1st place prizewinner
Nominated for Pushcart Prize
Jia Tolentino lives with her boyfriend and dog in Ann Arbor, where she’s working toward an MFA at the University of Michigan and a collection of short stories set in a small Kyrgyz village. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times and The Hairpin, and this is her first published work of fiction.
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An 18-wheeler carrying ten thousand kilos of watermelons had wrecked spectacularly, spilling its cargo from a height of two kilometers, near the peak of the Tu-Ashu mountain pass that looms over the cold northern provinces of Kyrgyzstan. Around the winding curves of the road, strange asteroids were falling. Drivers braked, dodging scraps of tire, twisted metal, watermelons splashing open on the road in fecund bursts of pink and striped green. A long line of dusty vehicles stretched away from the wreckage. Drivers wearing black Adidas tracksuits stepped out of their cars and peered over the cliff in search of the emergency crew. They lit cigarettes, paced, muttered, pissed behind boulders. It was late November, and dirty snow covered the ground. The thin, gold light turned gray as the sun fell behind the mountains, and the air whistling around them was icy.
At the end of the line sat Ulan Esenovitch in his new Honda Odyssey, bemusedly watching the watermelons conduct their slow, violent ballet. He leaned out of his open window and yawning, tasted the sweet crispness of the air. He reached for the back window and rolled it down so the new dog could stick her nose out.
There was only one road that crossed the mountains separating Bishkek and Talas City, and for the last hour, Ulan had been stuck behind the burgundy sedan that was now parked close to the cliffside. The passenger door opened, and a girl emerged stiffly. She turned away from the car and stared into the mist, unmoving, as the wind blew her white school apron around her jeans. She had been walking on the side of the road with a friend when the sedan slowed down and swallowed her, four arms quickly extending from the backseat to pull her hands, grab her shoulders, and fold up her legs and kicking heels. Bride kidnappings were always brief, but in this case her new husband—the driver, as dictated by tradition—hadn’t even come to a full stop. Now he and his friends were squatted on the ground and celebrating, passing a bottle of vodka back and forth, singing so loud that Ulan’s dog whined with excitement.
Since the kidnapping, Ulan had been feeling waves of irritation, wondering why buying a car wasn’t easier. It had taken him a week to unload his rusted Audi and acquire the keys to the Odyssey—a long, dragging week in the maze of the automobile bazaar, where the oily salesmen lied about mileage and refused his requests for a test drive. He was satisfied with the Odyssey, but who knew when it would break down? A wife, acquired in an instant, would do laundry forever.
High above them, from the opposite direction, a crew had ascended to clear the wreck off the road. Drivers were trickling back to their cars, some cradling watermelons. The blank-faced bride got back into the sedan. Ulan turned the key in his ignition and hummed an old folk song as he began the slow climb upwards. He drove across the spectacular peak of the Tu-Ashu, from which he could see into three different countries—a vantage point that made the range seem endless, a long continental spine. To the west, he glimpsed the silhouette of a bighorn sheep. He wondered where it had come from: perhaps Pakistan, or Uzbekistan, or maybe icy China. Thinking of imagined places, he drove down into the valley, the pastures in front of him saturated with color as sunset slid imperceptibly into night.
. . .
Four hours later, Ulan pulled into his driveway, where all his neighbors had gathered to greet him. Their hands went up as soon as they saw the Odyssey. “Happy tidings with your new arrival!” they shouted. He groaned, looking at his wife, who held a tray of shotglasses and wore a simpering smile. The car wasn’t even new: a 1994 model, it was already three years older than Ulan had been at his wedding. Grimly, he noted the empty bottles of vodka—his own vodka—littering the concrete.
Ulan got out of the car. He kissed his wife, greeted his neighbors, patted his two daughters on their heads, accepted compliments, shook hands. The dog sprang out of the back seat, and he went after it, leaving his neighbors to descend upon the vehicle. He brought it to the old tin house in the corner of the driveway and chained it up. He crouched there, weary, as the dog butted its head against the walls of her new home.
