Inside that hotel room in Essaouira there was a medium-sized bed, a good-sized bureau, and a basic desk, where Steven sat working. Laura was studying her reflection in the dirty mirror, hung a little crookedly on the wall. She was attractive in her own way, she thought. Her mouth was small, a perfect shell. Usually she wore her hair, which she knew was much too long, braided. Then it would fall down her back like a yellow cord, like a frayed rope. This day she wore it down. She thought she looked tired. Now it was almost their third week in this seaside Moroccan town, which made it over eight weeks since the accident, since she’d miscarried.
“We’re lucky to have good weather,” she said.
“And good wine.” Steven raised his glass to look at her.
Laura smiled thinly and flashed her eyes, which were a light gray color. “Let’s stay forever,” she said.
“Well, a while. Not forever, though.” He turned back to his desk and continued working. In the March afternoon light, his hair looked to her something like red. A firefly, typing. He had a strong jaw and a tense mouth. It wasn’t a brutal face, just strong, and his eyes were island blue, light white-sand-bottomed-water blue. She had liked his face right away, had married him for it.
“Well, I could stay. I like a less modern life,” she said.
“Oh you do, do you?”
“Yes, I do. I could stay in this hotel and drink fruit juice for breakfast, and get very dark, and cut my hair short, and Omar would bring us sardines for every meal.”
“He’d stop bringing them when we ran out of money, and then he’d be just like every other hotel waiter.”
Steven—what a bore he is, Laura thought. She made a face and crossed the room and put her hand in her husband’s hair where it was not thick, though still that gorgeous caramel color. He was tense, and she knew she made it worse, just by being there. Laura leaned over him and took a heavy sip of wine from his glass and then she poured one for herself. Even when she stood up, her back felt crooked, a snapped branch. There was still pain but she didn’t mention it.
She was not by nature a drinker, but she was learning. Steven drank often. Not only there in Africa, but at home, in New York, as well. It was one of the things she’d liked about Steven. He liked a whiskey in the afternoon. She had tried having one of her own back in October, back home at that downtown café he loved so much, but it didn’t suit her. “That’s not my drink,” she’d declared to him.
That was over two months before the New Year’s party Connie had thrown in that gaudy hotel back in New York, and Connie’s brother visiting from Pennsylvania, and the doctor. The doctor was a card, she could see that even under the circumstances. He had raised pink skin and an awkward little mustache. He had a muddled accent, Ukrainian maybe. They couldn’t make it out and he had to repeat himself each time he spoke to them. It must have grown tiring.
“You’ve lost baby.” He said it carefully and then waited quietly for a response. Laura was the first to understand him, and once she’d started crying, Steven understood him, too.
Now, in the hotel room in Essaouira, Laura sat down on the bed and smoothed out the sheets. “What will you write about this place? Will you be nasty, Steven?”
“What do you mean, nasty? You think I’m nasty?” He looked wounded, he always looks a bit wounded, she thought.
“No, dear. Not now. Only I know that you can be when you write. The magazines like that, don’t they? A bit of nastiness. They think it makes them very clever but I think it makes them stupid and dizzy.”
“Do you feel dizzy, Laura?” When he said it, she was thinking about that poor old chicken they’d seen in the marketplace. Wings and legs broken and just waiting to be chopped.
“No, I’m not dizzy. I may be drunk. Yes, right now I’m good and drunk.” Steven’s face seemed to her to darken; probably he was watching her the way a hunter sometimes watches an animal before he has decided if he will try for it. She was lying back on the bed, her weight on her elbows and her small breasts pointed up toward the ceiling. Her smooth parted hair fell beautifully, she knew, across her shoulders. “Don’t look at me that way,” she said suddenly.
“That way! Like you want to make love,” she said. “It makes me uncomfortable.”
“Uncomfortable? Oh Christ.” He sounded very tired to her. “I don’t want to make love, Laura. You should try to worry less.”
“I know,” she said. “I do try.” She was disappointed. She had wanted a fight.
“Look, you’re doing fine here. Look how fine you are. See now, it’s all right here. Just fine. People need that sometimes, a change of scenery. Another place to go and be for a while. Not too long, just for a while.” He was making rapid sweeping gestures with both his arms.
