The Silk Road

by Bonnie Nadzam


It has been her favorite part of the week when, Friday afternoons, she’s done  enough running around to feel good giving it up for the evening, and pours a glass of wine, starts chopping garlic, very fine, with a little salt to keep the knife moving efficiently. The light outside the window begins to pale and tree branches darken against the sky, and the kitchen is half-lit, and she is by herself. She is not an economics major, she is not a swimmer, not surrounded by friends. She is not attractive, or unattractive. She has no prospects, no promising future, no address. She is a human being chopping garlic. They are small pleasures she’s earned: the one-or-two glass headiness after a day, using her hands to stir something, grate something, curry something.

But this Friday is different. When she peels the first clove of garlic and doesn’t feel it—the quiet thrush of joy behind the muscles of her eyes, cheeks, and forehead—she realizes she’s been courting a sudden empty-bodied nausea all day.

By the time she uncorks the wine, several things are wrong. First, it’s too early. Only three thirty. Four could be evening, especially in Michigan, especially in February. But three-thirty is the middle, no-good-reason of the afternoon.

And though she managed to prepare a decent outline for a paper on global economics in her head during the day, she did so shopping for something to wear at tonight’s party, and spent too much money on a thing she doesn’t need and which is not really meant to make her look good so much as it is supposed to make her feel in place. Grounded. Set in the room. Right in Owen Livingstone’s line of vision. So that when Bethany Hart leaves the suite—if, for just a moment, she happens to leave—then Carrie will be right there, right in front of him.

The wine is too expensive: twenty-one dollars. Carrie Wright is in college. And the garlic is elephant garlic and it peels too easily and she only has to chop two cloves to get the amount she needs. The new little thing she’s bought and brought into her dorm suite, into her favorite moment of the week, is sea salt that comes in a neat little wooden barrel with a certified seal across the burnished metal shaker top, and as she shakes it onto the butcher block cutting board it occurs to her that she has never seen the ocean, never been close enough to find salt crusted on a ledge—however they do it. She looks at it all on the cutting board before her. The small, red-handled sushi knife in her hand. It’s too much. She’s nineteen, and look at all of this. If she is going to have sea salt she ought to at least have rough hands burned and cracked by the sun and the water and wind. She looks down at her manicured fingers and wants to jam them into a fire or into snow. It’s a feeling she realizes has been harassing her all her life, and now she locates it in the palms of her smooth, neat hands: she’s never had to prove her worth to survive.

I’ve lost my moment, Carrie thinks, looking down at the wine and the salt and the garlic. And it’s my fault, she tells herself. It’s everybody’s fucking fault.

“Hey,” Bethany Hart calls gliding in on long young legs through the kitchen from the outside, heading straight for her room. A blast of cold air slices across Carrie’s back and neck. 

Somewhere on this planet tonight, Carrie thinks, opening a can of garbanzo beans, human beings are trying to keep warm with fire. They’re cooking over flames. They’re happy people. She’s just guessing, really, imagining their faces lit warm and red by the heat as she stoops beneath the counter to retrieve the twelve-speed blender. She wonders if, wherever they are, they have any idea she’s relying on them, on their hunger and on their little fire, to feel okay about being a person.

She fills a drinking glass with wine. This particular bottle is steeped with essence of oak and plum. She peers into the glass and thinks: if there is a tree in this wine, I am going to drink the entire bottle. And as she tips back a tall red glass she knows the best things left in the day are the possibilities of the night. The things she doesn’t yet have. The cool empty spaces on her body. Her bare cheek, her untouched shoulder. 

In two hours the new Townhouse Dormitory Suite,  is filled with a dozen of their classmates. Carrie is three glasses of wine deep, at the kitchen table beside Willis R. Barrett, with the startling blue eyes and beautiful broad back and expensive gin breath in her face, both of them waiting for the gangling Owen Livingstone to arrive with his special little box of dominoes. Willis talks to her, touches her wrist, laughs at her little jokes, refills her wine glass, and she, she wants to take off all her clothes. Her new sweater, her fashionable blue jeans, her sexy underwear—we all feel it, she thinks, this pressure to wear sexy underwear everyday of the week—all of it off. Not to be naked, not to make a spectacle among these young friends, but to lay herself down on the black ice outside, burn her skin on it. Tear her back away in little feathers and strips of skin. Stumble back inside, show them all what could happen. Biology, she would say, and turn around, bleeding and shuddering. See? Remember?

