Part 1: Sunday Morning in Baghdad
“Where did you learn to use a gun like a sewing machine?” The eager TV reporter imbedded in the special squad asked impatiently and sagely but not mockingly.
Dr. Tanya, diplomat, fourth generation Red Army Faction exobiologist in Iraq, checked her rifle — a Kalashnikov — for firing.
She wanted to savor the aura and appearance of it. Connection meant tunneling. Communication became the life force.
She threw the plastic replica of her own head (with the bullet-hole between the eyes) down the incinerator, along with the meager belongings of the deceased look-a-like actor she paid to play her ex-partner, Kyzyl. “So you’re a descendant of Genghis Khan, are you?” The flamboyant reporter smirked. “Funny,” he smiled, trying to distract himself. “You don’t look like John Wayne.”
She ignored him. Soldiers strolled below her high-rise apartment window, the evening after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Dr. Tanya had the Kalashnikov trained on a group of teenage women, below as they rocked their baby carriages.
The last recalcitrant rays of August sunlight washed Baghdad’s crowded streets. A caravan of military tanks slid over a few feet between the Mountains of the Two Horns, a yellow barren stone and stopped beside the Tigris.
The TV reporter watched two cockroaches running across the carpet, onto the tile. “Machines don’t break. Machines are better than people,” he told Tanya. A cool breeze rushed over his damp chest.
On the horizon, a salmon slit swallowed a blue bay of petrified houses. In the distance the gas-burning oil wells presented an eternal flame of money. Hours passed.
Tanya watched the light above the gates of a mud-brick house below. She saw the carvings and wondered whether the crescent above the door stood for the downward curves of the Tree of Life.
Tanya bought a similar ancient, Sumerian relic in Basra, dated 3,800 B.C. She hung the same horned symbol on the doors above her office in the Russian Consulate in Los Angeles.
Fiction can truly design one’s personality, she thought. Who am I this month? A player in the theatre of war, she pondered. To have diplomatic immunity, to commit diplomatic crime–as a mercenary and a research scientist–that is my life, but who am I tomorrow morning?
Governments made sure she found everything ready and at her disposal for each new exquisite fantasy. And the most dramatic of fantasies was not playing soldier of fortune in Iraq tonight, but war inside an intimate relationship.
Who am I this moment? Tanya studied her reflection in the mirrored window shutters. Soldiers of fortune are absolute suckers for dramatic solutions to a war, she thought.
The reporter swallowed a handful of fava beans and washed it down with tea. “What are you doing?”
“Watching someone give birth.”
Across the courtyard, Tanya lifted her binoculars toward a window with a half-drawn shade. Inside, a heavy, naked woman squatted on a birth chair. Her ten children encircled her, until her husband led them out of the room.
The woman bore down to push out the baby, twisting a prayer rug between her teeth and making animal noises. The guttural sounds grew so loud that the reporter shouted, “Who’s making love with such emotion? It’s very arousing.”
Tanya laughed like a witch. “There’s a woman across the street having a baby, not making one, darling!”
“Well, it’s unmanning me. I’d rather produce a travel show.”
“Let the sword decide.”
“Decide on politics or money?”
“It’s an ancient Fertile Crescent proverb. The sword gives life in the form of the ancient sign of the umbilical cord cutter–the Sumerian written symbol for woman. Think of it–woman symbolized by the knife!”
“Like a sharp tongue that cuts with nagging words?”
“Shut up, Mr. TV Reporter. I’m paid well to finish this rotten job.”
Her Kalashnikov again jutted out of the window. Between an opening in the tenements that rose above the mud-brick rectangles, her Iraqi contact watched her apartment complex and prepared to signal her at the right moment.
The new controller, the man who sat second in line to the power in Iraq, stood near his car and dabbed at the tears in his eyes. He began a speech of hope for his people, promising more free education, more free medical care, and more free housing. His voice grew angrier when he spoke of the downfall of those in office who kill those who criticize the one opinion in control.
Around the bend of buildings, at a forty-five degree angle from Tanya’s window, a circle of young mothers stood rocking their baby carriages. They listened to the speech.
One young mother was the potential assassin. Tanya glanced at the suitcase of money she received. One Russian working for one American expatriate hiding in Central America paid her two million American dollars for taking out the potential killer of the new and secret strong boss — not yet in office.
Below, the teenage mother, covered in her black abaya, chatted in a high key to other teenage mothers. The male relatives who escorted them to the souk to buy vegetables laughed loudly. The women straightened their babies’ blankets.
On a nearby high-rise rooftop, a pulse of light bounced off a mirror. Inside the room, Tanya froze with fear. She fought it, bearing down on the fear like a woman bears down to push her womb empty. Tanya took aim with her arms slightly parted. She hugged the ledge. The walls evaporated.
Tanya emptied the clip into the woman. The teenage mother, who rocked her two-year old, now clutched her pregnant belly as the rounds passed through her navel, keeping her upright and driving her back against Tawil’s bakery window and then through the glass.
