The Sea That Leads to All Seas
A month after her boyfriend Mohamed is deported, Larissa agrees to dinner with the dental student. When you are deported from the United States, you are barred from reentry for ten years. In 2013 Larissa will be thirty-five, the age most doctors cite for increased risks in pregnancy. She has decided on one plan for her life: to give birth to a healthy baby, a United States citizen. For now she takes appointments and manages files in the office of the dental student's uncle, where the student spent his time in training, making corny jokes between patients, putting a hand to his cheek and exclaiming "Tooth hurty!" when she checked in a two-thirty, and staring at her longingly.
On his very first day he'd leaned over the counter, the white lab coat riding up his arms, unmasking dark curls of hair. He smelled of fluoride and aftershave, antibacterial soap. To Larissa, a woman terrified of disease, the smell was not unappealing. Like most American men, he inquired first about her accent.
"Are you Russian?" he said. "Some of my ancestors were Russian."
"I'm from Ukraine," she said, and turned back to her computer.
The dental student is no longer really a student. He's a dentist and has a joint practice on Lake Shore Drive. He phones the office at least once a week from his own—calls Larissa has to answer—on the pretense of needing to consult his uncle on some dental matter. Over the phone the dental student has said she is a light, noted upcoming concerts outdoors at Grant Park, and described cozy little restaurants.
This time when he asks her how she is, she cuts to the chase. "I'm hungry. I can't get full when I have to eat alone."
He doesn't take the hint, or perhaps can't believe in it. "Alone? But doesn't your mother—I thought you lived with your mother."
Larissa does not. Her mother is only often visiting, a house-guest who leaves behind a toothbrush and takes with her a key.
She is here now, keeping Larissa company since Mohamed has gone. But together they seem too much to be widows; food truly doesn't taste the same. She will send her mother back soon to her new husband, Randall.
Larissa explains none of this to the dental student. He knows nothing of Mohamed.
"Have you met my mother?" she says.
Rapidly, he seems to catch on. "I'd like to sometime, very much." The invitation to dinner is for them both. "How about that little Italian place I've been telling you about? The one with candles dripping down the sides of bottles?"
"Yes, all right," she agrees. "But wouldn't you rather my mother stayed home?"
He would, but—he says unabashed—Larissa has refused him so many times before. No, she corrects, he has just never really asked. He laughs, and she knows she has made him feel both stupid and proud to have finally won, and made of herself a kind of liar. The kind who lies for selfish reasons, and makes only the other feel good. If she had not just lost Mohamed irretrievably, she would not be doing this.
Larissa first met her boyfriend not long after the planes flew into the buildings in New York City. She was on the steps of the Art Institute museum, where she liked to smoke during her lunch break, and a crowd had gathered around the boys who drummed on plastic buckets for money. Mohamed was with his brother Hassan; both were photographers, here against their mother's wishes from Morocco, on temporary visas. The two Arabs with their cameras stood out from the crowd, though no one seemed to fear them.
The short one, Hassan, caught sight of Larissa watching and pointed her out. After a short discussion, they approached her. They looked like typical art school students, wearing ratty plaid shirts and winter scarves wrapped loosely around their necks. Mohamed kept a full beard, Hassan a thin mustache. Formally, Hassan introduced them, and asked her for a cigarette.
"Hassan," said Mohamed. "You know I cannot condone this. Cigarettes addict and kill."
Hassan ignored him. "Please, may I borrow just one? I'm not an addict."
"If you plan on returning it when you're through." Larissa smiled and tapped one out from her pack. Mohamed did not smile back but she sensed his amusement.
Hassan asked, "And what do you do here in Chicago?"
She told them, in the wry tone she used when speaking of her job. "I also took classes at the Art Institute," she added. "I studied film."
"But you are not making films? You are working for a dentist?" asked Hassan.
"I like better to watch films. Work is work," she said, "and play is play." She felt the Americanness of this statement but was not ashamed.
Hassan took a long drag, as if to draw the next thought into his mouth, and Mohamed spoke then. "What if the work was more like play?"
"Then," she said, catching his eyes, "it would be more fun. But still work."
Hassan said, "Don't you despise working in this office all day? Doing what this dentist tells you?"
