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 3 – Enter Allan
I am awakened by someone tugging my blindfold down over my eyes. "Hey," a guard says. "Get up. You go home now."
"What?" I'm still half asleep, struggling to process what's happening.
"You go home."
"What?" Now it's an expression of disbelief. Did I hear that right? "I'm going home?"
"Yes. Get up."
I start to clamber to my feet, but this isn't what the guard wants, he just wants me to sit up on the mattress. Did I misunderstand? "I thought I was going home."
"Yes, soon," he says. "We come get you. Don't sleep."
He leaves, locking the door behind him. I work to dislodge thick, heavy cobwebs from the inside of my head. He said I'm going home. I can't manage to make that thought make sense. I know I ought to be elated, but all I feel is confusion as to why he's left me sitting here. I'm emotionally numb. I've been badly depressed, I'm aware of that, I still feel it weighing me down. I've been... a long ways away, but I'm staggering back as quickly as I can.
I'm going home.
I wait for what seems a long time. Outside, the ventilator roars, preventing me from hearing what's going on, why the delay. As I wait, I chip through the apathy of my depression. I'm going home—I'm starting to feel it now. Forgotten emotions are stirring awake: relief, excitement, impatience. Snippets of reunion scenes play in my mind's eye: embracing Bernie, my parents, Chris. I see myself back at home, back at college. I'm going to have a life again. I have a future again...
Despite my rising anticipation, I'm drowsy as a result of having my eyes closed behind the blindfold. It is night, isn't it? I think so... Yes, I'm pretty sure my last meal was dinner. Soon I'll be able to orient myself properly in time again. I'll know what time it is. I'll know what date it is.
Two guards enter the cell. Immediately, I'm more alert. Without a word, they help me to my feet. I walk the zigzag path—for the last time, I realize. Thank God. Thank God. I'm finally leaving this place.
In the guards' living area, someone unties my blindfold long enough to tighten and reknot it. It's a confirmation that, yes, they're releasing me: they want to be sure I don't see anything, any sign or clue that would let me retrace my steps back to this place in the company of the police or the army...
As they're tightening the blindfold, I suddenly remember that I've left my glasses back in my cell, in the tub. Since I've never used my glasses here, I completely forgot about them. It doesn't matter, I'll be able to buy new ones soon enough.
They position me in front of the ladder that leads up through the trapdoor. A guard tells me again, "Home," and pats my back. The gesture seems almost affectionate, at least congratulatory. I work my way blindly up the ladder, taking care not to slip in my stocking feet. They're releasing me in my pajamas, apparently. Whatever. Like my glasses—it doesn't matter, just get me out of here.
There are men waiting at the top of the ladder to help me. They guide me through the side door of a van and have me sit on the floor, close to the rear, with my back resting against the side. "No talk," a guard orders in the usual threatening manner. They shut the door, leaving me alone inside.
No. Not alone. There's someone else here, across from me, but even farther toward the back of the van. I can hear him shifting a tiny bit as he sits, like me, on the uncomfortable metal floor. A guard? I don't think so, a guard would have no need to stay as quiet as this person is trying to be. This is another hostage. Someone else is going home with me. Good, good. I'm happy for him. Happy for both of us.
We wait in silence, my unknown companion and I. Neither of us tries to communicate with the other, we can hear guards moving around outside the van. Don't be stupid, don't do anything that could jeopardize your release at the last minute.
After a few minutes, the van opens again, and someone else is brought in to be seated across from me. A few minutes after that, a fourth person. As the fourth man sits next to me, I hear a jangling that makes me think he's wearing handcuffs. That's odd and disconcerting. Is this prisoner dangerous? Perhaps he's tried to attack the guards. If so, kudos to him for courage...
I'm reasonably sure that there are now three other hostages seated with me. They've negotiated several people's release; that's why I was here so much longer than the couple of weeks I'd expected at the beginning, it makes sense now. I can't begrudge them the extra time it took to get all four of us home. I feel proud of myself for being so mature about the situation. Now that this experience is over, I can start thinking about it in a different way, from a broader perspective.
The guards climb into the van, we're finally going. One guard in back with the hostages, another up front in the passenger's seat, plus the driver. The engine grinds to life, the garage door rattles open. We're pulling out of the station, hell is shrinking into the distance behind us, freedom lies ahead.
The drive is silent, except for occasional quiet words exchanged between the two guards sitting up front. After turning some corners, we start to drive faster and more smoothly, more straight, as if down a highway. Several minutes later, we turn onto another road. This road winds and climbs. We keep winding and climbing for a long time.
This doesn't make sense. I know enough to know that we're not in Beirut anymore. We're driving in mountains. The mountains start just outside of Beirut. I'm uneasy. What's going on?
Maybe they're releasing us in some remote location. That makes sense, it's a question of security. They'll leave us, they'll get safely away, the authorities will be told where to find us.
Or maybe they're taking us somewhere remote so they can hide the bodies.
Stop it. Why the fuck do you do this to yourself? Stop imagining horrific scenarios. Jesus. They said you were going home.
They said it to keep me docile. Compliant. And it worked.
Oh shit. They couldn't get what they wanted for us, they got tired of waiting so long, they're getting rid of us.
You don't know that. You don't know that.
Oh God, please, I don't want to die. Please don't let it be that. Let them really be releasing us, please.
I start to hyperventilate. The guard sitting in the back of the van hisses and reaches over to shove the side of my head. The rough treatment further convinces me that something's wrong, this isn't a release. I keep hyperventilating.
Suddenly, something metallic is being held to my temple. The guard hisses again, long and slow. I take in a deep, shuddering breath and force myself to hold it. Oh God, oh God. The guard keeps holding his gun to my head until he's convinced I'm controlling myself. Around me, the other hostages are holding perfectly still, perfectly silent.
I now need to pee very urgently.
The mountain roads are getting bumpier, we're rocking on the floor of the van, bracing ourselves with our hands, trying to stay balanced. The hostage sitting next to me, the one I think is handcuffed, is having an especially hard time, he keeps colliding sideways into me. How long have we been driving? Half an hour? More?
Dirt crunches under the wheels as we come to a stop. The two guards seated up front get out, walk away. No one gets out of the back of the van, which means that the guard who put his gun to my head is still here waiting with the rest of us.
After a little while, the other guards return. They start removing hostages from the van, one at a time, in the reverse order they brought us in, a few minutes apart. The third guard is no longer in back with us, but between trips I hear a guard standing watch just outside the van's closed door.
I'm trembling, and my heart is racing. In my head, I'm reciting the Hail Mary, over and over, by instinct, it just seems like a suitable thing to do. "Pray for us sinners now and in the hour of our death..." I've heard no gunshots, though. That seems like a good sign...
The van opens again. It's my turn for whatever's about to happen. The guards help me step down onto the ground. Two hold me between them by my arms, very tightly. One presses his gun to my back. My reflex is to arch forward and away; the gun follows me.
They march me quickly up a slight incline. I feel dirt and pebbles through the holes in the bottom of my socks. I step up onto a concrete threshold, then I'm inside a building, a smooth floor under my feet. They lead me forward, weaving me clumsily around furniture. We thread through a doorway, turning sideways so that we can fit with the guards still holding me on either side; my back brushes the open door. More weaving.
We stop. One guard descends a wooden stairway that opens up at my feet. He reaches back up to help the other guard position my feet on the steps. I don't understand at first what they're trying to get me to do, which irritates them. The stairs descend sideways in relation to where I'm standing, but they're steep and the steps are thin, more like rungs, so the guards want me to climb down backwards, as if I were descending a slanted ladder. As I feel my way down, the second guard follows.
I touch ground on a rough cement floor. I hear the familiar buzz of a fluorescent light. The familiar clang of a cell door opening.
Relief washes over me. I'm not going to die, it's another basement prison. Thank you, God, a prison...
As soon as I hear the guards climbing back up the stairs, I loosen the blindfold so I can lift it onto my forehead. At first glance, my new cell looks just like my last, but quickly I register differences. The narrow door is in the middle, not off to the side. There's no barred gap at the top of the door; instead there's a mesh grate, covered on the outside by a metal plate. Light can enter this cell only through the fan that is installed, as in my last prison, in the lower part of the door; this means that my new cell is more dimly lit than my old. Enough light filters in, though, to show me that the white tile covering the walls and ceiling of my new cell is spotlessly clean. It looks new.
There's another difference. There are two mattresses, side by side, taking up the entire floor space. Two tubs, one on each mattress. Two water bottles, two pee bottles. Like the tile, the thin mattresses seem new: firm, stiff, unstained.
I cannot make sense of the doubling. The obvious explanation doesn't even cross my mind. I'm not really thinking about it that hard, I'm still absorbing the shock of being alive. My need to pee is less intense than earlier, but it's still there; when I try to go into a bottle, though, nothing comes. It must just be fear.
I hear the last hostage being brought down into the basement. I am caught completely by surprise when the guards open my cell a second time. I hurriedly pull down my blindfold. I'm sitting on one of the mattresses. A newcomer takes a seat on the other mattress. The door closes, two sets of footsteps return upstairs.
It is perturbing to have someone else in the cell with me—like when the young guard came to chat with me in my last prison. I'm locked in with a stranger. It has occurred to me that I don't know for certain that this person is a hostage, as I've been assuming. Maybe a guard has been assigned to sit watch over me in my cell for some reason. It seems unlikely. But better play it safe. At least check...
I tip my head back until I can see, under the bottom of the blindfold, the feet of the person sitting near me. Shit! He isn't wearing pajamas. I see dark socks, trouser cuffs—not a hostage. I lower my head immediately, but of course the guard has already seen me peeking at him. I wait to be hit or screamed at.
"Hey, it's all right," the guard whispers in fluent English. "I'm not one of them."
Because he's whispering, I can't tell for sure, but I think he has a British accent. Picked up at a British language institute, like Rabeeh, the English teacher I helped at Adnan's school. This is a cruel game, a trap: they want to see if I'll obey the rule about not communicating with other hostages. I sit rigid, unresponsive. Please let me pass this test soon, so he'll go away.
The guard slides closer to me. He unties my blindfold. Oh Jesus, he's taking the game to another level. I keep my eyes screwed tightly shut as the blindfold falls away from my face.
"It's all right," he whispers again. "Look at me." A pause. "Please."
The "please" persuades me to rethink my understanding of what's going on here. There's a slightly desperate note in his voice when he says it, which I don't think would occur to a guard to fake even if he could. I decide to take the risk. I open my eyes, glimpse a beard. A Muslim fundamentalist, it is a guard! I've instantly clamped my eyes shut again, but it's too late, I'm fucked. Yet nothing happens, and a second later I realize—stupid!—that a hostage would also have a beard. I open my eyes again, blink, focus in the dim light.
A mop of unruly hair spills over the blindfold that he wears across his forehead like a headband. A scruffy beard covers the bottom of his face. In the space between, puffy bags under weary eyes. He looks to be in his thirties. His open-throated dress shirt is streaked with grime.
We stare at each other. He holds out his hand for me to shake. "My name's Allan Porterfield. You're Jeremy Lawrence?"
That last might be a question, might be a statement, I'm not sure. Either way, this stranger who has just proffered me his name somehow already knows mine. I am known, I am a person.
It's all been too much—the hope of going home, the terror of being shot, the relief at being alive, the stress of thinking I was being toyed with, and now, out of nowhere, this... cellmate, this companion, who knows my name and wants to do something as normal as shake my hand. I can't carry it all anymore. Instead of shaking his hand, I collapse into tears. I quickly escalate to sobbing, gasping for air.
The man puts his arm around my shoulders. His touch melts a column of tension in my back I hadn't known was there until I feel it sliding away. The easing of the tension frees me up to cry harder. I'm practically keening now.
The man, Allan, is gently but nervously shushing me, trying to get me to quiet down... Too late. Footsteps pound down the wooden stairs. "Shit," Allan whispers and retracts his hand from my shoulder so he can pull his blindfold down. In his other hand, he's still holding my blindfold, which he thrusts at me. "Sorry."
