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 4 -- New prisoners, new problems
On the last day of July, according to the calendar in Allan's head, the two of us are transferred one cell over, to the cell next to the bathroom. The move is a short but multistep process. It takes two guards four trips to complete, with repeated unlocking and relocking of cell doors on the way. First, they move Allan. They instruct him to carry his drinking bottle and pee bottle with him, as during a toilet run, which at the outset is what I imagine this must be—an unprecedented extra toilet run. In the next trip, they move his mattress, blanket, and tub. At this point, I plunge into a despairing panic. They're separating us, they're putting us back into solitary confinement! But immediately they return to move my mattress and things, after which they move me.
I am so relieved to be reunited with Allan after our two-minute separation that I throw my arms around him before I have time to censor my impulses. He returns the hug, slapping my back the way straight men feel they need to do. "Happy to see you too, mate. That gave me a bit of a scare," he confesses.
We hear the guards pulling additional mattresses and tubs out of some kind of storage area at the far end of the basement. They drag mattresses into two cells. One is across the way; Allan, peeking through the fan, reports that it's the cell next door to the Handcuffed Hostage. The other cell is in our row, off to our left. Judging from how far away the door sounds, we decide it's the cell at the end of the row, not the cell we were just moved out of.
More hostages will be joining us, it appears. Allan is antsy, eager to steal a look at the future new arrivals. By contrast, I feel queasy. I don't welcome these disruptions to our miniature universe.
The new hostages arrive that night, waking us from sleep. We're expecting two of them, one for each of the newly equipped cells, but the guards make three trips into the basement, opening and closing cell doors three times.
I've begged Allan to spare my nerves by waiting at least one day before trying to see the newcomers' faces, I'm already feeling so stressed by this change as it is. So the morning after the newcomers arrive, Allan counts toilet runs by ear, without peeking through the fan. He counts that, yes, there are three new hostages. It sounds like two are sharing the cell farther down our row.
This discovery leads Allan to reconsider his mental map of our prison. Perhaps the cells on our side of the basement are all intended for double occupancy and are therefore bigger than the cells across the way. If so, then instead of our row containing three cells for hostages, plus the bathroom, as Allan has always believed, it might contain only two cells for hostages. That would mean that the new pair of hostages are in our old cell, right next door to us, not separated from us by our old, now empty, cell, the way we had been thinking.
To test this theory, Allan pleads my permission to tap on the wall dividing our new cell from our old. He needs permission because it's "my" wall, the wall alongside my mattress. I grant it only because I feel guilty about making him wait to peek at the hostages' faces. Allan promises he will tap softly and will desist the moment I tell him I can't endure any more risk-taking. He tries two sets of taps, the first very soft, the second quite a bit louder. The second set panics me—needlessly, I realize later—and I demand that he quit. Because there's no response from the other side of the wall, even to the loud taps, Allan concludes that there probably is an empty cell between us and the new pair after all; the guards moved us to ensure that. He's disappointed.
Over the next couple of days, Allan manages to glimpse the new hostages' faces through the fan during toilet runs. Since all of the newcomers are housed in cells to our left, Allan can do the peeking from his own mattress, not mine. All three men are middle-aged, he reports. He can't be more specific than that, although the one in solitary, next door to the Handcuffed Hostage, is graying. They're already wearing summer uniforms—tank tops and shorts—but they haven't had their hair or beards cut in months. "Veterans," then, not new abductees.
When the guards feel the need to communicate verbally with the new hostages, they give orders in English, so the odds are that the newcomers are American, not French. But, Allan observes, they could also conceivably be British or even some rarer nationality like German. Well, I think sarcastically, that certainly narrows it down. Allan's enthusiasm about the new hostages is wearing on my frazzled nerves. I resent these men for having come here.
The new hostages are taken upstairs for buzzcuts within a day or two of Allan seeing them for the first time. One of the hostages, speaking in an American accent, demands that the guards leave his mustache intact. When the guards can't get the hostage to shush right away, they close the trapdoor, so we're not able to hear what they say after that, just the sound of their angry exchange passing down through the floor.
Astonishingly, the hostage prevails: peeping through the fan later, Allan reports that he still, in fact, sports a thick mustache. Allan gushes about the incident, as if the Mustached Hostage has won a great victory for all of us, hostages versus guards. The Mustached Hostage is one of the pair occupying the cell at the end of our row.
Despite Allan's excitement about the new hostages' arrival, the overall effect of their coming is to make the atmosphere in our prison tenser. The guards become stricter, as if they're feeling more outnumbered and therefore need to beef up security. During toilet runs, they grip our arms more tightly or make a point of reminding us they have a gun by poking us with it. During power outages, the guard on duty in the room at the top of the stairs will still come sit in the cool of the basement, but it's usually only him now. If a second guard comes down, too, the two of them won't do more than chat quietly—no music, no games. I guess they're afraid that if we hear them relaxing, we won't be as intimidated by them as they want us to be.
The guards want us to stay perfectly silent. Allan gets hissed at or smacked constantly now for his routine thank-yous—but he won't back down, especially after having seen the Mustached Hostage stand his ground. Allan's only concession is to deliver his thank-yous in a very low voice, which eventually satisfies most of the guards. Even the Praying Hostage loses his immunity: the guards will rap on his door and hssst if he prays loudly enough for them to hear.
As part of the tightened regime, the English student and Makmoud stop talking to us. One morning, when I feel a gentler-than-usual grip on my arm for the toilet run, I ask, "Makmoud?" and he shushes me softly. "Ssh. No talk." I am hurt, both by the reprimand and by the fact that he didn't address me by name.
Another unwelcome change is that the guards reduce yet further the amount of time they're willing to give us in the bathroom. This change has nothing to do with security, it's sheer laziness. The guards now have almost double the number of toilet runs to complete, seven instead of four, but they don't want to dedicate that much more time to the chore.
The guards become more intrusive about monitoring us during the day. Periodically, the guard sitting watch upstairs will come down into the basement and walk slowly up and down the two rows of cells. Allan and I learn to pull down our blindfolds as soon as we hear someone coming downstairs, in case the guard randomly opens our grate cover to check up on us.
With these unpredictable check-ins, we have to go back to always wearing our briefs under our boxers, to keep the guards from berating us for immodesty. For the same reason, Allan starts wearing his tank top more regularly, and I follow suit. Before the new hostages arrived, the guards were in the habit of starting the feedings and toilet runs at the Praying Hostage's cell, right by the stairs, which afforded Allan and me time to "get decent" before they crossed the basement to our cell. Now, however, the guards work around the basement in a circle, starting with Allan and me and ending with the Praying Hostage. Consequently, Allan and I have to already be decent as soon as the guards come down the stairs.
Under the new strictures, I'm afraid to chat. Allan maintains we'll be fine, just like before, as long as we keep our voices down—and, of course, as long as we stop whenever a guard comes into the basement. Allan knows that all these changes have left me stressed. Precisely for that reason, he insists, it's all the more important for us to preserve our established routines and habits as much as possible.
