It takes three men to pull the body from the water. It is a man—that much they can tell, but little else. The birds have been at him by then, perhaps attracted by the glinting piece of silver that adorns his tie. But that’s only magpies, they remind themselves. He must have seen three, one of the men says to the others—a crude attempt at humor. They lift him, startled by the weight. Do dead men weigh more, another wonders aloud. Together they wait for the police to arrive, doing their best not to look down, to avoid the empty sockets where once the dead man’s eyes rested. They are strangers to each other, these three, but they are bonded now by something deeper than kinship.
Of course, only the first bit is true—the rest I have simply imagined. I have time for such things now, as I sit and gaze: across the room, out the window. The scenery changes, but nothing else. I suppose some would call it watching, but I would argue that it is not the same at all—that they are as different as day-dreaming and thinking.
It is a warm day, summer is fast approaching. The sun has begun to fade and the sky has turned a peculiar shade of yellow, warning of storms on the horizon. It is in these moments—when the air is thick and hot, threatening—that I can close my eyes and inhale, when I can smell Tangier again. It is the smell of a kiln, of something warm, but not burning, almost like marshmallows, but not as sweet. There is a touch of spice, something vaguely familiar, like cinnamon, cloves, cardamom even, and then something else entirely unfamiliar. It is a comforting smell, like a memory from childhood, one that wraps you up and swaddles you and promises a happy ending, just like in the stories. Of course, this is not true. For underneath the smell, underneath the comfort, there are flies buzzing, cockroaches stirring, starving cats gazing meanly, watching your every movement.
Most times, the city appears as a fevered dream, a sparkling mirage that I can just about convince myself was real once, that I was there and that the people and places that I recall were tangible and not translucent ghosts that my mind has conjured up. Time moves quickly, I have found, turning people and places into first history and then later stories. I have trouble remembering the difference, for my mind often plays tricks on me now. In the worst moments—in the best moments—I forget about her. About what happened. It is a peculiar sensation, for she is always there, lurking just beneath the surface, threatening to break. But then there are times when even her name escapes me, so that I have taken to writing it down on any scrap of paper I can find. At night, when the nurses are gone, I whisper it to myself, as though it were a catechism learned as a child, as if the repetition will help me to remember, will stop me from forgetting—for I must never forget, I remind myself.
There is a knock at the door and a young, red-haired girl enters the room, a tray of food held between her hands. Her arms are covered, I notice, with freckles, so heavily that the tiny brown flecks overwhelm the pale skin underneath.
I wonder whether she has ever tried to count them.
Looking down, I find a name scrawled across a piece of paper on the nightstand next to my bed and the name nags at me, for although it is not my own, it feels important, as if it is something that I should try and remember. I let my mind relax. It is a technique I have found useful: trying hard not to think while secretly thinking as hard as I can.
“Ready for breakfast?”
I look up, confused to find a strange girl with dark red hair standing just in front of me. She cannot be any more than thirty, so there can only be a handful of years between us. Redheads are bad luck, I think. Don’t they say to avoid redheads when preparing for a sea voyage? And I think I’ll most likely be at sea soon—to Tangier. I feel anxious now, eager to have this red-headed, ill omen gone from my room. “Where did you come from?” I demand, angry that she has not bothered to knock.
She ignores my question. “Aren’t you hungry today?” In her hand is a spoon full of some gray substance—I reach for its name, but my mind refuses to yield. Angry now, I push it away and instead point to the little slip of paper by my bed. “Put this in the bin,” I tell her. “Someone is leaving me notes with nothing but nonsense written on them.”
I settle back onto my bed, pulling the covers up close to my chin.
It’s summer, I think, but my room suddenly feels as cold as winter.
Tuesdays were market days.
Not just for me, but for the entire city, the Rif women parading down from the mountains heralding the start, their baskets and carts overflowing with fruits and vegetables, their donkeys flanking them on either side. In response, Tangier came alive: crowds emerged, the streets flooding with men and women, foreigners and locals alike, pointing and ordering, arguing and bartering, exchanging coin for a bit of this, a bit of that. The sun seemed somehow brighter on these days, hotter, the scorch of it burning the nape of my neck.
Standing at the window now, looking down upon the swelling crowds, I made the silent wish that it was still Monday. But then, Monday, I knew, was always a false hope, a false comfort, before Tuesday would eventually come again and I would be forced to stand in the chaos swirling below me. Forced to stand before the impressive Rif women, adorned in their bright colors that caught and fought for attention, their eyes evaluating my own drab, ordinary dress that could not measure up, and seized with a sense of worry—worry that I would pay an exorbitant price without realizing it, that I would give the wrong coin, that I would say the wrong words, that I would make a fool of myself and they would all laugh and it would be evident what a mistake I had made in coming here.
Morocco. The name conjured up images of a vast, desert nothingness, of a piercing, red sun. The first time I had heard John mention it, I had sputtered and coughed on the drink he had pushed into my hand. We had met at the Ritz in Piccadilly, and only at Aunt Maude’s insistence—which I could feel in those weeks after I returned from Bennington College, pushing, a headache that I could never quite mange to escape. I had been back in England for only a few months, had known John for less than that, but in that moment, I was certain I could feel it— his excitement, his energy, filling the space around us, pumping through the warm summer air. Leaning in, eager to grasp it, to hold it, to claim some of it for my own, I had let the idea settle between us. Africa. Morocco. A few weeks earlier I would have balked, perhaps a week later I would have only laughed—but on that particular day, in that particular moment, listening to John’s words, to his promises, his dreams, they had felt all too real, all too attainable. For the first time since Vermont, I found myself wanting—I didn’t know what exactly, and I suspected in that moment that it might not even be the man sitting before me, but wanting something, all the same. I had taken a sip of the cocktail he had ordered for me, the champagne already warm and flat, feeling the acid on my tongue, in my belly. I had reached over, before I could change my mind, clasping his hand between my fingers.
For although John McAllister was certainly not what I had once dreamed of for myself—he was loud and gregarious, brash and oftentimes reckless—I had found myself reveling in the opportunity that he had presented: to forget, to leave the past behind.
To not think each and every second of the day about what had happened in the cold, wintry Green Mountains of Vermont.
Over a year now and it was still cast in a hazy fog that I could not seem to work my way out of, no matter how long I tripped through the labyrinth. It’s better that way, my aunt had said, afterward, when I had told her about the vaporous sheen my memories had taken on, how I could no longer remember the details of that horrible night, of the days that followed. Leave it in the past, she had urged, as if my memories were objects that could be packed away, in boxes secure enough to ensure they would never let loose the secrets held within.
And I had, in a way, had shut my eyes to the past—had opened them to John, to Tangier, to the blazing sun of Morocco. To the adventure that he had promised—with a proposal and a proper ring, though not an actual ceremony, just a signed slip of paper.
“But we can’t,” I had protested, at first. “We hardly know one another.”
“But of course we do,” he had assured me. “Why, your family is practically related to my family. If anything, we know one another too well.” He laughed, flashing me that wicked grin.
