This excerpt is part of the story “My American Father”, from Kirsten Clodfelter’s fiction chapbook, Casualties.
If I look up my name in a baby book, it lists the meaning of
Sumrah as reward. The actual definition is a little different—gift
for a good deed. For my mother, a compensation. But this is the
first thing I’m going to tell my father when I meet him, that I am
Mom tells the story differently depending on when I ask, so I
don’t know which parts are true. Sometimes she uses words like
insisted and coerced. She wants whoever’s listening to read between
and nod sympathetically, to understand why she had to leave,
that she had no choice, but I’m pretty sure there’s more than what
she says. That’s the way Mom is about things. Why else would
she still keep that photograph and the folded Ginsberg poem he
once copied for her hidden underneath the silk nightgowns in
In the picture, this young version of my father is twenty-one,
just two years older than I am now. His brown hair is cut close
to his scalp and he has the cocksure, unsmiling face most soldiers
wear in photographs. He’s dressed in his fatigues, but my beautiful
mother had asked him to set down his gun when she held up
When I ask Mom to tell me about him, she talks around
him instead. She explains about Kuwait University’s College for
Women, her year of study toward becoming a language therapist,
her own father’s disappearance shortly after the occupation. She
reminds me that Iraq owed Kuwait billions of dollars after the war
with Iran, that Saddam was a liar. Sometimes I pretend it’s the
first time I’ve heard this part of the story, and other times I let my
breath out in an exasperated puff and remind her she’s told me at
least a hundred times before.
When I get like that, frustrated by what she won’t say, she slips
me little details. She tells me that the attractive American soldier
was named Timothy Arlington, that he told good jokes even
during a time of war, that he was convincing. In March of 1991,
when the U.S. troops began to move out of the Persian Gulf, she
said goodbye. But two months later she was on an airplane headed
to the United States herself, her stomach still flat and girlish,
Timothy’s phone number and address printed carefully in the first
page of her journal.
She was one of the lucky ones—this is what she says. She had
an uncle working for the American Embassy, and when I press
her further, when I ask what would have happened if she hadn’t,
she always begins, “Otherwise,” and then shrugs her shoulders, as
if there is nothing left to discuss.
I want to know why she never called him, why she chose to
stay with a distant cousin in Pittsburgh—someone she had never
even met—until she was finally able to support the both of us on
her own, why she didn’t even want to let him know she was in
America. She explains, “Our lives were too different. It never
would have worked here.” I want to stop being angry with her for
that choice, but I can’t.
My mother knows that I don’t agree, that I don’t find our
lives to be all that different. But what she does not know is that
Timothy Arlington has been easy to look up and track down on
the Internet. That after he got out of the Army, he went to college
for mechanical engineering in New York. That now he lives in
New Jersey where he owns his own company working as a safety
consultant for commercial construction projects. That right now,
I have borrowed her car to drive there.
I imagine my father as an inverse of my mother, an explanation
for the ways that she and I are not alike. When I envision him, I see
a man who talks a lot, the kind of person who laughs every time
there’s a pause in conversation—not because he’s nervous, but
because he’s happy, and it’s hard to contain that kind of happiness
inside of a body. I imagine that when he was with my mother, he
spoke to fill in her silences, and that this made both of them feel
Kirsten Clodfelter’s writing has been previously published in The Iowa Review, Brevity, Narrative Magazine, Green Mountains Review, and The Good Men Project, among others, and is forthcoming in storySouth. Her chapbook of war-impact stories, Casualties, was published last October by RopeWalk Press. A regular contributor to As It Ought to Be and Series Editor of the small-press review series, At the Margins, Clodfelter lives in Southern Indiana with her partner and young daughter.
Meagan Cass is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Illinois Springfield, where she teaches courses in creative writing, independent publishing, and composition, curates the Shelterbelt reading series, and advises the campus literary journal, the Alchemist Review. Her fiction has appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Pinch, Hobart Web, PANK, and Puerto del Sol, among other journals. Magic Helicopter Press will publish her first fiction chapbook, Range of Motion, in January 2014. She holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Louisiana Lafayette and an MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College.