Sitting there with Willis Barrett, waiting for Owen, she is tethered to the earth by her melancholy and longing. It is her only unsatisfied need, this need to see him, to have him, to curl up with his body in her room where every boy she has ever wanted so far has already been. She finds herself pleasantly drunk in her pretty little sadness: the not having Owen, the impossibility of ever having this moment in her room with him, of taking him away from Bethany, because their love—they have that thing. Everybody knows it. Bethany and Owen will be together forever. They are beautifully, youthfully, seriously, absolutely in love. It is a dark and lovely heaviness on the little branches of Carrie’s clavicles and long white fingers. 

On the other side of the suite, Bethany Hart is dancing in a flared gray skirt, red tights and no shoes, working her way from the little makeshift bar to through the sliding glass door where others are dancing and sliding around shoeless on black sheets of ice on the terrace. Bethany dances awkwardly with her long arms in a moon above her head, her fingers jointed by a small crystal glass of limes, mint and vodka, her long loose pigtails swinging, glossy in the bluish light, her round blue eyes painted dark with kohl. Bethany grew up in northern California with horses. These are her first days of drinking, of taking off her clothes with a boy. She will eventually become a pediatrician, buy a four bedroom house with a solarium and a finished basement and a Volvo or a Hybrid car. But tonight, Carrie thinks, Bethany is wearing just a tad too much makeup. The worst, Carrie tells herself, is not the way Bethany’s knees knock because her legs crook there, unstraight and flailing, kind of like Owen’s. It’s not that Bethany Hart is nineteen before she falls in love, or that she has worn sun block everyday of her life. The worst is that Carrie wants what Bethany has. More than she’s ever wanted anyone before. Has wanted him since the moment she met him, on Bethany’s arm five months ago.  And after five months of similar parties, Carrie thinks that Owen knows it, and feels it too, and that the only reason for the dominoes is for them to sit beside each other.

“Hey,” Willis says to Carrie, touching the fabric of her sweater between his thumb and forefinger. “This is nice. You look good.”

Carrie waves her hand.

“Oh,” she says, looking down at her fine green sweater. “I’m finished. An archeological discovery ten thousand years from now. This is the end of an age. We get to usher it in.”

Willis Barrett shakes his head. “Too much anthro reading today, Carrie.”

“You are too,” Carrie says. “Finished and done. Look at you. Look at that shirt. It must’ve been what, eighty dollars? And those eyes. I mean my god. Why do you even bother getting out of bed? There’s too much in this room to begin with,” she says, pointing to the counter. “Look at all that food! Here! In Michigan! In the middle of winter! And then you walk in the room and tip it all right over the edge.”

Willis sips his gin and smiles, because she’s flattering him. 

Everyone has brought some drink and some food to the little college party. This little Friday night affair. On the kitchen counter are sweet tamales from the gourmet organic foods market, red Thai chili sauce and flat bread, a silver box of Belgian chocolates, corn sesame tortilla chips, a pottery bowl filled with rust-colored Adriatic fig spread, flecked with tiny gold seeds.

“Tell me,” Willis says, setting his glass on the table. “Why can’t you just have a good time? You look great. You have a great place here. Just enjoy yourself, huh?”  


“Shouldn’t we be eating acorn mush?” Carrie says. “Or salted game?”  

“Go on,” Willis says, shakes his head. “There’s a whole arboretum out there.”

“I mean really,” Carrie says. “When’s the last time you were really hungry? So hungry you would’ve eaten—I don’t know. Bugs. Boiled bark.”

“You’re such a head trip,” he says. “You’d look good in Jane clothes though. Like in Tarzan? Swinging from the trees. I could see that.”