His friend Nurlan walked over to him. “Did you get a good price, brother?”
Ulan stood up and took the cigarette Nurlan offered. “At least the dog was free.” The two of them watched the fuss around the Odyssey: hood pushed up, tires prodded, kids climbing all over the seats.
His wife had brought up the dog the night before he left. “You will be taking on many more long trips with this car,” she’d said suggestively.
“Probably.” He was a taxi driver.
“Well!” she said. “We could use the money. And I think it’s time that we got another guard dog. I don’t feel safe alone with the girls. I already called Izada. Her dog had puppies in the spring. She lives near Bishkek. It won’t take you long to stop by.”
Disliking errands, Ulan looked at his wife askance, but she was set. “Get a boy.”
But it had turned out that the biggest of Izada’s dogs was a female, a plucky dog with a snout shaped like a block. Once everyone left, his wife would be pleased with her new guardian, but for now she was occupied. He wondered if she had gone door-to-door to announce the Odyssey’s impending arrival or if she had texted everyone instead, wasting precious cell phone credits. Both possibilities infuriated him. He wondered if she’d bothered to make him dinner.
Someone turned the radio on, filling the driveway with Russian pop, a thumping bass and feminine cooing. His wife crowed and grabbed two of her girl friends. Two other women handed off babies to their eldest daughters and started shaking their hips to the beat. “Another round!” his wife shouted, and the neighbors cheered. Ulan’s head pounded. He reminded himself that he was a lucky man.
. . .
Later, after the last of the neighbors had parted, Ulan sat on the couch watching his wife prepare for bed. He thought about the other things he could have purchased with his dead uncle’s small inheritance: a larger TV, perhaps, or a sheep or two. They had considered sending Albina to private school, but the tuition at the Turkish lyceum was exorbitant, and anyway, she was—as Ulan and his wife admitted privately—not the smartest child that ever was.
His wife turned to him, her face still radiant from the day’s attention. “You know what Jazgul said today? ‘A beautiful car, for a beautiful family.’”
Ulan lacked the energy to reply.
The two of them slept in the living room, Ulan on the couch and his wife on the floor atop long padded cushions called tushuks. In the bedroom, he could hear Albina and Alina giggling: parents and children had switched sleeping arrangements a few years back, after the girls invented a monster in the china cabinet. Outside, the dog was wandering around its house, its chain scraping the driveway. “And, of course, I like the dog,” his wife said. “Even if she is a girl. Doesn’t she remind you of Kaku?”
Ulan smiled. Kaku!
“Yes,” Ulan said. Kaku had been hit by a car when he was nine.
His wife clucked sadly. “That’s right, I’m sorry. You know, maybe you’ll make a fortune with the Odyssey, and we could move back to the city—the girls would grow up so smart in those schools.” She sighed. “We could get an apartment. Take showers.”
Ulan lay back on the couch wearily and pulled the blanket up to his chest. Taxi drivers had no hope of moving to the city, which already overflowed with idle cabs. In fact, no one could move to Bishkek these days except for rich teenagers whose parents could pay the bribes to get them to university. Along with thousands of others, Ulan and his wife had been pushed out to the villages after the Soviet empire fell. Ulan had been a municipal engineer; now he was a taxi driver, and a lazy one at that, one who forgot to clean out his car and hired young children to shout his destination at passersby while he spat sunflower seeds in the alley. And what did his wife need to be clean for anyway? “Sure,” he said. “I’ll take on more trips to Bishkek.”
“Good,” she said, and switched off the light. Ulan let himself drown, finally, in the thoughts that he’d been stifling all day.
He had to credit the Odyssey, whose roomy backseat had lent the encounter a new ease and recklessness. He’d been more forward than usual, rougher, imagining in a rare flash of ego that the other man was aroused by the new minivan, that he found Ulan intriguing and powerful. He pictured it now: the nameless body bent over him, a head of rough graying hair, the gorgeous thick slap of muscled flesh. The man had smelled of familiar cologne, and several times Ulan had wondered if they had spent this hour together before. He couldn’t be sure. In the family darkness Ulan felt an erection growing and took a deep breath. The room was painfully silent. His wife’s breathing had slowed to a regular snuffle, but she woke easily and he knew that every rustle would be magnified. Quickly and regretfully, he calmed himself by thinking of the electric bills, his wife’s chipped nail polish, the dingy beige straps of her slip.
