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Meg Chapter 1

10 January 2022

Arabic was incredibly easy to learn, at least at first. At least for Meg.

Ana means I. So if Meg wanted to introduce herself, all she had to say was, “Ana Meg,” or, “I'm Meg.” It's an equational sentence, her Arabic tutor back at school had told her. Ana=I.

When she first got to Egypt, she said a lot of “Ana Meg.” And then as soon as a dozen words were out of her mouth, she would be accosted with a torrent of questions: why was her name Meg? What kind of name was that? Because she was Egyptian, wasn't she? Who was the Egyptian, mama or baba? Both? Where were they? Were they in Egypt, or in the States?

“No, no. No, I'm not Egyptian,” Meg would laugh.

The more genteel among them might give each other sideways smiles and cease the questioning, but very often, her interlocutors were persistent.

“But your Arabic is very good.”

La, la, ana mish Masriyya. No, no, I'm not Egyptian.

“You don't sound American. Maybe you're Lebanese.”

And it would start again.

No, no, I'm not Lebanese, she protested with a patient smile.

Eventually the questioning would stop, but that didn't mean that her questioners were satisfied. Rather, they would conclude that the dark-haired, tan American with the spot-on Egyptian accent had some mysterious backstory that would eventually be revealed. That was rubbish, of course. Meg didn't have any particular backstory, except that she loved being in the dirt, in the desert, and being anonymous.

Well, all right. There was that minor detail of being part-something. Part white and part “something.” She didn’t fit into the picture of what everyone thought an American woman should look like. She wasn’t blonde. She wasn’t blue-eyed. She wasn’t peaches-and-cream fair, and she never got sunburns. There was something faintly non-Western about her eyes and her cheekbones. Her nose wasn’t big enough or pointy enough to be European. The overly friendly shopkeepers decided among themselves that she must be Turkish. But no matter how assiduously they quizzed her, she just smiled and bantered with skill. Eventually she would stumble and say something totally wrong and weird, and everyone would laugh and realize that she wasn’t one of them after all. She’d gotten through years of dodging the ethnicity question and had never had to reveal the fact that her father had married an Amerasian orphan during his research work in Southeast Asia, and that her confusing looks were simply the result of a corrupt American presence in Asia. She preferred not to get into that. And what did it matter anyway.

Meg had no connection to Egypt at all, and certainly no connection to the Arabic language. She'd merely talked her way into a job on a dig in Luxor, despite the fact that she was only a mostly under- and sometimes flat-out unemployed twenty-something year-old from New York, and didn't have the “permissions” that the Egyptians required in order to formally work on excavations. She'd been on other volunteer digs, places like Romania (Roman settlements, unfortunately no vampires), Peru (skeletons! lots of skeletons!), and Jordan (second century Nabataeans!). She knew her way about an excavation, could talk intelligently about bioarchaeology and paleoethnobotany. She wasn’t choosy; Bronze Age digs were fascinating, Roman ruins were good, and she was hoping to get to Mongolia eventually where there was a Neolithic project she had read about.

Anything, anything at all. So long as she didn't have to go home.

Home was New Jersey, a dark, cool garden apartment in a far suburb of New York City. Clean, with floors newly retiled with fake linoleum. Real linoleum, her mother said, wasn't a thing anymore. That went out in the seventies, after disco and before Dancing Queen. Everything is press-on tiles now, she was informed. Made in China and in every color of the rainbow.Good stuff.

But she hadn't been home for more than a few days at a time in years, and as the end of each gig approached, she was seized with anxiety as she contemplated the murmured conversations that would occur between her sister and her mother: whose turn was it to put up Meg, and for how long?

Her sister had a new baby, a slick and dislikable husband, and loved nothing more than to offer to set Meg up with interviews in the city for financial jobs she didn't want so that he could claim to have “rescued” her.

She was so tired of being the younger sister with big, failed dreams. But she couldn't bring herself to take those administrative assistant jobs, even if her brother-in-law said they were a stepping stone to something “more interesting.”

“They'll probably ask you about all those digs,” he'd said, trying to sound as if he weren't judging her, which he most certainly was. “But maybe they won't hold them against you.”

“Archaeologists have to be organized,” her sister had added brightly.

Meg was not organized, had never been organized, and her sister knew it.

“And sometimes they need someone who can speak a foreign language. What did you study in college again?”