Carrie waves her hand at Willis again. Looks around one familiar face at a time. We’re all losing our animal moments, she thinks. Our garlic and wine and salt, the rush of one strong beer, the heat of a single dish of food on an empty belly, touching like you mean it. Carrie’s misery is personal, too. Her animal emptiness is also rooted just behind the opening front door, in something she can never have, in a heavy jacket and suspenders and corduroys. He walks in and stamps his boots. The whole room opens up. Then his long body and slender muscles take up all the space of Carrie’s longing, and he—Owen Francis Livingstone—becomes all she thinks about biology; he is all her need. He is the still-cold space of her cheek. He is the ache in the curve of her untouched collarbone.  She loves it.
As promised, he carries his flat wooden case of dominoes, which he brings to every party and often to class and which sits in a little shrine of red felt on the top of his bookcase in his dorm room. In his other hand is a paper grocery bag. His cheeks are bright red, his brown eyes clear and awake.

“Chilly night” he says, grinning. Bethany looks up at him. They draw the room into a knot where they meet, his gloved hands on her hips, kissing her forehead, her clean little nose, her mouth. Touching her eye make-up. “That’s new,” he says. Someone turns up the music. She recognizes the music as French, then Spanish, then something that sounds like Spanish, interspersed, now and then, with English: “north” and “fuck” and “marijuana.” Music, Carrie thinks, we’ve all discovered on our respective study abroad vacations. We’re all studying third worlds, foreign languages. A nice, well-traveled group of young Americans.
Carrie watches Owen and Bethany while Willis hollers into her ear about coping, about not romanticizing hunters and gatherers, telling her it was a rough life, he knows all about it, but if she wants to give it a go, if she wants to try, he’ll go with her into the woods with an Audubon field guide. Tomorrow even. They have all day Sunday.

“Owen,” she says, looking at Willis, “tomorrow we’re hungover. Remember? We throw away all of this food and vomit,” she waves her arm at the counter, “and pack our bags to study econ in the library all day.”

“Don’t blame me,” Willis says, blinking. “Come on Cares. You have everything going for you. I really think you’re such a worthwhile girl.”

Carrie lifts her glass of wine and crosses her legs, watches Bethany talk to Owen, touch her fingertips to his chest. Bethany Hart is so, Carrie thinks, curling her lip without realizing it, in love with life. As if we haven’t already over celebrated everything. That’s what’s missing, Carrie thinks, on Bethany’s fresh young face: pain. Lines of hard work in her cheeks, around her eyes. Hunger and pain. Carrie looks around the room and sees none of them are longing for anything. They are well-fed, well-liquored, well-educated, well-financed, well-loved. It’s a Friday night, and they’re all in college. 

Bethany tugs Owen’s long arm, drawing him away from everyone else. He kisses her then heads for the table where Carrie and Willis wait. Bethany slips out the sliding door again, onto the ice where she spins and her feet skitter up off the ground and twelve arms reach out to catch her. 

“Owen, what’d you bring to eat?” Willis asks.

“Sacred food,” Owen tells him. He looks at the spread of food on the island beside them. “From my homeland,” he adds. Owen Livingstone is from Carbondale, Illinois. “But they have to be fried in a cast iron pan. It’s the only way.”

“You brought an iron pan?” Carrie asks. Owen nods at the paper bag.

“The only way.” He sets the dominoes on the table. “What are we drinking?”

“Trees,” Carrie says. “Bark.”  She extends her glass for more. 

“Dude, just give her red wine,” Willis says. Owen refills her wine and she watches him make a gin and tonic. He rejoins them at the table where they always sit at these parties, slaps his hands together over the domino box, rubs his palms and bows his head. It is the ritual that begins every game because, Owen swears, his great great great grandfather brought these dominoes over from North Africa, and they are real bones. Human bones. The dominoes are yellowish, cracked. Everyone believes him. He closes his eyes, places his palms over the ivory dominoes, and murmurs. 

Carrie stares at the sheen on the fig spread, chili paste, and cellophane wrapping in the temporarily blue-light-bulbed kitchen while Owen offers his benediction.

“That fig spread,” she says when he’s done, “is who we think we are.”

“What’s wrong with the fig spread?” Willis asks. Carrie shakes her head, puts the glass to her lips. She’s not at this table for his company. Tonight he’s wearing his long blonde hair in a flat ponytail that begins on top of his head. His straight white teeth gleam in the blue light. He is perfect. But Owen—his nose is crooked. His cheeks are caving in and when she looks at his face Carrie can picture his skull. 