* * *
Several days after the new hostages have arrived, the house overhead suddenly seems to be full of men; we hear substantially more footsteps than usual through the floor. The novelty alarms me. When the basement fills with men, my alarm escalates to terror. The men do not speak, not even to each other, which makes the situation more suspenseful and therefore more nerve-wracking. I hear the trapdoor close as the last man comes down the stairs. The guards never close the trapdoor while they're inside the basement. Oh God, what's going on?
They're doing something with a chain, a long chain, running it from the floor to the ceiling. Allan crouches on all fours on his mattress, trying to see through the fan while maintaining a distance of a few feet to avoid detection. I tug his arm and shake my head, begging silently: Don't risk it. He raises a stern hand in response: Wait, give me a minute.
A cell door on the opposite side of the basement opens. I hear a man—American, but not the Mustached Hostage—say, "Please, what's going on?" Someone hsssts at him. A moment later, the volume on the radio climbs even higher than usual. The man shouts to make himself heard over the static. "Abdul? Are you there? Abdul, I told you, I didn't mean anything by it, I had no idea—"
His voice is cut off by the sound of blows, landing so hard that I can hear them despite the radio noise. The hostage cries out. When he speaks again, his voice comes from down at the level of the floor. "Please, it was just a mistake, I told you... Abdul! Oh Lord, oh Lord... Augh!" As he cries out again, the chain rattles vigorously.
Allan gets up slowly, silently from his crouch. He stares me hard in the face. Then he pulls his blindfold down over his eyes. I do the same. I am sitting against the back wall of our cell, hugging my knees to my chest, trembling. Allan seats himself gingerly beside me. He's trying not to make the slightest sound, he doesn't want to attract any attention...
They beat the hostage for what feels like a very long time. I don't know what they're hitting him with—fists, or booted feet, or clubs, or the butts of their guns—but I hear the blows falling again and again. The chain rattles with every thud. In the beginning, the man tries not to cry out, but soon he's shouting and screaming nonstop. First he keeps pleading that he didn't do anything; then he's begging them in the name of God to stop; then he's screaming directly to God for help, but God doesn't do anything, anything at all, doesn't even allow the man to go unconscious. I too am praying, in my head, just as compulsively and uselessly as he is, I've been doing it since the beating started: Please, make them stop, make them stop, make them stop...
Finally, they decide they've done enough. The beaten man falls silent; at least, he doesn't make any sound that I can hear over the static. Dear God, have they killed him? More rattling of the chain, they're bringing it down from the ceiling, it tumbles onto the floor. I hear what must be the guards hauling the hostage up from the floor and carrying him back into his cell. They close his door.
I am terrified that they may beat someone else now. At least it won't be Allan or me—will it? We have nothing to do with whatever it is the hostage kept insisting he didn't mean to do... Allan has to stop with his goddamn thank-yous, though, there's no question of that, we see now what these men are capable of. Jesus God, don't let them hurt us...
No one else is slated to be beaten, the guards are done. Half a dozen men or more file up the wooden stairs, out of the basement. As they go, someone lowers the volume on the radio back to its usual level. They leave the trapdoor open. Overhead, heavy footsteps pass into the front portion of the house. I feel only slightly safer.
I lift my blindfold, look at Allan; he looks at me. His expression is shaken but mostly grim. I need comfort, I am desperate for him to touch me, any gesture, however casual. But he doesn't make a move, and I can't ask for it.
One of the new arrivals paired up at the end of our row is trying to get the beaten hostage's attention by tapping on the inside of their cell door. "Robert!" one of them says, loudly enough for his voice to carry over the static. "Robert, talk to us!" I'm pretty sure it's the Mustached Hostage.
I clench my fists and whisper, "Shut up shut up shut up shut up!" Allan, crouched beside our fan, waves me silent with a frown: he's trying to listen.
The Mustached Hostage calls out to the Beaten Hostage again, even louder. "Robert! Say something!"
Overhead, we hear footsteps running toward the trapdoor. Two guards, at least, thunder down the stairs. They freeze at the bottom, straining to hear what we all are doing, just as we are all frozen straining to hear what they are doing. Suddenly, I hear a guard yank open the grate cover of the Praying Hostage's cell, across from us. The guard must have caught the hostage with his blindfold up, because he screams, "No look! No look!" Allan and I rush to pull our blindfolds down before a guard can cross over to our cell to do the same.
"It was me!" the Mustached Hostage shouts to the guards. "I want to know how bad you hurt my friend."
The guards open the Mustached Hostage's cell and start raining blows on one or both of the men inside. We hear loud grunts and an occasional yelp but no screams.
Mercifully, this beating is short. When it stops, the Mustached Hostage speaks again, in a determined voice. "How badly hurt is my friend? Does he need a doctor?"
More blows and grunts. The hostages' cell door slams shut. A second later, their grate cover is flung open, as if the guards want to catch them in the act of lifting their blindfolds. Silence: they must have passed the blindfold test.
A guard growls, "You talk, you die. American shit fuck." The grate cover drops, the guards stomp back up the stairs.
The Mustached Hostage doesn't call out to the Beaten Hostage again.
When the guards reappear for the evening feeding, I sit as far away from the door as I can while they scoop our dinner into our waiting bowls. The additional men who came for the beating seem to have left, so presumably we're back to being with the usual guards. Makmoud is on shift this week; he might be at our door right now, either doing the scooping or standing watch behind the scooper. But I no longer feel safe even with Makmoud. Did he participate in the beating? Did he watch? Did he remain on guard upstairs? Two of those possibilities might—might—be more forgivable than the other. In any case, though, Makmoud is complicit. He has left me a savage reminder of whose side he is on.
That night, I can't sleep. I lie in the fetal position, shaking. Allan tells me to stop, to lie down flat, on my back, instead. He does the same. His hand is mere inches away from mine. I want so badly to reach out and hold it. Underneath my fear, I'm becoming angry that I can't get the physical comfort I need.
During the toilet run the next morning, the guards help the Beaten Hostage make his painful way to the bathroom. They proceed slowly, but he keeps begging them to go even slower. At one point, he says in a feeble voice, "I think I have a hairline fracture on my leg." Whether out of pity or to spare themselves inconvenience, the guards transfer the Praying Hostage to what was the Beaten Hostage's cell so that the Beaten Hostage can have the cell next to the stairs, immediately across from the bathroom.
Based on the name that the Mustached Hostage called out, Allan is persuaded that the Beaten Hostage is Robert Berg, a hospital administrator who was kidnapped in May 1985, very shortly after Allan started working in Beirut. Allan theorizes about the identity of the Mustached Hostage and his cellmate. Berg's kidnapping was claimed by the Organization for Jihad, so it would stand to reason that the other two hostages are also Americans held by that group, especially since we can see that the three of them know each other. In that case, there are three options for who the other two hostages might be: Paul Watts, an AP reporter. McFarrell, a professor at the American university, Allan doesn't remember his first name. And then there's a priest, whose name Allan is completely blanking on, something Italian. The Mustached Hostage's gutsiness would be in character for Watts, based on stories Allan has heard about him from other journalists.
