What you're about to read: This is a work of historical fiction—recent history—inspired by actual accounts, so it's rather realistic though definitely fictional. The novella is built around themes I find erotic: captivity, sexual tension, male intimacy. However (disclaimer and spoiler), you won't find any full-blown sex here. This is the story of a queerly romantic, lopsidedly erotic, but unconsummated relationship between a gay man and a straight man held together as hostages.
Chapter 2 – My hostage life begins
Years later, I will still remember my kidnapping—the trip from Adnan's car to my first underground cell—in vivid detail. But my memories of what comes after that, the beginning of my life as a hostage, will be fragmentary and confused.
* * *
I will remember clearly, at least, my daily routine. That's easy. There's not that much to remember.
In the morning, they bring me my breakfast, invariably the same: a piece of flatbread with a slice of white cheese folded inside it, and a glass of tea. I eat. Then I wait... I don't know how long. Half an hour? An hour? They return to recover the glass and take me to what passes as a bathroom.
The toilet run is the most active and complicated five minutes of my day. It is rushed, almost frenetic: they have a whole cellblock of prisoners to get through. I am hustled along by my arm, blind, my head bent down to avoid hitting the low ceiling. I carry my empty water bottle in one hand and my full pee bottle in the other.
The bathroom is up the stairs, adjacent to the room where the guards spend their time, where the television plays. It is a narrow closet, tiled all around like my cell, but sopping wet and black with mold. It contains no washbasin—just a squat toilet and, beyond that, standing room with a drain in the floor for the days I'm allowed to shower. Behind me, the bathroom's entrance is covered with an opaque shower curtain, so I'm able to lift my blindfold while I'm alone inside. There is no light bulb: I have to make do with the light filtering in through the gaps above and below the curtain.
Early in my captivity, figuring out how to use the squat toilet is an added source of stress. Bernie's apartment had a squat toilet, and he showed me the stance, but I don't think I'm doing it right. I feel like I'm too high in the air and at too much of an angle. To keep my balance, I have to put my hands on the disgusting floor. Bernie kept toilet paper and a tiny wastebasket next to his toilet; here, I assume, I'm supposed to make use of the hose hanging off the wall. Seeing no alternative, I use the same hose to flush the toilet, which, unlike Bernie's, lacks anything I can recognize as a flushing mechanism. I rinse out my pee bottle with the hose as well.
The first time they take me to the bathroom, I bring my toothbrush, only to remember that I'm not supposed to drink the tap water. So I brush my teeth in my cell, using potable water from my drinking bottle, which a guard refills for me while I'm in the bathroom. For quite a while, I confine myself to a miniscule dot of toothpaste, so I can swallow it when I'm done. Later it dawns on me that I can spit out into my pee bottle. I feel stupid for not having figured that out sooner.
They allow me only a very few minutes in the bathroom before a guard starts slapping the shower curtain and growling "Yallah," which is the word they use when they want me to hurry up. Periodically, every several days, they tell me, "Douche," and then I'm allowed an extra minute or two to strip down and rinse my body—there's no soap—with cold water from the hose. I have no towel; I put my pajamas back on my wet body. Soon I start using my shower time to rinse out my underwear and sometimes my socks. My pajamas are never laundered or changed.
After the hectic toilet run in the morning, I have nothing to do until the end of the day, when they bring me dinner: rice mixed with some kind of vegetable—lentils, or peas, or beans, or green beans—scooped from a pot into the plastic bowl I have in my tub. Occasionally I receive a mandarin orange or a small banana as well. My tub contains both a plastic fork and a plastic spoon; they have conceded me the luxury of choosing which utensil to eat with. Fairly often the food is salted or spiced, but other times it's plain. It's always unheated, as if it's been sitting out for hours. I worry about food contamination.
There's another glass of tea with dinner. Sometimes they come back later that evening to recover the glass, sometimes they wait until the next morning. My plastic bowl and eating utensils are never taken from me to be washed, so I lick them carefully clean before rinsing out the bowl with a dribble of my potable water; they haven't given me enough to drink that I can spare much. I discard the rinse water into my pee bottle. If they leave the tea glass overnight, I rinse it out too, hoping to win goodwill by being helpful.
After the evening feeding, the guards retreat to their area, at the top of the stairs, to watch TV until they're ready to go to bed.
That is my day. Every day. This is what my life has been reduced to.
For quite a while following my kidnapping, I have no appetite, but I force myself to finish everything I've been given to eat because that is one of the rules. Once my appetite returns, I am always hungry. They give me so little. I am afraid of becoming malnourished.
Initially, being allowed to use the toilet only once a day is easier than I feared it would be. That's because my bowels react to the stress of my kidnapping by becoming constipated. Later I will come to know all too well the physical and psychological suffering caused by the combination of spoiled food and a toilet run still twelve hours in the future.
My basic bodily needs will be a major preoccupation for me throughout my time as a hostage: a source of anxiety and relief, pain and pleasure. I've studied enough psychology to wonder if I'm regressing to an infantile stage of development. When I am cut off from the many activities that normally constitute my life—school, work, leisure—eating and eliminating are among the few things left for me to do. They are, indeed, the only scheduled activities of my day. And my captors dictate when and how I will do them.
* * *
I cry every day. One or two times if it's a good day; several times if it's a bad day. The first days are all bad days. I am a weeper by temperament. In normal life, not hostage life, I like to cry when I read a novel or watch a movie. I enjoy a good cry, the catharsis, the satisfaction of knowing what a sensitive person I am. Here, that temperament does not serve me well. It keeps me from getting a firm footing. I am emotionally wobbly, a problem exacerbated by poor sleep. The crying can start without warning, without any obvious trigger.
The first couple of times I cry, I let myself go, hoping—I am ashamed to admit this—that the kind guard will hear and come back and give me comfort. That doesn't happen. I just get angry men pounding on my door. So when I cry, I fight to do so quietly. But I can only keep that fight up for so long.
I am most likely to cry at night. Once the guards have gone to bed, all activity ceases, and the only sound I hear anymore is the noisy ventilation machine down the cellblock. During those hours, I lie on my mattress looking up toward the ceiling, up toward the outside world, some unbridgeable distance over my head—and I feel so cut off. None of the people who want to help me can help me. The men who have taken me can do whatever they want to me.
Unfortunately, night is also the time when my crying is most likely to anger the guards, who are trying to sleep. For the first couple of days after my kidnapping, they hold me in a cell just at the bottom of the stairs from their living area. They close the metal door at the top of the stairs in the evening, but judging from how clearly I can still hear the television, there must be an open grate in the door like the one atop the door to my cell. So when I reach the point—as I always do—where my sobbing escapes my control, the sound will carry, and someone will come and hammer on the door at the top of the stairs.
On my second or third night (I don't remember which, the days blur together in my memory), a guard becomes fed up and storms into my cell. Hauling me up by the front of my pajama top into a sitting position, he slaps my face, repeatedly. My blindfold, cut from a towel, partially mutes the sting, but the slapping does nothing to help me stop crying. The guard drops me back onto my mattress, stands, and starts kicking my thigh. I roll over onto my side, into a ball, so that the kicks land on my buttocks. I'm fortunate, I suppose, that since I've roused him from bed he's kicking me barefoot, not in shoes or boots.
Another guard comes. He orders my assailant away, then snaps at me to be quiet and go to sleep. I bury my face in the mattress to muffle my crying until I've managed to get myself under control again.
The next morning, when the guards bring me back from my toilet run, they take me to a different cell, farther away from the stairs and on the opposite side of the cellblock. The new cell is identical in dimensions and design to the first, except that it is the mirror image: the door is now on the left-hand side of the cell, when I face it from the inside, not the right-hand side as before.
When they bring me into the new cell, it is completely empty. My only possessions now are the clothes I'm wearing and the two bottles I carried back with me from the toilet run. I despair: this new depth of privation must be part of my punishment. But after they've completed the other prisoners' toilet runs, the guards return, lugging in my mattress, blanket, and tub from the first cell. I am filled with relief. I would babble my thanks to the guards if I dared speak to them.
The guards have set my mattress against the side wall farthest from the cell door to leave themselves a walking space when they enter. Because the door is now on the left side of the cell, this means my mattress is on the right side—which means that everything is backwards compared to my last cell. I find the reversal disturbing. I know I'm overreacting, and that knowledge disturbs me further. Why is such an insignificant thing affecting me so much?