The boys thundered away on their drums, a finale, and lifted their sticks in the air for applause. Larissa said, more quietly, for the street was quieter then too, "I'm just glad for a stable job. It hasn't been so easy to find. I'm not a citizen and I studied film."
"They don't make it easy," Mohamed said. "But permanence anywhere is not so easy to find."
"You mean, because it doesn't exist?"
He looked like he wanted to say more, but she saw the time on the clock across the street and stood. "I should go back. I'll be late."
In what seemed a spontaneous move, Mohamed's hand reached out and caught her wrist, cuffing it. "Meet me here when you are finished," he said.
"Why?" she said, but she was smiling.
He let go her wrist and put the hand on her arm. His touch was light, but there was pressure behind it. "I would like to photograph you," he said.
Hassan, who'd fallen quiet, let out a brief laugh, marked with clear disdain. He stubbed out his cigarette, and without saying good-bye, carried it to a trash can at the bottom of the steps.
"He is angry with me," Mohamed said. "He likes you, and I have stolen you away."
"You haven't stolen me yet."
But she knew she would not make it too hard for him.
She'd marked the request to take her picture as a ruse, might even have laughed like Hassan, had she not felt so strong an attraction. She was willing to play along. After meeting back at the steps, she took Mohamed to her apartment. Making love, they used a condom—Larissa was always insistent on that—but she hated it between them. She couldn't see catching anything from him. Afterward, they took photos. It was clear that to Mohamed, taking pictures could never be just a ruse. That night was the only time he spoke freely of his art, and later Larissa wondered if that was because she'd been a stranger, if at the time he'd thought she would not become more.
"People say that art is about beauty," he said, "but I think this is too simple. Art is about intimacy."
"Intimacy?" Larissa crooked an eyebrow but he ignored it.
"Intimacy between the viewer and the art. If the scene or subject would be repellent to the viewer, I try to capture for him the beauty. The beauty in the repellent."
"And in the beautiful the repellent?" Her voice faltered. She was having too much fun to really be insulted but could not let the insinuation go.
"Yes," he said, and laid aside his camera. "I know what you are thinking, but the art is not the same as the living subject. Art is a tool, a weapon. Do you understand?"
She decided not to give him a hard time. And she believed she understood. The films she liked the most were the ones that made her feel uncomfortable, that prompted counterintuitive pairs: excitement and shame, self-consciousness and isolation.
"In this country," Mohamed said, "there are too few ways to be beautiful."
Larissa wears no underwear to dinner with the dental student. But she owns few pairs and hardly ever wears them. Her mother, who even having married Randall retains her immigrant thrift, holds underwear as an example of unnecessary expense. Jewelry, food, and wine, though necessities, could be provided by men. "For me, it is coffee and cigarettes that come first," she says, and Larissa has long come to agree. The pleasure derived from smoking outweighs the risks; besides, it gives her a feeling of control. If she is to eventually succumb to some disease, at least she'll have chosen it.
At the candlelit restaurant table, the dental student cracks jokes and offers opinions on world issues to interrupt the silence. He invites Larissa to choose an appetizer for his selection of wine. Mohamed had always been in charge of a meal, and silence could be tempered or given depth by his eyes, dark and fierce, capable of communicating secrets. In bed he liked her to make the first move, if only so that he could conquer her. Larissa guesses that with the dental student, she would assume much of the hard work, and afterward he would want to be held, out of breath and, for once, quiet.
"Take AIDS, for example," he is saying. "Do you realize that almost forty percent—forty percent!—of the adult population in Botswana is infected with HIV?"
"That sounds accurate," she says, deadpan. It's not that she hasn't given thought to the AIDS epidemic, because she has—more than the average person, certainly. It's that he speaks of it so earnestly and really knows nothing of it. Being in the States, they are lucky: such disease can be kept under control, and all because of money.
"Sadly, it is accurate," he says. "Meanwhile, the United States government—"
He continues, but Larissa has never tasted wine quite like this one; she holds each sip for a moment on her tongue and swishes it around gently, luring out the hints of raspberry and black pepper. On grave topics, the dental student speaks easily and openly. Mohamed found it most difficult to talk about the things he took most seriously: his art, his family, his country left behind.