The other women and their male escorts whirled around by the impact. The noise stopped, and the newest one in control never knew his life depended solely on Tanya.
Tanya peered through high power infra-red binoculars as the woman below tore at her belly. White flashes whammed across the woman’s eyes. Tanya turned up the high power and stared at the tattoo of three blue dots in the cleft of the woman’s chin.
The full-lipped woman, a Mrs. Abdul Azziz Hamrah, also known as Om Ahmed (Ahmed’s mother) fell. Her last scene before the final curtain turned the ancient Babylonian street again into a place where the air reeked of blood and manure.
The joy of directing and producing the scene was almost unbearable for Tanya. The power in her pornographic gun instantly catapulted her to stardom. “Capture it on film, Mister Tee Vee Foreign Correspondent!” She commanded with a silent hand signal.
Instantly, the TV reporter crouched at the window ledge with his video camera. She found the ambient hum distracting.
“I hate video tape,” she whispered. “If only we had 35 millimeter film and a solid camera. It’s not going to be broadcast quality in Moscow.”
Part 2: Sunday Morning in Baghdad
“Try getting a field camera on the midnight flight out of Iraq with a forged passport in the middle of an invasion,” the reporter complained.
“Go away. Leave me alone. I can’t function with you breathing down the back of my neck.”
“You want this on tape or not?” The reporter argued. She pointed to the window. The reporter angled the camera, focused the long-distance lens for a close-up on the teenage mother’s face in the street below. He checked the sound system. And the video tape whirred.
From Om Ahmed’s body came a long, loud burr of stinking bowel gas, like rotten eggs. Her mouth twisted like rubber, dropping open loosely with a little broken groan.
Bloody vomit gushed from her lips down the side of her cheek into her collar. Her honey-colored doe eyes rolled up, so only the whites showed, red-veined and dirty.
The new strong boss-to-be, not yet in control, heard nothing of the incident. His car moved several blocks away now, and he found a new audience to listen to his speech.
The woman’s whole frame sank from her own sight along with surrounding objects, leaving the pain standing forth as distinctly as a mountain peak, as if it were a separate bodily member. At last her agony also vanished. The Iraqi contact went on amidst crackling, dusty applaud of his people.
I sculptured a Sphinx, Tanya thought. Why do they call it the Theatre Of War unless there’s drama to be enacted?
The woman’s kohl-lined eyes, long-lashed like an Egyptian queen, stared. Her tongue dropped to one side. The one knee that bent up when she fell now flapped open wide apart.
Her baby’s bottle broke and spilled juice in a winding stream to the banks of the muddy Tigris. The little boy slept in his carriage through the lightning grooves that marked his mother.
An old woman pulled off Om Ahmed’s black abaya and edged her maternity blouse over her pale, oval face. A wrinkled face brushed her cheek. She unbarred Om Ahmed. The woman’s fat thighs flapped apart, haram–forbidden, for anyone to see in public.
Om Ahmed’s shaved, pubic region shone through transparent, nylon panties. Her heaped-wheat belly rose like the dome of the Rock. As she gave birth, Tanya took notes. And the camera rolled.
A midwife squatted on one knee and ripped open the dead woman’s belly with a razor blade. Twin boys rolled out like pink basket balls, wailing loudly.
“I ought to get a medal for the accuracy of my target,” Tanya urged. “Clean through the navel, between the bouncing twin boys without even grazing them.”
“With a Kalashnikov? It’s incredible. What if you used your Browning 9 millimeter instead?”
“From this height? Are you mad?”
The reporter quirked timorously, “Where’d you learn to use a gun like an International Harvester machine?”
“In medical school,” she replied. “In Samarkand we use cadavers for target practice. That’s why I left medicine for exobiology. I worked for so many years as a particle physicist that medical school seemed like an explorer’s dream. I’m hungry for more adventure.”
“So am I.” The TV reporter gazed down at Om Ahmed’s firm, wide breasts bared by every man’s hands. Each nipple slowly sank from a brown bud into a shriveled flatness, like two deflated balloons.
“Boy, you really knocked the wind out of her,” the reporter sputtered, choking on the smoky air.
“A second later, and the new hope for Iraq and our contact would be swimming in that pool.” All that prolific motherhood flew out of the cow-goddess while Tanya’s Kalashnikov far above smoked a curl of sulfuric stink.
Om Ahmed played artist at this moment. She captured the strong boss’s audience. A crowd of painted dolls with babies, and mustached men, mouths filled with pignola nuts and palace bread came running from the bakery. The men carried towels over their arms.
Tanya didn’t see the entire canvas that caught the artist’s painting. “To a surgeon, assassination is a fine art,” Tanya said dreamily.
“You never practiced medicine, why?” The reporter asked. “What drew you into exobiology?”
“Science shapes politics genetically. Besides, I get to create the science news and broadcast it in my own way.” Tanya’s thudding heart swelled until her longs no longer had room to expand.