Laura looked around the room. “I’m very tired of fish. We eat fish nearly every day here. I’d love a juicy steak.” She felt guilty as soon as she said it. She always felt guilty. The way she saw it, the whole thing was mostly her fault. She had slipped away at the New Year’s party with Connie’s brother, Ralph. She had asked him to kiss her right there in plain sight in the lobby. She’d moved his chubby hands all over her hips and her breasts and her stomach, which was then still just flat enough to hide under a blousy top. She had even moaned a little here and there in agreement. God knows how long they’d gone on like that before Steven had walked in. It was a shameful display and she had every reason to feel guilty, every right to.
She had done it practically without thinking. Ralph was gentle and embarrassingly overweight. All of his features looked to her soft and clay-like, and his wide mouth made a splendid womanly pout when he pronounced his O sounds. She’d liked the way he talked. An historical anthropologist, he’d spoken mostly about bones. The way they break and age and how to clean them and what temperature to keep them stored at. She imagined his refrigerator, set to a precise temperature, the shelves stocked with zip-lock baggies of bone fragments, an eggplant, and a gallon of milk pushed to the back.
“There are two things to look for in order to determine whether or not a person has been the victim of cannibalism: First of all, has the bone been boiled after it’s been picked clean. Secondly, are there marks of desperation.”
“Any signs of stress that might indicate that the predator was starving. Deep frantic incisions that are usually made with some kind of tool.” Laura imagined her own body, lean and gleaming, a stunning ivory thing with desperate marks etched all over.
“It sounds just beautiful. What a beautiful thing to do. Will you kiss me, Ralph?” She knew she’d said it earnestly, and she watched him carefully then—he was working something out and it showed all over his doughy face.
“You’re sweet to listen,” he said. “Are you married?”
“More or less.”
There were reasons to do these sorts of things, she’d supposed on the drive home from the party. And she might have tried to explain them to Steven had it not been for the accident. But what was there to be said after that? That was the nature of accidents. No one who might learn about it could say a word about that, they could only shake their heads or, if they were really good people, they would look away in another direction entirely.
From where she was sitting on the hotel bed, Laura could see only a sliver of the North African beaches through the window. All this distance, she thought, and it’s still just the Atlantic Ocean. She knew that somewhere south of her were the Canary Islands and somewhere north of her was the Strait of Gilbraltar, but, from that window, it was still the same gray water she’d seen a thousand times. No proof at all that she’d traveled thirteen hours to come to Africa. No proof at all!
She watched the seagulls circling the ship docks as they did every day. They were large, frightening birds with broad, dirty wings that made loud clapping noises when they cut through the air. For as long as Laura could remember, she had been afraid of birds, though she didn’t know why. Her mother had once told her it all had to do with a traumatic experience she’d had when she was a little girl, but Laura could never get her to say anything more than that, so she suspected it was another one of her lies. “What’s the use in going over such tragedy,” her mother would say theatrically. “You’ve learned to live with them in your own way. You and the birds. You two have worked something out.”
“Laura?” Steven was standing over her now and his hands were pressed a bit too hard on her shoulders.
“Sorry.” She squirmed a little under his weight, “I was watching the fishermen. See, I think they caught something. They’re bringing in the nets again.”
Steven peered over her to look. “Such a country.” She didn’t know him, she thought. Not any better than Connie’s brother or any of the others before him. She felt then like she hadn’t ever really known another person in the world. But she’d married this one. Why?
She looked outside. “I’ll have a swim now. Will you work for much longer?”
“Not much. I’ll be out soon enough.”
She kissed him greedily, and left the room.
The beach was crowded with tourists and dark beauties sunning themselves. Their slender necks and breasts were slick with oil and their hair was loose and dark. Spanish beauties, Laura thought. Behind them, perched on the low rock wall that surrounded the city, was a cluster of schoolboys. They were all knees and elbows, and they seemed to get tangled up in each other with the excitement of all the raw sexuality splayed before them.
Laura watched the beauties, too. It was hard not to. They were lovely; perfect specimens.
She looked down at her body. Her stomach was flat again but the bruise on her knee was still visible. It looked like smeared street chalk, all the colors. The cut on her forehead had healed and there was only a tiny scar on the inside of her lip. Amazingly, it was all very minor, just as the Ukrainian doctor back in New York had said, even if Laura still wasn’t quite convinced. But Laura had liked the doctor and her thoughts kept returning to him. He was kind to her, the way someone’s grandfather might be.