"I'm sorry," the dental student is saying. "I've finally got you out on a date, and here I am, pontificating."
"Pontificate if you need to," she says, and mostly means it. "You should just be yourself."
The dental student seems to be holding back a smile. He's blushing.
"What is it?"
"I'm sorry." He blushes harder. "Almost anything you say sounds sexy. You talk for a while."
"What do you want me to say?" She expects some half-joke, some dirty word he's been wanting to hear from her mouth. But the dental student remains earnest.
"Tell me what you're thinking right now."
She leaves out Mohamed but shares her impressions of the wine. He calls her an epicure, which seems to be another compliment. She wants to offer him some compliment in return, and she does like to tease, so as they exit the restaurant, feet crunching pebbles of salt melting ice, Larissa whispers in his ear, "You might like to know, I'm not wearing panties."
That night on the dental student's firm navy-sheeted mattress, she discovers she was right about the sex, but that, surprisingly, it's pleasing in its own way. She was not expecting to come, so when she lets her head fall back and cries out, riding atop the dental student, the sound startles her and she reaches to cover her own mouth.
When they're through, the dental student is docile and sated at her side—heart beating against her ribs, curls slick with sweat. Larissa lights a cigarette, knowing he, unlike Mohamed, will not protest, not so soon: though if she lets this get far enough, he will surely start to mention the stains tobacco makes. Mohamed, at least, could be amused by the rebellion.
She wonders how she will explain this to her mother. At this moment she is either smoking, too and enjoying Larissa's dvds, or sleeping on the couch—she would not be worried or purposefully staying up.
"Well, I'm surprised," her mother said, when she told her of the date. For years the longing of the dental student was a joke between them. "I'll miss you for dinner. But it's good not to wait, if you can bear it. Time will move without you, and soon enough all those days will feel like just one." It is talk like this that makes Larissa feel a widow, and made her strip her clothes as though they were black.
"We're like a cat and dog. He needs me but I don't need him," Larissa says the next day. Her mother nods, pouring more coffee. The tiny diamond glitters on her hand. Of course she understands.
Her mother had disliked Larissa's being with Mohamed, but not because he was Muslim, which other Ukrainians, not to mention Americans, might have held against him. Mohamed didn't even believe in Allah, and neither do Larissa and her mother believe in God—a topic not to be discussed with immigration officers, as it would endanger their appearance of good moral character. In Mohamed's case, Larissa thinks the admission wouldn't have hurt but knows it wouldn't have changed anything. The dental student is Jewish and doesn't believe in God either, yet he is entirely invested in his heritage and observes all the holy days. Larissa's mother, an apostate of ritual, is not bothered by this: "As long as his mother doesn't mind you are no Jew."
Once Larissa and Mohamed had driven to Michigan to visit Randall's farm, where her mother grows catnip and keeps all of her cats. The farmhouse, cold even in summer, creaked of its own volition and was filled with antiques old a hundred years ago, when first brought in. Upon the previous owner's death, the man's son sold everything to Randall. The farm had been in the same family line its entire history, but now it was Randall's dream come true, his experiment in alternative living. They have a radio and telephone, no television, no computer. Randall belongs to an organic farming cooperative and writes songs on acoustic guitar for his own "sanity," as he describes it.
When Randall took Mohamed out in the tractor to give him a tour of the property, Larissa's mother leaned over the kitchen table, cigarettes and mugs smoking and steaming between, and said, "I'm so bored here! There's nothing to do, no community. I'm coming back with you for another visit home."
"Momma, I warned you. I don't know why you agreed to move from the city."
"It's men who do these things to us. Men who lead us to foreign places."
"But my apartment is too small for all of us. How long will you stay?"
"All of us? This Moroccan is living with you now?"
"He's a nice boy. Very serious, very smart. But you should be with someone from your own country."
They spoke mostly in Ukrainian, but their country, it was understood, was the United States. Larissa, whose memories of Ukraine were sparse and primarily melancholic, did not point out, as her mother once did for her, that although there could be only one home, while all else in the world remained foreign, time was all it took for home to become a foreign place, and for the foreign place to become home. Her mother just liked sometimes to be stubborn.