“It’s the ultimate healing tool.” She kissed the opening of her Kalashnikov and began to clean it.
“In Moscow someone gave me a Bible once. I opened it at random and read Isaac’s blessing of Esau: ‘By the sword you will live, and you will serve your brother. And it will be, when you are brought down, that you will break his yoke from your shoulders.’ There’s a message for me in it. I never forgot it when I left Russia. Even there, being from Samarkand felt strange, since I’m of Ukrainian descent, and thank goodness, now a free woman devoted to science and world peace.”
The reporter’s staccato laughter echoed in the room. “I never heard a Russian scientist trained both as a physicist and exobiologist quoting the Bible before, especially not after a hit. The world is changing, isn’t it? Do you belong to one of those Russian or Ukrainian evangelical sects that sought refuge in America?”
“I belong to my career as a scientist and to the world” said Tanya.
“Then what will you do when your employers force you to retire in old age?”
“Needlework.” She leaped to her feet and pulled the reporter toward the window. They looked down as Om Ahmed disappeared into an ambulance. Far away now, the one in control resumed his speech as the television cameras rolled.
Tanya repeated by rote what she memorized from the Old Testament. “‘And Yahweh will send you back to Egypt…in the road that I had told you that you would never see again; and you will sell yourselves there to your enemies as slaves, and no one will buy.'”
“What did you do, in Moscow, memorize the whole Bible?” She patted the reporter dominantly on his shoulder. Tanya pulled away from the heat of his palms on her shoulder.
“Samarkand and Moscow have little in common,” Tanya said. “Kurdistan is another story.” She closed the shutters. “‘Despoiled daughter of Babylon, happy is he who pays you back your payment as you paid us. Happy is he who takes hold and smashes your suckling babies against a rock.'”
The reporter shook his head violently. “Stop quoting the Bible. Stop it. You’re ranting like a hallucinating savage panting after a territorial god.”
Tanya took a deep breath. Something clicked inside her. She ran her fingers along the tense and tedious grey walls.
“That man whose life I saved is a rubber stamp in the hands of his rulers. He’s Iraq’s only hope. He must live. Iran’s foreign soldiers of fortune must not take over Iraq today.”
“Crap, I’ve heard he’s nothing but a slimy drug dealer and antiquities smuggler,” the reporter slurred. “And he’s going to be the next President. The question is–of which nation — Iran, Iraq, or his own country somewhere in the Caucasus Mountains?
“Who will they make him next time? I’m not talking about the Russians. I’m talking about the secret government in the United States above the President who pays us to make and break Presidents all over the Middle East, Asia, Latin America, and inside Russia.”
She placed her Kalashnikov in an oblong luggage piece and slid it under the bed. “It’s time to go.”
The reporter put his American passport inside his shoe and took a forged Russian diplomatic pouch out of his suitcase. “It’s amazing how far genuine birth certificates of dead American or Russian infants will go here.”
“Who am I tonight?” The reporter asked.
“Vladimir of Tbilisi, a diplomat from the Abkhaz region of Georgia. Use the Russian name, not the Georgian passport.”
“Another fictional personality, another American dollar…I’m Dr. Delores from Guatemala–a tropical diseases specialist. Does it matter? What’s more important, is who I am next time. All identities can change in war.”
“You took money from the Arab oil leaders, the American billionaires, the Japanese, the Russians. Don’t you have any scruples?”
“Yes. I’m a doctor on a mission to heal the world, and my healing tools are my weapons and my acupuncture needles for healing. I’ll always be a surgeon. It’s just that now there are more things that need surgical shaping.”
“So that’s how you shape your world.” The reporter said impatiently. “Did you ever read the poem called ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling?
“Yes.” She began to recite it rapidly. “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you…”
“I memorized it in grade school,” the reporter replied.
“You’re the first person I’ve met who has memorized that poem, let alone heard of it,” she told the reporter. “Where did you read it first?”
“At a Boston prep school,” he replied.
“So your family had the money to send you to prep school?”
“My dad practiced veterinary surgery,” the reporter sighed.
“And he didn’t force you to go to med school?”
“I majored in English. Then I lucked out in my TV journalism internship. They actually picked me up when I finished my graduate degree in broadcasting and documentary videography.”
Tanya smirked at the reporter. “So that’s the real reason why they paired a new, young traveler with me instead of someone from CIA or MI5 with experience. So you’ve had your only experience with that Baghdad TV assignment for the past year?
He grinned with exhaustion. “The American News Network could have sent me anywhere after my first nine months. I guess after that gestation, being born again here in Baghdad is the best training for being a news fountain, after all.”
Together they continued to recite Kipling. Within an hour, they had made the last flight to Moscow. By the next afternoon, Tanya and the reporter sat in on the final session of a week-long international medical conference on tropical diseases.
During the flight from Moscow to London, the reporter sprawled across two seats. Tanya watched the young man with beige Panama hat snore, open-mouthed, for hours.
