It is well past office hours when she knocks. Naturally, I want to send her away. I have finished the grading and locked my desk and my coat is already half-buttoned. If I leave now I may beat the rain.
She creeps around the door. Her tightly curled eyelashes and terrible posture are familiar. Yes, I think. My Religion and Identity seminar. Anne.
Her chin thickens and – I detest this part – wobbles. So much for my evening plans. I set down my briefcase.
“Paula,” she says, “Do you…do you remember that story you told us, about when you were studying in Kyrgyzstan?”
I want to say no because I do not, on principle, answer rhetorical questions, but she sits down uninvited and sniffles, and the likeness is there, so I nod. Ambivalently. I should never have told her class about what happened on the jayloo.
“That story wasn’t about me.” I pass her a box of tissues.
“I can’t go home.”
“Right.” I button up my coat and hand her my umbrella. “I’ll take you to the police, then. Let’s get it over with.”
We make the rounds. The hospital and the police station and a mental health first responder. It is tedious, awkward, and time-consuming. She does not remember what she ought to remember, and what she does remember she cannot, or will not, say. We are all losing patience.
By the time we finish, it is after midnight. I take her home and tuck her into my guest room with a sedative and a hot water bottle. She is too overwhelmed to say thank you. I switch on a nightlight and close the door.
By now the rain has stopped and the night is fresh. I open the windows in my big room, the one with the view over the Sound, and set out my belated dinner to the strains of a muqam. This is an exceptional arrangement, one recorded at the turn of the century. I test the temperature of the wine and tear the bread into chunks. I increase the volume so the stringed instruments fill the room, and the house, weeping drily in gusts like sandy air, reminding me of the first time I heard muqam, back when I was her age, the age of this Annie.
Then, a recent undergraduate, I had just won a Fulbright fellowship and was headed, fearfully, to Central Asia, to Kyrgyzstan, where they do things like play two-hour muqams and eat fried rice with their hands and ride ponies through the shadows of blue, sweating glaciers.
I turn my wine glass, listening for sounds from the guest room. My student is quiet. The muqam swells on the ocean breeze.
I did not go to Kyrgyzstan alone. In the beginning we were four: Oliver, Ruby, Aziz, and Paula.
Oliver was the confident one. A farm boy, originally, from one of those rectangular states. He had lank, dirty-blond hair, an open smile, and slow-moving muscles beneath a stratum of scholarly flab. He dabbled with vegetarianism. He pretended to enjoy Beckett. He trimmed his nails with tiny scissors. You could never tell him anything with any certainty because he nodded so vigorously while you were speaking that you interrupted yourself wondering, does he already know this? Should I stop here and let him correct me?
Ruby was the over-achiever, from Toronto by way of Buffalo. She had skipped two grades and her social skills had yet to catch up with her brain.
“I never doubted I’d get a Fulbright,” she said when I met her. We were in the Frankfurt airport, on our way to Bishkek via Tashkent. “I was a child genius. The Fulbright was on my trajectory, you know?”
But I did not know, and I told her so. She shrank away from me and made no more overtures. For the rest of the layover she kept to herself, huddled over a graphic novel, chewing wetly on a hank of ratty brown hair.
In retrospect, given what would happen later, I should have been kinder to Ruby. She was like a dog that did not know why it was kicked, and so it kept coming back for more. Besides, her neck was too short, her hips were too wide, her feet were too splayed, and her eyes were too bulging. If we are animal enough to smell a friend, then we are animal enough to identify a genealogy that is on its way out – and avoid it.
As for Aziz, I saw him no more than a half a dozen times that year, and always on accident. He was skinny and brooding and he never spoke to me. According to Oliver, whom he did speak to, he grew up in rural Texas and the name on his passport was Walter. He had six sisters, two aunts, and one mother. He had been the only male in his household and oh, how he had hated that. In college he did an exchange in Istanbul and discovered, to his delight, that Islam can be a balmy refuge for misogynistic intellectuals — not because of anything intrinsic in the faith, but because they can hide there in plain sight. He converted, took the name Aziz, and left off any pretense of civility towards women. I cannot say I disliked him, since I never got the opportunity to find out; I can say I would not have entered a dark alley if I had known he was there. In this, and only this, Ruby and I were in agreement.
