Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 109 in 2004.
This analysis thing is driving me crazy. I thought it was supposed to make me feel better. Transform me into some kind of happy woman. But, it's just an expensive fifty minutes of non-stop pain. I mean I'm paying someone to stick pins in my head.How sick is that?
I started going 'cause I couldn't deal with the war. The newspapers, the radio, the TV made me realize how frightened I was of dying. I'm just a dried up old prune, shriveled and wrinkled and crows feet around the eyes without the Jane Fonda youthful fifty look and I'm going to die.
The newspapers were the worst. `Allies go in for the kill.' Then it was `Iraqis reel under invasion.' Every headline brought me a step closer to death. My death. I panicked. For a long time I couldn't figure out why. It isn't just that I'm against this stupid Bush and Blair war or that I lived in Baghdad for years. And to be really honest and I suppose this analysis is supposed to make me honest then I don't think it's because I'm afraid to die. What difference would my death make? I haven't even figured out who I am and how I am and where I'm going and I don't even think I'm alive yet.
It's pretty hard at night with the Gulf News burning holes in my eyeballs. I fall asleep with the TV on. I can't turn it off 'cause I might miss something. Maybe they're going to bomb us and the TV people will tell me what to do. You know. Crawl under the bed. Stand under the doorway. Don't drink the water. Wear gas masks. Whatever.
Every night I watch Scud missiles crashing into Baghdad. I see all these women screaming, running down the street - desperate to get out, not just away from the war, away from everything.
One woman's face keeps haunting me. A plain face, not pretty really, not very expressive. Well, maybe rather sweet. But, also kind of weak and sometimes it verges on simpering. Polly. I remember Polly. I'd forgotten her. I'd forgotten that part of my life. Why the hell did that freak have to come back into my life? She brings back my past. The past I desperately want to forget. I'm no longer that person. That person should be dead and long gone. Please, I want to get on with my own life now. Please promise me I've moved on. Please make Polly go away.
Nineteen years have gone by. Isn't that long enough? I should have been able to wipe it out. And now, because of fucking Polly's face, it's still there. Nothing has changed. Outside there's another Bush stampeding across the globe, inside there's another fantasy keeping me away from reality.
Looking back it all seems so silly and innocent. Was it? I don't know. I was younger then. I was bored and unhappy with my life in Baghdad and so I used to climb inside other bodies and live their lives. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 6:00 to 8:00 in the evening it was Polly's turn. I sat starring at Polly while she sat staring at the professor while he tried to teach us French.
Like the other expat wives I had nothing to do all day. And, so I did `things.' Shopping at the government store in Karrada desperate for that extra bottle of Lebanese wine or Pears soap from home, pizza at the cafe next door to the Italian embassy and French at the Alliance Francaise with the Professor. You know. Things. Things to keep you busy so you don't think. I used to be good at that. Not thinking.
I was new in the class. Polly began taking classes a year and a half ago `cause she was tired of sitting at home.' I knew what she meant. She was tired of trying to be energetic. Tired of trying to look young. Tired of being a mother all the time and tired of seeing only one man, her husband of ten years. Oh Jesus, I understood. I understood all of it. Every fucking bit of it.
So I haunted her body and thoughts and began to find out who she was. I lived her life. It had to be better than mine. Polly, plain-pretty, English, married Omar, stocky, now flabby, Iraqi and they settled in Omar's exciting Baghdad with a house on the Tigris, three servants, a 280.4 Mercedes, some genuine Persian carpets belonging to Omar's grandmother and air conditioning. There was a pomegranate and orange grove to sit in. Lots of aloes and prickly pears surrounding the four-bedroom house. Bougainvillea climbing up the front and trailing across the roof. `Allah Akbar' resounding through the city. A souk full of cubby-hole shops selling antiques and plastic kitsch side by side and priced the same. So much leisure time to bask in, to read, to garden, to create exotic meals.