Tanya wondered why men always spread their knees so wide apart to take up the maximum volume of space. She kept her legs crossed, trying to squeeze into the tiny space he allowed her. Finally, she nudged his elbow from the seat’s armrest.
Tanya hated herself for a moment until she remembered her brother looked like this fetid-mouthed reporter. Only Sergei’s rat-blue eyes squirmed in a row of subtractions, dashes, horizontal worms. She visualized little equations inching up the pages of her diary.
She slipped the empty diary into her purse. Tanya studied the reporter’s twenty-five year-old features. His eyes weren’t round. They were downturned, narrow dashes, bat’s eyes seen sideways as transparent drops.
Doctor Tanya, exobiologist and theoretical physicist, studied her spiked poison ring that twinkled like a blizzard of gold. She designed a sunburst in reverse.
She suddenly remembered monitoring the reporter’s — well, foreign correspondent’s — TV news show the last week of June. What incredible wisdom did that young anchorman at large impart on the air waves that night? Tanya laughed. Her mind drifted to that particular broadcast.
She imagined what it would like to be on his boss’s TV news program in an interview telling millions of midnight listeners round the world Dr. Tanya’s own childhood secret: Doctor Tanya’s father had announced to his daughter when she was nine years old, that he wished he had flushed her down the toilet with the condom if he could buy one, only it would stuff up the plumbing.
Unfortunately, a conception took place, Tanya surmised, and from that day on the doctor would be trouble. She was born a girl. He asked the midwife to check twice. Maybe there was a mistake. Maybe Tanya had been born a boy, after all. He had no such luck.
Tanya merged with the image of the reporter on TV at the moment. We’re so much alike, she thought, and yet so different. She spat feverishly with foaming white-lined lips. Her career hacked away at her.
Her salary as a prominent scientist in her own nation was equal to what that TV reporter’s secretary earned. The idea of unequal pay for equal work burned a hole right through Dr. Tanya. Would the reporter feel the same way? Tanya wondered.
Tanya killed the foreign young woman who was about to assassinate the new leader of a new, Western Democratic regime in the Arab world. She tasted the joy of being a soldier of fortune. She wondered why she loved the feeling so much. After all, she bet the new leader would turn out to be one more historic dictator given time.
What am I passionate about? Tanya thought. How many other female soldiers of fortune could there be? The pay is more than a doctor could earn anywhere in Central Asia, Kurdistan, or in Russia. Travel and luxury hotels are always free. And research on tropical poisons are a life-long intellectual pursuit. It’s good to be an exobiologist, Tanya believed. Her mind drifted to a future in Brazil.
She held the sleeping reporter’s hand. Her own hand was leathery, calloused from use, and very strong, as if all her frustrated power found expression through her fingers. In contrast, his reporter’s hands were soft and pink like those of an eternal boy. She looked down at him while he slept and visualized him dressed as Peter Pan or Robin Hood in medieval tights. It made her laugh nervously.
She held the reporter’s hand a bit tighter and thought of him as almost her double. The two personalities could easily merge — except for one crucial difference. She was a woman, and he was a man at least twenty years younger than her.
He clowned. Tanya talked dead serious. Her cauterized heart had no room for play if adventure struck. Yet work for him had to be play and new surprises. His passion was play. If it isn’t fun, he wouldn’t do it. The reporter took his play so seriously, Tanya imagined, that she saw him reading scholarly journals on the psychology of fun. That journal had been lying in his lap for reading on the plane. She stared at the magazine. If only she could play at her job. But her assignment took life seriously. His did not.
She smirked as she thought the reporter could be what her grandma in Kiev called a catch — skilled, single, and smart. As a reporter with a foreign correspondent’s staff job in television, he could be in demand for the next thirty years. He wouldn’t be asked to get a face lift at forty-five as a woman TV reporter might to remove bags under the eyes. No, he would be given plenty of bags to carry abroad as a foreign correspondent. As a pathologist, she could hide behind the wrinkled mask of a respectable profession. There was such a shortage of princes in Kiev or Saint Petersburg or even her parent’s land of exploration — Samarkand.
While he slept, Dr. Tanya mulled in her mind the way the reporter had told her upon first meeting that he had moved to Beverly Hills when his first wife mysteriously drowned on a separate vacation after a year of marriage. At twenty-five, he said he felt too young to have children. “After forty, I’d consider it, if I ever married again by that time,” the reporter had said emphatically.
Dr. Tanya wondered whether in Beverly Hills, New York, or Atlanta, the reporter would find other TV local news princes; or in Baghdad, other foreign news correspondents, imbedded with troops on secret missions with contractors or soldiers of other leaders’ fortunes that challenged him. She wondered if finally he would fail at his toughest challenge: the ownership and control of his own career as a salaried reporter.
Tanya held the sleeping reporter’s hand all through the long flight. She waited and listened, listened and waited. Her heart stretched a molecule at a time over a kettle drum probing for one shattering boom. Suddenly the old memories danced before her.
