The antique brass pen holder winked under the cone of lamplight among the ungraded homework papers, pulling Constance's gaze to the leafy designs etched onto its phallic shaft. Almost reluctantly, she let her fingertip push up the scallop-shaped cap, then peered into the empty inkwell. Memories lurked there. She remembered bargaining for the pen holder in the tiny shop deep within Damascus’s great souk -- and Roberta grasping her wrist as they left the store.
“Connie, over there – look!”
Three women shrouded in tent-like chadors hovered like black ghosts in front of a shop, the patchwork roof far above the narrow street filtering dusty rays across the dark pyramids of their backs. At the far end of the covered alley rose two pale Corinthian columns, discolored relics of a two thousand year-old temple, beyond which stretched the biblical “Street Called Straight,” but the three shapeless females were focused only on the smudged shop window.
Maneuvering to look around their inky shapes, Constance could make out a quartet of bald mannequins flaunting skimpy pastel lingerie on their awkward plastic bodies. Lacy thongs. Padded bras. Transparent whatevers.
“Connie, what could they be thinking?” whispered Roberta.
Constance shrugged. How could she know what was in those women’s minds any more than she could guess what Roberta thought from one minute to the next?
“We’re going to Syria,” Roberta told Constance as they hiked across Golden Gate Park's panhandle. Whiffs of something disgusting blew their direction. Probably from an illegal camp hidden in the thicket behind the trees. Constance didn't even turn to look at Roberta.
“You and I,” Roberta replied through a mouthful of wind-tossed dark hair.
“Connie, don’t be a pain. To track down Zenobia. My Zenobia.” Constance looked at her skeptically. "She kicked the bastards in the balls and got away with it. Well, she did – for a while.”
Since she’d reported on Zenobia for Mrs. Crowell’s World History class two decades before, Roberta had idolized the Palmyrian queen who told the Romans to screw themselves. Depressed again by her bad luck with men, she intended to cheer herself up with a pilgrimage to that gutsy lady's city.
Year after year, Constance listened to Roberta's complaints about the male sex. So the cure for the pain this time was Syria. Why not? Thanks to her rich, conveniently dead, parents, Roberta could do as she pleased, but she was no good with visas or hotel reservations and was sure she’d miss planes and lose her passport and credit cards. Constance, on the other hand, was notoriously efficient. It was her curse.
After the usual cycle of begging and teasing, Constance agreed to help Roberta escape her familiar, bitter, self-destructive existence. She worked out an itinerary by long distance with a Syrian agent, made reservations, bought tickets, and got Roberta to SFO on time. Eventually, they were immersed in the strange brew of new and antique that was exotic, dusty, sometimes beleaguered, Damascus.
“I love the way the shopkeepers offer us tea,” Roberta told her on their second day in the city that their guide book claimed was the oldest in the world. “They’re so charming.”
“Sure, they’re charming,” Constance hissed, stepping over something that looked suspiciously like shit. “They’re salesmen!”
Constance began making mental notes for what she'd tell her fourth grade class about her summer in Syria: "It's mostly desert, with oases and ancient cities scattered here and there. One of the oldest civilizations on earth."
No. That won't do. She'd have to jazz it up, use pictures, maybe a video.
After several days of wandering through historic streets, alleys, and bazaars, they met their driver/guide. As Constance could’ve predicted, Roberta was impressed by Khalid’s dark moustache and weary, middle-aged good looks. He spoke decent English, was borderline obsequious, and was costing Roberta a fortune, but seemed to know what he was doing. All Constance asked was that he get them where they wanted to go and keep them alive while doing it. Not so easy to do, these days. A strange country, filled with handsome, angry men and tired-looking women, all watched over by giant unsmiling portraits of the dictator.
A day driving across sunburned brown hills brought them to Krac des Chevaliers, still dominating the stark landscape after a thousand years. First stop on their journey to Zenobia's capital city. Massive, threatening, relentlessly masculine.
“It’s like a movie set,” Roberta announced as Khalid set out a picnic lunch on one of the hilltop crusader castle’s stone terraces. “Mel Gibson should be leaping around in tights.”
Instead of movie stars, Constance glimpsed a black-garbed old crone hunched against a dirt-hued wall, probably giving them the evil eye. This place would interest her fourth graders. She'd take photos to show them.
When Khalid finished setting out the lunch, he withdrew, his short legs and big ass taut with contempt, leaving them with their cold chicken, cous-cous, and wine.
“I begged him to eat with us,” Roberta pouted, blinking into the sun.
