In GENERATION I, an American diplomat in Tashkent is appalled when he witnesses the abuse an Uzbek firebrand must endure for the sake of her independence, so he brings her into his home to protect her from corrupt law enforcement officials intent upon jailing her for murder. Born in Russia, Nicholas moved to the U.S. as a kid when his mother found love on the internet, while Asal left her home at age sixteen to dodge an arranged marriage to a stranger reeking of cigarettes and lamb fat. He leaps into her world of deception and wandering loyalties with the eagerness of a retriever tumbling into a lake, and Asal’s fierce autonomy in a men-only world entices him deeper. Nicholas smuggles Asal out of the country only to have her reward his generosity with betrayal, but did she truly let him down?
I pressed the back of my hand to the smudged glass of the meat case. Warm. “If you don’t refrigerate this lamb it goes bad.” I’ve been arguing this with butchers at this market every week for the past year and a half.
“What can I offer you, brother?” The meat cutter stepped forward wiping his palms across his apron, the new blood and grease mingling with the old. His Russian is broken but more certain than my shaky grasp of the Uzbek language, which I abuse daily in my work on the visa line at the American embassy. The butcher spit out a pumpkin seed and half of the shell clung to his lip as if indecisive about which was the worse fate, the floor below or this man’s mouth. He swiped it away, saying, “I cut that lamb today, my friend. You will not find fresher meat on this bazaar.”
He might have cut the meat that morning, but its blackened edges and the shriveled ridge of fat that rimmed the sinewy slab fixed the time of death somewhere in the previous week. “Why don’t you turn this refrigerator on? It keeps the meat from spoiling.”
The Uzbek waved his hand, swatting at a fly or perhaps dismissing the superstition of bacteria. “That animal lived a good life without electricity. God willing, he won’t need it in death.”
The trader in the next stall, a thinner and ill-shaven version of the butcher standing before me, pulled the stub of a cigarette from between his lips and called out from his stool. “I’ll give you a good price on qazi, brother.” He laid his hand upon his chest and vowed, “I am losing money, but you save me the burden of lugging it home tonight.”
Not a devotee of horse sausage, I declined and told the first man, “I’m looking for a loin.”
“And your companion?” the butcher asked, peering over my shoulder. “Perhaps she would prefer a leg?”
The woman had been in my shadow since I entered the bazaar and made no effort to conceal herself. I work for the State Department and unsolicited interest comes with the job in this region of the world, but she looks more like a pickpocket than a Security Services lackey. “What do you think, Little Rabbit?” If she’s going to harass me this openly, I don’t mind having some fun with her. That was the nickname my grandmother gave me when I was a toddler, but now that I’ve had a better look at this woman than the few angled glances I’d earlier swiped, I see that she’s rather striking. “Should we go with the leg or hold out for a loin?”
Something flashed in her eyes and I can’t say what it was, but it was no apology. She stepped forward, rubbing her hands together against the cold, and told the meat cutter, “Give him his loin and keep your thumb off the scale.”
The butcher’s smile dissipated, and he stared the woman down as he addressed me. “This lamb was extraordinary, but it was born with only two loins and I sold them both this morning while your devoted wife was still enjoying her sleep. I’m afraid that all I can offer you are ribs and the leg.”
The woman lunged and I was tempted to let her go right over the counter and maybe carve out the butcher’s loin with his own knife, but I needed my meat, so I blocked her with my extended arm. “I’ll take the leg,” I said. I quibbled over the price only long enough to preserve my self-respect, as haggling is the national pastime here and I have neither the appetite nor the talent for it. I paid the meat cutter, who wrapped the lamb in newspaper and handed the packet to me across the dormant display case.
I redistributed my bags to balance the load and focused on the woman, who was still simmering. She had a dark, exotic appeal inclusive of the sundry races that had beset Central Asia over the centuries and her eyes hinted at an eagerness to clash, while the fishhook scar on her cheek suggested that she had already weathered a skirmish or two, even came out on top. I didn’t bother turning away when she caught my lingering eyes and I saw straight away in hers that she was trouble.
“So…?” I played it out, watching her watch me. I’ll admit that she intrigues me but getting involved with a local won’t do my career any good and I like my quiet little life just the way it is. “Who are you and why are you following me around?”
“I drive a taxi. I will take you home.”
Her accent melted the icy Russian words and even thawed something inside me that had frozen over a couple of years ago. My friend Lauren and I had been together forever when we broke up just months before I left the States. I’ve messed around a time or two since then, but I still haven’t invested the effort required to keep a relationship on the tracks long enough to reach a fourth date. “You drive? Professionally?” I asked. Uzbek culture is a selective blend of its Asian, Muslim, and Soviet heritages and women have been driving in Tashkent for years, but a female behind the wheel of either a legitimate taxi or a gypsy cab still turns heads.