The ventilation machine I could hear down the way from my first cell is located just outside my new cell. The machine is tremendously loud and runs constantly unless there's a power outage. Sleep is even more difficult for me now. Under the mechanical noise, I can still hear other cell doors closing during the feedings and toilet runs. But I can no longer hear the guards' television, which presumably means they can't hear me crying anymore.
I am ashamed that I cry so much. It makes me feel weak. It shows that I am weak. The guards must disdain me, must regard me as less than a man.
Is it possible they suspect I'm gay? Please, God, no...
I hate myself for being this way.
* * *
Not long after I have been moved—the next day? the day after that?—two guards appear at my door some time following the evening feeding. They tell me to stand up. Without saying anything more, they take me out of the cell. I'm apprehensive: this isn't part of the daily routine.
They direct me blindfolded down the odd zigzag path I now have to follow to reach the bathroom. But this isn't a toilet run. They take me instead, I think, into the guards' living area; I'm not certain since I don't hear the television. My emotions lurch between fear and hope. I fear they are about to do something to hurt me—since I think I may be in the room where the guards sleep, the possibility of rape leaps yet again to mind. On the other hand, I hope desperately that they are letting me go.
A voice older than any of the guards' says, in accented but fluent English, "Hello, Jeremy. I am a chef." In the moment, I don't know what to make of this statement. Did I mishear? Did he misspeak? Is "chef" some kind of code? Is his name "Ashef"? Later, back in my cell, replaying this conversation in my memory, I will deduce that chef is French for "chief." This man is a leader.
"Are you well?" he asks me.
What am I supposed to say to that? I tell him exactly how I'm feeling. "I'm scared. I want to go home."
"The brothers tell me that you cry often," the chef says. "Is this because you are frightened, or do you have some pain or illness in your body?"
"Because I'm frightened," I mumble. Having to talk with this man about my crying is humiliating.
"You must calm yourself," he says in a mildly sympathetic tone. "We do not intend that any harm should come to you, God willing. As soon as certain matters are resolved, you will go home."
Again, as on the day of my kidnapping, I want to ask what they are demanding for my release—and again, I do not dare. Since they haven't volunteered the information and have told me not to ask questions, for some reason they must not want me to know.
"Your uncle has sent a message for you by television," the chef continues. "He tells you to be strong and to know that your family loves you very much."
Don't cry, don't cry, for God's sake, don't cry...
"You have become famous, Jeremy. The world knows your name. There are many people who pray for you and wish you well. Do you pray?"
The question is unexpected. "Um... yes."
"I am glad. May faith in God give you comfort. I know this is a difficult time for you. Pray to God that he will help you endure. Now we are going to take a photo."
They stand me with my back against a wall. The chef tells me to remove my blindfold but to keep my eyes closed. I am to face straight ahead. I will open my eyes when he tells me, and I will close them again as soon as he tells me.
I wait with my eyes squeezed conspicuously shut as preparations are made. Then: "Open your eyes." I barely have time to register the bright lamp shining in my face and shadowy figures behind it before the camera clicks and the chef orders me to close my eyes again. I obey immediately.
Someone steps forward to retie my blindfold. I'm wondering how awful I will look in the photo: uncombed, unshaved, unrested. I hope, for my mother's sake, that I don't come out looking wide-eyed terrified—or like I've spent the past few days crying.
"That is all, Jeremy," the chef says. "Be well. Pray and be calm."
Someone takes my arm to lead me away. "Can I write a letter to my family?" I ask quickly.
"Not now. But later, yes."
When, later? I'm too cowardly to ask. At least composing a letter to my family in my head will give me a way to pass the time.
* * *
In theory, the world is still out there. Up there. Bernie's apartment, the airport out of here, the United States, my family, my college. In practice, my universe has shrunk down to my cell, the bathroom, and the black space between them.
The trip from my new cell to the bathroom is short but oddly complicated. A few paces to the right of my cell, then a sharp turn to the left, followed quickly by a turn to the right again, then several more paces forward bring me to the stairs that lead up to the bathroom. It is as if I am turning from one short corridor into another—except that the turn does not muffle the sound of the ventilation machine, which I would expect if I were, in fact, turning a corner into a different corridor than the one the ventilator is located in. I wonder if the zigzag turn is simply to confuse me, to give me a false picture of where I am.
Not being able to visualize the space outside my cell is disorienting, which makes me feel vulnerable. I could quickly solve this problem by looking through the barred gap at the top of my door. Since the door is only as tall as I am, I wouldn't even have to get up on tiptoe to see out, all I have to do is to stand next to my mattress. But I have been warned: that barred gap is death. The temptation to peek out is easily trumped by the threat of being shot if I see a guard somewhere out there looking back at me.
Even so, it isn't possible for me to perfectly obey the rule about not looking out of my cell. Sitting or lying on my mattress, every time I look up at the door I can't help but get, through the barred gap, an illicit glimpse of dark gray concrete and the seam where the low ceiling meets a wall. This is evidently the back wall of our small underground prison: the guards never walk past my door in that direction, nor do I ever hear other cell doors in that direction. The guards have put me as far away from them as they can.
From the sound of closing doors, I know that there are cells to the right of me and across from me. During the couple of days I was kept in the cell beside the stairs to the bathroom, I could hear the guards taking other prisoners past my door during the toilet runs. I could even glimpse their legs flitting past the fan embedded in the lower half of the cell door. The other prisoners are only a vague presence to me, even more so now that I have been moved to the back of the cellblock, where no one passes my door and where the ventilator prevents me from hearing sounds from other cells.
The cellblock is never silent. The ventilator goes off during power outages, which are frequent. But when that happens, a guard comes down the stairs into the cellblock and does something that produces a loud, non-stop, static hissing. At first I think they do this as sheer psychological torture. Eventually I decide that the static is to keep prisoners from using the silence of the power outage to whisper to one another. I feel a little safer if I can figure out a reason for what the guards do. A discernible logic sets a limit to the horrors that might otherwise be possible.
Because the static has only one pitch, it is not as loud as the ventilator. So if the power is out, the static doesn't prevent me from hearing a cough somewhere in the cellblock, for instance, or the sound of a guard talking with the prisoner in the cell next to mine. Such exchanges don't occur too often. The guards frequently work in silence: we prisoners know the daily routine, so we normally know why the guards are coming to our cells, they don't need to tell us, and there's typically nothing they want us to tell them. But I'm fairly certain, from conversations I overhear now and then, that my neighbor to the right of my new cell is French. I've never been able to make out any of his words, just the tone of his voice, but I've heard guards talk to him in what sounds like broken French instead of broken English—more than the smattering of French words included in the vocabulary they use to talk to me.
In our prison, background noise is constant; light is not. Like the ventilator, the fluorescent lighting outside the cells is constantly on—even at night, when the guards have gone to bed—except during power outages. Then the cellblock becomes pitch black. The darkness wakes childish terrors in me. I need the half-light passing constantly through my fan and the barred gap at the top of my door. It is my comforting nightlight. When the guards approach my cell during an outage, I can see through the openings in the door, before I pull down my blindfold, the glow of candles or the eerie, dancing beam of a flashlight.
When the power is on, night and day have the same fluorescent lighting. When the power goes out, night and day are equally dark. This makes it difficult for me to keep track of the passage of time in my memories. At a given moment, the only way I can know if it is day or night is to try to remember whether I was last served breakfast or dinner.
* * *
A guard enters my cell unexpectedly sometime after my toilet run, ergo in the middle of the day. I yank my blindfold down off my forehead and sit up straight on the mattress. I am hoping that the guards see my posture as a sign of respect.
The guard stands directly over me. This is alarming, but it's just so that he can be heard over the ventilator. "You need cigarettes?" He pronounces cigarettes as if it were French. He asks the question in the same threatening tone they use to give orders. It takes me a second, in fact, to realize that it is a question, not an order.
"No, thank you," I reply, trying my best to sound humble even though I'm raising my voice. "I don't smoke."
He deciphers this. "No cigarettes?" As if it's unheard of.
"No. But thank you."
