A crowd of robed and turbaned people met Adam on the outskirts of the tiny village. He waved as he approached, not sure what was respectable or expected of him. He hoped they were friendly. He spoke to them when within speaking distance. “Hello.”
They spoke some words he didn’t recognize.
“I’m sorry. I don’t speak…what are you speaking? English? Do you know English?”
They looked at one another for a moment and then back at him. A tall man in a white turban and white robe approached. He put his hands on Adam’s shoulders and said some more words. Adam shrugged and smiled. The man took Adam’s hand in his own and led him into the small village.
Most of the dwellings were squat, thatch roofed dwellings. Maybe yurts? Adam felt like that was something he’d heard. A few were larger and made of a sort of mud and rock mixture, narrow alleys between mostly open floors. Goats and dogs roamed the grounds of several homes, and camels were kept near the outside of the village. The women stared from inside buildings or behind carts, trees, or whatever else they could conceal themselves behind. Children smiled and approached Adam, tugging on his shirt and pants, so different from their simple fabrics. He kept his hands to himself, not sure what was within the bounds of good taste. The adults called to their children, and they left off their exploration of the strange pale visitor. They seemed like good kids.
The tall man led Adam into a tall structure made from brown mud and stones, the same brown as the ground, the roofs, the clothes, the animals, and everything else on which he could rest his eyes. Once inside, he disappeared into a side room. Adam looked around the large room. Simple furniture occupied one corner like surly relatives. A cupboard stacked neatly with dishes looked on from the opposite corner. There wasn’t much in the way of decoration, but Adam sensed a simple pride emanating from the surroundings. He heard water splashing in the room where the man had gone.
A few moments later, the man entered the room with a bowl of steaming liquid, ruddy and not entirely smooth. He handed it to Adam and stepped back. Adam tried again to communicate. “This doesn’t have peanuts in it, does it?”
He thought about Indian cuisine he’d had before. He had to ask for nothing with peanuts. The man looked blankly at him. “I have a peanut allergy. I’ll die,” Adam almost shouted, making a choking motion with his hands, a supposedly universal sign. The man just smiled and pushed the bowl into his hands.
“I hope you have a good doctor,” Adam said.
He lifted the bowl to his lips and took a small sip. It wasn’t an altogether unpleasant tasting soup, if indeed that’s what it was. He smiled and handed the bowl back to the man, who pushed it back on him, lifting his own hands to make a drinking motion, not stopping until he was tipped all the way back. Adam looked into the bowl. “All of it?”
The man nodded enthusiastically, despite the fact that he probably had no idea what Adam had said. Taking a deep breath, Adam lifted the bowl to his lips once again and gulped the contents of the bowl, trying to ignore whatever the lumps were. His mouth burned about half way through, but he powered on. When he drained the last drops, he lowered the bowl and smiled at the man, who looked at him straight faced.
The man sat down on the floor and waved for Adam to do the same. Adam looked at the dirt floor. “I’m okay.”
The man grabbed his hand and pulled at the same time Adam’s knees buckled. His head felt like it was expanding by the second. “What was in that stuff?” he mumbled, holding his head in his hands. He tried to get his legs under him and crossed, like the example across from him. Motor skills were fleeting and unreliable, but with some effort, he managed. He put his palms together in front of him, mirroring the man’s posture as best as he could.
The man looked directly at him and started speaking a melodic string of words. Adam rocked to the wavering sort of tune the man chanted. It was a somber tune, and it hit Adam deep in the pit of his stomach. A warmth radiated from his belly to his brain, lulling him into a stupor. The man’s words carried Adam’s consciousness as they floated into the air.
Of course, she had come back a few days later, the recipient of several desperate sounding voice mails. She hadn’t intended to stay away. She just needed time to think. Adam listened to her explanations, grateful just to hear her voice again. It had only been a month, a little more. She was a part of him, now, or, rather, she had a part of him, and without her he wasn’t quite whole.
He tried to explain this to her, but his words just wouldn’t come out right. “Nevermind. I’m just glad you’re back.”
She smiled at him and scooted closer on the couch. “I did miss you.”
“Of course you did. I’m awesome.” He put his arm around her.
He couldn’t work up the nerve to tell her what he had discovered in her absence. He hadn’t dared to leave it on her voice mail. Girls don’t normally come back when you do stupid things like that. Or maybe that was just TV. He didn’t know. He hadn’t actually ever tried. Maybe she would have gone for it. He only knew he wasn’t willing to risk it. Not now. Not when things were still a little awkward.
