She always hated airports. Horrible, ghastly expanses of concrete, tried to make sleek, modern even, but who were they fooling?
She hated what it brought out in people. Unconscionable fear, ignorance, unfathomable slowness, naiveté.
What she did admire, she supposed, was their express purpose: to transpose, to be the vehicle of… transcendence.
It wasn’t long ago that airports, they very act of flying aboard an airplane, was “an occasion.” She was not quite old enough to remember this, of course, but she remembered her father telling her, in one of his heightened states, of the grandeur, the impossible luxury made quite so accessible to him, of air travel.
“You live your whole life fixed to the ground, and then one day, one day, sweetie, it’s like you’ve been hand-picked by God himself to ascend to the heavens.”
She was six then and she stood there, transfixed, eyes wide, in awe. She can’t remember but she likes to imagine that her eyes sparkled too, her stomach tingling.
And now, here she is, a window seat, 32F, next to a young man who must not be older than twenty, drum drum drumming his fingers in a way that makes her want to throttle him, and where is the awe? Where is the transfixion? Certainly not in this blue foil package of peanuts.
The pilot comes on to announce that the plane has reached its cruising altitude and passengers are free to move about the cabin—like there is anywhere to go.
“Is this your first time to Paris?” says the man sitting next to her.
She is flying commercially to Paris, meeting Javadi near the German-French border, taking a train the rest of the way to Ramstein before going back to Kabul.
It takes her a few seconds to realize that’s not the pilot’s voice in the airspace and the voice is directed at her. She turns, fixes a half-smile to her face, and answers no.
“I went right after I graduated from college,” she continues when he doesn’t look away.
“So not very long ago then?” he says, smiling, and she realizes he is flirting with her—and rather shamelessly at that.
“Too many,” she says, playing along, letting her voice go to that octave it finds when men are involved.
“I’m Joshua,” he says, and in a single instant she must decide whether to give him her real name. Surely there is no harm in telling the stubbly-faced stranger in 32G her name.
He smiles, and he has a nice, sturdy smile, she must admit.
“Do you want my nuts?” he says, gesturing toward his tray table. She smiles back.
So she screws him later in the bathroom, an activity of carefully staggered practice. First the gentleman, then the lady, timed just so: lights in the cabin turned off, the passengers around the bathroom beginning to drift off.
In the 10,000 feet haze she’s become a little loopy and if asked would not be able to recall how the conversation led from there to here. Of course he had made his message quite clear when he reached for her seat belt buckle draped carelessly over her lower abdomen, slipped his hand under and caressed the inside of her thigh.
She swallowed her breath then, it felt like, a stab of pleasure striking straight up her spine, settling at the base of her neck.
Then he whispered something into her ear about “See you in a few” and some number of minutes and she can’t remember the last time she felt this hungry.
To be honest, it’s a messy affair, all awkward positioning and she feels self-conscious for most of it. But there is a thrill in knowing just five feet away from her some old man is watching the flight patterns on the screen in front of him and she’s being fucked, about to come, coming, her orgasm growing strong and hard from the pit of her stomach, radiating outward. He puts a hand over her mouth to stifle her moans and she digs her fingers into his back in retaliation. When he finishes he shucks the condom down the toilet and kisses her neck.
“You go out first,” he says to her, and she thinks she would like to do that again.
That was hour three. They still have six to go, and the thing about fucking her seat neighbor that nobody ever bothered to tell her—not in the movies or stupid magazines she would read in moments of desperation at the very airports she despised—is that it’s really fucking awkward after.
Because at once she wants to go back and do it again—she has wondered from time to time whether she might actually be a sex addict—and never, ever see this man again.
Perhaps he is feeling the same—both things at once—because it’s only thirty minutes or so after he returns, his arrival carefully staggered after hers, that he tells her he’s heading up to the bar on the second floor of the plane (yes, it’s one of those), which might be a second invitation or else a poorly veiled attempt at evasion.
He leaves, and she wrestles with the idea of joining him, but now she’s caught herself feeling sad, melancholy, the way sex almost invariably leaves her (and yet how could she be so addicted?). This is how: it’s that wistful, longing, woe-is-me weariness that she is addicted to, that makes her salivate, even as much as she hates it. For don’t we all, in some twisted, sorry way, relish the pure tragedy of our lives, of our own shit luck, of missed opportunities and stolen partings?
Maybe she read that in a book once.
Sex makes her feel this way, it makes her feel longing and nostalgic for the first guy she ever had sex with. When it was through she wanted either to be completely alone or completely enmeshed with the man, to lace her fingers through his and feel his faded scars and tell him about her first tour in Iraq or the first time she rode a roller coaster.
This never happened, of course, though she came as close as she ever would, once, but it was something nice to aspire to, she thought, or else vanish into the dark abyss of her own mind.
Which is where she is now, hour four, allowing her self-pity to wash over her like a lukewarm bath, unsatisfying in what it promises but fails to deliver.
It occurs to her that this, this act of forwardness, of indiscretion, could only have occurred here—in seats 32F and G. The middle four seats were a no, of course, and the pairs on the other side of the plane, she had observed, were without functional overhead lights, which would certainly have prohibited any actual conversation that led to her fucking a stranger in a passenger aircraft restroom.
Then there were the first class seats, again sectioned off, each its own universe it seemed. And so not only is hers a unique circumstance, it is one of absolute normality as well, which makes her feel all the more laconic.
The sadness flows through her, inescapable and yet utterly irresistible.
In her solitude, she starts, as is beginning to become custom, to go over every person she’s ever known who has died. Which is growing to be a long list.
David Estes. Bill Walden. Lynne Reed. Hasan Ibrahim. Too many—so many—people.
Brody, of course. What kind of an abandonment that had been. Or had it? She had sent him away, knowing full well, in a small but right part of her brain, that he would not come back. Why then had she fought so hard for his survival?
“I can’t keep her,” she had said, hardly forming the words, for they sounded so dirty. And yet… she didn’t.
When Lockhart agreed to give her Kabul it became a foregone conclusion. She couldn’t take an infant to Afghanistan. That was absurd. And for all the bullshit she have Lockhart, she said a million small gratitudes the day he told her it was all in order.
