Douglas Light is the author of the novel East Fifth Bliss,
Douglas Light, East Fifth Bliss
© Behler

winner of the 2007 Benjamin Franklin Award for Fiction. His work has appeared in StoryQuarterly and Hobart, among other magazines, and has been included in the O. Henry Prize Stories and Best American Nonrequired Reading anthologies. For more information, please visit his website.

Matters of Breeding

posted Oct 7, 2008

It’s my eighth trip, and it’s my last. I’ve promised myself. I can no longer do this, no longer endure the risks.

My clothing and my luggage are spread on the bed. She’s spread on the bed, too, freshly showered, naked. It’s three a.m., Monday. New York City’s settled. We’ve been together six months, she and I.

The refrigerator’s stocked and there’s money in the drawer. She knows not to ask me where or why I travel. She asks, “How long?” The words this time remain unspoken.

My three passports sit next to my wallet packed with cash.

Niger. The women are the most fertile in the world, averaging eight children each. Nearly fifty percent of the population is under the age of fourteen.

I lift her leg, kiss her thigh. She laughs. “You’ll be late, you know,” she says. Still, she takes my kiss, then takes another.

Outside, the car service waits.

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In March 2002, Israeli soldiers broadcast forty-eight hours of pornography on seven captured Palestinian television stations in Ramallah.

Jerusalem. For three days, I couldn’t get out of bed. Dysentery. I had to extend my stay.

I call her, say I’ll miss her birthday. She’ll be thirty-three, the age Christ was murdered. She expected an engagement ring. She says, “I can’t wait forever.” She’s right. She can’t. No one can.

Israeli gross domestic product per person is $17,220, less than Puerto Rico’s.

Toward the end of World War II, Britian talked of establishing Cyprus as the new Israel. Israel, an island nation.

“I’ll make it up to you,” I tell her, wondering what it was I ate that made me so ill.

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Dawn rips Brooklyn, then crosses the East River, entering Manhattan. We stumbled along Houston Street, trying to hail a cab. The Lower East Side. Laughing, she says, “Tell me something I don’t know.”

“There are no telephone poles in Manhattan.”

A cab stops. We step in. I state the address.

She says, “That’s bullshit.” Her face, tired and beautiful, holds the morning light. “There are telephone poles.”

“Listen,” I tell the driver, counting out hundreds. “Five hundred says you can’t find me a telephone pole in Manhattan.”

He smiles, his teeth are the color of wood paneling. He doesn’t understand.

At home, she strips, and standing naked in her heels, she says, “Tell me something I don’t know.”

I tell her.

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94,600,000. The number of cigarettes Greeks consume in a single day.

The phone line crackles. I tell her where I am, breaking my own rule. I never tell her where I am. I feel it’s safer, her not knowing. “Greece. My God, I’ve never been,” she says, some three thousand miles away. Home.

The doctor told me I was fortunate. The knife barely caught me. Five stitches. The deal is off, though. It was to have been my last. Now, though…

“Beaches, islands, ouzo. I’m so jealous,” she says, distant.

Contrary to what a Greek will tell you, Prime Minister Metaxas didn’t say “Ochi!”—“No!”—when Mussolini demanded that his troops be allowed to occupy Greece. He said, “Alors, c’est la guerre!”

I say, “You’re envious, not jealous.”

She laughs, and I long to be anywhere but here. I long to give this life up and be anywhere with her. “All right,” she says, “what’s the difference?”

“Envy is a longing to possess something awarded to or achieved by another,” I say. Thirty-eight percent of Greek women suffer from obesity.

“And jealously?” she says.

“Jealous denotes a feeling of resentment that another has gained something that one more rightfully deserves,” I say, touching my stitches. They’re seeping. Blood stains the dressing, my shirt. “Believe me,” I say, “you don’t deserve what I’ve got.”

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We marry, honeymoon in Michigan City, Indiana.

Lake Michigan marbles before us. We stand in our swimsuits. Mount Baldy, the sand dune we stand on, I tell her, is a living dune. “A hundred and twenty-three feet tall,” I say. “It moves every year.”

She shivers, though it isn’t cold.