The last, the fourth, was me. Paula.
We fellows lived in the same mahalla, or residential area, in downtown Bishkek. Twelve housing units arranged in three groups of four, with each group sharing a central courtyard.
This courtyard was a leafy space where children played, and grandparents dozed. Young women might pass through it to deposit their garbage or set out fruit to dry, but they could not have decently sat down there, because in Bishkek, public lounging was only for old people, Russians, and prostitutes.
And men, of course, but men can do whatever they want.
This is what I told Ruby in our second week when I saw her perched on a low wall in the courtyard, swinging her feet and chatting with a group of boys.
“We’re foreigners,” she said. “It’s different for us.”
“Not really.” It was summer but I was bundled up in long trousers, long skirt, long shirt, and a head scarf. Ruby had on a tank top and culottes. “It’s important that we respect the local culture.”
“I am respecting it. I’m having a cross-cultural conversation with these kids. Don’t you have research to do?”
She batted her eyelashes at me and the boys giggled. She glanced at them then batted harder, giving me a sexy pout, hamming it up for her audience. I felt old, frumpy, and ridiculous, and I disliked her for making me feel that way. I marched up the stairwell to my little apartment, the laughter of the boys following me.
After that, I ignored Ruby. She was often in the courtyard — gossiping with the Russian girls or playing badminton with those boys — but I kept my distance. Once she called out to me, just as I passed the chicken coops and reached my stairwell, but I pretended not to hear.
Oliver, on the other hand, became my particular friend. He lived in the flat above mine and as we were neither of us morning people, or homemakers, we swapped breakfast duties. On alternating days I went up, or he came down, and we brunched on whatever we had been motivated to gather. Green tea, Nescafé, apricot seeds, dried figs, flat naan bread, yogurt, melon; nothing, in short, that needed actual preparation.
One morning, while I was tearing the bread and Oliver was boiling the water, I heard loud laughter outside. It was the end of summer and the windows were open. I looked out and saw Ruby kicking a football.
“Again? Why is she always with those boys? She’s going to get herself in trouble.”
“Oh, come off it, Paula.” Oliver leaned against my shoulder to see where I was pointing. “They’re just kids.”
“I don’t like it.”
“You don’t like her. There’s a difference.”
I pushed him away. “What, and you do?”
He poured the tea. “I’m here to do research. I don’t care about Americans.”
Oliver had just spent six weeks in the mountains, or on the jayloo, as the Kyrgyz called it. The summer pastures. After typing up his research here in Bishkek, he would return to the jayloo and stay until the snows began and the passes were blocked. Then he would migrate with the clans to the winter pastures.
I was deeply envious. My own research had plateaued.
When we had finished eating, I helped him clean the dishes and store the leftovers. I was shaking out my jacket, preparing to leave, when he called from the bedroom.
“Hey, Paula, can you come in here a sec? I want to show you something.”
I walked into his room, one arm through my jacket, and found him naked. He was kneeling on the bed and holding his penis up with both hands, as if offering me a bouquet of flowers.
I smacked my head against the doorjamb in my hurry to turn away. “Oliver, you have got to be joking. Put some clothes on, for Christ’s sake.”
“Why would I be joking?”
When I had heard enough fabric snapping to guess he had the basics in place, I turned back to face him.
He was scowling. “You’re a tease.”
“You’re pathetic.” My laughter was too shrill. “Do you sleep with all the women you drink tea with?”
“You’ve been leading me on for weeks.”
“Stop being so Kyrgyz.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
I pulled on my jacket and left.
