Short Story The Abaarso School for Clever Girls
Melinda’s violation of their agreement—to stay the same for each other, forever—was so profound that she split their shared sphere in two.
Everything Melinda designed planned for the worst-case scenario. No two aircraft performed the same, but they all used the four fundamental maneuvers: straight-and-level flight, turns, climbs, and descents. She was used to thinking in vectors and oscillations, trim and stabilization. She knew how to assess any terrain for structural threats that might twist a plane’s sensitive controls out of alignment or skew the antitorque system and send the pilot cartwheeling through space. But helipads were different from human beings. On the weekend, she pushed a mechanical mower across her moon-shaped yard, stopping only to look up at the vacant sky, as if Erik might be hovering there, set to reenter her life and resume things as they were before Melinda informed him she was ready to live as a woman.
Melinda had started as Erik’s boyfriend and ended as his ex. Her gender was an obstacle neither of them could have foreseen, and it pulled them into an ugly series of overcorrections as they lost altitude, finally falling into an uncontrollable tailspin. He was never good with surprises; he could not reconcile his vision of her with the person she insisted she was. He cut off all contact, quit his Montessori job, left their house on Bainbridge and the tall pines that wore glittering veils of morning dew, and moved back in with his folks. By the end of that fall, he was approved for a teaching visa at a girls’ school in Somaliland; the program’s academic director enabled his sudden, pressing urge to get away.
Following their breakup, his mother adopted Melinda; she became, functionally, Erik’s sister. Dagmar introduced her as “my daughter,” although this was neither accurate nor true: Erik’s family were Black people from Seattle with Viking names, and Melinda was a freckled, wiry white girl born and raised in Langlois, Oregon. Melinda allowed Dagmar’s misclassification as a gesture of mutual kindness. Though she let Erik go, she could not give up his family and applied herself to filling his shoes. She was invited to barbecues and Sunday dinners, sat in the end of the pew at the nephews’ first communions, and held the tiller when they sailed on the sound. Dagmar always wanted a girl, she said, and now she had one. She and Erik Senior, unlike their son, could find it in their hearts to love Melinda as she was. Their closeness helped mitigate the pain Melinda had caused them all. They became so close that, when Erik Senior learned he was sick, Melinda was the first person they told.
Dagmar explained where the tumor was pressing on her husband’s brain stem, disrupting the basic operations of his nervous system. His speech was garbled and, in a week or two, he would not be able to breathe on his own. The signals inside him were at cross-purposes. Dagmar’s voice offered a placid recitation of the doctors’ predictions. Cancer of this type was fast and unmerciful, she reported, as though by rote.
“He will be dead within a month. And we have not heard from young Erik.”
There was no explicit rebuke in this statement, which was as plain a fact as Erik Senior’s tumor, but Melinda still felt a twinge of obligation. Their son was gone because of her—of who she turned out to be.
Dagmar said, “I’ve told Erik Junior twice about his father, and he still hasn’t said if he’s coming home.”
“He said he needed space,” Melinda told her.
“Two years on the other side of the planet is space . He’s always been this way: running off when there’s something unpleasant to face. I tell him, ‘You can’t hide forever.’”
“If he understood how little time is left—”
“Half the time he doesn’t even write back,” Dagmar said. “I send it into the void. Nothing. His father’s last days on earth, and not one word.” Erik’s email address was all the contact information she had, and the school’s website was disconcertingly bare, without even a location. There was no postal service in Somaliland.
“He does not want to be found,” Melinda said.
“You think I don’t wish I were somewhere else, instead of planning my husband’s funeral?”
Melinda sighed. “Whatever it takes—I’ll figure it out.”
“You’ll have to go get him,” Dagmar said.
“He doesn’t want to see me.”
Dagmar snorted. “Who cares what he wants? Reality doesn’t go away just because someone hurts your feelings. Go get him, honey. Maybe he’s grown up after some time by himself.”
