INTRODUCTION BY HALIMAH MARCUS
In “Alta’s Place” by Morgan Thomas, Alta meets the narrator, Cory, when Alta arrives at the dry cleaners with a stain on her suit. Alta explains there was an embarrassing incident with a cup of coffee at her asylum interview, and she needs the suit cleaned right away.
As Cory waits, Alta changes into a deel which she retrieves from her slim briefcase. Cory, an aspiring fashion designer, is overcome by the garment’s beauty. “She emerged from the bathroom in a robe of blue silk, delicate as a moth fresh-sprung from chrysalis. No seams I could see. No buttons or zippers. Just a catch of silk at her throat and a cut-cloth sash at her waist.” Still a stranger, Cory knows better than to ask certain questions. “I was polite,” she says. “I didn’t ask to touch it. I didn’t ask where it was from, where she was from.”
It’s a smooth, spare scene, but read it closely and you’ll find the whole story buried there.
As gay women Alta and Cory have few experiences in common. Cory grew up in the suburbs of DC in a family that is “vaguely Christian, vaguely conservative.” Alta grew up in Sharyn Gol, Mongolia, where she married young. When Cory came out to her family, her mother was pious and deflective. When Alta’s landlord in Sharyn Gol found her in bed with another woman, he kicked her out. For Alta, coming out was not a consideration. “Your mother didn’t ask if you were gay,” she says to Cory. “No one asked you.”
Cory and Alta reveal these biographical details and the attendant anecdotes to one another over time. But it’s that first encounter in the dry cleaners when Cory forms a vision of Alta she cannot unsee. It’s the image of Alta in the deel—the traditional, formal Mongolian garment that Alta, meanwhile, only brought to her asylum interview as a kind of show and tell. “Are you going to help, Cory?” Alta later asks, “Or are you just going to look and look?”
Morgan Thomas has written this story with perceptive nuance, creating a narrator that the reader must look around in order to see the truth of Alta and Cory’s dynamic. Every detail in this opening scene at the dry cleaner is important, laying the groundwork for what is to come. Thomas positions the moment when Cory privately exoticises Alta as the seed of their friendship. But what sort of friendship can grow from such a planting? The differences in what Cory, Alta, Thomas, and the reader understand as the answer to that question make for a rich and rewarding read.
Editor-in-Chief, Recommended Reading
To Dress In Another Woman’s Clothing
In Sharyn Gol, Alta told me, she blamed the cold. And it was cold. On the steppe, herdsmen wrapped the tails of their cattle with wool to keep them from stiffening and snapping in the wind. In her apartment, mare’s milk froze solid in old soda bottles. Cooked rice congealed in the steamer before she could serve it. Her heating had not been turned on.
She rolled shortbread as she spoke. I drank milk tea and listened.
Alta told the landlord in Sharyn Gol, that the cold caused her to sleep with the other woman on a single cot. The cold explained the blanket of camel hair, and the cold explained their closeness under the blanket. Cousins, she said. This is what the women had said when they rented the apartment.
The landlord must have suspected them. Why else come for the rent at dawn and on a Saturday? Why else open the door without knocking, with one key from his ring of keys?
When he entered, Alta wrapped the camel blanket around herself and rose from the cot to make tea. The other woman did not rise. The other woman did not offer explanation. She sat on the cot in her undershirt.
The landlord watched the woman in the camel blanket. The landlord accepted the rent money and a cup of tea. When Alta asked about the heating, he said the heaters would come on in two weeks, on the first day of winter, as they did every year. He finished his tea. He left.
The next month, the landlord left a notice on her apartment door. The landlord’s daughter and her new husband required a place to live. There was no longer an apartment available for the two women.
Of this much, at least, Alta managed to convince the adjudicator at the asylum office in Arlington, Virginia. She did not have the notice to show him. She’d been just nineteen then, not yet in the habit of keeping things.
“Now, I keep them,” she said to me, and gestured to her filing cabinet, where she kept copies of every lease, every credit card statement, every Costco receipt and bus ticket stub.
