Both Cassie Hugo and Margaret Brickshaw dutifully followed their soldier husbands to the U.S. embassy in Jordan, but that’s about all the women have in common. After two years, Cassie’s become an expert on the rules, but newly arrived Margaret sees only her chance to explore. So when a fender-bender sends Margaret to the local police station, Cassie reluctantly agrees to watch Margaret’s toddler son. But as the hours pass, Cassie’s boredom and frustration turn to fear: Why isn’t Margaret answering her phone, and why is it taking so long to sort out a routine accident? Snooping around Margaret’s apartment, Cassie begins to question not only her friend’s whereabouts but also her own role in Margaret’s disappearance.
With achingly honest prose and riveting characters, The Confusion of Languages plunges readers into a shattering collision between two women and two worlds, affirming Siobhan Fallon as a powerful voice in American fiction and a storyteller not to be missed.
“A gripping, cleverly plotted novel with surprising bite.”—Phil Klay
“Mesmerizing and devastating....Two military wives must explore a modern-day, cultural labyrinth in this insatiable read.”—Sarah McCoy
|Penguin Publishing Group
|5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)
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May 13, 2011
We are close, so close, to Margaret’s apartment, and I feel myself sink deeper into the passenger seat, relieved that I have succeeded in my small mission of getting Margaret out of her home, if only for a few hours. The day is a success. Sure, I had to let her drive, something I usually avoid. Margaret is always too nervous, too chatty, looking around at the pedestrians, forgetting to put on her signal, stomping on the brakes too late. But today I actually managed to snap her out of her sadness. I have done everything a good friend should.
It’s not until we reach the intersection at Horreyya and Hashimeyeen that I realize my mistake. I’ve misjudged the time, something I never do. Friday prayers have already let out. We’d stopped by the ceramics house to pick up a box of pottery I’d ordered and Margaret, being Margaret, sat down for too long with the hijab-ed women at their worktable, letting them touch Mather, pinching his cheeks and thighs, rubbing silica dust all over his tender baby'skin. Now the intersection ahead is congested, chaotic. I see men strolling from the mosques, climbing into the cars they triple-parked along the main road.
I sit up straight, the seat belt pressing against my chest.
The traffic light turns yellow as we approach and cars alongside us speed by. Margaret could step on the gas and easily make the light but both of us see a man on the sidewalk, waving his entire arm in the air.
“Just go—” I urge, but Margaret shakes her head, slowing the car, the corner of her mouth turning up.
“It’s uncanny how he always sees me.” She says something like this every single time and I usually reply, The man’s livelihood depends on his ability to spot the softhearted suckers. But today I am silent. Mather shouts from his car seat but she ignores him too.
Her window is down before we’ve come to a complete stop. The man reaches into the cluster of dented white buckets at his corner-side stand, pulls free a few dripping-wet bouquets, then dodges traffic until he’s at Margaret’s side.
He leans through the window, wearing a red and white checked kaffiyeh around his throat. Margaret’s wallet is on her lap, ready.
“Hello, baby!” the man shouts at Mather, avoiding looking at both of us women with our loose hair and bared elbows. His flowers are spread perfectly across his arm, inches from the very face he will not peer into. The car fills with the scent of crushed rose petals, exhaust, and his sweat, a faint mix of onions and soil. I do not point out that most of his offerings are wilted, tinged with brown. I notice the cluster of pristine white blossoms at the same time Margaret does, fragile, lacy blooms on very green stems, and she nods toward them, holding up her money. It takes only seconds.
As he passes the chosen bouquet to Margaret through the window, Mather yells again from the backseat, wanting something; that child is always wanting something. The man turns to the baby but he doesn’t stop there; he lifts his face and stares behind our car, his brown eyes widening with fear as he stumbles backward. Before I can look around, there is a ripping scream of brakes and our car leaps forward with a thud of crushed metal. Our heads rock on our spines and there are flowers in flight across the dashboard, white blossoms spread open like tiny, reaching hands.
May 13, 2011
Margaret, this happens all the time.” We stand outside her apartment, her baby on my hip. I know I am too chipper for the occasion, that I am still on uncertain ground, but I am glad to be here. It’s been weeks since she’s invited me in, weeks since I have held her child close. I continue directing words at her as she digs through her massive handbag: “You haven’t really lived in the Middle East until you’ve been in a car accident.” She glances up and I see my attempt at humor has failed. Her blue eyes are so red she looks like a white lab mouse, worn and wary from too many experiments. Her gaze is naked, injured, disturbing.
“I should go to the police station with you,” I say. “It’ll be easier to find with the two of us.”
She shakes her head, lifting a fist of keys from her purse; loose Cheerios fall out on the floor. “No, the baby’s hungry, he needs a nap.” She watches her son for a moment before training those red eyes back on me. “I mean, if you don’t mind, I’d rather you stay here with him.”
