For a long time all of my fiction was set in the Midwest. When I moved to Kuwait I was determined to write a book in one year and the first stories were all set in Wisconsin, pulling from my hometown or college town settings. I had just moved from Colombia and was living in a desert on the Gulf and still, I could only write of four seasons and small towns. I wrote lives I didn’t live. I think that’s fine, but as I practiced writing more fiction I put my places into the pieces. I took a cue from my essay work which relies on place, because place is often important to our situation, perception and insight, and practiced setting my characters in the Middle East or on holiday in Eastern Europe. Now I pull from all the places I know. I still love a good Midwest setting. The piece I’m writing now is set in Wisconsin but one of the characters is Korean, and the return trip to Seoul is informed by my living here now.
Before summer break, a writing friend recommended The Portable MFA by the New York Writers Workshop, and this summer I started flipping through the first pages. There is a prompt called Poem, Dream, Conflict that the story below comes from. Think of a line of poetry, a recent dream, and a problem you’re having with another person. Write flash fiction pulling from those three things:
Poem. Write one or two paragraphs based on the resonant line of poetry (or prose) you chose. Then skip a line.
Dream. Write one or two paragraphs using fragments of themes from your dream. (It’s unnecessary to make any explicit reference to the text you used for step one.) Again, skip a line.
Conflict. Write one or two paragraphs concerning the conflict you thought of. (Again, it’s unnecessary to make any explicit reference to steps one or two.) Skip a line.
Putting it all together. Begin weaving together elements from steps one through three. Follow your impulses. Something is probably already occurring to you.
And here, the piece that came from this exercise. Set in Kuwait. What I wonder when I write a place that many people may not know, is which details set the place. The Kuwait in this story is different from the Kuwait of my neighborhood, is different than the Kuwait of our weekend walks along the Gulf.
The Water From The Air
The sand was hot. Joelle high stepped to the water’s edge and waded to her thighs. The sun was bright, the air already an oven midmorning. Sweat beaded her hairline and breastbone. Cool water lapped her thighs. In college she’d read a poem by Maxine Kumin and lines stayed with her a decade later. I took the lake between my legs. / Invaded and invader, I / went overhand on that flat sky. Joelle dipped under. She swam a little ways to where she couldn’t touch the sand with her toes and treaded water there, facing the beach. The first time Zaid brought her to his family’s chalet he told her everything that was different from when he was a boy.
Joelle tilted back in the water so she floated. The sky was white. She closed her eyes. She rolled onto her belly and swam to the beach, rose from the water and ran across the sand to the shade of the veranda where she rinsed her feet before going inside, dripping footprints on the cold tile.
Zaid lay on a couch in the main room. He might have been asleep. It was Ramadan but he fasted loosely – a cigarette in the morning, an apple or glass of water in the afternoon – or not at all. Joelle bent to kiss his brow. He made a small sigh. Joelle went to the shower and stood under the warm water. Once, she told Zaid she knew she’d regret these long showers when the world was without an excess of clean water and he replied the world would be gone before then. She finished rinsing and dressed in loose linen, picked out a book to read in the main room. Days at the chalet reminded her of that scene in Gatsby – Daisy and Jordan unmoving on chaise lounges, deciding to go to town because. Joelle arranged herself in an oversize shair opposite Zaid. She opened a bottle of sparkling water, and her book.
Zaid woke an hour or so later, after noon. You shouldn’t have let me sleep so long, he said. Joelle shrugged. You looked peaceful, she said. He propped on an elbow. I was not peaceful, he said, I was dreaming you are away from me. It was not peaceful. It was like a long journey without a map. I couldn’t see the storm. Zaid sat up. He said, I reached out to you like this and you were not there. Sometimes when Zaid spoke he sounded like a child who was part of not this world. Joelle unfolded her legs and went to Zaid. He wrapped his arms around her waist, rested against her breasts. Please, he said, Please don’t go from me.
Joelle kissed the top of Zaid’s head. I have to go, she said.
No, no, no. Zaid said this when they talked about what Joelle was late to realize, that Zaid may keep her for himself, but not to marry. She could have left then but she liked his company, liked his gifts, liked the distraction he was. In a month she would leave Kuwait with little more than she arrived with two years before.
I can fix your visa. You can have my apartment in Salmiya. Zaid had said this before. He would do that, if she agreed. Joelle kissed the top of his head again, tugged gently at his hair so he tipped up to see her face. She kissed his brow, his cheek, the corner of his mouth.
It wouldn’t be fair, she said, To me. Or to your family or to the woman you are supposed to engage. It wouldn’t be fair to you.
Before it was for play, Zaid said, But this is not for play.
Pretend it is, Joelle said. Zaid was only ever gentle so when she shifted to step out of his embrace, he let her.
The next day Zaid fasted. Joelle ate alone in the kitchen. She read a second book. She let Zaid sleep and pray. The chalet was quiet, which they both preferred, and that evening as Joelle prepared iftar her belly was full of possibility – if Zaid married her, if she carried his child, if they were fair to one another, if each gave more than the other. She arranged dates on a plate, poured sweetened labneh in a glass, and waited until it was time for Zaid to break his fast. She could see he’d honored the day. He was calm. He followed her to the table on the veranda and took a slow drink of the labneh.
I think you are right, he said. He put a hand over hers. He said, I am not fair to you. I am not kind to you, to do like this. You are beautiful, Joelle. You are pleasure and joy. Zaid removed his hand from hers. She would eat with him now, but not sleep with him later. They would return to the city – he, rested – and in a month she would call the day before her flight out, to say goodbye, and they would cry.
But that night when they lay in bed together for a last, chaste time, Zaid touched her hair and cheek. He leaned over to kiss her tenderly. He fell asleep and dreamed she was away from him but in the morning all he remembered was a taste of peace like dates. Joelle lay awake in Zaid’s bed until she could not guess the hour and then she got up from the bed and walked quietly through the large cool rooms.
The sand was warm but the moon did not burn. At the water’s edge she dropped her towel and walked into the Gulf. She swam again to where she could not touch. Here she rested back on the water and then, letting her belly go, she began to sink. Another line from the poem came to her. Joelle opened her eyes and for a dizzy moment, could not tell the water from the air.
Read about Maxine Kumin or enjoy her poem “Morning Swim”