
        Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.
        She feels content to have a roof over her head, she tells herself. Content to wake at dawn, to set the dial 20 minutes before showering. Content to make her little cup of stovetop coffee, and to sip it by herself, in solitude. She knows the kitchen well, by now. She likes to make—and drink—her coffee in the dim half-light, pacing a certain pathway through the dim half-light, before the light has reached the far edge of the living room, before the light has reached the front door with its inside lock.
        This way, it feels a bit like studying abroad. A teaching internship, perhaps. A host family, for her teaching internship.
        Perhaps that’s what she’ll say about whatever this is, how she will describe it to her ex-boyfriend, when she returns home.

_

She’s getting better and better at her Pacino recitations.
        She looks forward to them all day, even finds herself day-dreaming of the posture belt, the satisfying ripping of the velcro, and the feeling of the black funeral suit.
        There are rewards, now, for her much improved performance.
        She’s allowed to take his clothes off. Well, the shirt. He lets her lift the hem—a bit—up to his navel, following a trail of wispy hairs, rising up from his waist-band. But the pants, he must remove himself.
        He lets her kiss him, now, but only after smoking a cigar or cigarette (depending on which Al Pacino she is playing). He opens the bedroom window, just a crack, and she must press her lips up to the rusty metal framework to exhale.
        She urges him to let her wear the suit longer and longer.
        He looks at her differently—longingly, desiringly—when she’s wearing it.
        She learns to make it all part of the role play. When he moves his fingers downward, from the shoulder pads, the points of the lapel, she pushes him off, brushes at her sleeve as though removing stray dirt. Don’t ever ask me about my business, she warns him.
        And then, he groans.
        He tugs his shirt hem, signaling, it’s time to take it off.
        She pinches it between her finger tips, and stands, and waits for him to writhe, a bit, beneath her hand, to want it like she wants it.
        She is at home, when wearing the suit.
        She’s in control.
_

And then, one day, after she smokes a cigarette, running a hand through her imaginary beard—she is Carlito from Carlito’s Way—It’s who I am, it’s what I am, she says, tapping her ash out on the window frame, Right or wrong, I can’t change that—he moans deeply, almost growls, mutters something in his language, something fierce and almost frightening—of course, she isn’t frightened, though, because their little role play scenes are almost always violent, almost always declarations made upon the verge of violence—and he rushes to the closet, and pulls out another garment bag, another suit, unzips it with great ceremony, looking right into her eyes, and she feels glorious, magnanimous in his attention, and repeats, Right or wrong, I can’t change that.
        He lets her take off all his clothes, this time.
        He beckons with his eyes.
        Yes, this.
        Yes, all the way.
        His cock is hard, hysterically engorged with blood.
        He lets her zip his suit pants, button up his blouse, and hold the jacket open for him to slip into its embrace.
        When he is fully dressed, he takes a bottle of cologne, and dabs himself on both sides—left, and then right—of his neck.
        He does the same to her neck—left, then right—and takes in a deep breath.
        He is scared, she realizes. He is terrified. But why?

_

He takes her hand, and leads her down the hallway, taking slow, evenly measured steps, like they are walking down the aisle.
        His breaths get deeper, deeper.
        Then suddenly shallow, ragged.
        He swallows.
        His veins reverberate.
        His heart beats hard into her hand.
        They move into the kitchen, where the mother is preparing more spider egg noodles, scraping out the batter, down across the tin slab.
        He sits down at the table.
        He gestures for her to sit down across from him.
        He clears his throat, loudly, performatively.
        His mother turns around.
        Her eyes get wide.
        She stops scraping the noodles.
        She says something in her language that sounds like she’s in distress.
        He says something to her that makes her take the tin slab, slam it on the counter, cry out, running toward the living room.
        The daughter and the father rush into the kitchen.
        The son shouts out something to his sister, in his language.
        The daughter looks bewildered, and she runs off down the hallway. She can hear the bedroom door slam, and hear her sobbing through the walls.
        The father glares. American—his voice is low, almost a whisper, and he waves his hands down over her, like he is casting holy water, exorcising something from his house—American, no good. American, this—this—he waves his hands—no good.
        The son glares back at him, and mutters something in his language that sounds like a curse.
        They both make penetrating eye contact.
        They hold each other’s gaze.
        A long, cold silence.
        Nothing.
        Nothing.
        Nothing.
        Then…a hiss…
        The pot bubbles, and starts to boil over on the stove.
        Hot froth drips down the side, onto the floor.
        The father turns away, just for a moment, toward the pot.
        The son’s eyes dart toward the counter.
        Dart toward the cutting board.
        Dart toward the paring knife.
        He hesitates.
        No, don’t, she whispers.
        No, please don’t.
        He lunges.