Incidentally, Allan points out, the fact that I'm being held with hostages claimed by the Organization for Jihad, when my kidnapping was claimed by Call of Islam, lends support to the theory that the different hostage-taking groups are really the same, or at least work in close collaboration. Clearly, the Organization for Jihad lied to Edward Adams, the Archbishop of Canterbury's envoy, when they told him they didn't know anything about who's holding me. If Allan is right about the new hostages' identities, then they're being held for the release of the Kuwait prisoners, the same thing that's probably being demanded for me.
In fact—Allan's excitement swells—since only three of the Organization for Jihad's remaining American hostages are here, not all four, maybe they've released another one...
At any other time, I would be sucked into his excitement at that prospect. But not now. All I can think is how reprehensibly cerebral Allan's theorizing is. How can he sit there analyzing all this? It doesn't fucking matter, I tell him, what these men's names are, or who is or is not holding them, or whether there's three or four of them and what else that might or might not mean. We heard a man get brutally beaten a few feet away from us—he's over in his cell suffering as we speak, he could be dying for all we know—and Allan wants to play goddamn guessing games?
Allan tells me, in a tightly wound up voice, to stop brooding over the beating. It won't do me or anyone any good. Think about something else.
He tries to draw me into a distraction, but I refuse to go along. I am not going to spin theories with him. I am not going to chat with him or tell him a story. I am not going to exercise. I'm not going to do any fucking thing that might get the guards' attention. We have been playing with fire all this time—doesn't Allan see that? I shouldn't even be whispering to him right now.
Allan tries to be soothing, but he himself is tense, so his voice comes across as hard: It's understandable that I'm afraid. It's natural. But I have to control the fear, I can't let it control me. We have to keep going, we have to maintain structure, we have to keep following our rules for survival, more now than ever.
Fuck your rules, I retort. This is not a regular situation.
"Regular situation"? Jesus, how could I think of any situation in this place as regular? We are in hell, I cannot do this. God, help me...
I'm not the person in this basement who needs God's help most desperately at the moment. I pray for the Beaten Hostage, Robert, whatever his name is. I pray for God to be with him, to comfort him, to heal him, to ease his pain. The praying makes me feel a tiny bit better, at least.
I'm still angry at Allan. Part of me doesn't want to be angry at him, because that part of me can't bear to have distance between the two of us; but a different part of me has the upper hand right now, and that part isn't willing to swallow my pride and make up. It's not as if Allan's being any help to me anyway. For weeks, he has been endangering himself—and me—with his chatting and his exercising and his obstinate thank-yous and his peeking through the fan and his tapping on the wall. But he's too stubborn or blind to acknowledge how incredibly, perilously foolish he has been.
It could have been us out there, screaming helplessly for them to stop. It could have been me.
* * *
Little by little, over the next couple of weeks, the Beaten Hostage walks more normally to and from the bathroom during toilet runs. We hear only an occasional groan from his cell. Allan is confident that he's receiving painkillers or sedatives; Allan claims he heard a guard tell the hostage, "Take this," and heard the hostage ask what it was. I suspect that this is wishful thinking on Allan's part, his typical useless cockeyed optimistic speculation. He can't bring himself to look reality square in the face, he's never been able to.
Every now and then, when the power goes out and the silencing of everyone's door fans slightly reduces the background noise, the Mustached Hostage or his cellmate taps on their metal door—a single tap, loud enough for the rest of us to hear over the static but hopefully soft enough or fleeting enough not to attract the attention of the guard upstairs. I presume they're fishing for a response from the Beaten Hostage during the window of opportunity before a guard comes down into the basement to escape the heat.
The Beaten Hostage, in his new cell by the stairs, never responds. But someone across from the Mustached Hostage's cell does develop the custom of replying with a single tap of his own. It must be either the Handcuffed Hostage or the Praying Hostage. Allan thinks it's more likely to be the Praying Hostage, since the Handcuffed Hostage has always been silent. I agree, but I feign disinterest in the question: it's a useless speculation, beneath my notice, I don't know why Allan's so obsessed by it. That's the pose I strike, anyway.
It's not clear why the Praying Hostage is tapping. Is he replying to the Mustached Hostage? Is he asserting his existence to all of us in general? Or is he, too, tapping to the Beaten Hostage, an act of solidarity and comfort?
Allan wants to tap as well. I am vehemently opposed. We argue about it in fierce whispers. Allan appeals to the need for solidarity: Wasn't I accusing him earlier of not being concerned about Robert's suffering? Well, now we have a way to let Robert know that he's not alone, that we care about him, we're pulling for him.
What a fucking low blow. I'm not fooled, Allan isn't as selfless as he's passing himself off to be. He's been itching to communicate with the other hostages since they arrived. He would want to tap even if he didn't have the Beaten Hostage to provide a fantastically noble excuse. I will not let him endanger me for the sake of this communication game. Don't do it, I order him, seething. Don't do it.
I can read in his face the effort he's making to rein in his frustration with me. He drops the subject.
On a later occasion, when the power has gone out again and the Mustached Hostage's cell gives their customary tap, Allan crouches by our dead fan, as usual, as if he were just listening. But then he raises his hand to the door, he's getting ready to tap back. I fling myself at him, hitting his back and shoulders with my fist repeatedly. "Jesus Christ!" he hisses. "Stop it! I won't do it, I promise. Calm down, he's coming, you're the one who's making noise."
After the power has returned and the guard has left the basement, Allan tries to reason with me. He's sorry I'm scared, he would like to help me be less scared. He's convinced that I will become less scared, more confident, if we push back a little against the guards' restrictions. Like tapping now and then to the other hostages. It will be good for our mental health. There's not that much risk of our being caught, and even if we were, they wouldn't hurt us that badly. The absolute worst the guards would do is "thump us around" a little, like we heard them to do to the Mustached Hostage and his cellmate. But not even as badly as that, not for a mere tap on the door.
Allan judges "a thumping" to be a price worth paying for the sake of being in touch with the other hostages. Making contact will be good for them and for us, we'll feel less isolated and constricted. I don't accept Allan's cost-benefit analysis; I don't consider the price worth paying. I keep hearing in my head the screams of the Beaten Hostage. Perfect obedience is our only hope of safety. We mustn't do anything that might make the guards fly off the handle again.
Allan urges me to be logical. The beating was horrific, yes. But it can't have been unpredictable, it can't have been a case of the guards flying off the handle. They wouldn't beat a Western hostage that badly on impulse, even in a fit of rage; we're too valuable. The beating was a deliberate, pre-planned punishment, administered in response to some highly unusual situation. Robert must have done something very wrong, apparently before he was brought here, maybe that's why he and the others were brought here. Maybe he tried to escape or communicate to the outside for help. The point is, the guards aren't going to beat Allan or me like that unless we do something very, very wrong—something far worse than tapping on our cell door now and then.