. . .
He had found the field accidentally, years before, after nearly falling asleep at the wheel on a solo journey to Bishkek. Looking for a place to pull over, he turned onto a small dirt road and followed it through the woods until the trees cleared out and his headlights illuminated an open field with a cluster of parked cars in the middle.
Like most taxi drivers from his region, Ulan usually spent the night with acquaintances in the capital or drove straight to Bishkek and back. Still, the roads were long and the weather in the mountains was unpredictable. It wasn’t uncommon to see a lone taxi parked on a monotonous stretch of road. He’d never seen this many cars together, but he was pleased—it would be safer. He pulled the car to a stop, turned the lights off, and got out to stretch his legs.
The door of a car near him opened and a man stepped out. He looked at Ulan, the peculiar slant of his mouth traced faintly in the moonlight. A sudden burst of adrenaline flamed through Ulan’s body. The man walked over and touched him with large, worn hands, then sunk deliberately to the ground, in a moment that Ulan remembered reverently, a second that lasted forever but could not be taken apart. The air thickened. Neither he nor the man had bathed recently, and the sounds and odors were disgusting, irresistible.
. . .
Five years had passed since that first night. Now Albina was 10 and Alina was 8. Ulan’s wife had remained girlish into her mid-thirties. She was a good mother to the girls, placating them easily when they rushed to her with the incomprehensible, urgent emotions that so confused Ulan. Absorbed in her small tasks, his wife had not noticed the initial shame that had kept him in the village for months, afraid of the temptation that would overtake him if he took another trip to Bishkek. She hadn’t seemed to notice his mania when the shame faded, the renewed frequency of his long trips to the capital; it escaped her, the way that Ulan no longer felt at home in the village.
But he could not stop going to the field, no more than he could stop coming back to the village, so—he told himself grimly—this life would endure forever. He separated himself from himself, and bargained: once in the village, he would forget the field, be a father, a husband, a good man. But his lifelong even temper was blurring. On certain days, he woke up feeling like he had never seen his house before. When his wife poured him tea at breakfast, he could barely hear her voice; her face seemed obscured by gauzy layers. Under these spells, he drove his car without looking at anything and spoke rudely to his customers, forgetting where they had asked to be dropped off. He felt obsessive energy; on these days he moved like a ghost, his body an ambulating shell for visions from the fogged evening pasture.
He no longer had the energy to berate himself, but some things still set him adrift in guilt: his daughters running to greet him, his wife solicitously heating his milk for tea, the bells that tolled above the village mosque, which was always empty. Like many of his countrymen, Ulan was only moderately religious, but he found himself more and more drawn to the idea of a moral code, the stricter the better—a set of rules that would restructure his mind. Once, in the middle of the night, he found himself pulling the Koran down from the high shelf: Do ye approach men, and stop them on the highway? At this verse he stopped reading. He went back into the living room and lay down on the floor next to his wife, holding her closely, breathing her smell of bread and onions. But he couldn’t sleep. Do ye stop them on the highway? After an hour he rose, embarrassed, and went to the outhouse to rub himself fiercely, imagining a vast empty highway, a lone man, a tangle.
Even in these moments, he never allowed himself to think about what exactly possessed him. He wouldn’t call it love. In this country they employed a softer term, more fitted to the kind of affection people felt for a life of wormy apples and potato grease and fat-cheeked children that kept popping out no matter how many contraceptive herbs your wife put in her tea. The people felt transcendence in their perception of the land, the clean air, the mountains. They didn’t look for bliss at home. Peace, at best. Companionship.