There would be no name change—I was adamant on that point. It felt important, somehow, to retain some part of myself, my family, after everything that had happened. And there was something else too, something I had a harder time explaining, even to myself. For although my aunt’s guardianship would technically dissolve upon my marriage, she would still retain control of my financial trust until I turned the age of twenty-one, at which time my parents’ estate would at last be released into my own name. The idea of being doubly covered seemed entirely too daunting, and so, when I reached for my passport, it was still Alice Shipley written there.
And at first, I had told myself that Tangier wouldn’t be so terrible. I imagined days spent playing tennis under the hot Moroccan sun, a team of servants to wait on us hand and foot, a membership at the various private clubs throughout the city. There were worse lives to live, I knew. But then, John wanted to experience the real Morocco, the real Tangier. So while his other associates hired cheap, Moroccan help and their wives spent days languishing around the pool or planning parties, John eschewed it all. Instead he and his friend Charlie went gallivanting around the city, spending hours at the hammam, or the markets, smoking kif in the back of cafés, always trying to endear themselves to the locals rather than to their fellow coworkers and countrymen. Charlie had been the one to convince John to come to Tangier in the first place, plying his friend with tales of the country: its beauty, its lawlessness, until John was half in love with a place he had never seen. And I had done my best, in the beginning, going with him to the flea markets for furniture, to the souks to shop for supper. I had sat in the cafés beside him and sipped café au laits and tried to rewrite my future in the hot and dusty city that he loved at first sight but which continued to elude me.
But then, there had been the incident at the flea market.
Amid a frenzied collision of sellers and stalls, of antiques and junk piled haphazardly, one carless layer after another, I had turned around and John had been gone. Standing there, strangers passing me, jostling me from either direction, my palms growing clammy with the familiar beginnings of anxiety, shadows had played at the edges of my vision—those strange wispy apparitions that the doctors had whispered were only manifestations but that to me felt real, visceral, tangible, so that they seemed to grow, until their dark shapes were all that I could see. In that moment I was struck with the notion of how very far away I was from home, from the life that I had once envisioned for myself.
Later, John had laughed, insisting he had only been gone the space of minute, but the next time he asked me to go out, I shook my head, and the time after that, I found another excuse. Instead, I spent hours—long, lonely tiresome hours—exploring Tangier from the comfort of our apartment. After the first week, I knew how many steps it took to get from one end of it to the other— forty-five, sometimes more, depending on my gait.
Eventually, I began to feel John’s regret looming above us, growing, our exchanges limited to matters of practicality, of finances, my allowance our main monetary support. John was bad at money, he had once told me with a grin, and at the time, I had smiled, thinking he meant that he didn’t care about it, that it wasn’t a concern for him. What it really meant, I soon learned, was that his family’s fortune was nearly gone, just enough remained to keep him well dressed, so that he could play at pretending to still claim the wealth he had once had, that he had been born into and still felt was rightfully his. An illusion, I soon realized. And so, each week I handed over my allowance, not really caring, not really interested where the numbers disappeared to in the end.
And each month, John continued to vanish as well: into his mysterious city that he loved with a fierceness I could not understand, exploring her secrets on his own, while I remained inside—my very own captor and captive.
I glanced at the clock now and frowned. It had been only half past eight the last time I had checked, and now it was ticking steadily toward noon. I cursed and moved quickly toward the bed, toward the outfit I had laid out earlier that morning, before I had lost all the hours in between. For, today, I had promised John that I would go to the market; today, I had promised myself that I would try. And so I looked to my costume, such as it was, the semblance of an ordinary woman about to do the week’s shopping: stockings, shoes, a dress that I had purchased in England just before moving to Tangier.
Pulling the dress over my head, I noticed a slight tear on the front, at the bit where the lace met the collar. I frowned, bringing it closer to my face for inspection, trying not to tremble at the sight of the damaged material, telling myself that it was not a sign, that it was not an ill omen, that it did not mean anything at all.
The room felt too warm then, and so I stepped out onto the balcony, needing, in that moment, to be free of its imposing walls. Closing my eyes, desperate for any hint of a breeze, I waited one minute and then another, but there was nothing, except the still, arid heat of Tangier as it bore down on me.
A minute passed and then another, and in the quiet, listening to the rise and fall of my breath, I became aware of the peculiar sensation of being watched. Opening my eyes, I cast a hurried glance toward the street below. There was no one. Only a handful of locals making their way to the market, their steps rushed, the hour when the market would end slowly approaching. “Pull yourself together,” I whispered, heading back into the safety of the flat. Despite these words, I closed the windows firmly behind me, my heart pounding. Glancing at the clock, I saw that it was now half past one. The market could wait, I told myself.
It would have to, I knew, my hands shaking as I tugged the curtains closed, so that not even the tiniest trace of sunlight could filter through.
The sun beat down heavily as I leaned against the railing. I felt the rocking sensation beneath me grow stronger, a lurch in my stomach as the ferry started and stopped, inching awkwardly to its final destination: Morocco. I hurried to grab my suitcase, the past few months already marked by dreams of grand, sweeping displays of Moorish architecture, of the intricate twists and turns of the lively souks, of colorful mosaics and brightly painted alleyways. Joining the queue that had already begun to form, my neck craned, impatient now to grasp my first, real glimpse of Africa. For already, there was the smell of her, beckoning us from the shore—the promise of the unknown, of something infinitely deeper, richer, than anything I had ever experienced in the cold streets of New York.
And Alice, she was here too, somewhere within the beating pulse of the city.
Stepping off the boat, I scanned the crowd for her face. In the few hours between land and sea, I had managed to convince myself that she might be there to greet me, even after all that had transpired. But there was no one. Not a single familiar face. Only dozens of locals—young boys and old men alike—trying to entice myself, along with the other tourists who had disembarked, into purchasing one or another of their services. “I am not a tour guide—only a local that everyone knows. I will take you places other tour guides do not know about.” When this did not work, wares were displayed: “Madame needs a purse?” To the gentlemen trailing behind me: “Monsieur needs a belt?” Coats were opened and other items were taken out and passed beneath the eyes of each and every unassuming newcomer. Jewelry, small wooden carvings, and strange musical instruments that were foreign to the sight. I, like everyone else, waved away these trinkets with impatience.
There had been few travel guides on Tangier, but I had hunted down whatever literature I could find, reading line after line about the city that I would soon call home, however temporarily. I had read Wharton and Twain, and once, in desperation, some pages by Hans Christian Andersen. He had, quite surprisingly, been the most helpful in preparing me for this onslaught of eager guides, the crushing tidal wave of faces who descended upon the arriving boats like locusts, ready and able to provide services to the naive and inexperienced traveler. The latter I could be described as, certainly, but the former, never. So I was ready, prepared, armed with words and research to protect me against this scene of chaos. I knew precisely what it was that I would be stepping into from the safety and relative quiet of the ferry. And yet, nothing could have prepared me for it. Wharton, Twain, and even Andersen—their words failed to act as swords and shields in the end.
