He cannot believe that it's true, but she is actually standing there
at six o'clock, on the corner of Broadway and 116th Street, wearing
an orange woolen poncho and baggy jeans. She has headphones covering
her ears and she's bouncing to the beat. For a moment Ushman
hesitates. There is no possible connection he could have to this
girl. They did not learn the same songs as children, she does not
know how the banks of the Talkheh become awash with color from the
rising or setting sun. In her heart is the memory of a different
landscape. She is from a different world; her trajectory, even
momentarily, could never mirror his own.
Against his better judgment, he stops and lifts his hand from the steering wheel in recognition. When she climbs in and smiles as she pulls off her headphones, he reminds his cynical self how nice she smells. Her eyes are welcoming, familiar. She is not a stranger. No more so than any other person in this world would be. Even Farak, with whom he thought he shared so much - culture, values, heritage, homeland - even she was never truly known to him. If she was, he would not be here, alone, in America.
For the first time since he's met her, Stella is wearing lipstick. She looks strange but lovely. Ushman concentrates on this.
"This is a nice color on you," he says, gesturing to her poncho.
"You like it?" she asks. "I just got it at a thrift store downtown. One of the ones that sell new and used clothes, where everything's sort of the same price regardless." She laughs. "I went with some girls from my dorm. What about you?"
"Yeah. What did you do today?" Stella's eyes are eager and accepting. Her curiosity is unjaded.
"Just work," he says, remembering the events of his day, beginning with his early morning at the bodega.
"Oh," she says, pushing her face close to the windshield, "I almost forgot. There's a lunar eclipse tonight. Do you think we can see it from your place?"
"Absolutely. And if we can't, we'll go up on the roof." Ushman has never actually been on the roof of his building, but he's overheard other residents speak of it.
"It should be amazing. I had astronomy this morning. It's a required course - meaning I'd never take it unless I had to - but it's actually mind-blowing once you realize that time and space are just huge." She stops and looks over at Ushman. "Am I talking too much? I'm just excited. And nervous. I can't believe what I said to you this morning." She buries her head in her hands.
Ushman just drives.
Then, suddenly, she sits up and looks right at him.
"But then, I'm sitting there in astronomy and the professor is lecturing about the timeline of the universe. Are you aware that humanity is just a blip? Not even a blip. Just a fraction of a fraction of what the universe has been and will become? Talk about perspective. I figure I can't feel so entirely stupid about saying what I said because, first of all, it's true. And second of all, there will be no remnant of me or my stupidity. No fossil or geographical shift that can document, really, even the most important historical human begins, let alone my paltry admissions."
She looks at Ushman and he smiles, finally. The intensity of her voice and the rapid pace of her speech thrill him.
"Okay, now I really am talking too much." She sits back against the seat.
"It's just that you talk so quickly. I must concentrate to follow you logic."
From The Rug Merchant by Meg Mullins. Chapter 10, pages 117-121 of the hardcover edition. Copyright Meg Mullins 2006. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Viking.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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