Ulan had never beaten his wife. He hadn’t kidnapped her, either. He’d asked for her hand at a city discoteka, some Saturday night in the spring of their senior year of high school. In the sweet early morning they had held hands, giggling tipsily as they walked home to the apartment building where both of their parents lived, knocking on first her door, then his. Their wedding had been a week later, a simple Soviet affair: she put on a nice polka-dot dress, he wore his father’s suit, they signed their names at the state office and went home to drink champagne with their relatives. After they were given the master bedroom for the night, they collapsed without consummating their union. Both of them had fallen asleep quickly, dizzy and relieved.
They had never discussed the infrequency of their relations, but Ulan didn’t mind doing it when he was drunk. And now he had the images from the field to help him—those ghosts full of lustful anger, possessing him, pushing him deeper into the musty bulk of his wife.
. . .
A few days later Ulan woke up with an urge to walk the dog. His mind wandered through old places as he took his tea, and afterwards he dug out some rope from the back of one of their cupboards. Outside, the snow was muddy and the light was pale. The dog was in her house with her tail sticking out, fringed with ice. They had named her Chaika, which meant “seagull.”
His wife stuck her head out of the door. “What are you doing?”
Albina and Alina, bleary-eyed in their pajamas, shoved their feet into their winter boots and bounded out to him. “Yeah, Dad, what are you doing?” they squealed, peering into the dog’s house then backing away shyly.
“When I was your age, in Bishkek, I walked our dogs,” he told them as he coaxed Chaika out. He knotted the rope around her neck, testing it, making sure it wouldn’t slip. “You can come if you want,” he added, smiling at his daughters, who looked horrified.
His wife raised her eyebrows. “Why are you walking the dog?”
“She needs exercise,” he said. The girls shrieked with laughter and ran back into the house, their hands over their mouths.
“You’re going to look like a crazy person,” his wife said.
Ulan shrugged. He pulled on Chaika’s rope and unfastened the gate, then closed it carefully. The dog ran ahead of him and chased her tail in frantic circles. All around him the village was waking up. Gates were opening, wives were rolling out big empty barrels to be filled at the well, young boys and girls were taking their cows out to the mountain pasture. A boy named Azamat called out to him. “Big brother, what are you doing with that dog?”
“I’m taking her to pasture,” Ulan called back, gesturing towards the girl in front of him, whose cow was eating grass. He was joking, but as the words came out he felt serious. He decided that he would join the children, leading the dog like a cow on the long, slowly rising path to the mountains.
The kids entrusted with pasture duty were still young enough to be wary and polite around adults. They nodded respectfully at Ulan and left him alone. Together, they walked for nearly an hour over hills and worn-down paths, the snowy mountains shifting and looming closer at every turn. Ulan’s breath puffed raggedly into the cold air while the kids, unperturbed by the exertion, carried on talking about crushes, siblings, football games. Chaika trotted along gamely.
When they came to the pasture, a gradual slope on a browned foothill sheltered from snow, the kids let the cows free and looked at Ulan. “Go on,” he said, smiling. They walked off, and he sat down, letting go of Chaika’s rope. She collapsed on the withered grass next to Ulan with her tongue hanging to one side. She really did look like Kaku.
Ulan had loved walking the dog when he was a child. At first, it had been a way to see Bishkek without supervision, to steal candy from outdoor vendors and peek at the couples kissing in the quiet, leafy recesses of the parks. But soon he found that he enjoyed escaping with Kaku into the gridded streets. He loved the standard-issue factory uniforms and the anonymity of rainy days, when the pedestrians disappeared under thousands of identical black umbrellas. He had grown up with a good circle of friends, all of them romping around in Soviet abundance. His father had worked at a munitions factory, taken home steady pay, and received rewards for good performance. Back then they’d all lived in high-rise apartments and owned washing machines. They never imagined an adulthood spent in the villages burning their trash for heat, their college educations long ago wasted—but why would they have imagined such a thing?
Parts of the city were still prosperous: the discreet diplomat’s corners where rich men kept houses with heated floors and Western electronics and thin, blonde wives. But the rest of Bishkek had become gray and shabby. The pipes and streets and big apartment blocks were decaying; stores, banks and even doctors had begun to lean on commercial advertising to stay profitable. Foreign billboards towered over every corner, dwarfing the spindly columns where propaganda art had once been displayed.