The landlord gave them time to sort their belongings, to find another place. But he must have spoken about them to the woman who owned apartments in the Hedde District and the manager at the Arig Complex, because when she called there were no vacancies. So she slept, again, on the couch in her parents’ three-room apartment, on a pillow stuffed with her baby clothes. Above her bed, her grandmother’s wedding deel was pinned to the wall for luck.
I was alone the night Alta came to the Snow White Launders in Arlington. The pants presser and the manager had gone home. I was drawing in my sketch journal, practicing my patterning. Back then, I sketched dresses with eyelet lace and scalloped hems. I sketched dresses for dancing, dresses for weddings. I sketched dresses I couldn’t afford to make, dresses for high occasions.
She entered in a two-piece gingham suit — skirt and jacket with a wide check print and a stain darkening the right sleeve. It was December. Gingham is a summer fabric, but of course I didn’t mention that.
“What happened?” I asked her. As a counter-girl, it was my job to elicit a thorough case history, separate the brown of dried blood from the brown of honey mustard, determine whether hydrogen peroxide or a detergent stick would better lift the stain.
“I gave an interview,” she said.
“Sure, but what happened?” I motioned to her suit.
“Coffee,” she said. “Can you clean it?”
“I can’t clean it while you’re wearing it.”
I pointed her to the shabby bathroom where the pants presser, on rainy days, spent her smoke break exhaling into the cooling vent. I asked if she’d need a change of clothes. We had two men’s shirts and a trench coat in our discard pile, waiting for the Goodwill truck.
She said she had a change with her, though she wasn’t carrying anything but a briefcase so thin I’d guessed it empty.
At that time, I’d been working at the dry cleaners less than a month, working the evening shift — two to eight. I thought it would be just a summer gig. I’d studied fashion design, and I was looking for a foot in the door. Dry cleaning wasn’t quite that, but I could handle fabrics daily, gain experience with durability and stain resistance, pay rent on my one-room efficiency in Arlington.
She emerged from the bathroom in a robe of blue silk, delicate as a moth fresh-sprung from chrysalis. No seams I could see. No buttons or zippers. Just a catch of silk at her throat and a cut-cloth sash at her waist.
I was polite. I didn’t ask to touch it. I didn’t ask where it was from, where she was from. I’d seen one-piece clothing on the New York runways, one-piece jumpsuits from Cedric Charlier, origami dresses from Issey Miyake cut and folded from a single piece of cloth. Even their best attempts allowed for zippers, a blind hem. She stood draped in a robe with no stitches I could see, as if the cloth clung to her shoulders of its own accord, held there by static or gravity.
“Is it one cloth?” I asked
“It’s a deel,” she said.
I tagged her suit, told her, “It’ll be ready tomorrow after four.”
She asked me for Vaseline. The coffee had splashed on her wrist. The skin was pink there. I didn’t have any Vaseline. I watched her fingers press against the pink skin, and I told her she should complain about the coffee. It shouldn’t be hot enough to burn.
“The problem isn’t the coffee,” she said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
In the interview, she told them she was a lesbian. This was the reason she’d left Mongolia. When she said it, the interviewer stood. He poured coffee for himself, then offered her some. She accepted, though she drank coffee only rarely and never black. When he leaned over the desk with her cup, she thought he was handing it to her. He was planning to set it on the desk. Their hands collided, and the coffee spilled.
“Why didn’t he hand it to me?” she asked in the dry cleaners.
“Maybe he was worried the cup was too hot for you?”
She shook her head. “He didn’t want to touch me, I think. He didn’t want to touch my hand.”
“No,” I said. “I’m sure it wasn’t that.” She waited, but I didn’t elaborate. Instead, I told her I’d deliver her suit when it was finished, though this was against company policy.
She told me her name was Altansharzam. She said I could call her Alta.
My name was Cory. She could call me Cory.
She wrote her address in blue pen at the top of her laundry receipt and gathered her briefcase.
“I’m a lesbian, too,” I said, in part because I suspected it was true, and in part because it was my habit, then, to remember what had been said and reflect it back to the speaker as if it were an invention of my own.