Now she sits, three hours from Paris. There is a part of her blindingly excited, to get out of the cesspool of Washington (even a few days there was a few days too many), out of the shadows constantly tagging her—how many dead? too many—and into the world again. To return to a normal that was abnormal. To get away from the electric bills and traffic lights and Washington Post. It reeked in that town. It was horrifying and almost no one seemed to care.
She wants to feel the heat on her skin, the dryness dusting over her eyelids. She wants to feel the rush of recruiting a new asset, of receiving her first piece of intel. Real, unmitigated.
. . . .
When she had had Franny, right after, she was lying in the hospital bed when Saul had entered, carrying flowers and a single pink balloon.
“Hey you,” he says in that soft voice, almost like old times, like he was consoling a child.
“Hi,” she says, pulling herself upright. “I—” she hesitates. “Hi.”
“Mira said you’d like these the best,” he says, gesturing to the bouquet. He is always doing that, always deferring, not taking credit. Even if he deserves it.
“Is she here?” she asks, maybe too eagerly, because a third party to ease the tension would be so welcome.
“No, but she sends her best wishes.” He removes his coat—it was cold in D.C., even for September—and pulls a chair up beside her.
“I saw your dad and sister outside in the hallway,” he says.
“I think they’ve just come back from seeing her.”
She pauses. “Do you want to see her?”
He hesitates, and it occurs to her then that he’s been waiting for the question, but she can’t tell whether it was because he was jumping out of his skin in anticipation or figuring a way to dodge it. It also occurs to her this is the closest thing he has to a grandchild. Or maybe that’s just what she tells herself.
“Sure,” he says finally, a not wholly convincing answer even in its affirmation.
They are standing outside the nursery now, his arm wrapped around her.
“Frances,” he recites, trying out the syllables.
“I think we’ll call her Franny,” she says, on instinct, not realizing there is no “we.” That maybe there is not even “I.”
“She’s gorgeous,” he says, the way you’re supposed to. She is, of course, the thick head of red hair she would grow eventually only golden now. And brilliant blue eyes. She is small, too, just over six pounds. Carrie notes all these details carefully, as if they’re part of a very cute case file she must memorize.
“So… how’s New York?” she asks. She doesn’t realize how much she needs the conversation to not be about her, to not be about this new person, because inevitably, invariably, it all leads down the same road.
“It’s not D.C.,” he says, chuckling to himself. “The streets smell like garbage instead of urine,” he adds.
She laughs, almost out loud, and looks over at him, his fingertips up against the plexiglass of the nursery.
She wants so badly to ask him why he did it, why he convinced her it was worth it—that it was all worth it. She wants to ask him if he’s glad he’s dead. She wants to ask him if he’s upset she had his child. She wants to ask him how she should keep going on. She wants to ask him how she’s supposed to not hate him. She wants to ask him how she’s supposed to not hate herself.
“I’d do anything to get out of this town,” she says instead.
. . . .
The sun is finally creeping through the clouds, though she hasn’t slept at all, too occupied in her own thoughts, the nostalgia. Is it nostalgia if she doesn’t wish to go back? If it’s not wistful? She opens the shade over the window just a crack, lets in a sliver of light, before shutting it back again.
She props the pillow up against the window, closes her eyes, tries to sleep, lets the tiredness envelop her.
She wonders what it would have been like if he had been there, holding her hand. She would have let him in, she thinks, into the room. She imagines him coaching her through the contractions, tying her hair up behind her head, bringing her ice chips to calm her nerves.
“You can do this,” he would say. And she’d glare at him as she cursed underneath her breath.
When it was all over, ten fingers and ten toes accounted for, as she was being wrapped in a blanket, a pink cap fitted on her head, he’d sit idly next to her on the bed, absentmindedly rubbing her back as she watched the nurse attentively.
The nurse would bring her over.
“Would you like to hold her?”
And she wouldn’t be scared and she would say yes without hesitation, and she’d look up at him and he’d smile in encouragement.
And she would hold this tiny person in her arms without feeling terrified or nauseous or so fucking sad and he’d kiss the top of her head as he let the moment in for her, documenting it in his memory to tell her about one day, because he knows from experience she’s likely to forget every little detail.
And to tell her about it one day, when she’s older, when she asks about it.
“She has your nose,” he would say. “Luckily,” he’d add for good measure.
“She’s perfect,” she would say, and she wouldn’t have to hold onto happiness, try to feel it. It would just come to her, because that’s what you’re supposed to feel and that’s what she does feel, without coaxing, without effort. It would be easy.
She’s careful not to let herself buy into it too much, into the idea that happiness would have come so easily to them, because she knows that’s a lie, too. She knows she would have had to coax him into feeling it, into putting in the effort, because she would have brought him back from the dead, like saving someone from suicide.
. . . .
You hate playing this part, of the nagging wife. But he’s been gone for the entire day, without a note, unreachable. You, stuck here with a toddler.
“Where were you?” you ask, trying to keep your tone level. Even the littlest thing sets him off now.
“Out” is all he’s offer.
“I went for a walk.”
You hate yourself for thinking it, but your mind flashes to so many years ago, watching him on the monitors after he’d just come back, his other family looking at him like he was an alien. You can’t just do that. You wonder if he realizes you’ve seen this kind of thing before. You wonder if he’s hiding something.
Because that’s it. You can never fully trust him. You’d put your life in his hands, but who else was there?
“Well I’ve been here all day with her. And I really need to shower. Can you watch her for even twenty minutes?” you ask, your voice growing more exasperated by the second.
“Fine,” he says, removing his tennis shoes and sitting on the couch, taking a sip of beer.
You pause, unsure if you should leave. You feel like you can’t take your eye of either one of them. You feel like you’re mothering two separate people.
“Think I can handle twenty minutes, Carrie,” he says, rolling his eyes, when he notices you haven’t gone.
Franny looks up at him with her wide blue eyes. She walks over to him, holding a book, and places it in his lap.
You walk away then, turning your head once more for good measure, because you can’t even help it these days.
You let the hot water fall over you like rain. You just stand there, unable to turn the shower off, holding yourself up, palms against the wall. It’s been almost two years now. It gets harder and harder every day. This is not what they said it would be like.
You haven’t spoken to Saul in over a year. You lost touch with Quinn.