When he was a child, he could see the poster on Sovietskaya Street from his window. Its slogan was stamped in red block letters: “Don’t blab! These days, the walls have ears.” Below the words were two strong-jawed men in olive military gear. One of them clutched a telephone with huge hands; the other reached down to take it away, matching his comrade’s skeptical gaze with one of reassurance. The men were standing close. With every look, it became more and more possible to Ulan that the standing man was looking at his comrade’s arm, pressed snugly and firmly across his stomach, groin, thigh. There were secrets everywhere.
The billboard made Ulan feel considerably patriotic. With such feeling did he love his country! He ignored the other full-body twinges he felt when he looked at his lithe Russian track coach—about whom people always said things—or the older boys at school. But then one day his coach disappeared, and a rumor circulated that Andrei had been taken to the mountains and beaten to death. Ulan came home from school feeling queasy. He lay on his bed and stared at the poster, thinking about how his coach had once gently massaged a cramp out of his calf. “The walls have ears,” the handsome soldiers said. They looked stern now, unforgiving.
Chaika barked, wrenching Ulan back to the pallid mountains, the deep shadows of the valleys, the overworked potato fields. It was a brown landscape in a frozen sky. He picked up Chaika’s lead and walked down the hill.
. . .
The next weekend, Ulan took his first trip to Bishkek in the Odyssey. He always enjoyed holiday drives, despite the ice and the traffic, and he was pleased to find a Kazakh family that was willing to both pay their children’s passage and put the children on their laps. The ride was lively, with his passengers sharing their soda and singing along to the radio, and in the city the big avenues were strung with lights. The street vendors, bundled up, hawked cheap trinkets and party favors. He dropped his passengers off at an apartment building, stopping at a nearby stand to buy two glittery rabbit masks for Albina and Alina to wear for New Year’s. Snow began to fall, and Ulan turned on the Odyssey’s windshield wipers as he turned back onto the road that would take him out of the city.
He reached the field early, although it was dark enough so that mid-afternoon seemed like night. He idled his engine, put on his gloves and zipped his leather jacket. At that hour, there were only a few cars there. The snow was falling so thickly that they would all have to dig themselves out come morning. When no one emerged from the cars, Ulan’s excitement faded, leaving him suddenly tired. He turned on the space heater that he had rigged to the battery and reclined his chair, yawning.
A knock woke him up, setting his heart off at a breakneck pace—always, this flash of fear. He unlocked the door. A man opened it. He was older than Ulan, with a pockmarked face and a cap dusted with snow. As he climbed into the passenger’s seat, Ulan quickly swept the rabbit masks away, throwing them into the back.
“Ah—the Year of the Rabbit,” the man said.
Ulan nodded, thrown off: normally, the men didn’t speak.
“Are those for your kids?” he asked.
Ulan nodded again, clearing his throat awkwardly. “I have two. Girls.”
“I’m sure they’re beautiful.”
A pang hit Ulan in the chest. “They are. They made this,” he said, pointing to the dashboard ornament, a blue Turkish evil eye charm made out of felt. Albina and Alina had crafted it carefully for his last birthday.
The man smiled, genuine and easy. “It’s beautiful, too.”
Albina and Alina—the Odyssey could not accommodate the four of them at once. Ulan went soft and shameful. He’d have to ask the man to leave. It was all ruined now. He opened his mouth and the man reached out and shut it. He moved his hands down to Ulan’s shoulder and gripped it, feeling his muscles.
. . .
Ulan woke up curled behind the man in the backseat of the Odyssey. Surprised, trying not to move, he looked around the minivan, which was flooded with moonlight. He squeezed his eyes shut, placing his hands gently on top of the man’s hips and resisting the urge to clutch at him. The sense of devotion in his body was paralyzing. No one ever stayed. They always pulled up their pants and retreated, gone in a gasp of fresh air, sometimes getting in their cars and immediately driving away.