He couldn’t have changed as much as Melinda, but anything was possible. His changes were less harmful, maybe; his stubbornness and fixity harmed others, but his personal choices didn’t come with the same kind of collateral damage as Melinda’s. She couldn’t shake the feeling that her transition had triggered the whole disaster, right down to Erik Senior’s diagnosis. Outcomes were not consequences, but they could hurt equally. She wouldn’t have predicted this particular landing for them; if she had, she might not have told Erik at all. But she didn’t see the danger until it was too late, after she had already accepted herself and there was no going back. Her only regret was trusting him with her whole self. Before she changed, Melinda had believed that Erik’s love was unconditional. They’d been together for a decade, which felt like a lifetime, back then. They weathered the small stresses that test people early, and she’d believed that, like all relationships, hers could flex to support whoever they became. Didn’t other people stay together even when their bodies bloated, shrank, wrinkled, or contracted fatal illnesses? Time disfigured love and put it back together, dignifying it. Look at Erik Senior , Melinda thought. Forty years of marriage and Dagmar is going to put him in the ground.
Before, Erik and Melinda had been responsible about the parts of life that mattered. A teacher and an engineer: They were good at planning together, breaking objectives into realistic increments. They saved up for their wedding and kept the money in a joint account; at the end of things, Erik took his half and left Melinda her share, more than twenty-five thousand dollars that she was reluctant to use or touch. A distant part of her mind believed that when the money was spent, the relationship would fully evaporate too, as though each dollar were an emotional currency that, reentering the pockets and cash registers of strangers, would pull Melinda back into easy exchange with other people.
With the wedding money, she bought tickets for both of them—hers round-trip, and his one-way. She had vacation saved at Boeing, and her supervisor said the whole month might be covered by bereavement leave, too, depending. She had options; they would see.
She wouldn’t have predicted this particular landing for them; if she had, she might not have told Erik at all.
On a whim, she forwarded her itinerary to the last email address she had for Erik, before he went to the girls’ school. She knew she wouldn’t hear back.
“He’s our child first,” Dagmar said in their last phone call before the flight. “Remind him that he doesn’t stop having commitments just because he’s far away. They can find other teachers. You can’t replace us .”
With Dagmar’s blessing, Melinda boarded the plane out of Sea-Tac feeling like a bride. The TSA agent glanced at her fresh manicure and caramel highlights more than once, comparing her new face with the photo on her passport and the name on her express visa.
“What’s your destination?” he said, and she realized, as she spoke, that he wasn’t listening for her answer but the timbre of her voice. When he handed back her documents, he called her ma’am . It was a small victory in a string of sometimes-painful battles. Every acknowledgement shored up her sense of who she was. When she settled into first class, the flight attendant handed her a warm towel, a San Pellegrino with lemon, and a fashion magazine. Feeling seen was a luxury, and she settled into it, falling asleep as the plane headed toward London for her transfer to Dubai, and then on to Somaliland.
She staggered off the final plane and into the hot embrace of sub-Saharan spring. Miles from the airport, the Gulf of Aden delivered ocean breezes inland, but in Hargeisa, everything was white, yellow and white, black and red, with a sky so stark it looked as though it had been scraped, as a bone is scraped, to perfect, ruthless cleanness. She saw more Black people in the boarding area than she saw in her own town, and she felt herself being stared at as she tried to avert her eyes and pretend she wasn’t staring back. There was no blending in here; she was an alien, in every conceivable way.
In the washroom, she changed into a full-length linen skirt and tied a scarf over her hair. She swiped a cleansing pad around her eyes. Twenty-eight hours of travel had made her face look drawn, her pores coarsened by fatigue. She put on her sunglasses at the sink as a woman guided her two daughters, in matching pink sundresses and with vivid barrettes in their hair, to the soap dispenser. Melinda felt, rather than witnessed, the mother assessing her height; strangers’ eyes felt different than the glances of people who loved and knew her. She twitched her bangs into place and grabbed the handle of her luggage, deliberately turning away from the woman to make herself harder to examine.