You know he doesn’t speak to his family, at all. And you hardly speak to yours either. You live, quarantined, isolated, like pariahs, unable to adapt to a reality in which neither of your lives is constantly in jeopardy.
“Carrie!” you hear in the muffled distance.
Your heart stops for a brief moment and you turn the water off immediately.
“Brody?” you call, but you hear no response. You race out of the shower, wrapping a towel around your body, your hair dripping wet all over the bathroom floor.
He’s sitting on the bed though, absentmindedly flipping through the book on the nightstand.
“There you are,” he says and you dart your head forward as if to ask what the point is.
“Is everything okay? What’s the matter?” you ask. “Is Franny ok?”
“She’s fine. I just put her to bed. You were in the shower for a long time, I was starting to get worried.”
You feel your heart drop and you exhale.
“Jesus, you scared me.” You walk over to the armchair by the window where your pajamas are draped over the back.
He puts the book down on the nightstand again—losing your page, you note—and walks over to you.
“You are so tense,” he says. You hold your tongue and the let the towel fall to the floor.
You can feel him behind you, can hear the floor creak beneath his step. He brushes his fingers against your shoulder blade and you twitch, instinctively—or not. You pull the panties on quickly, turn the shirt right side out again.
“Hey, hey…” he whispers, as if to calm you. “Hey…” He runs his palms down your arms, giving you goosebumps. You’re not sure why.
You arch your shoulder upward, toward your ear, as he slips his fingers down the waistband of your panties.
He breathes you in, citrus and clean. You notice his scent now: sweat and dirt. Maybe he really had been running. Wasn’t that what he said?
“Brody…” you say, catching his hands around your waist.
“What?” he whispers into your ear. You think he sounds like a sixteen-year-old boy.
“Why?” he asks, kissing the back of your neck.
“I’m not going to have sex with you right now.”
“Why not? Fuck, I want—”
You walk away from his grasp, pulling the top over your head.
He stands there, his head down.
“It’s been weeks,” he says.
“I’m just—” you begin.
“Not in the mood. Right. Well, what else is new?” he mutters.
“I’m sorry. I wasn’t aware we were abiding strictly by your needs and desires 24/7, but I suppose that’s what it’s been like for the past two years anyway!”
“What is the matter with you?” he asks, narrowing his eyes, his voice growing louder.
“Nothing is the matter with me, but wondering where you’ve been for the past eight hours and then being scared to death is not my idea of foreplay!”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Just what I said!”
“No, what do you mean: ‘scared to death’?” He begins to walk toward you now and it’s all you can do to stand still, rigid, not give in.
“You think I can’t take care of our child?!” he yells.
“I didn’t say that.”
“But that’s what you meant, wasn’t it?” You’re silent. “Answer me, damn it!”
“Lower your voice,” you say, looking toward the door, afraid you’ll soon hear cries in the distance.
“That’s it,” he says, nodding. “You don’t trust me with her. You think I’m gonna… what? Look away for a second? You don’t think I can take care of her.”
You look away from the door then, at him, at the disgust in his eyes, and something rattles inside you. “You couldn’t take care of your other family, either.”
He stares at you. In disbelief, you guess. Because you never discuss his other children, his other life. Never poke at that wound. Never. For a split second you wonder—you hope—if he’ll strike you. Maybe then you’d have an excuse to leave, to get out of this house, and go back.
You hear her crying now, turn to the door, then to him. His face is changed. You walk out the bedroom and into her room, shutting the door behind you. He doesn’t come after you.
You come to bed a few hours later. He’s already sleeping, his back toward you. You’re surprised you don’t find him on the floor, though it’s been months since he’d done that, and it always upsets you.
You climb into bed and something comes over you and before you know it—
“Hey,” you whisper, lifting your head up to speak into his ear. You rub his neck. “You awake?”
He jumps awake then, turning toward you, his eyes wide and feral.
“What’s the matter?” he asks, none of the disgust and hurt from before there now.
“Nothing. I— I’m sorry,” you whisper. “…For waking you,” you add.
“Forget about it.”
“No, I— I should never have said that.”
He pauses. “But you did.” So much of your relationship now is monitoring what you say around each other. You wish it wasn’t.
“Do you believe it?”
“I can take care you. I can take care of you both.”
You swallow, look at him. The hurt is back. His eyes seem sad, pleading.
“I know you can,” you say, nodding. It’s something you believe. Or at least you say it like you do. You take his hand in yours and kiss his palm. His touch has lost all its menace now, in the dark, beneath the sheets. You want him to touch you again.
You say it again, for no reason: “I know you can.”
You kiss him on the cheekbone, open-mouthed, his stubble chafing against your lips, and he catches you then, by the arm, pulling you closer, kissing you properly on the mouth.
You gasp a little, though you wish you wouldn’t. He hovers over you, moving a hand up your shirt, around your stomach, his fingertips dancing over your spine. You arch your back involuntarily, and that’s his invitation.
He pushes your shirt up above your breasts and you lift your arms above your head as he removes it, tossing it to the side.
He begins to kiss your breasts, one then the other. He can hold your entire torso in his two hands it seems. You like feeling under his control. You bite your lip, running your fingers through his hair, then pull his head up to yours. His mouth is open, he looks hungry.
“What’s wrong?” he asks, instinct for him, too.
You pause, briefly. “Nothing.”
He lavishes you with kisses, on your nose, your forehead, your cheek, your lips. He kisses your collarbone, working his way down. Your breasts again, your stomach, your hipbone, the inside of your thigh. You shiver, the sheets scrunch up in your fists.
He eases your panties down, whispering “shh.” He can hear you, swallowing your breath. He loves that, you must think.
He pushes into you a few moments later, letting you brace for it, a moan escaping from the deepest recesses of your throat. He makes love to you, slowly and carefully, as if he could snap your body in half, your eyes shut the entire time. He knows you, he knows your body, he knows where it hurts and where it feels good. It is easy, like that.
How many times has he fucked you in so many years? How many times has he tasted you, and you him? How many times has he smiled at you, your cheeks flushed and hair strewn across your face, before kissing your chin? How many times have you let him come first, then pretended to yourself, hating yourself for not doing your part, wondering if he knows, wondering if he feels inadequate, wondering why you care what he feels? How many places—bedroom, shower, counter, sofa, car, his place, your place, our place, their place?