Meg had studied anthropology, but she doubted that Robert even knew what that was. He was a financial wheeler-dealer who was rude to his staff and pandered to his boss. He made a lot of money and made sure Meg's parents knew it. Hosting him at their table was excruciating, with her father absently smiling at his football references.

Meg's father never watched football.

“Foreign cultures,” Meg replied automatically. It was a lie that she reserved for people she truly detested.

“Well. Not something I’d want to get into. Too dangerous. Look at what happens in Europe all the time now. Crazy terrorists driving through crowds. And that’s in Europe.” The gaping silence following the word “Europe” was large enough to include all of the Middle East and Africa, and anywhere else that terrorists might be lurking about.

New Jersey is full of terrorists, Meg thought with contempt. On the Garden State Parkway. On the New Jersey Turnpike. At the Whole Foods. At little Robert Junior’s Montessori daycare.

She turned over in her cot, trying to think her way past the rejection she’d just gotten from yet another dig. They wanted a graduate student, they said, some who was “more qualified.”

“Hey. You’re not asleep?”

Her roommate, an older British woman, a retired professor from Gloucester, turned over in her cot.

“Sorry.”

“Don’t worry. I wasn’t asleep. Too much celebrating at dinner. My stomach’s upset.” Helen pushed herself up on her elbows and reached out to check the time on her phone. “It’s two o’clock. What time is your flight tomorrow?”

“Early. Yours?”

“Also early. What’s keeping you up? Indigestion?”

Meg shook her head. She held up her phone. “I just got rejected from an excavation I really wanted to do. Jordan.”

“You’ve been to Jordan before, right?” Helen switched on the lamp between their cots. “Let me have a look.”

Meg passed the phone over to her.

“Meg, I’ve told you this before, but you’re going to have to join the twenty-first century,” Helen complained. “Which of these keys do I press? I haven’t touched a flip phone in years.”

“Sorry. It’s the bottom key.”

Helen pressed the key repeatedly, squinting at the tiny screen. “My eyes are too old for this. Looks like they almost hired you. This is a responsible position, not for an amateur—”

“—but I’m not credentialed,” Meg finished. “I don’t have a graduate degree. At this point no one wants me as an underling, and no one wants to give me a title.”

“Have you plans to go back to school?” Helen returned the phone. “You would be a great catch for almost any program in the U.K. I could help you there. But there’s no money in it, I’m afraid. What funding we’ve got, we have to give to U.K. nationals.”

“I know.”

“So what then? Home?”

Meg shuddered. “God, no.”

“New York, is it?”

“Kind of. New Jersey. But I can’t go home. Maybe I’ll find a job as a nanny or something. Live in Manhattan.”

“Now, Meg.” Helen reached for her glasses, swung her legs over the side of the cot. She leaned forward to rest her hand on Meg’s arm. “Why aren’t you applying to U.S. programs? You know the leads on this project would write you a splendid reference. Why aren’t you doing what you need to do in order to get those better jobs?”

Meg shrugged. How to explain? How to explain that master’s programs cost money, that archaeology didn’t pay, that she couldn’t possibly live at home while she went to school, and that even being in the same state as her sister and her awful husband was toxic?

Plus the fact that it wasn’t archaeology that kept her bouncing from dig to dig; it wasn’t the old bones and the neat grids on the diagrams. It wasn’t the mummies and the occasional discovery of a bracelet or earring. It wasn’t the delight of seeing her name in a footnote in a major academic journal.

It was the way that being away from the States made her feel alive. It was the last call to prayer of the mosque; the open friendliness of the little old ladies who sold bread on the corner near the ironing man’s stall, and the cackle of the man in the gold souk who thought he was being clever by putting his thumb on the scale when he weighed the cheap earrings she bought her sister.

She laughed and argued and fought, and it didn’t matter if she was in Jordan, Peru, or Transylvania. She’d ridden in donkey carts to get to excavation sites, and she’d driven pickup trucks, even though she’d never gotten her driver’s license back in the States, as she’d had no use for one. She’d even been propositioned by a fat man with a mustache and a Mercedes. That was in Mexico, way back in the beginning, when she was very young and kind of stupid. Never accept an offer of a ride without a companion, she’d discovered, almost too late. It was a long walk back to the hostel that night.

Life overseas was lived in vivid color, not at all like life at home, which seemed to be a mere pale copy of the rest of the world. And where was home, anyway? She’d done her best to never be around for more than a month in between gigs, and she usually couch-surfed at friends’ apartments in New York rather than spend more time than she could stand with her family. She loved Manhattan, but it was expensive, and the best jobs were in industries like banking. She’d been a clerk at the Metropolitan Museum gift shop, and she supposed she could get that old job back. But it wouldn’t pay for an apartment in the city.