“It’s not their custom. You don’t want to embarrass him.”
“Maybe I do.” She pushed her black hair away from her face, peering over to where he sat alone next to the colossal stone wall. “He’s not bad-looking. If only he were taller.”
Constance tried to see Khalid with Roberta’s eyes, but all she saw was a short would-be Omar Sharif in a purple drip-dry shirt with dark rings under the arms.
After lunch, Roberta vanished into the labyrinthine castle, with its yawning hallways, rooms, and dungeons. Khalid and Constance discovered her playing a game of hide-and-seek with a couple of Syrian children on the huge stone ramparts. The sun blinked behind the great limestone blocks, releasing flaming shards as the game moved first one direction and then another. Roberta shouted with pleasure. A child in the body of a rich adult: the recipe for trouble.
Roberta never stopped making demands on Khalid, treating him more like houseboy than guide and driver. Constance was sure he tolerated it only because Roberta was overpaying him. However, he never seemed to tire of driving and found them decent hotels, pricey places where they mostly encountered European businessmen. They met no other Americans. Not surprising, of course. A bit nervous-making, though.
At Deir Ez-Zur, in the desert near the Iraqi border, they were astonished to discover a modern hotel filled with muscular, sunburned American males.
“They work in the oil fields,” Khalid explained. “On six-month contracts. They earn much money, then return home.”
None of the super-macho oil workers were visible that afternoon at the bazaar sprawling outside the local souk, where bespangled Bedouin women from surrounding camps sold vegetables, goat cheese, and blood-oozing meat. Chirping loudly, they competed for customers. Dark eyes like hungry birds. Brown hands waving and gesturing. Kerchiefed heads twitching and bobbing.
“They’re so beautiful.” Roberta nodded toward the women. “Tiny, but strong.”
“They do all the work,” Constance told her. “Of course they're strong.”
Roberta stared at the meticulously drawn henna tattoos on the women’s brown faces and hands: elaborate designs that evoked the harsh landscape and savage rays of the sun. Patterns that seemed to explode on their weathered skin.
“How would I look with one of those?” she asked, admiring her own skin. “On my hands – or face?”
“Like you were going native.”
“Would that be so bad?”
When they returned to the hotel bar to cool off with before-dinner drinks, they were surrounded by oversized, leather-skinned oil workers. Sunburned muscles, shirts with sleeves rolled up to sturdy biceps, bronzed heads shaved or closely cropped, tendons throbbing in thick necks. Solemnly, Roberta looked them over.
“Brunette or blonde,” announced a stocky fellow with red stubble smeared over his scalp and chin, freckles on his tanned, sweaty face. “Can’t make up my mind.”
“The li’l lady with the black hair is mine,” stated a lanky guy behind him.
Eyes narrowed, Roberta smiled up at them: “To be honest, boys, I doubt if either of you measures up to my standards.”
Nevertheless, they threw down cash for drinks, laughing each time Roberta insulted them. Constance had seen all this before. Roberta played with men, joked with everyone, but as far as Constance could see connected with no one. She suspected that Roberta cared more about her fantasies than about other people. She learned to play with dolls, then with people. Never had to be serious, like some of us.
Constance found that she, too, enjoyed the unexpected attention, but wasn’t inclined to wander off with any of these guffawing, hungry men. She had a rule, a good rule, she believed: when she was too light-headed to trust what she was doing, she did nothing.
After dinner, they returned to the bar, but before long Constance discovered that Roberta had slipped away. She wasn’t sure which of the oil men also had vanished, but now she found herself encircled by four or five of them – it was hard to keep track because they kept fetching drinks and migrating from chair to chair. Light from behind a perforated grill cast shadowy leaves and flowers across cocktail tables and bodies. Pushing aside several glasses on the table in front of her, Constance lurched upright and wished the boys goodnight.
“Hey, missy,” one of the men shouted. His sweat-blotted shirt fell open to the waist and a metal object like a large bolt swung over his hairy chest. “You can’t leave us!”
“Watch me,” she told him, weaving among the various human and chair legs.
Constance didn’t see Roberta until noon the next day.
“I thought you were interested in ancient Syria.”
“Ancient is fine,” Roberta smiled, “but alive’s better.”
Constance hoped she'd get Roberta back to San Francisco in one piece. Not that the girl was stupid, but she was careless – about things, appointments, promises, herself.
The colossal earth-hued walls of Doura Europus hovered in front of them long before the dusty Mercedes reached the remains of the four thousand year-old city. Dark clouds rolled across the sky and over the Euphrates as a lone guard marched atop mud ramparts in his brown ankle-length abaya and red and white checked kaffiyeh, rifle against his shoulder.