I tried to move away from the hawkers, a map held firmly between my hands—as if to prove my determination. A shake of the head, then a murmur of first French, non, merci, followed by Spanish, no, gracias, and then, out of frustration, the minuscule Arabic that I had learned prior to my journey—la, choukran,. Nothing helped. I pushed on, determined to make my way out of the port and into the medina. Most dropped back, but a few still persisted, following me from the water’s edge and up onto the hilly path that led into the old city. You are lost? You need help? Finally, there was just one solitary man who refused to leave. He was unobtrusive at first, insisting on following me slowly, relaxing his gait so that he mirrored my own. His command of English was better than the rest, and he put it to good use, rattling on about all the places that he would take me—places that no other tourists would ever see.
I tried to ignore him, to shrug off the crushing heat that already caused my cheeks to flush red and hot, to look away from the swarm of flies that seemed to lurk in every corner as I made my way into the city’s twisting labyrinth. But then, after several minutes, he moved in front of me, cutting me off so that I stopped in confusion, grasping at my single bag. I tried to push past, but he stood, insistent.
“Yes,” he said, smiling, “I am a mosquito, I know.” He leaned in closer and I could feel his breath, hot and moist, against my face. “Lady, listen. It is better to have one mosquito with you, do you know why?” He paused, as if waiting for a response. “One mosquito will keep all the other mosquitoes at bay.” He smiled, threw back his head, and laughed, the sharp, unexpected noise echoing o the walls that now surrounded us, so that I started, stumbled, my bag landing heavily beside me as my knee connected with the hard, dusty road beneath.
I let out a sharp exclamation, moving to assess the damage while recoiling from the outstretched hand of the Mosquito. My new taupe stockings—which I had paid a dear one dollar and fifty cents for after the shopgirl’s insistence they were top-of-the- line—were ruined. There was a tear just above my knee, with a run trailing downward, and I noticed with increasing dismay a red, angry-looking spot that threatened to bleed. “Of all the rotten luck,” I murmured.
The Mosquito, as if sensing my discomfort, my unease, moved closer still. “You look lost,” he whispered, his voice suddenly low, insistent. As if my newly subjected stance required such theatrics. “Do you know what you are looking for, mademoiselle?”
At his words I paused for a moment—just a moment— wondering what it was that I was actually doing in this strange, foreign land that I had dreamed of so often that it had begun to take on a shiny, unreal quality each and every time I conjured it in my mind. So that even now, lying on the hard truth of its existence, it still failed to be real. My breath caught in my throat— but then, there it was: a hazy image of her, just before me.
That was all it took, and then I was myself again.
“Yes,” I told him, the Mosquito, my voice now hardened with determination, with purpose. I stood, abruptly, pushing past him so that our shoulders collided, so that he felt the weight of the impact, felt the weight of my body thrust against his own. I saw the shock on his face. “Yes, I know exactly what I’m looking for.”
The Mosquito gave a quick shrug and began, at last, to amble away.
AFFINITY. I had looked up the word in a dictionary during my first year at Bennington College—that strange little cluster of buildings that sat, hidden, or so it seemed, in the heart of Vermont’s Green Mountains. A spontaneous or natural like or sympathy for something. A similarity of characteristics suggesting a relationship. I began to search for other similar words. Similitude. Inclination. I wrote them all down in my notebook, carrying it with me as I moved between the library and class and back again. I clutched its fraying blue leather to my chest, careful to guard it, to remember it, so that it would never be left behind: my treasury of found and cherished words. I took them out to read often—in the morning before class, at night before I fell asleep. I whispered them to myself, as if the memorization of these words were something I would later be tested on—as if they were integral to my education, to my survival at the college.
I had stumbled across that particular word—affinity—a few weeks after I had first met Alice. The moment had seemed poignant—a description for something I had not yet known I was looking to describe. The relationship that Alice and I had formed after only a few short weeks, the partiality that we felt for one another—it went beyond any rational description. Affinity, I decided, was a good enough start.
We had met on our first day at college. Alice was standing in the hallway of our assigned clapboard house—each one consisting of two floors with nearly a dozen or so rooms per level, a common living space replete with replace on the bottom floor— searching for our room, arms clutched around a stack of books, looking as if there was nothing more she wanted in all the world than to disappear. And she almost did—her upper body and face nearly vanishing behind the books that were obviously too heavy a burden. I knew already that she was my roommate—we had earlier arranged to meet, a flurry of letters sent back and forth before we arrived at school, a picture included so that we would recognize one another—and yet, I couldn’t help waiting, stalling, drawing out the moment for as long as possible. I didn’t want to go up and help her, to introduce myself—not yet.
And so I waited. And watched.
Her ankles and wrists were the most delicate things I had ever seen. It was still summer, and her ballerina-style skirt, which floated against her calves and her thin, short-sleeved camisole, revealed them in startling clarity. Her hair was long and blond, with curls that looked like they had been created rather than organically grown. When she finally approached, I saw that her nail varnish was a soft pink, almost too subtle to be noticed. The same could be said about her makeup. For a moment I wondered whether or not she even had any on, but it was there, I decided, nearly invisible, but still there all the same. She was put together nicely, with the intention of others not noticing. There was nothing about her that clamored for attention, nothing that demanded to be seen, and yet, everything was done exactly in anticipation of such notice.
That was how I knew she was used to people looking at her, used to having to present herself in front of others. And it was the way she chose to do so, which told me she had never had to scrape together money for rent, had never worried about what was in the cupboards and whether it could be made to last a week rather than a day or two. And yet, I didn’t resent her the way I did some of the other girls I had already met. There was nothing gloating or spoiled about this girl, nothing that reeked of superiority. The other girls at college were always so keen to prove themselves better than one another, boasting about family holidays or dropping names they knew would inspire fear and awe in others. Alice, I would soon learn, wasn’t like that at all. While the other girls stuck up their noses at the shippers—their word for the scholarship girls—Alice had treated me, a shipper from the next town over, the same. Watching her that day, before we had exchanged so much as a greeting, I thought she seemed kind, lonely, even.
I moved back into the room then, pretending to observe the barren white walls, all the while holding my breath, waiting for her to approach, frightened, in that instant, that I might lose her to someone else if I stalled too long, if I waited for just one moment more. At last, she appeared in the doorway, and I smiled and began. “I’m Lucy Mason,” I said, holding out my hand as I walked toward her, feeling as if each and every word I wanted to say were twisted and tangled into that one, small gesture, so that everything—the very future—depended on it. I waited for what seemed an infinite amount of time, though it was likely only a hair’s breadth, wondering whether she would accept my outstretched hand, wondering where it would lead us, how our journey together would unfold.
She shifted her books to one side and an instant smile broke across her face. “I was worried you’d forgotten,” she said, blushing at the words, her accent, British, clipped and polished. “I’m Alice. Alice Shipley.”
Her hand was warm. “It’s nice to meet you, Alice Shipley.”
The next morning, I dressed carefully.
I gathered up all my belongings from the riad that I had rented for the night—wanting after the journey a chance to change, to refresh myself, not wanting to appear at Alice’s doorstep with my stockings torn, my hair a mess. I checked the room once, twice, until satis ed that I had left nothing, before closing the door behind me.