He had been confused when the man—whose name was Anarbek—pulled a condom out of his pocket. “To protect you.”
Ulan had never used a condom and wasn’t sure why Anarbek was suggesting one now. “But you can’t get—you’re a man, so—”
“I have bad blood,” Anarbek said gently.
They’d gotten lost again then. At one point Ulan reached down to turn off the space heater, and he felt the unfamiliarity of the condom and still didn’t understand. Afterwards, the two men had talked, but he was so absorbed in the novelty of learning about Anarbek’s family, about his farm and children—even knowing his name was a first—that he had forgotten to ask what he meant about the blood.
Now in the early morning he cleared his mind, speaking to himself directly: he let himself remember some fatal illness, SIDAS, or CIDS, or something, that plagued far-off countries and was passed around in the Russian saunas in Bishkek. This was all he knew. There were no doctors to whom you could admit these sinner’s fears. This concern, along with all the others, would soon be buried.
Now Anarbek stirred slightly and started to shift, turning to face Ulan, who quickly removed his hands from Anarbek’s hips.
“I should go,” Anarbek said, his voice scratchy.
Ulan nodded, averting his eyes.
“I wouldn’t—I just need to get on the road. Toktogul, you know.”
“Oh,” Ulan said. “Of course. It takes me two days to get there.”
Sitting up in the clammy backseat, they clasped hands in the Muslim way, then hugged each other for a long time. Ulan felt the air fracturing, the vital pieces falling away. “God willing, we’ll meet again,” Anarbek said. Ulan’s throat caught and he couldn’t reply. Anarbek smiled at him and left, closing the door quietly.
Ulan lay back down for an hour. When the sun came up, he left, still feeling as if there was something unanswered, forgotten. He stopped on the road for a wheel of fresh bread. Barely registering the children underfoot at the bread stand, he opened his wallet and found it empty. Yesterday there had been a 100-som bill, he was sure of it. He asked the babushka to wait and went back to the car, refusing to carry the facts to their logical conclusion. He found a ten-cent coin tucked under one of the floor mats. He paid for the bread brusquely and tore into it, staring ahead into the pale sunrise as he started the six-hour journey home.
. . .
A few days later came the celebration of the foreign New Year, which was held in a neighboring village, in the big school tearoom that was often used for parties. Albina and Alina had both binged on candy upon arrival and fallen asleep before midnight in a corner on top of a pile of coats. Ulan looked at them: two small full-skirted figures, bent legs in white tights, their rabbit masks askew on their heads. His wife refused to wake the girls up, saying they’d be cranky, but Ulan felt sorry for them. They’d be so disappointed that they’d missed the party. They’d been trying on their outfits since summer.
He looked at his watch, which appeared blurry: four o’clock. He wanted to go to bed. But they were two villages over, they hadn’t had a big party since the spring weddings, and everyone would still be at it for hours. The music, bass inflated, was blowing out the speakers and pounding through the walls. Everyone had moved outside once all the kids started falling asleep, and Ulan could hear them whooping and dancing, pounding back shot after shot despite the hour and because of the cold. He had remained inside, needing a break; the room looked empty and huge without its revelers, and he slumped on the shiny floor next to a heap of trash and a prostrate seventh-grader who, judging by his breath, had been sneaking champagne.
Nurlan came breathlessly into the gym. “Your wife is very drunk,” he said, squatting on the ground next to Ulan and shaking off a piece of tinsel that had attached itself to his foot. “So is my wife. They’re slapping other men on the behind.”
Ulan laughed. “Our poor cow. No one will milk it tomorrow morning.”
“Time to go, don’t you think?”
“I’d rather go join our wives,” Ulan said, picturing one of his burly neighbors, who, when drunk, often pressed his forehead to Ulan’s and emphatically called him brother. Nurlan looked at him. “I’m kidding,” Ulan said. “Let’s go.”
Soon they were piled into the Odyssey, on the long straight road. The black mountains rose on either side of them like a moonscape. The women, although full of fight when instructed to leave, had passed out instantly. Albina and Alina were collapsed on either side of Nurlan’s small son in the third row. Nurlan cheered approvingly as Ulan stepped on the gas. “Too fast, too furious,” he said in English, and they laughed.