“I just don’t see it,” Erik had said when she told him what she needed to do. He scrutinized her features.
“You don’t have to see it,” she fired back. “I am .”
He couldn’t marry a woman, he said, and he got angry when she pointed out that men had been marrying women for centuries. This was not what he signed up for. She wasn’t the person he’d fallen in love with.
“Why do you have to do anything about it? I thought you were happy before.”
She was happy, she said. It’s just that there was more to this happiness and more to her, and the membrane between the two grew thicker every day it went unacknowledged. What started as a protective skin dulled Melinda’s sensitivity to herself, but not enough to keep her from perceiving what she was missing. When the pain of hiding became worse than her fear of revealing herself, she stripped off the heavy, deadening layer. She accepted the pain that came with this change because she could finally feel everything.
She would always say: I was worth it .
The pitted glass of the hotel shuttle’s windshield was buffed to a high shine. The driver leaned over the wheel, his right hand flicking the gold tassels that dangled from the rearview mirror. The road was packed dirt. Thin acacia trees with ostentatious, verdant branches sprouted between the low buildings on both sides. Some roofs were bungee-corded panels and plastic bags, and others shone with industrial innovations: solar panels, glinting chrome, and metal siding that reflected back the sun’s scathing eye. Businesses and houses were indistinguishable to Melinda; the buildings were equally painted in pastel colors that reminded her of the buoys in the sound, their pigments gently sucked away by the waves. She was not prepared to be here; she spoke no Somali, other than the name of Erik’s school: Abaarso , which meant approach . She counted the women in tie-dyed and jewel-toned hijabs, carrying shopping bags to a bus station. One man, sharing the shade of a scarlet canopy with a few goats, wore a Seattle Sounders soccer jersey. A cluster of camels standing beside a pallet of rice made her gasp. She felt so painfully white, soft, and naive. She was thankful for her sunglasses, long clothes, and the roll of small bills hidden against her skin.
The best hotel in Hargeisa took up three floors in the Dahabshiil Business Centre, a new-construction building that looked like a relic from a science fiction movie. Its once-glistening panels were scarred by sand and wind, and the chrome filigree over the door was dented, missing, or packed with messy bird nests. The lobby’s sudden chill was disorienting after the heat and dust outside. She picked her way across the black lacquered floors with care, as though ice-skating. The concierge glanced at the ring on Melinda’s finger before smiling and welcoming her to the finest room they had. Missus . She was missus here, a married woman. She collected these details as signs, hoping they were augurs of who she might really be.
In the deluxe suite, she lay down and slept for twenty hours without moving. The air conditioner blew across her, making her dream of the delicate frost on Bainbridge, where deer ate the new tips off the conifers near her house. She woke up thirsty and homesick. She showered, ordered room service, and shook out the rest of her clothes. The tickets home, in adjoining first-class seats, were set for the end of the week. She stuck them by the potted twin orchids on the table with her engagement band on top of them, like a charm.
She should have gone out, to walk down the street and shop, but she felt irrationally shy. The concierge offered pamphlets for a lion tour, cave paintings and fossils, and the distant beach. She considered them, unsure whether she was a tourist or an emissary. Coming this far with the barest frame of a plan had been foolish. She was usually so cautious, calculating every angle and each possible disaster. Even the one-way plane ticket seemed optimistic, considering how badly things had ended with Erik. She examined herself in the mirror, pulling her hair to one side, then the other, wondering if he would recognize her. She reminded herself that she was doing this because Dagmar had asked her to. It was the right thing to do—her least favorite thing, the choice that always got her into the most trouble.
The phone by the bed rang halfway through her meal. She jolted, as though guilty, and snatched up the handset.
“Missus, you have a message at the desk.”