At this moment, I am filled with hate for Allan. He thinks he's so fucking superior to me, when in reality he's a callous bastard. I want to bring him down, knock him off his goddamn high horse. "You're blaming the hostage for his beating?" I say. "You're disgusting."
Allan stares. Then he says, "I can't talk to you anymore," and lies down with his back to me. I'm rattled, though I don't want to admit it. Allan has never shut me out before.
Hours later, guilt has eroded my self-righteousness to the point that I apologize. Allan says, "I know you didn't mean it. I know you're under a lot of stress." But his voice is strained, and he doesn't turn around to face me.
True to his word, Allan doesn't talk to me anymore after that. We spend our days in silence, lying back to back. He stops exercising, as do I. We keep some of our rules out of habit: sitting up when the guards bring us our food, laying out our bowls, waiting on our feet for the toilet runs. But soon even those habits decay. Allan's thank-yous to the guards, which he had suspended briefly right after the hostage's beating, then resumed over my objections, dry up again. I am simultaneously relieved and guilty; every time he doesn't say "thank you," I feel stabbed.
The atmosphere in our tiny cell is oppressive. Sometimes I'm frightened by the crumbling of our relationship. Sometimes I'm angry and self-justifying. Sometimes I'm in grief.
One day I muster the strength, and the humility, to break through the wall between us. "Allan, I'm sorry. Please—I don't want things to be like this."
He doesn't look at me. His words are polite, but his voice is ice cold. "I need time to myself, please."
That evening, while we're eating (or maybe it's the evening after, I don't recall exactly), I nearly drop my dinner when out of nowhere Allan hurls his bowl of rice at the wall, next to the door. He shouts, "Christ, I need some privacy!"
The guards are still distributing food to the cells across the way. One rushes to our cell and lifts our grate cover; I barely have time to get my blindfold in place. "What you do?" the guard shouts. I don't reply, neither does Allan. "What you do?" the guard screams again, even louder.
I start to hyperventilate. This is it, we're going to be beaten. Please, Jesus, I can't do this... Let them take Allan, not me. He's the one who did it...
I cry out and reflexively cover my head when the guard hammers on our door, very hard, several times in rapid succession. But it's just a threat, he still hasn't opened the door. Miraculously—thank you, God, thank you!—he never does. He contents himself with roaring at us one more time, "No talk!" followed by an enraged clang as he slams our grate cover shut.
I keep my blindfold down until the guards have gone back upstairs. In the meanwhile, I sit, feeling my fear ebb slowly down to a slightly lower level. Relief flows in on top of it—and guilt. Guilt for having betrayed Allan in my panicked prayer. Guilt for having caused him so much frustration that he exploded.
When I lift my blindfold, Allan is kneeling at the foot of his mattress, scooping spilled rice and vegetables into his little garbage bag. I take a long, shaky breath. My eyes tear up. "Allan, I'm sorry..."
Allan whips his head around to look at me over his shoulder. His face is contorted into a vicious scowl. "No talk!" he whispers, in imitation of the guard.
I am cut to the heart. To have Allan talk to me the same way as a guard... It is hard to imagine anything he could have said that would be more wounding.
He resumes scooping rice into the trash. I don't understand why he doesn't salvage some of it to eat. Pushing through the hurt of what he said to me, I approach to help. He smacks my arm away, hard. He snarls, "Go. Away."
I retreat to the head of my mattress; that's as much physical distance as I can give him. When he's finished cleaning up the spilled food, he lies down with his arm across his eyes. I feel awkward eating next to him, but I continue until I've finished half. I set my bowl, with the remaining half of my dinner, on Allan's mattress. "Here."
Without looking, he knows what I've done. "I don't want it." When I leave the bowl anyway, his voice, though soft, turns lethal. "I said, I don't want it."
I retrieve my bowl. I don't feel I ought to eat the remaining food after having designated it for him, but I can't bring myself to throw it away, either. I'm hungry. I finish the food, guiltily. I rinse out my bowl. I reach quietly over Allan's head, to his tub, and retrieve his bowl for rinsing as well, since he hasn't done that. I assume Allan can tell, from behind his closed eyes, what I'm doing, but he doesn't comment.
That night I cry. I clench my mouth shut, but it has to be obvious from my breathing and sniffling what's happening. I'm pretty sure Allan's still awake to hear it. He ignores me, which is better than snapping at me.
I keep my back to Allan constantly in the days that follow, and I never say a word. I hope he understands I'm not sulking. I'm trying to give him the privacy he said he needed. I'm trying to make amends.
* * *
One morning, when the guards bring us breakfast, Allan doesn't get up, not even after the guards have placed his sandwich and tea on the foot of his mattress and left. He lies on his side with his face to the wall. I ask him if he's feeling sick; they're the first words I've spoken to him in days. He doesn't respond. Bending more closely toward his head, I realize that as he lies there, he's wearing his blindfold over his eyes, not up on his forehead. That's very odd. I have the feeling he's awake, but when I finally build up the courage to nudge him, he doesn't move or say anything.
My intuition tells me that something is wrong. But I also know I have a morbid tendency to imagine worst-case scenarios. If, in fact, this is simply Allan's way of saying that he still doesn't want to be disturbed, then I don't want to push him.
I speak to him one more time, to ask if he wants to eat. When I get no response, I drink his tea, so it won't accidentally get spilled onto the mattress. I wrap Allan's sandwich in a tissue and hide it in my tub, in case the guards would want to either take it away or force-feed him.
The guards return for our toilet run. For some reason, our usual practice is for me to take my toilet run before Allan does. I don't remember how this norm started. Maybe I had a particular urgency to go on our first morning here, and that random occurrence fixed the pattern for the future. Maybe Allan started making me go first to prevent me from lying around despondent in the morning. Or maybe it's part of our older/younger brother dynamic: Let the little guy go first.
When I return from my toilet run, Allan is still lying down blindfolded. As I enter, he gets up, without a word, and heads off with the guards to the bathroom. Locked alone in the cell, I see that Allan has forgotten to take his bottles with him. I carefully pour half the contents of his pee bottle into my newly emptied one; hopefully, neither of us will run out of room before the day is out. Meanwhile, the guard responsible for taking our drinking bottles upstairs to refill them with potable water has discovered that Allan forgot to bring his, so that guard reopens our cell and demands irritably that I pass the bottle to him.
Allan returns, carrying his refilled water bottle. He immediately lies back down with his face to the wall, his blindfold still down. I tell him what I did about his pee bottle. No response. I am irked by his persistent silence in the face of my efforts to help him, but I have absolutely no right to complain: I've been an asshole to him, too.
Later in the day, Allan reaches for his water bottle, still blindfolded, has a short drink, then puts his head back down on the mattress. Not only he has been lying down all day, he's been lying down in exactly the same position all day. I ask him if he would like his sandwich now. No answer. I eat the sandwich, partly to make sure the guards don't find it and partly because I'm hungry, as always.