She shrugged her shoulders, hands pushed into the rear pockets of her jeans. “What of it?”
When American diplomats run into trouble while serving overseas, that discord typically stems from an abuse of protocol, alcohol, or cholesterol. I like to think that I handle the second two iniquities well enough, but I have to admit that the first doesn’t come naturally to me. I suspect this is because I grew up on a dairy, where bullshit is something one avoids. I don’t know what to make of this woman, but I do recall that the first thing they taught me at the Foreign Service charm school in Arlington is that no avoidable problem is a true problem. The protocol with her would be to smile politely, turn, and walk away. If I wore a hat, this is where I would tip it and make my exit. The hitch lies in my inquisitive nature, which has a way of eclipsing my good sense.
“I didn’t mean to insult you,” I told her, careful not to spark what I took to be her short fuse by smiling with those words. Only one female had ever stopped her car for me in Tashkent, and she was a human tree trunk on the downslope of her forties. Her grandkids flitted around in the back like a couple of caged sparrows and functioned as her chaperones. “What’s your name?”
“I am Asal.” Her hair was full and black as coal, and she disciplined it with a single elastic band at the back of her head. She wore no makeup, a fact that augmented her feral allure. “What do I call you?”
“I’m Nicholas.” The female driver I’d encountered a few months earlier had a husband laid up in the hospital recovering from a heart attack, and she took over his cab because the family needed the income. I don’t imagine that Asal is as domesticated. “How long have you been driving?” I couldn’t stop staring at her, yet she didn’t seem to be fazed.
She pulled her hands from her pockets and let them fall to her sides, as though our little chat could turn to violence in a flash and she would be prepared when it did. “You need not worry about my driving skill,” she said. “Men can buy their licenses here, but you can be sure that if a woman has one, she passed a test to get it.”
“I’m not questioning your ability behind the wheel,” I said, palms raised. “I just don’t see a lot of women cabbies here. You should be proud of yourself.”
Her eyes scanned up and down my length, and she made no effort to veil her mistrust of the compliment. “Do you need a ride or not?”
I’ve made a couple of ill-considered decisions at work in the past month—the first for granting a visa to someone who didn’t strictly meet the requirements for one but just wanted to get to Indiana to meet her new grandson, and the second for refusing a jackass who did qualify for one. Both times my boss reacted as though I’d struck a blow against freedom and democracy. The last thing I need now is more trouble in my life. The Russian voice in my head, ever-present though always in the back seat, warned that Asal stood out and I should regard her as a threat. The American in me countered that cutting across the grain the way she did was her finest feature. “I’ll take the ride,” I told her, “and I’ll pay you four thousand soums to get me to—”
“The price starts at six thousand.”
“You don’t know where I’m going.” And I saw that she didn’t care, either.
“You are not paying for my gasoline. You are paying for my time, and it starts at six thousand.”
“Fair enough,” I said, amused, though I had been generous at four thousand. It bears repeating that I don’t haggle. “Let’s go.”
She nodded as though the only thing that surprised her about our exchange is the fact that I made a sensible choice in not arguing with her. “Who are you?”
“I told you. I’m Nicholas.”
“I know your name. Who are you?”
I’ll chock that one up to language barriers—her Russian falls well short of fluent—though she seems intent upon being difficult. “I am an American.” I extended my hand and she stared at it as though I had offered a different branch of my anatomy for her consideration. I reoriented my palm toward the exit and suggested, “Why don’t I follow you?”
She lit off and I pursued, straining not to lose her in the multitude. Asal angled her way to the exit and out to the street, checking over her shoulder every few steps, past me and into the crowd, and I couldn’t help thinking that she was worried about being followed. She signaled for me to wait at the curb before cutting across the road to a white Chevrolet Matiz. The car’s windshield had a crack that meandered from the mirror to its bottom right corner and the fender on the driver’s side was crumpled. The front bumper was altogether gone.
She U-turned across traffic to an outcry of horns, and I instinctively held out a hand to flag her the way I would stop any gypsy cab. She pulled to the curb at the bus stop servicing the bazaar and surrounding conversations went silent at the image of a female at the wheel of a vehicle for hire. A pair of women in halats, traditional calf-length tunics with matching trousers, under their coats regarded the scene with folded arms and knit brows. When one of them caught me watching her, she fired a scowl right back at me.
I loaded my bags into the rear seat and was settling myself up front when Asal pulled a screwdriver from her door pocket and gripped it in her right hand like an icepick. “Damn…” I pressed back against the door. “Does this mean I’m supposed to sit in the back?”
“Do you understand that you are paying for transportation?”
“I jumped to that conclusion the moment you told me you drive a taxi.”
“Transportation and nothing else?” She spun the screwdriver 360 degrees in her palm with surprising deftness and brought the blade down to my thigh. The pain was sharp and I feared for the integrity of my jeans, but I wasn’t going to show her my discomfort. “Men sometimes have trouble remembering that last part,” she added.