For two weeks, her mother stayed with them in Chicago, in Larissa's Ukrainian Village one-bedroom. In the afternoon, while Mohamed was at the School of the Art Institute and Larissa at the dentist's office, her mother visited old friends in the neighborhood. Then the three sat around most nights eating her mother's homemade cabbage rolls and varnyky and drinking Polish beer. Mohamed was so afraid Larissa's mother would hear that he refused to have sex the entire time. Behind their closed door she gave him strip teases and whispered all the dirty words she knew he loved to hear, but Mohamed closed his eyes, covered his ears.
"Come lie down," he said, patting the bed. "Be a good girl." He put an arm absently around her, and examined negatives of the film he'd developed that day. She sulked in the rejection, smoking cigarettes in bed, until she was no longer playing.
"Your own pictures turn you on more than I do. Your tools and weapons. Where will they even take you? Does anyone even care?"
He turned to her and calmly said, "Don't be a bitch." He waved his hand and said, "Why don't you go watch a film?" Which meant: at least he was not afraid to create, to reveal his point of view and assert it as important.
She fell asleep on the couch beside her mother, while a dvd played; but her mother knew better than to ask, and shook her to return to bed when it had finished. The next night Larissa asked Hassan to join them for dinner. They had come to be casual friends. He interrupted Mohamed often to speak directly to her.
"Work is fine," she answered him. "Boring, as you know. You should ask Mohamed of his."
Mohamed rarely shared his developed photographs, but with Hassan's insistence—"Brother, you make it so difficult. You know they will only say they love them."—he agreed.
His photography captured Moroccan open-air markets and empty dunes, the sparkling Mediterranean, the steel mills of Gary, yachts moored in Lake Michigan, and all kinds of people. Much of his portraiture featured Larissa, and some of even these shots were new to her. Her mother held a photo, and together they studied the angular shadows fallen across Larissa's face. Mohamed never wanted her to smile for his camera, and her bright teeth—whitened free of charge by the uncle of the dental student— remained hidden by full lips. To Larissa, her straight white teeth were the very picture of healthiness. The photo seemed dark without them, but in some way more true. She didn't like it, but that was not the point, so she said nothing.
"It's beautiful," said Hassan. "My work could not touch it."
"You make her look so exotic," her mother said. "Photograph me like this."
So Mohamed said he would do a session with mother and daughter. Larissa told Hassan that he should help, but he stood back, holding his beer and just watching. Mohamed had Larissa's mother take down her blond hair from the braids wrapped round her head. She rarely did, but seemed more than happy to. Larissa's hair matched hers in color and texture, but it was cut short, American style, to her chin. There was nothing she could do differently with it. She noted that her mother was slightly thinner and taller too. Each of them had dimples in identical spots of their round cheeks, and when pleased, their blue eyes twinkled beneath thick lashes. That night she knew her mother's eyes were more vibrant than her own, but Larissa was trying, taking Mohamed's direction and not going by her own. He saw that.
"Lay your head on her breast," he said to Larissa's mother, "as if you are the child."
Against her will, Larissa smiled. "That's not such a stretch." Her mother was acting like a girl. In response, her mother nuzzled her chin sharply into her shoulder. "Momma, that hurts."
"Good," said Mohamed. "That face is good."
That night Larissa did not tease him, rolled away from him in bed, and he came from behind to wrap his arms around her. He whispered that film, all film, was not right for her; images could not be tasted or smelled.
"I like your mother very much," he said when she was gone. By the end of her stay, he had called her Momma, and she cried to leave them. "You two are like sisters; I don't know which of you is more sexy." Larissa had pouted, though part of her, glad again to be alone, was proud.
On the phone from Michigan her mother said, "I like Mohammed very much."
"Yes, I could tell."
"But you should be with someone from your own country."
When her mother put Randall on the phone he said, "Thanks for sending back your mother. I wrote a song for her while she was gone. It's called ‘Iron Curtain Maiden'—want to hear it?" But he was only joking; Randall knew she hated his music, so quirky and sentimental. "You're too good to her," Larissa said. She could hear her mother humming in the background.