I nod. Mather reaches for the large black garbage bag slumped at the side of the welcome mat and I swing him away, press a kiss on his sweaty little head. I want to ask Margaret why no one has cleared her trash away—that lazy boab of hers is always hovering about trying to get a glimpse down her T-shirts; where is he when she needs him?—but I notice her hands are shaking so badly she can’t get the key in the lock. I give her the baby, remove the key from her grip.
“I’ve got it,” I say as I twist the lock and then push the apartment door open.
“Thanks, Cass.” She doesn’t seem grateful. Instead she’s even more crestfallen, as if I’ve taken something from her I shouldn’t have. The ability to open her door? I’m confused and I step aside to let her scurry past into the blacked-out foyer. I watch her flick a few lights on. She usually keeps the windows wide and full of sun. It’s disorienting to leave the afternoon behind us and face something so dark, all the shades drawn. Her apartment also smells funny, not quite rank, but stale, used diapers and food that has sat out too long. I hesitate in the doorway, then kick off my shoes and follow her.
“Margaret, you should print out directions to the police station—it’s a mess down there,” I say as she heads into the master bedroom. She closes the door behind her, a solid click, a sudden Do not enter between us. I stop and wait for her to emerge, wait for her to shout to me, wait for anything, but there is only silence. Usually Margaret breast-feeds Mather wherever the inclination takes her, never bothering to cover up or hide the act, sitting on the couch, at the kitchen table, on the linoleum floor with her knees up and the baby on her thighs, kicking his feet. Not today.
After a moment, I head toward the kitchen, turning on more lights as I go.
The sink is a disaster, withered tea bags left curled around spoons, baby bowls caked with dried oatmeal and smears of yogurt. I begin to tidy up, stacking the dishes and peeling balled-up dishtowels from the countertops. We should have gone directly to the police station the way we were supposed to. The embassy fixer had come out to the scene of the accident, explained Margaret would need to file a report at the main headquarters in downtown Amman, sign a few forms. He even offered to lead us there in his embassy vehicle and act as a translator.
“Yes,” I’d agreed. “It won’t take long.”
“And the guilt fee is not so expensive,” the guard had said amicably. “Perhaps it is less than fifteen American dollars.”
That’s when Margaret lost it. She said she was taking her baby home, she was innocent, damn it, innocent! Didn’t he know what that meant? How could the price matter? The man stood there, baffled beneath his mustache.
Though I shouldn’t have been surprised. Margaret never actually does what she’s supposed to do here in Jordan, does she? Why, we could have already been finishing up now, this could have already been transformed into nothing more than an anecdote to tell at the next cocktail party. Another expat found guilty in a fender bender, it’s the cross we all bear, trial by traffic accident. But no, Margaret never listens. Margaret never takes my advice or anyone else’s, Margaret has to do everything her own way.
I slam a dirty-rimmed coffee cup into the sink. There are few dishwashers, even in the ritzy, newer neighborhoods like this near the US embassy. I don’t feel like rolling up my sleeves and washing dishes for her today. When she comes out from behind her closed door, disobedient Margaret can do it herself.
I dry my hands and walk into the living room. The lamps throw off a brittle light. It’s late afternoon but might as well be midnight. I go to the window, feel around behind the curtain for the cord. There’s not much that Jordan does better than America, but it does do blackout. The shutters here are built right into the window, between two layers of glass, and when you close them you have effectively put up a wall between you and the outside world. I tug the shutters open and sun spills in.
“Oh, wait, don’t!” Margaret cries from behind me. I turn. She stands with her hands up, fingers spread, covering her face. I can see in the sunlight how blotchy her skin is. She must have gone into that bedroom with the baby and continued to cry; she must not have wanted me to see. Her white blouse is askew on her collarbones, her blond, nearly translucent hair dangling around her face. Her lips are so chapped I can see peeling bits glow in the light.
She looks awful.
Everything I have been warning her about, everything she has ignored, all of it is unfolding just the way I knew it would.
“Margaret,” I start softly, trying to stop the words I told you so from rising to the surface of my throat.
She comes toward me quickly, unsteady on her feet, almost falling. She catches herself on the wall with her right hand and straightens. Then she tugs on the cord, narrows the shutters, angling them in a way that lets in light but doesn’t allow anyone on the outside to see in.
“Is that all right?” she asks, apology in her voice.
I stare. Does she not want people to know she is home? Does she have a Peeping Tom she’s never mentioned? “Why keep them down?”
“I need to thank you, Cassie,” she says, evasive. “Really, really thank you.” She touches the glass of the window with her fingertips, then faces me. “I’ve been meaning to for so long. Thank you. You’ve been the only person I could depend on.”
These are the very words I’ve been waiting to hear since January.