I laid my hand over hers and drew the tool away. Her eye twitched with the contact, but she yielded. “My memory is just fine,” I told her. “And you’re safe with me.”
I saw in her angling lips that my assurance meant nothing to her, might even have been amusing. Why am I so drawn to this fractious woman? “My life would be paradise on Earth,” she said, “if a tenth of the promises slobbering men made to me in this car came true.”
She didn’t push me to the back seat or out to the curb, so I reached for the safety belt. The two women at the bus stop were still ogling as I settled in. “You have a couple of admirers,” I said, watching them. “Turn around up there at the light.”
She narrowed her eyes at the women and then shifted her attention back to the road, seeking an opening in traffic. I pulled the belt around to click the buckle into place and caught Asal staring at me when I looked up. “What?”
“Do you think that I intend to kill you?”
Her scrambling traffic when she wheeled across the street a moment earlier hadn’t escaped my attention, so I pushed the buckle home, and then adjusted the strap. She wouldn’t be the first Uzbek driver I offended by using a safety belt. “I think that if you were going to kill me, you’d use that screwdriver before you risked more damage to this little car.”
She worked that over before nodding her acceptance and offered what hit me as a contrived smile, then tore into the stream of traffic. The two cars ahead of us weren’t moving fast enough for her satisfaction, but she couldn’t jockey a passing position. She worked the pedals with both feet while operating the steering wheel and horn with one hand and using the other to manage the gearshift and CD player, which presently featured the old Freddie Mercury tribute to fat-bottomed girls at full volume.
“So? How long have you been driving?” I had to raise my voice over the music.
“Four years,” she said, focused on the road. “Five, maybe.”
“How did you get started? Women here work in shops. They pick cotton. They weave silk, but they don’t drive taxis.”
They clearly do, her stare told me. She hit the windshield washer and wiper to clean the accumulated road muck from her view, and it occurred to me that her goal might be to employ each knob, switch, and lever in the vehicle in her campaign to get me home, with the conspicuous exception of the turn signal. She reached for the volume button on the CD player, an agitated look in her eye, and turned down the sound. “Why do you speak Russian better than I do if you are an American?”
It’s an odd day that someone doesn’t ask me that question. I was born in Russia and lived there until the age of six, when my mother relocated us to Virginia on a fiancée visa and married a Manassas dairy farmer. Twelve years in the current of the Virginia public schools eroded away much of my heritage, to Mom’s disconcert, and another seven years toiling through baccalaureate and master’s degrees at the University of Virginia turned me out as American as cornbread. “I was born in Saint Petersburg. We moved to the U.S. when I was a kid.”
She watched me a few seconds and if she accepted that answer, it was only begrudgingly. Seizing the opportunity of a break in traffic, she hammered the horn and forged the Matiz between the two cars ahead of us. I saw only the side sheet metal of the Kombi hatchback to my right; not even a narrow strip of asphalt was evident on the road below from my angle. The driver raged at us yet refused to yield a centimeter of roadway, despite having a clear lane to his right. We were close enough that I could have reached across and patted the codger’s shoulder to console him.
Fortune smiled on us as we eked by unscathed and Asal kept watch of her mirrors as she rocketed down a side street. The scar curved with her cheek under her right eye, running about an inch and a half from end to end. The suturing had been clumsy, yet there was an undeniable appeal in the result. I stole another glance. She was a combination of female, self-employed, and overconfident, which was a first in my Tashkent experience. “Are you married?”
“No.” Finally, a genuine smile from her. “Are you offering?”
She was about my age—late twenties—meaning she had grown up in the early post-Soviet era. She would have known poverty and hyperinflation, unemployment and shortages of essential goods and basic services. Scarcity would have become her way of life, unless she had connections. Connections made all the difference, but she had a resilience that could only have come from lacking. A resilience that I admire. “No, I’m not offering,” I said. “Not on our first date.”
She allowed a laugh that I suspect will have me staring at the ceiling half the night. “Don’t waste your time. I have no common ground with a Russian-American. I don’t see how you can live with yourself.”
“I have no trouble getting along with myself, and we do have something in common,” I offered. “We’re both first-generation post-Soviets.”
I can only describe what I saw cross her face as unfiltered contempt. “I am of no generation.”
“Like it or not, you are. Our parents and grandparents bought into the Soviet promise of Utopia, and our generation’s skepticism is the result of those lies.”
“You are Russian and your family may have believed all that nonsense, and perhaps you are skeptical because of it. My family saw the occupation through a different lens and I have no such connection with your history.”
Occupation? “Fair enough, but our generation has to take responsibil—”
“So you did grow up in America.”
“What does that mean?”