In the medina, I waited in line at one of the stands and ordered breakfast—a braided bread I did not recognize, sprinkled with sesame seeds and stuffed with a paste that tasted of dates. Standing against a wall, feeling the strange stale texture of the dough pressing against my tongue, my cheek, and pausing every now and then to take a sip of the café au lait I had also ordered, I let my eyes roam the street.
I watched the tourists sipping mint tea at the cafés, watched a group of locals as they unloaded goods, transporting them from donkey to person to store, before finally, my gaze met his.
He was several feet away, seated at one of the numerous cafés that lined the square. Tall, dark, although not as handsome as some, a local, I guessed, though I couldn’t be entirely certain. He wore a fedora tipped low over his face, the base of the crown encircled with a vibrant purple ribbon. I stood a moment or two longer, feeling his eyes on me, wondering what it was that he saw, what had caught his attention. It was true that I had taken extra care that morning, selecting the one decent dress that I had purchased before my voyage across the ocean, the price tag depleting the small savings I had left. I smoothed the skirt with my left hand, finished my coffee, and moved away from the medina, from the man’s inquisitive stare.
After nearly an hour of walking and retracing my steps, ignoring the smirks of waiters—dressed formally in suits and small cravats, despite the blistering heat—as I passed by the same restaurant, once, twice, three times, believing for one mad moment that all roads literally led back to the Petit Socco, I had found it. Past the medina, and west of the Kasbah, Alice’s flat sat just outside of the chaos that I had first descended into. The Quartier du Marshan, my guidebook told me. I sensed the strange shift long before I became aware of any actual change. It was greener, with trees lining the streets, although they were still scarce and entirely unfamiliar to my eye. And there was a general feeling of lightness, as if all the tension that existed in my shoulders, or no, rather, just there, between my shoulder blades, began to dissipate the closer I got. Perhaps it was simply that I was nearer to her, I thought, stopping then to set my bag down, to take a breath.
The building itself was unremarkable, blending in easily among the rest: it would not have looked out of place in Paris, I thought, a pale stone block that had been embellished with wrought iron balconies and generous windows. Its familiarity was to be expected, of course, but I still could not stop myself from feeling a bit of disappointment. It had taken me so long to get to this point—months of planning and saving, hours spent traveling on boat, train, and across the ocean once again. My clothes were covered in dirt, my mind tired and frayed in exploration of this new land. I had come to expect something more at the end of my long journey—a glittering door, a magnificent palace, something that said dramatically and definitively: here is your reward—you have found your way at last. I pressed my finger against the buzzer.
For several moments, nothing happened. I felt my heart begin to quicken—perhaps she had gone back to the Continent? Or perhaps I had the wrong address? I looked at the piece of paper between my fingers, the inky scrawl faded from so much folding and unfolding. I imagined having to turn around and head back to the port. I saw myself buying another ferry ticket, ignoring the derision of the workers who had only just ferried me across, laughing as I made my way, once again, across the ocean—this time in defeat. I shook my head. It was impossible. The thought of New York, of yet another dull, gray winter looming ahead, of the tiny rooms I had rented in various boardinghouses spread across the city, of the sound of dozens and dozens of females, their heels trotting up and down the halls. And the smell. I shivered, even in the afternoon heat. That strange, heavily perfumed smell that seemed to trail each and every one of them, and which hung thickest within the walls of the shared toilet. There was always an overly sweet quality to the pungent odor, like something on the verge of being rotten. I grimaced. No. I would not go back, no matter what happened.
I heard the word before I saw her. I tilted my head upward, but the sun blinded my view. Raising my hand, I managed to partially shut it out, so that her form eventually came to me, severed by bright strips of white.
“Alice,” I said, not raising my voice, reveling, just for a moment, in the sound of her name. “It’s me.”
She was far enough away that I couldn’t be certain, but I thought I heard a sharp intake of breath, and I struggled then, to contain my delight, pleased to find that I had managed to surprise her. “Well?” I finally asked, raising my voice just a bit. “Do I have to scale the wall?”
A nervous-looking smile broke across her face. “No, no, of course not.” She stood behind an iron railing, its dips and curves made to resemble some sort of ivy, that ended just below her waist. Her hands flew to her throat, the way they always did when she was nervous. “Hold on just a moment. I’ll be right down.”
As I waited I became aware of a slight uttering in my ear. As a child, I’d suffered from terrible earaches and as I grew there was always a season where I would feel that same pain return, and which would send me rushing to the doctor. But no matter how often I visited, they would always smile and shake their heads, assuring me: absolutely nothing is wrong, as they ushered me toward the exit. One physician had paused long enough to instruct me how to lay my finger just above my earlobe and pull gently. If you feel pain now, he said, that means there is an infection. Otherwise, it’s just. . . . He had let his words trail, unfinished. Later, he suggested that he had seen similar symptoms among a specific set of patients, a nervous condition that seemed to affect only his more intelligent clientele—though I suspected that the comment was made more to flatter himself, a testament to the practice he had created, rather than from any great desire to help. Still, standing there, waiting for Alice to make her way down the stairs, I repeated this movement, checking for any source of pain, any indication that an infection had managed to take hold. There was nothing, and yet still, the uttering persisted.
When Alice appeared in the doorway, she was slightly out of breath, two bright pink spots on her cheeks, a small heat rash creeping below her throat. She had always been prone to rubbing that same spot—set just between where the two clavicles met— whenever she was anxious. I wondered if she had done that before or after my arrival, or if, in fact, the pink spot was simply from the heat of midday, which pulsed around us.
She looked exactly as I remembered. True, it had only been a year, but enough had passed between us since then that it seemed almost as though it were a different life entirely. She was still so small—she hated the word petite, I knew—but there was no other way to describe her. Short and blond, her body still held the shape of a young girl, a fact that Alice had once frequently lamented. A string of pearls hung, hitting just above her collarbone and I was struck by how out of place they seemed, somehow incongruous with the scenery around us. I resisted the strange, sudden urge to reach out and touch them, to tear them from her neck and watch the beads as they clattered to the ground, spilling out into the crooks and crannies of the street.
“You look wonderful,” I said, leaning in and kissing her on either side of the cheek. “It’s been too long.”
“Yes,” she murmured, her eyes bright, but distant. “Yes, of course.”
I felt the sharpness of her bones underneath my hands. She stepped back into the doorframe, behind the threshold, her movements betraying an anxiety that I suspected she would rather not have revealed. Alice motioned for me to follow her, and I did, watching as she led me up a narrow staircase, listening to her warning about what steps to take gingerly, her instructions quickly followed by an apology for the decay of the building, a rambling that she was always prone to when nervous. “It’s absolutely gorgeous, of course, but in desperate need of some repairs. I’ve told John several times, but he doesn’t seem to listen. I actually think he likes it. It’s where all the artists live, he says. Writers, apparently. He’s told me the names a million times, but I can never manage to remember them. But then, I suppose that’s more up your alley. We’ll have to ask him when he gets home from work.”
John. The man that Alice had met after leaving Bennington, the man who was, I had only recently learned, responsible for her to move to Morocco.
