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River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative 6.2 (2005) 103-116

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His wife shuffles to his
Bed. They part, when the shades are bright,
she sleeps, eyes opened. To stay with him,
he would need to ask the light to shade
its rising, she would need to ask the sun
to let her speak, he would need to ask
her words to shame him quiet.
"Lovers," Susan Atefat-Peckham

But there are stories that don't have beginnings. I tell my students as I limp toward the white-board, marker in hand—ready to attack and dismantle the Freytag triangle—its neat symmetry, its infuriating geometry. I take a deep breath. Where we start is everything, all is exposition and no truths are simple as this. So "Tell me a story / In this century and moment of mania, / Tell me a story." But where to start. And who is the story about?

Cyrus and Darius have finally drifted off after thirty minutes of storytelling and singing. Energized by a day in the Wadi-Ram, riding across the desert in jeeps, exploring caves, running their thin fingers along the ancient glyphs on stone the color of a dying rose, exhausted by the long drive, nervous from strange, dusty beds and yet another new world, nervous from the separation from mother and grandmother, they have gone off to sleep unwillingly—the way children will, as if fearing that submission to darkness, that complete relinquishing of control. Susan is separated from us by a dingy hallway and two double bolted doors. We are in a hotel in Aqaba and the night is desert cold. Outside the streets are still busy, still hum with commerce; and the scent of garlic and grilled meat mixes with the exhaust [End Page 103] fumes that permeate the building. So we are apart again. As so many nights before. And our coming together is less frequent. Intimacy has given way to the bitterness of a long and desperate drifting apart—like two rafts connected by a slender chord, pulling apart, only to be jerked angrily back. In the room across the hall she sleeps next to her mother and she dreams. The next morning, heading to the bazaar to look for children's clothes, she tells me that her eyes hurt. That she was running toward a light all night and that she can't shake the blinding glare. She tells me less and less about her dreams. She has been hearing voices for months now. She tells me her poems are written by others. That she is a medium. And she tells me at first with wide-open eyes—eyes that stun every man and most women with their beauty and their dark warm passion. But I know she is floating up and away from me like a piece of paper torn from a book by the wind, and I watch her the way people might watch a miracle—with reverence but also with genuine fear, and not a little sense of one's own unworthiness. And so the stares always get harder, sadder; her telling has lost hope. She doesn't believe she can reach me. And I guess she can't. It is always Ariel and Caliban. She, too much in love with the next world and I, too much in love with this one.

Susan has come to Aqaba as she has come everywhere: wanting to be open to the people and the world but also finding that it never lives up to her expectations. She is always disappointed in the frailty of others, though she doesn't give up on them easily. The previous night we had gone down to the coast and watched as the Muslim women swam fully clothed, backlit in the evening light. Under the tent, sipping tea, I found them tragically beautiful. But I am a Westerner, and what seems confining and sad to me is simply their world. A world they seem to swim through with the comfort of knowing its borders. A world they step...


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pp. 103-116
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