“That must be where you became so naïve. Nothing changed here but the colors of the flag.” She tapped her thumb to her chest. “If I am of any generation, it is Generation I. Generation Asal.”
“Do you honestly believe that?”
She didn’t look at me when she said, “I believe nothing else.”
Her independence impresses me, but I know better than to trust it. This is Uzbekistan, where the nail that sticks up gets hammered down, and where diplomats, even first-tour novices like me, are never alone. I looked at that scar again, and the idea that someone had placed this woman at the bazaar to keep watch over me resurfaced. I shouldn’t be in this car and I don’t need headaches at work, but I want to know her story. “Did someone tell you to offer me a ride?”
Her face reddened and the tendons tightened over her knuckles as she gripped the steering wheel tighter. “Why do you think I do what someone tells me to do?”
“Everyone does what someone tells them to do, Asal.” She stared me down with what I took to be pity but said nothing, so I amended my inquiry. “Alright, did someone ask you to follow me? Pay you, maybe?”
“Who are you that someone would ask such a thing of me?”
“Who am I?” Did she ever ease up? “I’m no one special, but I work for the embassy and that gets more attention than it should.”
She ripped across the lane to the side of the road and skidded to a stop. I was still wrestling with my seatbelt by the time she got out, spewing a stream of embittered Uzbek. I caught up to her and we faced off. “The Embassy of the United States?” She kicked the car with the heel of her shoe where the bumper used to be.
“Yes. What’s the problem?”
I didn’t catch a single word of what followed and I couldn’t say if she was talking to me, her car, or the universe at large, but her alarm was genuine. I stepped closer. “Why are you this upset?”
She broke for the driver’s side door and I doubled back to my side, but she had the car rolling before I could get around. I had to hop out of her way to spare my kneecaps as she pulled back into the roadway, and was that a smile I caught on her face as she zipped by me? The brake lights lit up fifty meters out and I watched as the vehicle stopped and idled in the center of the road. I wondered whether she was battling whatever beleaguered conscience might reside in her, or simply taunting me.
“Leave the groceries at the curb and I’ll pick them up,” I said to no one. Another few seconds passed and I ventured a step in her direction. She gunned the accelerator and raced away, stranding me.
I watched the roadway a few moments before the idea that she had conned me lighted on the outer branches of my mind. Outsmarted by a common thief in tight jeans. How stupid I am. I looked out for another cab, thinking I might try to catch up to her, but then reasoned that she’d be back in her lair marinating my leg of lamb, or doing whatever it was that Uzbeks did with them, before I got moving again.
I knew better, but I had to go after her. Something deep in my gut, maybe a bit lower, compelled me, so I held out my hand and the next car to come along, which turned out to be a real cab, pulled over. “Go,” I told the driver as I threw myself to the seat. For reasons I won’t trouble myself to investigate, I wanted to show this woman that I didn’t necessarily do what people expected me to do. Or told me to do. The Matiz was two hundred meters down the road already, so I pulled a wad of cash from my pocket that caused the driver’s jaw to drop and said, “Catch that white car up there and this is yours.”
The driver mashed the accelerator to the floor and the car stalled. I leaned forward and pressed my forehead to the dashboard. “Wait, wait,” he said. He turned the key in the ignition and the engine wound hesitantly and failed to start. “This isn’t a problem. I’ll get it going.”
“I need to catch that woman. Maybe you know her. She’s a cab driver.”
The man took a long, sideways glance at me. “Women don’t drive taxis.”
“She drives a gypsy cab. A beat-up Matiz.”
Recognition flashed in his eyes, chased by a gold-toothed smirk. “Stay away from that girl.”
Like so much of the good advice that fell into my life, this piece arrived too late to be of any practical use. “How do I find her?”
The cabbie looked away. “Maybe I should just take you home.”
“She stole my groceries.”
He checked his mirrors and turned the key again, and just as I was sure the battery was going to give out on him, the engine caught and fired. He laid a loving hand on the dashboard and said, “If you associate with that girl, you might find yourself in trouble with some unpleasant people. Let her have your groceries and be happy she didn’t take your soul.”
I waved the cash again. “Are you going to help me or not?”
We both looked down the road; the Matiz was out of sight.
“Few Uzbeks will get into a taxi driven by a woman and she would have to be careful about the ones who do. She’ll go where she can find foreigners or hard currency. Westerners, likely.”
“Then why would she have been at the bazaar?” Unless she had known that I would be there, I thought. Unless she was put there.
The cabbie shrugged his shoulders. “The people who run the taxi business at the airport and hotels are dangerous. She’ll stay away from them if she has any sense. Try the train and bus stations. Maybe banks or restaurants.”
“Take me to the closest one,” I said. The man just stared back and Asal’s spell over me ebbed, making way for a return of common sense. “Fine. Take me back to the bazaar.” I have no food at the house.