When the guards leave us dinner, Allan's behavior is bizarre. He sits up with his blindfold on and gropes around until he finds his bowl. Then, instead of using his fork or spoon, he eats with his fingers. He pauses for an unusually long time between bites. He's breathing a little heavily. I feel like I'm watching an animal eat. Disturbed, I ask him again if he's sick. Then I ask if he's mad at me. He ignores both questions. After just a few bites, he abandons the bowl and lies back down in the same position he's been in all day.
Shortly before I go to sleep, I try to coax Allan into eating some more. He doesn't respond. I eat what he left and put his bowl away for him.
The next morning, Allan again doesn't eat breakfast. When it comes time for the toilet run, I nudge him to make him go first. For several unsettling seconds, I think he's not going to get up, but then he does. Peeping under my blindfold, I see that he's leaving his bottles behind again. I pass his water bottle to the guards just before they lock me in. I carry his pee bottle to the bathroom with mine.
When the two of us are alone again, I plead with Allan to talk to me, tell me what's wrong. "Are you depressed?" I ask, and in the silence that follows the question, I become certain that's what this is. Allan is deeply, deeply depressed. So deeply, he's gone somewhere else. He's left me.
I'm on the verge of a panic attack. I kneel by Allan's side and pray: Please God, bring him back, I can't lose him... I want to cry, but then I think: No, don't do that, that's precisely the problem. He's been carrying me all this time, I've been letting him carry me, I haven't been considerate of his needs and his struggles, I haven't been supporting him like he's been supporting me, and now with the stress of the beating and our fighting, it's all gotten too much for him, and he's collapsed inside. This is my fault, oh Jesus.
I want to lay my hands on Allan's side and tell him I'm sorry, I'll do better, please come back. But no, my being clingy and demanding is what made him like this in the first place. I have to be strong now. It's my turn to carry him. I can't cry. I can't be needy or weak. I have to... just be here for him. Take care of him. Give him time to rest and recover. Nurse him back. Show him that he can come back without me sucking away his strength again.
Allan continues without speaking or moving, and barely eating, for the next three days. He gets up only for his toilet runs, to eat a little at dinner (sometimes), to drink, and to pee—although he's drinking so little that he pees only once or twice every 24 hours, as far as I know. I fear for his physical health in addition to his mental health. One morning he doesn't go on his toilet run. The guards don't seem concerned by that; they just move on to me, then on to the next cell.
Since the guards don't see Allan lying motionless all day, they don't realize how bad things are. I wonder if I should try to tell them, but that doesn't feel safe, I can't predict what they'll do. As a rule, they don't show much concern about our health. These are people who beat a man, possibly fractured his leg, and then left him alone in a cell. I can't put Allan in their hands.
I start observing our rules again, as best I can on my own. Daily exercise, being careful not to bump against Allan, lying on his mattress. Wait for meals sitting up. Wait standing for the toilet run, all four of our bottles cradled in my arms. (The guards never comment on my extra load.) During the long inactive hours, I don't let myself wallow, I set myself mental tasks and distractions, punctuated by periods of rest so I don't burn myself out. I'm rebuilding my discipline, setting up a structure to support me, so I will have the strength to carry Allan for as long as I need to. I had let my morning and evening prayers slip when Allan and I started fighting; now I resume the habit. I pray spontaneously all the time: Help me help Allan.
One day I lie down on my side, facing the back of Allan's tank top. I reach out to lay my hand on his spine. I have something to say to him, a speech I've been rehearsing in my head. I think he's awake to hear it. I hope so. I speak in the calmest, most matter-of-fact voice I can muster. "Allan. You do whatever you feel you need to, for as long as you need to. If you need to keep being alone, I'll leave you alone. But if there's anything I can do to help, tell me, and I'll do it."
I force myself not to cry. I leave my hand on his back a little while longer, willing him to get better. When I feel an urge to kiss his back, I remove my hand and roll over the other way.
* * *
The guards start to figure out that something's wrong when shower day comes. From our cell, I hear a guard shouting at Allan in the bathroom, "Douche! Douche!" I don't hear Allan make any reply. In my head, I picture him standing there, waiting to be taken back to the cell so he can lie down again. "Douche!" the guard keeps shouting. Then I hear what must be Allan getting shoved and falling onto the floor, followed by the sound of a few blows. Allan doesn't speak or cry out.
The guards haul Allan back to our cell. They don't ask any questions, they're merely exasperated: Allan's being a nuisance. Allan flops onto his mattress and resumes his customary position, face to the wall. His clothes are soaked in back.
After completing the other hostages' toilet runs, the guards reopen our cell before returning upstairs. I feel my way to the back corner as a guard squats on my mattress next to Allan. "Hey, whatsa madder whichoo?" the guard asks him. His irritation sounds genuine, even though he seems to be quoting a line he's learned from some movie. "Whachoo problem?"
"He's depressed," I say, followed by a simpler version: "He's very sad."
The guard ignores me. I hear a smack. "Talk," the guard commands Allan. "I talk you, you talk."
Another smack. Suddenly, there's a struggle going on next to me. The guard says something to his partner, and then both guards must have squeezed into the cell, because I'm being squashed into the corner while they struggle to make Allan do whatever they're trying to do—turn him over on his back?—which apparently he is resisting strenuously though silently. No one speaks during the struggle, but I hear more smacking. "Don't hurt him!" I plead, and in response the guard smacks me, which shuts me up.
The struggle ends. "You make problem me, I make problem you," the guard says. He sounds self-satisfied, triumphant. More smacks, to me as well as to Allan. The guards leave. I find Allan in the fetal position with his arms shielding his head.
When the guards arrive for the evening feeding, I am sitting cross-legged on my mattress with both our bowls set out neatly in front of me, in keeping with my renewed discipline. Allan is still lying down with his face to the wall, which probably gives the impression that he's giving the guards the cold shoulder. The movie-quoting guard who smacked us around earlier tells me to tell my friend that he'd better stop making problems.
My heart races. Allan isn't trying to make problems, I tell the guard. He's very sick.
The guard considers that. Sick how? he asks.
Contrary to my earlier resolution, I tell them. It's an impulse decision, which afterward I recognize as a symptom of how isolated and burdened I've felt for the past few days. Allan is very sad, I explain. He doesn't move all day. He doesn't talk to anyone, not to the guards, not to me. He hasn't been eating.
The not moving or talking doesn't produce a reaction from the guards, but the not eating does. How long has Allan not been eating? the guard wants to know. Four days, I tell him. The guard counts from one to four for confirmation that he's understood. He becomes agitated. He accuses me of lying, they know Allan's been eating. I confess that I've been eating Allan's food so that they wouldn't find out. I clarify: it's not that Allan hasn't eaten any food during the past four days, just very little. The guard wants to know how much he's been eating, and I do my best to communicate. No sandwiches, maybe this much of his dinner at most.
The guard comes into the cell. I have the impression he's giving Allan a crude physical exam, checking him for fever and the like. I hear him look inside Allan's trash bag, then inside mine. He lifts up the edges of our mattresses as best he can with us on them, as if he's checking underneath. I don't understand this. The guard asks me if Allan "throw food"—he makes a retching noise to clarify—or if he "shit water." Not that I know of, I say, not here in the cell. (Is that what the guard was looking for in the trash and under the mattresses?)
