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Numbers Game or Pity

by Zhanar Irgebay

Janet’s husband cuts his toenails with a small knife as she lays next to him in their bed. Her bedside lamp is the only source of light. She wants to ask if they should turn the ceiling light on so that he can see better. Then she imagines him accidentally cutting himself and doesn’t. She is irritated that he hasn’t turned on the lamp on his bedside table. 

Janet started cheating on her husband three years ago, a week after she started going by Janet. At first it was an accident, a lapse of judgment one could say. She didn’t even very much enjoy it. The other man had a hairy chest and screamed when he orgasmed. Then the next time she picked better. Then it started to feel good, she stopped feeling the prickling in her chest that she imagined was a sense of guilt. Then she stopped thinking of her husband when she got into the beds of the nameless men. But then he became a name, a face, a man. He had three kids, two of them she’s met. One was in college, studying engineering. The other two she wasn’t sure. She began feeling a pain in her chest again, but she kept on cheating anyway. 

When she and her husband moved to America from Central Asia she still went by a different name. She always loved her name, Kyrgyz author Chingiz Aitmatov wrote a novel with that same name. But then it became a nuisance, Americans never pronounced the i followed by a letter a right. At first, she wanted to go by Jane, but it reminded her of Jane Eyre and that made her sad. 

“Do you think of other women when you’re with me?” she asks him. 

“Of course, not Jamilia, I love you.”

Janet reaches over and turns the light off. Her husband has no choice but to put his knife away and lay back next to her. Toenails unfinished and uneven. The knife sits on his bedside table. 

“We were twenty-three when we got married,” she says. 

“And I loved you then,” he responds. 

“We weren’t American then.”

“Right,” he says, the unsaid lingering between them. Then he adds, “you know- you know you’re all I have.”

Janet stays silent. 

“And I know that I’m not all you have, and that you don’t love me. But this - you’re enough for me, even if I have to share you.”

“That’s so sad.”

“Being here alone, “ he tapers off, “another man in your life is far from my biggest fear.”

“Don’t you think that’s pitiful,” she purposely says. But there is nothing she can say that he hasn’t said to himself before. He tells her he doesn’t care. 

“Do you love me or are you scared of not having me?”

“I don’t know. Is that not the same thing?”

“No. Come on, you know it’s not.” 

“Well then please don’t make me answer that.”

“You know there’s other women out there.”

“I know,” but they both know that’s not the case. The number of Central Asians in America is dismal. It’s not love, Janet knows, it's a numbers game. 

Janet reaches over and turns her lamp back on. She turns to face the light. Even when she closes her eyes, she can see the outline of the bulb. Her husband reaches for his knife.


Zhanar Irgebay was born in Almaty, Kazakhstan and raised in Philadelphia. She hopes to amplify Central Asian American voices and experiences through her work. She holds a bachelor's in literature from the University of Pennsylvania and a master's in international relations from the University of Chicago. 

You can find her on Instagram: @heyzhanar. 


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