The dental student endeavors to make Larissa happy. But it's not the expensive bottles of wine at dinner, the endless flattery, the coffees and bundles of flowers hand-delivered to the office, that make her happy. It's his simple need and her ability to fulfill it. There is something clean, if not exactly exhilarating, about the way they fit. The dental student isn't a complicated person. He fills cavities, makes money and spends it; he isn't stupid, he knows what's unfair in the world, but he looks for contentment where it can be found.
In bed she holds him, his head nestled on her chest. She can make out the outline of her clothes on a chair; while she was brushing her teeth—something she no longer postcoitally neglects—he must have folded them, for they'd been shed in steps as they moved to the bed. The dental student will only make love on a bed, and though she's confident she could otherwise shape his appetite, she doesn't want to change this about him.
He begins to drift to sleep, then startles, as if from a dream of falling away. "Larissa," he says.
"I'm right here."
"I know you are, silly." He cuddles against her. "But you're still awake. Try to get some sleep, okay? Don't let it bother you so much."
For a moment, she's afraid he has somehow eased too deeply inside her, that he knows everything, her love, her fear—but of what? She is safe here. His ear is on her heart. He smells of antibacterial soap. "Let what bother me?"
"Whatever's bothering you," he says, a sleepy mumble.
Larissa's family had been planning on immigrating to the States to seek better medical care for her father, who, by way of a blood transfusion, had one of the rarer forms of hepatitis, and to provide a better education for Larissa. Her mother said the country would open all opportunities to her, an overwhelming prospect that Larissa imagined would be like unlocking the right door only to find a hallway filled with more doors. Her father thought she would make a good doctor; when he was too weak to leave his bed, Larissa was always checking on him.
On the day of her father's funeral, a week after they'd obtained their immigrant visas, their friends and neighbors walked through the roads of town holding photographs of him and singing. His brothers and good friend Sasha followed, carrying his coffin. They had come from the church and would end at the graveyard, making a circle. It was fall 1991, Ukraine was newly independent, and Larissa was thirteen. When the procession passed by the house, the cats swarmed through their legs, but her mother did not come out to greet them. Larissa watched from her bedroom window, afraid to be near her father's body, even with the box closed shut over his yellowed eyes. She was suddenly certain she'd be vulnerable to his disease. Her love had put her too close to see that he was not just in danger, he was dying. She did not want to follow him there, to a hole that gave him to all earth; there was no heaven. She wanted to live.
That night Larissa's grandmother gathered the two from their rooms and sat them at the kitchen table. Her grandmother's babushka was tied loosely around her head, as if tired, and her blond-gray hair, undone, fell long down her back. "You will go to the United States," she said, and Larissa's mother had doubled over in tears: "No, Momma." Larissa no longer thought she could become a doctor, she sat tracing the familiar grain of the wood, but her grandmother's hand, wrinkled and soft, reached across the table to take hers. "You will talk sense into your mother. Your future is there."
Sasha, who drove them in his truck to Lviv and saw them off at the airport, said the others understood why they hadn't taken part in the funeral. But beyond her own fear, Larissa isn't sure, even now, if she understands why; it's the one time she's uncertain if she was right in following her mother's example. Backed into their house, as though it were a dead end, they'd had this last opportunity to show their love for him—even if he couldn't see it, was already gone. It would have been a show of protest, for a sea of witnesses, against that they would have to move on.
The dental student is proposing scenes of their imagined shared future. Buds have appeared on some of the trees, and the air smells like dirty puddles of melted snow. Along the way to the dental student's condo, they pass begging homeless people and candlelit restaurants similar to the one they just left. Beyond the buildings lies the dark expanse of lake, an American sea. Its presence can make Larissa feel uneasy, unmoored; one could drift the waterways of the Great Lakes all the way to the oceans.
According to the dental student, their future includes a cozy house a commuter-train ride from the city and a bedroom always ready for Larissa's mother. Had the scenes not included a warm, perfect child, Larissa might have had reason to walk away; the alternating Chicago wind, pushing against her and carrying her along, would be like waves of disappointment and relief. But in his vision there is a child, a baby girl who will inherit Larissa's features and not his own.
"Except, like me," the dental student says, "she'll grow up to be very opinionated."
"You don't think I'm without opinions?"
"Of course not."
"I have opinions."