He squats down in front of my tub, on the floor beside the head of my mattress. I hear him rummage inside. After he leaves, I discover that he's taken the two unopened packages of cigarettes, along with the box of matches. Even though I had no intention of using them, their absence leaves a hole in my miniature cosmos. I've been robbed. Every time I look in the tub, I can tell something's missing, something's wrong.
Maybe I should have kept them. Maybe I should have taught myself to smoke. It would have given me something to do. I surmise that the nicotine would have made me feel a little better.
* * *
I am constantly anxious. Anxious about the future. Anxious about my ability to survive this experience without cracking. The anxiety spikes into full-blown fear every time I hear the guards unlock my cell door, even when I'm expecting them. I race against death as I scramble to get my eyes properly covered before the door opens.
I am constantly anxious, and yet I am also bored for all but a few minutes of the day. I've experienced this combination of boredom and anxiety before, or something a little like it. It's like the feeling I had while I was waiting to check in to take the GRE. Unlike a couple of savvier test-takers waiting with me, I hadn't thought to bring any materials for a last-minute review, so all I could do was sit there, watching the clock, waiting to be processed, but at the same time stressing about how I was going to perform.
Basically, I sit in my cell all day, day after day, waiting to start the GRE. Except that here, both the stress and the boredom are more intense.
I can't just lie or sit here hour after hour, fretting, stewing, wallowing, feeling homesick, feeling miserable. I need to distract myself. I need to pull myself together and find ways to actively pass the time.
I should be able to do this. I should be able to handle the isolation and the inactivity. I'm a loner by nature. I'm a person who is perfectly happy spending a Friday or Saturday evening by himself. That's how I spent practically every weekend from the time I started college, with the brief exception of my affair with Dale.
Of course, in college, I had things to do. My coursework. I had books—in my dorm room, in the library. I had the art-house theater. Here, I have just my mind.
So what, I can get by with just my mind. Ever since I was a child, roaming alone through the neighborhood, I've invented ways to entertain myself.
I can pass the time recounting to myself short stories or novels I've read, plays, films. I can perform literary analyses of these works. I can sing my way, silently, in my head, through the soundtracks of the Broadway musicals my mother loved, which I grew up listening to. I can play word games: pick a category—animals, places, literary characters—and create a word chain where each item begins with the same letter that the preceding item ended with.
In a spasm of optimism, I think: This doesn't just have to be about killing time, I can actually use my time here constructively. I can think through topics for my master's thesis. I finally have time for my own creative work. I could work out how to adapt my favorite novels into films. I could plan a novel of my own.
On a good day, I'm able to muster up the same determination I bring to my studies. Let's do this, let's get to work. But after some time—I have no way of knowing how much time, I wish they had given me my watch back—even my strategies for escaping boredom start to bore me. I get tired. It's hard work having to create my own entertainment, harder than watching TV or reading a book or watching a movie that someone else has created, harder than idly admiring nature. Here, I can't ever relax into an idle or passive moment, because that will mean staring at the ceiling, or the wall, or into the darkness if the power's out, and the whole point is that I'm trying not to do that because I'll end up anxious or homesick or depressed. But inevitably that happens anyway because I can only keep up the effort of more disciplined mental activity for so long. Eventually, my thoughts start flowing down whatever path of least resistance first opens up, none of them helpful: worries, fears, hopes, regrets.
Those are the good days. On the bad days, I wake up, and the discovery that I'm still here, that it's not a bad dream, presses me flat into the mattress before I've had a chance to even try to rouse myself to some kind of productive activity.
Left to its own devices, my mind wants to turn to either the past or the future. The future is the most dangerous direction to turn because that way leads to either fear or fantasy. Fantasies can be uplifting: I imagine going home, being reunited with my family, returning to school. But they're a high from which eventually I come crashing down. I hear the guards opening my cell, and in the afterglow of my fantasy, I allow myself to think, this is it, they're coming to release me; but then they don't, and I plummet. I can't keep doing that to myself.
If I let my mind float into the past, I can become painfully homesick; I may cry. I'll lose myself for a little while in a happy memory, but at the end, I'm here instead and the happiness dribbles away. Still, that's not as hard as the crash that follows when I fantasize about future happiness.
My memories aren't always happy. I have a lot of time available to spend on regrets and recriminations. I wish I'd been more appreciative of what my mother went through, raising two small boys as a young widow. I wish I'd been more helpful to her, more gracious about the responsibilities I had to shoulder. I wish that, growing up, I had been more of a friend to my little brother Chris, less of a tyrannical babysitter. I wish that when my mother remarried, I hadn't been an adolescent prick to my stepfather, spurning him when he was trying so hard to connect. I wish that in college I hadn't pulled back so much from my family, from Bernie. I wish I'd actually told Bernie in words, at some point, how much he has meant in my life.
Bernie... That leads me to the darkest regrets. That I ever came to this country. That I didn't take the warnings more seriously. That I ever went to that gay bar and got myself into the emotional mess that made me so desperate to come here.
I know my kidnapping isn't a punishment for my having gay sex. The sex was wrong, it was an offense, a perversion of God's natural order; but God didn't send men to kidnap me because of it, he doesn't work that way, I understand that. But there's no escaping the fact that my kidnapping is the consequence of my having gay sex. Going to the bar, going home with Dale, were the first two falling dominoes in the long chain that several months later has ended with me here in this cell. If I just hadn't done it, if I'd had more self-control...
I'm sorry, God. Forgive me. Forgive me. I will never, ever do it again. I won't read about it anymore. I won't allow myself the fantasies. I will be chaste, I swear to you. I will do whatever you want me to do with my life. But please, get me my life back.
* * *
On two occasions, the young English-speaker who "oriented" me on the day of my kidnapping returns to interrogate me. I sit on a metal folding chair in the guards' area, aware of men moving in the room around me. The television plays loudly in the background throughout the interrogation. The noise distracts me, makes it hard for me to focus.
The interrogator assembles my autobiography, my family history. He wants to know where my father was born, and my father's father, what my father does for a living, how much money he makes. He asks about my studies, my employment, who pays me, how much. What other countries have I ever traveled to, and why. Many questions about Bernie's relief mission, what it does, exactly where it operates in Beirut and other parts of Lebanon, what other countries the mission operates in, how large its budget is, where it gets its funding. They want to know about the primary school here in Beirut where I was working, its relationship to Bernie's mission, other connections it may have to foreign agencies. I hand over Adnan's name, and that of Rabeeh, the teacher I assisted. Thankfully, I can't remember either's last name, but I still feel like I'm betraying them. The interrogator wants the names and addresses of other Westerners I know living in Lebanon, but I don't have any to give.
I am fully cooperative, although ashamed of it. I answer every question to the best of my abilities; I offer any scrap of information I have, however small, that is remotely pertinent to what he's trying to find out. In the back of my mind lurks the terror that if I don't satisfy him, the interrogation could graduate to torture. Over and over, I explain—I apologize—that I was only in this country for one full day before I was taken, that's why there's so much I don't know.
Some length of days later, he returns for a second interrogation. He repeats every question he asked the first time, but in randomized order. He's checking my answers for consistency; he probes every discrepancy, however trivial. He presses me on the questions that I told him I didn't know how to answer, he accuses me of withholding information. This time, he won't accept "I don't know" as a response. "You are lying," he keeps saying. "Tell me! We can make you talk."
The threat becomes more specific: "We have electricity..."
I break down sobbing. I beg him to believe me, I've told him everything I can, I simply don't have the information he wants, please don't hurt me... He tells me to stop crying, but I can't. As I go on weeping hysterically, the interrogator's irritation seems to give way to embarrassment. Someone puts a small orange into my hand, as if placating a child, and they take me back to my cell. They don't interrogate me again.
* * *
As instructed by the chef, I pray that God will help me endure.
I pray every morning and night, on my knees. This is not a habit I had before my kidnapping. I did it for a little while after I swore, for the last time, that I wasn't ever going to return to the gay bar or see Dale again. I had been determined then to get myself right with God. Daily prayers. Weekly Mass. No more masturbation—or at least less of it. No more covert reading of gay-themed literature in the college library. I didn't continue the daily prayers for very long, though. I became lax. I lacked discipline.
This time, I'm going to keep up the discipline. I have to. I need structure. And more importantly, I need God. God will get me through this. God will get me out of this.
I always start by praying that whatever reason my captors are holding me will be resolved quickly, so I can go home.
