At sixteen I was worth twenty camels, offered to my father by a man in a white jalabiyya. He had dusty lips. He had an eye.
My hair was too bright, wrapped off my face in a torn strip of a boy’s faded t-shirt. My toes in creased sandals were caked and powdery, dirt-orange, red and brown. I sat on a cracked plastic bench with my mother in the shade of an alder, watching the market, the uneven stone path lined with baskets of nuts and strange roots, the flap and dove-flutter of the women there. It was September, and blistering.
Twenty camels. This man flipped his cigarette into the desert and stepped back into the tiled shadows of his stall. He could see a thousand miles, a thousand years. He sank onto his cracked heels, onto his blue and saffron rug, waiting for my father to answer him. My mother slipped the camera from her straw bag, advanced the film and frowned. The rug was woven fine and tight, crimson-fringed. It would be so striking in the living room.
Also in her bag: a book of crossword puzzles, sunscreen and bottles of water, the hotel’s brochure, its lobby a blue star on the map.
Our living room was three thousand miles away. Outside was dusk, damp and cooling on the mid-Atlantic coast, and inside sealed and still. The thermostat ticked. The beds were made, the kitchen sink empty, the guest towels folded and dry. Across the street Mrs. Morse loaded the dishwasher and fireflies blinked.
In the desert the sun burned. Twenty camels, the man said again, black eyes on my father and nowhere else, and I watched him pretending not to hear, or failing that, to understand. He laughed, or tried to, and my mother pulled open a bag of pretzels. The driver leaned against the hood of our hired car, hands in the pockets of his jeans, fingering my father’s American money.
Three thousand miles away, closed closet doors and behind them our summer clothes hung smooth, almost used up, hems frayed, seams thinned. The sweaters were packed and waiting in cedar-lined boxes, winter coats in zippered garment bags, suspended. We would always love them: these were the clothes we’d worn before we understood how many endings we would have to bear.
In that desert I was paling. At the hotel dining room in the mornings my parents drank weak coffee and tore at greasy dry croissants, dug cold butter from plastic tubs. In the cafés along the boulevard were crocks of steaming chickpea soup and sweet couscous with dried fruit and honey, bowls of tabbouleh, of pistachios. The orange juice was close to opaque, the bright sludge of pulp inch-deep in tall narrow glasses. My shoulders were mottled pink where the skin had burned, peeled.
I was a virgin, and pricey that way. The man in the jalabiyya knew it, even if my mother had her doubts. It was Kent Morse’s t-shirt in my hair, the twisted neck of it wrapped and wound, fabric I had tongued beneath. In July he’d tasted of mown grass and Ivory soap and in August I’d dabbed honeysuckle perfume under my arms and between my legs, new places. It was not until September that I learned what I was worth.
The driver jingled his keys and watched my father’s American wife. She rolled the bag of pretzels closed and clicked her ballpoint at a new puzzle.
Then nothing, the man in the jalabiyya said, Nothing! and threw up his hands at my father’s silence, his sheepish smile. He knelt in the dim of his stall over a silver tray and bent close over it, running his fingers through piles of herbs. Like that we had disappeared.
My father, later, would tell this story as a burlesque, gesturing with his glass of scotch in the humming cool living room that smelled of air conditioning and deep shag pile. A comedy of manners, high farce. He mimed confused camaraderie, his eyes burned with despair. My mother would insist that she did not remember it, that my father exaggerated or embellished; that he was a liar, a hypocrite and fraud; had made her miserable for longer than he knew.
When Mrs. Morse walked in on us I was on Kent’s lap, his hands beneath my legs, fingers up under the hem of my shorts and reaching. You little slut, she said, but that was not true, even though I wanted it to be. Her son could have told her how far from true it was if she had asked, which she did not. I want her out of here, she said to him, and slammed the door, but he would not let me go. His fingers dripped with me.
The life span of a camel is fifty years. My parents were married for twenty. Kent worked the Tilt-A-Whirl at the fair the year the a car came loose and flew, hit the midway with a smack like nothing he had ever heard. It was not his fault but the parents of the broken children in it forgave him anyway. Last night my husband wrapped a scarf around my throat and pulled, weeping, until red flowers bloomed hot behind my eyes. For dinner he served me lamb roasted with figs and walnuts. Even now the stars are cold and beautiful.