"What I mean is, you hate to argue. Our little girl will be feisty."
Already, he is telling Larissa how she is. He's right: she doesn't like to argue, at least, not in earnest; but he's wrong, too: her daughter will be compliant on the outside, with a sweet, chubby, round face, but on the inside, she will be laughing, she will be holding secrets only a mother understands.
She doesn't want him to feel she is rejecting the comfort he has just offered, but she wants in some way to make known that he is not her first choice. "Here's an opinion. I don't like the jokes you make."
He looks surprised but he laughs, a laugh that is not nervous, but genuine. "That's because they're bad jokes. You just have good taste. If it were easy to make you smile, I might've given up long ago." The dental student gently takes her hand, and his warmth is just enough mitten.
She squeezes his fingers instead of voicing the reply I'm glad you didn't, because of the way it pops into her mind, distrustfully, like a reflex. Like he's discovered where to tap upon her kneecap. Mohamed had never tried to woo her in this way, and she'd thought herself immune to it.
Only once did Larissa try to speak with Mohamed of a future, of possibility. Back then, whole months ago, the day she'd want a child seemed much further away, and a natural consequence of her life's path, traced already in the dirt and needing only her footsteps not to fade. But a path, to become fixed, to prevent you from wandering, needed paving. Gazing across a restaurant at a couple's young child, she'd said, "If I were to get pregnant—"
"And thanks to your pills," he said, "you will not."
"We're playing the game If," she said. Beneath the table she nudged his leg, and he withdrew it.
"Stop playing," he said. "This game is not like you."
But perhaps this game was only not like Mohamed. Yet, Larissa knows: If the United States government had not deported him, it would still be unlikely he would ever have been granted permanent residence. If residence had been offered, it would still be unlikely he'd have chosen her over his family and his country left behind. If Larissa had gotten pregnant, their American child, only half his, would only have reminded him of what was being pushed away, rather than made him feel more at home. Of course he wouldn't have been there to see it.
Mohamed had problems with America; it wasn't just that the country did not want him. She never asked what went on with the immigration officers, but knowing the way Mohamed was, that when threatened by authority he seldom surrendered, it's likely he offered his opinions of the country's hypocrisy. Opinions with which Larissa, despite that this was home, would agree.
When Mohamed and Hassan—along with thousands of others —were asked to voluntarily register with ins, they thought it best to comply. They then disappeared for four days. Larissa called in sick to the dentist's office, claiming flu-like symptoms and immediately feeling them as real. The second day she called in, the student's get-well wishes were waiting. On the third day her mother arrived from Michigan. She found Larissa flushed and shivering beneath a blanket. She turned up the heat and took the blanket away. Putting a hand to Larissa's forehead, her mother said, "Your temperature is normal. You are fine." Her mother was used to this, the symptoms Larissa could call like a dog but needed reminding were phantom.
Her mother asked, "Should we call the Chicago police? Have them file a report?"
Larissa shook her head. She'd already talked to the police, who said it was a matter for INS, and when she spoke to someone at INS, he said it was a matter of national security and she could only wait.
They smoked cigarettes, and outside the window new-year snow fell. Larissa brushed out her mother's hair and rebraided it. "You should let your hair grow," her mother said. Larissa wrapped the braids around her mother's head, biting between her teeth the pins, then slowly slid each one in to secure them. When her teeth were free, Larissa said, "I like it short, Momma. It's less bother."
Randall, unable to leave the farm, called the fourth day to check up on them. "I talked to a lawyer in the city. He's on the case. Don't worry," he said, "if they've done nothing wrong, they can't be detained forever."
Early on the fifth day, Hassan called from a detention center. "They are still holding Mohamed. It is something about his visa." Hassan said that after being photographed and fingerprinted he'd only been asked questions; they'd only touched him to take him between his cell and an interrogation room.
Randall's lawyer went to the detention center to work for Mohamed's release, and Larissa had asked to go with him. "Please," she'd said. "Maybe there's something I can do." She would have worn no underwear beneath her navy business suit, the one that fell a little short, fit a little tight—the suit she'd worn the day her green card was approved. Desire, just like fear, could rise above the rightful law, and there was nothing she wouldn't have done. She had a shameful image of kneeling before some official, his hands in her hair somehow like Mohamed's, just as rough.
