Photograph: Elizabeth Eves
The week after my husband’s retrial and acquittal, we went to a Mongolian barbecue restaurant for a celebration dinner with another couple. We pointed to items for a personalized stir fry: mung beans, tiny corn cobs, thin noodles, rice, steak, chicken, onions, peppers, pickled cucumbers, various sauces without identifying placards. The concoction was dumped in a wok by smiling, encouraging cooks. They did not cook so much as ladle. They did not serve so much as place bowls on trays, which we carried, cafeteria-style, to our table. I chose poorly. My meal tasted metallic and galloped down my esophagus like a man on horseback. The restaurant was the other couple’s favorite, so I chewed and smiled, took long swallows of beer to wash down my doom. I got drunk, which improved the situation. The other couple nudged us, eyebrows lifted. Good, isn’t it? Great place, right? My husband patted my knee under the table and my quadriceps stiffened by reflex beneath my jeans. At one point, I held back tears. Ten years later I can still remember the bitter taste at the back of my throat. The Mongolian barbecue restaurant has closed. The other couple has divorced. Our own battles begin small and become great epics, and we have learned to avoid restaurants that make you do too much work. We insist on table service, and do not mind if the waiter is stoned, as he sometimes is. We don huge fur hats and pound our utensils on the table. Bring us all that we desire, we growl, even if we don’t know what it is. We stab our meat with sharpened knives I pull from my purse.
• • •
The two retirees at the café have covered the complicated history of Christians, Jews, and Muslims (“It was bad enough with Genghis Khan,” one claims), have talked about how their wives are doing, and move on to driving routes through Wheeling, West Virginia, where somebody in road planning must’ve used a pretzel for a straight edge. The quieter one scratches a thigh through khaki pants and nods his head. Their shoes are one stage before the orthopedic models, very comfortable looking. The men are my father’s age and share his brand of certainty. When I was a teenager, I wanted to wear a T-shirt that said “Rape Me,” the title of a song sung by a man, but my father forbade it. He said I was advertising my complete lack of self-respect. I argued for self-expression. I lost (thank God). He paid for our wedding and said nothing during the ceremony, though he was given the opportunity. In the café, one man says to the other, I could loan you a book that explains this whole gol-darned history. Does a pretty good job of it, though I didn’t care for the sections on the Crusades. Save the editorializing for the TV news. I scribble these lines in my notebook, because I am a trained stenographer, objective in the slogan-free shirts I still favor. I am taking notes rather than telling a story because this is the best way to avoid thinking about the fact that someday my father will die.
• • •
In college, the ultimate insult was to call a guy a Jengis, a willful mispronunciation of Genghis. Really, who was Genghis Khan? Fur robes, right? Horseback, yeah? Mongol face, and brandishing a roast turkey leg? He’d have flecks of charred flesh between his teeth. Genghis didn’t give a fuck about floss. To be clear, this isn’t who we meant. Jengis was a guy who conquered and then didn’t call because he was high and playing Xbox and just, like, forgot. He remembered to scribble inscrutable notes to you on the backs of envelopes, sentences that were at once poetic and taunting. Mangoes, I find, are not only seasonal but the perfect fruit to eat off your bare little belly. You read them and wanted to send him letters, so he’d have more envelopes to scribble on. He remembered to pick up burritos as big as your head at La Bamba. But a phone number? Kind of difficult. This was before most of us had cell phones, when you had to remember numbers or write them down. True of every Jengis in the history of Jengises: he only remembered what he wanted to.
• • •
I search online for Genghis Khan and learn I have made several assumptions. His teeth look fine in his Facebook photo, though he doesn’t so much smile as smirk. His interests include uniting many tribes and killing forty million people, give or take. He has a beard and little mustache. I search twice more in the afternoon to check for updates. There are none. Still in thirteenth-century robes, still bearded. His timeline shows a history of brutality. The term “slaughter” appears more than once, as does “rape.” I search different sites and find more flattering images. He had a slew of kids with different wives, which was common then. The sons we know by name, but nobody recorded the daughter’s names, also common. I refresh Genghis Khan’s profile. No new friends, but the picture has changed. Now he is a shirtless young man on a beach, clean shaven and smiling broadly. Now he holds up a giant bonefish with a bloody hook piercing its cheek. I smile back, even though I’m smiling at a screen. He shows up in my history, which means he has been searching for me, too. He winks at me. Blushing, I delete the history from my browser but forget to delete it from my secret backup location, in case I want to remember the things we’ve deleted. My husband throws something away and thinks it disappears. Images I can never erase. Some people, I’ve read, smash their hard drives with a sledgehammer. For dinner I simmer a prepackaged frozen stir-fry in the wok, then launch another search. The profile has been removed. No trace exists of Genghis Khan or his shirtless avatar, though I check several times. At dinner my husband devours his meal in three bites. Remember that Mongolian barbecue? he asks. On the wall behind him is a mirror, but his head blocks me from my expression.