Once again, she was back in the villages outside Samarkand. She was sixteen years old. Tanya and her Eastern European parents moved from being foreigners in Kurdistan eastwards to the dry mountains to escape the hunger. Snow glistened in the high deserts.
One day her Ukrainian father, with gleaming, cherry-black beard, pink cheeks, and eyes the color of tan potato skins, sneaked up behind Tanya’s sister-in-law with an ax. As she hung clothes on the line, that ax thudded with fury on her head. When she turned in surprise, he caught her on the chin.
In a tiny village in Samarkand, surrounded by crystal lakes shaped like skulls, the bottomless lakes filled with monsters. Tanya saw her father’s face in every man.
Her sister-in-law’s blood trickled down the broken cobblestones and froze in tear-shaped droplets. Tanya watched the neighbors crawl down the winding streets to cover the sister-in-law with horse blankets.
Neighbors gawked at her father filled with elder rage, and Tanya filled with fear and shame. They pinned her father to a wooden bench. Tanya threw a scarf over the woman’s face out of modesty and watched her leg twitch like a freshly slaughtered chicken.
Then the mother-in-law wielded a hammer and beat Tanya’s father on the head to the drumming of a-one-and-a-two-and-a-one-two-three. The village police took her father to a Samarkand prison.
The sister-in-law survived. For the rest of her life she fingered the scars of six stitches in her jaw and another six in the back of her head.
“Heads will roll,” was Dr. Tanya’s папа…daddy’s…отец — father’s last words as they led him away. That night he died in prison of a stroke amidst the vomiting drunks, mostly foreigners and Russian workers, inside the same cell.
Six weeks later her mother shoplifted a dress from the main marketplace. A security guard tackled her. She died of fright on the way to prison. Tanya returned to Kurdistan and then to Moscow to study tropical poisons.
Outside her room, waves of snow lapped at the shores of her mountains. Wind-whipped sculpture stood below contemplating nature’s dappling. Once Tanya sought scientific proof in the aristocracy of museums. Now she gazed on it in the simplicity of clay and the stone folk.
To be a paid mercenary, a soldier of fortune in the armies of oil smugglers, battlefield robotics architects, and arms dealers — now that pays a thinking woman what she deserves, Tanya reasoned.
At first her weapons were chemical. Tanya officially dealed in tropical poisons, herbs, and medicines for individual hits arranged by a coterie of selective governments and selected media. She picked up a copy of the reporter’s first book, Confessions of a Foreign Correspondent, and thumbed through the pages.
And what was Tanya’s first book? Her empty diary. Instead, there were cans of unedited videotape stored in Moscow. She thought about Iraq and wondered whether her thinking was quintessential. Should she rely, instead on her life purpose of world peace? Maybe she made decisions too quickly, before all the information came in.
Her mind drifted back to Baghdad. She wondered what the inside of an Iraqi brothel looked like — the sounds, smells, textures, colors and emotions. She imagined what the inside of an Egyptian prison was like, then a Guatemalan prison, a Brazilian brothel. She dozed off.
She daydreamed. Men chipped away at their old gods shielding themselves by the stomping of women’s wombs. Golden fingers hammered golden notes into symbols to be worn around the throat so music could be frozen in time. Men feared women’s evil eye. The old curse was unfeeling. The family was more important than a woman’s individual rights. Tanya remembered once asking her father the question Why? That was challenge enough to provoke him to beat her into pleasing him.
He tried to beat her into becoming a feeling woman. She continued to ask Why? instead of pleasing him in silence. She remained a thinking woman. He died in prison.
When the divorce came, the children, house, car, and money would all go to the husband in Iraq. Without parents or siblings, a divorced woman went crazy. In Samarkand one could always appeal to the Russians and other foreign workers, Tanya thought. She tried everything to appeal — a tummy tuck, a breast implant, an eyelid lift. And she never even worked for a television network. Nor did she ever get asked by her employers to defer to men or to bleach her medium dark ash brown hair or to get cheek implants. No one told Dr. Tanya, “You look so old. Get those eyelid lifts like yesterday.” All at once Tanya’s freedom became meaningless. A little trail of grape juice left her purplish lips.
An angry spit exploded on the floor. The reporter stirred and stretched. He studied Tanya through glazed-over eyes.
“Hi, chief,” the reporter whispered behind his spectacles, like a Clark Kent mannequin as he stretched and yawned a vapor of fetid breath in her face.
“How do I look as a paid soldier of fortune?” She feverishly kicked the words. Tanya’s throat clicked in tight knots.
The reporter rubbed his fingers along his face scars.
“You know, Doctor Tanya, you’re getting a moustache,” he told her.
Tanya glanced at him sharply, narrowing her black eyes to slits. “A lot of Mediterranean and Central Asian women have this problem. I’ll call my electrologist when we get to Los Angeles.”