She swallowed a bite of muffin. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing is wrong. The Abaarso School jeep will convey you in the morning, after breakfast.”
“Who arranged this?” She was baffled, stuttering.
“The school, missus. So you know, the drive is close to two hours, as the compound is near the sea. They will notify us when they arrive.”
She nodded, as though the concierge could see her, and hung up. In a matter of hours, she would see him again. There was no response to her itinerary, but she sent a message off to Dagmar that said, “We’re getting close.”
She wished she could promise to get Erik back in time, but nothing could be predicted. Her violation of their agreement—to stay the same for each other, forever—was so profound that she split their shared sphere in two. She felt as though she’d altered the laws of physics. The best she could do was hope for a smooth landing and a clear place to touch down. It was a long shot, either way. Erik was not the type to surrender easily; at least, that was how she remembered him. She could not imagine who he might have become while she was changing into herself, half a world away.
The desert was an open space as hungry as the sea. Melinda tightened her grip on the jeep’s crossbar as they lurched over a dune, following a barely perceptible road. The sky was oppressively blue and bright, a shade that only existed in Instagram filters. She was used to Puget Sound and knew how vast a landscape can be, how even beautiful expanses stole from you, gobbled up your will and your puny sense of self. But she had not been in a place like this, that was the opposite of water. The desert could kill you too, she thought. But first, it made you beg.
The jeep stopped thirty kilometers from the coast at a shop that sold mango pulp with ice chips and packaged crisps with an unfamiliar logo, cartoon shrimps bobbing in a rosy broth of their own juice. Three days out of her own time zone, Melinda was disoriented by the glare of the sun on the rack of candy, the silver dust silting into the gaps between the tiles, and the long oily muzzles of the guards’ machine guns. They wore matching black berets, and their biceps strained the sleeves of their polo shirts. Melinda sifted through a handful of change. She selected two coins, second-guessed herself, and tried again. The shopkeeper wiped the backs of his hands on a red-and-white checked apron. He waited. He seemed unsurprised by Melinda’s ineptitude, and she wondered, briefly, if all white people represented a type of disappointment in this country. One of the guards appeared beside her, shook his head, and paid the man with a paper bill.
The shopkeeper took a knife from his apron and snipped the end of a drinking straw so it was sharp as a shiv. He punctured the plastic baggie and handed it back to Melinda. When she tasted, its flavor was so unctuous and sweet that she saw stars, as if the desert itself had pierced her eyelids, transforming her vision into miles of glittering sand.
The desert could kill you too, she thought. But first, it made you beg.
The same guard helped her into the jeep, buckled her belt across her lap, and opened the bag of crisps, tucking it beside her on the seat. The logo on his polo shirt, Abaarso School for Science & Technology , was stitched in gold thread, and Melinda remembered that they were going to a school for girls, where they were accustomed to taking care of people who couldn’t quite fend for themselves, who were far from home, who were helpless in one way or another. She pulled meditatively on the straw, coating her soft palate in pulp. The guards spoke to one another. Her sleep deprivation scrambled their syllables, and she could not distinguish whether they spoke Somali, Arabic, or accented English. It did not matter; they were getting close to the ocean, and after another hour, they’d get to the school, where Erik might be, and she could finally in person give him the bad news.
The driver released the brake and the jeep rolled forward under its own weight, gathering speed until its tires engaged the road, finding traction, and only then did they start the engine and resume their rolling course over the dunes.
The school was on an outcropping as flat as the helicopter pads Melinda designed. She mentally calculated the proportions of the high concrete wall, topped with razor wire, and counted the distance between the guard towers at each corner. You could get a couple of Apaches in and out of there, touching down just long enough to extract what you needed. Melinda noticed the double gates, one on hinges and the other a roll-up metal door. She was fully sweating and out of breath. Her headscarf had slipped sideways during the ride, and she could feel a narrow, scorched margin of skin along her hairline, where she always forgot to put sunscreen. They drove through the gates and parked on a patch of yellow gravel behind the gate station. The guard riding shotgun assisted her down from the jeep without touching her hands, supporting her under the elbow. Her knees were stiff and she wobbled as her feet hit the ground. She wasn’t built for this. The desert leached the moisture from her with the same thirst that dried the succulent aloe flowers dotting its parched face.