Nurlan rolled down the window to light a cigarette. The air flooding the car felt bracing and sweet. Ulan felt good again, back in balance; he wondered why he didn’t drink more often. He watched Nurlan fumble with his lighter and drop it next to the seat. Reaching down, his friend pulled up a bright blue condom packet. The blood drained out of Ulan’s face and hands. Nurlan turned the packet over slowly. “What’s this?”
“It’s not mine,” Ulan said quietly.
Nurlan slapped his leg, laughing. “Good one! You’ve been visiting the whores in the city!” He leaned conspiratorially towards the driver’s seat. “I never use these—hate the feel, you know? But I should. We all should! I can’t afford another child and the woman just caught something. She’s got bumps on her. Disgusting.”
“What do you mean? What do you mean, caught something?” Ulan asked, his stomach suddenly queasy. How could he have forgotten about this? Glancing in the mirror at their drooling, dressed-up wives, he saw only himself, waking up in the deep blue pre-dawn, his body fitted to Anarbek.
“Who cares?” Nurlan said. “So tell me, are the whores good in Bishkek? I have to settle for the ugly old ones near us. Do they—” He stuck out his tongue in the corner of his mouth. “Of course they do. Wish our wives would. How much do you pay them?”
Ulan thought of his emptied wallet, the gentle way Anarbek had excused himself. He shook his head and sped up even faster. “I told you, it’s not mine. Let me see that.” He held out his hand, and when Nurlan gave him the condom, he threw it out the window. Nurlan started to say something and Ulan cut him off. “Not mine.”
. . .
He dropped Nurlan and his family off in silence. His heart pounded; he couldn’t believe how close he’d come to being caught. His hands were shaking slightly, with relief but also with anger, with a growing sense that something was going to rip out of him. He drove through the open gate—he’d forgotten to close it—and jolted the car into park. “We’re home,” he told his wife, shaking her abruptly. She moaned quietly. “We’re home,” he shouted. “Albina and Alina, we’re home!” His wife didn’t want to wake up. “We’re home!” he shouted one more time, flipping on all the lights in the car and then jumping out, slamming the door. He looked over his shoulder at the Odyssey, its insides glowing: the girls looked like they were about to cry. He didn’t care. He could see his wife scratching at her eyes, smearing blue eye shadow all over the side of her face.
It was pathetic how she’d had that shade since they were in college, Ulan thought as he turned away towards the house, unlocking the door. Why pretend to be beautiful? At best, the women would end up with someone like him. He pictured his wife’s black nylon makeup bag, dusty and stained from shattered eyeshadows, full of half-inch lipsticks and broken lids. The girls sometimes tried the makeup on, standing on chairs to purse their lips for the one tiny mirror in the entrance hall. It made Ulan sick. All that Albina and Alina cared about now was their cartoons and their private nonsense, but soon even they would start mimicking the whores on the fashion billboards, the ones with glossy mouths and black eyes like they’d been punched. And like all the foolish girls in this country, they’d end up looking like regular whores, and they’d be poor forever because there was no money in driving a taxi, and they’d steal money to buy high heels and they’d shake their hips when they walked through the market and Nurlan would refuse to wear a condom and they would catch something if they didn’t already have it from their father. What had Anarbek meant about blood? Ulan suddenly hated himself for never having the courage to ask or even fully see the question.
But it wasn’t his fault, he told himself. It was this place, this village, these men who loved to joke about whorehouses but would kill a man like him. He was nothing like Nurlan. He didn’t understand when everything had gone so wrong. He was a good man. He didn’t beat his wife. He provided for his daughters. He took care of the dog. He was doing everything he could to be a good man. He’d tried to stop visiting the field. He’d worn the condom. He’d been the top of his class in college and now he was a poor taxi driver. It wasn’t his fault. He didn’t beat his wife.