Then I ask for help in the meantime. I pray for strength. I pray that I won't cry. I pray that the guards won't be angry with me. I pray that I won't get sick. I pray that I won't get depressed. I pray for help filling my day constructively. I pray to be able to keep my thoughts positive and controlled.
After a while, I feel guilty that I'm always praying for myself. I pray for Bernie, that he's safe, that they haven't gotten him too. I pray that he won't feel guilty about my kidnapping. I pray for my family, that they will be comforted. I pray, vaguely, for the prisoners in other cells.
I always include thanks in my prayers, so that I'm not just asking God for things. Thank you for my health. For the food, such as it is. For the mattress. For the light. For my toothbrush and toothpaste. That they give me water safe for drinking. That they don't make me hold my pee for twenty-four hours. That they haven't hurt me too badly. That since the photo, my family at least knows I'm alive.
I try praying the rosary, the prayers I can remember, anyway, counting the Hail Marys on my fingers. It will help pass the time, I think. But this devotion never meant anything to me. I understand that the repetition is supposed to be meditative, but it just feels rote. If I'm going to pray, I want to talk to God. The rosary just kills time, and not in a way that brings me any satisfaction. I give it up.
I give up praying the rosary for the same reason I gave up regular morning and evening prayers last fall, when I tried to get into the habit. It didn't take long for my prayers to feel repetitious, stale, meaningless. Very soon I'm having the same problem maintaining the habit of regular prayer here, in my cell. I'm always praying for the same things. There's never anything new to pray for: my days are the same, and I have no idea what's happening in the lives of my loved ones. Praying becomes a chore, a memorized list of petitions and thanksgivings I run through twice a day.
I start forgetting to pray, especially at night. Or I don't even forget, I just don't feel like doing it, I'm too despondent by the end of the day.
Whenever I forget or skip, I berate myself for it later: You idiot, don't fuck this up. I have made a commitment to God, a commitment to pray in a disciplined way. And if I want God to follow through in helping me cope and, ultimately, getting me out of here, then I need to follow through in keeping my commitment to him.
I know, cerebrally, that this is a crude, childish theology; I attended a Catholic high school and college, I received a responsible theological education. But, viscerally, I cling to the notion that I have a bargain with God because it affords me some sense of control over my fate. A greater certainty of hope. If my actions don't make a difference in securing God's intervention, then I'm just sitting here waiting on God's inscrutable will—and hoping that his will includes my release. No, don't go down that road, I cannot afford to get critically philosophical about this subject. I have to believe that God and I have an understanding.
* * *
When the guards come to take me for my toilet run, they find me standing, blindfolded, beside my mattress, a bottle in each hand. I am ready for them, trying to make things more efficient for them. Trying to please them. A model prisoner.
A guard puts his hand around my arm to lead me out of the cell. Some guards do this roughly; this particular guard's grip is gentler. "Hello, Jérémie," the guard says. He pronounces my name as in French, with a zh.
I recognize his deep voice immediately: it's the kind guard, the one who brought me tea and stroked my head when I cried for the first time on the day of my kidnapping. My heart leaps with happiness. I am surprised but thrilled that he knows my name.
"Hello," I reply.
"Makmoud," he says.
I assume it's an order in Arabic, he's trying to tell me to do something. "I'm sorry, I don't understand."
Lifting my wrist, he makes me gently tap myself on the chest as he repeats my name. "Jérémie." Then he makes me tap his chest. "Makmoud."
Ah. I feel I ought to say something. "Pleased to meet you."
"Hello," he says back.
That's the end of our exchange. As Makmoud leads me by my arm through the cell door, the other guard who is waiting there stops us by slapping his hand flat across my chest. The guard says something in Arabic, in a disapproving tone, to which Makmoud responds in inflections that I interpret as, "What's the big deal? Get off my back."
After that, Makmoud regularly says hello when it's his turn to take me to the bathroom or bring me food. I assume he does it regularly, anyway, I have no way of knowing if there are occasions when he's here but silent. I thought that I might learn to distinguish different guards merely by their grip or their gait, like a blind person whose other senses have become heightened, but that doesn't happen: I need to hear the guards' voices, and even then they often sound alike to me as they issue brief orders. Assuming he greets me regularly, Makmoud only appears for a few days at intervals of several days. There must be a rotation for guard duty.
Although Makmoud always uses my name when he greets me, I agonize over whether to use his when I reply. I am ignorant of the proper etiquette for our circumstances. I don't want to offend him by coming across as either inappropriately familiar or coolly distant. In the end, I settle on not using his name because of my impression that other guards disapprove of our fraternizing. By confining myself to a minimal "Hello," I hope to minimize their disapproval.
Even if I don't use Makmoud's name, the fact that I know it, and that he uses mine, makes me feel a little more like my humanity is intact. To Makmoud, at least, I am more than the anonymous prisoner in cell number whatever. I think of him as my friend among the guards; in this place, mere acknowledgment equates with friendship. I regard Makmoud as someone who is concerned about me, who will look out for my interests and well-being.
* * *
I don't know how long I've been here. When I first arrived, I was too wrapped up in my misery to think about it. Then I kept assuring myself that they would let me go in just a few more days, so I wasn't worrying about keeping track. And then so much time passed, that now I can't figure out how much it's been. I try to count back. But my days are so empty, and so much the same, there are too few landmarks to help me distinguish one from the next. My best guess is that I've been here now... a couple of weeks? Jesus—that long?
I need to start keeping a tally. Scratches on the wall, like in stories. I intuit that the guards won't want me doing this, so I need to find some patch on the wall where they're unlikely to notice. I decide to do it on the wall parallel to my mattress but on the opposite side of the cell. Facing my mattress when they enter, the guards will most often have their backs to that wall.
The plan is this: Every morning, at breakfast time, I will use my fingernail, or maybe the tine of my plastic fork, to trace a tiny notch in a grimy patch on the wall, not far above the floor. I will trace six notches, and on the seventh day I will run a line through the set, so I can easily see the number of weeks.
I'm hoping, of course, that I will be released before the number of days gets high enough to be counted in weeks.
How long have other hostages been held? I wish I'd paid more attention to news stories about hostages. I remember last summer, a plane was hijacked and taken to Beirut. The passengers were freed... in a couple of weeks, as I recall.
Then there were the hostages taken at the embassy in Iran when I was in high school. How long were they held? I have the number 444 in my head. Four hundred forty-four days? Jesus, that's over a year!
No. No, I'm not going to be here that long. That's not possible. Clearly, the government has learned better how to resolve these situations. It was 444 days the first time; now they've gotten it down to a couple of weeks.
So if I've been here a couple of weeks already, I could go home any time. Maybe a little longer, if the situation's complicated. I could imagine... a month. Maybe a little more. At most.
Oh God, please don't let it be longer than that. Not a year. I couldn't possibly do this for a year.
* * *
From time to time, I try to count the other prisoners by counting the number of doors I hear close during feedings or toilet runs. The numbers I come up with change from one attempt to the next. Five. Four. Six. I go through periods when I am obsessed with trying to resolve or interpret the discrepancies.
Am I just mishearing because of the damn background noise? Am I counting the door at the top of the stairs by mistake? Did they skip someone this time for some reason? Did they go back to someone's cell twice?
Or: Have some hostages gone home? Will I be next?
Or: Have new hostages been taken? Could one of them be Bernie?
Or: Am I misremembering my last count? Or losing track in mid-count? Is my mind deteriorating that badly?
* * *
My cell is so compact that when I lie on my mattress, fully stretched out, the crown of my head and my toes barely fit between the walls. I'm 5'11". The cell, which looks like a cube, must be six feet to a side. My mattress takes up half the width of the cell. That leaves a 3' x 6' rectangle of open floor in front of the cell's very narrow door.
I want to walk on that open floor. I want to pace, even if it's just two or three steps each direction. I need exercise. I need activity. I need at least the illusion of being able to get up and go somewhere. The illusion of freedom.
But this open space is in front of the door, with its lethal barred gap. To pace, I would have to walk directly toward that gap. I could not help but look out. And then I would die.
Unless... I have permission.
I work out a plan. A pitch. At first it's a distracting fantasy, but the more I play it over in my head, the more convinced I become that I could persuade them to let me do it. Makmoud, I'm certain, would be the most amenable. But I need to ask someone who knows more English.