Mohamed was released soon after the lawyer's visit, but the deportation proceedings had already begun. His trial was set for the next month. By falling one credit short of full-time student status, he had violated the terms of his visa. Larissa's first reaction was of anger, and shock. How could he have been so arrogant and careless?
Arriving home, he headed straight to Larissa's bed, refusing coffee, refusing kisses. Charcoal circles shadowed the skin beneath his eyes, which had turned to hard beads, communicating nothing. He smelled terrible, unclean, like an animal. She forgot her anger, even toward those who had done this to him, and without it she felt powerless.
"Can't the school talk to them?" she said, running a cold washcloth over his forehead, through his dark matted hair. "I'm sure they would help. You're one of their most talented students."
Mohamed turned on his side, away from her, and Larissa folded and refolded the wet washcloth. It was so selfish, but she only wanted him to touch her, to make her feel all right. "Are you stupid?" he asked finally, and the words went to her heart: she was, she was; if he thought so, she was. "It doesn't matter. I am Arab. I am going home."
The nights Larissa spends away from the dental student begin to feel less real than those spent with him. She finds she misses his chatter, even his jokes. She stares out at the snowless street, grass greening in the dark, and sees only cars parked bumper to bumper, no people. Her DVDs, arranged alphabetically by director, line the shelves Hassan and Mohamed built, and her ashtrays are filled with the butts of cigarettes only she has smoked. It's like her apartment is her own silenced country. She calls her mother at midnight; in Michigan, it is 1 a.m.
"What is it?" her mother answers. "Are you okay? Is David?"
"I'm fine, Momma." She tries again: "We're fine."
In English her mother says, "You scared the bejeezus out of me." This is a phrase she has picked up from Randall. She must have said it for him.
"I didn't mean to. I only called to talk."
"Hold on. Let me go to the kitchen."
Larissa imagines her mother in a worn nightgown, sleepily lighting a cigarette and then only holding it, the smoke rising up in the cold farmhouse.
"Why are you awake?" her mother says. "Did you have a nightmare?"
"Yes," Larissa lies, because it's close to the truth. There is this fantasy invading her daydreams of late, with increasing frequency: "I dreamed I went back to Ukraine. Only Sasha remembered me, but he wouldn't take me in."
"Why did you go back?" Her mother's voice is only curious; she no longer has the desire to even visit. Larissa's grandmother died years ago, when they hadn't the money to fly back.
"I had no choice," Larissa says, recalling the thin-lipped judge at the bench, Mohamed's judge—and, in the fantasy, her own. Guilt seemed at first to be the fuel of this fantasy. Guilt for ex-changing her homeland for another, and learning to not want it
back. "Does it ever seem like you still belong there?"
"What do you mean?"
"Do you miss it?"
Her mother makes a sound that is either sigh or yawn. "I miss my memories," she says. "As it is in memory."
At O'Hare International, Larissa bought the cheapest ticket available, wiping out her savings, so she could go with Mohamed through airport security and wait with him for his flight. The agent examined her green card and blinked at the Cyrillic letters on her passport. She smiled calmly when he held the photo beside her face to compare, but her heart quickened, as if she were trying to get away with something and her motives were naked. The agent's gaze was a little too intent, and before Larissa could stop him, Mohamed stepped forward, placing a hand at the small of her back. "Have you finished with your gawking? We would like to make our flight."
With a smiling glance to Mohamed's passport and ticket, the agent directed him, and only him, behind a screen to be patted down. Larissa passed through to the other side. She watched a woman in blue gloves handle each item from Mohamed's carryon: the plaid boxer shorts Larissa had ironed the night before, an Arabic-language novel, his camera. As if searching for a secret compartment, the woman fiddled with the camera lens and buttons. Larissa was relieved Mohamed couldn't see; the camera had been bought here in the States and was very expensive.
The travelers at Mohamed's gate were like him, brown-skinned and serious. They seemed to take note of the two of them together when they sat down. Larissa was afraid to speak, to say what she should have said—I'll wait for you or I'll come to you, or more truthfully, Do you understand that I can't? Everyone else was so quiet, bowed over the newspapers resting on their laps, and Mohamed would have been angry had she spoken such words. To him, they would have sounded like platitudes, and Larissa is sure, now, that that's all they were. It wouldn't matter if he understood; it was just the way it was.
