Her hips swayed freely beneath her silk skirt as she breezed out the door after our lovemaking. Watching her sashay down the front walk and out the iron gate, off to the grocery store for some pasta and wine, I could see the energy course off her like the ripples of a mirage. Knowing I was still watching, she turned her light eyes to me, blew me a kiss, then smiled at Mr. Katz who held the gate open for her. She smiled big for him, flashing sparks all over him. She was a summer storm soaking the parched souls around her.
I was working in DC for a defense contractor that year. Human Terrain was a hot gig if you could get it back then. I’d been hired to map out populations of support for NATO operations along the northern supply route from the Baltic to Afghanistan. My years of archaeological and restoration work among the Uzbeks had given me connections and the language skills to command a very respectable fee for my services. So I packed a couple of suitcases, loaded the car, and drove down there. My friend at Rand was off in Nigeria that summer and rented me her townhome in Dupont Circle. I couldn’t have written a better scenario if I’d tried.
The Silk Roads
The years in Uzbekistan had been my choice, I realize now. I fashioned myself as Indiana Jones, unearthing the gold of Transoxiana, sipping tea in the market at Samarkand, translating ancient songs of the Silk Route, and heading up the preservation of the great mosque. I was the hero in my own romance along one of the major arteries of human history. I pictured Alexander the Great marching in from Persia, wedding the exotic Roxana.
I could almost feel the hooves of Genghis Khan’s hordes thundering down from the plains to secure the perimeter of his empire.
I trembled at the murderous legacy of Tamerlane. Stories of men of ambition, a route to wealth and power, and the thirst for particular women transected here. The visions that had filled my head were here in Central Asia, marching, dancing, and traversing the continent. A man must be the hero of his dreams.
Tamerlane The Murderous
I lived alone with that dream ever since Katherine had turned away three years ago. Samarkand’s peaches and pumpkins, cumin and lamb scented the story, but I was still hungry. Damn woman remained a relentless criminal in my head though, the whore of my nights and pickpocket of my days. I had to cast her like that, after what happened. It was the only way I could remain a hero in my story. The reel in my mind’s eye would not stop looping.
Pale yellow and green tile covered the kitchen counters in the house we shared when we were first in love. The landlord had described it as “vintage” in the rental advertisement, but mostly it was small and funky-smelling. We didn’t care because it was cheap and close to downtown where she tutored English and I taught History. Anyway, all we had those days were a couple of plastic plates, two pots, a few utensils, and a corkscrew. Most nights, we’d start the pot of water boiling for some pasta and open a bottle of wine. We agreed on everything. We’d save money for the important stuff, and eat pasta and drink cheap wine at home. We’d have enough to travel to the Silk Route in two years.
Katherine would sit on the edge of the counter twirling her bare feet to cool them off after a day at school in stockings and heels. I poured our wine in the juice glasses she’d stolen from the cafeteria, and we clinked. I pressed against her knees while we talked about the little dramas of our days and characters who were perpetual idiots and jerks.
When she laughed at my jokes, my face was bathed in the grapes on her breath. I pressed harder and slipped the hem of her skirt up to her thighs. Her eyes crinkled, she clasped my ears, and she leaned her face into mine, opening her mouth to suck the wine on my tongue. Her knees parted and she wrapped her legs around my hips, pulling me to her. My memory tells me the story that it was like this every night, a simple narrative with a nice trajectory.
“Jack,” she whispered one night, shuddering, “I'm so in love with you… I want to have your baby...” Her words and the warmth and strength of her clenched me.
“Oh, honey, yes!” I know I said it. That evening. We glistened.
It was only a week after that when I got the call from Istanbul I had been hoping for. Tarik’s voice told me, “We’ve got the UNESCO funding for the Sherdar Medressa project in Samarkand! We’re in, man!” He went on to say it would be two years of work on the famous structure and ultimately result in Samarkand becoming a World Heritage Site. This was the opportunity of a lifetime for me.