I suppose this would be upward mobility for some, but Polly wasn't interested in climbing, didn't even notice that she had climbed. And, really she preferred the two family, semi-detached house in Kent where she had grown up. She had lived in the lower maisonette with her older sister, younger brother, engineer father and great pastry cook mother. In the upper maisonette lived her housewife aunt, hardware store manager uncle and three cousins. They all sang carols at Christmas, ate chocolate eggs at Easter, burned the Guy on November 5th, picked proper English strawberries in the spring and loved each other. She had been a smiling, terribly well behaved, well-adjusted kid - not a particularly emotional or bright child - nothing out of the ordinary. She never had imaginary friends, threw temper tantrums, or wrote poems. She fell `in love' ten times; never had a real boyfriend or thought about sex, kept her virginity, and went to a polytechnic not far from home.
Working in the school library, as a student, she met Omar. He always asked her to find books on the most interesting topics: Islamic architecture, polygamy, nomadic tribes. Not like all the other foreign students who only read about hydraulic systems and cornea transplants. She found him exciting, intelligent, spoke to him and saw him as a kind of Lawrence of Arabia/Ali Baba/ Sinbad the Sailor character. For the first time in her life she started fantasizing - nothing erotic, mind you - just plain ordinary fantasies like bumping into Omar outside the library and talking to him about his studies. She didn't really mind his shiny, pointy shoes. He paid attention to her, smiled, asked her to have tea at the basement machine. She was so nervous she couldn't even tell him she preferred coffee. This was the first man who ever really looked at her. She began to imagine more and more conversations with him. She now imagined bumping into him on the street, at the student union, outside one of his classrooms, everywhere. And the conversations were getting more personal. She found out about his family and his country. She was even able to tell him something about herself, her family and the fact that she thought Arabic was a very interesting-sounding language. She really wanted to use the word `romantic' but she couldn't. That would have been too forward. She was getting more nervous and couldn't understand her own razor-sharp feelings. Over and over again, looking at herself in the mirror, slouching, standing up straight, lifting her chin, rearranging her hair, practicing looks and postures. Trying to find the right persona, searching for the siren hidden beneath the English reserve.
Polly had never questioned her future. She would marry, have a boy then a girl, coffee with the next-door neighbour at ten, and serve on the local library or education board. She would collect baskets full of food for the poor at Christmas or read to an old, blind woman. She would do `good-work.' Nothing too oddball, like joining Green Peace or anything like that. But, she would certainly give money to the Royal National Lifeboat Institute and the RSPCC.
In between these visions of her future, Omar's face crept in and confronted her. At first he was merely a blurry image, Picasso-like forms misplaced and mismatched. And then his features settled into their proper positions and her future became confused.
Polly found her 11th love - only this one was real. Omar wasn't like the others she had `loved.' He actually looked at her, talked to her and held her hand when they walked down the stairs to the tea machine.
Omar wanted to be an architect, go back to Baghdad and change it overnight into London. He liked the look, feel and smell of England. But, he hated the food, the cold people, and the lack of men friends to drink tea and discuss politics with. Whenever he went to the library Polly entered his thoughts. Polly wasn't cold. She was actually pretty. And, she said she would love to learn how to cook chicken magloobah and Baklava. He would marry her and take her back to Baghdad.
He found an ear and a very solid shoulder. He knew this would be a good match. He pictured her at home telling the servants to cook this, clean that and overseeing the household. He saw her raising his three sons who would learn to speak perfect English. He saw her submitting unwillingly to him but he wanted sons and anyway he wouldn't be rough. In his mind he loved her and he would be responsible for her. After all she would be his wife.
So they got married and left for Baghdad. Omar got a job teaching at the University. Polly stayed at home reading, trying to cook quzi and kubba and drinking very strong, bitter coffee with her sisters-in-law.
Sometimes they walked along the Tigris in the evenings, stopping to eat samak masgouf. It didn't really taste like the fish from home but Polly enjoyed watching the bonfires dotting the banks of the river. Omar loved the freshly grilled fish, crisp at the edges, white and succulent inside.
At first Polly couldn't understand why so many of the foreign wives complained, why so many of the Iraqi wives lolled around all day gossiping and getting their bodies waxed. She wasn't like them. No, she would never be like them.