“It’s enormous!” Roberta waved her arms at the maze of streets and roofless mud brick buildings that stretched from the mud towers and gate to the distant river. "Enormous!"
She darted like a child from one dirt alley to another, peering over half-melted walls into the ruins of shops, houses, palaces. Following behind with Khalid, Constance glimpsed the Arab guard bouncing on a motorcycle over dry mud streets toward the Euphrates.
Half an hour later, the storm broke, huge drops pounding on them and the remains of the city. They’d walked farther than they’d realized. Dust and dirt instantly turned to mud. Rumbling up on his motorcycle from behind a mud brick temple, the guard pantomimed an offer of a lift back to the gate.
Even as Constance said “No,” Roberta hitched herself up onto the motorcycle, wrapped her arms around the guard’s voluminous abaya, and bounced away, mud exploding behind them.
Constance trudged back through the goo, giving up any idea of preserving her shoes. No one to watch her struggle, no one to laugh at her plight. Screw 'em anyway, the people who weren't there. When she reached the covered gate, she found Roberta sipping hot tea from a thermos cup. With a smile, she offered Constance a sip. Then she saw her friend's feet: “Connie! Your shoes are ruined.”
Constance shrugged. What did Roberta expect? Flabby good will protects nothing. Especially not shoes.
Back at the hotel, after they showered and changed, Roberta insisted that Constance come to her room and take a pair of her shoes to replace the wrecked ones. Sapphire blue peau-de-soie. Who but Roberta would bring peau-de-soie-covered high heels to the desert?
“See, they fit!” Then she pulled a blue dress from the closet. “Try this on. It goes with the shoes.” She was like a kid intent on giving away her toys. Reluctantly, Constance put on the dress. “See? It looks better on you than it ever did on me. It’s yours.”
Constance stared at herself in the mirror on the closet door: she looked as if she'd stolen the outfit out of a shop window. The only other way she'd get a dress or shoes like these.
“I can’t take any of this.”
“Don’t argue.” Roberta studied her. “But your hair – it doesn’t work. Connie, take off the dress. Sit down.”
The brat was in charge and the adult was following orders. Moments later, Constance sat on a chair in her bra and panties with a towel over her shoulders while Roberta worked with a pair of manicure scissors. When she was finished, Constance pondered her reflection in the mirror. It was startling, with her new short haircut, how much she resembled Roberta.
“Wonder how’d you look brunette,” said Roberta, fluffing out Constance's wheat-colored hair. She crouched until her face was beside Connie's, their two images almost blending into one in the mirror. “We’ll think about that later. Those lonely guys are waiting. Here, don’t forget the dress and shoes.”
She shoved them into Constance's arms.
Next morning, they headed west under a bleached-blue sky, at last nearing the fabled oasis city of Palmyra. This wasn’t sandy desert, but it was desert, all right: a barren land of hard earth and scorching sun. Why had people ever wanted to live out here? What compulsion brought them to this hot and wild place?
“This was the ancient caravan route from Arabia to the Mediterranean,” Khalid told them. His stubby arms gestured broadly. He was in a better mood now that they’d left behind drunken American oil men and Arabs on motorcycles. He’d brought a picnic lunch for them to eat in an abandoned caravansary.
“A thousand years ago, merchants from the East bargained here!” Roberta rhapsodized, balancing her paper plate on the stump of a broken column. “Camels and donkeys were tethered there. Half-naked Bedouin girls danced barefoot for weary travelers.”
Khalid frowned at her description, but said nothing.
Abandoning her lunch, Roberta ran into the desert, whirling over sun-baked earth and rocks, bare ankles flashing from beneath her slacks. Khalid called to her, shouting warnings, but she ignored him.
“All roads passed through Palmyra,” Constance wrote in her mind, as they approached the ruined city, blinking at the brilliance of the sun-glazed limestone. “It was rich and luxurious, ancient when the Romans came.”
Roberta clutched Constance's arm as they peered at the ancient stones. From a low mountain nearby, a Moslem fortress regarded with disapproving austerity the ruined elegance of the older buildings below. Khalid took them to the Queen Zenobia, a low-slung guest house next to the archeological site. While he checked them in, they gazed at the broken arches and columns of the once magnificent city, now faded by sun, wind, and time. A hot, dry gust warned that if they wandered away, past the ruined colonnades and broken buildings into the wind-smoothed hills, their lips would crack, their lungs shrivel, the tops of their heads fry.