My negative answer puzzles the guard. No? he echoes. Am I sure? Yes, I'm sure. Am I lying? No, I'm not lying. The guard is definitely worried now—and rather angry at me. He orders me not to eat Allan's food anymore, I need to leave it so they can see.
I'm awakened in what feels like the middle of the night by someone opening our cell. I can hear an unusual amount of movement overhead through the floor. My first instinct is panic: Who have they come to beat now? Why are they at our cell?
Since my blindfold isn't down, I keep my eyes closed and don't move, so that whoever's standing in the doorway won't scream at me not to look at him. Someone bends down to the feet of our mattresses, where I left Allan's still mostly full bowl after dinner. Two men talk quietly in Arabic for a while; I think the movie-quoting guard is doing most of the talking.
I decide that what I'm hearing overhead is the weekly shift change. The outgoing shift is explaining about Allan to the incoming shift. Good—the new shift will know he's sick, not just difficult.
I soon regret their knowing. The next morning, after taking me for my toilet run, the guards of the new shift do not return me to our cell. Instead they move me to the one empty cell remaining in the row across the way, between the Beaten Hostage and the Praying Hostage. They transfer my mattress, my blanket, and my tub; I'm already carrying my bottles because of the toilet run. Since I'm also carrying both of Allan's bottles, I explain to the guards—I'm on the verge of tears as I do it—that they need to return his bottles to him. Allan remains alone in the cell next to the bathroom, in quarantine.
Half my new cell is empty space, a gaping horror. I'm not convinced I can survive a return to solitary confinement, even with what Allan has taught me in the past couple of months.
Allan... He has no one to look after him now. Who will clean his pee bottle for him? Who will make sure his drinking bottle gets refilled?
I lie on my mattress, face-up, fighting back tears of fear and despair. I'm tempted to abandon discipline again, curl up on my side, and let myself fall. I take a little pride in the fact that I don't, as well as in the fact that I don't collapse into a full-on cry. But I'm still extremely low.
Later in the day, a single guard enters Allan's cell. Listening at my fan, I hear the guard repeat Allan's name, trying to get him to respond. Confident that it's Makmoud, I take the risk of knocking on my door.
He opens my grate cover and shushes me. "No good, Jérémie," he says in a very quiet voice. I think he sounds sad. At least, I'd like to think that.
I stand with my face up against the grate so that I can talk to him as quietly as he's doing. Pointing at myself and then across toward Allan's cell, I ask Makmoud if I can please be with Allan: he's sick, it isn't good for him to be alone.
"Allan no good," Makmoud informs me. "Big problem."
I try again. Yes, I know Allan is no good. That's why I would like to be moved back with him. I want to try to help him with his problem.
Makmoud tells me, "Okay." But it isn't inflected like, "Okay, I'll do it." It's more like, "Hold on a second." He goes back upstairs. A couple minutes later, two men come down into the basement. My grate cover opens again, and a different guard, who speaks a little better English, asks me what I want. I repeat my request yet again.
The guard tells me, "Chef come. Chef say what to do your friend."
A leader is coming? That sounds potentially hopeful. "When will the chef come?"
It's a deliberately uninformative answer, he's just deflecting my question. I'm afraid to push, afraid of making the guard angry. But I'm more afraid of what might happen to Allan if I don't push. "Please—can I be with my friend until the chef comes? He needs someone to help him."
"No. No more talk."
Alone again, I fend off misery by conjuring up optimistic scenarios for the chef's visit. Maybe they'll bring a doctor to see Allan. Maybe... they'll decide to release him on humanitarian grounds. I have extremely conflicted feelings about that imagined possibility.
I pray on my knees. Please God, let Allan get better. Let the chef really come soon. Let them do... whatever is the right thing. Show me what I can do to help.
The chef comes the next day, fairly late in the day. I'm quite certain I recognize his voice as that of the young English speaker who interrogated me in my last prison. The one who threatened me with electrocution. My optimism caves in.
The chef opens Allan's cell, prods him with unsympathetic questions. "What's the matter? Why don't you eat? Are you sick? Answer me."
When he can't get a reply from Allan, the chef crosses the room to talk to me through my grate. "Why is your friend acting like this?"
"He's catatonic." I don't know, for sure, that that term applies to Allan's condition. But I've developed a plan. I'm gambling that if I can convince the chef I know what I'm talking about, he'll move Allan and me back together.
"Catatonic—he doesn't move or speak. It's because he's so depressed. He's cut himself off from everything, psychologically."
"Why? What happened?"
Despite my anxiety, I experience a flare of anger, which of course I mustn't let the chef see. I have to explain to you why Allan's depressed? Because he's here—what other reason do you need?
I say, "I'm not sure exactly what triggered it. Probably because there's been... an unusual amount of stress lately."
"How long has he been acting this way?" That's the second time in this conversation that the chef has referred to Allan as "acting." The word rankles and therefore jumps out at me.
Six days, I reply.
"For six days, he does not eat?"
"Yes, that's correct." This time, I don't clarify that Allan has been eating but only very little. Since not eating is the only aspect of Allan's condition that seems to worry them, I don't want to minimize it in any way.
"Why won't he eat? What does he want?"
I'm bewildered by the question. Our captors have to have seen depression before, in other hostages. Me, for one. Do they actually think we're just being obstinate? "He isn't doing this by choice," I tell the chef. "He's depressed. He's not in his right mind. He... doesn't care about living anymore."
I hadn't thought about Allan's condition in quite those terms until this very moment. The words drive home for me, at a new level, the horror of the situation.
"He is trying to kill himself?" the chef asks. His blasé tone disturbs me. Are suicide attempts commonplace among the hostages?
"No—not deliberately. He doesn't want to do anything. That's why he's not moving or talking." I'm frustrated, I don't know how else to explain. "He isn't really thinking about what he's doing. He's just very, very sad."
"His behavior is not acceptable." The chef talks as if this is a question of disciplining a recalcitrant child. "If he is not sick, he must stop acting like this. He must eat, and he must cooperate."
"He is sick—he's depressed. He's not physically sick. It's psychological."
The chef isn't budging. "If he does not cooperate, he will be beaten."
A nightmare flashback: the endless thuds, the screaming... I've been tense from the start of this conversation; my frustration has been mounting; now terror and desperation make me snap. My voice comes out as a screech. "How is that supposed to help? If you don't want him to be depressed, then you shouldn't make him live like this. Look at how we are living! We are trying to do this the best we can—but it is very hard!"
I have to stop talking to keep myself from crying, and in the pause I have time to be afraid of the way I'm talking to the chef. I can hear him breathing angrily, inches away. I'm thankful there's a mesh grate and a locked door between us, but of course that could change at any second.
I switch to a humbler, beseeching tone: "I'm sorry. Please don't hurt him. Give him time. Let me be with him—please. I'll get him to eat. I'll try to... cheer him up. But if you leave him locked up by himself, he isn't going to get better."