As the years passed Polly stopped noticing the exotic garden. In fact she rarely entered it except to shoo away the mangy, stray cats and over water the cactus. She started spending all her time inside. There was a video room for escape. Now J.R. and Alexis were her companions.
She became a machine, running on schedule, well oiled and produced two daughters. Every Friday they ate at her in-laws. Every Saturday they went to the municipal park for a walk and ate soft ice cream. Every Sunday Omar climbed on top of her. She never groaned, moaned or even sweated. She just lay there and knew she was a good wife and mother. Their schedule never varied. There were no surprises or upsets, no temper tantrums or dramas. Polly was quite a good machine.
Somewhere niggling in her thoughts, however, she knew something was missing. Not being sensual she had no idea that it was soft, gentle touches missing in her life. Warm lingering kisses, soft touches, gentle moans were absent.
Eventually, things began to change. Polly's reading matter was no longer something she was proud of. Jeffrey Archer and Harold Robbins novels, three-month-old copies of She magazine and recipes from the Baghdad Observer were strewn across her bed and lying on the floor in the video room. The old Polly would have been embarrassed to even glance at these. Now, she was devouring them.
Driving through the countryside she sat with her eyes glued to the distance. Looking for the galumphing camels and Bedouin camps she always hoped to see but never did. Twice she saw a dead camel by the side of the road, every few miles she saw a wrecked Mercedes. The desert landscape was now dull and parched - ugly, in fact. In order to get anywhere like Mosul or Basra she had to drive for such a long time along an oil slick road full of crashed cars and mangled bodies it wasn't worth it.
She hated the taste of the toothpaste, the smell of the mutton and the fact that every shop keeper called her mister and said `mention not' when they actually meant `good-by.' She was sick of toilets that didn't flush and soap that never lathered. The chocolate got stuck in her throat and the eggs were covered in dirt and full of blood. Sitting alone she often thought how she was trapped in a house that was no longer a home.
When she first came to Baghdad she vowed she'd never want gold and foreign goods like the other women. Sometime after her second daughter was born, however, she went down to the souk and bought herself five very thin 24kt gold bangles and a thin gold chain necklace for each daughter. At least, she thought, they aren't gaudy.
Actually, Omar was confused. You see, he was still fond of her. He still thought of her as the sweet, fair-haired, light-skinned librarian who found all his books and brought a bit of England into his life. All in all she was still a good match. And, his family still thought her bright, well mannered and a pretty good mother even though she had some funny ideas about rearing children. She kept telling the girls `assert yourselves.' She'd learn. And now she was taking French lessons when she should have been at home helping the children with their homework. How could she help them? She never bothered to learn Arabic. That really bothered him. But, he still had her on Sunday nights.
I remember it all so clearly now and it frightens me even more. Six-o-clock French class and I sit watching Polly. She looks at his Frenchness, his foreign clothes. She likes the way he always touches the students. It seems so casual, so easy for him to reach out and connect. She likes the way he waits for her at break and walks with her to a corner of the cafeteria where they drink strong cups of thick, sweet coffee and talk about their lives. It was obvious to everyone that he was flirting with her. Polly couldn't believe that someone was actually confiding in her. He told her his wife was jealous of other women and had cancer of the lymphatic system when she was 18. So he married her, married the romance of the sweet dying martyr who then bore him two kids, lived a healthy, sporty life and hated his taste in clothes, books and food. Polly had never met anyone so open and unafraid to bare his thoughts.
Polly and the professor against the boredom and drudgery of Baghdad. During each break they drank cups of coffee and walked back to class, his arm gently draped on her shoulder, steering her around corners and through doorways.