Still crying, I barely have time to get the cloth in front of my eyes before I hear a creaking hinge, up near the top of the cell door; since the door is still closed, the plate covering the mesh grate must open. A guard hisses for quiet. When he sees me frantically retying my blindfold, he screams, "No look!"
"We're very sorry," Allan says in a tense but appeasing voice. He definitely has a British accent. "We just need a minute, please. Moment, s'il vous plait?"
The guard keeps hissing, as if he's a snake. Under other circumstances, it would be comical. Allan feels his way blindly to lay a hand on my back. "Come on, pull yourself together," he says softly. Clenching my fists, I rein myself in until, instead of sobbing, I'm panting hard through my nostrils with my mouth squeezed shut. Allan encourages me: "Good, good."
Once my breathing has become more regular, Allan says to the guard: "We're all right now. Thank you. Merci beaucoup pour votre patience."
"No talk," the guard barks.
He waits a few seconds longer to assure himself that we're going to obey. He drops the grate cover back into place. Before he leaves, he turns on a radio that sounds like it's up by the ceiling. He immediately retunes the radio slightly away from the station it's on, so that we hear a combination of hissing static and fluctuating sounds that never come into focus as comprehensible voices or music. The guard cranks the volume up. This again, I think bitterly. He climbs the stairs, shutting the trapdoor behind him. When I lift my blindfold again, I find that along with the static, the guard has also left the light on.
Allan moves his hand from my back to my left shoulder; he puts his other hand around my right arm. He brings his head close to mine so he can talk in a low voice but still be heard over the radio. "All right, mate?"
I want to explain to him why I broke down so hard. He'll discover soon enough how pathetically fragile I am, but this time I did have what I think is a justifiable reason. "I thought they were bringing us here to shoot us," I say.
"No. No." He squeezes my shoulder and arm reassuringly.
I don't want him to ever stop touching me. He makes me feel comforted and safe.
"I'm sorry," I tell him, "I cry a lot." I figure I owe him fair warning.
"I don't blame you." He squeezes my shoulder one more time, claps my arm twice in a manly, sporty way. Then he withdraws.
* * *
In fact, my crying starts to taper off, quickly, as soon as they've put Allan and me together. His presence, his weight on the other side of the cell helps restore my balance. I am able to steady myself against him as I struggle to find my footing. My life as a hostage has taken a dramatic turn for the better.
Allan is English, a television journalist. A bureau chief, to be precise; I have only a vague idea what that means when he first tells me, but as we fill the weeks to come with conversation, I will become well versed in what his job entails. He had been living in Beirut for almost a year when he was kidnapped—April 11, exactly one month after me. Gunmen seized him as he was walking out of his apartment building on his way to work. For weeks, he was held in a basement prison, not the same one I was. Then, one night, they put him in a van, drove him several minutes over to my prison, put me and the other two hostages into the van with him. And now here we are.
"Here" has to be the Shouf Mountains, Allan tells me, somewhere southeast of Beirut. He is surprised we are here. It's virtually certain that the people holding us are Shiite radicals, but the Shouf are controlled by a rival religious group, the Druze. That makes the Shouf a counterintuitive place for Shiites to hide hostages—which could be why they've done it, but they're running the risk that a Druze militia might discover us and free us. Worried that I will sound foolishly desperate, I nevertheless ask Allan how likely he thinks a rescue could be. His reply is delicate: Not very. It could happen, it has happened, a rival militia rescued two hostages in Beirut a couple years back. But we need to accept that the more likely scenario is that we'll go home when our captors decide it's time.
Not only can Allan give me a sense of where we are, he claims to know when we are. He's been keeping track of the passage of days since his kidnapping—not with a tally on the wall, just in his head; even so, he's confident that his count is accurate. By his reckoning, we were brought here on the night between June 5 and 6. Close to two months after his kidnapping, three months after mine.
Three months. My God. It's summer now.
Allan is able to give me news about the aftermath of my kidnapping up to the day in April when he was kidnapped. He's also able to shed light on the political situation around my kidnapping. Things are more complicated than I could have imagined on my own.
According to Allan, a few days passed before anyone claimed responsibility for my kidnapping, but the working assumption right away was that this was not an improvised crime of opportunity, it had been planned with political motives, and Bernie had been the intended victim. The day after I disappeared, Bernie went on television and pleaded with my kidnappers to exchange me for him; as far as Allan knows, Bernie's offer was never acknowledged in any way. Now that he was a known target, Bernie's order wanted him to leave Lebanon, but Bernie stayed on seeking audiences with Shiite clerics who he hoped were either connected to the hostage takers or could apply moral pressure to them. Everyone thought he was taking enormous risks; the American ambassador in Beirut stated publicly that Bernie ought to leave the country. In late March, Bernie's superior ordered him back to the States, and he obeyed. I'm relieved to know he's safe.
A few days after my kidnapping, a group named Call of Islam claimed responsibility by sending a photo of me to the Associated Press office in Beirut. (No news outlet published the photo, but Allan's seen a copy. I ask if I looked scared. More just stunned, Allan says.) Allan informs me that my kidnapping was one in a series, beginning in January, claimed by new groups no one had heard of before. Actually, in my case, the name Call of Islam was known, but it's the name of a group that had been operating in Iraq and Kuwait, not in Lebanon. What do they want for me? I ask. They didn't say, Allan replies—which bewilders me though he finds it unsurprising. In some cases, he explains, months have gone by before a group acknowledged it was holding a particular hostage and issued a demand. Allan assumes no one has claimed responsibility for his kidnapping yet, because no one has ever come to photograph him.
Even though Call of Islam didn't lay down conditions for my release by the time Allan was kidnapped, he says it's easy to guess what they want: the release of fourteen members of Call of Islam, some of whom are Lebanese Shiites, who are in prison in Kuwait for plotting a massive bombing there. That same demand has already been made for several other Americans held hostage in Lebanon by another group, the Organization for Jihad. In fact, Allan says, it's possible that I was also kidnapped by the Organization for Jihad; they may have just used a different organization's name when claiming me, to give the impression that militant groups are proliferating. It's widely believed that most of the Western hostages in Lebanon are actually being held by a Shiite militia called the Partisans of God. Under this theory, the names of the various hostage-claiming groups—Call of Islam, Organization for Jihad, People's Tribunal for Revolutionary Justice, Defenders of the Downtrodden of the Earth—are merely a smokescreen so that the Partisans of God can deny any involvement. Other people believe that there really are different hostage-taking groups, operating separately with different agendas, though they may have some kind of contact with the Partisans of God.
Allan thinks his situation is different from mine, or at least was initially. He thinks he was kidnapped by freelancers, professional criminals motivated by profit, not politics. He thinks this because in his first prison, all of the men in the cells around his were Lebanese, they spoke Arabic. Westerners are hardly the only people being kidnapped in Lebanon. Over the course of a decade of civil war between Christians and Muslims, thousands of men and teenaged boys on both sides have been abducted. Originally, the abductions were reprisals; increasingly, they're for ransom.
Allan suspects that his original kidnappers sold him to our current captors. Within a week of his kidnapping, Allan was visited in his cell by a fluent English speaker who briefly interrogated him to confirm his identity: his name, his nationality, his job; what contacts he had, as a journalist, in the Lebanese government or foreign governments; was he a spy (not a very clever question, that, Allan remarks). Allan theorizes that this man was from the politically motivated group who bought him. I wonder if it was the same English speaker who interrogated me. When I tell Allan that my interrogator sounded young, Allan says it might have been the same man then, especially since we now see that we're being held by the same people.
I ask: If I'm being held, along with other Americans, in exchange for the release of Shiite prisoners in Kuwait—what's happening on that front? Allan thinks before he speaks, I can tell he's preparing to soften the blow. He explains that the Organization for Jihad has been demanding the Kuwait prisoners' release for a couple of years now. They've kept taking more hostages because the Kuwaiti government keeps refusing to give in, and the hostage takers are hoping to pressure the U.S. government to pressure the Kuwaiti government. Of course, the U.S. government also keeps insisting it won't negotiate with terrorists. I feel sick. However, Allan continues—here's his optimistic spin on the situation—the Organization for Jihad did release one of their American hostages last fall. It's not entirely clear why, but the point is: hostages can go free even if their captors' demands haven't been met.
Allan is convinced, and I'm eager to be convinced, that I'm going to be released very soon. My kidnapping, he tells me, was big news. I received more media attention than any other Westerner kidnapped in Lebanon. This has a lot to do with my being so young: at age thirty, Allan would be one of the youngest Western hostages, who tend to be middle-aged, but I'm seven years more his junior. Also, I have what Allan, in his professional opinion, pronounces "a fantastic narrative." A student, an idealist, come to Beirut to spend his spring break volunteering in a Muslim school, kidnapped after a single day. There's been some tendency among the public to blame hostages for their plight because they continued to work in Lebanon despite the danger; but in my case, criticism along that line has fallen not on me but on Bernie for allowing me to come. Because Bernie was the presumed intended target, the American media have dubbed me an "accidental hostage."
As such, I've been the focus of widespread public outcry and shows of sympathy: prayer services across the States, especially in Catholic churches; pressure on the U.S. government to act despite its no-negotiations policy; pleas for my humanitarian release from religious leaders in different parts of the world, including Muslim clerics. An envoy of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who had been meeting with the Organization for Jihad to negotiate the release of their American hostages, flew back to Beirut after my kidnapping, hoping to make contact with my captors. That particular effort didn't go very well, Allan concedes. The Organization for Jihad insisted they knew nothing about who was holding me, and they threatened to kill the envoy if he didn't leave Lebanon in 24 hours or if he returned before making progress toward getting the Kuwait prisoners released. But Allan's upbeat conclusion is that this incident shows people in high places are working to get me home.
It's bizarre to hear Allan talk about this. I certainly don't feel like the focus of international attention. For the past three months, what I've felt is utterly isolated.
My kidnapping has put my captors in a bind, Allan tells me. He becomes animated as he lays out his newsman's analysis of the situation. This is his joy, it lifts his spirits, he loves having somebody else to explain things to... On the one hand, he argues, my celebrity makes me highly valuable as a hostage. I'm getting lots of attention, which means my captors can get lots of attention for their cause. There's a strong political will to get me home, which raises the likelihood that my captors will get things they want.
On the other hand, my kidnapping risks alienating my captors from potential supporters in the Muslim world who would otherwise endorse my captors' aims and would even apologize, as a rule, for their methods. In the past, hostage takers have justified the kidnappings by claiming that they've "apprehended" the hostages on charges of espionage. That claim would not be remotely credible in my case: I'm so young, I had barely arrived in Lebanon, and anyway I'm not the person they meant to apprehend. Sure enough, Allan says, the communiqué that Call of Islam released to the media to claim my kidnapping said nothing about Western spies. Instead it was a speech about the thousands upon thousands of innocent victims of Western and Zionist aggression. Allan reads this as my captors' defensive reaction to media characterizations of me as an innocent bystander: Yeah, well, maybe he's innocent, but what about our innocents?
The bottom line, in Allan's view, is that my captors have to know I'm as much a liability to them as an asset. The most strategic thing they can do is release me on humanitarian grounds, then publicly pat themselves all over the back for it. They may delay a little to save face, or to see if they can gain some concession for my release. But they can't keep me much longer.
The more Allan talks about this, the more convinced he becomes that our captors purchased him precisely to be my replacement. It's clever of them: they burnish their public image a little by letting me go, but they're left with the same number of bargaining chips in hand. Doubtless they would have preferred to replace me with another American, but a Brit was on the market, so he'll do. That explains why they've put us in the same cell. When I go, Allan will literally stay behind in my place.
Caught up in the excitement of Allan's theory-spinning, I snatch for another piece of evidence to add to the case. The fact that we were kidnapped exactly one month apart: March 11, April 11, that could further show that our kidnappings are connected. Allan hesitates. Perhaps, he responds politely, but it seems more probable to him that the dates are just a coincidence. Instantly I realize he's right. What was I thinking? Allan must be concluding I'm a moron—or a lunatic. "You're right," I hurry to say. "That was stupid. I didn't think that through."
