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Page 7

I remember Malik, my first client. I remember all too well the way he looked at me, and I remember thinking he looked hungry then. Is that what this is? The thought douses me with coldness and disgust. Is this feeling in my belly and between my thighs the hunger for sex?

  No. That is not meant for anything but work. Money. Men are pigs. I am not a woman, I am a thing. An object, a servant for their needs. Sex is a tool.

  But. . . nonetheless, I cannot stop looking at him.

  He must be in pain. He moans even as he sleeps, trying to roll over in his sleep, but the pain stops him. I remember his hand touching mine as he showed me how to rip the bandage off. My hand burned as if shocked by lightning, a single, innocent touch that set my entire being on fire. I could not help my angry response.

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  The touch of men sets my stomach to heaving, and all the while I am working I must contain my disgust and disguise it with pretended desire, pretended enjoyment. The louder and more fake the sounds I make, the more they like it.

  His touch, this American. . . it did not set my belly to revolting, and that was the catalyst of my anger. I should hate him. He has killed my people. He may have killed my brother. But I do not hate him. I do not know why I did not leave him where he lay bleeding to death. I did not, though, and that is the fact. I brought him to my home. My home. He sleeps a few feet from my own bed.

  He knows what it is I do. He does not like it, although I cannot say why. Perhaps I disgust him, although I doubt I disgust him enough to prevent him from prevailing on my services when he is capable.

  I have seen him looking at me. He tries not to, which is strange. I am a whore. Why should he worry about my privacy? But he does. He looks away when I clean myself for the next client, when I change and reapply my makeup.

  What does he think when he looks at me with those blue eyes? Does he hunger for me like all the other men? They hunger for me with the desire of the flesh. They see me as good for one thing. They barely know my name. And even that is not my name.

  Maybe he sees me as a woman, a person.

  No. Surely not. Why would he?

  I blink, and he is awake, watching me watch him. I force myself to meet his eyes without looking away or flinching. I want to hide from him. I cannot shake the sense that he sees into me. That perhaps he can see my thoughts, my secret desires, despite the language barrier between us.

  He speaks to me, says something soft in his low, rough voice like distant thunder. I watch his Adams apple bob in his throat, watch his lips move. I wish I knew what he was saying. He asks me a question and waits for an answer as if I understood him.

  He touches his chest with a palm, and says one word: "Hunter. " Then he points at me and shrugs his shoulders. He wants to know my name.

  I stare at him, considering. I have not told anyone my real name in a very long time. Not since Malik.

  I touch my chest between my br**sts. "Rania. "

  Why did I tell him my real name? It is not as if he would know the difference.

  "Rania. " He says my name slowly, as if tasting it on his tongue.

  I know the answer when he speaks my true name: I do not want him to know Sabah, the prostitute. I want him to know Rania, the woman.

  Why, though?

  I do not know. But that is what I want.

  I try his name: "Hunter. "

  He smiles when I say his name. I wish I could pretend to myself that his smile, even a small one like this, just a slight tipping up of his lips, did not make something flinch and flitter in my belly, clench in my secret heart. His smile is genuine. As if he does not want anything from me but to see me smile back.

  I know better. I know what he wants.

  So why am I smiling back? The corners of my mouth are lifting in a real smile, not a fake one like I give the clients. It is a smile that delves into my heart and pushes away at the heavy darkness. My smile is drawn from his, inspired by his, and it feels good on my face, in my soul.

  Reality reasserts itself, and I get to my feet and move to the window. Why am I smiling at him? Why is he here? Why did I save him?

  Another pair of blue eyes stare at me, these long dead, long since banished into the world of memory. Another American, dying by my hand. In the realm of remembering, my hands jerk, my shoulder twinges with the kick of pain, and there is a deafening roar. An American, young, handsome, blue-eyed and innocent-looking, dies. I watch him die. Watch him gasp for breath.

  I had nightmares for a very long time about those sky-blue eyes staring through me, veiled by death. I would wake up alone in my blankets, Aunt Maidas scraping breath nearby, Hassans louder snoring to the other side, and I would still see sky-blue eyes boring into me, seeing my soul with the blank stare of a ghost.

  I still wake up some nights, seeing those dying eyes.

  That long-dead blue-eyed man is why this American, Hunter, is in my home. Perhaps if I save him, I will not dream of dying blue eyes any longer. Perhaps I will see the living eyes, Hunters eyes. Not merely sky blue, but the hot, sharp shade of lightning, of the ocean, which I saw once in a trip as a little girl with Mama and Papa to see someone in Beirut. The ocean was rippling and moving and endless and so, so blue, like a field of many sapphires. I see this same shade in Hunters eyes, and it frightens me. It hurts when he looks at me. His eyes spike through my hard walls and see into the secret softness hiding deep within my soul.

  I can feel his eyes on me as I stare out the window, and I wish I could ask him what he is thinking. I realize I can say whatever I want. He will not know what I am saying.

  I turn and look at him over my shoulder and let words pour out, knowing my secrets are safe.

  "What are you doing to me, American? It is as if you are crawling underneath my skin, somehow. I feel you in my heart, and I do not know you. Your eyes see into me. I hate it, and I love it. I do not want you to see me. I am dirty. I am ugly inside. Men see my beauty, but not my ugliness. Or perhaps they do see it, and that is why everyone hates me, except when they want to pay me for sex, pay me for my beauty. " I return to sit cross-legged on the pallet of blankets next to him. "I wonder what you see, when you look at me. Do you want me? Do you want to touch me? Do you want me to be the whore for you?" My voice is angry by the end, not yelling but rather intensely quiet.

  I can see the confusion on his face as he hears me speak but understands nothing. He hears the anger, though, and feels it to be directed at him. I do not feel bad for his confusion, even though he has done nothing wrong to me yet. He will. He will expect me to be the whore for him, someday. He knows what I am, and that is all I can be now.

  I am not Rania, the woman; I am Sabah, the whore. Now and always. For him and for every other man.

  I turn away and prepare food for us both. I keep myself focused on the food when I hear him struggling to sit up. He hates showing pain. I know this about him already. He has to be strong all the time. No pain. No weakness.

  I bring the food to him, and he eats it slowly, carefully. Each motion costs him pain. I wish I had some kind of medicine to alleviate the pain, but I do not. It is too much money, especially now that I am feeding two.

  He thanks me when he is finished eating, using the only word of Arabic he knows. This time, when I say "you are welcome," which I taught him yesterday, he teaches me to say it in English. He says "thank you" in Arabic, and then repeats himself in English, his hand on his chest. Then he points to me and says "you are welcome" in Arabic, and repeats it in English.

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  We spend the morning exchanging words. I show him bread and teach him the word for it, and he teaches me the English equivalent. Objects are easy to learn, but abstract concepts like "please" are more difficult. I want to talk to him. I want to know how his thoughts flow into words.

  My first client is scheduled for just after lunch. I find myself dreading it even more than usual. I hate the unreadab