Late in the afternoon, Khalid led them into the ancient city. Most of the buildings were pre-Roman, he said. Constance could imagine camel caravans resting among those pale columns. Some of Roberta’s romanticism seemed to be rubbing off on her. Her fourth graders would appreciate it. Camels. Turbans, flowing robes. Curved swords. Jewels and spices.
Constance wore her new dress and shoes to dinner. No other Americans appeared in the dining room, but several tables were full of French and Germans and at one table a trio of elderly British travelers pondered guidebooks and maps.
“Are you two lovely ladies sisters?” asked a tall blond German with rather formal English, as they met in the doorway to the bar after dinner. His shoulders were very wide. A competitive swimmer in his youth? Soccer hero? Attractive, anyway.
“Friends,” Constance replied.
“Best friends,” corrected Roberta. “Might as well be sisters.”
The tanned German showed his big teeth in a smile: “Join me for a drink?”
Why not? Harmless enough. Could’ve been fifty or sun-ravaged thirty-five.
Klaus Ulrich: an archeologist and, he hastened to make clear, he had nothing to do with the noisy busload of junge Deutsche that had invaded that afternoon.
“They don’t sleep or eat in the hotel. I don’t know why the management lets them park here.”
He took the women across the lobby to the verandah, beside which loomed a three-decker vehicle pulled by a tractor-like cab. The young people swarming around it slept in spaces hardly more than shelves. Now, in ragged tee shirts and grungy thigh-and ass-revealing shorts, they squatted on the ground, guzzling cheap wine and cooking on portable stoves. Dirty. Sexy. Self-indulgent. Beautiful, in their disreputable way.
Klaus shook his head: “They drive all over the world in that thing. Insects taking their own nest with them.”
Constance wasn’t surprised that Roberta quickly became infatuated with the handsome archeologist as they sipped after-dinner drinks and gazed at the shadowy ruins. She left Roberta and Klaus to contemplate the mysterious city and the husky German students gathered around their monster “rolling hotel.”
Although Roberta claimed to suffer from explosions in her skull the next morning, Khalid drove them into the nearby hills to see Palmyra’s desert necropolis, where limestone tombs jutted like jagged teeth from the sandy earth.
The Palmyrenes originally buried their dead in those towers, he explained, but later changed to safer underground tombs. Each tomb held a family, each body on a shelf sealed with a carved stone slab. The bodies were long gone, most of the stone portraits stolen. Roberta seemed unusually subdued as they walked among the ancient tombs – maybe it was the hangover.
As they crunched between two of the tombs, a long-legged figure stepped from behind a broken tower.
“Greetings, ladies,” said Klaus. “Have you seen Zenobia’s palace?”
“No, but I can’t wait.” Roberta gazed at his worn but striking features. “Tombs’re okay, but I want to see where people lived and loved.”
“I know Palmyra well. You can give your guide time to himself.”
Reluctantly, Khalid left the women with the tall German, looking back with a scowl. Constance suspected that what he most resented was Klaus’s height. Klaus carried them in his Land Rover back into the ruined city. Without warning, three sharp-nosed fighter planes screeched across the blue-white sky.
“Nearby Air Force base,” Klaus explained.
Dirt blowing over their shoes, they hiked past marble temples to the jagged remains of Zenobia’s palace, where they lingered beside mosaic-lined pools in which she'd soaked her royal body. Centuries, millennia, of wars, here and all around. How many bodies turned to dust under the sand?
"Emperor Caracalla claimed Palmyra as a colony, but its wealth gave it unusual independence." Klaus smiled suggestively at Roberta -- it least, to Constance it appeared suggestive. “Zenobia made Palmyra into an independent empire again. Even dared mint coins with her profile.”
“Maybe I can find one.” Roberta looked as if she were about to start pawing through the rubble.
“It would be illegal for you to take it out of the country.”
“Piffle! I’m sure coins and stuff are smuggled out all the time.”
Klaus shook his head. "You're not as immoral as you pretend."
"Try me." Waving away the subject with her hand, Roberta added impatiently, "I know the rest of the story. The lousy emperor attacked the city, captured Zenobia when she tried to run away and carried her off to Rome -- wrapped in gold chains, of course -- but she starved herself to death, mourning for her city and her freedom. Still, she almost beat those bastards.”
Roberta flashed a triumphant smile, as if the near victory had been hers, too.
“Tomorrow,” Klaus told them, as they drove back, “I have a surprise for you, something no one else has seen. Something you will never forget.”