I decide that my best bet for finding an English-speaking guard is to ask when I'm taken to the bathroom, adjacent to the guards' living area.
It takes me a few toilet runs to build up the courage to speak. When I rehearse this scene in my imagination, I am calm and persuasive and the guards are reasonable and accommodating. But in reality, they're hurried, brusque, and I am too intimidated to pull back and say, "Wait. Please."
Finally I take the plunge. As soon as I come out of the bathroom, while the guards are handing me my refilled water bottle and taking hold of my arm to hustle me back to my cell, I raise my voice to speak to the room in general: "Excuse me, please. May I ask a question?" I am ashamed to hear my voice quiver. As soon as I've spoken, I feel like it was a mistake—I was instructed on my first day here not to ask questions—but there's no backing out now.
Neither of the two guards who are doing the toilet run responds to me, but another guard approaches. "What do you want?"
"Would it be all right, when I'm in my cell, if I walked in the space next to my mattress?"
He doesn't understand, makes me repeat the request. I use my fingers to illustrate what I'm asking permission to do.
"Why?" he asks.
"I'm afraid I'll get sick or go crazy if I don't have some kind of exercise. I promise I won't look out of my cell. I'll wear my blindfold while I do it."
A pause. "Show me," he says.
I take three blind steps forward, pivot, walk back three steps, pivot again. I repeat the operation. "That's all," I say.
He makes a scoffing sound, a breathy laugh. He says something in Arabic to the guards beside me, repeats it more loudly to someone else behind him, on the other side of the room. His voice sounds incredulous, disdainful. My heart sinks. Behind my blindfold, I blink back hot tears.
But he tells me: "Yes. Fine." He sounds amused. A second later, though, he adds in a deathly menacing tone, "Blindfold, always."
"Yes, I promise."
"You look, we shoot you."
He thinks to add another restriction. "Not in night. In night, you sleep."
"No. Yes. I understand. Thank you. Thank you very much."
I begin as soon as they've returned me to my cell. I am giddy, impatient to enjoy this sliver of freedom I have been granted. Blindfold in place, I guide myself by brushing the wall with my fingers. I take full-sized paces, but slowly and tentatively to make sure I don't collide with either the door or the back wall. I discover I can take two paces in each direction, then I have to pivot around. I pick up the pace, find an efficient rhythm. It feels so good to move. Thank you, God, thank you.
I can keep it up for several minutes, then my legs become unruly and I'm in danger of losing my balance. I rest, then resume. It occurs to me that I should remove my socks when I pace, so I don't wear them out. The soles have turned permanently black and are wearing thin in the heels. I have no idea if the guards would provide me with replacements.
I become a spectacle for the guards. They stand outside my cell, watching me through the bars. "Hey, where you go?" one of them asks. I have no idea how to answer that, but he doesn't sound hostile, so I wave, smile, nod: Yes, very funny... I've realized by now that I can't be the only prisoner who ever paces in his cell, but I must be the only one who's ever asked permission and can therefore afford to do it when the guards are around.
Then one day, as I'm approaching the barred gap, a guard reaches through and smacks my forehead, hard. At least that's what I realize, a second or two later, must have happened. I stagger back, confused. Evidently he wants me to stop for some reason, so I retreat to my mattress. "No," he says. "Go. Go." I don't understand what's happening, but he seems to want me to resume pacing, so I do. A few turns later, he smacks me again.
It's a game for him. He won't let me stop, he orders me to keep going, but he delivers random blows as I come within reach: to my forehead, the back of my head, my ears, my cheeks, my chin, my shoulders. I'm fighting hard not to shed more than an occasional silent tear, I don't want to give him the satisfaction. He doesn't laugh or make any other sound apart from telling me, "Go!" every time I stagger.
A blow strikes my nose, hard enough to whip my neck back. I think I feel liquid... I put my fingers to my nostrils, then my tongue. Yes, I'm bleeding. I stumble blindfolded to my mattress, gripping my nose with one hand, fumbling with the other in my tub for the package of tissues. I need to see what I'm doing, but I don't dare lift the blindfold because I can't tell whether or not the guard is still there. "Please, I need help," I call, as a test. When there's no reply, I tug the blindfold up. My fingers are covered in blood. Later I see where large drops have splattered onto my pajamas and my mattress.
It takes several minutes to stop the bleeding; I use up all my tissues in the process. Once the crisis has passed, I cry.
I still pace after that, but not as often or as enthusiastically. Never again when a guard is around. Pacing has become risky. The thrill of freedom—of having won permission to get away with something—is gone. What I am most conscious of now is how constricted I am: two measly steps, forward and back, over and over and over and over and over. This isn't freedom, how could I ever have felt like it was? I'm an animal, pacing in my cage.
I live with the persistent fear that the guard will return for another round of his game, although he never does. I hate him. He has ruined the pacing for me, he has smashed a hole into it that has drained the pleasure out of it. As I pace behind my blindfold, flashbacks of him hitting me alternate with flashbacks of being bullied in junior high and high school. That's what this guard is—a bully. A 20-something-year-old bully, with a gun, who has me locked in a cell, where no one can intervene for me.
* * *
Today I marked two full weeks on my secret tally on the wall. Estimating that I was here two weeks before I started counting, that makes four weeks total. A month. That would make it sometime in early April.
The real count may be even higher. Or lower. Sometimes during the day, I'm stricken with doubt about whether or not I remembered to mark a notch after breakfast. So there may be days I forgot to record. And there may be days when I made two notches because I forgot I'd already made one.
I'm not doing well. I don't have what it takes to survive. I can't even remember to be consistent about this one simple thing.
* * *
I talk to myself, out loud, for hours. With the ventilator running, no one can hear me, and when the power goes out I just have to whisper if I want to be absolutely certain the guards won't hear me over the static.
In my more disciplined stretches, I'm recounting stories, or analyzing them, or making them up, or practicing lectures on effective writing or rhetorical analysis or literary theory. When my discipline flags and my mind wanders where it will, my mouth follows along. I like to think that talking aloud helps me stay a little more focused, the mind can't jump around quite so quickly, the lips move more slowly, hold the mind back, prevent it, I hope, from spinning off into crazy. Plus, it's comforting to hear a voice, even if it's just my own, I feel less lonely.
I have an unstable relationship with myself. Sometimes I'm understanding and supportive. I give myself pep talks, assure myself, yes, it's tough, but you're holding up okay, you're going to be fine, this can't go on too much longer, and then you'll go home. But I can be harsh with myself, too. You've got to be better disciplined. Stop wallowing. Snap out of it. Pull yourself together. Why can't you be stronger? Why did you let your thoughts go there, you know that's not helpful. Stupid. Idiot. Weakling. Crybaby. Coward.
Sometimes I'll start talking to myself about something, and my mind will carry me down on a convoluted stream of consciousness, and then sometime later I'll think: Wait, how did I get onto this subject? This wasn't what I started thinking about. Did I finish what I started? But I can't remember what I started with. I've wandered so far afield that I can't trace my way back anymore.
I become distressed. Why can't I remember? I have to remember. It is vital that I remember. I cannot lose my ability to remember. My frustration can mount to the point of tears.
* * *
Parts of me shrink while other parts grow.
I'm losing the belly I packed on during college. That scares me. What will my body do to itself when those reserves are depleted?
My fingernails are longer than they've ever been. I used to be in the habit of biting them, but I don't dare do that here, they're filthy, I might get worms.
My unclipped toenails dig little holes in my socks.
My hair becomes shaggy and greasy. Sometimes I'm convinced that I feel bugs crawling on my scalp and scratch ferociously. Other times, I'm equally convinced that I'm imagining the sensation—which in a way is worse.
My beard grows in. I've never grown a beard; I started one my freshman year of college, but after a week the results were so sparse and splotchy and ugly that I gave up. I have no idea what I look like now. There's no mirror in the bathroom. Since my utensils are plastic, I can't even try to see my reflection in the spoon. My captors have taken even my face away from me.
* * *
If I were literally going insane, would I know it was happening?