He spent a day while she was gone working with the idea that she had been engaged. That she left someone on the altar, or close enough to find no hairs to split. At first, he couldn’t think of anything but how much trouble that must have caused in everyone’s life. He wondered if he could ever be capable of something like that. His feelings turned to a sort of admiration by evening. It took some serious balls to make a decision like that. Maybe not balls. Spine. Some serious spine. She was a strong woman. He knew that much. When night came and his brain floated in the darkness of his bedroom, he imagined himself at that altar, first as Todd, then as her. He couldn’t hold himself there for long before the scenario flickered.
It was another month before he told her how he felt. They were sitting on his sofa, watching some stupid reality show about the sideshow that is regular life when he turned to look at her. She sipped a glass of water. He waited for her to put the glass down and swallow. “I love you,” he said, letting the words out of the cage he had built for them.
“I love you, too,” she replied, not taking her eyes from the television.
It wasn’t the scenario he imagined. No violins. No flowers. No huge pronouncements. No shock. He settled back in and let her words enter the cage of his heart. They felt at home there. He glanced at her in the flickering light of the television, wondering if she was aware of the moment they had just had. She didn’t even glance his way. She was perfect.
Adam awoke. His skin felt like ants swarmed over every inch of it. He didn’t dare move for fear that it were true. What the hell had happened? After a few minutes staring at the underside of the roof, the feeling subsided. He sat up. His head felt surprisingly clear. Everything seemed to have more color than before. The browns were golden and russet and violet. He let his awareness sit on the throne of his mind for a few more moments before he stood. Upon stirring from his spot, he noticed he was no longer wearing his same plaid shirt and black jeans. A flowing sort of robe draped on his shoulders, light, breathable, almost sheer. He still had his underpants on, thankfully. A quick inspection of the interior of the building revealed his clothes to be somewhere else. He checked inside cabinets and closets just to be safe. No dice.
No clothes. No wallet. No wallet! “Shit. Did they rob me?”
He scanned shelves again, looking for the small black leather wallet with the cracked spine. Finding nothing, he went out into the harsh light of day. “Someone who speaks English want to explain to me what is going on here?”
Everyone looked at the crazy man from the wilderness as he shouted in a tongue they didn’t know. Two small boys laughed and ran off. Adam sighed and threw his hands up. “Doesn’t anyone speak English? ENGLISH!” he shouted at a man passing by.
The man flinched and drew back, crossing to a yurt across the square. “God. What the hell did I ever do to deserve this? I have to get out of here.”
The children returned with the tall man in tow. “Oh, great. You again.”
The man said something.
“I don’t understand you. I just want to go.” He pointed to the outside of the village. The man looked. “I! Go! Away!” Adam pointed more vehemently.
The man said something.
Adam shook his head. He patted himself and gestured at his clothing. “Where. My. Clothes.”
The man looked at him. Adam tugged at his robe, rubbed his fingers together. “My money. Where is it?”
The man brightened and headed into the mud building. Adam followed him. Maybe they had stowed them in a secret compartment. The man opened a cabinet Adam had already looked in and pulled out a length of narrow cloth. He presented it to Adam. Adam shook his head.
The man shook his head and took the cloth back. He approached Adam and began to wrap the cloth around his head. Adam batted him away. “God damnit! Where the hell is my fucking wallet, old man! I just want to get out of here and back to civilization where people speak fucking English!”
The man stepped back for a moment and returned. Adam, defeated, let the turban be wrapped on his head. If he was going to be stuck here, he might as well keep his head out of the sun. When he had finished, the tall man clapped his hands once. Adam nodded. “Thank you.”
Behind the man, he spotted a map on the wall. He took the man’s hand and pulled him to it. “Where? We?”
The man stared.
Adam pointed to the ground. Gestured around him. Pointed to the map. “Where?”
The man pointed at the ground, gestured around him, and pointed to the map, never taking his eyes from Adam. Adam gave up. The man pointed again to the map. It was unlabeled, but cities and roads were clearly delineated. Maybe they didn’t have names for places out here. No. He remembered Sri Lanka and Calcutta and Timbuktu. Were they out this way? Perhaps they were called something entirely different here.
Mumbling something, the man jabbed a finger at a city on the map and dragged his finger out over a river and into a large patch of unmarked ground. He jabbed his finger again in the middle of the empty area. Adam smiled and pointed to the ground, gestured around him, and pointed to the map. “Here.”
The man nodded, gestured around, and jabbed the map. Adam had seen a small dirt path leading out of town on his way to the soup hut. He assumed it would connect to the city in the direction the man had dragged. He would leave in the night, maybe by camel. In a city large enough to be on the crude map, he expected he could find someone who spoke English. His wallet was a complete loss, not that there had been much in it, but at least he was getting somewhere.
