At sunrise I’ve packed myself onto a tiny rumbling minibus headed for the capital. Outside the ground is frozen and the sky casts the mountains in pale pink and gold. In the back, a live goat stuffed into a plastic bag bleats gently.
It’s Halloween weekend. I’m wearing a school uniform that I borrowed from one of the students in the class I am teaching, both a costume and an attempt to pass unmarked, to control the whole lookalike situation. The fat Kyrgyz grandmother sitting next to me peers at my book. “You must have studied very hard in school to read English so easily,” she tells me, her face a big round prune. “Molodetz, jakshe kyzm.”
Congratulations, good daughter, she says, mixing her two languages, patting me on the head. I reply quietly as to not give myself away.
* * *
Just a week earlier, our plane from Moscow descended over the expanse of darkness that was Bishkek, the capital, at night. I was heartbroken and thinking only of myself, and I cried silently when I saw that there were no lights at night in the city, not in any part of the country at all. Now it’s newly April and Bishkek is burning. The mobs are pulling down the president’s house.
We’ve been evacuated to the Air Force base that launches United States efforts in Afghanistan. The soldiers are black and white country boys who all seem to be nineteen, strong-jawed, out of America for the first time. The volunteer girls can’t wear tank tops; we’ve caused more disruption here than in our Muslim villages. “The things I’d do to those Peace Corps bitches,” one of them said, walking by.
Right now they’re doing karaoke. Letting off steam. They’re stuck here just like us. The throng screams the chorus: Let the Bodies Hit the Floor.
* * *
The winding road up the mountain removes us from the sweltering heat of the valley. In this rickety taxi there’s a man next to me with stubble and pale blue eyes. “A journalist reporting on the genocide,” I said to Peace Corps, but he’s my boyfriend. A month later, I’ll almost get kicked out for this and other lies.
In Kyrgyz, I ask the driver if he has any hash. He shakes his head, taps his inner elbow with two fingers. “Oh, that’s okay,” I say. “We don’t need that. But thank you so much.”
* * *
We’re stumbling back from a Halloween party at an expat club full of Russian strippers. I’m still wearing that uniform. The Kyrgyz schoolgirl looks like a modest cartoon housemaid in space: a black dress, a ruffled white apron, bangs and two pigtails, and a fluffy white hydrangea-sized bow behind each ear. One of my friends has been bopping my bows all night, and they’re crooked. The sun is coming up, a dull haze lightening the polluted air over the Soviet high-rises.
Behind the dumpster of our rented flophouse, the volunteers are smoking hash from Tajikistan off a soda can, laughing. Then we hear screams from the side street and run toward the noise. A Roman centurion and a Statue of Liberty lie on the asphalt, their faces bloody and torn.
“We got jumped while we were making out,” the girl says. She’s from Jersey, unflappable. “It’s fine. Is there any hash left?”
* * *
It’s late November, my twenty-second birthday, a school day. I get up in the blue darkness, and the cow outside moans; my host mom is hung over, she must have slept in. My toddler host brother waddles into the kitchen while I’m making oatmeal and takes a shit in the nearest bowl. With that, I decide not to make him the breakfast that he won’t have otherwise. I am selfish all the time here, but that morning I call it my birthday present.
At school, little boys in black fourth-hand suits play tag with their backpacks on, crunching frost on the soccer field. In the unheated concrete building I go to my eighth-grade class, all girls, my first each morning. Then I see my desk, arrayed with handmade riches, each trinket and toy and purse and potholder sewn carefully from felt, embroidered with my name. Hearts are scattered across these precious little objects, miniature yurts, cards that say “I love you.” My students smile at me shyly in their maid costumes and big round red cheeks. They’re just years away from marriage, and I cannot remake their world for them, I fail them every day.
Jia Tolentino lives in Ann Arbor and writes about money at The Billfold, sex at The Hairpin and music at All Things Go. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Awl, Alternet and Businessweek.com. She’s using her time in the University of Michigan MFA program to write her first novel, from which the opening chapter was published in 2012 as the winner of Carve Magazine‘s Raymond Carver Short Story Competition.