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Authors: Alan Cheuse

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BOOK: The Fires
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“How has it been for you?” he asked.

“I was up all night again,” she said, trying, while she spoke, to figure the time difference between them.

“The same problems?”

“Yes,” she said. “Terrible hot flashes.”

“I'm sorry,” he said. “Are you doing anything for it?”

“I've got an appointment with Betsy Cohen,” she said. “She wants to run some tests on me. So she can see if it's actually happening.”

“Good scientific approach,” he said.

“Paul,” she said.

Then paused.

“Yes?”

“I can't even begin to talk calmly about this. It is driving me crazy.”

“Sorry,” he said.

“You keep saying that,” she said.

“Sorry. Sorry! What else am I supposed to say?”

“I don't know,” she said. “Maybe I better hang up.”

“Not just yet,” he said. “Tell me about your day.”

“Not a bad day,” she said. “I just feel sort of blah. It's the nights, Paul.”

“The nights,” he said.

“The nights.”

“I'm sorry I'm not there to comfort you,” he said.

“Don't feel sorry,” she said. “If you were here, you would feel worse. Because you couldn't comfort me.”

“It's that bad?”

“That's what I'm trying to tell you. Yes.”

Pause at his end of the line.

“I haven't been getting a great deal of sleep myself.”

“Late meetings?”

“That. And passing through these time zones. I've already been out and back once since we last spoke, you know.”

“You have?”

“Yes, a quick trip to Alma Ata and back again.”

“‘Out and back,'” she said. “That would give me a headache. On top of my headache.”

“I don't have a headache. I'm just a bit tired. I hope to get some sleep on the plane to Tashkent, but you never can tell about those flights.”

“About any flights,” she said.

“Right,” he said.

“So,” she said.

“When are you going to see the doctor?”

“I told you, I'm having these tests.”

“What exactly are they?”

“Urine samples, saliva samples.”

A pause at his end of the line.

“I'd like to sample your saliva,” he said.

“Oh, you would?”

“I would,” he said. “As soon as I get back I'll conduct some tests on you myself.”

Gina felt it then, a touch of heat at the back of her legs and heat running in slender threads up toward her buttocks.

“I'll be in the waiting room, Doctor,” she said.

“The nurse will be with you in a minute,” he said.

She couldn't stand it.

“I have to go,” she said.

“All right,” he said. “Will you be at home tomorrow night?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“I'll call you from the airport at Tashkent. Before I drive off into the desert.”

“Paul of Arabia,” she said. “My hero. Be careful.”

“I'll be fine. You're the one I worry about.”

“Don't worry about me,” she said. “I'll be fine.”

Pause.

“Doctor?”

“Nurse,” he said right back to her.

Just at that moment another voice came on the line, speaking in Russian.

“Paul?” Gina said.

“Crossed lines,” he said as the other voice faded away.

“Be careful,” she said.

“No danger, stiff upper lip, tribes in that region are all pacified.”

“I love you,” she said, that heat running up and down her legs.

“I love you, too,” he said. “Bye.”

She was jolted awake by turbulence, the airplane descending down a hill of layered air as it made the first approach, according to the captain who spoke over the intercom, to the Frankfurt airport. My first approach, she said to herself, has not been very successful. Slumped in a chair in the waiting area, she slid over the edge of sleep.

2.

He had arrived late on the flight from Moscow, yes. And he was tired, but not any more than the usual discomfort after an overnight flight from Dulles, compounded by a night of eating heavy and drinking hard with the company people. It was the insertion into his schedule of this trip to Alma Ata that added the extra poundage of fatigue. Outbound, he couldn't sleep because of the turbulence. He always told himself that it was just like riding a motor boat that was skipping over rough water. Intellectually that made it seem like a simple thing. But there was just no way that he could find to doze off while they were bumping around up there. And then another heavy meal with some government officials in that mountain city before heading back to the airport and waiting for his return flight to Moscow. Ridiculous that he couldn't just make the short hop over to Tashkent, but there was a full day of meetings in Moscow between him and Uzbekistan.

And then things began to go wrong, not terribly wrong, but just enough to put him on edge. The company driver who took him back to the airport offered a shortcut through a neighborhood of cement block shacks, and they no sooner had turned the corner off the main avenue when one of their tires went flat. Paul had had to wait there in the dark, inhaling the smell of gasoline, standing
water—there were puddles all around though it had not rained that day—and the odor of a dozen cooking fires, while smoking his first cigarette in two years. He cadged it from the embarrassed driver and felt a little silly himself. What would he tell Gina? He told her everything, but then most of what he reported in the last few years had been good things, and if not good, then at least merely trivial, not degrading like this, giving in to his old habit.