The snows started at the end of September. In October I took a two-week holiday to Thailand and returned to find my television broken, the markets empty, and the streets too slick to walk down safely. Even in our neighborhood, which was usually bustling, the courtyard was mounded with snow and everyone was inside their apartment, hibernating beside a coal fire.
I tried to hibernate, too, but after a week I had read all the books I’ had bought in Bangkok and was losing my mind from boredom and loneliness. All my friends were university students and they were too busy preparing for their exams to spend much time with me, a researcher with nothing to research.
Finally, one damp grey Tuesday, when everyone I knew was in class, I decided why not and went in search of Ruby.
Each housing unit had four stairwells. Oliver and I lived up the first, Aziz lived up the second, and Ruby lived up the fourth. These stairwells were universally dark and dank and filled with refuse. You could not negotiate them without a flashlight. Ruby’s was particularly bad; by the time I reached her door I was gagging.
She answered in her pajamas and let me in with a little grunt, a little nod, the latter hardly noticeable with her short neck and vanishing chin. Her apartment was disgusting with old food and dirty clothes. The potted plants on the enclosed balcony were dried and dead. There was a ball of human hair under the table. The kitchen tap was mossy and dripping. The bathroom, when I passed it, stank of poorly-washed menstrual rags.
“How’ve you been, Ruby?”
She kicked some papers aside and rolled out a cotton mat. We sat on it, side by side on the floor. I started to reach for a pillow but changed my mind when I saw how stained it was.
“I’m okay, I guess. Well, not really okay, but what can you do, right?”
“Right,” I said. “Winter’s hard.”
She stared at me with those popping, colorless eyes. “Oh my god. You don’t know what happened, do you?”
“No,” she answered herself. “Of course you don’t. You were in Thailand. On the beach. Unbelievable.”
“It’s not unbelievable.” I was already annoyed with her. “It’s an Air Bangkok flight through Tashkent. You could go, too, if you wanted to. It’s called a holiday.”
“I was raped, Paula. While you were gone I was raped. Do you understand what that means?” She raised her fists and shook them. Her armpit hair was long and curly and when she moved her arms I could smell her, sickly-sour and vinegary-sweet, like pickled mutton. Her eyes were dry but she wiped them anyway with wide swipes, her elbows jutting clownishly from her ears.
“Not that anybody cares. I told them all, but they didn’t care. No one cares and nothing’s gonna happen. I hate this place and everyone in it. I hate my life. I hate myself!”
She flopped back on the mat.
“Ruby,” I tried again, extending a hand.
“Don’t touch me! I can’t stand to be touched! Not after what they did! Not after how filthy I feel! You should see my vagina.” She tugged at her pajamas.
“Oh my god!” I jumped up, stumbling over a pile of books as I retreated. “Would you quit it?”
Ruby stopped thrashing. She stared at the ceiling and picked her nose. “You know those neighbor boys? The ones you always see around?” She wiped the snot on her arm. Her voice was dull. Whiny. Like a child being forced to explain why she was spanked. “It was them.”
“Impossible. They’re kids. Eleven, twelve years old.”
“Anatomically speaking, they managed alright.”
“Ruby. Sweet Jesus.” I leaned against a wall. A bit of plaster crumbled off.
“I was coming home. They were waiting for me in the stairwell. At first I was like, hey guys, how’re you doing? Next thing I know, they’re pulling me into that first room there, the little one where the maintenance guy keeps his supplies? They took turns. There were four of them, three to hold me down while the fourth had a go. I wanted to die. I lay there and waited to die. When it was over I went upstairs and called Greg.”
Greg was our contact person with the Fulbright Committee. He lived in Prague.