“Do we have to wait?” pleaded Roberta. “I hate waiting.”
“I see you do." Klaus smiled. Teeth too white. Artificially, Constance wondered? "In that case, we will do the surprise in the morning. This evening you are my guests for dinner."
He was working hard to charm them. Why? All through dinner, Constance studied him, but his performance was flawless -- even later, as they sipped drinks on the verandah, watching the light fade over the ruins and listening to the guttural chatter of the young Germans. What was he after -- beyond poor Roberta's body?
When Roberta didn’t respond to several taps at her door the next morning, Constance assumed she’d spent the night with Klaus, but a few minutes later she saw him filling a plate at the buffet downstairs.
“Your friend isn’t up yet?” he asked.
“I thought she was with you.”
He shook his head. “My lectures yesterday must have exhausted her.”
Constance couldn’t decide whether or not she liked Klaus, although he was going out of his way to be attentive. He even insisted on carrying her plate from the buffet to his table. Pouring her coffee, he assured her that she had no reason to worry about Roberta.
“She was too eager to see sunrise over the ruins to think about food. Soon, she’ll be back.”
After breakfast, Constance tried Roberta’s door again. Still no answer. Even if Roberta had ventured out, she should be back by now. Finally, Constance persuaded Klaus to go with her when she asked the manager to unlock Roberta’s door. Her bedding was folded back but not slept in, her clothes in the closet and drawers, her toiletries still scattered in the bathroom.
“Perhaps she had an accident in the ruins,” suggested the manager. He said this as if it would reassure Constance. “We will notify the police. Your friend will be found.”
“We’ll all look for her,” said Klaus.
“Where’s Khalid? Maybe he knows....” They're so smug. Condescending. Damn men.
But the mustachioed driver wasn’t in the hotel.
“Your friend told Khalid he wouldn’t be needed today. He’s enjoying a day off.”
Soon several policemen from Tadmor, the nearest town, were searching the ruins. Tourists already were wandering the ancient streets, buildings, and tombs. Costumed in shorts, sandals, tee shirts, hats of various shapes and sizes, they might've been trudging over the sand toward the surf instead on the remains of a three-thousand year-old civilization.
“If she’s here, she’ll be found,” Klaus pronounced as they started up the colonnaded central boulevard.
“So many buildings, so many ruins. She could be anywhere.” Constance gestured across the scattered rubble. “In a tomb with a broken leg. Up in the castle. Anywhere.”
Or off with a camel driver. Or another tourist.
“What about that surprise you mentioned?” she asked. “Did you tell her about it? I know how good she is at wheedling information.”
"I hinted, but didn’t tell her where it is. Still, if it will make you feel better, we can go there.” He shrugged. “You'll find it of interest.”
Speeding past date groves, Klaus lurched onto a gravel and dirt track, then maneuvered through scrub growth and sand. For a while, the harsh, persistent whir of a helicopter scraped through the sky overhead. Searching for Roberta? Keeping watch over the archeological site? Spying on the populace? Constance never found out.
This wasn't always desert, Constance seemed to remember reading. But the world changes. Deserts grow. They hardly ever shrink.
After half an hour bouncing across the desert, Klaus swerved to a stop and jumped out. The mid-day sun reflected off the limestone entrance of an underground tomb. A pipe more than a foot in diameter bridged sandy steps that descended to massive doors, ramming into the sand on either side.
“It was found when the oil pipeline was being put through.”
Snatching a flashlight from the Land Rover, he ducked under the pipe and unlocked the stone doors, so perfectly balanced that they swung easily despite their great weight. Following him down the steps and under the pipe, Constance stepped into the dry dusty chill of the past.
Black, except where he swung his light, then a single caged bulb shining through dust clouds: a honeycomb of stone, bigger than expected. Colder, too.
Not denuded by either grave robbers or archaeologists, carved portrait slabs still protected many stone shelves. Moving ahead of her through the icy darkness, Klaus directed his light at them. Here, a curly-headed youth, his expression defiant even in death. There, a proud middle-aged woman, hair elaborately arranged atop her long face. At the end of the room, a bas-relief of the entire family languidly dining Roman style.
“I’m about to begin serious study of this tomb,” Klaus whispered over her shoulder. “Only a few colleagues have seen it.”
Motioning for Constance to follow him to a corner where a portrait slab had been lifted from one of the burial shelves, he aimed the flashlight beam onto a skeleton, its shape twisted as if sleeping, a small clay oil lamp near the bony hand. Pulled by the ancient remains, she stepped forward.