Adam threw the metal-tipped dart at the world map on the wall. It skipped off at an awkward angle and fell behind his desk. “Let’s try that again,” he said, retrieving the dart from behind the desk. He’d stolen it from one of the pubs in town, saying that it meant more if there was a story behind it. Gwynne had just scoffed at him and rolled her eyes.
He lined up his shot, not aiming for anything in particular. Gwynne came up behind him and covered his eyes with her hands. “Hey. Come on.” He twisted to get away.
She held fast. “No. Make it blind. Come on; it makes for a better story that way.”
He hated when she adopted that tone she used when she was throwing things back in his face. It was so snarky and yet, still cute. “Ugh. Fine. I can’t argue with my own perfect logic.”
She replaced her hands on his eyes. He took a deep breath. Thwack! She peered over his shoulder before she removed his hands. He looked at the map. “Hm. India? Can’t say as I ever really wanted to go there.”
“Well, then, throw it again.”
“No. No. I said I’d throw the dart to decide where we end up. India it is. Now…” He turned to her. “What the hell do we do in India?”
“The Taj Mahal.”
“Oh, yeah. I kind of forgot that was a thing. That might be good to see. But what else?”
“I don’t know. Throw your dart at the travel section of the library and find out.”
He grabbed her around the waist and kissed her, pressing his thumbs into the hollow in her hip that made her squirm. Predictably, she squealed and pulled away. He chased her around the apartment, talking in his best Indian accent. “You will be my promised, and we shall be arranged. Hey! Please be coming back here! I cannot make you my wife if you will not be still with me.”
She giggled and ran away from him. They came to rest in the kitchen. She stared in his eyes. He couldn’t read her, but she seemed sad somehow, distant, like a postcard. “What is it?”
“Nothing. Let’s go get Indian food!”
“I know. I know. No peanuts, Charlie Brown.”
He hated that joke. She knew it.
The next day he took out a travel guide of India from 1998, the newest one they had. The country couldn’t have changed that much in the last fifteen years. He thumbed through it. It was all colorful turbans and huge dunes. Not the kind of thing he had in mind, but he knew anywhere could make for a great vacation with Gwynne around.
He spent the day at work thinking about those colored turbans and the golden dunes. The delicately crafted marble and iron. The beautiful brown women with their wide smiles. The idea grew on him. It almost made the drab walls of the call center disappear.
When he got home, Gwynne was already there, sitting in his recliner with a book in her lap. “How was work?” she asked, not looking up.
“Eh. Soul crushingly horrible and completely beneath me.”
Gwynne worked for the college, doing mostly data entry. She hoped to get in with the dean of arts. Those assistants had some pretty great salaries, and she loved the idea of being in academia in one form or another. It was a workable dream, but the steps to get there were wearing thin her pleasant veneer.
“So, I did some research while I was on my break.”
“Oh yeah? Find out what family of apes you come from?”
“Har. Diddly. Har. No. I priced some flights.”
“Oh.” She didn’t sound too enthused, but he continued anyway.
“The cheapest I could find were $900, round trip, which is totally doable if we cut back just a little. There’s no reason for us to be paying rent on two separate places when we spend all our time together anyway.”
She closed her book. “Are you asking me to move in with you?”
“Would it really be that different? I mean, we both leave in the morning and end up here at night. All your plants are dead. What are we doing paying two rents?”
“I happen to like my apartment.”
“Fine. We can move there! I don’t care. I just think it’s silly that we’re not living together. Don’t you?”
She looked past Adam for a moment, lost to him. This wasn’t the direction he was aiming for. She came back. “Okay. I’ll move my stuff this weekend. My lease is up in a month anyway. Yours doesn’t expire until what?”
“February. Really? You’ll do it?”
“Well, like you say, what’s the point in paying two rents?”
“Great! And we could really cut back on how often we go out.”
“Are you going to chain me here and not let me escape, like some creepy Tom Cruise thing?”
“You hate my friends,” she said.
He stuttered. “Wait…what?”
“You hate my friends. You do. I can tell.”
“From the way you talk about them, I’m pretty sure YOU hate your friends.”
“They’re all bitches, to be sure, but they’re my friends. You never answered my question.”
He wasn’t sure where all this was coming from. “You never asked me one.”
“Do I what?”
She dropped her arms to her side. “Come on. Do you hate my friends?”
“Where is this coming from, Gwynne?”
“Nevermind. Forget it. I’m sorry. I’ve just had a lot on my mind lately.”
“Okay. Look. I just think we could save up the money to go by Christmas if we were good about it.”
“Fine. The girls and I will just meet here, then.”
Adam pictured his apartment full of her friends. “Well, we don’t have to cut everything out entirely.”
“See? You do hate them!”