Despite my best effort, tears are rolling out from under my blindfold. The shame of knowing that the chef can see my tears is the least of my concerns right now; still, I wish it wasn't happening. I stand by the grate, shoulders trembling, ejecting my breath through my nostrils in tiny pulses as I hold myself back from crying any harder than I am.
The chef doesn't say anything. For several nerve-wracking seconds more, he just stands there, breathing fiercely. Then he covers my grate, steps away from my door. I retreat to my mattress, frightened of what's going to happen to Allan if he doesn't come around quickly, and frightened of what could happen to me now that I've angered the chef.
Before he leaves, the chef checks in on the Beaten Hostage, next door to me. The hostage has recovered to a point where he sounds aggrieved rather than suffering. The conversation is sharp on both ends. The hostage protests that he didn't deserve to be beaten, he didn't do what they think he did. The chef cuts him off: He doesn't want to hear that anymore, it doesn't matter. The rest of their interview is curt, with the Beaten Hostage asking something (I can't make out what), and the chef telling him no. I now carry the additional burden of thinking that by putting the chef in a foul mood, I may have prevented the Beaten Hostage from receiving some request that would have improved his conditions.
After the chef and the guards go back upstairs, someone off to my right taps on his cell door—the Mustached Hostage, probably. I don't know if he's trying to communicate with the Beaten Hostage, or me, or Allan, or the room in general. Then the Beaten Hostage taps several times, not on his door, but on the wall between his cell and mine. A message for me, specifically. I assume he means to be supportive. Or maybe the opposite, come to think of it: maybe he's chewing me out, telling me to bite my tongue when I deal with our captors. How the hell am I supposed to know what he means?
Whatever all this tapping means, my silent reaction is: Shut up, you idiot assholes, the last thing Allan and I need is for you to get the guards any more pissed off!
* * *
Sometime after we've been fed that evening, all three guards come down into the basement unexpectedly. They open Allan's cell. And mine. Oh God. Are they moving us back together? Or taking us out to beat us?
Someone helps me to my feet. "What's happening?" I ask. I don't expect that they'll answer the question, but I'm too scared not to ask anyway.
"Okay, Jérémie," Makmoud says beside me. His voice is cheerful. "No problem."
They take Allan and me up the stairs, then on into the front part of the house. They're transferring us to another location, I think. Possibilities flash through my head. Is this transfer a punishment? Are they moving us someplace better? Could they be taking Allan to see a doctor, with me going along to explain his condition? Might they even be releasing us?
All wrong. We don't leave the building. They sit us on the floor in a fan-cooled room, side by side, on folded-up blankets for cushions. The guards position themselves behind us. Their voices are a little above our heads, so I imagine they're sitting on a couch.
They give us permission to lift our blindfolds, but we are not to look anywhere except straight ahead. I have to hear it from Makmoud before I believe it. They really do want us to lift our blindfolds, "no problem." A guard with better English, the one who told me the chef was coming, reiterates: Nothing bad will happen as long as we look straight ahead. They have something good to show us. It's starting. Yallah.
Blindfold up. I discover that we are sitting in front of a blank wall—blank, that is, except for two things. A securely shuttered window. And, flush against the wall, a few feet in front of us, a TV with a VCR. The TV is the only activated light source in the room that I'm aware of. The VCR has wound through the blank tape at the beginning of the cassette and is now working its way through the corporate logos that precede the movie.
They show us Rambo. The sequel, I guess it must be—he starts in prison, goes back to Vietnam. I don't know one of those films from the other, I don't watch action flicks.
This is the guards' idea of a special treat. They're attempting to cheer Allan up, to boost our morale. I'm amazed. I feel a rush of accomplishment. They listened to me. I took a risk, and it paid off. Thank God. Literally: Thank you, God!
Did the chef order this, or is it the guards' own initiative? Makmoud's idea, maybe? It seems more likely that the guards are following orders. That's what I prefer to believe, anyway: the accomplishment is greater if I persuaded the chef. Pride swells inside my chest. I don't think I've felt this good about myself since my kidnapping. That's my morale boost, forget the wretched movie.
Rambo is not a film I would have chosen to watch. I didn't see it while I was free, it was beneath my interest. Too lowbrow, too violent. Now more than ever, in the present circumstances of my life, I am not inclined to find scenes of violence entertaining. Why our guards think that Allan and I would enjoy watching a film about men who have spent years in captivity, I cannot fathom. Maybe because the captives go home at the end? Or have the guards even thought about that?
At any rate, I want them to think I'm appreciative. Behind me, the guards are loving the film. They jabber and laugh like 13-year-olds as Rambo maims and destroys his enemies. At particularly high-tension moments, I hear them shifting around, getting up; Allan and I must be blocking their view of the action.
It's starting to make sense to me how the same men who are trying to lift our spirits by treating us to entertainment could beat another hostage without compunction.
From time to time, I look over at Allan through the corner of my eye. He's not watching the movie, he's looking toward the ground. But at least he has lifted his blindfold, for the first time in days, and he remains seated instead of trying to curl back up on the floor.
Final credits. Blindfolds down. Makmoud comes up behind us, pumped up from the movie. He squeezes the back of my neck with one hand, I imagine he's squeezing Allan's with the other. His grip is hard, but he means to be friendly. "Okay? Rambo good, yes?"
He wants to know that they cheered us up. "Very good. Yes. Thank you very much," I reply, more enthusiastically than I feel. God, I'm glad that's over. My back aches from sitting so long without support. I'm actually looking forward to getting back to my cell, and my mattress, so I can lie down.
Makmoud steps past us to rewind the video. The whirring of the VCR strikes me as incongruous; that sound doesn't belong in my hostage life, it makes me homesick. Makmoud has turned the TV off, and in the quiet I perceive that the other two guards have left the room. I hear a cell door clang, off in the basement.
From where he's standing by the television, Makmoud asks, "Allan—okay?" His tone is more subdued, less enthusiastic, than it was just a minute ago. Please, Allan, say something. But he doesn't.
I feel I'd better pick up the slack, so I thank Makmoud again, in a more deliberate, intimate tone this time. "Thank you for wanting to help, Makmoud." I give a little extra weight to thank you and also to help, thinking he might know that word.
Rather than cheerful, Makmoud's reply is merely polite, maybe even distant. "No problem, Jérémie." I have the impression that he's disappointed—possibly disappointed in us. Allan didn't do what he was supposed to do, he didn't do what my words to the chef may have led them to believe he would do: he didn't cheer up and get better. If showing us the movie was Makmoud's idea, then we have caused him to lose face.
The other two guards return to take Allan and me back to the basement. They put us together in the cell next to the bathroom; my mattress and possessions are there again, waiting. Allan immediately turns his face to the wall. I lie on my back, weeping out of relief that we've been reunited. I hold onto Allan's shoulder, not caring whether or not I'm doing it in an appropriately heterosexual way.