Her father sat on a folding chair in front of a wall of drawers. Incinerated remains in them. One holding his wife. Her mother.
Klaus moved near, wrapping an arm around her. She felt his warmth and breathed in the smell of his skin and cologne. His lips touched her forehead. What was going on here? She broke away. He led her up the limestone steps into the sun. While he closed the great doors, she climbed into the dusty Land Rover, still trembling.
Children, she'd tell the fourth-graders, deep in a hole under the desert I saw stone shelves where dead people once were stored like big dolls. A skeleton was still lying on one of the shelves after two thousand years.
“Tell me about your friend,” Klaus asked, as they drove back to the hotel.
“What is there to say? Her parents died, leaving her a lot of money. She’s smart, educated. Self-indulgent. Always searching for love.”
“What does that mean?”
“She’s constantly in and out of relationships, moaning about her broken heart and cursing men, but I’ve never felt that any of it really mattered to her.”
“A strange young woman.”
“Quite ordinary, really.” She clutched the side of the Land Rover as they bounced over the rugged terrain. “Could Roberta have been kidnapped? She knows nothing about politics.”
“It’s unlikely,” he said. “But you don’t have to be political to be kidnapped for political reasons. And in this country everything is political.”
That evening, when Constance met Klaus in the dining room, she wore Roberta’s dress and shoes. Almost a perfect fit. Made her stand straighter. Taller. She felt the difference.
The police had found nothing. The hotel manager, a well-fed man no taller than Khalid, counterfeited sympathy but told her that he needed Roberta’s room. After dinner, she moved Roberta's possessions to her own room. She didn’t find Roberta's passport, but did discover her plane ticket and the extra passport photographs she’d insisted Roberta bring. She put them in her own purse. Safer there.
Dressing for breakfast the next morning, she slipped on a shirt and pants from Roberta’s suitcase. Studying the passport photos, she brushed her hair the way Roberta had. From the dining room window, she saw that Das Rollende Hotel and the young Germans had vanished. Could Roberta have gone with them? No. Those rowdy youngsters wouldn't have been interested in her. She glanced at the half-eaten eggs and tomatoes and black olives on her plate, then looked up at Klaus. His big jaw was working slowly at a mouthful of pita bread. Made her think of a camel. A handsome camel, of course.
“I don’t know anything about you. Are you married?”
“Divorced." He swallowed. "Luise is in Dusseldorf. She complained I was married to the past.” He reached across the table, clasping Constance's hand with blunt tanned fingers. “The hotel and local police have contacted Syrian authorities about your friend, but you must talk to your embassy in Damascus.”
"Must I?" She sighed. “I know.”
Leaning toward her, Klaus whispered: “No, you don’t know. The secret police are everywhere. The disappearance of an American citizen is serious.”
They drove into the shabby town of Tadmor, parked the Land Rover, marched up and down the dusty streets, as if expecting to meet Roberta strolling out of a shop. Men stared at Constance, although she was conservatively dressed. The thin young males in cheap short-sleeved shirts and baggy trousers, with stubbly chins and brooding eyes, resented her. Why? What had she done to them? Did they hate all females?
“I should go to Damascus,” she told Klaus, “but I don’t know what happened to Khalid. Maybe they’re together.” I'm falling off a cliff. Nothing to grab hold of, nothing to save me. She looked sharply at Klaus. “She’d be more likely to run off with you.”
Klaus hesitated on the sidewalk. “Your friend is an attractive woman, but that’s not a game I play.”
“What games do you play?”
“Time to get out of the sun,” he said, steering her into a small café.
As they drank tea, Klaus asked the proprietor if he’d seen a dark-haired American woman. The man shook his head. He seemed angry at the suggestion. Then they went to Tadmor’s police headquarters, but nobody had news of Roberta. The officers were more interested in a little handheld game that they passed between them.
When Klaus and Constance got back to the Zenobia Hotel, the manager told Constance that he needed her room. He apologized, then explained that they only had twenty-six rooms and were booked through the season.
“I understand. Please get my bill ready.” He held out a folded piece of paper. “Oh. Thank you.”
Klaus stepped forward, forcing the manager to retreat a step, and told him that he’d be leaving, as well. Nodding stiffly, the man waddled away.
“I’ll drive you where you want to go,” Klaus told her, as they went upstairs.
Constance packed her clothes, re-packed Roberta’s suitcases. Several times, she hesitated, wondering which suitcase to use. She wore another of Roberta’s outfits, a lightweight summer dress with matching jacket. What was the harm?
