The war in Afghanistan was ruining my sex life.
All month, I’d been trying to avoid that annoying question from Martin. “But, wait, where is your family from?” he asked over the shower steam the second time we had sex.
I laughed and tweaked the ends of his sensitive little nipples with suds.
A week later, he tried again. “Sorry, I didn’t catch it the first time, I know you said you grew up in Minneapolis but remind me where you said you were born.”
“My mother used to say I was heaven-sent, that I arrived in her lap fully formed.” This time, there was no laughter. Martin glanced down at his nail beds.
The third time Martin asked, I rubbed his dick through his trousers, a useful trick when you want a guy to shut up, which he did almost instantly. Foolproof.
In the end, I overheard him tell someone on the phone he was dating a guy from Beirut and I knew I had to correct him. I guess he thought the stick-n-poke tattoo of a serrated spear on my thigh was a cedar tree. He never figured out how to distinguish Arabic from Farsi.
“Martin, I need to tell you something.” He wiped his phone on the duvet and put it face-down on the bedside table. “Don’t freak out, but I’m not Lebanese. I’m Afghan.”
The guy audibly gasped. “You should have told me earlier.” Martin massaged his wrist as though it were sore or recently unclamped from a manacle. “I can’t keep choking you during sex now, can I? What kind of person would that make me?”
“But I like when you choke me. I asked you to do it.”
A pile of clothes fell off the edge of the bed as he got up and switched on the lamp. He slapped the meat of his thigh and sighed.
It wasn’t the first time a guy I was fucking had said some shit like that to me. That’s when I lose interest too. It’s not sexy watching the onset of pity. I wanted someone to treat me like a slut, to show me that my worth was my sexual utility, which I sort of already knew from my day job hawking diamonds to newly engaged couples on Miami Beach. Often, the same men came in with different girls, and one time this Brazilian guy brought his old ring into the store — plush case and carry bag and receipt and all — and begged me for a refund.
The thing is, I didn’t want someone to choke me as an Afghan. So I got dressed and left his apartment.
War softens dicks. I couldn’t blame the men I slept with for losing their erections. I’d never fucked an Afghan either. The pressure to repopulate a dying race was a major boner-killer. No one should be thinking about babies mid-coitus.
Martin said he was cool to stay friends. We were planning on going to Mardi Gras together the following month and he offered to split our reservation into separate rooms. It was just the sex he couldn’t do anymore. He said I reminded him of Farukh, an orphan boy he’d sponsored in college after a televised humanitarian appeal.
“I can’t have another Afghan to worry about.” He was only half-joking.
Plenty of the people who took an interest in me were motivated by some profound unnameable guilt — bleeding-heart liberals with professors and CFOs for parents, Clintonites who’d exposed them to dinosaur books and sculpture museums and made brownie trays for birthdays and followed dietary restrictions while ordering dinner.
The latest to latch on, Ruth, was more tactful at least. She was new at the jewellers and she smuggled boxed wine into the shop in her MK handbag. Who was I to judge?
After work one Friday, Ruth asked me if I was single. I said yes, only recently so. She poured some gross chardonnay into my Hydro Flask and we sat on the beach to drink.
“I thought growing up in Qatar would have made him different from the other guys. I even told my mom about him. She’s expecting to hear all about our trip to New Orleans.”
The sun set and the Dominican family on the sand beside us lowered their Bad Bunny loop and Ruth swivelled towards me with an analyst’s affect. She gave me this look like, oh you poor thing. You have a mom, it must be this messed-up relationship.
“How’s she taking all of this?” She gestured at my painted nails and the long earring draped over my shoulder and the dark regrowth at my roots.
My mother had warned me about this so many times growing up. She used to watch me talking to the old ladies who fed breadcrumbs to the ducks by the pond. “Any hag can give you a morsel of attention,” she’d say, “and you lose every sense of yourself, is that it?”
I gripped the sand between my toes and turned to Ruth, her freckles the color of timber. “She’s fine with it, thanks for your concern.”
I thought of telling Ruth that my mom was a journalist who’d helped run a Maoist newspaper back in Afghanistan, or about the world-class blunts she rolled with one hand and the blowjob she’d given Richard Gere in a limo. None of which was true but I wanted her to believe it.
After some thought, I decided against mentioning Mao. I’d already learned the hard way that you can’t make a communist sympathizer out of a reactionary Cuban who was born and raised in South Florida.
Ruth refilled my Hydro Flask.
At my boarding gate in the New Orleans airport the Wednesday after Mardi Gras, this guy in the military tapped my shoulder and asked me out on a date. All my serotonin was gone by then. I was paranoid one of those German shepherds would sniff some shit on me even though I’d triple checked for near-empty baggies before I checked out of the hotel. Had they trained dogs to smell bloodstreams yet?
The dude was tall and black and wearing his whole turd-colored regalia and, when I turned around and laid eyes on him, my first instinct was to run, afraid his uniform meant I was bound for interrogation and a suspension of habeas corpus.
“You’re Afghan right?” he asked. I was spooked but I nodded. He must have read that as a signal to keep going. “I can see it in your features. Soft like an Asian, hard like an Arab. The best of both worlds. I was deployed to Bagram twice so I know the difference.”