You open your eyes then, see him studying you. He lets out a stifled gasp and you tighten around him—you’re not sure why. He’s out of breath now, which pleases you for some reason. You look into his eyes staunchly, he locks gazes with yours. The light coming in from the window illuminates the side of his face, but his expression is still unreadable. You lift your chin up slightly, a dare perhaps, because just then he grabs the back of the headboard with one hand and slams into you.
You cry out in pain. He does it again. You moan, in pleasure this time. You can feel your orgasm building at the base of your spine. You spread your legs wider. He does it again. You arch your head back as you orgasm, and he buries his face in your neck, spilling into you. You can feel his breath on your skin, hot and wet, and in that moment you can’t decide which of you you hate more.
. . . .
She wakes, wet between her legs. She can feel it, swallowing her breath again. She looks around, bewildered. 32G has come back. What was his name again? She can’t even remember.
“Sweet dreams?” he asks.
She smiles at him. He seems like a child, and she feels ashamed. She’s about to say something—apologize, maybe—when the pilot does as well. They’re descending, thirty minutes out. Local time just after seven.
Later, as they touch ground, she grips the arm rest, grazing his fingers on accident. “Sorry,” she says, on cue, and he places his hand over hers. Not holding it, just one palm over hers, containing it, an act of kindness. She is thankful.
He de-boards before her—she’s stowed her bag toward the back of the plane. When she enters the gate she expects to find him standing there, maybe wanting more, maybe wanting to walk with her to baggage claim or customs. He’s not, and he doesn’t, and she never sees him again.
. . . .
She’s arranged to meet Javadi outside Metz. She is an hour early and asks her cab driver to let her out at the university quad. It’s cold, December, almost Christmas, snow on the ground. There are students walking around, hands stuffed in their pockets, scarves wrapped three times around their necks.
She thinks of Princeton, of the long, cold winters there, studying for finals alone in the library. Staying up all night. It was so easy for her. This was before she’d gotten the diagnosis, before she agreed to treatment, everything. Even then she knew something was probably wrong. But why mess with such a good thing?
“You’ll be fine,” he says to her, rubbing her back as she looks at him, pleading and unsure. “What are you worried about, babe?”
“Nothing.” He raises his eyebrows as she shakes her head. “Nothing.”
He passes her the dollar bill, unclenches her fist and places it in there. Then he kisses her cheek, tucks a loose strand of hair behind her ear.
She kneels down next to the table and snorts one line, then the next, rubbing her nose afterward.
She waits for it to take effect, waits for her vision to focus, to sharpen, to illuminate everything she couldn’t see.
“I told you,” he says, as she places the bill back on the table absentmindedly.
He empties the last pill from the bottle and begins to pulverize it in a plastic Tupperware container.
“This shit makes you feel alive,” he says.
Carrie is silent as she watches him arrange the two lines side by side, then snort them himself. “Fuck,” he says a second later.
And in that moment she has never wanted anyone—or anything—so badly. He is sitting above her on the couch as she begins to tug at the waist of his jeans, fumbling with the buckle.
“Car,” he starts.
She feels tightly wound, singularly focused, like the energy of an atom when it’s been split. One tiny thing rippling out, a seismic effect. She pushes him back onto the couch and tugs his pants down.
He is older than her, the TA in her foreign policy class, working on his Ph.D with the professor. He’d taken her out for drinks for the first time in October, only a few weeks into the semester. She’d played coy with him—it wasn’t the first time a TA had done that, though she wasn’t sure what kind of message she was putting out to them—not even letting him back into her dorm room when he’d walked her back.
That had come later, over fall break, most of the campus gone back home to study and prepare for midterms. There was no real point in Carrie going back home, though. Her house was depressing. Her father was catatonic, depressed for over a year, since her mother had left. She hadn’t seen him in months, though Maggie made a habit of calling every other day to give a status update. “Still not good,” was how it usually went. After a while Carrie just stopped answering her phone. She had 38 voicemails on her answering machine. She knew they were all from her.
They’d had sex the first time that weekend, in Carrie’s empty dorm room, with the lights off. He was a great fuck. He went down on her voluntarily, licked her clit all night long. He was the first man to ever do that, and her eyes rolled back, delirious.
Then it became this quid pro quo thing. He ate her out, she sucked him off, then they’d fuck for hours. He’d pay for coffee Monday, she would Tuesday. Transactional. He helped her write her philosophy paper and she did his laundry.
He also introduced her to Adderall, which he’d offered her one night when she was studying at his place. He told her it would keep her focused and productive, which had never really been a problem for her. But why not?
She took one, chasing it with cheap red wine, and they fucked all night long, neither able to sleep. She loved the sensation it gave her, of everything being in vivid color. It made real life seem so mundane, so basic. Her head hummed for hours afterward. It made sex about ten times better, too. For that reason alone she always agreed if he asked if she wanted to do it. He seemed to last for hours and she felt none of the guilt, none of the dirtiness afterward.
So when he told her his buddy had told him to chase the Adderall with coke, that it made you horny and smart and brilliant, even more so, she couldn’t say no.
She pulls his shirt over his head on the couch then, running her palms over his stomach. She removes hers too, then her bra. Her breasts drive him crazy. She wants to make him insane.
Her head is cloudy—though somehow clear. She can hear the refrigerator in the next room humming away. She feels as if she can hear her own neurons colliding inside her brain, electric pulses.
She pulls his boxers down, freeing his erection. He begins swirling her hair behind the nape of her neck, anything to hold onto, anything to grip.
She takes him in her mouth, swirling her tongue over the head, then under, back and forth, sucking, over and over. His hips jerk involuntarily and she increases her rhythm, brushing her fingers up the inside of his thigh. He shivers and then, unable to contain himself any longer, pulls her up by the arms.
“Fuck, Carrie,” he says, and she smiles, pleased with herself. He kisses her hard. She licks her lips. She is kneeling on the couch now, in between his legs. She slides her pants down. She isn’t wearing any underwear, much to his surprise.
He cups her between her legs, much to her surprise, and her breath hitches in her throat. His turn for a self-satisfied smile. He begins rubbing circles over her clit with the pads of his fingers.
“Fuck me already,” she whispers, raking her fingers through her hair. He grabs his cock and guides it between her legs, hesitating for a moment. She's already wet.