Our belief in Allan's theory inspires us to deliver noble speeches to one another, the memory of which will later make me writhe. I insist to Allan that I don't want to be free at the price of his captivity. He urges me not to feel guilty. His captivity is more bearable to him, it has a greater sense of purpose, knowing that he is being held for the sake of my freedom, not just the freedom of some terrorists in Kuwait. If I feel that I owe him something, then I should do something especially meaningful with my life—like the mission work I've expressed interest in. At Allan's request, I memorize his parents' phone number, together with messages to convey to his family when I'm free.
Eventually, the accumulated weight of passing days presses down on our belief in my imminent release, renders it flimsy. We start paying greater attention to facts that make Allan's theory less compelling. Allan discloses to me that there were other Britons kidnapped before him, including two who disappeared just a couple of weeks after I did; so there are possible motives for Allan's kidnapping that are more pedestrian, and therefore more likely, than an imagined desire by our captors to replace me. Even if they meant Allan as my replacement, they wouldn't need to put us in the same cell, so our being paired up doesn't really serve as evidence. Most damningly, if I'm about to be released, why would our captors move me out of Beirut? If anything, the move to a less obvious hiding place in the Shouf would indicate a desire to hold on to me. My celebrity may count more for them than the liabilities after all.
Allan finally concedes defeat: this business of him being my replacement was a strange idea. He apologizes profusely. He remains convinced that I will go home "sooner than later," but probably not as soon as he had been imagining. He doesn't offer to define "sooner" in numerical terms, and I don't ask him to. I know now from Allan that there are Western hostages who were kidnapped one or two years ago and who, as of Allan's last knowledge in April, are still being held. One or two years. And still counting. Jesus... It is a horrifying reality to face, a black pit in which I have to learn to live.
There are two things that keep me from curling up in a ball and going back to spending my days sleeping. One: Allan won't allow me to curl up in a ball and spend my days sleeping. Two: I know that Allan has even fewer scraps of reasons for hope than I do, so my guilt won't allow my self-pity to balloon unrestrained. I'm not that self-absorbed. And I'm able to feel a small measure of pride in that fact, which in turn affords a thin cushion to my plunging morale. I'm deeply, deeply demoralized. But thanks to Allan, I'm not demolished.
I'm not angry at Allan, I don't blame him for having led me to believe his "replacement" theory. Instead I feel stupid because I didn't see sooner what was wrong with the theory. Allan feels terrible for raising false hopes in me, but he doesn't feel stupid about it, the way I do. Because we're isolated from other people, he explains, we're naturally susceptible to being seized by strange ideas, because there's no one else around to signal to us that they find the idea strange. This happened to him when he was kept in solitary confinement in his last prison. He would entertain fantastic escape plans or harbor paranoid fears that seemed perfectly reasonable to him until he could recover some distance and recognize how implausible they really were. I am reminded of my fantasy, in my last prison, about Makmoud helping me escape—or more recently, my harebrained notion that it isn't just coincidental that Allan and I were kidnapped exactly one month apart.
Allan begins to talk about Strange Ideas as a proper noun, as a threat requiring our vigilance. Now that we're together, we have the advantage of being able to provide a check and balance for one another. If one of us thinks the other is having a Strange Idea, we need to speak up, say so, talk about it, take a close look together. It's one of the ways we can support each other. It will be one of our rules for survival.
To accompany his rule about challenging each other on Strange Ideas, Allan formulates a maxim: Don't lose hope, but don't get carried away by it. As the student of literature, I refine that to: Don't lose hope, but don't lose yourself in hope. Actually, Allan's version is probably better, it's clearer, but he always quotes mine.
* * *
Allan likes to draw up rules, routines. The faith I reflexively place in God, he places in structure. Structure, he maintains, is the key to surviving our time as hostages with our sanity intact.
The daily schedule in our new prison is identical to my old prison (but not, I will learn, to Allan's). Cheese sandwich and tea in the morning, followed by a toilet run. Rice and vegetables at night. Unlike in my last prison, here our food is never seasoned, but on the other hand it appears to be more recently prepared. If we get fruit—oranges or bananas—it will be during the first couple of days of what we come to realize is the guards' weekly shift, when they have first arrived from Beirut.
The bathroom is located here in the basement, across from the stairs. It's a cell, identical to ours, converted into a bathroom, which makes it twice as wide as the bathroom in my last prison. Like our cell, this bathroom appears new: when we first arrive, it's spotless, although it progressively declines into filth. A squat toilet again, the Lebanese norm, with a hose beside it for flushing and douching, but there's a separate pipe for us to stand under when we're allowed to shower, which by Allan's count is exactly every seven days. The most welcome improvement over my last bathroom is that here we're provided with soap! Also, this bathroom has a light bulb. We still have cold water only, though, and no towels. Near the bathroom door is an oversized sink, which I'm guessing is meant to launder clothes in, though it's never actually used for that purpose to my knowledge.
I ask Allan, embarrassed, if he can show me the proper stance for the squat toilet. He admits he's never been sure about that himself: he's been spoiled, both his apartment and office had Western sit-down toilets. We model for each other the stances we've been using, experiment with different ones, and end up laughing together. It's the first time I've laughed since before my kidnapping; once I've started, it takes me a while to stop. I lie on my mattress with my hands over my mouth, restraining myself from anything more than breathy laughter, so the guards upstairs won't hear. It's stress release—physically, it feels a lot like crying, but of course emotionally it feels much better. When I'm finally worn out, Allan says, soberly, "We need to try to do that more often."
Allan adds new rules and routines to our day. When the guards come to feed us, we have to be sitting up on our mattresses, waiting. At the evening feeding, the guards will find our bowls sitting just inside the door, waiting to be filled. When they come to take us for the toilet run, we'll be waiting on our feet, bottles in hand. I used to observe that last rule, in my first prison, in the hope of keeping the guards happy. Allan's rationale is different. These rules are for our own good: they prevent us from lying around despondent, and they assert our human dignity. We are showing the guards that they owe us food and toilet runs, we have a right, we are waiting for them to deliver.
Allan prescribes two daily exercise periods. He develops a routine for us that includes stretches, sit-ups, push-ups, jumping jacks (the ceiling of this basement is a few inches higher than in my last cell), and jogging in place. The first time Allan tips his mattress up against the wall so he can jog on the bare floor, I am astounded. He has performed a magic trick. It has never occurred to me that I could move my mattress at will. Allan has taken possession of our cell, he has imposed his will on it in place of the guards'.
I realize now, belatedly, that in my last cell I could have turned my mattress diagonally in order to stretch out more comfortably, without feeling crammed between the walls. Or I could have run the mattress across the back of the cell instead of down its side, for variety. I imagine the momentary confusion of the guards opening my cell and seeing the new arrangement, and the image gives me another laughing spell. Allan asks me what's funny; I explain. The thought doesn't tickle him the way it did me, he doesn't laugh. But he says, "Yes, I imagine they would have found that a little disorienting. Give them a taste of it, for a change."
I despise working out. I associate it with gym class and jocks, which I despise for other reasons, plus I have no endurance for physical discomfort. Also, exercising in our cell means being sweaty afterward—and rank, which I find humiliating—without being able to shower. Nevertheless, I follow Allan's exercise routine because I know it's good for me. I need to safeguard my physical and mental health. I enjoy the opportunity our exercise periods afford for a little physical contact: holding Allan's feet as he does his sit-ups, he holding mine. He pushes me to do more than I want to, which makes me hate him in the moment, in the midst of the strain. But I'm grateful to him for coaching me, looking out for me.
At the beginning of my time in solitary confinement, I had exhausted myself trying to fill each day with mental activity. Allan takes a different approach: he requires only that we alternate activity and inactivity. One of Allan's precepts is that getting "low" (his term, which I adopt, too) is a perfectly natural, sane response to our circumstances. Because it's natural, we shouldn't get down on ourselves for it. We shouldn't feel low about feeling low. It's impossible for us to be optimistic all the time, or energetic, to always act as if everything's fine, as if we're living a normal life—the only way we could do that would be to become disconnected from reality, which would be insanity. Getting low is like letting ourselves rest, emotionally, from the hard work of confronting life in captivity. But because it's rest, we always have to get back up again.
Allan's rule, then, is that if one of us is feeling low, if he just wants to lie down and retreat into himself and be sad or discouraged—he's entitled to do it for as much as a few hours. But after that, the other is supposed to prod him, make him sit up, make him do something else. Chat. Tell about his life. Tell a story. Solve a math problem. Pace a little. Exercise. Something.
Allan applies this rule to my crying. I cry much less often after we're brought together. But if I've had a particularly dark day, a day when I've been low and haven't been able to shake it and have just been going through the motions when Allan makes me do something else—at the end of a day like that, when we lie down to go to sleep, and I reflect that I could be facing two more years of days like this, if not more, I'm liable to cry. If Allan's awake to hear me, he may give my back or shoulder a pat, but otherwise he lets me ride it through alone. I'm entitled to my cry. Come morning, however, I have to sit up with him, in keeping with our rules, waiting for breakfast.
Allan typically spends some time every day lying down silently with his eyes closed, or with his arm across them, or facing the wall. I can't always tell, when he does this, if he's feeling low or if he just wants some time to himself; I know he's not napping. (He naps at other times. I enjoy watching him when he does, but it's a guilty pleasure because it feels vaguely erotic.) Allan generally rouses himself from these "down times," as I think of them, within what I guess to be an hour or so. If it feels to me like he's gone longer, I get nervous and invoke the rule requiring him to get up, which he usually does graciously. Sometimes he can be grouchy. "Fine, I know, I made the bloody rule." Or, "Relax for Christ's sake, it hasn't been that long yet." Always when he's snappish, he apologizes later: he shouldn't have been a bastard, I was entirely in my rights, I was following the rule, he thanks me for doing it.
At the beginning, his grouchiness wounds and unsettles me: I can't bear to have him push me away. In time I learn to let it roll off me, even if it rolls heavily. I also learn not to be afraid to allow him more down time—he always gets up again.
Even when he gets low, as I can clearly tell at times that he does, Allan never cries. A part of me wishes he would, because then I wouldn't feel so much shame about the fact that I cry. But mostly, I'm glad he doesn't. It shows that he's strong. I need him to be strong.
Some days, we both get low—so low, that neither of us takes the initiative to make the other get up, so we both end up doing nothing all day but lie around, privately moping. After these moods have run their course, I become guilty and frightened. We mustn't ever do that again, we have to be more disciplined, what if we both sink into a serious depression? Allan doesn't get worked up about it. He has another rule that authorizes these lapses, a corollary to his precept that we shouldn't feel low about feeling low: We shouldn't feel low about breaking a rule. It's going to happen. It's fine.
He formalizes that rule entirely for my benefit; for him, this permissive principle goes without saying. Unlike me, Allan is rarely troubled by guilt. Yet his lack of guilt does not translate into self-centeredness, as I would have expected. On the contrary, he's considerate and generous, so much so that it makes me feel—of course—guilty. I'm envious: consideration and generosity seem to come naturally to him, they're his temperament. And he extends his consideration and generosity to himself.
Allan likes himself better than I like myself. It may well be that Allan likes me better than I like me. Apart from his lapses into snappishness, which I take as a symptom that he's feeling low, he treats both of us—me and himself—with courtesy and patience. He pushes me to do the same. After hearing me refer to myself as "stupid" on several occasions, Allan lays down a new rule: I can't call myself names that wouldn't be polite for me to call someone else. If he hears me slip, he'll expect me to apologize to myself, out loud. "I thought the point of these rules was to prevent insanity," I grouse. But secretly, I am moved, almost to the point of wanting to cry. Allan worries about me. He cares about me.