When Erik came to fetch her, she saw his shadow first—the dark outline of him, flowing toward her like ink or water across the ground. The sun was low. They arrived just after the final bell. Little girls in matching uniforms—navy polo shirts, long skirts, and tartan-printed headscarves—scattered like ducklings from the cement-block classrooms that lined the compound walls. Erik, too, was dressed for school in khaki trousers and a blue button-down that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Seattle boardroom. He looked older, though only two years had passed. Melinda noticed the subtle slump in his shoulders and the stiffness in his legs, the same mannerisms she discerned in his father. There were silver hairs in his eyebrows. He was hardening, here in Somaliland. He passed her a bottle of water.
“They think you’re my wife,” he said. His glance drifted across her hands, where the engagement band glinted.
“That’s what you told them?”
“Safer for you,” he said.
She followed him to his private room, a small apartment in another low building behind the cafeteria and adjoining kitchen. Some effort had been put into making the playground hospitable. Its carved wooden toys and tubes were lacquered with glossy paint. The green plants that lined the paths and borders were rubber, she noticed. Small speakers and security cameras peeked from their artificial leaves—though Melinda could not tell whether they were for transmitting or recording.
His room was cooled through a vent, and he had a second air conditioner, running from a makeshift socket in the concrete wall. He sat at the desk and waited while she used his bathroom, washed her face and hands, and removed her scarf. She found a small tube of lotion in her bag and rubbed it on the vivid pink streak on her forehead. When she turned to dry her hands, she saw that the towel hanging by the sink was one of a set Dagmar gave to them as a housewarming gift for their first apartment.
The only place to sit was on Erik’s bed, which was a relief—at least it was soft. She scooted back against the wall and folded her legs. She recognized his pillowcase, too, and resisted burying her nose in it. The room was spare and very clean, but a cluster of objects cluttering the small table caught her eye.
“What’s this?” she said, picking up the obsolete iPod tucked next to the plug-in reading lamp. It rested in her hand like a brick, its heft recalling an earlier time, when things were meant to survive being dropped. Two of its corners were scuffed and the screen was damaged, but it woke up when she touched the center button.
“My record collection. I have an e-reader, too. I’m allowed certain leeway because I teach Western literature, but a lot of things—banned.”
“The love that dare not speak its name,” she quipped.
He stared at her hands and she fumbled the iPod.
“How long does he have left?” Erik asked, though she was sure Dagmar’s emails had already explained everything the doctors knew.
“Could be a few days, could be three weeks. Our flight leaves on Friday.” Saying our felt daring, as though she was claiming him and his time, binding him to her again. “He doesn’t recognize your mother.”
“I know the feeling,” he said.
“No, you don’t. You didn’t stay long enough to find out how you felt,” she said. She toggled through the songs, hearing each one in her head. Sleater-Kinney. PJ Harvey. Siouxsie and the Banshees. Joint favorites, collected over the years.
“You’re not the one whose father is dying.”
“He may as well be mine. Your mom calls me ‘daughter’ now, did she tell you that? A lot of things have changed since you left.” She put the iPod on the bed. “Are you at least happy to see me?”
He shrugged as if to say, Stop asking impossible questions . “You shouldn’t have come. It’s dangerous in Somaliland. Americans get kidnapped here. Do you know why the wall is so high, why we have so many guards and the buildings are made of blocks? Because people shoot at us. A rocket landed in the playground last month, and the only reason it didn’t kill half a dozen girls was because it malfunctioned. There are militant groups that will do anything to keep women from learning, from reading or thinking.”
