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Page 8

Rania. Her name is music. Her eyes are veiled pools of expression. She hides behind anger, behind toughness. Its all an act. I see the pain. See the fear. See the need. Shes lonely. She hates what she does.

  I think I confuse her as much as she does me.

  Shes back, cleaning herself up. Its a familiar pattern now. She returns from the building next door, a half-destroyed mosque, I think its called. The irony of a prostitute operating in a bombed-out church isnt lost on me. She goes into the bathroom, cleans herself, then sits with me, and we exchange language lessons. Im picking up Arabic faster than she is English, I think. Its only been a couple of days, but I can understand a few words here and there, say a few of my own. I want to be fluent, so I can talk to her. So I can understand what she says. We both have a tendency to say what were thinking as if the other can understand us. I told her about Derek earlier. How we met, how weve been friends our whole lives. How much I miss him. How he saved my life, and ended up dying for it. She heard the pain in my voice and let me talk, even if she didnt know what I was saying. It was cathartic, in a way. Like a confession, if I was Catholic. I can say the truest things in my heart without having to worry about feeling vulnerable. She cant tell anyone. Cant judge me. Cant level expectations at me.

  Why do I feel so rotten when she goes out that door? Why do I care what she does? Ive known plenty of sluts, men and women. People who sleep with anything that moves, anything with tits and a twat, anything with a c**k and balls. In a way, thats worse. What Rania does, she does out of necessity. Those slutty people, its totally different. They have no self-respect, no modesty, no morals. They f**k for the sake of f**king, as if it means nothing. Derek was like that. Total man-whore. Except he was honest about it. He plied them with drinks and took them home and f**ked them, and that was it, and they both knew it going in.

  Rania. . . the look in her eyes in the moment before she walks out the door, its resignation. Disgust. Loathing. Its there, and then gone, hidden behind the careful façade of applied seductiveness. In private, with me, shes another person. Quiet, reserved. She hates getting close to me, hates touching me or being touched. As if shes afraid of what will happen if I touch her.

  I think she expects me to try to sleep with her. To try to use her like. . . well, like a whore.

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  I wont deny the attraction. Shes beautiful, and what Ive seen of her body makes my mouth go dry and my c**k hard. Ive managed to keep her from noticing, but I have to keep my eyes off her when she forgets Im here and changes in front of me, or cleans up in front of me. Shes used to being alone. She forgets Im here and then remembers, blushes, gets angry at my presence, at my eyes on her. I cant help looking at her. I try, but I cant. Theres no privacy in this little house. No door on the bathroom, no curtain, nowhere to change. When she strips her shirt off to change it, I try not to watch her full br**sts sway in the dim light. She peels her skirt off, and I try to stare at the wall or the floor, but my eyes are drawn to the dark triangle between her legs, the swell of her hips.

  Shes all woman, but shes. . . forbidden fruit. Her clients are enemy soldiers, officers, insurgents. We must be near a base of operations or something. I dont know.

  All I know is I shouldnt want her. But I do.

  Shes sitting beside me, staring at me. Her brown eyes are narrowed and inscrutable. Shes within reach. I could stretch out my hand and touch her knee, her slim thigh. My hand trembles beneath the blanket, straining against my self-control.

  She saved my life. I owe her.

  She doesnt want me. How could she? Im an American, a man, a soldier. . . for all I know, I may have killed someone she loves.

  My hand slips out from beneath the blanket to rest on my knee. Rania is watching me with a guarded expression, concealing her thoughts, her feelings. My hand moves toward her, and I sense her freeze. She was already stone-still, but now shes not even breathing.

  I cant help it. My fingers touch her knee. Just her knee. No higher. Her eyes burn into me. Dare me to go farther, yet beg me not to. So conflicted, both of us. She wants, doesnt want. I want, dont want.

  Her skin, so soft. So delicate.

  Rania gazes at me, sighs gently, a sound of resignation, then grasps the bottom hem of her shirt and lifts it up, crossing her arms to draw it off. Im the one frozen now. Her br**sts, unhampered by a bra, are round and full, with small ni**les surrounded by wide dark fields of areola.

  My hands move faster than my lust, quicker than my desires. I want to keep looking. I want to touch her. I want her to keep stripping. Instead, I grab her wrists and pull them down. She fights me, trying to pull the shirt off. Im weak right now, each motion causing excruciating pain, but I still overpower her easily, without hurting her. I force her hands away and pull her shirt down so her magnificent br**sts are covered once again.

  She stares at me in confusion. My hand has landed on her knee once more, and she looks at it pointedly. I withdraw my hand and she breathes a sigh, whether in relief or disappointment, I dont know.

  Rania stands up and storms away, out the door and into the heat and brightness of the afternoon.

  * * *

  When she comes back, she wont so much as look at me. Shes ignoring me.

  I give her some time—there are no clocks here, so I have no way to measure the passage of time except the rise and fall of the sun—and then decide to break the ice.

  "Rania," I say. She ignores me. "Rania. Please listen to me. " This is in English.

  Her shoulders flinch when I say her name, but thats the only recognition I get. Ill have to claim her attention, then. I learned how to say "Im sorry" the other day. It took a lot of miming, but I think thats what she was getting at.

  I lever myself to a sitting position. My broken ribs scream, send lightning bolts of agony through me, so blinding I have to stop and pant to keep the breath in my lungs. My shoulders hurt, too, but thats a dull, constant pain, not like the sharp spikes that pierce me when my ribs are jostled. I wait until my stomach is no longer about to revolt from the pain, and then I force myself to my one good knee. More panting, more gasping, sun-bright lances of pain. Eventually I make it to my feet, or rather foot, and hop and hobble across the room to Ranias side. Im without anything to balance me, as shes sitting cross-legged on the floor away from the walls, doing nothing. Just staring out the window at the cloudless blue sky.

  I move so Im standing in front of her. "Rania. "

  She ducks her head to stare at the floor. I growl in frustration, hopping in place to keep my balance. Eventually, I have to put my other foot down, but it collapses under me and I fall to the ground. Ranias expression is shuttered, and I can tell she wants to move to help me but isnt letting herself. I lie gasping, stunned, fighting the pain, and then work back upright onto my ass, game leg stretched out in front me.

  She doesnt look at me, but now I know shes aware. Listening.

  "I am sorry, Rania," I say in Arabic, and I know Ive butchered it, by the way her lips twitch.

  Im not even sure what I did to piss her off besides touch her. I didnt let her strip. I think she meant to have sex with me, thinking thats what I expected. But why is she mad? Id think that would be a relief, knowing I dont expect it from her.

  She finally looks at me, brown eyes searching mine.

  "I wont touch you again," I say in English.

  Time for an Arabic lesson. I touch my knee and say "touch. " I touch the floor, which shes told me the word for, and repeat myself. Touch various things within reach, repeating the word "touch. "

  Eventually she gets it and tells me the word in her language.

  I know Im going to butcher the grammar on this one, but I say it anyway. Its important that she trusts me. I dont know why, but it is.

  "I not touch," I say, in halting Arabic.

  She frowns. Shakes her head. Thinks.

  She touches her chest, our symbol for "I," then produces a c