They begin to play. Their limbs and shoulders drop in the warmth of the room. They drink and draw from the bone yard. Count their dots and lay down their matching ends. Once Carrie starts kicking Owen’s shins and knees beneath the table, punctuating her sentences by reaching over, flicking his wrists and the tops of his hands, he takes her wine glass from her.

“Let’s have something to eat,” he says. Willis watches him take the glass. Carrie stands and takes it back. She knows perfectly well where to draw the line, and she’s promised herself to draw it. Soon. Then she’ll put herself to bed.

“Who wants a bowl of fig spread?” She says, looking around the room. There’s a game of quarters on the floor in front of the television. Four or five people—Bethany still among them—dance on the ice outside. “Let’s take a break,” Carrie says, stands, sways, and re-centers. “I want a bowl of fig spread. Somebody get me a spoon.” She takes a step and stumbles, all the way to the ground. “See?” she says. “I’m turning into a tree. Fuck.”

“You alright Carrie?” Willis asks. Owen just looks at her. Willis comes over and takes her hand. “Come sit down, sweetheart,” he says. She draws away.

“I’m fine. Get me a spoon.” She goes for the fig spread, an ice cream scoop heap of it in her bowl.

“That’s expensive,” he says, looking at her huge helping. She finds spoons. 

“Hey Owen,” she calls out, “want some wheat grass bread spread?”

“Dude,” Willis says, peering over Carrie’s shoulder into a dish of bright green mush. “Who brought that?”

“His wife made it,” Carrie says. She points at Owen with a fist of plastic spoons. 

Owen puts up his hand and waves his palm at her.

“No thanks,” he says.  “I’ve tried it before.” Christmas, Carrie thinks. When you went to northern California to meet Bethany’s family on Christmas.

Carrie returns to the table with fig spread, wheat grass spread, and three plastic spoons. “Help yourselves, gentlemen,” she says. Willis tries the wheat grass spread. 
          
“It’s really sweet,” he says. “Not too bad.” 
          
“California cooking,” Owen says.

Carrie remembers the story about Owen, his older sister, and his father eating spaghetti and ketchup, every meal they could bear to swallow, for eleven straight days when Owen was a boy in Carbondale, a story he told her a month ago after a party like this one, after everybody else had gone, and Bethany had gone to sleep, and they’d stayed up playing dominoes.

For a while when she was eleven, Saturday or Sunday afternoons at home, Carrie would boil a single egg for lunch, then hold it in her palm: warm, smooth and suddenly dry. Bring it to the sink to run cold water over it, crack the shell with her thumbs and peel then eat it—a single white egg on a blue dish—with a knife and fork. Chewing each small bite as though it were her last. This was when she was a girl, and she would pretend it was the last bit of food in the house, that there weren’t ten eggs in the refrigerator behind her, a thousand dozen at the grocery store up the street, probably two million eggs in a five mile radius of Winnetka where she grew up with her parents and brothers. It made the egg taste good, that way. She would pretend the little meal was sacred, that her livelihood—a word she read in novels for girls—depended on this one egg.

“What do people eat in Connecticut?” she asks Willis. 

“All kinds of stuff,” he says. “Anything you want.”

“Fig spread?” Carrie says. “Did you bring the Adriatic Fig Spread?” 

“Yeah,” Willis says. “I did.”

“Have you done much fig-gathering in the Mediterranean?” Carrie asks. This is Willis R. Barrett. It is possible that he has, in fact, gathered figs abroad. Owen gathers up the bones again, begins laying them face down for drawing.

“My grandparents grew up on the Adriatic Sea,” Willis says. “Some little island.”

“Here you guys,” Owen says, “help me mix these around.”

They all put their hands on top of the bones and mix them around, face down, to shuffle them.

“Which side?” Carrie asks. “Mom’s or Dad’s.”
          
“My mother’s. On the other side, I think I’m Irish.”

“Of course you are,” Carrie says. Owen looks at her and grins.

“Half exotic fig gatherers,” he begins.

“And Irish,” she finishes. “What a combo.”

“Yeah,” Willis says, and raises his Tanqueray. He drinks. “What about you Livingstone. Where are you from?”