During the night, I wake and am startled to realize that Allan is sitting up, smoking. I sit up next to him. I resist the urge to speak or even to look at him. I don't want to crowd him, but I want to be present. In case there's something he wants from me—that's the selfless reason I'm telling myself. But of course, I also want to be with him because I want to be with him. I've missed him so fucking much. What I really want to do is fling my arms around him and bury my face in the dip where his neck meets his shoulder. Please be back for good, Allan. Stay with me.
Neither of us speaks. As near as I can tell through my peripheral vision, Allan's gaze stays on his cigarette or on the ground, never at me.
My willpower cracks, I have to say something. "If you don't want to talk, I'll leave you alone. But I'd like to know how you're doing and if there's anything I can do to help. When you're ready."
Shit. That has to have come across as patronizing. Like I'm playing at being a social worker or a therapist.
Allan remains silent. I wait the silence out a while. I start thinking I'd better take a hint, lie back down and leave him alone. But then he speaks. His deep voice is very quiet and very taut. "I hate being here."
As soon as he's spoken, he begins to breathe more heavily, and loudly, and quickly, as if he's in physical pain. His body shakes a little, he looks like he's having some kind of seizure. "Allan?" I'm frightened. What should I do? Should I shout to the guards for help?
Then I realize: he's crying. Quietly but hard, fighting to hold it back. I've never seen Allan cry, it is unnerving to witness. He is exposing a degree of vulnerability he has not allowed me to see before. On some previous occasions, I have glimpsed him physically naked; now I am seeing him emotionally naked.
After an agonized hesitation, I kneel beside him and put my arm around his shoulders the way he did for me when I cried at our first meeting. Surprisingly, I'm not crying with him; the shock of his breaking down has been too much of a jolt to my own emotions. Good. Right now, I need to comfort him, not the other way around.
He's done crying within a minute or so. He breathes, sniffles, wipes his eyes. Although the physical closeness is feeding a deep hunger in me, I don't want to overstay my welcome, so I remove my arm from his shoulders and sit back down on my mattress.
Allan discards his burned-down cigarette and lights another. He smokes for a while in silence. Then he speaks, but with long pauses between each of his sentences, as if formulating his words in his head and then pushing them out into the air is a labor. His voice is level, almost emotionless.
"I haven't really pulled myself out yet... But I'm going to try harder..." A particularly long pause. "I was such a shit to you..."
His voice rises in pitch, making me think he's about to cry again, but he doesn't, he just looks miserable. Oh Jesus, is that what this has been about?
"You don't need to apologize for anything," I tell him. Now I'm in danger of crying. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry for the things I said. And I'll carry my own weight from now on, I promise."
Another long silence, during which Allan leans his forehead heavily into his hand. When he comes up for another drag, he looks fatigued. "I can't be strong all the time..."
I worry that he's not hearing what I'm saying to him. "No. You don't have to be. I shouldn't have made you feel like you did. I'm sorry."
More silence. In his still nearly emotionless voice, Allan says, "I heard you... when you stood up for me... I couldn't get myself to do anything about it... But thank you."
I am this close to saying, "I love you, Allan." If I were ever going to say it, this would be the moment.
I want to so badly. But I can't.
I have to do something, though...
I get up on my knees, open my arms tentatively. "Here," I say, already embarrassed, already regretting it.
It's an awkward hug. For one thing, I realize belatedly that his cigarette is going to get in the way. Also, he's still sitting, oriented perpendicular to me, so he can't properly return the hug unless he, too, gets up onto his knees and faces me, which evidently he doesn't want to do. But he lets me bend over and thread my arms around him. He holds his cigarette safely away from us, while with his free hand he reaches around to slap my back a few times.
"We'll be all right, mate," he says in a weak voice that doesn't sound very convincing paired with those words. He lets me hold him a few seconds longer, his own hand resting on my back. Then he gives me a couple more pats—the "we're done" signal—and disentangles himself.
* * *
We piece our routine back together, re-implement our rules. Not full-blown overnight. Step by step. I have to take the lead, be the one who pushes. Allan's mood is still very low, as is his energy level. He's making an effort, though.
He's tired all the time, but he tries not to nap much during the day so he won't lie awake at night while I'm asleep; he's afraid that's when he would be mostly likely to "slide away" again. I propose that he nap whenever he likes and then wake me up whenever he's awake, I'll adjust my sleep pattern to his. He says that's kind of me and maybe he'll take me up on it now and then, but not as a rule. He thinks it's better for both of us if I help him stay awake during the day.
The guards are pleased that Allan is eating again. Like his mood, his appetite is low, but he forces himself; if he simply can't stomach any more, he'll ask me to finish for him.
Allan asks the guards if he can say something to all three of them at the same time. They assemble outside our open grate, and he gives a little speech to thank them for the movie and for allowing the two of us to stay together. "You okay now," one of the guards says, soliciting confirmation. "I'm getting better, thank you," Allan responds, adding for emphasis, "especially now that I'm with my friend again." "You like the video?" the same guard asks. That question appears to catch Allan by surprise, it takes him a second to dig up the requisite courtesy. Yes, he enjoyed the film. "Rambo...," the guard intones in a dramatic voice, as in a movie preview, and all three guards laugh like boys. I'm mortified that the other hostages, hearing this conversation, now know exactly what happened, if they hadn't already heard it through the floor.
Allan gives a similar speech to the other shift of guards when they return, in which he apologizes for the inconvenience he caused them. I don't think I could have lowered myself that far, and I'm surprised to hear him do it, given that earlier he has objected to being "servile" toward the guards. But the apology clearly wins Allan some good will. The movie-quoting guard, the one who smacked us around but was finally persuaded that Allan was sick, says he's glad to see that Allan is better. He adds a stern warning, though, about always eating everything they give us and not eating one another's food. I apologize for the latter, in the interest of good diplomatic relations.
"You sick, you have problem—talk," the guard instructs us. "We not bad guys, hey? We help you."
I'm hardly reassured. I don't trust the guards any more now than I did before, which Allan agrees is a wise course. We presume, though, that the guard's comment—"We not bad guys, hey? We help you"—reflects how they genuinely perceive themselves.
It is true that after these exchanges, our relations with the guards become a little closer to what they were before the new hostages arrived. The guards still cheat us out of time in the bathroom; but they don't handle us so roughly, and they're not quite so draconian about being silent. Makmoud greets us again, although very softly, and the English student practices his vocabulary—but not all that often, and only with the two of us, I think, not with any of the other hostages.
As profoundly grateful as I am that Allan has come back, I still feel lonely and burdened at times. It's hard work, being the older brother. I'll watch Allan as he naps, despite himself, during the day, or at night if he drops off before I do, and I'll wish that I could hold and be held by him—properly, not clumsily. I need someone's arms wrapped around me. I'm tired of doing this. I want to go home.
Self-pity doesn't help. I have to pick myself up and keep going. Help me to keep going, God. Help us both.
Inevitably, I feel guilty that Allan and I were treated to a movie but the other hostages weren't. The ones who have spent all this time in solitary need a morale boost at least as much as Allan did. Certainly more than I did. I, after all, have Allan.