“But he didn’t answer. It took me three days, calling, calling. Finally, he answered and asked if I wanted to go home but I said nah, I guess I should finish, I mean I came all the way out here. He was all hyper, trying to say it wasn’t the Committee’s fault and I was like yeah, whatever, wasn’t it you guys who put me in this neighborhood full of rapists? He said they would pay for any medical treatment and I was like, no way I need to go to a doctor and have a fifth guy get between my legs, but then when I went to the police they said why didn’t you, so I did, but it didn’t make any difference because the police were like, yeah, whatever, the boys say you’re a bad girl, you weren’t even a virgin, you wanted to go with them, didn’t you want to go with them? Look at your clothes, what did you expect. They actually said that, Paula! They said, ‘what did you expect.’ It’s like, I went off to be a sociologist and ended up in an after-school special. Know what I mean?”
“No. Yes. Kind of.”
I fussed about her room, trying to put it to rights. I gathered up her soiled teacups, dumped them into the sink, and looked, in vain, for dish soap.
“Wouldn’t you like to get out of here for a while? Maybe talk to someone? Good grief, Ruby, you probably see those boys every day.”
“Nah, I don’t go outside. That Korean place brings me salads and shashlik and I drop my garbage out the window.”
“What about your research? I can understand if you’ve lost the motivation to carry on with it, but it is the reason you’re here.”
She shrugged. “I don’t think there’s anything you can understand, Paula. I’m way out of your depth.”
I went straight from Ruby’s flat to Oliver’s.
“Have you spoken to Ruby?” I asked without any prelude.
He nodded and moved aside for me to enter. I stayed in the hallway.
“It’s twisted, isn’t it?” he said.
“I can’t understand if she’s even properly reported it.”
“Yeah, well, it’s a long story. Come in, I’ll tell you over tea.”
“No.” I took a pointed step back. “There must be something we can do.”
Oliver sighed and wrapped his scarf tighter around his neck. The corridor was freezing. “I’ve already done everything we can do. It was me who went with her to the station, even gave the police the kids’ names because she wouldn’t tell them, wouldn’t do hardly anything to help herself, just kept mumbling that no one could change what had happened so who cares. Anything you said, she shrugged. I just about lost it. In the end I had to sign all kinds of papers on her behalf.”
“Is that legal?”
“I don’t know, does it matter? Nothing’s going to happen anyway. The kids told the police Ruby’d been flirting with them so the police put it down to a cultural misunderstanding. Told Ruby to be more careful next time.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“Look, she isn’t exactly her own best advocate.”
“You don’t like her.”
He picked unhappily at a cold sore. “You know how she is.”
“Of course, but that doesn’t mean she deserved this.”
“I never said that.”
“Then what are you saying? That a girl in a short skirt is gagging for it?”
“I’m saying she acts like a victim. I think they grabbed her and she gave up, just like that, and I don’t think they were lying when they said they thought she wanted it. Women’s behavior doesn’t always match their intentions.”
That was it for me. I stormed off. He shouted down the stairwell, but I ignored him.
From then on, I visited Ruby every day. I cleaned her apartment, washed her clothes in the bathtub, and restocked her cupboards. I brought her newspapers and talked to her about current events.
I started off thinking of it as ‘the least I can do’ but within a week was calling it ‘my pity project.’ Ruby never thanked me. Not once. She lay on a mat and played minesweeper or solitaire and spoke only to tell me what she wanted to eat, and when. The closest we came to a spontaneous interaction was when I passed her and she farted, thunderously, then giggled as I opened the windows. I visited her less and less.
Meanwhile, the boys who had attacked her continued to play football and horse around in the courtyard. One weekend the mahalla held a party for one of them, the one with buckteeth, because he had won some academic honor. I declined to attend and instead sat up with Ruby, playing endless games of Uno, until the musicians had gone home and the block was quiet again. She cheated every hand and laughed when I lost.
Around this time, I discovered the muqam, and that led to a major breakthrough in my research. With half the year already gone, I dove into my studies and had nothing to do with Oliver and Ruby for the remainder of the winter. As soon as I got word that spring had reached the foothills, I began preparations for a trip, ecstatic that I was going to do my own fieldwork at last.
