Victoria Lancelotta

Camels

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.

~

Victoria Lancelotta is the author of the col­lec­tion Here in the World and the nov­els Far and Coeurs Blesses [Broken].  She was the 2009 recip­i­ent of the Tennessee Individual Artist Grant for fic­tion.  She cur­rent­ly dodges bul­lets in her home­town of Baltimore and swears that a prop­er pie crust can­not be made with­out lard.