I hollered and raised my fists in the air when I hung up the phone, “Katherine! Bow down to me! I AM the one! I got the project in Samarkand! I am so on the road!”
She hugged me tight and we jumped up and down. “Jack! This is huge! Wow! You must do this!”
At those words, I stepped back and looked at her in shock. It had never occurred to me that it was a choice whether to go or not. The opportunity had come and I was being called. The next shock to my brain hit immediately after. She was telling me I had a choice, and that I should take it. She knew I would go without her. She blinked once and gave me a quivery smile, “You need to do this… go on…”
“You gotta do it, Jack.” Her eyes darkened, and she did not blink this time.
“Will you, um, wait for me? Will we ever see each other again? Will you write?”
She answered my compound question simply. “No.”
Smiling again, but not open-mouthed, she continued, “Jack, I’m not angry or sad. I have a story to live too, and waiting for you isn’t part of it. I’m a hero too, not just a character in your story…I have to get on with mine... I’m so glad you got this chance. I’ve loved you hard and true. What we have is giant… Now listen, put on your boots, and go get ‘em. I’m sure I’ll read about you somewhere. I love you, Jack. I really need to go.”
She did not look back that day. I was utterly floored at how definite and tough she had been, this woman who quivered in my embrace, who ought to be the mother of my children, just letting me go like that. It was me who was sad and angry.
Katherine, and the kitchen, and the call, they played like a film in the background the whole time I was in Samarkand documenting and restoring the mosque. The name of the mosque in English is Tiger Gate. With this project completed, the world would know I am a tiger. Still, the desert winds blew dry and hot like a furnace in summer and burnt cold in the winter as I worked. The cement Russian apartment was a grim container for a tiger, I grumbled to myself. When a man is in the middle of his own legend, he forgets he is making plot choices. The work was slow and painstaking. I undertook each aspect of the preservation with care. Samarkand is now a UN Heritage site. I returned to the US a tiger, but I only knew it after leaving.
One Thursday in DC I had some time off the Human Terrain project, and decided to check out the Freer Gallery’s exhibit of Chinese treasures from the Silk Road. It would be pleasant to escape the work that was rapidly becoming a banal endeavor. Sauntering past the old red Smithsonian, I descended into the cool darkness of the Freer. The pleasant matron at the front desk informed me that a guided tour was about to start, so I chose to go along. She smiled wanly and wished me Happy Valentines Day. I had forgotten, but but returned the smile. I joined the group listening to the guide who was beginning her introduction to the collection.
“Included in our tour will be the exhibit of Silk Road Luxuries from China. For more than two thousand years this vast network of caravan trails has linked oasis settlements across the Central Asian desert, and many of those ancient overland routes are still in use today. …” said Katherine.
I didn’t hear the next sentences. When her eyes finally turned to me, I think her voice stopped. I’m not sure. At some point in this vacuum, they brightened and crinkled, and her lips parted into that big smile, and the world become big and started to rotate again. I think everyone else in the group was looking at me. Again, I’m not sure. The story wasn’t being written by me at that moment. I was just one part of it.
Katherine began visiting me on Thursday afternoons, and then we spent Saturdays together too. She was working at the museum and running a literacy program for recent immigrants. She said they’re people who are making legends of their lives, crossing continents, braving every imaginable humiliation, and loving each other something fierce.
Now, here, I still smile when she talks and laughs. She’s always understood about living your own legend. We kiss again. She tilts her face back a little when she looks in the mirror and puts on her lipstick. She walks out the front door with her silk skirt fluttering in the breeze, cocks her head, and says, “Jack, I’m so happy you're sharing my story again.”
The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron (1937) is a fine, fine piece of travel writing about the area, especially his descriptions of the architecture.
The Man Who Would be King is the delightful 1975 film based on Rudyard Kipling's novella by the same name - men and the pursuit of power in remote places never ceases to amuse.
Samarkand is sure to seduce you once you start studying any part of its interesting history.