Downstairs, she saw Khalid over in the hotel bar with a miniature white cup of Turkish coffee. When the stubby little guide noticed her, he looked embarrassed, but set down his cup and walked to her.
“My friend is missing,” she told him. His eyes were level with her nose.
“I heard this news. I am sorry.”
“I’m glad you’re back. I need to pay you for your services before I leave.”
“Thank you.” Khalid hesitated: “I hope your friend is well.”
“So do we all.”
Not only had Roberta abandoned her plane ticket and clothes, she’d also left behind some cash. Reasonable to use it to pay Khalid. Although they hadn’t completed the itinerary, she paid him in full. None of it was his fault, annoying though he was.
“I will be happy to drive you to Damascus,” he said, pocketing the Syrian pounds.
She looked over at Klaus, across the lobby. Tall. Tan. Waiting.
“I’ve made other plans.”
As Klaus and Constance loaded their luggage into the Land Rover, another trio of Syrian fighter planes roared above the ancient city. Razor blades attacking the desert sky.
“Maybe we should stay in the area,” Klaus said. “A while longer.”
I’m not like Roberta, Constance reminded herself as they bounced over the dusty road into the modern town. Always had to work. I’m an ordinary person. I’m not like Klaus, either – whatever he’s like. I believe in logic, in cause and effect, in reasonableness. People don’t just disappear. Not people I know.
She refused to accept that Roberta was dead or that they’d never find her. If she didn't believe it, it couldn't have happened.
In Tadmor, Klaus stopped at a small hotel, one of those hideous blocky buildings constructed with an eye more to cost than either grace or comfort. She followed him into a stark lobby, where a stout man in a soiled white abaya slouched behind the desk. The cracked plaster walls were covered with scales, as if suffering from a disease.
When Klaus registered them, she silently handed over her passport with his. Two rooms, of course. Adultery, illicit sex, whatever you called it, was illegal there – not that either of them was inclined to that. They carried their bags up to the second floor and to their separate rooms. In the narrow hall, they squeezed past each other, bodies almost touching.
In her room, she went straight to the tiny bathroom, with its dingy brown walls and rust-stained fixtures. Doubling over, she shook with fear and remorse. Then she washed her face and left the bathroom with its incriminating mirror, ordering herself to stay calm.
Roberta and Constance. Friends since Lowell High. They relied on each other. When Connie’s Ted drowned. When Roberta was abandoned by one damn male or another. When she thought she had cancer. When Connie lost her job. Roberta, the capricious one, Connie the practical one. Now, Constance wanted to slap her. Hard.
Before long, Klaus peered through the partially open door. Constance looked up at his oversized Germanic face. Stretching out a hand, he offered her an understanding, expectant expression. She walked silently with him back to his room.
“We’ve only known each other a few days,” she began. “Just hours.”
“You’re too rational."
“Because I’m a woman?”
“How do I know?”
The yellowish blades of the ceiling fan knifed through the hot air as they peeled off clothes. Perspiring, they collapsed side by side on the dingy sheet, watching those blades turn.
“I haven’t given up,” she said, directing her words toward the mottled ceiling.
“I know.” His hot hand landed on her bare stomach.
“I owe it to her.”
“Yes, of course.”
He kissed the insides of her elbows, then the insides of her knees -- the most beautiful parts of the body, he whispered. A hot dry wind rattled the cheap aluminum-framed window, nasty black insects scurried across the floor, the sheets became slick with sweat.
The next morning, she woke up naked in her own room. She looked up at the stained ceiling, the brown walls and one shuttered window. What if Klaus had abandoned her? What if she was alone in this squalid place and terrifying country? But soon he knocked on her door.
“We should start early,” he said. “Before the heat.”
Early as it was, he’d shaved and doused himself with cologne. It was futile to expect any of this to make sense, but -- like her fourth graders -- she craved an orderly, reasonable world.
Klaus pushed the Land Rover so that it made good time across the desert to Damascus. Constance was sunburned and filthy, but relieved to be in a city again, even to see the giant face of the dictator sternly gazing down on the erratic traffic. To her surprise, Klaus took them to a new luxury hotel in the commercial heart of the city.
"Might as well be comfortable,” he told her. Again, they stayed in separate rooms.
“After I’m clean, assuming that’s possible,” she told him in the elevator, “I’m going to a beauty parlor. I need to do something for myself.”
He nodded. “Do what you must.”