I am happy to let Allan impose his rules and routines onto my life. He is like an older brother, watching over me, taking me under his wing, showing me the ropes. Ironically, this is a role reversal for both of us. In my family, I was the older brother, responsible for looking after Chris while my mother was at work, whereas Allan was the younger brother, growing up under the wing of his older brother Michael. Even though Allan and I are virtually the same height—I can see that every time we're both standing—I think of him as being taller. In my mind's eye, Allan is not only older than me, he is bigger than me. That's how I want things to be, anyway.
I worry sometimes that my relationship with Allan ought to be more equal. Does he grow tired of me snuggling under his wing? Should I be carrying more of my own weight? Am I supporting him in the way he needs, or am I only taking? He seems content with the way things are...
I develop a theory, as Allan would say: he's always concocting "theories" as we try to make sense of what's happening to and around us. My theory is that playing the older brother helps Allan feel stronger, more competent, more knowledgeable, and thus more confident in his ability to survive. I assure myself that I'm going to survive by leaning on Allan; he assures himself that he's going to survive by letting me lean on him. The knowledge that he can be leaned on sustains him. He can do this—and the proof is that he is helping me do it.
* * *
With some improvements, our current prison is similar to my first; for Allan, though, this transfer has been a more significant step up in his living conditions. The cell he occupied in his first prison was narrower than ours—not much wider than was necessary to allow him to get on and off his cot. He had a canvas folding cot, not a mattress; both the cot and his blanket were stained with a previous prisoner's vomit, a persistent degradation. By the door, the ceiling was high enough that Allan could stand up straight, but the ceiling sloped down as he moved toward the back of the cell. In addition, he had to stoop under an air duct that ran through the top of the door and across the ceiling, his source of ventilation (no fan in the door). There was a light bulb in his cell, which he could unscrew at night, and he had candles for when the power went out; those are two features of his last prison that he wishes we had here.
In his last prison, as here, Allan was taken on a daily toilet run, to a squalid little bathroom down the corridor. He was fed only once a day, however, in the morning: always flatbread with hummus and a chunk of cured sausage. Never fruits or green vegetables—he worried about scurvy. He had a pee bottle and a drinking bottle, but none of the things we now have in our tubs. When Allan was visited by the English speaker, he asked for a toothbrush, which he received several days later; he carried it with him here, in his pocket, when he was transferred.
Like the cell doors in my first prison, the door of Allan's first cell had a barred gap up top, which he was forbidden to look through but did anyway. (Is it possible that I am the only hostage in my last prison who never looked out of his cell? I have always been unusually deferential to authority.) He got caught once, but all the guard did was yell at him, which made Allan only a little more cautious about peeking in the future. There wasn't much to see: a short, very narrow corridor, the bathroom at one end, a turn at the other end, maybe leading to more cells. All the cells were on the same side of the corridor, so he couldn't see other prisoners, but he could see the stairs leading out of the basement and the shelves where the food was stored. He spent far more time than he should have staring at those shelves.
Although Allan never saw other prisoners, he knows they were Lebanese because during power outages, they would all start yelling in Arabic. He wasn't sure if they were yelling to each other, or if they were yelling to the guards to protest the darkness and the heat, or if they were trying to call to the outside for help in the silence produced when the ventilation system went out. It was eerie, he says. An earlier abductee, a Lebanese Christian presumably, had somehow scratched onto Allan's door a large, elaborate, artistic cross.
Whereas I think that my first prison was beneath a garage, Allan thinks his was in the basement of a residential apartment building. Through the air vent in the bathroom, he often heard children playing outside. I'm floored: How could people living in the building never become aware that there was a prison full of kidnap victims in their basement? They probably were aware, Allan says—and they may have approved, or been indifferent, or not dared to interfere. His first prison, like mine, was undoubtedly located somewhere in Beirut's southern slums, a stronghold of Shiite radicalism.
* * *
In our new location, Allan sets himself the task of orienting us in space and time. He wants to assemble as clear a picture as possible of our prison, and he wants to be able to predict the guards' movements. Is he trying to come up with an escape plan? No, he says—though obviously we should keep our eyes open for any realistic possibilities for escape. He just feels better knowing, as best he can, where he is and what's going on around him.
Constructing a picture of the basement is as simple as Allan peering through the fan when the guards are upstairs. (I peer through a few times when I know the trapdoor is closed, but I can never shake the feeling of violating a fatal taboo. Besides, once I've peeked a couple times, I feel little need to do it again: the view doesn't change.) Allan concludes that there are four cells across from us, alongside the stairs. He surmises that there are probably, then, four cells on our side of the basement as well, one of which is the bathroom. Allan thinks that he and I are in the second cell down from the bathroom. The other two hostages are being held in cells across the way. In fact, Allan reports, they are being held in the two cells at the opposite ends of their row. The three cells containing hostages are thus spaced as far away from each other as they possibly could be, presumably to prevent us from communicating from cell to cell. There are no other prisoners besides us four.
Extrapolating from the size of our cell and the number of cells, Allan theorizes that we are in the basement of a small house, maybe 25 by 30 feet, he estimates. Despite the background noise that issues constantly (and maddeningly) from the radio, we're able to hear the guards clomping around over our heads in their boots. From those sounds, Allan constructs a rough floor plan of the house above. The guards sleep at the top of the stairs, where the trapdoor is; that's the last place we hear them move to at night. They have a bathroom located directly above our bathroom; we can hear the water moving through the plumbing. The stairs and the bathroom are located to our right when we face our cell door. Over our heads and toward our left is the front portion of the house, where the guards move around during the day. It's in this part of the house that they pray and watch TV, both of which sometimes rise to a volume level that we can make out over the radio.
Allan and I surmise that there are three guards on duty at a time, based on the facts that three guards accompanied us here and that we never hear more than three guards in the basement at once. There are two different shifts of guards, which change weekly. We figure this out because Makmoud is in one of the shifts.
He appears our second week here. The first time I hear him say, "Hello, Jérémie," I feel a thrill. I am even more deeply touched when he hands me the eyeglasses I left behind at my last prison. I thank him very much, and he replies in his somber yet friendly way, "No problem, Jérémie." I feel that the bad air that hung between us after my meltdown has dissipated. I introduce Makmoud and Allan. "Hello, Allan," Makmoud says. Allan is polite though audibly puzzled by the exchange.
After Makmoud goes back upstairs, I sit on my mattress, basking in the happiness of having him with me in this new place. At the same time, my awareness of Allan's puzzlement prompts me to interrogate my happiness. Is it a Strange Idea that I feel so warmly toward a guard? Allan and I revisit the subject over several days. Allan tells me that he, too, finds himself becoming fond of Makmoud. He's the guard who most respects our humanity, and it's natural that we appreciate that. We can't lose sight, though, of the fact that he is one of our captors; he is helping to keep us here, away from our families; he is denying us our freedom. He is friendly, and it would behoove us to respond in kind, if only to encourage him to keep doing it, but he is most definitely not a friend.
When Allan puts it that way, I feel talked down to, which I secretly resent. On the other hand—this is why I keep my resentment a secret—perhaps I deserve to be talked down to on this subject. I did, after all, make the absurd mistake, in my last prison, of imagining that Makmoud would help me escape. I've never told Allan about that fiasco, it's too humiliating.
Allan himself is in the friendly habit of telling the guards "thank you" when they bring us our food or bring him back from his toilet run. He hasn't laid this practice down as a rule, and he's emphatic that I shouldn't feel any pressure to do it with him. (I don't do it, though inevitably I feel a little guilty that I don't.) Allan initiated the practice in his last prison, after some interior debate: Is it servile of him to thank the guards when he also wants to send the message that food and toilet runs are his right? He decided that thanking the guards offers them an opening to acknowledge his humanity; he's reminding them that they ought to treat him with common courtesy at the very least. He's used to being ignored, though, so he had come to think of the thank-yous as a quiet protest. Makmoud is the only guard so far who has responded to him. "No problem," is Makmoud's reply. Makmoud is also the only guard Allan has gotten to know by name.
Eventually a guard on the other shift begins to respond to Allan's thank-yous by saying, "You're welcome." This guard has decided to use Allan's opening to him as a chance to build up his English. He asks us to verify that he knows the proper English word or pronunciation for the kinds of food he brings us. Once he's mastered that paper-thin lexicon, he graduates to asking us such things as do we like the food, or do we need the toilet. (We only get that second question in the morning, when he's taking us anyway; it's never an invitation to an extra toilet run.) Sometimes he's coached by another guard accompanying him, who evidently speaks more English but doesn't speak to us unless truly necessary. We don't ever exchange names with the guard who's learning English—he's not that friendly—or with any other guard besides Makmoud.
None of our guards here is as cruel or menacing as the Bully, from my last prison, but they can get surly, especially as they're nearing the end of their weekly shift. They can be rough as they're guiding us on our toilet runs, or impatiently stingier than usual about how much time they allow us in the bathroom. When Allan says "thank you," he runs the risk of being hissed at if a guard has decided that today we ought to remain silent; now and again Allan even gets rapped or slapped on the head. Neither of these reactions makes him consider desisting. The thank-yous are a perpetually repeated, small-scale tug-of-war, which more often than not Allan wins in the sense that the guards let him say it without shushing or hitting him. I admire his bravery, although I'm nervous that one day a guard may lose his temper and really hurt Allan—or both of us.
I imagine that the guards must find looking after us to be tedious work, boring and repetitive. Perhaps they have girlfriends or wives, even children, back in Beirut from whom they dislike being separated. I wonder sometimes how these men became guards for hostages, and what they do when they're not here.
The guards' weekly shift change must occur at night, while we're asleep. Makmoud's shift will serve us dinner one night, the English student's shift will give us breakfast the next morning. We are always told to shower on the last day of the shift; I guess scheduling our shower for that day is how the guards remember to do it.
During the day, the guards leave the trapdoor open, closing it at night so they won't be bothered by the radio static while they're trying to sleep. Judging from the sounds of people moving overhead, we think that by day a guard routinely sits watch in the room where the trapdoor is, "keeping an ear" on us while lounging on his cot, I imagine.
Although the guards' schedule requires them to come down into the basement only for feedings and toilet runs, they frequently make unscheduled visits during daytime power outages. Allan and I can tell the power has gone out because the fan in our door stops spinning; however, the fluorescent light and the radio never go out, so they must both have battery power. When the power goes out, it's common for one or two of the guards to come into the basement, just to hang out—presumably because it's cooler here than upstairs.
Allan has to generate that theory because I do not perceive the basement as cool. We're fine as long as the fan is running. The humid early mornings can feel so brisk, in fact, even though it's summer, that I retreat under my blanket, which I otherwise use as a pillow. Once the fan goes dead, though, our cell becomes sweltering. Maybe it's even worse upstairs; maybe it's worse inside our cell than in the rest of the basement because of two people's bodies radiating heat into a tightly enclosed space. I don't know, I don't get it. What I do know is: I hate sweating through a power outage. And I hate the guards invading our space, our time to ourselves.
When the guards hang out, sometimes they sit on the stairs, sometimes the floor; sometimes they bring chairs down with them. They smoke, they chat with each other in Arabic, they retune the radio so they can listen to a station, they play dominos or a board game. Sometimes, one lugs a folding cot down the stairs and naps. Rarely do all three guards come down at once. It's probably never supposed to happen, since when they do, it means there's no one keeping watch upstairs on the approach to the house. On those occasions, I have to restrain myself from entertaining unhelpful fantasies of a rival militia storming the place and setting us free.
Having the guards hang out downstairs is tense. We feel we have to stay very quiet to avoid attracting unwanted attention, especially since the loss of electric fans might have made the guards testy. We lie on our mattresses, trying not to move at all. Not being able to have conversations of our own during this time means that Allan and I are likely to become bored, which in turn means that we're susceptible to our minds carrying us places that will make us low.