She slides down onto him and then the room begins to spin. He takes one of her breasts in his hand and begins to massage it, and she holds his hand in place as he moves her hips with his other.
They enter into a rhythm and she moves her hips in circles, soon beginning to pant. He moves his hand away from her breast around to her ass, digging his fingernails in. The sharpness of the pain, contrasting with the slowly building pleasure, make her vision blur.
“I’m coming. I’m coming,” he says. He always says that. It is her least favorite thing about him. That he announces he is coming. As if she can’t actually tell.
He does—come—only a few moments later just as she can feel her orgasm building.
It’s like nothing she has ever experienced before. As if her entire body is on fire, electrocuted, sensations building in her fingers. She can see the heat radiating outward from her palm, can follow the flow of blood, like x-ray vision, up her arms, into her chest. She feels like her heart might explode out of her body. She can feel it beating in her chest, pumping blood downward, past her hips, down her legs, to the tips of her toes.
She lets out a moan but can’t hear anything. No sound except a tiny ringing in her ears. Everything speeds up, going at double speed. Like her brain is moving twice as fast as her body. Like her brain is outside her body.
She sees him reach out, grab her face and kiss her. She sees herself kiss him back. He moves his mouth but she still can’t understand what he is saying.
Something about diabetic lions? No, aboriginal culture. Wait: “Do you want a milkshake?”
She tries forming the word “yes.” She does want a milkshake.
She feels him kiss her, on the mouth, the neck, he runs a hand down her thigh and shifts as he rises from the couch. He walks into the kitchen and a few minutes later she hears music coming from his stereo. It’s his favorite Miles Davis album, she can’t remember the name. But he always plays it after sex and she’s come to expect it, a Pavlovian response.
The trumpet and piano wash over her as she pulls on his shirt, the racket of his action in the kitchen faint in the distance.
Then, suddenly, it hits her. She jumps up, begins pacing back and forth, turning her head back and forth, pausing, pacing some more. She runs her hands through her hair over and over, restless, unable to stop.
He comes back a few minutes later, two milkshakes in hand.
“I had to take a Xanax. I felt like I was having a heart attack,” he says to her. He is talking so slowly, drawling practically.
“Do you hear it?” she says, nodding.
“The thirteenth note!”
She pauses for effect.
“The thirteenth note!”
. . . .
She has arranged to meet Javadi at the Jardin botanique de la Ville de Metz, which in winter looks as bleak as anything she’s seen. It reminds her of the winter Brody came home, watching him through a lens in Bluemont Park, everything gray and blue and dark.
There is hardly anyone there. It’s hovering just above freezing, and she’s walked to a section of the gardens that is completely deserted, away from the paths lit by twinkle lights for the few passersby. There’s a semicircular path that crosses under a few trees, not that they’d be much cover this time of year. He’s waiting there, on a bench, smoking a cigarette.
“Fancy seeing you here,” he says as she walks up and she does her best to refrain from glaring at him.
She sits down beside him, turning the collar of her coat up around her neck. She watches her breath in the air, mingling with the smoke from his cigarette.
“So?” she asks when he hasn’t said anything for a few seconds.
“How are things in Kabul?” he asks.
She looks at him funny, narrows her eyes at him. “Why do you care?” she asks, indignant.
“I don’t. Thought I’d be cordial at least.”
“Let’s just cut the shit. What do you need?”
“It’s not what I need,” he says, taking a drag. “It’s what I want.”
Her jaw tenses. “Ok,” she says, shaking her head. “What do you want?”
“You know I always get the feeling that you don’t like me, Carrie. It’s a shame, because I really do like you.”
“You’re not my type.”
“Not even to be friends?”
“We’re not friends.”
He flicks the cigarette out of his hand and Carrie follows it to the ground, melting a tiny hole into the snow with its residual heat. Javadi removes the lighter from his pocket and begins to fidget with it in his hands.
“What’s going on?” Carrie asks.
“What do you mean?”
“You’re fidgety, you’ve smoked at least a dozen cigarettes since you’ve been waiting for me judging by the butts on the ground, we’re meeting in fucking France in some remote section of a park…. Is everything ok?”
Something is not right. She can sense it in her bones.
“I have something I think you might like,” he finally says after what feels like an endless stretch of silence. He’s pulled out another cigarette and begins to roll it back and forth between his thumb and forefinger.
“What is it?”
He reaches into his pocket then and pulls out a small envelope, crisp white.
“What’s that?” she asks.
“The results of our investigation.”
“Into the death of Danesh Akbari. And Nicholas Brody’s role in that.”
“I think you might like to look. It’s all on the thumb drive.”
She looks down at the envelope in his hands and wonders if she should even take it.
“I assumed you’d want to see it. Perhaps I overestimated you.”
“I—yes, I’d like to see it.”
The words come out before she even has the thought to form them. Perhaps this is a mistake. Because there is a part of her screaming to rip the envelope open and gorge on whatever’s inside, because the information… she needs the information. But she knows the information already—she was there—so maybe she just needs the validation.
And there’s another part of her, a quieter, more timid part. It’s saying run now. Run and don’t look back. This is not for you.
Javadi takes a final drag on his last cigarette and rises from the bench. He holds the envelope out to her, right under her nose, and she looks at him. Maybe she wants him to put his cigarette out in it. Maybe that small part of her is right. But it’s easily stifled, and she takes it from him anyway.
“Stay warm,” he says before walking back from where she came. She watches him go and waits until he’s completely out of sight before returning to what’s in her hands.
She feels the envelope in her hand, how light it is. She opens it, looks inside. There’s a thumb drive. She thinks of his video then, some brief flashbulb memory that goes just as soon.
But there’s something else. A piece of paper, like a leaf from a legal pad, folded into quarters. She removes it slowly, digging the thumb drive out and putting it in her pocket for safekeeping.
She runs the pads of her fingers over the paper, pulpy from age, and then unfolds it. She’s not sure what she’s expecting but it’s certainly not what she sees: a half sheet of paper and a handful of words.
Don’t let her forget me.
Her breath hitches then, in her throat, because the scrawl looks familiar and something constricts in her chest at the thought.
She reads it over again, frantically, mining it for the meaning that she just can’t find.