As he paced the house, his wife shambled in, corralling the two girls. She didn’t even look at him as she swayed down the hallway towards their bedroom; she’d sleep with them tonight. Ulan felt deep contempt towards her, towards the whole village. It wasn’t just the children—they’d all been clutching for months at the anticipation of the New Year’s party. Who knew happiness by anything other than what it wasn’t?
He’d forget about the wallet. It wasn’t like he’d paid Anarbek.
Ulan took a deep breath and decided to go feed the dog. Outside, he saw the tin structure in the headlights of the minivan, which was still on and running. It was empty. Chaika had pulled out the stake that held her chain to the ground.
“Chaika!” he shouted. She must have pushed the gate open. He hadn’t forgotten to close it. He jumped in the car and backed out of the driveway recklessly. He sped down the dirt road. The sun was rising now, casting the mountains in soft pink and gold. “Chaika!” he shouted again, rolling down all the windows. “Chaika dog!”
He drove through the village for a few minutes, shouting out the windows. Then in front of the dark school he stopped the car abruptly, slamming his hands on the wheel. She wasn’t anywhere. She was an animal. She’d get eaten in the mountains or run over by the drunk drivers who were careening home with their windows open, hooting.
When Kaku had been run over, Ulan hadn’t seen the car, only the dog on the ground, her form emerging from a cloud of dust. He ran to her, confused, and her body jerked and pounded. He went numb when he saw the blood near her mouth, and he dragged her out of the road into a small side street. He lay beside her, touched her fur, still warm and soft. Eventually he cried when she did. He didn’t remember what he might have been thinking. He didn’t want her to stop shaking. He fell asleep slumped over Kaku in a corner of the alley behind an electrical box. His mother found him hours later, still sleeping, shivering in the dark evening chill.
She’d shaken her head sadly. “Poor Kaku,” she said. She reached down to touch her son, rubbing his small back. He woke up and instantly started sobbing. She forced him up, leaving the dog, and held his hand as they walked home.
It was only a block to the apartment, but Ulan shuffled slowly, unwillingly. Suddenly, in the middle of the sidewalk, in front of a brightly lit ration office, his mother knelt down and turned him to face her. Her look hardened. “Ulan,” she said. “You’re a grown man already, don’t you know that?”
This made him cry harder.
She shushed him. “You don’t want your brothers seeing you like this.”
“We left her,” he said shakily.
“What else could we do?” she said. “Take her with us? Carry her around until the house stinks and you can’t cry anymore?” She wiped his face off firmly and stood up, pulling him along, talking to him quietly, soothing him against his will, telling him that sometimes you just had to leave things behind. Pain was something you brought on yourself. He was too old to cry like his silly girl cousins. He was a man, a full-grown man. There would be other dogs.
. . .
It was the New Year, the Year of the Rabbit. Ulan had seen the whole beautiful sunrise as he drove east across the mountains, and now the day was cloudless and blue. He’d reached the field at eleven. He’d cried out in pain when the man left his car. He was on his way back, still mourning.
When he passed the high point of the Tu-Ashu he turned on his cell phone and called his wife, who picked up instantly and started to yell. He cut her off. “I’m sorry. I’m very sorry. I was out looking for Chaika all night. I thought I saw her run into the hills and I followed her, and then I fell asleep. I’m sorry to have worried you.”
“Chaika?” she shouted. “What do you mean, Chaika?”
“She got out last night. Haven’t you noticed?” he said.
“Sometimes I really don’t know about you,” his wife said. “Sometimes I think you’re crazy. Chaika’s here! I found her in the cellar eating apples.”
Ulan hung up. He pulled over to the side of the road and got out of the car. All of Kyrgyzstan stretched in front of him. He stood up and squinted into the sun, then sunk down against the warm metal frame of the Odyssey, cradling his head in his hands, overwhelmed by the mercies, the asymmetrical contracts of love.
“I wrestled with this story a long time. I knew I wanted to write about Kyrgyzstan but I’m an outsider. It’s not my culture, not my life to relate, and ultimately I was only there for a year.”
-Excerpt from our interview with Jia Tolentino.
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