Quite often, a guard who's hanging out will open the grate covers on all the hostages' cells; there's apparently a latch on the ceiling that can hold the cover open. I imagine that Makmoud and the English student are usually the guards who do this, because they're the two guards who interact with us most and thus who treat us most like people; but they don't typically speak to us while they're opening the covers, so I don't really know that. I assume that the opening of the covers is meant as a kindness, to give us more air circulation in the absence of our fan, not as a way to monitor us. The tradeoff, however, is that as long as the cover is up, our blindfolds have to be down, which becomes disagreeably hot and sweaty and itchy, above and beyond the inherent irritation of being blindfolded for more than just a few minutes.
* * *
A perverse irony of our situation is that the guards, who spend only some of their time in the basement, are a much more prominent presence in our lives than the other two hostages with whom we share the basement 24 hours a day.
The hostage whose cell is toward our left is the Handcuffed Hostage. We know this because we hear the handcuffs jangling as he is taken on his toilet runs. Otherwise, we never hear any sound from his cell.
The hostage whose cell is toward our right, next to the stairs, is the Praying Hostage I used to hear in my last prison. He doesn't pray nearly as loudly anymore as he must have been doing when I first became aware of him, or maybe he doesn't pray as frequently anymore; either way, we don't regularly hear him. But he raises his voice loudly enough and often enough, especially when he's chanting Arabic phrases, that I've been able to deduce who he is. Here as in my last prison, the guards don't chastise him for praying out loud. I think he tries to pray at the same times he hears the guards praying in the front room; at those times, they're probably not aware that he's praying, too. But even if he prays audibly at another time, if the guards recognize from his Arabic phrases that he's praying, they'll leave him alone. If he's just talking to himself, as he does at times, they'll demand he stop.
(It sounds like our guards pray fewer than the five times a day that I was taught are required of Muslims when I studied world religions. Allan's understanding is that this is one of the differences between Sunnis and Shiites: Shiites pray only three times a day. I've heard the guards praying upstairs during the middle of the day and after the evening feeding, but I've never been awake to hear their early morning prayer.)
Right away, Allan is keen to see the other two hostages. On the first day after our arrival, he spends quite a bit of time, while the guards are upstairs, crouched on his mattress a couple of feet away from the fan, figuring out what angle he needs to hold his head at to be able to get a line of vision that will let him see the Handcuffed Hostage's face as he's led past our door to the bathroom. I don't realize at the time what Allan's planning; I imagine he's just trying to see as much outside our cell as he can.
I understand the next morning—our second morning here—when Allan takes his position during the Handcuffed Hostage's toilet run. I'm terrified: If Allan can see out, won't that mean the guard will also be able to see him? I sit pressed into the back corner of the cell with my blindfold down, prepared to plead my innocence if Allan is discovered.
After the guards have left, I explode at Allan in whispers: What the fuck are you doing, you'll get us killed! He tries to calm me down. He had the angle wrong, he couldn't see the hostage's face or the guard's, so there's no way he could be seen either, but he doesn't think he could have been anyway; it's different looking out through the fan than looking in, especially when he hangs so far back. I'm not pacified: "Don't fucking do it again!" Allan apologizes. He's sorry he scared me, he didn't mean to, it's all right, nothing happened.
He does not, however, promise that he won't do it again, an omission I don't pick up on until the next morning, when he again crouches a couple of feet from the fan, his head bent over practically to the floor this time. Again, I sit in the corner with my blindfold down, trembling with fear and rage. Allan is ecstatic afterward: he got the angle right. He's convinced that the Handcuffed Hostage is a Korean diplomat who was kidnapped in January. Something Chung—Allan can't remember the name. Allan's rationale for identifying the hostage as Korean, without being able to see his eyes, is that he has a somewhat wispier-than-normal beard and "Oriental cheekbones." I give little credence to either the evidence or the conclusion, especially since I know how blurry the view through the fan is from my own peek the day before. For these dubious and ultimately useless observations, Allan is endangering our lives!
Allan tells me he wants to try to get a look at the Praying Hostage tomorrow. But since he'll have to look the other direction, toward the stairs, he needs permission to crouch on my mattress. By an entirely implicit understanding—an unspoken rule—our mattresses are personal space, private property, no trespassing. I refuse permission: Absolutely not. Allan is soothing, cajoling, but insistent. Please, Jeremy, I need to do this, I'll go crazy if I can't have a picture of him in my head when it would be so easy to do, please don't be afraid, I'm not going to be caught, trust me, can you trust me?
I start to cry. "Don't do this to me. I can't lose you."
That's how attached I've already become by our third day together. That's how desperately I need him.
The tears win: Allan folds. "It's all right, I won't do it. I promise." He's embarrassed. By my crying? Or by what I said? I know I'm mortified. "I can't lose you"? I hope to God that didn't come across as gay. Desperately needy and pathetic, fine. But not gay.
Allan drops the subject, but he prevails in the end because my guilt is treasonously working on his side. It takes only a couple of days for me to crack, although I'm grudging about it for the sake of my pride. I tell Allan he can crouch on my mattress to look at the Praying Hostage. "You're sure?" Yeah. "Thank you so much! I'll be very careful, you don't need to worry."
There's virtually nothing for him to report. The Praying Hostage has white hair, is probably in his 60s. Multiple hostages could fit that description, Allan has no way to narrow the options down. And if this man was kidnapped after Allan was—which might be the case, given whenabouts he showed up in my first prison—then Allan couldn't possibly know who he is. I'm unimpressed. I had already guessed the Praying Hostage's age from his voice, from which I also knew he's American. I know more about this man from hearing him than Allan has learned from seeing him. This peeking through the fan has been a pointless exercise, a pointless danger.
But Allan's happy, that's what matters. I want him to be happy. I want him to be happy with me.
We keep referring to the Praying Hostage as "the Praying Hostage," but Allan starts calling the Handcuffed Hostage "the Korean." I don't. Unconvinced and resentful of the distress Allan's peeking caused me, I hold conservatively to the epithet "the Handcuffed Hostage."
Later on, we will hear the guard who practices English with us trying out his new vocabulary and phrases with the Praying Hostage, too. The guard never tries to communicate in English with the Handcuffed Hostage, though, at least not that we ever hear. On occasions when guards talk to the Handcuffed Hostage, they use pidgin—words like pee-pee and hoom, which Allan tells me is the Arabic equivalent of yum, the way a mother might refer to food when talking to a toddler.
Allan finds the pidgin a puzzle. It's remotely possible that the Korean doesn't know any English, but it's unlikely, Allan thinks, given that he's a diplomat. If he doesn't know English, then he certainly has to know French, but the guards don't use any French with him either (beyond douche, which they use with all of us). This surprises Allan because he and I both heard guards deploying a rudimentary French vocabulary in our previous prisons.
I imagine myself saying to Allan: Maybe what all this means is that "the Korean" isn't who you think he is. But I don't actually say it. I would never permit myself to be so catty to Allan.
The fact that Allan and I share a cell while the other two hostages remain in solitary confinement is a greater puzzle. It is all the more mysterious given that, if Allan's picture of the basement is correct, there are seven cells here, of which only three are being used. Perhaps more hostages are coming, Allan theorizes. Perhaps this place is about to fill up. But then why not pair up the other two hostages as well? Maybe the Korean's been violent, and the guards consider him too unstable to pair up with someone, Allan speculates; maybe that's why he's kept handcuffed. Or maybe our being paired up is a rare concession—maybe because our captors are concerned about my youth, that I'm more likely to break down in solitary confinement.
I suspect that last theory is probably the answer, although I'm excruciatingly ambivalent about it. I'm relieved and grateful not to be alone, but it's shaming to think that this may be because I have proved so much weaker than other hostages. Also, I feel guilty about receiving a privilege other hostages do not.
As usual, Allan urges me not to feel guilty. My guilt won't do any good for anyone—not me, not the other hostages. We each have to play the hand we've been dealt. Anyway, Allan consoles me, the other two hostages appear to be coping. They're not ranting or pounding their heads on the wall. They haven't sunk into a stupor: they go on their toilet runs, we don't hear the guards harassing them about not eating or asking if they're sick. No doubt the Praying Hostage's praying helps him get through. Maybe the Korean uses Eastern meditation techniques. In any case, their survival is their problem, our survival is ours.
What Allan's saying makes sense, I can't question that, but I hate how callous it sounds. I pray often for the other hostages. Praying for them helps appease my guilt, whether or not it does them any good.
* * *
As Allan and I are setting up our rules and daily routine, I recommit myself to the discipline of morning and evening prayer. I pray on my knees; I feel I owe God that formality, I worry that I'm too casual in my relationship with him. At the same time, inspired by Allan's precepts about being gentle with ourselves, I set a low bar this time around. I decide to embrace the inevitable repetitiveness of daily prayers by committing to always recite the Lord's Prayer as a light act of disciplined devotion. If I feel like adding anything extemporaneous afterward, I'll do so (and I very often do), but I won't place myself under any expectations about doing that. This routine works, I'm able to sustain it.
When the guards aren't around, Allan and I spend hours sitting side by side at the back of our cell, talking. We lean against one another's shoulders so we can speak softly and still hear despite the radio. (Allan doesn't want the guards to hear us; I don't want the other hostages to hear us so they won't resent that we have the privilege of conversation.) As much as I crave the companionship—and the physical closeness; that's another issue, though—I get tired out by these conversations before Allan does. He's more extroverted than I am. He needs some daily "alone time," but not as much of it as I do. I reach a point where I cannot bear to talk or be talked at anymore, I need to go be with my own thoughts for a while, but he's still energized to continue. I try to meet halfway by letting him keep talking past the point I start wanting to bow out; then, finally, I snatch a breathing moment to apologize and tell him I need a break.
We exchange extensive information about ourselves—our pasts, our families, our studies and work. We do not discuss religion, however. Once, after we've been talking about my undergraduate studies at a college with an obviously Catholic name, Allan asks, "Your religion's still Catholic?" in a tone that suggests he assumes the answer is probably yes but he doesn't want to take that for granted if he shouldn't. Yes, I reply and wait to see if he's going to follow up. When he doesn't, I ask, "Are you . . . anything?" I feel awkward and intrusive as soon as I've asked, which I suppose is why we don't talk about this. "Church of England," he replies, "so no," and laughs. I take this to mean that he's nominally a member of the state church but doesn't find it personally meaningful. Then Allan points the conversation toward a different subject.
On the assumption that Allan isn't religious, I begin to worry that my kneeling to pray comes across as ostentatious or preachy. To be more discreet, I get in the habit of doing my morning prayer while Allan is on his toilet run. But he still has to be aware of me kneeling behind his back for my evening prayer just before I lie down to sleep.
It must be over a month, maybe closer to two, after we've been brought together before religion comes up again as a topic of conversation. As we're chatting one day, Allan tells me he's curious about my praying. He doesn't want to intrude, but would I be bothered if he asked me some questions about it? No, that's fine, I say. His ginger approach makes me wonder if he hasn't brought this subject up before, not because he was uncomfortable, but because I've given the impression that I'm shy about it.
What follows feels like a journalistic interview. Allan is curious whether I prayed as frequently before I was kidnapped as I do now, or if prayer has become more important to me in captivity. Do I pray in a different way now that I'm a hostage than I used to? Do I recite a fixed prayer, or do I pray extemporaneously? Does praying help me to feel a certain way? What kinds of things do I pray for? Do I believe that prayer affects God's will, or is that already predetermined? Do I pray for God to intervene to change material conditions in the world, or do I think that God answers prayers by giving people emotional strength to confront material conditions as they exist?
They're astute questions, I'm impressed. When he asks what kinds of things I pray for, I tell him, among other things, that I regularly thank God for "making us cellmates"—that seems a safer way to phrase it than "bringing us together" or "bringing you into my life." I don't dare look at him when I say this, so I can't see his reaction, but he says, "That's kind of you. I appreciate knowing that."
After we've talked about my praying for a while, Allan confides, in an adroitly non-judgmental way, that he finds the idea of God problematic. He cites the philosophical problem of evil, although he doesn't know that's what it's called: if there's an all-powerful God, why is there innocent suffering and injustice? And while he sees that belief in God can be positive for individuals, it also leads people to do cruel and destructive things. He gestures with his hands toward the walls of our cell.