* * *
I lie on my side, staring at the tiled wall next to my mattress, thinking how twisted it is that there is a person just on the other side of this wall—lying three feet away at most—with whom I have never had any contact. I know nothing about this person except that I think he's French. I don't know his name. I don't know how old he is. I don't know what he does, or used to do, in normal life. I don't know how long he's been here. I don't know how he's holding up. I don't know what he does to fill his days.
This is exactly how our captors want it. They don't want us to know anything about each other. Why? Why do we have to be kept in isolation three feet away from each other? Why can't we ever talk? Exchange names? Cheer each other up? Assure each other we're going to make it? Help each other fill the long empty hours? Don't our captors understand that would be better for our mental health? What are they afraid we'll do if we communicate? Plot an attack on the guards? An escape?
I am starved for human contact. I need another person to talk to, someone to keep me anchored in reality. One of these days, I'm afraid, I'm going to get so lost in my own mind that I won't be able to find my way back. Surely our captors don't want that. Won't a mental breakdown make me harder to look after—more work for them?
* * *
I don't remember when this happens in relation to other events, what few of those there are. But I remember crossing off week 4—which is really more like week 6, since I started the tally late—and thinking: In just a few more weeks, I'll run out of room on this patch of grime, I'll have to start another.
At this point, a voice in my head is supposed to say, "No, what are you talking about, you're not going to be here that long." But that voice doesn't speak up.
Apparently, I have stopped believing in my imminent release. I have lost that particular faith. I hadn't realized.
Should I feel good about this? Is it mature of me to achieve this acceptance?
From my position hunched in front of the wall with the tallies, I ease myself down sideways, onto my back, on the hard, cold, filthy floor in front of the cell door. I put my arm over my eyes and lie there, feeling empty. I don't cry, that's how empty I am.
The crying comes that night, during a power outage. Of course—I had to wait until a time when I was more likely to be heard and yelled at. Self-sabotage is what I do.
* * *
A new prisoner has arrived. A vociferously religious prisoner. I can hear him praying down the hall to my right. I hear him most clearly when the power's out, of course, but even when the ventilator's running, I can sometimes detect his voice, so he must be almost shouting. He sounds middle-aged or older. He prays in English, interspersed with phrases that I assume to be Arabic.
His language is florid, psalmic: Hear me, God! How long will you delay? You know how I have served your children. You know how vital my work is. Set me free, God, set me free!
I never hear the guards pound on his door or shout at him to be quiet. Their tolerance is baffling. It is unjust.
Over time, he prays less loudly. He fades into ambient noise. Like the static. Like the ventilator.
* * *
I stopped praying regularly, on my knees, some time ago. I no longer saw any point to it. It had become a meaningless routine. It didn't make me feel better. I couldn't sense anyone listening. Being up on my knees was just tiring and uncomfortable. Why put myself through that on top of everything else I have to endure?
I still pray by reflex, in my head, lying down, on occasions when my fear or sadness or tedium balloons to the point that I feel it's going to entirely fill the cell and suffocate me. Then I pray: Please, get me out of here, I can't do this anymore...
There are times, though, when I hate God. I hate him for abandoning me. I hate him because I increasingly suspect that he does not exist.
My hatred of God frightens me. I pray feverishly for forgiveness: Please, I'm sorry, I won't doubt you anymore. But help me! Help me, God damn you!
* * *
During a power outage, one of the guards comes into my cell, just to chat. He is bored, perhaps, in the absence of television. Or he magnanimously wants to boost my morale. Or he wants to exercise his English. Whatever his motive, it's the longest conversation I've had with anyone other than myself since my last aborted interrogation.
He sits on the foot of my mattress while I sit at the head, against the wall. Having him in such close quarters is nerve-wracking, even once his intentions appear benign. It's like sitting next to a wild animal, I can't predict what he'll do. With my blindfold down, I can't even see the animal.
"Hello, how are you?" he asks. The voices of other guards I've heard lead me to envision that they're in their mid or late 20s. This guard sounds like he's younger than me.
"I'm okay," I answer warily.
"Yes." All the time.
"Not be sad. Soon, you go home."
An explosion of excitement. "When?"
Hard on the heels of my excitement is the sickening suspicion that he's just being vaguely comforting. He doesn't mean "soon," he means "eventually." I ask as slowly and clearly as I can manage in my agitated state, "Am I going to be released? Did you get what you wanted for me?"
"I don't know." He speaks as if it is a matter of indifference. Or maybe his English isn't strong enough for him to understand what I'm asking. I feel the ground crumbling beneath me. I'm going to sink even deeper now. If he intended to cheer me up, he has failed miserably.
"You American?" he asks.
He screams, "Death to America!" Blind, I flinch away, my hands flying up into the air between us. He laughs. He leans over and pats the top of my head reassuringly. Just joking. "I love America. American women, belle. You have girlfriend?"
I can literally feel my scalp crawling with fear, it isn't just an expression. "I don't know. I... just don't."
"I have two girlfriend," he says with adolescent pride. Later, I will reflect that this boast does not correspond to my mental picture of a Muslim fundamentalist. But that doesn't occur to me at the time.
Hoping to direct the conversation away from my lack of a girlfriend, I ask, "Are your girlfriends beautiful? Belle?"
"No." He laughs again. "Here, women not belle. American women belle. I want go America, have American girlfriend."
He keeps talking. He wants me to give him advice about how to meet and impress American girls. He names American TV and movie actresses he finds attractive, and he wants me to tell him who I like. I have no idea what to say. I am riding on the edge of panic. I want this threatening conversation to end.
Eventually he leaves. Before he goes, he pats my head again, as if I'm a dog, and urges me, "Not be sad." He leaves me alone, with my secret, in the dark.
* * *
I lie on my mattress, on my side, curled up in a ball, petting myself. My hair. My shoulder and arm. My leg. I never touch myself sexually—my nipples, my ass, my dick. I've promised God I won't do that anymore. I'm not even tempted, really. The sex drive that has hounded me since I hit puberty has vanished. Petting myself isn't about sexual pleasure. It's just about trying to comfort myself.
Sometimes, I imagine someone spooning behind me with his arm around me. He's bigger than me, stronger than me, more masculine than me. He can keep me safe, he'll watch over me.
I am not entirely certain I should be indulging in this... I won't call it a fantasy, let's call it a feeling... I am not entirely certain I should be indulging in this feeling because it does seem like it's approaching dangerously close to a gay fantasy. Wanting to be embraced by a man isn't necessarily gay, I tell myself; I could just be craving the protection of a father figure. But unfortunately, because I'm screwed up sexually, the one can bleed easily into the other. I mustn't let that happen. So when I do permit myself this... feeling, I'm careful not to give the man in my imagination a face. Not Dale. Not Adnan. No one specific, no one who has ever been for me, or could become for me, an object of sexual desire.
God, I am so fucked up.
* * *
I have a fantasy about Makmoud. Not that kind of fantasy. I never have that kind of fantasy, not in this place.
In my fantasy, Makmoud comes to my cell to feed me or take me to the bathroom and finds me in the fetal position on my mattress. He kneels down and shakes my shoulder gently. "Jérémie," he says, concerned. "Jérémie."
I turn to face him—or rather, I turn my blindfolded face toward him. I've been crying. "I can't do this anymore, Makmoud." And then I'm crying again, burying my head in my arms.
Makmoud's conscience is stricken. That night, while the other guards are watching television, unarmed, relaxed, he draws his weapon and orders them down into the cellblock. He locks them together into one of the tiny cells. Then he races to my cell, pulls me up from my mattress, rips off my blindfold. I blink, shocked, stare for the first time into his broad, swarthy, earnest face. He speaks urgently. "Jérémie, come!"
He pulls me along behind him by my hand, down the cellblock. "What about the other hostages?" I ask. But there's no time, not now. We'll get help, the police, the Marines, we'll come back for them. The other guards stand at the grate of their cell, screaming helpless imprecations at Makmoud, vows of vengeance, as he and I race up the stairs.
Up the ladder, out the trapdoor. There's a getaway car in the garage; Makmoud has the keys. He motions for me to get down on the floor in the back seat, for my safety. He screeches out of the garage in reverse, races through the streets. After a while, he tells me it's safe to get up. I sit on the backseat, panting with relief and elation, sucking in the air of freedom. Makmoud throws a glance back at me, to make sure I'm all right. I'm crying, but they're tears of joy now. He breaks into a wide smile.