“That’s not cool at all. What the fuck. What do you want from me?” The Delta display screen showed that the crew had only just begun to board priority seating. Nearby, a young family packed down their stroller to store it in the cargo.
The soldier laughed and inched closer, leering as if the two of us were sharing some illicit inside joke. “I gotta say, spending all that time over in Afghanistan did have its perks. I learned I have a type.”
“They’re letting on veterans and babies and shit,” I said. “You should probably go get in line now.”
We both faced the mouth of the queue. “Nah,” he said, setting his enormous backpack down on the thin wire of my laptop charger. “I’m gonna wait here. With you.”
His name was Jerry, short for Gerald. We’d been fucking a few times a week since we got back to Miami. He was always trying to get me to stay the night at his place.
He’d have takeout for two ready in brown paper bags even when I showed up drunk past midnight. And he bought this 2L bottle of Hendrick’s despite insisting it tasted like tonic water gone flat. It’s because you’re mixing the gin with flat tonic water, dumbass, I tried to tell him. The whites of his eyes sparkled when he laughed. He thought I was hilarious.
At least he had no trouble choking me. Nothing made his dick harder than an Afghan. He wore his genocidal uniform and pinned me to the bed like a hostage.
It was all sexy until he called me Ahmad.
“Who the fuck is Ahmad?” I shrugged backwards and out from under him on the bed.
“Huh, no one.” His gleaming bare head eclipsed the Edison bulb. “Just go with it.”
“Fuck you. How many Afghans are you fucking?”
He sat back on his calves. “I’m not having sex with anyone called Ahmad.” He looked down at his unbothered erection and then back at me.
He kept talking as I pulled my socks on and dug around in the allegedly laundered hamper for a cleanish towel.
This guy Ahmad had worked in the kitchen doing dishes on the military base where Jerry was deployed, he told me.
“Sex tourist, are you? Wave your little passport around and expect the local Afghan boys to hop in line for their turn with you? Did he look like me? Was he young?”
“You’ve had too much to drink. You can’t drive home like this.”
Jerry was right about that. I got him to pay for my Uber and, on my way out, while he was taking a piss, I grabbed the takeout and pocketed his wallet. It contained credit cards, sales receipts, and his low-resolution military identification, which I started flashing whenever someone asked me to prove that I too was a veteran of America’s wars.
The Uber driver was an Iraqi refugee named Omeed and I accepted an Altoid from him. At my feet were a couple portions of chicken lo mein and spring rolls in a brown paper bag, as well as two-thirds of the bottle of Hendrick’s.
Omeed didn’t drink but I offered him some lo mein. He parked in my driveway, slurped down the noodles, and spoke of his former life as an engineer. The tone was sentimental, otherwise I’d have invited him up.
We let the Uber meter run. The way I saw it, we were taxing Jerry’s murderous employer. I messaged Martin to see if he was up and he replied after a few seconds.
Friends don’t booty call friends at 2 a.m.
Fuck you, Martin, I responded, Friends fuck all the time.
Three little dots appeared and then vanished.
The next time I stumbled into Jerry’s apartment after a night out, he showed me his phone. He’d changed the home screen wallpaper to a screenshot of my contact information. A red heart and the flag of Afghanistan appeared next to my name.
“Jerry, I swear to God, you’ve sunk to new lows.”
Before I let him touch me, I made him restore the old image of a misty Golden Gate Bridge.
I learned Ahmad’s butt was furry and perky and firm, just like mine. Ahmad liked a hand around his neck too. Or Jerry liked to choke him. “You’re a sicko, Jerry, you know that, right?”
Eyelids quivering and breath shallow, Jerry held my ankles with his spare hand. “More,” he said. Sweat and redness spread across his face. “Say it again. Tell me I’ve been bad.”
“You’re a disgusting pig, Jerry. I’m going to punish you for all the blood on your hands.” The pressure of his palm on my esophagus was obstructing the passage of air.
“Oh you’re pathetic, you’re evil. Haven’t you Americans —” Dark spots appeared at the corners of my vision and then expanded. A ringing, a dizziness. “Haven’t you taken enough from me? From all of —”
“Fuck yes,” he moaned. He was close. “Fuck yes.”
Box springs scratched the sides of my ears. My knees went numb, then my elbows. I couldn’t mouth words anymore, couldn’t form thoughts. I unpeeled my hands from his wrists.
The full heft of his body collapsed on top of me and flattened any air left in my lungs. I counted 30 seconds and then slid myself out from underneath him.
In the somber glow of the vending machine downstairs, I selected a packet of chips — sour cream and onion — and sat on the picnic table outside of Jerry’s condo.
A feral opossum was drawn to the rustling sound and raised its head over the rim of the trash. I stretched out on the flat wood and watched the tree trunks splinter into veins.
By the entrance, this bald guy in a white singlet, slides, and basketball shorts was flicking the metal wheel of an empty Zippo to spark a cigarette. He swaggered over and asked me for a light. I answered lying down, suspended on the table. I said I didn’t have one.
“That’s okay.” He put the Zippo back in his shorts. “Don’t start. It’s no good for you.”
He lingered there beside me for a beat while I rubbed the side of my neck.
Bobuq Sayed is an Afghan writer, editor, and artist. They are a 2022-23 Steinbeck fellow at San José State University.