She rises, ready to get out of this shit hole, and pulls out her phone.
what the fuck is this?
She sends it to him, hoping for a response but knowing she won’t get any. He never answers any texts he sends her. She stuffs the piece of paper into her pocket along with her freezing hands.
She begins walking, back toward the entrance of the park, the week-old snow crunching beneath her feet. She suppresses the desire to pull the paper out again, to burn the image of those words permanently into her mind’s eye, so that she’d dream them if she was able.
She tells herself she’ll open it up again when she’s surrounded by people and less likely to do something stupid but the park seems even more empty now than when she entered and she doesn’t even see another person until she’s all the way on the outside, walking back toward Rue Saint-Paul, on the southwest side of the gardens.
Then she stands there, momentarily paralyzed, huddled under an awning, wondering what she should do. What she’s supposed to do.
She takes the letter—no, the note—no, it’s just a piece of paper—out again. Reads it again.
Don’t let her forget me.
She turns it over but there’s nothing there. She looks for anything else, marks or tracings or a goddamn signature, anything to tell her what this means and why. It feels a little like the world is condensing around her.
She feels sick to her stomach when she realizes she’s not even sure if it’s his handwriting. She can’t remember ever looking at a single thing he’d written before, and yet she recognizes it. Would he be able to tell her handwriting either?
She stands there for many minutes, reading it over, parsing it for meaning.
Don’t let her forget me.
Who? Was it Dana? Or Carrie herself? Was he talking about Franny? Did he know it was a girl? She can’t understand it, understand him, can’t grasp this last wish. She can feel it begin to bore a hole into her heart and set in its iciness there. She wishes she had never read it, wishes she had never fucking met Javadi in this horrible town. She wants to get out of here, wants to get back to Kabul, where everything makes sense and she doesn’t feel like a ghost.
That very small part of her starts to tells her this might not be what you think it is, give it up and move on. Don’t look back, keep moving, run.
She ponders what to do with it now. Is this something you keep? She’s not familiar with these kind of mementos. She wonders if she’ll regret discarding it, like yesterday’s newspaper. There is no manual to follow. No “what to do when your dead lover leaves you a note from the beyond—maybe” checklist to look up.
Carrie wonders why she needs order for some things and freedom for others, but maybe that’s just how everyone is. Maybe everyone needs those kind of porous boundaries.
It begins to drizzle, a mix of frozen rain, and she’s caught without an umbrella. Traffic on the streets is becoming heavier, people leaving work for home, or maybe classes have just let out. Either way she’s suddenly caught in a crowd, in a commotion of people. She begins to move with them, walking with the current.
And then, absentmindedly, as if she is an infant not yet aware of her own hands, she lets the note slip through her fingers, feels the paper chafe against her skin for the last time. She looks down at her hands like they're foreign objects, belonging to some other body, not under her control. She turns around, wanting to pick up the note. Maybe she really should not have done that.
But there are too many people, too many pairs of feet. She sidesteps her way out of the flow of people, to the edge of the sidewalk and watches as one person after another steps on it, this square of white over gray, soaked now in the rain, trampled over and over and over. She wants to say something but no words come and she stands there, mouth agape, watching as it turns into disintegrated pulp.
. . . .
She does run, away, fast, takes the train to Ramstein immediately. She looks out the window, at the dull landscape whirring past, and thinks that this feels kind of like a complete circle. She remembers that he came here, after he was rescued, before she ever knew him. She remembers reading over the transcripts of his debrief in Germany, of him talking about being tortured, having screwdrivers driven into his skin and wound until he cried out.
She remembers, too, before they found them, on the phone with Saul: “see you at Ramstein.” It was supposed to be the end of the road for them both, a split fork that was more like a dead end.
She takes comfort in this completeness, that she found her way back here, even after it all, even if it was eight months too late.
She had only ever acknowledged the role of fate—and her belief in it—once in her life before, and even then, only begrudgingly. She remembers the look on his face like he believed it too and now here—sitting on this train, staring out the window, in this lonely place—she wonders if he really did.
Because what if this is how it was supposed to be? What if he was supposed to die? What if she was supposed to be there? What if she was supposed to have that child? What if she was supposed to see that note and then lose it? What if she was supposed to forget everything that had ever happened to her, including him?
It brought her some degree of peace, removed some of the weight off her conscience, this idea that her life was preordained to end up exactly how it has. If it didn’t matter, there were no rules. And if there were no rules, she was finally free.
. . . .
One night he brings her tea (“you shouldn’t be drinking caffeine,” is what he says) in her office. She is working late, poring over some document or other. It is hard to get back into the swing of things after Tehran. And this somehow gives her an element of peace. And makes her feel more normal around the people she suspects are whispering in circles behind her back—about what had happened and what was about to.
He enters without even knocking—she likes that about him, that he cut out all the pretense—and sets the cup down on her desk.
“For you,” he says. “Thought you might want something hot.”
“Right, it’s only 95 degrees outside.”
“Well, it’s late.”
“So 75 degrees.”
“If you want I’ll turn the air on really high and we can pretend like it’s winter,” he smirks.
She gives him that narrow-eyed look she’s perfected for this exact situation.
“What are you reading?” he asks.
She moves the papers aside and takes a sip of tea. “Nothing.” He eyes her. “Boring shit.”
“You know we have the same security clearance, right?”
“I just don’t think it would interest you.”
“Fine. I’ll stop.”
“I’m surprised you’re here so late.”
She thinks about that a lot. Why he is still here when he’d said so many months ago he was getting out. What is keeping him?
“I didn’t get in until late today, so…”
She nods and circles her index finger around the lid of the cup, avoiding his stare. She can feel it on her like a dagger.
“I talked to Saul today,” he says finally and she looks up.
“Is that right?”
“Trying to lure me to the consultant life. Or contractor life. Whatever it is he does.”
“Why am I not surprised?”
“Yeah I could never live in New York. All those Yankees fans. Fuck. That.”
“The Phillies fans are that much better?”
“Better than the Orioles.”
She laughs, a small laugh, wondering when she’d ever told him about the Orioles. Maybe just a lucky guess.
“Yeah, well I’m surprised you’re still here.”
“You already said that.”
She pauses. “I mean… here. At Langley. I thought you wanted out.”