Two days before leaving, my conscience got the better of me and I went to visit Ruby. She was not in her apartment but I ran into her, serendipitously, on the way back to my own stairwell. She was squatting in a patch of sun, feeding the chickens in the coop. Her socks were mismatched and her hair was sticking up.
“Hey Rubes,” I called out, wincing at my own false chumminess. “I was just looking for you.”
“Why? No one else does.”
“I’m heading up to the jayloo. I didn’t want to go without saying goodbye.”
She stared at me.
“In case you’ll have gone by the time I get back.”
“Why would I have gone?”
“Well, because our year is almost finished.”
“I might stay.”
She turned back to the chickens. She was trying to feed them strips of kimchi and they were flapping at the back of their cage, as far away from her and the pickled vegetables as they could get.
“I didn’t get a chance to finish my research because of the gang rape and all that.” She gave a big, gusty, fake-sounding sigh. “I was thinking about asking for an extension but I dunno. I don’t think Greg likes me. He’d probably say no.” She shrugged, the movement so jerky that she tipped over and had to right herself against the cage. “I’ve experienced a lot of discrimination in my life.” She sniffled, even though her eyes and nose were dry. “It sucks, but what can you do, right? I guess I’ll just have to get used to it.”
I did not want to get into an argument. I had tried my best with her. I had done my moral duty and now I wanted to get up to the jayloo and finish my year on a high note.
“Sometimes I think I’ll kill myself.”
“Come on, Ruby.”
“I do though.” She stood up. “I’m a total loser, right?”
I hoped that was rhetorical.
“It just gets worse. Yesterday I saw Aziz in, like, that teahouse down by the old cinema lot? He was with some Golum friend of his, chain-smoking rollies. I said hey but he wouldn’t even acknowledge me. He, like, shrank away when I tried to sit down.”
“Ruby, Aziz hates women and avoids foreigners. It wasn’t personal.”
“No, Paula, you’re not getting me at all. It wasn’t just the way he’s so creepy. He was, like, totally repulsed. Like he knew, like he could see I’ve been gang raped.”
I really wished she would not keep saying that out loud. It gave me the chills.
“Forget Aziz. Why don’t you come to the mountains with me?”
The moment I said it, I bitterly, bitterly regretted that I had.
Ruby perked right up. “You mean it?”
“I went a couple times last summer. Mostly with Oliver.”
Interesting. I would not have guessed that Oliver had it in him.
“It was pretty cool, except that the food sucks and I’m afraid of horses. They hate me, you know. If there’s anyone a horse will bite, that’s me. And I get sunburned really bad at that altitude. I’ll need to borrow a hat.”
“I haven’t got an extra hat.”
“Then can you buy me one?”
“I haven’t got any money left. I’ll need you to cover the taxi fare and whatever else too. It isn’t my fault,” she said quickly, the signs of my displeasure penetrating, at last, the fog of her social incompetence. “I was so depressed after the attack. I lost all self-control and just blew through the stipend, you know? It wasn’t my fault.”
She came around the chicken coop and put her hands on my shoulders. She was close enough that I could see the pores in her cheeks. There were a lot of them.
“Thank you for being my friend. I wasn’t joking about wanting to kill myself. How does it feel to have saved somebody’s life?”
Thus, Ruby and I went shopping. She chose more snacks than she could carry, so I bought her a bigger backpack. She claimed to have lost her hiking boots, thermal layers, and camera, so I replaced them. I had to return to the bank twice to withdraw more money.
I did not complain. I knew she had survived a terrible event, and someone had to pay for it, and I was the nearest to hand, so why not me. Besides, it was not impossible that she would consider the camera a loan and not a gift and give it back to me after our trip. It was a really nice camera.
We left Bishkek in a share taxi at six a.m., Ruby mashed into the front seat between the driver and an ugly Kyrgyz man of indeterminate age, me squeezed into the back with a family of three and their poorly-sealed bucket of fermented horse milk. We drove for an hour and a half through mountains and meadows.