“Carbondale.” Owen draws from the bone yard. “Everybody draw seven.”

“No,” Willis says. “I mean, you know—where are you from?”

“Carbondale.”

Willis shrugs. They each count out seven dominoes.

“How about you, Carrie?” he asks. “What are you?”

Carrie raises her wine glass. “I’m an oak tree.”

Willis stares. “Sexiest oak tree I’ve ever seen,” he says. He reaches the bottle of gin without getting up from his seat and fills his glass.  “Isn’t she hot in that sweater Livingstone?” As if she needs to hear this. “Just look at our girl.”

“Did you know,” Owen says to Willis, “that Carrie isn’t Carrie’s real name?” Willis looks at her, peers through the smoke, the bluish light, over the dominos and glasses. Carrie looks out the window at Bethany. At the real trees beyond her. She’ll get cold, they all will, and come inside. Carrie kicks Owen again, lightly just below the knee.

“It’s true,” Carrie says, staring out the sliding glass doors. She inches her toes up the inside of Owen’s leg. Last week it was his hand on the back of her neck when Bethany left the room, the sudden movement when she returned. Carrie knows he feels it. Hell, isn’t that what this whole party is about? A chance for them to do that again—just one little touch? Progress from a hand on the neck to the next thing? Carrie’s tried to imagine what it would be. A hand on the face? The hip? She’s been waiting all week for it. Not touching anyone so that this touch—this moment—will matter. She is not giving up this too, this chance to get one more touch to live off for a week. It absolutely charges her body with need. She moves her foot farther up his leg. “But Owen,” she turns to him. She reaches his pelvis. “Owie, sweetie,” he widens his eyes, grins and moves away from her foot. “I wish you wouldn’t bring it up.”

“Oh come on,” Owen says to her. He pushes his chair back a little, looks out the glass doors. Looks at Willis. “Carrie’s a little shy about her heritage.”

“What’s your real name?” Willis asks, his face close to hers.

“It’s Carlita,” Owen says.
          
“What is that?” Willis asks. “Carlita. Is it Greek?”
         
“Um,” Carrie says, “No. Not really.” She’s too tipsy for Owen’s clever games tonight. She’s lost her edge.

“She means you’re in the right vicinity,” Owen says. “Geographically.” He reaches over to Carrie’s glass, taps it, half-empty again. “How you doing there tough-girl?” Carrie waves her hand in his face. Smiles at him. “Might want to take her easy.” He looks at his watch. “We don’t want you passing out early.”

“I can tell,” Willis says. “About the region. You have that European look.”
          
“Yeah,” Owen says. “Carrie goes to Mexico, they think she’s Mexican. She goes to Germany, they think she’s a Turk. Isn’t that right Carrie?” Carrie shrugs.
          
“That’s so cool,” Willis says.
          
“Yep,” she says, looking at Owen. She raises her glass. “I’m whatever. I’m from wherever. Just the other day,” she takes a sip, “I was at that market where you can buy Asian groceries? You know?” She’s making this up. Willis is nodding.
          
“Sure,” he says. “I know the place.”

“You can get the best duck there,” Owen says, biting his lower lip. “Has anyone—Carlita, have you ever had the duck there?”
          
“I bet Bethany has,” Willis says. “She’s a great cook, right?”

“Yeah,” Carrie says. “I bet if you ask Bethany, she has.” Owen points his finger at Carrie, lifts his drink, and watches her over the rim of the glass as he swallows.

“Maybe,” he says. “Maybe you’re right.”
          
“So what happened there? At—” Willis snaps his fingers.
          
“Shin Shin’s,” Owen says, and lays down a double six to start the game. 
          
“Right,” Willis says. “Shin Shin’s.”
           “
Well,” Carrie says, reaching for her wine glass. Owen gets it first, stands up, and walks into the kitchen. Last week she was a little sick. She watches him fill a glass of water, running his fingertips beneath the spray of the tap to make sure it’s the right temperature. He brings it over. 

“I don’t want you to pass out,” he says. He sits and begins studying his dominoes.

“Dude,” Willis says. “Let her drink.” Carrie stands up, retrieves the bottle of wine from the kitchen, a new bottle, and sits with it in her lap, reading the label.