“Is he home?” I asked.
“Who?” Alice frowned. “Oh, John. No, no. He’s at work.”
“And how is he?” I asked, as if we were all old friends, though the words sounded hollow, and I hastened to cover them. “And you, how are you?”
“Good. We’re both doing quite well.” She said the words quickly, burying them underneath her breath. “And you?”
“I’m happy to be in Tangier.” I smiled. With you.
I did not say these last words aloud, though I could feel them, beating steadily within my chest. In fact, half of me was convinced that she had heard them too—or if not heard, perhaps felt. I became aware that by this time we had moved into her at, were, in fact, standing in the foyer, the wooden floor covered with an intricately designed rug, my suitcase still hanging heavily from my hands. I wondered at her not reaching for it and showing me to the spare room, so that we could sit and relax and begin to trade stories, like we had done in the old days. It was perhaps too much to hope for, I knew, that things would simply revert back to how they had once been, before that terrible night. And yet still, I couldn’t help myself. Hope still lived, however buried in the hollowed-out cavity of my chest. And yet, there was something in her stance, something in the way she moved—as though a caged and frightened bird, I thought—that led me to wonder whether the problem was not, in fact, the secrets that we held between us but something altogether different.
I had since wondered at Alice’s move to Tangier, recalling the old worn map that had hung over my bed at Bennington. We had made a game of it, over the years, pushing pins into the wall, the tacky white plaster giving way with ease as we decided where we would go once we graduated. The adventures that we would have, together. Paris for Alice, or, on days when she was feeling particularly brave, Budapest. But never Tangier. My own pins were placed farther afield: Cairo, Istanbul, Athens. Places that had once seemed distant and impossible, but no longer, with Alice by my side.
I’ll take you to Paris after we graduate, she said one evening, not long after we first met. We had sat, hidden behind the End of the World, that stretch of land at the end of Commons Lawn, where the earth appeared to abruptly give way—though if one were to look down they would find only an unfurling of gentle, rolling hills. A mirage, of sorts. An illusion. Night had already set in, the dampness of the grass bleeding through the cotton fabric of the blanket we sat upon, but still we remained, happy to ignore its encroachment.
I squeezed her palm in response. I knew by then about the trust that had been set up in her name, about the monthly allowance that she received—checks with her full name, Alice Elizabeth Shipley, written in a careful, old-fashioned script that appeared in her mail slot at the start of each month, precisely— but to make the offer, to extend such an invitation to a girl that she had known only a few weeks, it defied logic as I knew it. My heart had clenched, as if refusing to believe that such generosity, such kindness, truly lived in other people, as my own past had not taught me it was possible. Born in a small town in Vermont, only miles away from the college, I had always considered my hometown a place one drove through, on their way to somewhere else, somewhere infinitely better. A scholarship had given me that chance, snatching me from the close confines of a stuffy apartment over a garage, transporting me only a few miles away, though it might as well have been to an entirely different world.
But, then, Paris had never happened.
Instead, Alice had come to Tangier, to a place that she had never pinned on our map. And she had come without me.
“What are you doing in Tangier, Lucy?” Alice asked, shaking me from my reverie.
I blinked, startled by her words. “I’m here to see you, of course.” I smiled, my voice catching on the words as I worked to hide the emotion behind them.
I looked at Alice then—properly looked at her—for the first time. She was, as I had noted before, slimmer than the last time I had seen her—paler too, which was strange, considering the climate. There were dark circles underneath her eyes and she looked, I thought, like she hadn’t slept properly for quite some time. Her fingers were worrying at that spot just below her throat, which had turned a more threatening color since I had first arrived. She was wearing a housecoat, despite the hour, a yellow piece that tied at the waist with a simple sash and nearly touched her ankles. Her face was bare, without any trace of paint, and her hair—that once brilliant, thick tangle of golden curls—was shorter now and hung limply, its dingy color indicating that it was in need of a good wash.
“Is everything all right, Alice?” I moved closer, setting my suitcase down beside my feet.
“Of course, of course it is.” Those rushed words again.
“You would tell me, wouldn’t you? If something was wrong? If you and John—”
She inched. “No, no. It’s all fine. Really. You’ve just surprised me, that’s all.” She smiled, though there was an edge in her voice—something sharp, steely.
But then her shoulders seemed to relax, her smile became less tight, and for the first time, she seemed to notice me: from the new, bouffant-style hairdo, held into place by a generous amount of hair spray—although it had already begun to frizz in the heat, I noted sourly—to the dark, belted shirtdress that had cost as much as one month’s rent. It was a far cry from our college days, I knew, but conscious of the fact that I would be seeing Alice for the first time in nearly a year, I had wanted it to be evident how well I had done since those days—not in a gloating fashion, the way that other girls behaved around one another, passively flaunting their success only in order to make the others green with envy. No, I wanted to show Alice just how much our days and nights spent together at college had meant, how all our dreaming of the future had not just been a fanciful way to pass the time. I had meant it, every single word. at was what I wanted to show her. That I had never lied, not about any of it, despite what had happened between us.
“You look well, Lucy,” she observed, though I thought it sounded as though it were a concession, as though the words had left her lips despite, rather than for, something.
“So do you,” I replied, eager to match her compliment— whether easily given or not—although I suspected we both knew the words were offered out of politeness.
She smiled again, that same inward smile I had witnessed often during those first few days of college, when she had been so shy and uncertain of herself. Toward the end of our four years, she had shed almost every one of those diminishing attributes, and yet here they were again, reemerging, one by one. “I would offer you tea,” she said, as though anxious to cover any patches of silence, “but John’s forgot the bottle of gas again, I’m afraid. I won’t be able to boil any water until he brings home another one. But why don’t I show you to the sitting room. Then I can fix us another sort of drink,” she suggested, reaching for my suitcase.
I stopped her, insisting that she let me carry it, fearful that she would buckle under its weight. I looked at her shoulders as she turned, the thin material of her robe doing nothing to hide the two jagged points underneath. I took in the sharp hollows of her cheeks, the bony elbows, the way her hands seemed to shake, almost imperceptibly, but still there.
“I can’t quite believe how long it’s been,” I said, following her down the hallway. As we walked, I noted that almost every inch of the apartment was filled, so that it was nearly impossible to walk without tripping over the leg of a chair or the pouf of a cushion. Not even the walls were safe, I soon discovered, as on top of the layers of paint sat an additional one made up of various bric-a-brac. Plates seemed to be of a particular fascination, I noted. Silver, copper, china, some of them painted, some of them bare—there seemed to be no real pattern that I could decipher, row upon row of them affixed to the brightly colored walls.
“I know,” she replied at last. “Bennington feels like a lifetime ago.”
We moved into the sitting room, and I placed my suitcase down beside my feet, onto the carpet. A few seconds passed, both of us looking around the room, as if the way to reconnect, to find our way back to one another again, to that time, was hiding somewhere in its crevices, in the foreign city of Tangier.
“I’ll just go and fetch us those drinks,” she said, making her way determinedly to the edge of the room.