Then the driver turned off the road into a green velvet swale. I held onto the seat in front of me as we bumped along. Horse milk splashed my trousers. Stones scraped the undercarriage. Tall grass whipped the windshield. It was an hour to reach our first stop, the jayloo of the man in the front seat, three yurts in a valley with no neighbors for miles.
We piled out, happy to revive our numbed legs. The family invited us inside and we broke the journey with bo’ghursak and tea. The mats were thin, the bo’ghursak dry, the tea weak. We had no wish to stay long. We thanked the family and got to our feet.
That should have been the end of it. An unexciting stop on an otherwise interesting journey. Unfortunately, I had not kept an eye on Ruby. While the rest of us had been gnawing fried bread and swatting flies, she had been chatting away with our hosts in a manner that was far too loose and animated to be strictly decent from a Kyrgyz perspective. They seemed taken with her — the man, his mother, his sisters, and his aunts. So taken that when we all stood up to go, they said she should stay.
Ruby was thrilled. Here, at last, were people that appreciated her. They told her she was beautiful and clever. They told her their fondest wish in the whole entire world was to find a girl just like her for Adilbek — this being the ugly man who had shared the taxi with us — to marry.
“Well geez,” said Ruby, “I guess maybe I could stay for a couple of days. I haven’t really got what you would call a program. I’m independent. No one’s expecting me anywhere.” She gave another of those fake sniffles. “I’ve had a hard year, I guess you could say.”
The family’s Russian was weak but they had gotten the gist of it: she liked them and she was alone.
“No, Ruby,” I intervened. “Don’t be ridiculous. We have to go now. So many, many people are waiting for us.”
“Oh. Alright then.”
I reached out, but the mother grabbed her first.
“She stays here. She will marry my son.”
The aunts swarmed in and hustled Ruby to the back of the tent. They squished her down and sat on top of her to keep her in place. Ruby protested, but not vigorously.
I was livid. I screeched about human rights and ambassadors as I wrestled, or tried to wrestle, my way to Ruby, but the old mother had arms that could take down a camel.
Ruby watched us, expressionless, from underneath the aunts’ skirted rumps. A lamb laid down for slaughter.
The taxi driver poked his head inside. “Are you girls coming or not?”
“Take this one.” The mother shoved me towards him. “I have kidnapped the other. She will marry my son.”
The driver absorbed this with equanimity. “You have five minutes,” he told me.
“Make an effort,” I shouted at Ruby. “Fight! You have to try! You’re a foreigner; they know they can’t do this to you. Why are you just lying there?”
The bridegroom joined his mother and between them they got me out the door and closed it in my face. I pounded and kicked but the door was made of heavy wood, with iron hinges, and it didn’t cave.
“Last chance,” called the taxi driver. “I have to continue on.”
I ran to him, my clothes disheveled and my face streaming with sweat. I wondered if I smelled as badly as Ruby did, then hated myself for thinking that, especially when for all I knew she was being raped again that very moment.
“Please.” I opened the car door and tried to pull the driver out. “We can’t leave her there. You have to help me, older brother. Don’t leave her. Please!”
“Now, now. You won’t get your friend back like that.” He was calm, paternal. “If you want to help her, go back to Bishkek and make a complaint. They’ll send someone up. She’ll still be here in a week, don’t worry. Now get in the car. We have to go.”
“Do you want to be the second wife?”
I stared at him. Then, slowly, I climbed back in with the horse milk and we drove away.
It took me three days to get a ride down to the city, and another four to understand that the police would do nothing. The U.S. Embassy never gave me the time of day. I think they thought I was a crank. In the end it was Greg, from the Fulbright Committee, who rallied the troops and flew in from Prague on a rescue mission. I had kept in touch with the taxi driver and so I am positive, because he was with me and he was positive, that we returned to the exact spot where Ruby had been taken, but by then the family had moved on. We found circles of beaten grass where their tents had stood, but nothing else, though we searched for two weeks. If any of the families in the area knew where Ruby had gone, they were not telling. The Embassy refused to make a diplomatic fuss over a crime that may or may not have been committed on a woman who may or may not have been willing, noting that the taxi driver testified that Ruby had agreed to stay. Ruby’s family was small, dysfunctional, and, frankly, mean. Their position was that Ruby would return when she wanted to.