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She wants children. I buy her Oscar, a Japanese Miniature Schnauzer.

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Thailand produces more rubber than any other country in the world, some three million tons annually.

I’m in Bangkok, but not for rubber. It’s my last trip. I promised her.

Day twelve and still no word from my contact.

I call her once a day, at ten p.m. Thailand time. She says, “Oscar pooped on your pillow.” I missed our one-year anniversary, the paper anniversary.

“Perfect,” I tell her, then ring off. I’m not happy about the ruined pillow. I’m not happy. Aside from the deal taking so long, there’s an issue, namely two Bangkok policemen. They came to my hotel, asked that I accompany them to the station. “A formality,” the one kept saying in English. They bantered in Thai. I know enough to know it’s not a formality. “Tomorrow would be better for me,” I said. “Now,” the one said. I motioned to a stack of Baht—Thai money—on the dresser, and asked, “Is this yours?”

“Tomorrow,” the one said, taking the money.

Now, out on the street, humidity eats the sweat out of me. I shop. I buy. I drag the evening out. The two Thai police tail me all night, sadly obvious.

At a popular restaurant, I place my briefcase and shopping bags on the seat across from me.

After my meal, I order dessert, then go to the restroom, leaving everything at the table.

I climb the toilet tank, squeeze out the window, ripping my shirt and cutting my hand. But I’m free. Bleeding but free.

According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, Laos ranks as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Cash and passports in hand, I head north.

It isn’t the briefcase or shopping bags that makes the cops certain I’m returning. It’s the fact that I’ve order dessert.

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There are no telephone poles in Manhattan. All the lines are buried.

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We argue. I’m traveling again. It’s my last trip, I tell her. “You are such an asshole,” she says, stomping out of the room.

I’m surprised. In our two years of marriage, she’s never used foul language.

Keys and purse in hand, she leaves. “Take Oscar,” I say, grabbing the dog.

The door slams. She’s gone. She’ll be back, though. Tonight. Or if not tonight, then tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow.

I pour a scotch. Oscar whimpers. I pour him one, too.

Despite the cold, Antarctica is, by definition, the largest desert in the world.

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Per capita, Iceland has the highest crime rate in the world.

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The IRS, no longer happy with just a friendly audit, raids my office. My files, laptops, passport, and espresso machine are seized. My attorney is on it.

“They took the espresso machine?” she asks, indignant. She’s due in five months. A boy. Oscar’s taken to pissing on everything. He senses the slipping of his household standing. I, too, will go down, my son usurping my position. It happens in all families.

I’m calling it quits, getting out of the business. One last trip, one last deal. Then I’ll start something else. A Saab dealership, or a Pomme Frites stand.

I pack.

“You can’t go anywhere,” she says. “They have your passport.”

“I have another,” I say. “Three days,” I say, knowing it’ll be closer to ten. “Reykjavik.”

“If you leave,” she says, “I’m changing the locks.”

“I’ll knock, then,” I say, and kiss her goodbye.

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Reykjavik is settled within an hour of my landing.

I call my attorney. “Where are you?” he asks.

“In seven hours,” I say, “home.”

The departure board lists a flight to New York leaving in an hour.

I buy a ticket, but not to New York. One last trip.

Africa. Burkina Faso. The most illiterate country in the world, with less than thirteen percent of the adults able to read.

Ouagadougou. The hotel claims it’s five stars. They use a scale of ten. The taste of dust and poverty covers everything. For some reason, I can’t stop vomiting.

A day, three days pass. Then five. I try to call her but the phone is disconnected. No forwarding number.

I sweat out the afternoons, waiting. Day nine. Finally, the call. The meeting’s planned. A café.

I go. No one shows.

I pack, the deal dead.

The phone rings and for a moment I think it’s her, calling to say, Come home. Come home now.

It’s my contact. He’s in the lobby.

In my room, the deal goes well until it stops going well.

Two men burst in. Gunfire. Blood hits the wall, splatters my face. My contact slumps to the floor.

I sit still, silent.

The two men turn their guns on me. Burkina means “men of integrity.”

I raise my hands. It’s my last trip.