“Thank you, Alice.” I reached out my hand to touch hers. At my gesture, she inched, the small movement pressing against my skin. “Alice, are you sure everything is all right?” I asked, my voice dropping to a whisper.
At first, she would not look at me, but then slowly she lifted her thin, hollowed face, her eyes still shining and bright. “Of course, Lucy.” She moved quickly away, back toward the hallway. “Everything is wonderful.”
Later, I reflected on the fact that she had not mentioned the accident.
But then, neither had I.
I spent several moments in the bathroom, a towel pressed against my face, willing the color to disappear from my cheeks. When I emerged, my hair still matted to my face with sweat, I discovered a stack of pink, overly starched towels in front of the door, a few scalloped soaps sitting on top, and the sound of Alice, singing from the kitchen.
I left the towels, following the lyrics and smiling to myself as I walked through the hallway, my hands attempting to push my hair back into place. She was singing a song I recognized from the radio. The girls in my most recent boardinghouse had gone in together on a cream-and-gold-colored Silvertone, at first taking turns keeping it in their respective rooms, more to show it off than anything else, until it had at last ended up downstairs, largely forgotten, becoming a permanent fixture of the common area.
I hummed the melody. “I see you haven’t improved your singing,” I teased, my voice raised just a note or two, so that she could hear me more easily.
A sound of laughter escaped from the kitchen—no longer quite as hesitant, I noted. “Go ahead, take a seat. I’ll be there in just a moment.”
I returned to the sitting room, taking it in for the first time. Similar to the other rooms, it too was composed of dark woods and leather—the sweet, sickly smell of which was overpowering in the late afternoon heat. A few dozen books lay scattered throughout the room. I glanced at one. Charles Dickens. Another was by a Russian author I had never heard of before. Alice, I knew, was not a big reader. I had tried to encourage her during our four years as roommates, but try as I might to interest her, she had only stuck up her nose. They’re all just so serious, she had complained. I remembered thinking that I would have detested the comment had it been made by anyone else, but with Alice, the words were strangely fitting. The idea of her trapped behind a heavy book seemed somehow wrong—she was made of lightness and air, she was made, it seemed, for living, rather than reading about the experiences of other lives. I had told her this once, and in response, she had laughed and waved me away. But it was true. It was Alice who would wake me early in the morning, when it was still dark outside, dragging me to the Adirondack chairs on the Commons Lawn, blankets slipping from her arms and onto the dewy grass, insistent that we be the first to see the sun rise. I would always marvel, in those quiet moments, watching as my breath billowed out in great, white clouds, that we had found one another. at Alice’s mother, an American who had later moved across the pond and married a Brit, had been a graduate of our tiny Vermont college, which had, in turn, prompted Alice to attend her mother’s alma mater, in her memory. at Alice had somehow managed, with her tentative smile, to pull me from the comfort of my hiding spot in the library, had exhumed me from the voices of the dead and thrust me into the world of the living. Pulling the blanket tighter, I would shift closer to the warmth of her body, willing those moments to last forever, knowing that they could not.
I ran my finger over the pages of a few books, noting, curiously, that the pages were still uncut. A portrait of the man Alice had married began to form in my mind.
“Were you surprised to see me standing outside your doorstep this morning?” I called out, settling onto the leather sofa, where almost immediately my skin began to sweat.
There was only silence from the kitchen.
“Alice?” I called again, frowning. I squirmed from side to side, trying to alternatively air out the parts of my skin in contact with the leather, hoping the sweat wouldn’t stain my new dress. The air in Tangier, I had already begun to notice, moved slowly and without any real insistence. It seemed to hang: thick and humid. Languid. at would be the right word to describe it, I decided.
“Oh, yes,” she said, her voice mu ed, sounding as if she were somewhere far away, and not simply in the next room. “Yes, quite.”
Before I could ask anything more, I heard the turning of the doorknob from the foyer. “Alice?” a voice called out, deeper, somehow, than what I had imagined. “Are you home?” And then, somewhat more quietly, “I don’t suppose you made it to the market today?”
Looking back, I’m quite certain that, in that exact moment, my heart stopped.
It often did, of course. A slight murmur, nothing to worry about—at least, according to the doctors. It didn’t really affect anything, they assured me, except that there were moments, only once in a great while, when my heart refused to beat in rhythm. When it acted up—or out, I supposed—stopping for the smallest second, perhaps less than that, but long enough so that the next beat felt like a resounding thud inside my chest. Like something trying to trample me, or push me underfoot. I could have reimagined it over the years, of course—my memories altered and changed by what eventually transpired—but I’m almost certain my heart skipped then. Perhaps in warning, perhaps sensing danger. There is no way to ever really know, but I believe my heart was trying to tell me something: to warn me of the man slowly making his way through the hallway and into the room where I sat.
I sometimes wondered what would have happened if I had listened.
A man stepped into view.
I took in the tanned face, splattered with freckles, the golden hair that was styled into a sweeping wave. He looked, I thought, like most men our age: vivacious, eager, not yet dulled by the monotony of everyday life. He was handsome, that much I could ascertain. And yet, while I suspected that his features would have been classically pleasing to some, I found them overbearing and difficult to look at for any great length of time. There was something else there too I could already see—something harder, more concrete. But then, I brushed the thought aside, reasoning that perhaps it was just the imposing line of his suit. For while I knew little about men’s fashion, I could tell that his clothes were expensive. He wore a three-piece suit cut from a textured pattern and, which looked entirely out of place in Tangier, a tan fedora hat with a narrow brim resting atop his head. He seemed, I noticed with a touch of envy, unfazed wearing the heavy material in the unforgiving heat of Morocco.
“We have a visitor,” Alice called out, in a strange tone. “It’s Lucy.” Falsetto—was that the right word? I wondered.
“Lucy?” he repeated, standing at the threshold of the room, a frown crossing his face.
“Lucy, darling. My friend from college.” Alice let out a hollow laugh. “I’ve told you loads about her.”
She hadn’t, of course. I could tell from the start of confusion that clouded John’s face when Alice first said my name. From the look of it, John had never heard of me at all.
“Any chance you made dinner tonight, Alice? I’m starving,” John said, starting to remove his tie, a note of exhaustion evident in his voice. It was at that moment he noticed me: the stranger sitting on his couch. A flicker of annoyance flashed, but then he seemed to take in my figure—well dressed, reasonably attractive—and his features relaxed, growing into one of surprise, pleasure. “You must be the infamous Lucy, then.” He smiled, smoothing out the tie in his hand and extending his other one. “It’s so wonderful to meet you at last.”
I offered my own hand, instantly regretting that it was so moist.
“A pleasure to make your acquaintance.” He cocked his head to the side, his smile turning into something that resembled a smirk, though I suspected he imagined it to be charming. I could feel him reading the situation, trying to figure out if he knew me or, worse yet, was supposed to. He was waiting for my indication. I remained silent. A few seconds passed before he asked, “Thirsty at all?”
At that moment, Alice emerged from the kitchen. She was balancing a silver platter between her two hands, which I half rose to take from her, but then she was already setting it on the top of a wooden bar, tucked back into the corner of the room.