He drives me to the American embassy. We hurry inside the building, now I'm leading the way. People in suits stare at my beard and pajamas. "I'm Jeremy Lawrence. I was a hostage, I've just escaped. This is the man who freed me. There are still other hostages—he can take you there. But you have to help him, get him out of this country, with his family, for their safety."
After that, it's just mopping up. The prison stormed. The hostages freed. The guards apprehended. Back at the embassy, I meet Makmoud's young wife, their two small children. The embassy has given them visas, is preparing to relocate them to the United States. Makmoud's wife cries as she thanks me in Arabic. Makmoud, holding his toddler on one arm, reaches out to put his other hand on my shoulder. He doesn't know how to say "thank you" in English, so he just says, "Jérémie, Jérémie," his deep voice thickened by emotion. He's a good man, caught up in something evil as a result of forces not entirely in his control. And now he is free. He has freed us both.
I know this is a silly, childish fantasy. I even think it is a dangerous fantasy, dangerous to what remains of my mental health and emotional stability, because it encourages me to hope for things that cannot be.
But I also think: No, this could happen. This could work.
* * *
They are doing things differently today, which immediately I feel does not bode well. Instead of holding onto my arm to guide me to the bathroom, this guard stands behind me with his hands on my shoulders. He frog-marches me out of the cell, turns me to the right, then shoves me ahead of him, releasing me, so that I am now standing in the open cellblock, blind and without a guide. "Go," he orders.
I recognize that voice giving that order. It's the guard who hit me when I was pacing in my cell. The Bully. He wants to play a new game...
I reach out to either side, feeling for walls—with my knuckles, since I'm holding a bottle in each hand. The Bully tells me, "No!" and steps toward me long enough to slap my arms down. I take small, cautious steps, hardly lifting my feet from the floor, afraid that he's planted something in my path for me to trip over. Normally, after just a few paces, I would make the mysterious zigzag turn. Is he going to tell me when?
I turn hesitantly to my left. "No," he barks. I resume walking forward. Even granted that I've been taking smaller steps than usual, I feel like I've gone too far. "Yes," he tells me, which I take as the signal to turn left. "Yes, go," he says, adding, "Yallah." He wants me to hurry. I take a couple steps forward, faster this time.
Pain explodes in my knee: I've collided with something hard. The shock makes me drop my pee bottle. Thankfully, it has a lid; God knows how they would punish me if I spilled my urine all over the floor. I hear the bottle rolling away somewhere beside me. I use my now freed hand—my left—to see what I collided with. It's a concrete barrier, waist high, that runs on to my left and right as far as I can reach. What the hell is this thing for? My knee aches intensely. Please don't let anything be broken.
"Come. Come," the Bully orders me. I transfer my empty drinking bottle to my left hand so I can use my right to feel my way along the top of the barrier as I shuffle back toward the guard. There must be a gap in the barrier, that's why the zigzag turn. I tip my head back so I can see a slice of floor in front of me under the bottom of the blindfold, searching for the lost pee bottle. There it is. I squat down, painfully because of my knee, recover the bottle, and tuck it under my left arm.
"Yallah," the Bully orders, impatiently. I resume walking toward him alongside the barrier until my right hand falls off concrete into empty air. The gap. I turn, walk through.
The Bully is now right behind me again. He grips my shoulders, turns me to the right, and makes me run in front of him. After a couple of steps, he hurls me forward, unguided again, yelling, "Yallah!" I stumble, grope, dropping both bottles this time. I'm trying to slow down, knowing that at any second—
I collide with the steps up to the bathroom and fall, smashing the same knee as before, along with my wrists and chest. The combination of pain and humiliation and fear sets me crying. The Bully hauls me up by my pajama collar. He cuffs the back of my head and hisses at me to be quiet.
By now the Bully's partner has caught up to us. The partner says something reproachful to the Bully; the Bully snarls back. The partner, I think, takes my arm and leads me up the steps into the bathroom. He hands me my pee bottle to empty. While I'm in the bathroom, the two guards continue to grouse at each other on the other side of the shower curtain, though neither sounds very upset. When I reemerge, I'm pretty sure it's the partner who returns me to my cell, by himself, without the Bully accompanying us.
The Bully returns for the next day's toilet run. He stands behind me again with his hands gripping my shoulders, but he doesn't make me walk or run unguided. He just frog-marches me in front of him the whole way, roughly and quickly.
At the entrance to the bathroom, we stop. He releases one of my shoulders but keeps gripping the other, holding me in place.
He runs his free hand through my hair. Slowly. Intimately. Sinisterly.
He puts his lips to my ear.
He whispers: "I love you."
He shoves me forward, away from him, into the bathroom and jerks the curtain closed between us.
My arms are shaking as he frog-marches me back to my cell. I am more terrified than I have been since the interrogation when they threatened to electrocute me. What is going to happen when we reach my cell? As usual, there's a second guard accompanying us, but I can't tell if it's the same man as yesterday. Will the second man's presence protect me? Or has he been promised a turn? Should I scream and fight, or will that just make it worse?
Dear God, don't let this happen, please, I'm begging you...
The Bully pushes me into my cell. The door closes behind me.
I am alone. Thank God, alone.
I collapse on my mattress. Lately my crying has been downgraded to more-or-less quiet weeping, but now my sobs are as hard and loud as my first days here.
The Bully repeats this latest game during future toilet runs. On the way to the bathroom, he whispers that he loves me; at the end, nothing happens. With every repetition, my fear diminishes by tiny increments but is far from disappearing. Maybe he's toying with me, cat and mouse, letting my terror and his anticipation mount before he finally does it. Or maybe—please let it be this—he simply enjoys scaring me and has no intention of following through. Maybe—an even more optimistic scenario—he was reprimanded for the earlier mistreatment, and "I love you" is sarcastic overcompensation.
Then the Bully stops coming, as near as I can tell in my blindness. I want to believe this means he's gone for good, that he has dropped from the rotation as suddenly as he showed up, but I don't know that. Every time my door opens, it could be him. As the days since his last appearance accumulate, the suspense simply stretches farther and farther. How long can it stretch before it snaps?
* * *
I can't pet myself anymore. It makes me think of the Bully, running his hand through my hair. He has robbed me of one of my very few sources of comfort.
I hate him so much. But it is a helpless hatred. There's no energy to it, I can't draw any power or strength from it. Just black ashes and despair.
* * *
If I shattered my tea glass to make a shard, sharp enough to cut my wrists—would I have the guts to go through with it?
No. No, I wouldn't. Goddamn it. Goddamn it.
* * *
Why do I bother taking my blindfold off at all? I have nothing to do, nothing I need to look at.
I lower my blindfold, and the half dark becomes full dark. Just like a power outage, except I'm in control. I have turned off the world. Now there's just me and the mattress underneath me. The mattress is floating away on the darkness, carrying me with it. I can imagine I'm anywhere, can conjure up for myself whatever surroundings I please.
At first this is soothing. Then I become frightened. I take the blindfold off. Like suicide, insanity is tempting, but I'm afraid of taking that decisive, irreversible step out of reality. I know it's only a matter of time before the reality of this cell destroys me. I want to get out. I need to get out. But I don't have the courage to step through either of the two doors that I have any chance of being able to open: turning loose my mind or opening up my veins.
That's how pathetically, utterly weak I am. Too weak to survive. But too weak to end it. Too weak to do anything but go on being weak.
* * *
"Hello, Jérémie," Makmoud says.
He has come to my cell alone. To offer me cigarettes? Just to visit? I never find out why, because as soon as I perceive that he's alone, a mad surge of hope splits my brain in two. This is it, this is my chance...
I'm on my feet, staggering blindly toward him. He reaches out to steady me, confused no doubt. I grip his arms, I'm babbling. "Makmoud, I can't do this anymore. You have to get me out of here, please, I can't do it... "
He pushes me away from him to wrench free from my grip. Then he grabs my shoulders and shakes me. "No, Jérémie!" His voice is stern.
Suddenly, I am enraged. I open my mouth, and a geyser of pressurized anger I didn't realize was there comes spewing out. I scream, "You're supposed to be my friend! Help me! Help me!"
He beats a hasty retreat, slamming my cell door shut. I stumble forward—it doesn't occur to me to lift my blindfold—and pound on the inside of the door with my fist. I become aware that I am still screaming.