As preboarding was announced, Larissa squeezed Mohamed's hand and dropped it. "Meet me in the ladies," she whispered. She had to say her goodbye alone with him, away from others' eyes. She had to bring him back to her, just for a moment.
In the stall, as she waited, she pulled out her plane ticket. It was to Detroit, hours from her mother and minutes from Canada.
If she wandered across the border, out of curiosity, out of some vague hope, would they let her back in? Would she appear suspicious, crossing the river's bridge on foot, no luggage in hand? She would have only papers to prove where she belonged, just a Russian-sounding voice and sensuality to protect her. Sometimes planes held off for missing passengers, their names were paged with persistence and authority, but she knew they could not force her to board. She tore the ticket into tiny pieces and sent them through the plumbing. She wanted to go straight home to her apartment, where her mother was waiting.
The stall door creaked open and Mohamed slid within; wordlessly he unzipped his jeans, lifted her skirt, and pushed inside her. She wrapped her legs around him tightly, as she was pressed against the wall. Beneath the door stood his Converse tennis shoes, and his black carry-on, and above her own quiet sighs, Larissa could hear at the sink a woman speaking feverishly to a child. Once they were gone, she let him slip away, and the woman's words echoed: "Quickly now, wash off those germs. Hot, hot water."
Larissa sees Hassan from time to time during her break on the museum steps, this place where they first met. With a hesitant warmth returned to the air, the bucket drummers are out now every day, and along with other street performers—the men who paint themselves silver, as in defense, and stand still—the boys are Hassan's thesis subject. He has decided to finish his program but not seek a renewed visa.
Over the last cigarette he borrows, she tells him of the dental student, and Hassan seems to know just to listen. "He is ridiculous, he thinks he can always be showing me new places, but these restaurants are all the same. You wouldn't like him. You couldn't stand him a minute." He doesn't ask why she does, how she can. He sucks on the cigarette, attempting to hide a smile.
"I try to imagine him as a father. I think he would be good—selfless."
Without her asking it of him, Hassan says he will not tell Mohamed. "He cannot just be happy for you. He will not say such nice things."
"Thank you," she says. She and Mohamed had agreed it would be easier not to speak; they've had no contact since he left. She's afraid to ask if Hassan will say anything at all: that she looks the same, is in good health. She has never made of him a messenger, wants to believe him still a friend.
But when the trees have filled completely with leaves, Hassan returns home without saying good-bye, and she doesn't blame him. The dental student has not officially asked, but she's already said yes, and a child, a baby girl, is as good as growing inside her. She is giving it food, keeping it warm. It's true, she has come to be fond of the dental student, but there's more at stake than the confirmation or preservation of anyone's love. A marriage with the Jewish dental student, now a dentist—a marriage with David—would benefit Larissa in one obvious and expedient way: it would put her on a swifter, more convincing path to naturalization. There's no real reason to believe her presence here is threatened, yet she has come to fear, more than sickness, more than death, being sent away. That kind of return, to a Ukraine she no longer knows, would be a rushing out to sea. It seems the least intimate way to be erased.
"I love the way he loves you," her mother says. "He sees only the best." And Larissa knows that her mother has never understood her and Mohamed. Yet she can see the benefit in thinking this way: the security in seeing only the best, or the worst—even if she herself is incapable of it.
David says of her mother, "She is so much like you." He calls her by name, Oksana. He doesn't really seem to miss her as she spends more time on the farm, with Randall. He doesn't say that they should visit, and Larissa too prefers her mother come to her, back to the city they once immigrated to.
At the dentist's office, filing between patients, she is waiting on evening, and the sterility comes to seem another type of infection. As remedy, Larissa tries to picture Mohamed—not in a memory, but where he is now, free. She wants to place him in a setting from his photographs, as a figure floating the rolling waves of the dunes, but the sand remains empty of him. The man who walks Morocco is always behind the lens. He is foreign to her. He belongs to his mother.
In the end this country, Larissa's country, is the only one that counts.