She asked the desk clerk to make her an appointment, then soaked in hot water that slowly changed hue around her limbs. Eventually, reluctantly, she climbed out of the big tub, dried and dressed herself. She’d lost weight and had acquired bruises on her body, although she had no idea where or when. When she returned to the hotel, Klaus looked her up and down, then smiled. His perfect teeth seemed whiter than ever.
“I thought you were her,” he said. “For a moment, I thought you were your friend.”
She studied herself in the mirror in the bar: “Do you like it?” She touched her hair, now the same dark shade as Roberta’s.
“It’s astonishing,” smiled Klaus, pulling her toward him, his spicy cologne again filling her nostrils. “Come to Germany with me.”
“Because you want to.”
The next day, he dropped her at the American embassy. At first, no one understood why she was there, but finally she found herself in a high-ceilinged office talking with a thin, bald man who did seem to grasp that a U.S. citizen was missing. He studied the photograph she gave him, then looked up at her.
“Your sister?” he asked.
“You could be sisters."
An official report was filled out, but he claimed there wasn’t much the embassy could do, although of course they would make inquiries. Above all, they didn’t want this to turn into an international incident.
“You understand,” he said.
She didn’t – well, partially, she did. She nodded.
“She’ll have to leave the country,” he added, “before her visa expires.”
If she’s alive.
Later, when she told Klaus about the meeting, he said that she, too, soon would have to leave Syria. “I have a special dispensation,” he explained, “because of my work.”
“Of course. I knew this was temporary.” Whatever “this” was.
That evening, they walked through the Damascus souk. She pointed out the shop where she bought the pen holder and the window with the obscene lingerie. As they strolled through the spice market, he took her hand in his. They passed a stall in which a woman sat on a low stool as her palms were decorated with henna tattoos. Constance watched the artist create intricate paisley-like patterns on the woman’s skin. The lines were delicate, the tendrils of the red-brown designs strangely provocative.
“Bridal night ritual,” Klaus whispered. “Representing sacrifice. Passion.”
As they strolled, Constance noticed other women whose faces had been embellished with henna vines and blossoms, complicated spiky patterns reaching from beneath scarves or from under the rippling edges of dark chadors.
The next day, she went out alone – shopping, she told Klaus. When she returned, he took her hands and opened them, revealing delicate flowery designs the color of red clay on her palms. He smiled knowingly, then kissed both hands.
“Not your face?” he asked.
“I don’t think the school board would approve.”
“Ah, yes. You are a teacher.”
“The new term will start soon. I’m not like Roberta – I earn my living.”
A city of four million, more than five thousand years old: the geography of past lives colored the pavement and spoke of dead civilizations and long silent winds. Sometimes, Constance was certain that Roberta might step off one of the ever-present minibuses or that she might pass her on one of the pedestrian bridges spanning the traffic-clogged boulevards. Or she might glimpse Roberta in a sweet shop or watching a sinewy craftsman beating a copper plate with a mallet. Maybe she’d stop at a bakery and discover Roberta’s flushed features in front of the open oven. Half the time, she had no doubt that she’d find her. Other times, she knew she never would.
Constance was fascinated by the Syrian women she saw on the streets. Often their dresses and suits were conservative, according to Moslem custom, yet the cut and patterns were smart, the colors elegant. The scarves with which they covered their hair were folded and tucked in with style. What if Roberta had bought one of these outfits? Would she recognize her, then?
When Constance hesitated in front of a plate glass window, it seemed as if she was staring at Roberta’s dark hair, Roberta’s features, Roberta’s trim figure. Maybe that was Roberta gazing back. Maybe Roberta was keeping pace with her, always just beyond reach.
Klaus drove her to the airport. He piled the luggage – hers and Roberta’s – onto a cart. Before she pushed it through the door, he took her hands, opening them to see the henna designs. Roberta and she had come here seeking Queen Zenobia, but had discovered a world that could transform you into something you never knew possible, something you couldn’t even describe.
Weeks later, when Constance climbed Union Street to her apartment building, a briefcase of homework to correct in her hand, she found Roberta sitting on the tiled step.
“What happened?” she asked. “Where were you?”
“I had my adventures. Maybe someday I’ll tell you.” Standing, hands on her hips, Roberta stared at her friend. “Yes,” she said. “I was right, Connie. You look better as a brunette. We could be sisters, now.” She reached for Constance's hands, then laughed as she saw the fading henna designs on the palms. “You, too!” she cried. “Look!”
Roberta turned her own hands palms up, showing reddish-brown henna patterns. She grasped one of Constance's hands and slid it onto her own, then put the other hand over it. Their four palms shifted together, the elaborate, lacy designs almost alive in the sunlight.