This will be one of those interminable flights, I think as I look around at a full plane. With no in-flight entertainment, I resort to spying on my hapless seatmates.
The man in front of me in 37J, has his laptop open, he is going through work emails. From my spy’s vantage point, I could see his screen so clearly as to read each word as he scrolls past them. The ones in Chinese I see as a picture, as one might view a postcard. The ones in English, I scroll through as he pages down on them, outpacing the owner as only those that are uninvested in their contents can. From what I surreptitiously perused, I learn this man is grappling with organizational changes, an incident involving lost cargo, a petulant superior.
After a single pass through all the unread emails, he opens a blank page and begins to tap tap tap slowly, filling the screen with words. I read along, wishing he would type faster. He begins with an apology, a deliberate set of taps, the words formal and phrased with care. Apologies for my absence, he writes, sorry for having run out of time. I read, unable to stifle the desire to edit. You could be more concise, I think. A lengthy apology consumes time you say you don’t have.
He finishes the email, signing off with a habitually typed “Kind regards,” then he reviews the content line by line, careful to edit for typos. He revises a line or two, but on the whole, seems satisfied with what he wrote — a meticulous and polite man. I appreciate all this from my secret vantage point. He hits send, waits for the email to fly off, and then shuts the laptop, plunging us both into darkness.
It’s the last week of October and it feels as though we are sliding treacherously into an early Kabul winter. Dusk falls faster now, it edges out the last rays of an afternoon sun that slinks away earlier and earlier each day, its warmth swallowed up by the descending cold.
I’m a girl from the tropics, so I like to defy the advances of winter. Off work, I sling my duffel bag of dirty clothes and head to the laundry in the advancing darkness. The pavement is icy now, I can feel the coldness seeping through the flip flops I insist on wearing. The numbness registers as pain on the soles of my feet. A small matter, I think. There is virtue in a little sacrifice.
There are no street lamps here, so I walk by the light of my iPhone, turned down towards the ground. Overhead, I hear the metal whine of our helicopters trying to rise from the ground. Rotor blades whirr, slicing through the night — whack whack whack — metal attacking the cold air. Just over the T-walls I can see the lights of Kabul blinking, the city laid out like a sequined blanket. It looks pretty, yes — but of course, I know better than to trust the sparkle.
I stuff my laundry in the wash, pop in those plump detergent pods. A week’s worth of clothes. I use up two washers for this round. Forty-five minutes to let the machine do its job, then I have to come back, yank my clothes out and transfer them into the dryers. Through the window of the laundry room, the dark outside has become an indigo kind of blue, and the edges of things have turned blurry, like an ink stain.
I know the temperature is going to drop a few more degrees in the next hour. Almost six years in this place, and there’s no getting used to it. The cold still goes straight to my bones.
Of all the dalliances I’ve had, this boy is the most, shall we say, puppy dog like. Maybe it’s the age thing, the younger they are, the more needy they seem.
The distance doesn’t help, of course. I find myself giving out reassurances that I may not be able to sustain, so I stopped giving them. Unsurprisingly, this did not go over well on the other side of the ocean. There was radio silence for days. And then there was that one night we were messaging, when he sends me a missive: “Tell me you do not love anyone.”
That made me pause, mid-key. I’ve just been given a sort of ultimatum, and the skittish girl in me wanted to run, fast. But then I thought, if I do not love anyone, that makes for such a sad life. If I do have a love and it’s someone else, that will not be palatable to him as well. Maybe it’s the grammar that needs work, some nuance lost in translation, but I get the feeling he is looking for something that may not be there. And so, there is no happy answer to that bit of chat, no emoticons that can ease the heart into believing all is well.
That’s the flip side of asking for the truth, you might learn more than you care to know.
I made a friend during my stay in Istanbul. He is Muslim, a kind, hardworking man who is devoted to his family. He wonders why I travel alone. He can’t believe that I don’t have ‘a man that’s responsible for me.’ He would always remind me to be careful when walking around town alone, to be watchful, that not everyone is kind.
When customer traffic is light at their restaurant, he would leave for a few hours of break and walk with me through the streets, pointing out things of interest, local hangouts, places to avoid. In one of our leisurely strolls through Istiklal Caddesi, we came to a stop at St. Anthony’s Church, a Catholic church right in the middle of the shopping district. I told him I stumbled into that church a few days ago, that I stopped and took pictures. He smiled and told me he goes there sometimes with his prayer beads, takes a seat, and passes the time away in a dark corner, meditating.
That surprised me, and I said the obvious, “But that’s a Catholic church.” He chuckles at that and looks at me as though I am clueless. “No one tells me to leave, they let me sit there and relax. It’s all the same to me.”
I had nothing else to say to that. We walk on until we come to our little street corner and sit down to have some tea. It takes me the entire glass of tea to let that sink in.
A religion of sameness. That would really be something.
Some days you sit outside and just look.
The sky can be so blue as to seem elementary. There is snow on the mountains now, but you knew that without having to see it, the sting of cold on the soles of your feet tells you as much when you jump out of bed each morning.
You watch people pass by, walking with their hands jammed into pockets, their bodies bent forward in that curved slouch the spine takes on during winter. You think, my tropical bones will never get used to that shape. You think that, but when you stand up to walk, the curvature reveals itself — how the bones arc inwards, trying to form a shell around the lungs, the ribs about to clutch your heart. The body shields itself, even when one is not aware of it.
Some days though, you see beyond the snow that blankets the rooftops, beneath the thin panes of ice on the ground.
Today, some guy turns in his resignation because he thinks everyone ignores him. He feels unseen. One guy confesses he feels betrayed by the locals, he says they pray several times a day and then send out a truck of explosives to try and blow up a gas station, a guard outpost, a camp full of people. He is tired of saving everybody. Some guys just want to move on to the next high-paying gig, go somewhere warm, where one can earn a decent living and be able to drink Jack-and-Cokes. One guy just paid off the last year of his kid’s college and it’s hasta la vista, see ya. Another left because he’d had enough of the crazy running into the bunkers, all hours of the day. And some guys leave because they want better quality toilet paper.
Five years of doing this, and some days when you sit outside you think you’ve seen it all. Some days.
Some nights, you are so very cold. And so you put on those flannel pajamas to keep warm.
Too quickly, the body forgets the memory of another body against it, how skin warms skin and obliterates the need for clothing. It should be as natural as this, when bodies cling together for warmth. We should need nothing more when we are with one another. We were made to lie close, body to body, nestled in a nurturing embrace. This was how our ancestors survived since the beginning of time, when caves were cold and damp, the darkness — absolute.
Now we have the embrace of flannel pajamas, made all pretty with a length of ribbon. We have the heater on. And in one corner, a night lamp burns quietly, trying to keep the darkness from swallowing us whole.
An afternoon nap led to a strange dream. I was in someone’s house, cooking spicy spareribs. I’ve never been in that kitchen before, but I seemed familiar with it, it looked like a combination of all the kitchens in all the houses I’ve lived in through the years.
The spareribs were done, and I was sitting on the counter with the laptop typing away, when my ex suddenly came in. Don’t ask which ex, I’m not telling. He went straight to the pan of spareribs on the stove, lifting the lid and sniffing with his eyes closed. Then he turns to me and says’ “Why are you not sharing this with me?” I was silent. He glares at me, then pouts. He goes to the counter, takes out a plate and a fork and helps himself to the spareribs. In between bites he keeps muttering, “It’s so good, so good!”
This is when I woke up from the dream, disoriented to find myself in bed instead of the kitchen. It felt strangely erotic. And now I am hungry.