“That’s nice for you,” Alta said. And she was gone.
After she left, I traded my number five pencil for a lighter one, and I sketched her from memory. I focused on capturing the deel — its lines, its corded hem. I didn’t bother with Alta’s hands, her long dark braid. I left her face just a three-line profile.
If I could sketch her now, I’d sketch every detail of her face, her hands, keep her with me that way.
Alta lived with a woman. Oyuka. I met her, by accident, my first time in Alta’s apartment. I knocked, and she called, “Come in.” Alta wasn’t home.
I walked past the coat closet and a boy’s bike, and there she was. She sat in the bedroom in a ladder back chair, working a newspaper crossword. A catheter tube extended from beneath her skirt into a wide-rimmed bowl. She was older than Alta, though not by much. Maybe thirty. She said, “You’ll excuse me. I’d need a leg bag to get to the door,” and lifted the end of her catheter from the bowl to show me.
I said, “Dry cleaning.”
“Set it on the table there.”
“It’s for Alta.”
“She’s getting my boy from school.”
“She’s expecting me with her suit.”
“I’ll be sure she gets it.”
When I made no move to leave, she said, “Do we owe you?”
I could wait, I said. Alta might have other clothing that needed cleaning.
“I don’t know when she’ll be back.”
“I do pick-ups,” I said, though pick-ups were also against company policy. “Do you have anything, any evening wear that needs cleaning?”
“There might be a pair of pants hanging in the closet there.”
With her permission, I drew back the closet’s accordion doors. The linen pants hung beside the deel on its cushioned hanger.
“Not that one,” the woman said when I put my hand on the deel’s pleated sleeve. “She wouldn’t want you taking that one.”
“No,” I said, but I snaked my arm up through the sleeve, cuff to shoulder. I curled my fingers over the collar and fingered the silk knots for fastening. I felt I had found Alta, unsuspecting and vulnerable, tucked away among the coats.
I left with the pants draped over my arm, and promised to return.
For three months, I went weekly to Alta’s apartment. I went for her dry-cleaning, though often there was no dry cleaning. Alta preferred to wash even silks herself. I went anyway. I stayed as long as she allowed me to stay.
What was it about Alta? Alta added peppercorns to black tea and steeped it in goat’s milk for Oyuka’s son, Bat, who drank it crouched beside the baseboard heater. Alta had a whole butchered sheep delivered to her apartment by a farmer out of Reston. Alta owned a set of knucklebones with which you could play a game like dominoes. I asked her to teach me the game, but she preferred to play Solitaire with a card deck.
I didn’t see Oyuka again. Sometimes I heard her through the walls, a snatch of laughter or song. Once, Alta also paused to listen. “Oyuka’s dancing,” she said. But the bedroom door was always closed. I saw no one, not even Alta, enter that room.
When I asked Alta to introduce us formally, she told me Oyuka’s parents had come to America from Mongolia when Oyuka was eleven years old. Oyuka was a teacher. She’d had a stroke a year ago. Alta kept her company after, kept her company still.
“Does she go out?”
“To church,” Alta said. “Sometimes.”
“I do her cooking. You do her laundry. Where is she needing to go?”
It bothered me. I thought Alta was embarrassed of Oyuka or tired of caretaking. “Does she have guests?” I asked. “Don’t you open the door?”
“After work, I will open it,” Alta said, but Alta was always working.
From her front room, Alta sold things. She sold watermelon pickled in old mayonnaise jars. She sold shortbread at the zakh on Saturdays. She stamped each loaf with a woodcut, called it shoe-bottom bread. She sold Maybelline cosmetics. For twenty dollars, she offered three-hour private lessons in shading and contouring, products not included.
Alta’s customers didn’t make appointments. When Alta was home, she hung a sign from her porch — Alta’s Place for a New Face — and the Mongolian women came. Alta seated them in one wicker-backed chair and wiped the skin around their eyes with a milk-soaked cotton ball. She asked about their families as she pecked with her tweezers at their eyebrows. If a woman’s eyes watered from the pain, Alta smothered the tears with her thumb. She said, “We’ll need that cheek dry.