“Doc, it’s more than a moustache. I hate to be the good friend who tells you, but you have one long, black hair on your chin. At your age, that’s an estrogen imbalance.”
“All right…. That’s enough. I’ll check it out with my gynecologist.”
“You’re too old for the pill.”
She whipped out a compact mirror and looked at it. In a moment, Tanya fished for a pair of tweezers in her make-up pouch and yanked out the hair.
“A news man notices every detail,” he said.
“So do exobiologists, surgeons, and theoretical physicists.”
She thought to herself: The men who came to strangle me were shrinking my world like the most delicately tinted of bubbles, shrinking in ever narrowing circles from the upward gush of my own infancy.
Tanya closed her eyes and leaned back lost in thought. The hum of the plane’s engine soon lulled the loud-voiced reporter back into a restless sleep.
Why and how did I teach him to insult me? Tanya thought. Why did my body shrink inwardly instead of shoot out? Why did I relinquish power over myself to a television foreign correspondent with network news anchorman ambitions?
Chase me through dark cellars as a child. Catch me as a mistress with an ax coming down on my head. Within this body, within the wrinkling tissues that rock gently in my sea of misery is the source of a trillion lives.
Rock me quietly, nosey newsman, Tanya thought. I’m the last born of an old cycle and the first born of the new. I’m a thinking woman, Mister Foreign Correspondent. Metal shall become flesh, human become machine. You shall not drink more power from my body.
There was a taint of decay in him. I shall bury you, my controller, she thought. Her mind swept past the small details to focus on how gravitons could be used as radio waves for communication beyond the universe’s theoretical membrane barrier to talk with beings in other universes with different laws of physics.
The reporter awoke. Tanya trembled in his arms as he held her through the plane’s turbulence.
Those last few days in Moscow with him he grew worse. He grew violent, consuming her. His descent had begun: from a once serious reporter to a tortured beast with multiple personalities. She wondered whether a tumor pressed on his right lobe.
At last they arrived back in Los Angeles. Once inside his new condo, his patterns grew familiar.
“You can’t tolerate responsibility, can you?” Tanya chastised him.
The reporter barked. “Don’t start treating me like my mother did. She’s a man-hater. I can’t stand her criticism.”
“A man hater, eh? So that’s what they call a feeling woman in America. My motto is never fall in love with a man who is angry at his own mother. We are so much alike we can only be arch-enemies. Me and my angry father, and you and your angry mother — two peas in a pod. I bet your mother only wanted affection from her husband.”
The reporter turned around, bent down, and shoved his butt in her face. “See any tail up there?” He taunted. “I’m a man, not an animal.”
“My dog is loyal and protective. I feel safe with my wolf-dog,” she stammered. “I don’t feel safe around you. You should see a neurologist, Mister Reporter. You had a seizure on the plane. Don’t you remember?”
“If something was growing on my brain, I’d have headaches.”
“Don’t you remember when you get violent?”
“Violent? Me? I’m a pussy cat on your work evaluation chart, doctor. What type of man’s good for a thinking woman?”
Tanya asked the question Why? again while she brushed her teeth the next morning. If the reporter had been anything like her father, the wall would come up and cut her off in mid-sentence. The persistent reporter never cut her off. He listened. In fact, he rarely said anything at all.
“Why do so many men cut women off in mid-sentence?” asked Tanya at the breakfast table. “Why do they spread their knees so far apart in a plane or bus seat and unfold their arms across the top back of the seat to take up most of the room, while women crouch in a tiny space, knees together? Is it all done because a man is trying to deny space to a woman and punish her because he thinks allowing seat space means she is trying to control him?”
There was stony silence from the garrulous reporter’s direction. He sat at the breakfast nook and laced his Reeboks.
In the days that followed, the network news foreign correspondent from Los Angeles and New York sat in silence. She had decided he kept his silence to drink more of Tanya’s power. The reporter’s patterns were growing. Tanya’s world shrank to the threshold of the door. She wondered whether her fear had amplified because he came from an upscale family, a veterinary surgeon father who owned an animal hospital and hired other vets and an animal technician mother who shelled out tuition for prep schools.
Tanya thought about how her achievements had been judged on merit only, not family money. She compared her own dad’s janitorial work with the reporter’s surgical veterinarian father. Yet both met and worked together on the same salary of meritocracy.
That night she couldn’t sleep. She listened attentively to an outrageous audio recording of the reporter’s style. Yes, he’s anchorman material, Tanya thought. His voice of resilience radiates confidence. His life is an open phone line. Mine is a shrinking agoraphobic world. Yet he’s the one with hormone imbalances. She longed for his open phone line.
The reporter drank more of her power. Tanya only moved in with him the week before–when his latest female roommate tossed him out, right after he returned from overseas.