She had changed out of her housecoat from earlier and was wearing a daytime dress, despite the encroaching evening hour, of silk crepe, its full-hipped skirt suggesting that it was an older piece, though I didn’t recognize it from our college days. But it was more than just her out t that had changed, as she seemed strangely altered from the girl who had greeted me earlier. There was a giddiness about her—gone was the morose countenance of hours before, apparently shrugged off in the company of her husband—that word still catching, somewhere in my throat. I watched as she moved to fill the glasses, her movements sharp, surreal, so that she seemed all at once incredibly fragile, and I found myself wondering whether she wouldn’t shatter into a million pieces in front of us both.
“A visit from an old college friend, did you say,” John asked, addressing Alice. “This is quite the surprise.” He reached out to take a drink from her proffered hand, the condensation from the chilled glass already beginning to drip down the sides. “I didn’t know my Alice in Wonderland had any friends,” he joked.
“Of course I have friends.” Alice laughed, but I could see his comment had wounded her.
“Ice,” he declared, raising his eyebrows. “Now I know this is a special occasion. We never have chilled martinis, Lucy,” he said, the latter sounding like an accusation. I accepted my own drink from Alice. “I’ve been endeared to the idea of your presence already.” He laughed, taking a greedy sip. “And speaking of your presence here, are you actually in Tangier, traveling on your own?” When I nodded, he smiled and asked, “Where from?”
“New York,” I said, watching Alice’s face.
He frowned. “And doesn’t your fellow mind? Your traveling alone, I mean?”
My smile stretched tightly across my face. “I’m afraid I haven’t one to mind.”
Alice looked away at my easy admission, while John leaned forward, ready, or so it seemed, to seize upon the idea. “No fellow? None at all?”
I sighed. “I’m afraid not.”
“Aren’t there any left? Surely the war didn’t do away with them all—or perhaps they’re too frightened of you?” he asked with another laugh.
I saw Alice flinch. “Don’t be awful, John,” she murmured.
“I’m only trying to get to the bottom of this, that’s all,” he said, making a great show of scratching his chin. “To be single in the city of New York—the pictures would make you think it’s impossible. And, well, look at her,” he said, indicating in my direction. “I simply don’t buy it.” He leaned forward. “Perhaps you’re too picky. Is that it? Or perhaps there’s something else,” he continued, a jeering tone entering his voice. “I’ve heard stories about you Bennington girls.”
Alice flushed. “Oh, leave it, John.”
“Well, anyway,” John said, his voice light and jovial, though his smile, I noticed, did not quite extend to his eyes. “You’re here now. Perhaps we can find you an interesting suitor in Tangier. Lord knows we’ve got enough of them. Though, of course,” he said, shaking his head, “I’m not sure any of them have that on the mind at the moment. You’ve chosen an interesting time to come to Morocco.”
I frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Haven’t you heard?” he asked, with a slight smirk, wriggling his eyebrows in what he seemed to intend as comedic effect. “The natives are getting restless, my dear.”
“Oh, don’t talk about it like that,” Alice said, with a movement of her shoulders, as if she could draw herself farther inward, away from the conversation.
“Like what?” John asked with mock innocence.
“Like that,” she repeated, casting him a serious glance. “Like it isn’t anything important.”
He turned to me and gave a short laugh. “Sometimes I think Alice fancies she understands the plight of the locals better than any of us,” he said, with a teasing voice, “even though she rarely leaves the house and never interacts with another person outside of myself.”
“That isn’t true,” she protested.
“Not entirely, I suppose,” he conceded. “Still, you’re too sensitive about the whole thing.”
I noticed the strained look that had settled over Alice’s features. “Restless for what, exactly?” I asked, though I already had a vague idea, based upon the various newspapers that had passed under my eyes over the last fortnight or so.
“For independence,” John responded, his eyes narrowing as he spoke. “ They’re tired of belonging to someone else, and I don’t blame them, not at all. But it means the French are everywhere these days. Protecting their interests up until the very end. Their forces have only grown since the unrest first began, when they ousted Mohammed two years back. Of course, this is Tangier, so it’s all a bit different. Or it’s supposed to be, at any rate. Still, they’re here, if you look closely enough. It almost looks like they are clinging to the hope that somehow things will revert back to their favor, what with their little spies running around everywhere.”
“Spies?” I asked.
“Oh, stop it,” Alice said, sipping at her drink. I noticed that her hand shook slightly. “John sometimes likes to pretend he’s in a spy novel, I think. He’s always convinced that someone is watching him, French or otherwise. Pay him absolutely no attention, please. You’re perfectly safe here, Lucy.” She stopped. “Well, as safe as anyone can be in Morocco, I suppose.”
I had a sudden image of John, lurking in unlit passageways, of Alice being watched, stalked, by her own husband, like some sort of damsel in distress, John cast as the villain of the lm. I did my best to suppress a shiver.
“She’s not French, she’ll be fine,” John said, waving his hand dismissively, breaking the spell. “I don’t think she has to worry that any weapons being concealed beneath djellabas are intended for her. Well, not the sort reserved for the French at any rate.”
I felt myself blush, felt tiny pinpricks of anger, of resentment, hot against my skin.
“But then, surely it is a sensitive subject?” I pressed, referring to John’s previous slight at Alice. And before I could think better of it, before I could stop myself, I said: “We are talking about the oppressor and the oppressed, aren’t we? What topic could be more sensitive than that?”
At my words, there was something mean that flashed there, in his sharp little eyes, so that I wondered what it was that he would say in response to my comment. But then it was gone, vanished, before I could fully say whether I had truly seen it to begin with. “Ah,” he said. “I see it now. You’re one of those women.”
I held my face intentionally still. “Those women?”
“You know, those women,” he said, taking a loud sip from his drink. “Out of the kitchen, and all that.”
“John, don’t,” Alice said, looking miserable. Her voice was tight and strained, her face paled a shade or two.
“Don’t what?” He laughed. “I’m just making an observation, that’s all.”
“Yes, well,” I said, pausing to take a drink now myself. “I suppose your observation is correct. I am one of those women—out of the kitchen and all that.” I smiled, refusing to cower.
“Ah,” John cried, giving his leg a quick slap. “You see?” he asked, turning to Alice. ‘I was right.”
“Yes,” she responded, not meeting his eye.
I leaned forward. “So it’s really happening, then?” I asked, anxious to leave the subject behind. “Independence, I mean.”
John nodded, apparently content, or so it seemed, to move on as well. “Oh, yes. It’s all been agreed already—the whole thing’s been set in motion. e French have already relinquished their hold on Morocco, which means the Spanish aren’t far behind. Tangier will most likely be next. It’s a good thing, as I said before. Independence is always good. But I suspect we’re all running on borrowed time here, as it were. Tick, tock.” He took another sip of his drink. “Things will change for those of us who decide to stay behind.”
I frowned. “How so?”
He paused, looking at me as though he hadn’t quite understood the question. And then, with another slap on his knee, he exclaimed: “Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?”
I nodded, taken aback. “Yes, I suppose it is.”