They leaned in to Alta as if to a mirror. She painted her face, stroke by stroke, and they copied her. They cringed when she wet her thumb to wipe away their clumsy contouring.
In my sketchbook, I copied her, too. I sat on the couch beside Bat. Oyuka kept Bat’s hair short. His favorite t-shirt had “Virginia is for Farmers” printed across the chest. He liked it because it was large enough he could pull his arms and legs inside. Alta called it his turtle look. He drew velociraptors with a stylus on a hand-me-down tablet. I sketched the women. In life, they wore button-up shirts and boat-neck dresses. In my sketchbook, they wore deels.
At the lesson’s end, they blinked at Alta with eyes made large, her twin. They sipped black tea and exclaimed over the lipstick, which left no stain on teacup or teeth, and which Alta sold for fourteen dollars. They left with a tube or two, and she washed their face from hers, stored her products on the middle rack of her convection oven, waited to begin again.
Alta always sent me home with her last student. “Cory,” she would say, “Yuna is going to see Shakespeare in the park. Maybe that is interesting for you.” She said the same about an all-you-can-eat pasta buffet and a beginning guitar lesson and a dentist appointment. Maybe that is interesting for you, and she left me fated to walk beside her student until I invented a commitment which tore me away.
By the new year, we were comfortable with each other. Once, Alta even forgot about me. Her last student had gone home. She was rolling out the dough of her shortbread to sell at the zakh the next day.
I called her name from my seat on her couch. I said, “Can I go with you to the zakh tomorrow?”
Alta startled. “I thought you were gone,” she said.
This didn’t bother me. It matched my vision of intimacy, to sit silently in the corner of someone else’s life until she stopped noticing.
“Can I go with you tomorrow?”
“You are like my husband,” Alta said. “Sitting. Watching me.”
“Your husband? You were married?”
“I told him, you have time to watch, you have time to help.”
“Can I help at the zakh?” I’d never been to a Mongolian zakh.
“Maybe one day,” Alta said. She said the same thing when Bat asked her to shave his head or visit the trampoline stadium. “Maybe one day.” A polite but clear refusal.
The next week, I asked Alta about her husband. I thought she’d brush the question off, evade it as she had done before. Instead, as she washed eye shadow samples from the crest of her thumb, she said, “My husband was like Oyuka — always telling me bring this, do that. When I am a wifey wife, he was happy, she is happy, just the same.”
Alta kept her marriage certificate and her wedding deel. She brought them to her asylum interview. She brought her passport. Form I-94. Form I-589, a copy. Fifteen credit cards, including Shell, Kohl’s, and Fingerhut. She studied Yelp reviews for the top ten gay bars in Arlington. She studied an encyclopedia of social work, where she learned the word alien.
In January, I found the printed Yelp reviews in the drawer beneath her oven. I asked her about them. She told me she had heard stories. She had heard of women denied asylum, because they couldn’t list local gay locations, because they couldn’t prove they were part of the lesbian community, because they’d only ever paid with cash.
She subscribed to Curve and Pride Life to be safe. Old issues of the magazines, sorted alphabetically, filled the lowest drawer of her filing cabinet. When she got the February issues she went to file them away, still in their plastic. I knelt with her beside the cabinet. “You can take them with you if you want,” she said.
“Have you read them?” I asked her. I removed one magazine at random. On the cover, a woman stood wearing lingerie in front of an open refrigerator.
“They are kind of difficult for me.”
I read them for her. I sat on her sofa and read about the five types of lesbians and about women who were triple-bi — bi-racial, bi-cultural, bi-sexual. I was not bi-anything and felt this as something of a lack.
At twenty-three, romance so far for me was standing as fit model for Bailey Watts twelve hours before her senior thesis show, holding the exhale as her hands bumped my ribs, pinning skirt to bodice for an empire waist. Or asking my studio partner to model my linen tunic, lifting her hair and cinching the drawline neck with satin ribbon. Or perhaps lying on my back on the sand of Virginia Beach — where my family rented for one week each summer a house right on the water — lying at the tide line, alone, shivering as the waves broke over my belly.