He tried to catch her in the act of thinking for herself. His body a sheet of light, a subtle electric fire, tried to peak hers. Tanya intellectually taunted him. Her 185 IQ over his 120 IQ. He extended his extroverted reporter’s ego on metal legs closer to her introverted particle physicist and exobiologist’s reflective panorama. Metal became flesh in a sea that was no longer the cold salty well of sanity she found soothing in the 1963 poems of Sylvia Plath. Two career professionals at their peak of work and buzz appeal in competition or coopetition could never be two equals in love, Tanya thought.
When the reporter had picked Doctor Tanya’s mind clean and judged her unable to draw any more power from her words or deeds, he plugged into a new foreign correspondence assignment. In his newest assignment in the field, he glowed up in a burst of color. He flailed out on his own note. Inside, there was utter silence.
She remained year after year in her same career. He moved around the globe. Tanya’s work life became all pulses of strong light and textures. Inside her were foreign nations of all the textures, moods, and music of the rainbow. But she called her rainbow the drainbow. Each area of color moved and concentrated and throbbed for life. And every color was a nation that voted to be its own ruler. It was as if every cell in Tanya’s body was a nation unto itself.
Only seven days together passed between them. The reporter told her to plan a quick, succinct dinner. Simplicity is what she made for dinner with a phone call to the caterer.
The reporter slurped his borscht and smetana. “You call this fun?”
“You can’t stand to see me happy,” Tanya whined. “Every time you come back from one of your soldier of fortune jags with a suitcase full of money, you turn into a beast.” Tanya’s eyes widened. “I thought you were a loyal foreign correspondent for that network news station.”
“What should I do? Go back to Boston or Los Angeles, and teach bonehead English?”
The television reporter swung his arm across the table and sent the fruits flying to the carpet.
“You clean up this mess!” Tanya shouted a stream of epithets in Ukrainian and again in Russian. “This is why I left Kiev in the first place.”
“Mess?” the reporter shouted. “What mess? I’ll show you what a mess is, you mail-order whore.” He picked up the food and dumped it on the Persian carpet. Then he opened the freezer and pushed out the contents and threw everything on the floor.
He shoved out the newly peeled apples, bobbing in water, and dumped them on the carpet. He lifted the milk, the tomatoes, the cold cuts–everything that the caterer’s truck delivered, and threw them on the floor.
Tanya watched in torturous belief. She tried to analyze the man who only last month thought he would ask her to be his on-air expert in her physician and scientist’s roles. But he only wanted a brief on-air interview.
He chose, instead, a young woman theoretical physicist from a prestige university to interview for a half-hour. Tanya memorized this reporter’s style, but had to look up his personality style over cambric tea in an English language thesaurus.
That’s when she mentally labeled him a take-away, charismatic man at home with every stranger, but a stranger at home who shunned responsibility unless it involved reporting the news from a unique location overseas.”
She looked straight down his heart. She felt the shudder of shrinking caves of powerlessness beneath her feet. He would never grow up. And she wanted a man who could be responsible, slow to anger, and the potential father of her children, should she adopt them from orphanages where they remained in dark caves of critical thinking.
The reporter backhanded her, and Tanya jerked her head away almost robot-like in the direction of the slap. An ellipse of color formed on her cheek.
Gazing into the reporter’s face was like looking into the glossy side of a toppling wave and seeing herself a failure. His square-jawed face extended so close to hers, she could smell the herpes-infected translucent membranes of his red-veined eyes.
In his pale eyes, Tanya saw herself as a child. For a split second she recalled her own mother telling her that she wrote in her diary on her honeymoon, ‘today I died.’
“You’re not supposed to hit me. It could kill the baby. The doctor said you’re not…” Tanya controlled her emotions.
“You told the doctor I hit you? I don’t give a rat’s ass about your baby. It’s certainly not mine. You and your high IQ sperm bank…. Where did you implant that frozen embryo, in London?
“My doctor saw the purplish heel marks around my navel.” Tanya stared at his feet.
“Those are reeking recoil marks from your automatic weapon.” The reporter blasted. “Who are you? If you’re so successful as a paid soldier of fortune and a world-renowned scientist, how come you went to a sperm bank and purchased number 1357911?”
“He’s a popular donor. No genetic defects for nine generations back, a genius IQ, and a medical student.”
“He donated sperm to more than 500 other women. What’s going to happen when those kids grow up and marry one another without knowing they all had the same sperm donor for a dad? Why did you choose to get pregnant in the first place? You’re probably only a few months away from menopause.”
“The women all know one another online. There’s this club…”
“How come you’re willing to live here? And how come you told the doctor I hit you and then return here for more? You’re free and single. You’re a doctor. If you don’t like our relationship, the door’s open.”
“You have some lethal obsession with me?” Tanya whispered.
“I’ll never let either of you go alive.”
“I know what you have in store for me if I tried to leave.”
Tanya’s head sunk back into the muscles of her neck. She felt a turbulence around the bend of an artery.
“Get rid of it. I want you unencumbered. You heard what I said. Or do I have to perform it on you myself?”