“We have that in America too,” she said. “Like that rocket. It’s our primary export. I probably helped design it.”
She hoped Erik would laugh and maybe call her an imperialist, but his expression was dead serious. His mouth was a thin, mean line.
“You didn’t stay long enough to find out how you felt,” she said.
“You don’t understand. These girls don’t have anyone,” he said. He twisted in his chair, then stood up. She was afraid for a moment that he would spring on her; they used to grapple sometimes instead of talking things out. He was older now but just as fit as the day he abandoned her, one hand easily lifting a milk crate of LPs that he couldn’t bear to leave behind. In comparison, she had softened, lost her mosh pit–hardened muscles, and entered the land of femininity. She gave up confrontation when Erik left; revisiting him and this old conflict felt like a return to the past. Abaarso was a dry place, its climate a preservative. Erik brought their past with him and let it sit, collecting sand, in suspended animation. In the desert, she was not the person she was in Seattle, or even with Dagmar. She belonged to him again; their history unsettled and consoled them both.
She lowered her voice, seeking a gentler tone. “Back home, me and Dagmar only have each other. You don’t stop belonging to us just because you’re angry with me.”
“The rules changed,” he said. He didn’t say, I’m not angry anymore , because that would have been a lie.
“Your rules. I’m the same.”
His eyes touched her face and took in her pretty blouse. She’d put on makeup that morning, but it was long gone, wiped off by the wind and sweat and the hours in the jeep. As Erik looked at her, she resisted the compulsion to lick her lips.
She replaced the iPod in its miniature shrine. A soft pack of Gauloises Brunes, with a matchbook from The Crocodile tucked into its cellophane, nestled against a battered and familiar copy of To the Lighthouse , with their college bookstore sticker still affixed to its broken spine. A heart-shaped rock from their favorite beach on Bainbridge was a paperweight for a strip of photos from the booth at Re-bar, another place they’d crammed together for sweaty grunge shows when they were still kids, first courting, and absolutely insane about each other. Melinda appraised her old face, nestled in a spiky, bleached corona of hair. The person she’d been peacocked next to baby-punk Erik and his scruffy Afro-Mohawk, licking his cheek in one frame, locking lips with him in the next. This was the version of them he’d brought with him. This was how he wanted to remember her, and himself.
“I can still tell it’s you,” he said. He sat beside her on the bed. “I’d know you anywhere.”
“Well, here I am.”
“You look good,” he said. “Different. But it suits you.”
“It suits me too.” She shifted on the bed, to make room, but he moved along with her, and the slender space between their bodies shrank until their clothes were touching, then their arms, then their hands. His fingers slipped between hers.
“What did you bring me, other than yourself?” he asked.
She retrieved her phone from her purse and plugged in the headset. He took the right earbud, leaving her the left one. “You’ll be bass-heavy on that side,” she warned, which made him smile.
“Good,” he said. His skull sagged toward her until he rested on her shoulder. His head was heavy, but it felt like home to her. He was the guardian of her past; she, the keeper of his future. Their skin was the same temperature and their clothes mixed textures, indistinguishable. She felt his cheek against her skin, just above her collar, and smelled his shampoo as his hair brushed her neck.
When Melinda tapped on the new St. Vincent album, she heard him sigh as the music entered the right hemisphere of his brain—the half that controls attention, language, and memory, the part that solves problems. Melinda’s many selves were stored there. Somewhere, west of Erik’s brain stem, they still slam-danced against each other in front of the oversized amps at Jupiter Bar, oblivious to how fragile their connection really was, how breathtakingly easy to sever.
Erik had not said any of her names, but he leaned on her, and that was sufficient, for now. It would be enough to hold her together for whatever loss she suffered next. She felt him humming through the bones in her chest, a song she knew by heart. She reached up and cupped his chin, holding him close, in the place where he belonged.