What else could I have done? What more?
Greg and I had a beer, said goodbye, said sorry. I finished my research and flew home. A prestigious university accepted me as a PhD student and I tried to put the whole thing behind me. I studied hard and worked hard and I became a professor. Now I have tenure. And a Labrador. And a mortgage. I did look Ruby up on social media, once that became a thing, but I found no trace of her.
I admit I did not look that hard.
Then, about three years ago, I ran into Aziz at a Central Asian Studies conference in Bloomington. I was presenting on “Contrapuntal Cross-Fertilization: The muqam as precursor to the Western cantilena.” I spotted him at the refreshments table, did a double-take, then quickly turned away, loath to elicit his characteristic rebuff. To my surprise, he followed me across the room and introduced me to, of all people, his wife.
“Pleased to meet you.” I shook her hand, nonplussed. She was a petit Tajik woman with heavy turquoise jewelry, and Aziz, the woman-hater, appeared entirely in her thrall. “It’s been a long time,” I said, addressing him for what seemed to me to be the first time in our unremarkable acquaintance.
“Yes. I’ve followed your work with interest.”
I doubted that, but I smiled nonetheless.
“Do you remember Ruby?” His voice was low, conspiratorial. “She did her fellowship with us in Bishkek?”
More unsettled at being grouped in an ‘us’ with Aziz than in hearing Ruby’s name after all those years, I nodded. “Of course.”
“You may not believe this — I hardly believe it myself — but I’ve seen her.”
I nearly dropped my coffee.
“Last year, at a bard fest near Karaqol, I heard a story about a Western woman who lived on the jayloo with her Kyrgyz husband. I thought nothing of it. To be honest, I didn’t care.”
No surprise there.
“But then, after the fest, I decided to ride out to Naryn, and a day after coming off the glacier I passed through a settlement and I saw her.”
“Yes, Ruby. She has three children now. To see her, to hear her, you wouldn’t think she’s not Kyrgyz.”
“This is…just incredible. Did you speak to her?”
Aziz put his arm loosely around his wife. “I did, Paula, and she was composed and serene. Mature. Not at all how I remembered her.”
“Was she happy?”
“She said she was.”
“And you believed her?”
“Why wouldn’t I?” He smiled, and the Aziz that I remembered leered out at me. “Looked to me like she had got everything she’d asked for.”
His eyes met mine and I returned his smile, ice for ice.
“Oh, Walter,” I said. “Are you quite sure,” I glanced here at his wife, “you would know the difference between asking and settling?”
I threw my name tag in the garbage can on the way out.
I hear my student stir. I set my wineglass on the table and pad down the hall to her room. She is sitting up in bed. Her eyes are swollen and the bruises have come to full color on her neck.
“I didn’t fight hard enough,” she says, chin wobbling. “I just lay there .”
Like Ruby, I think, who cried and cried but kept my camera in the end; anyone else would have understood it was only a loan.
“Passivity is a reflex,” I say. This is something I have taken the time to research. “It is something we inherited from our prehistoric past. When we are stuck, when we have no way out, when we are not strong enough to fight, then we go limp, and this passivity tells the predator we are dead and he should move on.”
I can hear the muqam through the open doorway. It is almost finished. They can go on for hours and days, these ballads. They are hypnotizing.
My student wipes her eyes and nose on her t-shirt and I peer over to see if, unlike Ruby, she really has anything to wipe. She lies down. I refill her hot water bottle and tuck her securely under the covers. Then I return to my wine, and the ocean breeze.
I start the muqam again from the beginning.