We lapsed into silence then, the three of us staring into our drinks, leaving me to wonder how this could be the man who had stolen Alice’s heart? I thought of the past, of all the plans that we had made, and wondered how it was possible that they had been exchanged for this, for him, though of course I knew it wasn’t as simple as that.
“So,” John’s voice rang out, startling us all out of our reveries. “Just how long is Lucy here for?”
“I haven’t quite decided,” I responded.
He nodded. “But what brings you to Tangier, of all places?”
“Travel, of course,” Alice answered quickly—too quickly, I couldn’t help but think. “Perhaps you could provide Lucy with some recommendations,” she said to John. She turned and looked at me, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of a tennis match, with that dizzying back-and-forth motion that always made my head ache. “If you wanted to see anything other than Tangier.”
I nodded but didn’t respond. Instead I found myself preoccupied with the idea that she had mentioned it—the possibility of other cities—only in order to get me out of the apartment, away from herself and John. Though to what end, I was uncertain.
“I prefer Tangier myself,” John said, though his interest seemed more directed toward the drink in his hand, which had since been refilled, although Alice and I remained on our first. “Most people will say Marrakech is the spot you should go to. Really, though, I don’t like it much myself past three or four nights. And you can’t stand even that, can you?” he asked without turning, though his question was obviously directed to Alice. “Chefchaouen is always worth a few days, and so is Casablanca, I suppose. I know a few who would swear that Fez is the best out of them all. The roadblocks can be a bit tiresome, of course, but once you show your papers, there’s never any trouble,” John continued. He paused, looking at me with a peculiar expression. “Are you really interested in any of this?”
“Of course,” I responded, though I wasn’t, not really. I had no intention of leaving Tangier anytime soon. My eyes moved between the two of them, the pair of them, and I decided that something was most certainly amiss—I could feel it, for it seemed to fill the very room around us, crackling and sizzling, calling out to be noticed. Watching her from the corner of my eye, I could not help but think how haunted she looked—a strange word, I knew, and yet it was the only one that seemed to apply. She was a ghost, haunted by her former self. “I’ll keep that in mind,” I replied. “But I think I’ll focus on Tangier for now.”
“A wise decision.” He nodded. “And where will you be staying, during your little holiday?”
I shifted, feeling, in that moment, Alice’s gaze upon me. “I’m not quite sure yet.”
“Well, then you’ll have to stay with us. We can’t have one of Alice’s friends staying in some suspect riad, not when we have an extra room here.” He gave Alice a slight shove. “Right, darling?”
Alice blinked, as though startled, as though she hadn’t been listening to our conversation but had let her mind wander, far and away from the room in which the three of us now sat. “Yes,” she said at last, though the word was soft, muted somehow. She stirred a bit, and then her voice came more firmly, more resolute as she said: “Yes, of course.” She turned to me, though her gaze seemed somewhat averted, as if pointed somewhere just above my shoulder. “Lucy, you must stay with us. It would be silly not to.”
“Yes.” John nodded. “After all, the spare room is just going to waste at the moment. It’s become a sort of holding room, for papers from my work and such.” He turned to Alice, who had, I noted, gone a particular shade of red. “Though that wasn’t the original intention.”
I gathered what he meant, of course—and which was, I suspected, the point of him bringing it up at all, for me to understand, for her to be embarrassed—and I found that the thought, the very notion, made my stomach churn in a way that I couldn’t quite describe. I thought perhaps Alice must feel similarly, for it was not embarrassment alone that seemed to color her face, but rather a strange combination of emotions—something that spoke of her inner turmoil in place of the actual words that seemed to fail her.
“That’s very generous of you both,” I replied, my voice louder than I intended, perhaps in an effort to quiet the unease that had settled within the room, creeping and claiming every corner of the space until it seemed that was all there was.
“It’s settled, then,” John said, swirling the ice in his cup. “Say, if you’re really keen on remaining in Tangier, then we’ll go and listen to some jazz. Maybe this weekend. We can stop into Dean’s for a round first.” Alice started to respond, but John quickly si-lenced her with a shake of his head. “Oh no, my dear. ere is absolutely no way we can let your friend visit this city without a trip to Dean’s. It would be sacrilegious, and you know it.”
I tried to conjure up an image of Alice at a jazz club in Tangier, at a bar, even, but failed. She had never been a fan of the raucous, smoky dens that our fellow classmates had gravitated toward, both on campus and off. At the start, I had dragged her to a few, confident I would be able to locate at least one that would suit her, though in the end I had been forced to concede defeat. Instead, we had mixed drinks from the bottles we kept hidden in our closet, listened to records as we danced around our tiny room, using the woven rugs to propel ourselves across the wooden floor, before collapsing into a heap of hysterical laughter. I smiled at the memory. “I’m happy to go if Alice does,” I said, nodding in her direction.
Alice seemed flustered by my words. “I suppose. Like John said, it’s where everyone goes.”
By then, the drink had loosened my tongue. It seemed that Alice still made drinks the way I remembered—with an excessive amount of gin—and I could feel it working, relaxing me, so that the words I would normally keep contained threatened to release themselves. “But what do you want, Alice?” I pressed, refusing to acknowledge the look of discomfort that spread across her face at my question.
“Alice doesn’t like to make decisions,” John interjected. He said it with a smile, but there was something spiteful there, just beneath his words. A tone I hadn’t noticed before, something more than a simple chiding.
I felt that same utter in my ear from earlier, but I ignored it, shaking my head slightly, as if to dislodge the strange feeling of fullness that had settled there. I wondered briefly whether some sort of desert bug had managed to crawl inside—I had read stories about that, of water having to be poured down one’s ear while others waited with baited breath to see the evidence float upward, emerging from the ear canal and into daylight. I imagined myself in the same prostrate pose, John standing above me, sneering.
Alice, for her part, looked determined to ignore the comment. Already she was up off the sofa, insisting on yet another refill. I obeyed, offering my glass to her as I noted, somewhere in the back of my mind, that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had anything substantial to eat. That strange bread earlier in the day, and the day before that, a handful of crackers prior to the ferry, my stomach too nervous to handle anything else.
“It’s not true,” she said, sitting down beside me once again. Several minutes had elapsed since John’s remark, and I could tell he was confused by her declaration. She pushed against him, sharply, with her shoulder. “It’s not true,” she said again, this time louder. “In fact, let’s go to Dean’s tonight.” Alice smiled, though her voice trembled. “To welcome Lucy properly to Tangier.”
I noted again the strangeness in her sudden cheerfulness— such a change from the stoic calmness she had exhibited earlier that morning. It was almost frantic, as if at any moment it could all go horribly wrong. I wondered then if it would, so close to the edge did Alice seem to be approaching as she smiled, the sound of her laughter empty and hollow as she moved about the room, refilling glasses and hurrying to fill the empty spaces that emerged in our conversation. It was all so different from the girl I had once known. But then, if our senior year at Bennington had taught me nothing else, I knew there was no such thing as an absolute. Everything changes, sooner or later. Time moves along, without constraints—no matter how hard one may attempt to pause, to alter, to rewrite it.
Quite simply, there is nothing to stop it, nothing at all.