He smiles weakly, that way he does, that way she’s grown used to. She tries to remember if she’s ever seen him smile fully.
“It’s not the right time” is all he says.
That’s how they get you, she thinks.
They sit like that for a few minutes longer, in contented silence. She realizes there are very few people she feels comfortable enough around to do that—to just sit and think and not worry, or feel self-conscious, or like the pressure is too great.
He makes her feel safe and sure in a way that she can’t articulate, and certainly never to him.
“Thanks for the tea,” she says finally, a little absent-mindedly.
“Sure thing. You heading out now?”
“I’ll walk with you.”
She gathers her things and her bag, her phone. She has a lot of shit, she realizes, once there is someone waiting for her to collect it all.
He stands at the door patiently, watching her move.
“Thanks for sticking around,” she says, turning the lights out and shutting the door behind them.
She never really is sure what she meant by that.
. . . .
She is surprised to see him there. As always. As she always is whenever he reenters her life in some way, like a pesky ghost.
He’s gotten there before her. He has two cups of coffee in front of him. She wonders if one is for her.
“Carrie.” He rises when she walks in and smiles. He seems happy to see her. The entire moment feels shifted.
“Quinn,” she says and extends her hand to his. It feels too cordial and strange, to shake hands with this man, and if she reads the look of disappointment on his face she gives no tell.
“I didn’t expect to see you here,” she says.
“Islamabad station’s representative.”
“Right. Sandy too busy?”
“Something like that.”
She takes a seat next to him and waits for the room to fill. “Is that for me?” she gestures at the full cup next to his.
“Old habits die hard, I guess,” he says, sliding the cup in front of her.
“That’s not such a bad thing.”
It feels good to have him back—even if only for a day—and she wonders when she became so damn attached to his presence, when she suddenly needed him so badly. He didn’t come to Kabul with her but went to Pakistan. She’d be lying if she said that didn’t feel like a slap in the face.
Maybe that’s what he needed. Maybe he didn’t want to work for her. It hadn’t gotten him anywhere good in the past, after all.
He takes sparse notes at the meeting—whose topic is the growing number of insurgents being smuggled into Germany and other European countries through Turkey and just what the fuck to do about that.
She wonders if anyone else in the room knows he’s black ops and part of Dar Adal’s group. She’s never killed anyone before and wonders what that’s like. She had known countless people throughout her life who had, but she’d never had the courage to ask. Maybe she would later. When the time was right. Fantasies and shit.
When the meeting concludes everyone stands and walks out in hushed whispers. She turns to him.
“What are you doing tonight? Wanna get a drink?”
“I don’t know,” he says.
“Come on, don’t make me go alone.” Her mind flashes to a time when she did that regularly:go out to bars and drink alone, hoping to find an unavailable man to fuck her.
“Besides, when am I gonna see you again?”
She can see him hesitate, make a face. She doesn’t know why she has this compulsion to make him do things that he doesn’t want. Or she doesn’t understand why they never want the same things. They seem always at opposite ends.
“Sure. Why not.”
“That’s the enthusiasm I was looking for,” she says. “First round’s on me.”
“Well I’m only staying for one round anyway. I have an early flight tomorrow morning.”
“So do I.”
. . . .
They end up drinking. A lot. She can’t remember ever drinking with him before, but he’s a good partner. He is lively and outgoing—more animated than she’s ever seen him before. He can put away whiskey really easily, a lot more easily than she can.
“Alright, folks. It’s getting late. I gotta close up,” the bartender says to them and the look of shock on both their faces is completely sincere.
Carrie looks down at her watch. “It’s… 11:30.” She starts laughing.
“This is an Air Force Base,” the bartender says. Carrie narrows her eyes at him.
“Listen, can you get her back to her residence safely or do I need to call somebody?” he asks Quinn.
Quinn slides off his barstool and nudges Carrie. “No, I got her. We’ll be fine.”
Carrie downs the last of her drink while Quinn looks on disapprovingly before they both head for the door. The cold air hits her hard.
“Fuck, it’s cold,” she says. She’d forgotten it was the dead of winter.
He starts to remove his jacket and she stops him. “No, don’t. It’s okay.”
“I’m not asking. You’ll freeze.” He drapes it over her back and she pulls the lapels close together.
“You’re…” she begins.
“What?” he asks.
“Never mind. Nothing.”
He begins walking backward then, facing her, his hands stuffed into his pockets. “It’s not like you not to say what’s on your mind, Carrie.”
She sighs, the drunkenness seeming to fall off her like a skin.
“I guess you don’t know me as well as you thought you did.”
She sees her words dig into him—not her intent, but she can’t take them back now. He stops moving for a second, and she nearly walks into him. They’re both still now, standing in front of each other. He opens his mouth as if to speak but doesn’t say anything and she wonders if she’s finally done it. Finally pushed away the last person who seemed to give a shit about her.
“Sorry,” she begins. “That came out wrong.”
His lips curve upward into a smile, close-mouthed, wrinkles around his eyes.
“I get it,” he says, and that hurts more than she thought. She feels like maybe there is something wrong with her, some magnetic force inside of her pulling her away from things she knows in her right mind are good for her and toward the things she knows are bad, speeding at a fatal momentum.
He looks down now, not wanting to see her, she guesses, but she doesn’t oblige him.
“Hey,” she says, the breath coming out between them like fog. He looks up through the haze into her eyes.
“What?” he asks.
She’s suddenly breathing hard, rapid, and she feels like her heart has been wrapped in a fist. Maybe she’s nervous, or maybe it really is the cold. His eyes, so light they’re almost devoid of color, and his hair, close-cut now. His breath forming this cloud of patience around them as she sucks it in, exhales it back out.
“Did you ever fuck anyone?” she says.
He pauses, perhaps to wait for her to say something else, but she doesn’t, just looks up at him, almost straining her neck.
“What?” he says finally. She’s embarrassed him, she knows this.
“Did you? Since we met I mean.”
“I don’t remember.”
She’s surprised he’s maintained eye contact this entire time.
“Did you ever want to fuck me?” she says, almost gasping for air. She wants to get out of the cold but she can’t pull herself away.
In the rational part of her brain she does not know why she’s asking him this. Doesn’t even understand it. Maybe she wants to—fuck him, that is. Maybe she’s not crazy, and the ways he looks at her, the way his fingers linger on her shoulder…. It’s normal, maybe. Maybe he’s never thought about it and she’s just ruined a good thing.