“Don’t be silly,” I say, embarrassed. It’s as if she’s read my mind and realized exactly how to soothe me. “That’s what friends are for.” She moves closer and I lift my hands and begin to straighten her shirt, but really I want to make sure we are reconciled. As an answer, she places her palms on top of my fingers, trapping them on her shoulders. Her bones feel light and sharp.
I look into her swollen eyes. “It’s going to be fine, Margaret.”
“Is it?” She slides her hands down and slips away from my grip. “Are you sure you don’t mind watching Mather?”
“No problem.” Five minutes ago I wanted to smash her dishes. Now, after a simple show of gratitude, I’d do anything for her. This is a lesson my husband, Dan, ought to learn.
“I put the baby in his crib. He’ll nap for an hour or so. I left my bag in the bedroom in case you want to take him for a walk.” Her eyes blink around the room as if there is something she’s forgotten and she wants to retrieve it.
I hesitate. “I bet the police station is open all night. We could let the baby'sleep and then all go together. I’ve been there before. They found me guilty too, Margaret. I know I told you the story, how I was waiting for someone to pull out of a parking space, had my blinker on, and this taxi just plowed into me. The worst part was that I was eating an ice-cream cone. I always thought that was the reason I was found guilty. How could anyone take me seriously with vanilla Häagen-Dazs down the front of my shirt?”
She shakes her head vaguely, not listening to a word. “If I leave now I might make it back before Mather wakes up.”
“Then just get in and get out. No more arguing. Sign the paperwork, pay the money, the embassy will figure it all out next week.”
She looks into my eyes. “Tell me again it’ll be OK.”
“It’ll be OK,” I repeat. “Call me if you have any trouble.”
She nods, tucks her keys carefully into the canvas purse she uses as a wallet. She looks odd without the baby in one arm and her overflowing diaper bag in the other, like she has been stripped of half herself. I can see flecks of salt dried into her lashes.
Her head snaps up and her eyes widen at my voice. “Cass, if Crick calls, don’t tell him about the accident, OK?”
I feel myself blush. So we might be reconciled, but she still doesn’t entirely trust me. “All right.”
“And if Saleh knocks, don’t let him in.”
“What are you talking about? Why would he even come to your door?”
She pulls her hair behind her ears and glances up at the mural on her living room ceiling. When she speaks, I’m not sure if she is talking to me or to the angels painted there. “Please tell Mather I’ll be home soon.”
“You know what, let’s do this tomorrow—” I say, moving toward her, but she turns and walks out the door without another word.
It’s only after I’ve heard the elevator ding shut in the hallway that I realize I forgot to ask if she printed directions.
Reading Group Guide
1. Discuss Fallon’s portrayal of Amman and the Middle East. Were you surprised by any aspects of Jordanian culture? How is life in Amman different than life in the United States? How does life at the US embassy fit in between the two? Why do you think Fallon chose to write about Amman through the perspective of two Western women?
2. The novel explores two marriages. How did you feel about Cassie and Dan in the beginning of the novel? Did you feel differently at the end? How does your understanding of Margaret’s marriage change as we discover her diary?
3. Cassie and Margaret are two very different women with two very distinct approaches to life overseas. Did you relate to one woman more than the other?
4. What does it mean to be a good friend? Is Cassie a good friend to Margaret? Why or why not? Is Margaret right to befriend Hassan?
5. Have you ever kept a journal? Why do you think Cassie decides to read Margaret’s journal? Do you agree with her decision? If you were left alone in a friend’s apartment and uncovered a diary, would you be tempted to take a look? Be honest!
6. Cassie thinks that Margaret “doesn’t recognize that the line between us and them is real. She’s infected with our great American hubris of assuming that deep down every single person wants the same thing: autonomy, freedom, democracy, independence. I try to tell Margaret things here are different, that our American tolerance, even veneration, of the rule-breaker is not shared in a place where the literal translation of the name of the faith, Islam, means ‘submission’” (p. 45). Do you agree with her? How do you think our American values shape the way we understand others?
7. Discuss how Fallon explores military life. How does setting this story at the US embassy change the portrayal of Amman? Does it shape how the characters understand the Middle East? How are Cassie’s and Margaret’s marriages affected by their husbands’ work?
8. Margaret tells Cassie, “There’s only kindness” (p. 323). What does she mean? Why do you think Margaret believes this? How does Margaret’s saying change Cassie?
9. Discuss the novel’s treatment of motherhood. Is Margaret a good mother to Mather? How has she been changed by the death of her own mother? How does Cassie’s desire to be a mother affect her relationship with Dan? How does it change her friendship with Margaret?
10. Why do you think Fallon chose to set the story in 2011, during the Arab Spring? How does the political climate of Jordan affect the characters? How would the story be different if it was set in today’s Middle East?
11. Were you surprised by the ending?