_

There is a wild howl—the father—and a tearing sound—the clatter of the knife—hitting the floor—two bodies hunched over—the father bent—over his son—a gasp of air—the son—a crash—both bodies—slamming hard—against the stove—a wild shriek—from both of them—the sound of spilling water—steam—a wail of agony—from both of them—a metal scrape—the knife sliding—across the floor—a thud—the son’s head—slamming—thud—the son’s head—thud—slamming hard—on the floor—a wheezing gulp—a cough—a choking sound—the son—a snarling—HA!—HA!—AHHHH!—the father—and a hand—the father’s hand—reaching up—grasping—at the counter—struggling—cough—cough—the son—the father takes the tin slab—brandishes it—in the air—the son coughs—gags—the father roars—AHHHH! AHHHH!—plunging the slab down—down—-down—down—into his skull.

_

She has lost track of how long she has been here, in this house.
        Each morning, she begins her day the same.
        She sets the dial.
        Has her coffee.
        Takes a shower.
        Shaves down there, and disinfects herself.
        Puts on the posture bandage.
        And the black funeral suit.
        She brings a cup of coffee to the daughter’s bedroom.
        The daughter is usually dressed, by then.
        She sits up, on the edge of her bed.
        In some horribly mismatched concoction from her former wardrobe.
        They eye one another loathingly.
        They sit, staring at one another, biding time.
        Until they hear that awful sound—the sound that both of them await with dread.
        The sound of bedsprings, shifting.
        And the creaking of the door.
        The father knock, knock, knocking at the bedroom door.
        American, he calls out. English lesson. Now.
        The American moves her left hand around.
        Making a circle in the air.
        Circle, she says.
        The daughter says, _________.

The American moves her right hand.
        She draws an air triangle over the daughter’s forehead.
        Triangle, she says.
        The daughter says, ____________
____________________________.
        The American points to the daughter’s mouth.
        She pinches at her lower lip.
        Mouth, she says.
        The daughter says, _______
_________________________
________________________
_______________________.
        The American positions her finger.
        Points down into the center of the daughter’s chest.
        And presses down—in—hard.
        Over and over.
        Gritting her teeth.
        Chest, she says.
        Heart, she says.
        Heart.
        The daughter says, _______________. _____________,
_______________________,
____________________….__________________
._________________
,_________,__________…_____________________.
___________________,_____________,
_______—-____________________
,_________.___________,________,_______,
______________________._______________________…
____________—_____________,__________…._________
_____________._________.
________________.
_____________.
_____________.
____________.

This is the point where—now—as usual—she disappears—into her mind—well—part of her—the part that matters—most—that matters—still—the part of her that still—might make it—someday—to America—to home—whether home—is—America—or elsewhere—not here—in this room—no—not with her—certainly—look at her—in her sports bra—in that parka—tied up—some kind of—stupid bow—she grips—the stupid bow—and rips it—open—and—as usual—the daughter—doesn’t move—or blink—dumb—doll face—dumb—doll eyes—no—home—oh—where—will she escape to—Delaware—of course—to see the ocean—she imagines it—the ocean—not a pristine—beach—with palm trees—or with—hammocks—volleyball nets—no—more like—tall gray—buildings—small gray—birds—people—nestled—in gray—blankets—gray—no—no—all wrong—even when she—tries—tries—to disappear—she disappears—into another—version—of this—where she—is—of here—over there—here—just look—at her—insipid little—panties—my—insipid little panties—my insipid little—me—she grabs—and pulls—a muffled cry—was that—her—no—no—no—it’s from—the basement—not—again—from her—there’s no—reaction—dead fish—dead fish—dead—think about—Delaware—think about—cinnamon—think about—Pacino—all I have—no—no—those tits—not even—tits—just—god—it’s there—again—that awful basement—moaning—god—no—all I have—in this world—god—if she would—only—just—do—something—in response—her face—her eyes—she fingers—probes—dead fish—dead—dead—dead—dead—dead—Attica—dead—dead—dead—dead—dead—dead—dead—her body flops—expressionlessly—as that horrible—sound—rises—as it fills—her—Attica—no—no—she isn’t—here—Attica—no—she isn’t—hearing it—Attica—Attica—Attica—Attica…