But... At this point Allan becomes shy but decides to continue: While he was in his last prison, there was this one day when he was feeling absolutely overwhelmed, like the ground had opened up and he was plunging into a hole—and then out of nowhere, he had this incredible sensation. There was this force running through his body and radiating out of him, and it lifted him back up, and for something like a whole minute, he was infused, he was basking in this powerful feeling of joy. And then it faded, but the effect was still with him, meaning that it had gotten him firmly back on his feet and he could go on again. He doesn't know if this force was something outside him that came into him, or if it was something that had been inside him all along. But he thinks of it as some kind of... Spirit with a capital S. Nothing like that had ever happened to him before in his life, and it hasn't happened again since.
I am intensely jealous. God is present in my life in the sense that I spontaneously pray when I'm stressed or relieved, and in the sense that I'm often guilty about falling short of God's expectations. But I don't feel God's presence in any way approaching what Allan has just described. I had some reasonably powerful experiences on retreat as a teenager—for a while in high school, I envisioned myself following Bernie into the priesthood—but I've never had a mystical experience. It seems so unfair that I believe in God but don't actually experience him, whereas Allan, who doesn't believe in God, has had the experience. Isn't it supposed to work the other way around?
God gives the gifts he wants to give. He gave Allan a taste of his presence. He gave me Allan's presence. I certainly shouldn't complain about that.
* * *
Allan is a smoker. I discover this very challenging fact our first night together (we hardly sleep that first night!) as he is exploring his tub, a little like a kid on Christmas morning. He expresses something akin to religious fervor when he sees the two packages of cigarettes. He tells me that in his last prison, they gave him only five or six cigarettes each morning, which he had to make last the whole day. Ridiculous, he grumbles, when cigarettes are so cheap! He asks me if I received whole packs of cigarettes in my last prison, too. When I tell him yes, it was just like what he sees here, he asks me how often the guards used to give me new packs. I explain that the guards never gave me new cigarettes because I told them I don't smoke.
He looks up from the cigarette he has just lit in his mouth. I assume he's about to ask if it's okay with me if he smokes. But he doesn't. Instead he requests that I please not let the guards here know that I don't smoke. That way he can have a double ration.
It turns out that we are each allowed two packs of cigarettes per week. (One more occasion for Allan to tell the guards "thank you.") The guards are unbending about the ration. Not even Makmoud can be prevailed upon to dispense packs more frequently, although he will give Allan an individual cigarette or two from his own pack if we're at the end of the week and Allan hasn't properly paced himself. If Makmoud offers me a cigarette, I accept, pretend I'm saving it for later, and pass it on to Allan.
Two packs a week is forty cigarettes, which means in effect—Allan does the math instantly—that we are still being rationed to five or six cigarettes a day, just as in Allan's last prison. Of course, adding my ration to his, Allan can now allow himself ten to twelve cigarettes a day. He still complains about not receiving more. I have no experience with smoking, so I have no basis for comparison: I grew up in a non-smoking family, my friends in high school didn't smoke, and I didn't really have friends in college, smoking or non. But ten to twelve cigarettes a day seems like very heavy smoking to me.
I am unhappy about sharing a 6-by-6-foot cell with a smoker. I can't stand the odor, and high school health classes have conditioned me to fear secondhand smoke and lung cancer. But I don't say anything to Allan. Enduring his smoking is the price I have to pay for having him with me. Perhaps God wants to teach me forbearance. In a tradeoff between the irritation and possible health risks of a smoking cellmate and the likelihood of a breakdown were I to remain in solitary confinement, there's no question which option I have to prefer.
In addition to cigarettes, Allan is obsessed with getting his hands on a candle. He asks Makmoud in both English and French—lumière is the best Allan can remember for a French translation—but Makmoud doesn't know either word. Allan attempts pantomime. "No," Makmoud tells him. From his inflection, I don't think Makmoud is denying the request, he's indicating that he still doesn't understand. Allan is forced to direct his request to other guards, who evidently do understand but tsk their refusal.
I know that Allan was given candles in his last prison to use during power outages, but I don't understand why he wants one here. The fluorescent light outside our cell is always on, and we don't have anything to do that requires more than the little light that filters through around the fan. It's perfectly sensible for the guards not to give us a candle: we have nowhere safe to put it. I don't want to be trapped in a locked cell with a mattress that has caught on fire. I'm nervous enough as it is about Allan igniting matches and cigarettes.
Allan makes short work of dispatching my concern: he'll melt the base of the candle and stick it to the bottom of his tub, it will be perfectly fine. He insists we ought to have access to a light source we control. Someday the battery powering the fluorescent light is going to die, or the bulb will need to be changed, and we could be left sitting in the dark for hours until the guards come down and discover what's happened. A couple weeks, even, if they haven't planned ahead and they have to bring new bulbs or a new battery up from Beirut when they return for their next shift.
This all sounds sensible. I wonder, though—but do not ask—if a guaranteed light source matters so much to Allan because, perhaps, he has a phobia of the dark. I don't like the thought of him being susceptible in that way. I want him to be immovable.
Anyway, we never get a candle.
* * *
I jerk into consciousness. "Stop it!" Allan is shouting. "Don't hurt him!"
I sit up. Allan is lying next to me, he's having a nightmare. I shake him awake. The guards have also been awakened. The trapdoor opens, but no one comes down the stairs, they just stand up top listening. After we've remained silent for several tense seconds, the trapdoor closes.
Allan looks bewildered and a little frightened. "What happened?" he asks. I tell him what he said in his sleep. He lies down again with his back to me. "I was dreaming about something that happened in my last place," he says in a dull voice.
I wait for him to tell me more. I'm afraid to know more, but I would prefer knowing what actually happened to inventing my own terrifying scenarios. He can sense I'm waiting. Without looking back around at me, he says, "I'd rather not talk about it, if you don't mind."
I lie down, but I can't sleep. Allan hasn't gone back to sleep, either. After a while, he sits up and smokes. I pretend to be asleep to give him privacy.
The nightmare recurs two more times over the next few nights. After the third time, Allan tells me what the nightmare is about, but he waits until daytime to do it. There's absolutely no difference in terms of how much light we have in our cell, but I guess I can see why it would make a difference to him psychologically.
When Allan arrived at his first prison, there was a very young man in another cell—sixteen, seventeen, eighteen years old, maybe—who screamed a lot and was beaten for it repeatedly. Then, a couple days later, there was an incredibly loud gunshot, and the young man never screamed again.
This story puts me in a panic. "This is why I didn't want to tell you," Allan says. I'm wounded by the bite in his voice, but I rally myself: I'm not the one who experienced the trauma, for God's sake.
"I'm sorry," I tell him. "I don't know what to say. Jesus."
I would like to give and receive some physical comfort right now—arms around shoulders, even just pats to the shoulder—but such moments only ever occur when Allan initiates them because I don't have the nerve. He doesn't initiate one now. But he offers me the verbal comfort that our captors aren't going to "do that" to either of us. We're Westerners, our lives are worth more to them.
Telling me what happened seems to have helped. Allan experiences the nightmare only rarely after that.
One night after Allan has told me, I wake up needing to pee. I do it kneeling at the foot of my mattress, as quietly as I can, trying to aim against the side of the bottle instead of directly into the reservoir at the bottom. When I lie back down, Allan is sleeping with his face turned toward me. We always go to sleep back to back, but he has rolled over at some point in the night.
I lie on my back with my head turned so I can gaze at his face, dimly lit by the fluorescent light entering through the fan. He looks soft and vulnerable as he sleeps. I used to imagine that seeing Allan vulnerable would unnerve me, but now the sight fills me with tenderness. I want to comfort him for the horror he witnessed in his last prison. I want to reach over and cup the side of his face.
Of course, I can't do that; it's a gay gesture. It frustrates me that I have somehow grown up never learning the socially acceptable ways for men to touch each other. This is why I can never touch Allan. I'm afraid of doing it wrong, of giving myself away.
Still, the fact that I want to comfort him—the fact that I am capable of tenderness and empathy—makes me feel like a better person, a bigger person. I'm not bigger than the horror. But I'm big enough to struggle against it.
I wish I knew the right physical gestures to support Allan as he struggles, too.
* * *
Allan's parents are both alive, and he has two siblings: an older brother, Michael, and a younger sister, Kathy. Michael is married and has a daughter; Kathy has a boyfriend whom Allan predicts she will marry. Allan has never been married, but before coming to work in Beirut, he lived for two years in London with a girlfriend, Emily. I have a hard time understanding why he would live with a woman for two years—he wasn't just "with her" for two years, he actually lived with her that long—without marrying her somewhere along the way. I guess that's the well-trained Catholic in me.
The fact that I have never had a girlfriend escapes scrutiny: Allan takes it for granted that I'm young and still in school and therefore not looking to be tied down. Perhaps when I tell him I've never had a girlfriend, he assumes that I mean I've never had a very serious girlfriend, or a live-in girlfriend. Naturally, I don't clarify.
Allan doesn't explain why his relationship with Emily ended. "I still don't know exactly what went wrong." But he does tell me that when he reached a point in his career at which he wanted to take a post somewhere overseas, Emily had a job in London she wasn't willing to leave. Then they broke up—for additional reasons, I gather—and the position in Beirut opened, and he took it. He hasn't been in a relationship since his breakup with Emily.
Allan says, "I'm not sure I know how to live with another person." He laughs in a half-hearted way that convinces me he's actually getting low. It will kill him, he says, if he gets out of here and finds that Kathy has married in his absence. It will be a bad omen, it will doom him to spend the rest of his life as the guy who turns up to every family get-together with a different woman each time.
I don't grasp the superstitious logic of that, even as a joke. But clearly Allan feels inadequate about his ability to maintain a relationship and fears being the only one of his siblings who can't pull off marriage. Trying to be encouraging, I tell him—in response to his comment about not knowing how to live with another person—that I find him pretty easy to live with.
He laughs a little at that. And then keeps on laughing. I would feel insulted (why was my compliment funny?) if I weren't telling myself that the laughter is just emotional release, he's breaking through the low feeling. He appreciates me saying that, he tells me. He works hard at trying to be easy to live with—and he appreciates how hard I work at it, too.
But of course it isn't the same thing, he continues, living together in this cell versus trying to be in a relationship. Here in this cell, trying not to be a bastard is basically the only thing he has to do, the only thing he has to worry about. So, yeah, he can pull that off pretty well. He isn't also trying to juggle two people's careers, and keep house together, and figure out who's responsible to do what, and deal with each other's friends and family, or decide who gets to do what they want this weekend, or if and when to have kids, not to mention trying to make sure everyone's satisfied in the bedroom...
He trails off, and there's a lull in the conversation that for me, at least, feels very tense. Allan sniffs and rubs his finger across his nostrils in a way that makes me wonder for a moment if he's crying. But when I glance over at his face, I can't make out any sign of tears in the dim light, and his voice, when next he speaks, is unchanged.
Allan shifts the subject sideways. How are we doing? he asks. Is there something he could be doing, or not doing, that would make him easier to live with?
Since he's asked, I confess to him, for the first time, how much his smoking bothers me. That could be a serious problem, Allan tells me in a somber voice. He really, really needs to smoke to calm his nerves. As it is, he's already been forced to cut back, even with me giving him my ration. (Good God, did he used to be a chain smoker?) And it's doubly hard never being able to have a fucking drink.
I'll get used to it, I assure him. It's just... something I have to live with. I'm sure I do things that he finds challenging to live with.
He doesn't nibble at that. He doesn't assure me, "No," or say, "Well, now that you mention it...," followed by mention of some not-too-embarrassing faults I'm already aware of. He does thank me for being willing to put up with his smoking.
I feel like the conversation has penetrated to a greater depth of intimacy. So I build up a little courage and tell Allan that I'm very glad he's here, I don't know how I'd manage if he weren't.