I read those magazines with an avidity that bothered Alta. She distracted me, gave me small tasks — helping Bat through third-grade math, spinning the small drums of her prayer wheels, slicing cheap apples for Bat’s father, who came for Bat on Friday afternoons and expected to be fed. He stood in the doorway of Oyuka’s bedroom, eating the watermelon Alta had pickled to sell, and told Oyuka the boy needed new cleats and a drum set. If Oyuka could afford live-in help, he said, she could afford those things.
“He is a fool,” Alta said to me. “He thinks I am sleeping every night on the couch.”
I looked away from Alta, at my fingers on the wrinkled corners of her magazines. I did not tell her that when I thought of her, in the empty spaces of those weeks, I also imagined her sitting in the evenings in the front room in her blue deel, watching Jeopardy for the English practice, spooning globes of oil from the surface of her soup. I also imagined her alone.
In Ulaanbaatar, a city of one million people, Alta had known no one. She’d moved to the city with her husband, because the jobs in the city were better. Even her husband, she didn’t know. They’d been married only two months.
“I was a lonely person,” she said. It was the end of February, nearly the end of our months together. I helped her strip white slipcovers from her couch.
The roads were better in the city. The schools and theaters were better. The air was worse. Alta wore a mask, which fit tight to her face like a palm pressed over her mouth. She was supposed to keep the windows of their apartment closed at all times, so the air inside would be safe to breathe. She refused. She liked the breeze through the windows. She liked the chill. She liked to watch crystals of ice form on the metal of the rice cooker.
In late fall, her husband caulked the windows, preventing her opening them. This was usual, necessary to keep the apartment warm in winter. He assured her there was plenty of air through the ventilation shafts.
So why did she sometimes sit at the dining table in the late mornings, alone, and work just to breathe?
She asked her husband every day when they would return to Sharyn Gol, where she could tell cattle apart by the clip of their ears and had family to visit on the weekends, had a life of her own.
When we’d finished folding the slipcovers, she asked me, “What about your family?”
Her question surprised me. I’d told my family about Alta, my friend Alta. When they called to catch up, it was her life I described in detail. But I’d never told Alta about my family. Alta rarely asked questions, and I volunteered little. What was there to tell? My mother was a divorce attorney. My father sold credit card readers to big box stores. They announced their divorce the month I turned eighteen. They’d been planning it for years, waiting for my high school graduation. They still lived, both of them, in the same Arlington suburb, and my mother often took a circuitous route home from work, driving in her SUV past my father’s colonial, checking for unfamiliar cars in the drive, for feminine silhouettes through the slatted blinds. When we talked, she talked about my job. She called it a dead end. We didn’t talk often.
“We’re not close,” I said.
“But your mother? You visit to her?”
I shrugged. The last time I’d visited my mother, I’d told her I was gay. I’d thought it would be good for her. She was vaguely Christian, vaguely conservative. Not a bad person. She volunteered at Meals on Wheels on Thursdays. On Tuesdays, she taught classes on financial independence to women at the library. She prayed for gays, but never protested them, believed protest of any kind to be wasted effort. She didn’t cry when I told her. She didn’t shout or stand or leave the room. She told me a story about a woman couple from her church who’d gone on mission to Africa and decided somewhere near Tanzania they weren’t lesbians. They were just wounded in their hearts. Take your time, my mother said to me, deciding about those things.
To Alta I said, “My mother doesn’t understand.”
Alta shook her head. “Your mother didn’t ask if you were gay, Cory. No one asked you.”
“I’m not going to wait until they ask,” I said.
“It’s nice for you,” Alta said. “It’s nice no one is asking.” Alta put her fingers to the wrinkles beneath her eyes, looking not at me but into her mirror, at her skin loose and bare of powder. They had asked her, at her asylum interview. Of course, they had asked her.
“Sorry,” I said.
“Why are you sorry?” Alta said.
I didn’t know how to answer Alta, and she didn’t wait for my answer. She piled the slipcovers into my arms. They smelled of urine. As I took them from her, I felt obscurely insulted.