The air was cold up here, and he smoked harder, as if it might warm him a bit. I should find one of those cooking fires and stand close to it, he told himself. Imagine, a stranger, a westerner, American no less, going up to one of these little cement shanties and knocking on the door. Well, he knew they would be hospitable and invite him in. And he would be offered the meal they had been counting on for their next day's fare.

His mouth watered. He was hungry. His bowels gurgled and pitched as he sucked in more smoke, held it…exhaled into the dark.

“How are you doing?” he said to the driver.

The man looked up from his labor at the front of the car, but said nothing.

Paul pictured what it would be like in this part of town, all over the city, in fact, if the project went through. Better light! Better energy! All across these dark and ominous mountain nations, people could begin to live a different life.

As if to mock his thought at the time, an old woman came limping up the lane, pulling something behind her. It took a moment before Paul could make it out, some kind of wagon, it seemed to be at first. But the closer she got the better he could see—a travois, no wheels, just a cart in triangular shape that she dragged behind her, and inside it, a child of perhaps three or four, an oddly pointed knitted cap on his head, his eyes wheeling about wildly in the viewing of nothing—he didn't seem to notice Paul or
the driver or the car, though the old woman at least recognized their presence by walking a bit further to the right as she dragged her burden behind her—the child spitting as he chanted to himself, some mixture of looniness and local melody.

Paul shouldn't have scolded himself, but he did, thinking, why the hell do you have to do this to yourself, every time you see a child in some sort of distress, thinking back to your own lost babe?

But this wouldn't be my child. My child, my daughter—there he said the word to himself—would have grown up healthy and normal, whatever normal means these days.

Yes. He sucked in the smoke and held it in his lungs. And he wondered if their child had lived if he might have chosen another line of work, one that would have allowed him more time at home. Gina, with her museum job, certainly could have found a way to stay at home. If the girl had lived, well, then she would have been there with him most of her childhood, wouldn't she?

What if? He exhaled, and then immediately sucked in another cloud of smoke. What if we had been able to have another? I might have changed professions. To what? Who knows? The venture capital firm that Holden always wanted me to join, that would have been a possibility. My kind of engineering has a lot of possibilities. He puffed out the smoke and laughed out loud. Drill a hole and see the world. Yes.

“Sir?”

The driver told him the tire was ready. He took one last look around. The woman had towed the child in the cart out of his line of vision, not that he could see all that well in the dark. It was the medication he was taking. The painkiller for the ache in his hip. A climb up a high walkway over a drilling site last year in Turkey, and a simple slip, a fall of only about three feet onto a platform below, landing on his side. The pain had stayed with him.
A man takes his hard knocks, he told himself, and then climbed back into the car. Within an hour he was seated on the airplane, and in another few minutes he was flying through the dark sky, returning to Moscow—and ready for another day of meetings.

That was when he last called her, after the long day in Moscow. So many things had changed and he wanted to tell her about them, things she'd be interested in, the new clothing, the look on the faces in the crowd, showrooms for western automobiles, restaurants and fax machines and Xerox machines and cellular telephones. The shock you once felt when arriving here after leaving the West behind, well, it had turned into another kind of shock. He had wanted to talk about it. But she had been so down. The medical problem, the menopause problem, was weighing on her so heavily that he didn't really have a chance to talk about anything else.

He climbed into bed that night feeling a tinge of regret—and a fiery pain in his right hip that kept him turning from side to side. Finally, he had to get up and take another painkiller. Ah, these chemicals! He couldn't decide what was worse, knowing exactly what they did to you or knowing nothing except that they brought you some relief. He lay there a while, waiting for the stuff to take effect—hoping it would work the way it was supposed to. You are free of pain for several days, and after the first day you may wonder where it has gone, but after the second you forget about it, and another day or so goes by and you feel so normal that you don't compare your days to the bad ones.

And then the pain returns.

And you lie here like this, wondering, hoping, sometimes, after a sleepless hour or two when you decide that you will break your standard oath about taking pills to help you sleep, except that you didn't bring that particular medication along with you, stupidly, stupidly didn't bring it….

That's when he might have begun to have had some real sympathy about her troubles, all of the complaints she had brought forward—the flashes of heat and sudden shifts to cold, the sleeplessness until dawn and then the deep sleep for an hour or so, and then waking up to another day of fatigue. The strange fluctuations of desire.

Not that he didn't always try to understand. He loved her deeply and never wanted to see her in even a moment's discomfort or pain. It's just that he didn't understand the relentlessness of her unfolding condition. And she drew back from telling him the whole truth, that it was close to those years of desperate grief that they had felt after the death of the baby. It wouldn't have done her any good, she decided, to make him feel that again simply as a way to get him to understand. She loved him deeply. She didn't want him to have to feel the same pain that she was feeling.

Though, yes, of course, he understood. Understood in his bones. Or in his balls, he should have said.

The falling off of desire had been so precipitous for her that he—he had told her this once in a dark fit of desperation after returning from two weeks in Pakistan—could only compare it to a kind of death.