He smiles at me—not the big triangular smile of his that I find so adorable; this is a closed smile, but still warm—and says he feels the same way. Then I suppose the conversation must be getting too touchy-feely for him, because he says, "How about a film?" which means that one of us will fill some time by narrating a movie in close detail, ideally one the other hasn't seen.
* * *
I am extraordinarily lucky. From inside my head, I frequently launch spontaneous prayers of thanks that my captors put me with Allan. Not thanks that they put me with someone—that they put me with Allan. What if they had paired me up with the Praying Hostage? Or the Handcuffed Hostage? Obviously I don't really know anything about either of those men, but the mental pictures I have of them based on what little I do know persuades me that being cellmates with either of them would be harder work and less nurturing.
Allan is a considerate, even-tempered, good-natured person; at work, he must have been a likeable boss. He has a confident but easy-going masculinity, understated, slightly nerdish. If he were more of a jock, I would feel intimidated and unequipped to relate. Instead, he is someone I can have an intelligent conversation with, but also someone I can easily picture in a pub after work with his buddies, his mates, his top button undone, his tie loosened, the sleeves of his dress shirt rolled halfway up his forearms, drinking beer from a tall glass, laughing with the rest of his pack. It's an attractive image—partly, I know, because I find the scenario erotic, which is a problem, but also because Allan's masculinity comforts me. It helps me feel safer, more relaxed, as if he could protect me, even though I know that's illusory. Despite a youthful air, Allan has a deep voice, which I find soothing, much like Makmoud's.
When we first meet, I feel that I don't know what Allan really looks like because of the unkempt beard hiding part of his face. That changes a week or so after we arrive, when the guards give us summer haircuts. They do it in the room just at the top of the stairs. Each hostage is taken up one at a time. When it's my turn, they sit me in a chair, remove my blindfold ("No look!"), then cover my closed eyelids with wads of tissue held in place with squares of tape to make sure I can't peek at them. They use electric clippers to buzz my hair and beard down to stubble, a quick operation. I have no access to a mirror—here as in my first prison, there isn't one in the bathroom—so I don't know what I look like either before or after. Allan, after his haircut, looks from the forehead up like a skull with fuzz. But the beard stubble they've left him is discomfortingly sexy. That is a look that would work very well for him in normal life.
I react so strongly to Allan's stubble that I feel an impulse to tell him how good it looks. That wouldn't give me away, would it? Straight men compliment each other's appearance that way, don't they? I envision saying it to him in the form of a joke: "Up top makes you look like you have cancer, but the beard is working now." Or I could just ask him straightforwardly if he ever tried the unshaven look in normal life, "because I seriously think you should consider it." In the end I don't say anything. I'm afraid to be the one who brings the subject up, and he doesn't say anything complimentary about my appearance that I could reciprocate. His comment is, "This must be how sheep feel."
I consider it providential that Allan's beard stubble is his only facial feature that rouses sexual feelings in me. There is nothing attractive to me about his scraggly beard, and when it's gone I can see that without the lingering sexy stubble, his face would look quite dorky. It is very much a white-collar face, a real white-collar face, not, as on TV or in clothing catalogues, a model's hypermasculine features costumed in office dress. Allan has the face of a nerd, of someone who spends his work day sitting behind a desk, or in front of a screen, and loves it. Not that I should be throwing stones on that count. But that's my point. Like me, Allan does not have a face that communicates virility—even if, unlike me, he has mastered a body language that does.
Again, this reality is providential: it makes it easier for me to live with Allan. I don't have to worry so much that I will look into his face in a way that betrays sexual desire.
Dorky though he looks, Allan has an adorable smile. When he lets himself go, it opens down, into a triangle, making him look exuberantly, boyishly happy. When he smiles like this, I understand where the cliché "my heart melted" came from. I feel lighter when he does it. I want... I don't know what I want. I want him. But not in a sexual way, I don't know how to explain it. Unlike sexual attraction—the attraction that makes me want to secretly ogle his body—the wanting I experience when Allan smiles doesn't feel dirty. It feels... wholesome, uplifting.
I love Allan, I understand that. I could never tell him that in so many words because I can't trust myself not to inflect it in the wrong way. But the fact that I love him is not, per se, a problem, I am not ashamed or guilty or afraid of it. My love for Allan is normal and positive inasmuch as it is a response to the things he does that nourish me. And hopefully, my love leads me to do things that nourish him.
What is a problem is untangling the feelings I have for Allan that are normal and positive from the feelings that are gay.
Untangling the two would be easier if we didn't have bodies.
* * *
Living in a 6-by-6-foot space, it is as if Allan and I spent all our time sitting or lying together on top of a king-sized bed. In such intimate quarters, we are forced to come to terms with our bodies in ways that we would have room to evade in normal life. Discretion and privacy are available to us in the tiniest of slivers.
I am vividly, painfully aware of the various odors my body produces. Thankfully, with toothpaste in our tubs, I can keep bad breath under control. Our diet encourages flatulence, which Allan jokes about until he recognizes how uncomfortable that makes me, at which point the etiquette becomes not to pass any comment beyond a quick, "Sorry." My underarm odor is my greatest humiliation because unlike morning breath or flatulence, this odor is constant, apart from a brief respite after each weekly shower. Allan never says a word about how I smell, but I'm convinced that I'm revolting. I avoid lifting my arms, especially when we sit close to one another to talk. Allan's odor doesn't have the rotten, sickly sweet edge that mine does: his is pungent but not intolerable. In time I come to think of his odor as one of his masculine qualities, which turns it into a source of emotional comfort, although intellectually I find that weird.
Each of us stores his pee bottle at the foot of his mattress, in his respective corner of the cell; that way, when one of us uses his bottle, he has his back turned to the other. I am self-conscious that I pee more frequently than Allan. I'm so self-conscious about it that for a period I try to retrain myself to hold my pee longer than I'm used to, but I find this discipline too taxing to continue. I don't think Allan gets up during the night to pee, as I do. Every morning, when he wakes up, he takes a very long, powerful piss. I can't call what Allan does "peeing," that word isn't sufficiently virile. Allan pisses. The force of his pissing makes me feel inadequate—my pee streams are shorter and have a tendency to tinkle delicately. My peeing sounds gay to me; his pissing sounds properly masculine.
There's an erotic charge to hearing Allan piss. It makes me think of men stripping in locker rooms, or the communal bathroom in my first college dorm, where young men moved about in various stages of undress. The same discomfort I used to feel in that dorm bathroom or in locker rooms, I now feel when Allan is pissing. I want to try to catch a glimpse of his stream, his penis, and I feel perverted for wanting that.
As desperately grateful as I am to have Allan with me, as badly as I need him, I am also stressed by the sexual attraction that lurks around his presence. The attraction is not as strong as it could be, for which I literally thank God. Allan does not have the kind of body that is my greatest temptation: dark hair, hirsute limbs, furry torso. Allan's hair is a non-descript brown. He has thin, light hairs on his forearms and legs, a rather sparse diamond-shaped patch in the very center of his chest, a pencil-thin line wriggling down his stomach—the line begins a couple of inches above his navel, without connecting to the hair on his chest, which I find freakish. I'm hairier than he is, which I don't think is saying much.
I'm being terribly judgmental, of course. But this is a good thing: it's good that I find Allan's body aesthetically flawed. If Allan looked more like... Adnan, let's say... I would be in deep shit.
As it is, I am distressingly fascinated by Allan's body. If I were free, living my normal life, surrounded by the usual diverse array of male bodies competing for my guilty attention, I would find it easy to ignore Allan's. Here, however, Allan's is the only body clamoring for my attention. It's there, right beside me, all the time. His body is the only object available for my sexual impulses to direct themselves to—and they are perfectly content to do so.
Allan unwittingly provides me with ample opportunities to lust after him. He is freer about his body than I am. Why wouldn't he be? He doesn't know he has any reason not to. The very first night we're brought together, when we've finally stopped whispering and are going to sleep, Allan strips off his dress shirt and slacks, the same clothes he was kidnapped in two months ago, leaving himself in nothing but an overworked pair of boxer shorts. (Another object of erotic fascination for me: they seem manlier than the briefs I have always worn.) I tell myself I'm not going to let my eyes roam below his head, but as soon as I know he's asleep, I do—and hate myself for it.
On our first shower day after we arrive, the guards instruct all the hostages to leave our clothes, socks and underwear included, in a growing pile in the giant sink in the bathroom. We never see those clothes again. To replace them, the guards give us each a plastic bag containing the summer version of our hostage uniform: a white tank top, a pair of silky briefs that bear a disagreeable resemblance to panties, and a pair of boxers. Basically, we will spend the summer wearing nothing but underclothes. For my relationship with Allan's body, this is not helpful.
Initially, I receive a little assistance from our captors' fundamentalist standards of modesty. When they give me the bag containing my summer clothes, and I see the two kinds of underwear, I assume that I've been given an extra set, a very welcome change. Dressing in the bathroom, I opt to put on the boxers, a first-time experience for me. I'm unhappy with how the boxers expose me at the fly, but I'm unhappier still with the mental picture of myself walking around in panties. When I come out of the bathroom, the guards are displeased: "No good!" I had heard them deliver the same scolding to the Praying Hostage, who was taken to the bathroom before me, but I hadn't understood why. Now the guards get me to understand that I'm supposed to wear the briefs under the boxers so that I'm not exposed. I feel unjustly chastised—how could I be expected to figure that out on my own?—but once they've managed to explain, I'm happy to go along. The extra layer will make me less uncomfortable in my own body, and it will make living with Allan's body less difficult.
Allan dislikes the doubling up of underwear. Soon enough I discover the problem myself: the sheer fabric of which the briefs are made does not breathe. As the summer heat rises, and the sweat pools in our unwashed crotches, Allan and I get jock rot. By the time this happens, Allan is already in the habit of stripping off his tank top whenever the guards aren't around. But after he gets jock rot, Allan spends nearly a couple of weeks entirely naked, except when he hears the guards approaching. He's trying to dry out his groin in order to starve the fungus. He squats in front of the fan in our door, letting the air blow onto his crotch and inner thighs. While doing this, he drapes his tank top over his buttocks while holding the arm straps forward around his hips as a makeshift loincloth.
When we lose the fan to a power outage, Allan resorts to lying on his mattress with knees bent up and legs spread open, fanning his groin with his tank top. I am in agony. I lie on my side with my back to him, to give him privacy and to prevent myself from stealing illicit glimpses. I am ashamed, nevertheless, that from glances cast while getting up to use my pee bottle, I now know that Allan is uncircumcised, something I have never seen before.
When he's splayed out naked, Allan doesn't talk. He lies with his eyes closed. I take this to be his way of trying to create a buffer zone, the illusion of privacy.
I deal with my own jock rot by removing the briefs and wearing only the boxers, which breathe better, until I hear the guards coming downstairs, at which point I hustle to strip the boxers off and put the briefs and boxers back on. I have time to do this, fortunately, because the guards start the feedings and toilet runs with the Praying Hostage's cell, right beside the stairs. While I'm wearing just the boxers, I take turns squatting in front of the fan the way Allan does, letting the air blow through my open fly to soothe the itch and dry out the fabric.
Despite the summer heat, the guards won't give us time to shower any more frequently than once a week, but I figure out how to multitask so I can soap up my groin with one hand while squatting over the toilet and then rinse off under cover of cleaning my ass. After the jock rot subsides, I retain the habit of "sneaking" a daily cold douche to my crotch to prevent a recurrence.
Once his jock rot has abated, Allan adopts my custom of wearing just the boxers and donning the briefs only when the guards are present. For comfort, I keep doing the same. So in the end, I lose the advantageous double layer that the guards' modesty had afforded me. I try to be as inconspicuous as I can about keeping my fly pinched closed. Allan lets his fly relax as it will, turning it into a forbidden cave whose mouth I want to peek inside.