Those slipcovers were the last item I dry-cleaned for Alta.
The woman at immigration services said Alta should return to Mongolia. She could live in Ulaanbaatar. According to their country reports, the Mongolian city was more tolerant than the countryside. Alta could be discreet there. She could be safe. They had found insufficient evidence of persecution, insufficient reason for fear. Alta’s asylum claim hadn’t been denied, but it had been referred to immigration court. She would need to attend a hearing there.
Alta told me this at the dry cleaners, the day after I left her apartment with the slipcovers. She’d come to pick them up but they weren’t ready. She knew they wouldn’t be ready. She came to see me, I think, to tell me her news.
I took my break right away. I led Alta outside and around to the back of the cleaners, where the hum of the air conditioner would ensure our privacy.
The pants presser was finishing her smoke break. She lit a cigarette for Alta. Alta thanked her. I wished I’d thought of a cigarette.
I expected we’d wait for the pants presser to leave, but Alta didn’t wait.
“It is impossible,” Alta said. “I can’t go back to the city.”
She’d left the city. She’d returned with her husband to Sharyn Gol, where her husband worked winters in the Canadian mine, one of the better mines, worked summers in South Korea.
“I’ve always wanted to travel to South Korea,” the presser said. “South Korea or maybe Japan. I’ve heard the food’s better in South Korea, which you wouldn’t expect.”
The presser and Alta talked about kimchi. Alta made her own. Alta knew where the presser could get kochukaru by the pound. I waited for the presser to stub out her cigarette and leave.
After she left, I said, “The woman. The woman with the camel blanket. What about her?”
In Sharyn Gol, Alta said, she met the woman again, the woman with the camel blanket. The woman hadn’t married. She taught chemistry at school number four. In the summers, when Alta’s husband was living in South Korea, she slept in the bed in Alta’s apartment, which they had to themselves.
That woman told her sister. Her sister could be trusted. Perhaps it wasn’t the sister. Perhaps it was the man who cleared trash from the apartment’s stairwell. Or a neighbor watching from the flat across the square. Alta didn’t know. She knew it was September when she lost her job. She was twenty-five. She knows her husband came home from South Korea on an evening she’d sliced tsuivan noodles for dinner and asked if it was true she’d shared his bed with a woman. She tried at first to tell him it wasn’t true.
She left, of course. She went to her grandparents in the countryside. She lived in a good felt tent beside their wooden home. Mornings and evenings, she took milk from their Kalmyk heifers and curdled it over a wood stove, sold the sweet curds. She told time by the contrails of jets that nosed across her sky. At two o’clock, the Beijing to Moscow direct swinging northwest. At six in the evening, the Moscow to Incheon freight slicing the blue the other way.
In her interview, they’d asked, Was it true that he had come to her grandparents’ home? Her husband had come to find her?
But that part was not important, she said.
Of course, it was important, I said. All of it was important.
Her husband was not among the things she was afraid of.
“What were you afraid of?” I asked her.
She was afraid the court would not believe she was in danger. She was afraid the court would refuse to grant her asylum.
“But in Mongolia,” I said. “In Mongolia, what were you afraid of?”
She shared with me the words she had found in an encyclopedia of social work. She practiced them with me, remembering not to hold the vowels too long, remembering s can be soft like switch or have a buzz like scissors, remembering to keep it soft when she says economic persecution, to buzz just lightly in the center of housing — then soft — discrimination. She could use the English she learned in secondary school — I can’t get a job. I can’t get an apartment. But she wanted the real words, the right words.
What else? I said. I had words. I had plenty of words.
She didn’t need more words.
What about the other woman? I asked Alta. The woman with the camel blanket.
What happened to the other woman? they’d asked Alta at her interview.
She is not allowed to teach. She has no work. She has to live with her sister.
But had anyone hurt her? they’d asked. Had she been harmed in any way?
I asked her, too. “You can tell me,” I said. “You know you can tell me.”
Alta shook her head. She hadn’t come to the cleaners to tell stories. “Tomorrow, I will go to sell my shortbread at the zakh,” she said. “You still want to come?”
