She takes off her clothes and covers her chilly, naked body with a heavyweight green gown. She steps into the white plastic slippers and gets up onto the birthing chair. She leans back, gulping hungrily at the air and mumbling a plea for help in the form of the Quranic ayahs she’s been told will ease the pain of her contractions: “When the earth is leveled out, casts out its contents, and becomes empty… casts out its contents and becomes empty… casts out….” Her words are silenced by a new contraction slamming into her from behind, then bursting out from the middle of her back and wrapping its monstrous arms around her, engulfing her, linking its hands under her belly and squeezing, clamping down, pushing down, down, down. She bites her bottom lip and clasps her hands over her chest. She digs the nails of her right hand hard into her left palm, streaming sweat, a tear escaping the corner of her eye.
The uniformed conscript led the way, bearing aloft, on a small pink velvet cushion, a shabby-looking woman’s shoe. The leather was faded, stretched, and torn. Part of the sole had come off, and the heel had been roughly hammered back on with protruding nails. None of the repairs that had obviously been carried out in an attempt to restore the shoe’s former glory had succeeded. Behind the conscript came the cavalry, weaving their way through the houses of the city, searching for a woman’s foot to fit the shoe.
Once I’d been stripped and forced to stand naked before the gaze of the military medical examination board, for the purposes of identifying any defects that might prevent me receiving the honor of being conscripted, the examiner seated on the right-hand end of the bench rose, approached me, and circled me three times, inspecting every inch of the body before him, then turned back to his fellow board members and, stroking my ear with a disconcerting delicacy, said, “Sound. Big ears.”
“They’re here—” she was about to scream,bolting upright, her heart pounding in her chest. It was as if a snake had brushed against her bare skin under the comforter. He snatched his arms away from where they lay against her neck and her cleavage. They were both naked: beads of sweat quivered on the hairs of his broad chest, and her breasts trembled over thevolcano that had erupted in her heart.
We woke up at five o’clock in the morning and ran to the Hophop bus that was waiting at the school gate. It was colored and beautiful and had the words Scania speaks and the Volvo hurts written on it. The children stood in line in an orderly fashion as they boarded the bus. Teacher was carrying a stick made from a pomegranate branch given to him by the son of a local official, who is lazy but who always comes first in class. Sheikh Khadir, the driver, was washing the bus, and as they boarded, the children splashed the children behind them with water.
We travel together to the outskirts of Alone. Hunger permeates the car like teenage funk, but there are no crumbs on the seats. I do not allow snacking.
I don’t know what is the most surprising—that a tumor grows inside me, that my love is not in the car, or that Hope sits in the backseat. A pillow, a book, and a look that annoys me every time I glance at her in the rearview mirror.
James kept busy at the security desk now, doing the work of both men while Lincoln sat there with his stomach on his lap. He felt a sort of bond with James now, a familiar gratitude. But one gets sick and tired of saying thank you. When he was engaged to Alexis, and during their first years of marriage, his friends would also tell him how lucky he was, but this was said as a joke. Lincoln would say thank you and agree, would tell them how grateful he was for her, but this wasn’t true. He deserved her—this was what he believed, and he knew this was what his friends believed in. A man of a kind should get what he deserves, and if a man like him couldn’t get a woman like her, then something was terribly wrong with the world.
“All my life I’ve been waiting,” says my father-in-law, through the stall door. We have stopped at a rest area along the interstate, halfway between our homes. I would meet him back in the car, if only he would stop waxing poetic.
“Frank?” I face the mirror, smoothing the hair over my thinning spot. “I’ll be—”
“First for school to end,” he interrupts. “Then for my twenties, then for success. Marriage, children, et cetera. For them to leave. For their children. Then the waiting became less conspicuous. Waiting for the cry of boiled water. For the paper. For spring. It took a mighty long time to understand that what I’d been waiting for wasn’t each thing, actually, but the chance to wait for whatever came next.”
In the same way that some structures carry time on their shoulders, we too want to observe its traces. Every place, of course, has anchors that halt time as it passes by. In Europe, the huge cathedrals are mute and impotent witnesses of history. Likewise, the old sugar mills of Puerto Rico remain to remind us of an era that, while gone, is still harbored within them. These metal monsters, abandoned to their rusty luck, become sanctuaries of memory. The mill Coloso, one of the last of the dying titans, is now only a grey silhouette lost in the green and twisted landscape of the valley.