I knew she was having problems. She would give this almost inaudible moan whenever he entered the classroom. Biting her lips, doodling on her paper, never looking at him while he lectured. Sitting at home not being able to concentrate on the TV news for foreigners and resenting her children every time they walked in the room and disturbed her thoughts about him. More and more she inhabited a world full of him. From the time she got up in the morning until she fell asleep at night she fantasised. She imagined bumping into him on the street, meeting him in a shop, a restaurant, Oh God. She couldn't imagine life without her fantasies. She spent almost all day alone so that she could carry on imaginary conversations with him. She never imagined kissing or holding him. No. She didn't want to smell his breath. She was afraid it wouldn't be perfect. There was no physical aspect to her fantasies. Well, once in a while she imagined starting to kiss him and suddenly she would cringe. She couldn't allow herself to enjoy the touch of his lips. She wanted to but sex was not a very important part of her life. Yes, it was part of being a wife - obviously part and parcel of becoming a mother. Polly's fantasies were clean. They were full of picnics on the grass with sunshine, long, intimate conversations in her living room, giggles on the supermarket line and, of course, intense thoughts shared during break time. She now spent hours getting ready for French class. Creams and ointments, mascara and blusher lined her shelves, caressed her form. Experimenting, changing, first the pink blouse, then the white one. Five different outfits attempted for each step out the door.
I was getting bored with her fantasies. I was getting desperate. I'd been inhabiting their relationship from the first day I joined the class and I could see they were two people trapped in a time warp. She thought she needed an out. I knew she needed an affair. He knew he needed a flirtation. I knew he was only going to use her. At the end of each class he went home to a marvellous meal, a beautiful wife (I saw her once - Polly never did) and all thoughts of Polly disappeared. I didn't care. I was so bored with my own life, so full of chewing gum which stuck to the roof of my mouth, mud trampled all over the bedroom floor, losing out on sexual fantasies that I had to invade her thoughts and let her get on with my life. All I wanted to do was lean over and whisper in her ear `He wants to screw you Polly. Screwing is fun. Go ahead you twerp.' She'd be shocked but at least it would change her fantasies from clean, scrubbed-school-girl, Laura Ashley picnic thoughts to oh-my-god groans.
Well. I left the French class. I left Baghdad. All these years and I never thought about Rashid Street, Arasat-al-Hindia district, the smell of mutton, or Polly. I wanted that part of my life to disappear. I rarely admitted to having lived in Baghdad. There was nothing exotic or exciting about the place. I had wasted my time. I'd developed sexual and mental cobwebs. I had gone there with visions of writing the great 20th century English novel, a travel book, a cookbook and two children's stories. I was married then. Two kids and an engineer husband who spent his time building slaughterhouses and petro-chemical plants. I rarely saw him. The kids spent their days in the International School surrounded by Eastern European diplomats' kids. They came running home singing songs about eating Turks for lunch and washing their hair with `easy, peezy, Japaneezy shampoo.'
Now? Well, now I'm living in London, alone at night, kids away at school, husband gone. He's with an old Benendonian girl and lives in Dorset. I stare out the window and watch other people. The kids downstairs run screaming out into the garden after school. Throwing pebbles up in the air shouting `Scud missile coming.' I watch my neighbours go to sleep at night. Mostly, they turn their lights off, floor by floor, and climb into bed together. But, there's one house where the light switches aren't coordinated. She goes to bed early, closes the door, makes the decisions. He stays up till two or three in the morning watching idiot's late night TV. He creeps from room to room, turns off the TV, closes the light and goes to bed. They don't really love each other. They don't care. They had it once but now they've thrown it away. He's desperate to hold anyone. She's too tired, turns her back to him and says `scratch my wings, they itch.' He scratches until she falls asleep again. He remembers when all he had to do was touch her and she'd moan. Now, it's just itch and scratch stuff.
She's been hurt too many times.
I can't look inside the windows any more. I can't spend any more time trying to solve every one else's problems, avoiding my own. I'm too tired. I watch the news again. I look for familiar faces in the bleeding crowd of people. I see the horrors of war and then I recognize a street or a building and wonder what fantasy kept me going when I walked that street.
Polly never had the affair. She wouldn't have known how. I never told her to. I never left my husband. He left me. Claimed I just bitched too much. I never wrote the great novel. In fact, I never really wrote anything - not even letters to friends. I once got a honourable mention in a photo competition. It was a picture of a thorn bush growing in the desert not far from Baghdad. Funny that, it's my only claim to fame.