Allan is better at estimating the passage of time than I am, so when he senses that it's about time for the guards to come down to feed us, we get "properly" dressed at a leisurely pace. Sometimes he misestimates, or maybe the guards come down early, and then we have to hurry to get our briefs on while the guards are delivering the Praying Hostage's food. We also have to scramble a little whenever the fan goes off—that is, whenever there's a power outage—so that the guards won't catch us in our immodesty if they come down to the basement right away and open our grate cover. When we're stripping our bottoms off and on again, we turn our backs to each other, but I have occasionally turned back around in time to glimpse Allan's ass.
I wish Allan would wear his tank top regularly. I'm afraid that one of these days he will catch me looking down at his nipples or at what little hair he has on his torso. I worry, furthermore, that wearing my tank top when he's not wearing his looks suspicious. Evidently Allan finds it normal to go bare-chested in this heat. What excuse will I give him if he ever asks me why I don't get more comfortable by removing my tank top? What if he senses that I keep wearing the tank top because I feel uncomfortable being so nude with another man? What if he starts to wonder why this makes me uncomfortable?
To prevent that line of inquiry, I eventually work up the courage to lay aside my tank top, too. I hate it, though, not only because I'm putting myself in a situation that feels erotically charged to me, but also because I dislike my body. I always have. I'm ashamed of how underdeveloped my body is, but I have simultaneously prided myself on being an intellectual who doesn't care about something as shallow as developing his body. I am aware that this is a self-defeating attitude. The fact that Dale, the one man I've ever slept with, evidently enjoyed my body mystified me—although I was pathetic-puppy grateful that he did. That was part of why I kept giving in and going back to him: his interest made me feel better about myself, physically.
Over time, sitting shirtless in the cell with Allan, I come to feel less ashamed of how my body looks. The fact that I've lost weight helps—although given why I've lost the weight, I worry that feeling positive about that will grow into some kind of eating disorder. (I'm always at least a little hungry. My stomach has never downgraded its demands to match what I receive.) Allan's exercise regimen helps in a much healthier way. I don't see any difference in my physique, but I feel better about myself. I derive satisfaction from knowing that I'm finally doing something to develop my body instead of feeling alternately supercilious and inadequate about not doing anything.
As I grow accustomed to constantly being around Allan in just our undershorts, the sexual edge to the situation becomes less sharp. But it doesn't turn blunt. The situation never comes to feel chaste. It never stops feeling risky. It just doesn't feel so intensely risky.
It's not that I'm constantly stewing in homosexual desire, I have other emotions. I get stressed. I get low. I get mind-numbingly bored. I can get caught up in a conversation with Allan and cease to be distracted by the awareness that we're sitting pressed to one another's sides all but naked. I can feel grateful toward Allan, or tender, or irritated, or laugh with him without also lusting after him.
Still, lust is part of my emotional repertoire. It turns up, makes appearances. And when it does, I open the door and let it in because... it feels good, at least until later, when guilt comes barging through the doorway, too. I spend so much time feeling bored, or uncomfortable, or stir-crazy, or worried, or homesick, or discouraged, or frustrated, or worn-down, or frightened, or trapped, or degraded, or hopeless, that I need to let myself feel good at times. I need the pleasure of looking at the tantalizing frontier where Allan's thigh disappears up into his shorts, or the smooth white expanse of his back, or the slope where his side descends to his waistband, or the pink disc around his nipple, or the vulnerable nape of his neck, or that narrow line of hair worming down from his navel to burrow into the front of his shorts, or the roundness of his buttocks veiled behind his boxers, or his naked foot resting up against mine as we talk side by side, or the lap of his boxers, with its teasing opening, glimpsed just out of the corner of my eye. I need that shot in the arm, even if the pleasure is fleeting, even if I berate myself for it afterward.
When I describe the situation to myself that way, it sounds like an addiction. Like Allan and his nicotine. Just how far does that comparison hold true? Do I need my illicit gazes at Allan's body in the same way that Allan needs his cigarettes? Is my survival going to be fueled by the moments of guilty pleasure I snatch from Allan's body? Or is that just a Strange Idea? It's such a risky pleasure. Not to mention an exploitative one. What will happen if Allan realizes what I am doing to him?
I pray: Please help me control it. I won't pretend to you that I'm going to try to stop entirely, I know you know better. I'm weak. But please don't let me be so weak as to do something stupid, something that will throw up a wall between us or make him retreat. Don't let me destroy our friendship.
That prayer doesn't feel right. If Allan and I are really friends, I shouldn't be ogling him, much less asking God that Allan not catch me doing it.
My struggle with lust is particularly infuriating given that I don't actually find Allan's body all that attractive. But it's male, and it's there, and that's all that's necessary to activate my sexual instincts. That's how effectively governed I am by the animal in me. And the fact that the animal is in charge prevents Allan and me from being just friends and companions, the way we might have been. The way Allan presumably thinks we are. The animal won't let the relationship be that simple, that wholesome. My sexual feelings pervert the relationship, twist it into something else, even if only under the surface.
I get low thinking about this. Undeservedly, I have Allan—oblivious, generous Allan—to pull me back up.
At least my sex drive is suppressed enough (because of all the negative emotion in my life, I assume, and probably the lack of nutrition) that I'm not in danger of becoming visibly aroused. That sounds so sordid. But it's something I fear. I fret about this possibility when I start wearing the boxers without the briefs. The last thing I need is to be seated beside Allan for a conversation, bare skin to bare skin, and suddenly have the evidence of what's really going on come poking its head out my fly. That never happens, thank God.
I never feel the urge to masturbate, either, not in a serious way at least. The sexual tension, insistent as it can be, doesn't climb to the level of making me want to do anything apart from look. Lucky for me, since there's nothing I could do in here, even in the dead of night, with Allan lying right beside me and never the cover of total darkness. Rarely I'll wake up in the morning half erect; but while that's embarrassing, it doesn't give anything away about me, it's merely male physiology. I just lie facing the wall, waiting for it to subside.
I hate that I have to deal with my homosexuality, with all its sordidness, on top of everything else that makes my life here miserable. But then, my homosexuality is what got me here in the first place.
* * *
There is a certain moment that later I will come to regard as a crucial turning point. The moment doesn't seem so important at the time. At the time, in fact, my inclination is to categorize this "epiphany," as I will later dub it, as a Strange Idea. It's not a Strange Idea I can discuss with Allan, though.
What happens is this:
It's night, meaning that the guards have given us dinner, shut the trapdoor, and gone to bed—otherwise, we'd have no way to tell. Allan's sleeping, I can't sleep. This is common. I assume that on other nights, or during different parts of the night, it's the other way around.
Allan is sleeping on his right side, which means he has his back to me. I should be lying on my left side with my back to him, but instead I, too, am lying on my right. I am looking at Allan's shoulders and back, the back of his scalp, the nape of his neck. There can't be much more than a foot between us. I'm imagining what it would be like to cross that gap, to snuggle against him, to rest my nose against the top of his spine, to bring my arm around and press it to the region between his chest and stomach. I am allowing myself to imagine this because as long as I keep my fingers away from his nipples and my lips off his neck, it is not a sexual scenario, albeit it is plainly illicit in some other way I'm not quite sure how to name.
I am enjoying the feelings that I imagine I would have if I snuggled against Allan. I feel soothed, consoled. I feel that I can bear up, that I can keep going.
Then the guilt kicks in. What the fuck are you doing? Don't do this. It is a slippery slope, you know that perfectly well. Don't spoil what you have with Allan. Don't taint it, don't turn it into something dirty. Stupid. Stupid.
This kind of thing has happened before, this isn't the epiphany. The epiphany starts when this time, a voice in my head says: Allan would make you apologize to yourself for what you just said.
Allan is always telling me, because I'm never quite persuaded by it, that guilt is unhealthy. Dangerous. Guilt drags me down, it makes me low. I feel that happening now. When I was imagining snuggling with Allan, I felt good. I felt comforted. I felt more optimistic about my ability to survive. And then after the guilt kicked in, those good feelings, the comfort, the optimism, went away.
If the guilt drives away the feelings I need to survive, why do I think it's good? Why do I think the voice that makes me feel guilty is right?
I thank God all the time for the gift of Allan, for the happiness his presence brings me. But I also ask God all the time to save me from certain feelings of pleasure that Allan's presence brings me. Do those prayers contradict each other?
Maybe the feelings of pleasure, the erotic feelings, are actually part of the gift. I certainly enjoy them when I'm not feeling guilty about them or afraid of being caught. I am, as I call it, "addicted" to these feelings. But maybe I shouldn't be thinking of the feelings in negative terms, as addiction. Maybe I should understand these feelings in positive terms: maybe I should understand them as part of the happiness that God wills for me.
Bullshit. That doesn't make sense. This is wishful thinking. This is a Strange Idea. Even if I went along with the premise that God doesn't really disapprove of homosexuality—it wouldn't be the first time I've contemplated that possibility—why would God will for me to have sexual feelings for someone who can't reciprocate? How is that going to make me happy? That's a pathway to frustration... and to totally fucking up the relationship, a relationship I am literally locked into living no matter how fucked up it may become.
In my memory, the response to that objection rises up in my mind right away. I suspect, in reality, that it actually emerges later, gradually, over days, as I keep thinking about this. But in my memory, the whole thought process has been collapsed into this single night when I'm lying awake looking at Allan's back.
So in my memory, what happens is: I look at Allan sleeping almost naked, in his boxers, a foot away with me, and I think, This is what it would be like to sleep beside a lover.
I've never slept with anyone before. I've "been to bed" with someone. But Dale and I never slept together in the strict sense. We... ejaculated onto one other ("safe sex"), and then I showered, and by the time I got out of the shower, I knew what a huge mistake this had been and wanted to get the hell out of there. So I wouldn't have spent the night even if Dale had offered, which he never did.
Dale and I weren't lovers, unless all you mean by that word is that we had sex. We were using each other. He was a not-too-attractive middle-aged man who probably had a hard time picking up the cute younger guys he was really interested in. And I was a socially inept, not-too-attractive young man who went home with the first man who invited me because I was afraid no one else would.
Allan and I aren't lovers, either, obviously. But what we have comes much closer to the images and feelings that the word lovers conjures up for me than what I had with Dale. We live together. We sleep together. We care for each other. We support each other. We rely on each other. In this place, Allan is all that I have, and I am all that he has.
If I were to have a lover, a male lover, a gay lover, I would want that relationship to be like what I have with Allan. Except, of course, that there would be sexual desire flowing both ways, not just one way. And, of course, we would be free.
When we talked about his relationship with Emily, Allan told me that there's much more to being in a relationship than what our life together in this cell consists of. I understand that. Still, our life together in this cell is the closest I've ever come to "being in a relationship." It's the closest I have to a real-life model for what a gay relationship could be like.
And the relationship I have with Allan is beautiful once I push the guilt and the fear out of the picture. It's nourishing. It's strengthening. It isn't sordid, or fleeting, or selfish—not like what I did with Dale.
Is it possible that this is something God wants to show me? Is this realization something positive, something redeeming, that I can take out of this otherwise traumatic experience?
It's a seductive idea. A part of me would very much like to be persuaded that God is fine with my being gay. And another part of me is drawn to the philosophically vexed yet consoling notion that my captivity isn't random suffering, that there's some overarching purpose, some divine plan at work behind the scenes.
That's the epiphany as it will later exist in my memory. No doubt it is the consolidation of a thought process that, in reality, unfolds over days or weeks. This new way of thinking about my homosexuality, and about my erotic feelings for Allan more specifically, doesn't suddenly transform me. I don't convert to it from night to morning. On the contrary, I suspect it for a long time afterward of being a Strange Idea that seems reasonable and attractive to me only because I would like to believe it and I can't discuss it with anyone who would make see how bizarre it really is.
Nevertheless, I keep entertaining the idea. It competes, now, with the other voices in my head, the voices that tell me I'm perverted and weak and in danger of destroying what's positive about my companionship with Allan. If I accepted the epiphany as true, I would still have to conceal myself from Allan, that wouldn't change. And concealing myself would remain stressful. But I wouldn't have to feel so disgusted with myself while I was doing it.