My tiny cell is full of guards. They are holding me down on my mattress in a sitting position. One or two hold my legs stretched out in front of me. Another holds my torso in a crushing embrace from behind, my arms folded across my chest. As they were wrestling me down, my blindfold slid off my eyes; they've reknotted it so tightly it pinches.
I'm not struggling now, though. I'm happy. I hear tape being stripped from the roll, and I know this means that they are packing me up to send me home.
They wrap my chest, tightly, until my folded arms are completely encased in a packing-tape straitjacket. Then they bind my lower legs together, followed by my thighs. Perhaps because I've quieted down, they do not gag me.
They leave me stretched out on my mattress on my back. Superfluously, they lock my cell door as they go. I lie there, absorbing the realization that I am not, in fact, going home. I am in a hostage's version of "time out." I start to cry, but I have to stop; crying is physically painful because of the tape constricting my chest.
I lie there all day. Tightly cocooned in tape and a blindfold, I am uncomfortable but at the same time I feel strangely safe—safer than I have felt since my kidnapping. I do not move or struggle, I have neither the energy nor the will.
My rage is gone. Where has it gone? Expelled from my body? Subsided back into my subconscious, to erupt again later? I feel... nothing. It is a welcome change.
After a while, I need to pee. The urgency mounts, becomes unbearable. In my blasé state, I think: Why not? I release into my pajamas, basking in the warmth and the relief. I am an infant in swaddling clothes. Someone will come to change me. I wait for hours more. My clothes turn clammy.
Two guards return to untape me. When one discovers I have wet myself, he curses and boxes my ears, making them ring. I am taken to the bathroom. A guard with sufficient English orders me through the closed curtain to rinse my clothes in the shower. I wring out my pajamas and underwear as thoroughly as I can, then stand by the curtain, holding my damp clothes in a bundle in front of me, naked except for my blindfold, waiting to be taken back to my cell. When the guard opens the curtain and sees me, he yanks the curtain closed again and shouts at me, offended, to get dressed. I pull on my cold, wet clothes for the walk back to my cell, where I strip again and lay the clothes out on my mattress to try to dry them some more. I wrap myself in my blanket and huddle on the bare floor.
* * *
"Hello, Jérémie," Makmoud says, tentatively I think. He's serving me breakfast.
"Hello," I reply. My voice is low and defeated. I feel I ought to apologize to him for my outburst the other day. But I am afraid that if I say anything more, he might think that I'm having another meltdown. Or if I start to speak, maybe something inside me will go off again unexpectedly, and I will have another meltdown. Better to say nothing beyond the usual "Hello." Try to show him that I am back to normal. Quiet. Passive. Uncomplaining. Unresisting. If I go crazy, I will go quietly.
* * *
Periodically, I can hear someone in a cell across the way shouting in French in a high-pitched voice that makes me picture a deaf old man. This is a new development in the cellblock. But it is of little interest to me. I am losing interest in everything.
* * *
Staring at the far wall, I realize that I haven't remembered to make a notch to count the days in... well, obviously, I don't know how long. Several days at least. I haven't left my mattress in some time, apart from toilet runs.
It takes me a while to conclude that it's worth mustering the strength to go over and examine the tally, three feet away. I roll across the floor, it's too much work to crawl, much less stand.
Six weeks plus three more notches. I can't remember now if I made notches to represent the couple of weeks that I thought had passed before I started to keep tally. If I didn't, then I've actually been here for eight weeks—or had been whenever I stopped keeping tally. All of this assuming that I had ever been keeping something close to a decent count.
This is confusing. But it doesn't matter. I don't know why I bothered coming over to look. Knowing certainly doesn't make me feel any better.
* * *
I stretch out on my back, squeezing my legs together and folding my arms tight across my chest, trying to recover the unexpected feeling of safety I had when they taped me up during "time out." Sometimes I am able to approximate the feeling. Other times, I just feel stupid.
* * *
I am stupidly naive for having come to this country despite all the warnings. I am stupidly narcissistic for having thought that some warped sexual urges were a life-or-death crisis worth flying halfway around the world to whine to Bernie about. I am stupid for having gone to that wretched gay bar. I am stupid for having gone home with a stranger. I am stupid for having given him my phone number. I am stupid for having agreed to see him again. I am stupid for having complicated my life in that way for the sake of satisfying some stupid perverted curiosity and enjoying a few stupid orgasms. I wouldn't be here now if I hadn't been so stupidly self-indulgent. I wouldn't be here if I hadn't been so weak that I couldn't resist the temptation to go to the bar, or to go home with Dale, or to return his calls, or to run panting back to his bed, or if I weren't so weak that I couldn't just sort out my own shit without running to Bernie in a country that everyone told me was dangerous. I am stupid and weak and perverted and disgusting and now I am trapped and it is my own fault and I am too weak to do this and it is going to break me down or kill me and I have no one to blame but myself because I am weak and stupid and worthless and disgusting and weak and dirty and worthless, worthless, worthless, and why I am still here taking up space and air and food in this world I don't understand because there's no point and I just want to stop, stop thinking, stop being, just stop.
* * *
I've finally stopped crying. Now I sleep, all the time. I can sleep soundly through the noise of the ventilator or the static. I have become inured.
One morning, when breakfast arrives, there's an untouched dinner in my bowl that I don't remember them bringing me. A guard tells me to dump the rice into my little garbage bag, which he then takes away. I should rinse out the bowl, for my health's sake, but I can't be bothered, I just want to go back to sleep.
I lie on my mattress, listlessly holding the dry cheese sandwich they've just brought me. I make an effort, eat half, leave the rest on the mattress beside me. I slip back off.
I'm awakened by the sound of the guards reopening my cell for the toilet run. Even though I need to void myself, I'm too tired to get up right away. One of the guards thrusts the uneaten half of my sandwich under my nose. Am I sick? he asks. No, I tell him. Then eat, he orders. I'll do it later, I think, petulant. But he makes me finish the sandwich before they take me to the bathroom.
That night, a guard again watches to make sure I eat. I move the food blindly, mechanically, from bowl to mouth to stomach. I'm not afraid of the guard, although somewhere in my head a voice buried under cobwebs is trying to warn me that I should be. I'm doing what he wants just so that he'll go away and let me sleep.
* * *
I am awakened by a guard slapping the shower curtain. "Yallah!" The sound is mere inches from my ear. I am sitting on the bathroom floor, my back to the wall, my head resting forward on my naked knees. My pajama bottoms and underwear are clumped around the base of one leg.
How did I get here? I labor to remember: the march to the bathroom, the awkward exhausting squat, feeling too tired to stand up afterward...
The guard opens the curtain. I expect him to yell at me: it's just what they do, it's the weather of this place. Instead he stands there for a few moments without reacting. Then he and his partner haul me to my feet. They pull my blindfold down for me: I didn't realize I'd forgotten. They still don't yell at me, not even for that. Huh. Odd. Whatever.
While one holds me upright, the other threads my foot back into my underwear and the leg of my pajamas, but they insist that I bend down to pull my bottoms up myself. "Sick?" they demand. It seems like they're always asking me that now. I shake my blindfolded head. No, just take me back to bed. I remember beginning the trek back to my cell, but I have no memory of arriving.
* * *
I have a dream. In my dream, I am asleep. But then I struggle awake, like kicking up from the deep end of a pool to the surface. I find myself in a cramped, closet-like space, pitch black, which somehow I understand is an old-fashioned confessional. Beside me, unseen, I hear the priest—but his voice is that of the chef who came a few days after my kidnapping to take my photo.
"Jeremy, have you been praying?"
"No, father." I have disappointed him. I am a disappointment.
"You must do better, Jeremy. You have been given a heavy burden for one so young. But you must carry the burden."
He is concerned for me, though I do not deserve it. I become weepy. I have no tears left, but my shoulders shake feebly. "I'm sorry... I want to do better..."
"I am glad," the chef's voice says. "I want to help you, Jeremy. What do you need, to do better?"
The answer comes instantly: a yearning, an aching, a blurry male figure, springing full-born from my subconscious. "Someone to be with..."
I hear the rustling of the priest's clerical robes. Then he says—only now his voice has turned into Bernie's—"I absolve you, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Go in peace."
That last part is why I am certain this was a dream.