“This bottle has a tree in it, too,” she says, “and I want the whole thing. Very soon, gentlemen, I will have a forest of leaves and twigs in my veins.” Owen looks at her. He looks sad. Or insistent. She can’t read what he’s saying.

“I’m fine,” she says out loud.

“Tell us what happened in the store,” Willis says, laying down a double blank.

“I was there,” Carrie says, arranging her dominoes, “and the guy who does the pastries—you all know the pastry guy—gives me a free pastry and says you’re not my wife. You ought to be, he says. But you are not my wife. It’s too bad, he says. Your mouth is a little bit fuller. It’s a very kissable mouth.” She looks from Willis to Owen. “It gets that personal, sometimes. People feel like they can talk to me like that. Sometimes,” she says, looking into her wine bottle, “they even touch me like I’m their wife.”
          
“Some people,” Willis says, looking at Carrie, confused.
          
“Some people,” Owen says. Carrie puts the bottle to her lips. She hears someone bump into the sliding glass doors behind them, and gulps the wine.
          
“So what kind of name is Carlita?” Willis asks. 
          
“Rentiat,” Owen says.
          
“What’s that?” Willis says. “I’ve never heard of that.” Carrie puts the bottle on the table and puts her toes on Owen’s knee. The sliding door opens.

“That’s because,” Owen says, and touches Carrie’s toes, “Oh I really shouldn’t.” He stands up. “You tell him, Carrie. Tell him about Rentiat’s history. Tell old Barrett here all about it.”

He walks to the door, takes Bethany by the hand.
          
“Are we done playing?” Carrie asks after Owen. “We hardly started.”
          
“Let’s take a break,” Owen says. “I’m going to cook up this food from my homeland. Go on with the tragic story, though. Really. I can listen from here.” In the kitchen Bethany stands behind Owen, who opens up his sacred food. It’s a package of Eckeridge Farm Lil’ Smokies. He empties the little speckled sausages into the cast iron pan and bends to kiss Bethany.  Owen’s the only honest one here, Carrie thinks. Those nasty little sausages.
          
Someone turns down the music, repositions the speakers so they can dance inside. Everyone’s milling into the kitchen to refill their drinks and pick at the food. There are well over a dozen people in the suite, six or seven in the kitchen; it’s getting warm.
          
“My people are from The Silk Road,” Carrie says loudly to Willis.
          

“I’ll bet they are,” Willis says. “Silk Road.”

“Willis once told me,” Owen calls from the stove for everyone to hear, while he scrapes the Smokies around in the hot pan with a metal fork, his other hand on Bethany’s arm, “that he is hell-bent on a kissing a girl whose people are from the Silk Road.”

Look at that, Carrie thinks. Owen’s doing ten things at once.

“It’s true,” Willis says to Carrie. “My future depends on it.” He looks at her. She bends backwards over her chair, gives him a great jaw line shot, and stares at the ceiling. 

“The Renters,” Carrie says, half upside down, “from Rentiat, lived in a small, very small nation on The Silk Road. The entire nation disappeared years ago. It’s a very mysterious history. If not for The Silk Road, Europeans wouldn’t have had firecrackers, silk, spices, or dominoes.”
          
“How bout that Livingstone,” Willis says, “looks like your people are beholden to Carrie’s people.”
          
“You could put it that way,” Carrie says. “You could also say it is very likely, that is to say it is probably, that Owen Livingstone’s dominoes are made of the bones of my ancestors.” She’s turning it way up now. Bethany shakes her head at Carrie, smiling crookedly, her eyebrows a little pushed together, and Owen nods.

“I wouldn’t doubt it,” Owen says. “My people were a ruthless people. They were murderers. They were liars. Cheaters.”

“Cuidado amor,” Bethany says, and laughs. “I don’t want to see that.” Carrie glugs the wine and looks at Willis, who’s sulking in his gin. She puts a hand on his arm.