• • •
Solve for x: a + b + c = x
a. Genghis Khan a Prolific Lover, DNA Data Implies
Geneticists estimate “roughly 16 million descendants living today.”
—National Geographic News, February 14, 2003
b. Lover, noun, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary online.
(Retrieved February 14, 2013.)
A person who is in love with, or who is enamoured of, another person.
A person who engages in a romantic or sexual relationship outside of marriage, esp. one which is clandestine or illicit.
A person who engages in sexual relations with another; (with modifying adjective) a person considered in terms of sexual performance.
you must forget about the ungodly a.m. telephonic disruption from that she-devil. terrible timing, no? consider this my declaration of undying something for you, ginger peach, lover’s lover, you beautiful maddening cunt, and forgive the shabby nature of my assembled thoughts, which by and large are disassembled by your presence. you have to trust that I know what you need and how to give it to you. went on a beer run. back shortly. dress inappropriately for my return.
—Back of envelope, State Police insignia on front, February 14, 1997. Retrieved from mildewed box in basement. Addendum in different handwriting: FUCK YOU, JENGIS.
Now solve the problem.
• • •
I met a man who could trace his DNA back to Mongolia, maybe even Genghis himself, he said. How we met is not important. Look. I was young, walking down the street in a borrowed dress. I’d been drinking that day but not much; I’d also smoked pot with a friend. This alleged Genghis descendent slowed his car and complimented my legs. Ordinarily I would ignore him, but the beer and pot made me social. I stooped to chat through his open window, hand at my heart like a pledge, but really holding the wrap dress closed at my cleavage. He was attractive. Dark eyes shaped like beautiful almonds but glinting strangely in the near-dusk. I gave him my number and three days later went to his remote, dimly lit apartment for dinner. I did everything wrong: let him pick me up, isolate me in a strange place, did not leave his phone number or address with a friend, did not know his phone number or address. When he began kissing me on the couch, our plates of rice noodles limp as worms drying on a sidewalk, my heart skipped in the wrong way and I asked him to take me home. When a young woman has lived an unharmed life, she is not so much naïve as incredulous at the threat of harm. No way will she wind up like the kidnapped and presumed-murdered girl who was about to inform on drug dealers; or the girlfriend knocked down the stairs in a fight and then dismembered, her limbs, head, and torso hidden in the walls; or the very young girl secreted to the hills above her family’s home, enduring daily rape by a man old enough to be her grandfather; or the teen runaway kept as a sex slave in the secret compartment of one man’s basement. I sat beside the judge’s bench and typed these words, transcribed these testimonies, remembering meeting my husband in the same courtroom: his arm in a sling over his police officer’s uniform, the gold wedding band on his finger both remnant and reminder, his eyes hooded. His missing wife’s body never turned up. I once had believed that these things would not happen to an innocent girl. Not to the named and nameless in court, not to me, to us. We would ask a man to take us home and he would. He did. This one did.
• • •
The friend who loaned me her wrap dress almost got an ulcer over whether her father would attend her wedding, and after much production and delay he stayed home with his new wife. He had done damage to her life that could not be fixed, she said, but she would not elaborate. Now five years divorced, my friend hasn’t remarried but calls herself a serial monogamist, envisioning specific futures with IKEA furniture and whatever man she is seeing. She used to eat meat but no longer does. She once drank and smoked, but gave that up, too. No sugar, no gluten. Caffeine is still OK. Pot after pot of coffee, and her hand barely shakes. In graduate school she took feminist theory courses and deconstructed the rapists and pillagers, the dictators and conquerors. In one class, she learned that Mongol victory feasts involved little parades of captive women, which the men would rank, and Genghis Khan would pick the highest ranked for himself. When he died, his burial site was secret; my friend wanted to find it so she could spit on his unmarked grave. It was just something she said, not something she’d ever really do. If you were having trouble with a man, she could analyze the relationship with a pinpoint vision that made you squirm, so accurately were you and he represented. I visit her; we are sitting in her tiny downtown apartment on a hard futon couch. I share details of my marriage that appear like dark outlines in the corners of my eyes, shadows spreading. They are electric pulses on a computer screen, forming a story the court failed to tell. Never get divorced, she says. It’s cold out here. I change the subject, ask her what happened all those years ago, what her father had done when she was young. She doesn’t answer, only passes me a dish of edamame. Soon we say good night. Before shutting and locking her bedroom door, she tosses her stuffed dog from grad school on the bed. The plush animal is a hound with a zipper and its insides rattle like sharp metal.