After the thing with Connie’s brother, Steven had decided to take her home. They’d driven silently for forty-two blocks, until the crash. Even that felt silent. Laura didn’t hear the sound of metal folding in on itself or rubber tires burning against pavement. And she still swears she didn’t scream, but Steven said she did. “Of course you screamed. When that car came bulldozing into your belly, you screamed like hell.” That’s exactly what he’d said.
At the hospital, the accented doctor had bandaged her purple knee with an attention that she guessed was rare in those types of places. “I hope you won’t be driving home,” he had said in his delicate foreign voice. “Since your husband has a habit of missing traffic signals, it would be safer to walk.” And the doctor, knowing about the baby, must have known also that it was inappropriate to make jokes, so Laura was grateful to him for even trying. He seemed lonely to her. He wanted to be a friend of hers, right there, in that mess, with all those white walls.
“My husband was distracted.” She’d nodded toward Steven, who was sitting on the edge of an empty hospital bed rubbing his neck and watching the floor. “He’s usually a very good driver. He never passes a school bus if they’re flashing red lights. I always tell him to go but he won’t. We just pull over and wait. You’d be surprised, Doctor,” she said. “And it can take so long.” The moment had seemed airless. And then she’d begun to vomit into a pan, and the doctor had held back her hair and she’d felt his big warm hands burning her neck. Just burning.
That New Year’s morning she’d vomited so much that she gave herself two black eyes. She’d worried that she would vomit up whatever was left of the baby. The baby is bile, she’d thought, and forced herself to think it again there in Morocco.
On the tourist-laden beach of Essaouira, the sun was high and Laura undressed to her swimsuit. She wanted to swim a good distance, until she reached the place where the water was cold and dark. She wanted to do it but her feet were tired and they wanted to stay where they were, warm and dry on the hot sand. She sat down by the rock wall and did not move again until she saw one of the schoolboys approaching her.
“Madame? Your name, Madame?” Laura did not answer him at first, but she could tell he wanted to talk with her. She knew she would. There was a line of questioning here that the locals spouted out to the tourists as they perused the streets. They wanted to know things. Where you’re from. Why you’ve come to their country. Do you like it. Which part is best. Is Casablanca better than Marrakesh. Why are you alone. Do women go alone in America. “Parlez-vous Francais?” the boy tried again, and Laura saw that he was very beautiful and young.
“No. English. I speak English.” She looked at him and gave a small smile. He had wild dark curls that framed his face prettily. Yes, he was so young.
“Your name, Madame?”
“My name is Laura.” She said it more slowly than she thought she ought to have and then she felt embarrassed.
“I’m Khalid.” The boy smiled with a mouth full of teeth the color of sea glass. Laura winced. “You like the beaches in Morocco?” he pressed.
“Sure. I like them fine.” She stuck her hands deep into the sand on either side of her and laughed a little. “Nice sand,” she said, and lifted her hands back out again.
“Madame, you stay here so long today. I think you like our beaches very much.”
Laura looked around and noticed that the beach was mostly empty now and that the sun had begun to set. “Oh, I guess I lost track of time.” She was always losing track of time. That was what worried people, tipped them off. They all think it’s a sign you’re going nutty, she thought. Not that anyone would blame them. So what if I’m a little crazy now. So what. She looked back up the road toward the small room where her husband sat writing, organizing the world on his sheets of paper. That scene seemed a long way off and she didn’t want to go back to it. She thought she’d try to find another place to go. Her own little room somewhere, maybe. She imagined this boy’s home. There would be a mother and a father and perhaps sisters. For a moment, she hoped that Khalid would ask her to join him. She could picture herself sitting in a room painted red, breathing air soaked in spice. But the boy did not invite her to dinner and when she sat there quietly for too long, he became bored with her. He shoved his balled-up fist into her hands, unclenched his fingers and then he left. He ran down the beach where his friends were waiting in a tight little crowd.
Laura examined the gift the boy had left—a small stone. It was round, with a smooth gray surface. Its weight felt good in her hands, and she kept tossing it back and forth from right to left, left to right—she imagined it growing: larger, softer.
fiction poetry "fact" photography