Of course I did.
“Tomorrow, you can come.”
“What should I wear? I don’t have anything to wear to a zakh.”
“You can wear your street clothes.”
“Will you wear the deel?”
“I’ll wear my street clothes.”
“Can I wear the deel?”
Alta considered me. “Maybe if you want, you can wear,” she said. “Maybe it is interesting for you.”
That next morning, Alta dressed me. She said I could leave my blouse and leggings, wear the deel over them, but I wanted to wear it the right way, as she would wear it. I wanted the silk against my skin. So Alta held the deel like a curtain between us and waited for me to undress and step into it, thread my arms through the pleated sleeves, fill them. Alta fastened the sleeves then the bodice, her hands quick on the knots. I imagined her buttoning Oyuka’s dress shirts, her knuckles brushing Oyuka’s chest.
“I’ve been researching immigration hearings,” I said to Alta. I’d spent the night watching videos. Videos posted by nonprofits and shared, with #refugeerights #valuetranslives. “You should wear a men’s suit to your hearing,” I said. Women wore men’s suits in the videos. A woman from Uganda wore a bowler hat and a men’s button down. A woman from Russia shaved one side of her head and cut her fingernails down to the bed. A man from Brazil considered appearing at his interview in drag, but settled finally for a pink-collared shirt and matching eye shadow.
“I will wear eye shadow,” she said. “And my suit.”
“You should wear a men’s suit. At least a pants suit.”
But she had bought the suit especially for these interviews. “It’s a good suit.”
I studied the deel in her make-up mirror. “You should wear this,” I said.
Alta huffed. “It’s too small. It’s not comfortable for me.”
“I can make you one, a larger one.” I saw it, then. I saw myself sitting at my Singer 100-Stitch, hemming silk flown express from Mongolia. I saw Alta behind me, one hand on my shoulder. Confident in me. I could use my sketches. I could help her. “I’ll make you a deel to wear.”
“It’s not comfortable for me,” Alta said. “They know I’m Mongolian. I don’t need the deel.”
“This is different,” I said. I pushed Alta’s hands away from the knots. “Look,” I said to Alta. “Look at me.” I faced the mirror. She would wear the deel as I wore it. We would cut her hair to be short like mine. I spiked my hair with my fingers. “Do you see?”
Alta ran her hand over my head, letting the spikes brush her palm. “This court tells everyone no,” she said. “I have heard.”
Alta wrapped the belt of the deel beneath my ribs. “All night, I made shortbread for the two of us to carry and sell. If we sell all the shortbread, next Saturday I will have a rest day.”
The belt of the deel was tight. My breath circled in my chest. “Where will you go?” I asked Alta. If she couldn’t stay in Fredericksburg, where would she go?
She knew a place outside Sharyn Gol. She had slept in this place once, slept for four days in winter. There was a place where she would go.
Then Alta walked to the bedroom door, the door which was always closed. She opened it. “The shortbread is in the bedroom.”
The bedroom. Their bedroom.
Alta said, “Come in, Cory.”
I followed Alta as far as the doorway and stopped. In the bedroom, Bat’s army men were scattered beneath a card table. His clothes hung over the dry-line nearest the radiator. Books and DVDs towered against the far wall. Six watermelons lolled beneath the window. Bat sat on one watermelon, rolling slowly back and forth, dropping a plastic parachute man from his left hand to his right.
Oyuka sat in her ladder-back chair, looked at me in the deel, and said, “What’s the occasion?”
“Cory thinks I should interview like that,” Alta said. Then somehow both women were laughing. Bat glanced up and grinned, unsurprised. I was surprised. I stood in the doorway and watched them. I couldn’t remember ever hearing Alta laugh.
“She’ll be a sight at the farmers’ market,” Oyuka said.
“Cory doesn’t mind attention.”
“You said it was a zakh,” I said. “We’re going to a zakh.”
“A zakh is a market,” said Alta. “A market is a zakh.” Alta stacked her shortbread in produce boxes — one for me, one for her.
“I can’t wear this to the farmers’ market,” I said. I could not show up at the farmers’ market in a blue silk deel.