“Yes,” she had told him. “That's it, that's just the way it is.”

“But—well,” he said. “The cock dies. But the cock always gets resurrected. Erection, resurrection, almost the same word, isn't it? Death in life, that sort of thing…”

She laughed weakly. Even a month or two ago she would have found him, and his word-play, amusing. Now, it was just, well, no better word for it—it just went limp. Yes, she was the one with the potency problem. She explained this to him. How all her joy seemed to have dried up in her.

“Like a black and white movie, where before all the movies were in color.”

“That's going backward,” he said. “What's next? You stop talking? And after that, just stills of you, not even the illusion of movement?”

“It could be, Paul,” she said. “The way I feel, anything could happen.”

To his credit, he did seem to understand. Or at least he tried.

“Now that I think of it, it's not all bad. After the stills, you go back to seeing the world as paintings, impressionist paintings. And then you go back to the Renaissance…”

“And eventually back to the cave?”

“Right. You'll become as stylized as one of those animals on the cave wall at Lascaux. Pure outline and shape. And magical. Aren't they supposed to be magical drawings? Paintings? Whatever they are.”

She had to admit he knew how to get to her. She cooked one of his favorite meals that night, roasted a game hen, with potatoes and leeks, and they split a bottle of good red they had picked up on a brief vacation in northern California—he had carted several bottles all the way home from there, all the more to savor the wine when they drank it. That was the kind of man he was. He'd rather do it that way than go to the wine store and pick out some reasonably similar alternative. For an engineer, not bad. Yes? That was how he often put it to her. For an engineer.

And after dinner, they talked a bit more, watched the news on CNN.

“Oh, Jesus,” he said with a moan when the weather report came on. “What do you know?” he said to the image of the weatherman. “You're in your stupid bunker of a studio. What do you know what it's like out there in the field?”

“You're raving again,” she said, enjoying his familiar antics in front of the television screen. He was a technology
whiz, a master, but he professed to despise most of the ways it was used.

A feeling rushed through her. All of a sudden, to use her own way of explaining things, the world seemed to be in color again.

He noticed the change, could see it in her face, a certain fullness to it, not a flush but almost. And as they passed each other while undressing for bed she touched him with a tenderness that she had been unable to muster for over a week.

So after all the talk about her retreat into her new condition, he noticed that she felt moved again, in the old way, and after reading for a few minutes he pressed close to her and asked if she would like him to turn out the light. She was perusing a handbook on organic gardening. Out near her old, long unused kiln, that would be a good place to put in a small garden. She said that to him. He asked again about the light.

“Oh, sure,” she said.

Gentleman that he was, he believed in behaving this way toward all women, not just Gina, and though he often wondered, to himself and sometimes aloud, if this were all just some kind of romantic fantasy he acquired from reading certain books as a boy—because, Lord knows, in Rhode Island, where he grew up, there wasn't much of a great cavalier tradition, was there?—it was an easeful, and easy, way of getting along, particularly with women. In the dark, he was thinking about this, thinking those little thoughts that you have about your life just as you're sinking toward sleep, a little of this, some of that, a few questions that had to do with nothing, utterly trivial stuff, errands, fleeting image of something he once saw on the street in Tehran—now why would that come to mind all of a sudden?—plans for his trip east next week….

And she touched him.

“Gina, I thought—?”

“Hush,” she said.

Oh, life of contradictions and complexity! Oh, depths of desire and the soaring of birds in air, fish that swim beneath the waves—but where else do they swim? They leap above the waves, some of them do, dolphins and flying fish, any others?

He awoke in the night to find her legs entwined around him, and he lay still, so that finally the sound of his breathing subsided almost to nothing and he could listen to her slight even sounds the way a mother might watch over a small child in the night, sorting out the various musics in its breathing. For a few weeks, he had listened to their own child breathing with such difficulty, first in the crib, and then back in the pediatric ward. Recalling all this turned the pleasure of lovemaking to something that tasted sour in his throat. A few hours went by and she awoke, waking him.

“What?” he said.

“I'm so hot,” she said, throwing off the covers, sighing, as if nothing had happened between them.

So, yes, he understood a little of what she was going through. Of what—a dim phrase from his university days, from a philosophy course, came to mind—she was carrying with her wherever she went. Words of a French woman, philosopher or theologian, some such thing, who whenever she met someone would ask, ‘What are you carrying?' Was that it? What are you carrying? What is troubling you, eating away at you? The presumption in that initial question, the assumption that everyone, everywhere, all the time, was bearing some awful pain…He understood. Or tried to. That falling off from desire that troubled her, he was sorry for that. But he wanted to assure her in a way that would not make her think that he was any less in love with her—because he was not—
that it didn't matter so much. Perhaps he himself was undergoing a change?

BOOK: The Fires
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