She had to admit it; she didn’t actually want to be an archaeologist. She just wanted her childhood back, those golden years when her father had been researching his book and they had lived with the semi-nomadic desert tribes in Pakistan. Her mother hated it. Her sister hated it. Her father had hoped that they could pick up some useful information for his book from the women, but her mother had remained stubbornly unhelpful. Meg, on the other hand, had hit the ground running. She was in and out of the women’s activities, constantly questioning, picking up Urdu at lightning speed, and eventually set to minding the younger children and looking after the animals. She had her own three camels to take care of, as well as some sheep. At age seven, she felt trusted and capable. She felt closer to these welcoming desert people than she did to her sister and mother, who spent the year trying to pretend that they weren't really in a dusty, hot village of low cinder block buildings, far away from supermarkets and the multiplex.

When they finally returned to the States after two years, she felt adrift. She was confused by the preoccupation with school and grades and sports. Her sister, Sarah, relieved to re-enter the familiar world of the American suburb, had the opposite reaction. She hurled herself into “normal” with gusto, taking school prizes left and right, sampling lacrosse and soccer, and running for student body vice president. She had a boyfriend, went to the prom, and got her driver's license.

Meg hung back, uncertain. Her friends were the loners, the immigrant kids, the unpopular kids. They didn't think she was weird. But she wasn't happy, even with all that life had to offer a kid in the late twentieth century. She kept dreaming of the desert, of the jasmine that bloomed at night, of the little kids who looked up to her and didn't think her halting Urdu was hard to understand.

It was never about archaeology, Meg knew. And if she started to apply to American archaeology programs, her life would start to unravel. She'd get caught as the fraud that she was, and she didn't have any other alternatives.

Well. Actually, she really didn't have any alternatives. At all.

She shut the phone with a snap.

“You know what you would be good at,” Helen was saying as she looked for her shoes and pulled on her jacket. She was headed for the toilet and there were biting flies outside.

“You would be great in MI6.”

Meg started to laugh. “What, a spy? Like, James Bond?”

“Sorry, I misspoke. The CIA. Have you thought of that?”

“No!” Meg was still laughing. “Why do you say that?”

“You're brilliant at foreign languages. You make friends easily. You're smart, the smartest one here, I'd say. Except for myself.” Helen was tying her shoes. “You're careful, you don't speak before you think. And you're meticulous.”

“No one has ever called me meticulous before,” Meg said, still laughing. “I'm a mess, actually. But Dr. Howard scares the shit out of me, so I try not to screw up. I don't move things around, I don't pull things out of the dirt until I've got a picture. I call someone when I find something. I'm careful that way. Only because I'm actually a mess, really and truly.”

“See? You even know your own faults! That's pretty rare.” Helen was making her way over to the door. She turned. “You should think about it. You could spend most of your time overseas, never go back to the States hardly at all. You could ask for hardship assignments. Get a steady paycheck. Learn more languages. Branch out, go to some other parts of the world. It would be cool. How do you even do that in the States? Is there a test?”

“I have no fucking clue.” Meg flopped backwards into her cot again. She reached out to switch off the lamp, but then thought better of it, as Helen wouldn't be able to see her way back into the hut.

The CIA? Could she do that?

She shuddered. No. No, what if they sentenced her to a desk job somewhere deep in the bowels of the government? She would die.Not to mention, wasn’t the CIA responsible for the mess that was Southeast Asia in the 1970s, when her mother was born and then disposed of like a used tissue? Somehow it felt like betrayal. She couldn’t work for the organization that had created so much tragedy.

Still.

She could ask around. It was a sight better than trying to inveigle an invitation to stay with her parents or offering to nanny for Sarah in exchange for her guest bedroom. “I'll have to ask Robert,” she could imagine her sister saying, and she grimaced in disgust.

If only her dad had managed to publish that book, she thought. Things might be so different. He might not be teaching history to uninterested twenty year-olds at a junior college, if only he could have gotten that book out. He might not have lost his courage and his enthusiasm for pursuing work he loved. Sarah might not have followed their mother's instructions to be a conventional success and focus on money and prestige at all cost. Maybe Sarah wouldn't be so annoying. Maybe she wouldn't have married Robert.

So many possibilities, all of them lost.

It was time to change course, Meg knew. She had to try something different.

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