“You’ll be a sight,” Oyuka said.
“It’s fine,” Alta said, stacking her shortbread so high we’d have to peer out between the loaves. “Come help me, Cory,” she said.
She wanted me to enter the room where Oyuka danced. Where Alta laughed. There on the bed was a blanket of woven wool. There, a cooker half-full with rice. There, an orange plastic bathtub propped against a child’s easel. There, the empty jars to be sterilized for canning, the army fort made from a cereal box, the package of Russian butter cookies open, half-eaten. There, the room where she lived.
She’d never shown me this room. Never shown me her life.
Was I angry? Was I offended? I think I was. The room embarrassed me. I had never considered there must be more to Alta, that her life might have dimensions beyond those she’d shared with me. I felt ridiculous, standing there in the deel her grandmother had made.
“Come take the box, Cory,” Alta said.
Alta lifted the box. Maybe she meant to bring it to me.
She’d stacked the loaves too high, impossibly high.
The shortbread fell.
The loaves, they broke. Crumbs scattered beneath Oyuka’s chair. Into the doorway. Alta knelt and crushed one loaf beneath her knee. She lowered the box, began restacking.
Bat stole a piece from the ground and ate it.
“Those won’t sell,” Oyuka said. “Might as well leave them.”
“Get the broom,” Oyuka said.
Alta stacked. She’d started to sweat, working right up beside the radiator. She made small noises of effort. She raised her head, strands of her black hair coming loose from the braid, crushed shortbread in each hand.
“Are you going to help, Cory?” she said. “Or are you just going to look and look?”
As if I were a gawker. Some man ogling her.
Wasn’t I helping her? Hadn’t I tried?
I should have gone to her. I should have stacked the useless shortbread. But I couldn’t bring myself to enter their bedroom, their life — not like that, not for the very first time.
I said, “I have to change,” and shut the door.
I stood alone in the room where I’d thought I’d known Alta, in the room where she told her stories, practiced with me until the English words, once unfamiliar, snapped to her tongue in sequence, easy as falling to the next drum of the prayer wheels, easy as cream before foundation before blush.
When I untied the belt, Alta’s deel fell from me.
As I dressed, I listened for the women in the other room. I heard nothing. As if they’d gone, vanished together as soon as I’d shut the door.
I left Alta’s apartment without any dry-cleaning. My empty arms swung. There were no demands at all upon my person or my time. No restrictions. Nothing to wait for, nothing to dread, nothing to force me to justify my life or to change it.
I’d have folded Alta’s deel if I’d known how to fold it. I didn’t know, so I laid it over the arm of her couch, laid it out carefully. When Alta emerged from her room to hang the deel, it would be ready for her — no wrinkles, no stray hairs, no dampness in the armpits, no evidence I’d worn it at all.
I didn’t know Alta had gone until the next fall. Oyuka called the cleaners — “I have sweaters for dry-cleaning,” she said.
I held the phone with both hands. I needed to speak to Alta. Where was Alta? Was Alta there?
Alta had left in the summer. “I remember you did pick-ups.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “We don’t, we can’t offer that service anymore.”
She said she’d try another place.
“But wait,” I said. “Wait. What about Alta?”
“What about her?”
“Where is she? How is she?”
She was in Ulaanbaatar.
Was she all right?
She was in Ulaanbaatar. She had family there.
But I knew where Alta was. She was in the brick maintenance station outside Sharyn Gol, where she’d once spent four nights. She’d slept against water pipes. She’d not wanted to return to her husband, and it was winter, and the water pipes were warm.
When Alta tells this story, she is alone, but I tell it this way: There are two women. Alta, and a woman following Alta. There she comes, after Alta, through the small high window of the maintenance station. Alta sleeps pressed not against the water pipes, but against the body of this other woman. Alta puts her head on the chest of the woman. She hears not the pulse of water through metal, but the woman’s pulse or her own pulse. Their rhythms are the same. Alta warms her hands not at the pipe’s belly, but in the pockets of warmth the two women make together. Hushed is the water. Hushed, their breath.