He shifts in his stance, throwing his weight to the other side. She wonders if he’s inching away slowly, because she’s gotten too close. If she reached her hands out, would she still be able to touch him?
She does. She pulls her hand out and wraps her fingers around his elbow. He looks down, at her small fingers, slim and white in the darkness, and gently unlinks them from his arm.
“You’re my friend,” he says, almost too quietly for her to hear.
“You’re mine,” she counters.
“You’re not even gonna remember this in the morning,” he says, trying to smile, like this would be some drunk story they all told their friends.
“I’m not as far gone as you think.”
She wonders why he hasn’t answered her or countered with his own question—did you ever want to fuck me, Carrie? Did you ever think about it? Take me in a basement ops room when no one else was there but us? Go fuck me in that canteen’s bathroom?
She guesses he just doesn’t want to know. There’s no need for validation on his side. No compulsion to get the truth, at all costs, at any cost, his own sanity be damned.
She thinks he is trying to release her hand from his now, but she squeezes it tighter as she looks up at him, coaxes him into conscious, articulated thought.
He says, “No. I never did.” Then he lets go of her hand, ice cold now, and sticks his own back into his pocket.
“I have to get back. Will you be okay getting back?” he asks her, beginning to turn before she can say anything.
“Yeah,” she says and he turns on his heel and walks off in the other direction, back from where they came.
It occurs to her he wouldn’t have told her the truth, even if he had.
. . . .
When she’s back in Kabul, everything is exactly as she left it. The papers in her office in the exact same configuration, dishes in her apartment still in the sink, laundry still needing to be done. Like she’d never left, really. How much everything seems to have come to a standstill in her absence. It’s self-indulgent, she knows, to feed her ego in this way, and the weight of her loneliness doesn’t quite hit her, the type of solitary existence she’s living.
Her deputy asks her how the trip was.
“Uneventful,” she says, and it’s either a blatant lie or the whole truth, depending on how you look at it.
“We’re going to start taking a harder line in the tribal areas,” she continues. “Sandy’s asset is finally ready to talk.”
“Good,” Hank says. “About time.”
“I’ll brief the station tomorrow morning.”
“It’s Christmas Eve,” he says.
“It won’t take long. We’ll be done before it’s morning in Washington. Draft the memo, though.”
He turns to leave her office and stops at the door.
“Got any plans, though? For Christmas, I mean?”
“Yeah, I think I’m going to talk to my sister. My dad makes a big fuss about Christmas.”
That’s when she realizes this is Franny’s first Christmas and she won’t be there. She wishes she felt sad but really she just feels sorry. She remembers the unfiltered joy and awe Christmas held for her as a girl and wonders if her daughter will feel the same. It’s supposed to be a thing, she thinks, a child’s first Christmas.
“Sounds like fun.”
“What about you?” she asks, returning the favor.
“Not much. Might try to FaceTime with my folks. They’re really worried, you know?”
“Yeah, mine too,” she says.
“I think a group is getting together for drinks and dinner, though. Wanna join?”
“Maybe, sure. I have a lot of work to catch up on. I’ll see.”
“Right. See you tomorrow.” He taps the wall and leaves then. They’re the last ones at the station, like most nights, the lights from their offices the only ones left. She notices the growing darkness a few minutes later when he turns the light out in his office. She hears the clang of metal—locking his door. And the soft pad of footsteps on the carpeted floor.
. . . .
This Christmas, in Kabul. Skype with Dad and Maggie and Franny, who’s getting really big. Splurge on nice champagne. An email from him. Fall asleep at 9pm.
Last Christmas, not even two weeks after Langley went up in smoke. Still looking at Saul and smiling, without thinking of death, without seeing the pallor of some white ghost instead. No idea about Franny. Still searching for everyone else, the dead and the living. Takeout in his office as he talked about what needed to happen, what needed to be done, and what was expected of everyone right now.
Two Christmases ago, in the psych ward, the next treatment the following day. Dad and Maggie visited, brought flowers and a journal to write in. White Christmas on the room’s old TV set while Dad sang along in his worst voice to all the Danny Kaye parts.
Three Christmases ago, in Baghdad. A station Christmas party probably. Probably drank too much and probably didn’t remember anything else.
Six Christmases ago, in Beirut. Cleaning up the mess from the attack on Dwelah, running assets, resources. Working through the night, going home at 7 the next morning.
Twelve Christmases ago, in Virginia. With Dad and Maggie. The first after September 11. Dad worrying about a transfer to Afghanistan, worried sick. Maggie worried sick about Dad, still unwilling to get treatment. Saul came and brought rugelach.
Sixteen Christmases ago. The first without Mom. “This is my boyfriend, Greg. Greg, Dad. Dad, Greg.” Trying to be a normal family when everything was falling apart. Worrying about how thin Dad had gotten, he was looking really pale. Maggie going on and on about her residency. Details too graphic for the dinner table.
Seventeen Christmases ago, at home. The last with Mom. Acceptance letter from Princeton arrived a week earlier, everyone celebrating. Trying to be a normal family for Mom’s sanity. Failing. Maggie going on and on about her internship. Details too graphic for the dinner table.
Twenty-six Christmases ago, at the lake with Mom’s family. Trying to stay away from Aunt Judy, who smelled funny. Still believing in Santa Claus, still believing in wonder and awe and something that seemed really impossible. Dad being on his best behavior in front of the in-laws, giving you knowing looks when no one else was watching. Sledding with Dad and Maggie when it snowed six inches the night before. A broken finger.
Twenty-nine Christmases ago, at home with Dad. Mom and Maggie in California, seeing Grandpa, who was dying.
“Will he be okay?”
“When can I see him?”
“We’re going to go see him?”
“We’re going in an airplane?”
“How does an airplane fly?”
“Yes, it’s magic.”
Sitting in his lap then.
“It’s something to do with angels, Carrie.”
“Like Christmas angels?”
“Sort of. You live your whole life fixed to the ground, and then one day, one day, sweetie, it’s like you’ve been hand-picked by God himself to ascend to the heavens. And you’re flying. Above the clouds. You’re flying above the clouds. You’ll see.”