I had lived in a desert before. I did. I forgot the za’atar my mother said she fed me in Iraq. I forgot my grandmother’s house in Soo-ree-yaa. There I was, eating the prickly pears even though they always made my tongue itch. A teacher in Texas told me I’d never learn how to pronounce my own name in English and she was right. I wept until my mother took me to McDonald’s. In that house I was the only child. I danced in the hot winter. In ten years, a boy will leave marks on my arm because I call him a redneck. I stole a Barbie pink windbreaker from the cubbyhole at school. There was nothing in the pockets. Even before the sun rose, my father went outside to smoke and watch the birds fly east. He loved the ugly ones best of all.
I had never seen true desert before: cactus beds and milk-white sand, sand that ran for days, the lipstick-red of dusk. There I was, digging through piles of library books to steal the best ones, lumping my bedsheets into a mouth to kiss. I wasn’t quick enough to stop the boy’s hand under my shirt. I starved myself to starve my mother. In that house we made a house for each of us, the cornfields a row of brunettes after the winter drought. In ten years, a man will fall in love because he recognizes the Midwest in me. He will leave a note in the pleat of my coat. When the final box was taped up, my father eyed the house once more before turning back toward the Dodge, destined to do it all over again.
When I Bit into the Plum the Ants Flooded Out
I’ll dress myself cheap as a red candle. I’ll keep my hair long for you to yank. Slink myself in black. Silk panties. Bangles as bright as India. This body is yours more than mine. The trees are broken into temples, one slow noose to the next. My breasts smell like cigars and perspiration, you have sparrowed into my arteries: heartbeat, dial tone. You remember, yes, the seeds we ate by the handful, the Mexican sun finding us wherever we went. The world doesn’t want loyalty, so what’s the point of asking? The heart spoils the body and the body spoils the air. I stole your name and at night, alone, I whisper it into the dark: the vowels none of my great-grandmothers could’ve said.
From The Twenty-Ninth Year. Used with permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Copyright © 2019 by Hala Alyan.