“Listen,” she tells him. “My people suffered horribly by the hands of people like the Livingstones. She turns to Owen, “Your people may have been liars and cheaters, but that wasn’t the worst of it. They didn’t even realize—” Carrie pauses for effect, “how much harm they were doing.” She looks at Owen. He’s eating the Smokies, spearing them on his fork, his face pointed down into the cast iron pan, and Bethany Hart is biting her lip. Looking hard at Carrie. Carrie feels her cheeks blaze and her eyes sear with embarrassment. She’s going to have go off somewhere and cry a little, now. She’s crossed the line. She’s hurt her friend. It’s time to go to bed. She stands up.
          
“You want to take a walk, sweetheart?” Willis asks. Carrie shakes her head, trips into the bathroom and halfway through peeing turns around slams her bare knees into the damp smeared tile and vomits purple wine into the toilet.
           
While everyone in the kitchen is drinking and picking, bumping each other,  placing their hands here, then there, collapsing on the couch and floor with drinks and blankets, Owen approaches Carrie as she exits the bathroom. He looks close at her face in the dark, touches her cheek, less than half a second. Not enough to live on for another week, Carrie thinks. He extends his hand.

“This,” he says, over the now-Spanish, now-Polynesian music, “is my offering of thanks and apology, on behalf of my people, for the cruelty imparted by them upon your people.” Carrie takes his hand.

“Is this a peace offering?” she asks.

“This is just my people and your people, trying to be as friendly as possible.”

“How friendly is that?” Carrie says, and kicks out her foot to touch his corduroys with her toes.

“Given the circumstances,” Owen starts, “which,” he adds, not stepping away from her foot.

“Which,” she says.

“Which could change at any minute.” He loosens his grip on her hand so that their forefingers are coiled together. “You know,” he says. “Carrie. Me and Bethany. She’s a little, I don’t know. I mean she’s great. I mean. Do you know what I mean?”

Here he is, Carrie thinks. Owen Livingstone. Their twisted fingers lose all charge for her, and she feels herself grayed and sick in the half dark hallway. She fills her lungs, wants to suck his words back out of the air like he’s never said them. His hand falls from hers. 

“I need some water,” she says, and moves past him, her eyes on the floor. 

Everyone is drunk. The music is turned up louder, the lights turned down lower. More students shuffle into the suite. It’s beginning to stink; people are too drunk, too lazy, too cold to go outside and smoke. The bathroom stinks. There’s a faint smell of marijuana, of smoked sausages, MSG burnt into cast iron; alcohol on everybody’s breath, sweat and perfume, deodorant, cologne. There are half a dozen people playing a hundredth round of quarters, bouncing the coins on the hard flat carpet. The rest carry each other out in a sparse trail to their rooms where, Carrie thinks as she closes the front door behind her, someone is throwing up from his bed into his dorm-issued wastebasket, someone is calling home in tears, someone is letting a stranger put his fingers into her.   

Carrie walks outside in her socks and fashionable blue jeans, turns off the walkway straight into the snow, three crusted feet of it that suck her legs in. She lifts her knees high and walks all the way around the building and falls back into the snow. She takes in the frigid air and her breath shakes. All of her body tightens—her face, the backs of her legs, her arms, all of it taut with cold, her limbs shuddering as if to involuntarily lift her body back up out of the snow. The warmth of the wine and the tree in the wine are gone from her. She pushes off her socks with her toes, one at a time, listening to the young people in her Townhouse Dormitory Suite laughing; their murmurs carry far in the clear, cold night. Her ankles and heels burn in the wet snow. It hurts. And she knows the snow and the cold from the snow are now the only real things left in the day.

Owen once told her that the Inuits and the Chinese play dominoes, that in Alaska and China they’ve been playing this same game for thousands, maybe even tens of thousands, of years. They invented the game, Owen said, before they crossed the Bering Strait. Before they divided when the ice thinned out. Carrie imagines the warm silence in their homes—an igloo, a tent—interrupted only by the soft clicking of bones in old faraway hands. Nothing to connect them but to sit by the firelight, just a little hungry, just a little cold, so glad to be alive and playing their old game made of bone: the only resource they could spare.

That’s what I want, Carrie thinks. That’s what I want.  She whispers it out loud to herself in the dark as she lifts her ruined soft green sweater off her body, her back bare and wet and freezing in the snow: that’s what I want.

TAR
BONNIE NADZAM teaches English and History in Colorado. She just completed an MFA in fiction from Arizona State University.
The Adirondack Review