“No. I’ll see you promoted first. Then you won’t want me. You’ll let me move on.” Tanya sobbed. She asked herself in silence: Why do smart women like me who skipped two grades make such dumb choices in love? Tanya reasoned to herself, I won’t sound angry. He’ll calm down. Then I’ll sneak out where he can’t track me down again and hold me prisoner of his mind.
“Get rid of that child.” He spat at her, mouthing the word, accusing her. The silent, infantile threat of her shadow overwhelmed him.
She thought for a moment. Thank goodness he never asked me to marry him.
While he mumbled under his breath, the TV news reporter slowly unbuckled his belt and slipped it off. He wrapped one end around the knuckles of his right hand several times. He began slapping the heavy buckle against his left thigh.
Slowly, he inched closer to her. “You old biddy! You forty-eight-year old discarded tissue!” His words ran together, rhyming each lash of the buckle across Tanya’s face, giving birth to a terrifying cadence.
Like Batman, Elongated Man, Aquaman, Spider-Man, Superman, Captain Marvel, The Green Hornet of her childhood fictions, the thuds, punches, groans, and oomphs rained on Tanya’s petite body.
They both breathed as one, breathed the lint of hate. When he closed in, he finished his sentence by whipping his buckle across her cheek. The metal smashed across her teeth, and Tanya sang out with pain. She flailed, clawing his face with her talons.
She ran toward the door, and another blow stung her spine, almost paralyzing her. Tanya managed to creep across the room.
“Come here, you Slavic dominatrix,” he slurred. “Mama, I’m going to train you to be a real American doctor.”
The reporter stood above her, swinging his belt, patiently stalking her. “Bubetchka! You’re going to lose that baby! What’s your real name, Tanya…? It’s Bubetchka Bratislava, isn’t it — not Tanya? Why can’t you tell me your real name? What secret are you trying to hide? I know your kind — moving around from government to government with your little poison pin on the end of an umbrella waiting to pierce some innocent reporter’s thigh when he’s on an assignment. You’re a scopolamine spy, a truth-serum tease. Aren’t you the poisoned poisoner?”
Tanya screamed for help. Only silence echoed back. The reporter’s face shimmered in a web of fluid. Tension linked them. Singing light flooded into his whole being.
He went for Doctor Tanya’s little black bag and sorted through the unsterilized instruments. A flash of light glinted off the surgical vacuum extractor.
“This worked fine on my dad’s dogs when I watched him practice veterinary spaying.”
He unzipped her surgeon’s bag and kneed her in the small of her back. As she screamed and begged for help, he choked her until she passed out.
The reporter tried six instruments before he found the right surgical vacuum extractor to lose her six-week fetus. A cutting pain seared through her, bringing her into full consciousness. It was all over. As she looked up she saw the reporter bending over her, wiping her with a towel.
“How do you like a taste of your own medicine, doctor?”
She screamed, crawled across the carpet, and doubled over. A spike of adrenalin surged through the pain and dulled it.
When it was over, the reporter’s pulsing patterns rose and slid like colored lights. He couldn’t be human, she thought. Inside had to be an electric grid that made him run. Then she realized that the reporter could only be human. Or a type of space alien that thought of humans as fuel. She’d be better off with a robot working partner programmed only to do no harm, Tanya thought.
The media man was human, all right…too human. He took her pulse before he opened the door. She ran out into the hall of the high rise Los Angeles condominium half-naked, but he threw the bloody towel in her face, and then her purse, and finally her dress and shoes.
He followed her into the dark, empty hallway. “Make sure you see your gynecologist now. If you complain, I’ll say you did this to yourself. You’re the doctor. I’m just a reporter of news, an observer. I wouldn’t want you to have any malpractice suits. Don’t worry. Your own patients never complain. Why should they? They’re all dead.”
“Stay away from me,” she screamed. Tanya ran blindly and bumped into the wall. He handed her the dress, shoes and purse over the towel. The reporter held open the stairwell door for her.
I must stay calm, she thought as she stumbled down the steps. At the top of the stairs, the reporter’s staccato bass voice echoed down the dark stairwell. “You’ll be back a tougher soldier than ever, Doctor Tanya.”
“Only for cold revenge,” Tanya thought as she disappeared into the street and looked back at his window. She visualized the reporter as a man of tautology, on television consistently using needless repetition of the same idea in different words.
Dr. Tanya saw him devolve into a beast pacing inside his kitchen window as he poured drinks. She could even hear him from the pavement below loudly reporting to himself, talking to Tanya as if she were still in the room. “You’re a thinking woman, a mean and lean man-eating machine. And machines don’t break, people do. You’ll be back for more. You’ll always be a mom to me. Take two aliens in the morning, Tanya, and call a robot.”
A moment later, she hailed a taxi and sped to the hospital, her cover, where she worked that season. “Why do driven women like me make dumb choices in men?” Tanya nervously barked at the cab driver as she handed him the fare and tip. He shrugged. “I probably let the sword decide, as the proverb asserts,” Doctor Tanya prattled powerfully.