By talestitcher@yahoo.com

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 novel 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 5 -- A birthday and secret pen pals

(September-November 1986)

As Allan comes out of his depression, he sets himself the task of figuring out again when we are. He's lost track of the date. He stopped keeping count in his head even before he "slid away" completely—right after his meltdown, when he threw his dinner at the wall and started giving me the silent treatment. I know he was "away" for six days, but neither of us is sure how many days passed between his meltdown and the time he stopped eating.

Allan remembers that April 11, the day of his kidnapping, was a Friday. He makes a calendar by punching rows of holes into a tissue with his fork, seven across, then counts his way to the last date in August that he remembers. On the way, he figures out that the guards' weekly shift change happens between Thursday and Friday. Until now, we haven't known what day of the week it is because Allan hasn't tried to keep track of that in his head, only the date.

Once Allan knows what day the shift change occurs, he knows that the guards showed us the movie on a Saturday night—the second night of their shift. Since we lost count of a few days before the six days when Allan slid away, he concludes that movie night must have been August 29. The preceding Saturday, August 22, would be too close to the last date Allan remembers to account for as much time as we think we lost; the next Saturday, September 5, seems too far away.

I leave these calculations entirely in Allan's hands. His ability to juggle numbers in his head intimidates me. I would need pen and paper, not just a plastic fork and a piece of tissue.

The month of September contains two landmarks important to me. On September 11, I will have been a hostage for six months, half a year. On September 27, I will turn 24 years old.

I don't tell Allan about either of these approaching anniversaries. We exchanged birthdays back when we were first getting to know each other, but I don't remember his anymore, only that it falls around either Thanksgiving or Christmas. I assume he doesn't remember mine, either. I hope he doesn't. I'll feel like a heel otherwise.

The reason I don't mention these anniversaries to Allan is that I have developed a private superstition about them. I am harboring the hope that I will be released before one or the other of those anniversaries arrives. I know this makes no sense; I know that I am stupidly setting myself up for disillusion. But I can't help it. I secretly nurture this hope. I cradle it in my hands. I warm myself by it. I indulge in moments of exhilarating anticipation, which intensify as the deadlines approach.

It's like I'm compulsively masturbating my emotions, I suppose. The only kind of masturbating I do here.

I pay the price for my stupidity. At the end of the day on September 11, I am still in our cell, not on my way home, and feeling very low because of it, lower than I've allowed myself to get since Allan slid away. He can tell. Normally, by our rules, he would say I'm entitled to be low for a while and therefore wouldn't intervene until morning. But coming out of his own depression, he's worried about both of us getting mired in quicksand at the same time. He asks me what's going on.

I tell him—just about the anniversary, not about the superstitious hope. Allan says, "It'll be me in another month." And with that, he's sinking, too.

I rouse myself to responsibility. We can't wallow, I tell Allan, we have to do something else. He agrees. He challenges me to reconstruct, as precisely as I can, what I would have been doing on this same date one year ago. I start with generalities—if it was a weekday, I would have gone to class—and from there he presses relentlessly for details until I beg him to let me go to sleep.

I ought to have learned my lesson from that first self-made disillusion, but I haven't. I go right on secretly anticipating that by September 27, I'll be out. Home with my family for my birthday. It's just a fantasy, I tell myself, a daydream to make me feel better. Since I know it isn't really going to happen, I won't get low this time when it doesn't.

Another part of me warns: You know you're kidding yourself. No, I retort, I'll be fine.

I still haven't reminded Allan that my birthday is coming, although every two or three days I ask him to confirm for me what today's date is. I've never cared about the date before, but if he finds my new interest surprising, he doesn't show it. Perhaps he assumes I'm just trying to help him stay focused.

* * *

On September 26, two guards come downstairs in the middle of the day and take me from our cell—literally without a word. One of them just walks into the cell, nudges me with his foot, and helps tug me up onto my feet.

As always in my hostage life, my first reaction to the unexpected is fear. But then they're helping me up the stairs. My emotions swing instantly to the opposite extreme: Oh my God, my premonition was right, it's happening...

No, no, no, do not jump to conclusions. Don't lose yourself in hope. It's probably just a haircut. You need another one.

But there's no chair waiting for me at the top of the stairs. Instead, the guards hand me a t-shirt to put on over my tank top. They're dressing me for the outside world, holy shit, they are releasing me! I am stabbed at the heart: Allan! We didn't get to say goodbye. He's going to be alone now... The pang is swallowed up, however, in my billowing excitement.

Suddenly, confusion: the guards don't give me pants before they lead me on into the front of the house. My excitement crumples. Being pantsless makes it hard to keep believing that they're taking me to be released. And I am unable to imagine any reason why they would want me to wear a shirt but leave me in undershorts. Not being able to imagine makes me frightened again.

They seat me at a table. They take away my blindfold. I close my eyes, of course. A haircut after all?

"Look," someone tells me.

On the table in front of me is a cake. An elegant cake, coated in a buttery-looking, lightly whipped, dark brown frosting. The top is neatly crisscrossed with drizzles of black chocolate, and the upper and lower circumferences are adorned all around with flower-like frosting dollops, some of which, at regular intervals, have little candied cherries nestled in the center. In a bizarre contrast to the cake's elegance, a single white household-sized candle juts out of the center of the cake, alight. Not a petite birthday cake candle, but the kind Allan wishes we had in our cell in case the lights go out.

The guards are standing around the other three sides of the table. They've wrapped towels around their faces to conceal their identities, like terrorists at a press conference. From behind the towels, they're singing "Happy Birthday" in marble-mouthed English. The effect is unsettlingly surreal. Terrorists are throwing me a surprise birthday party. One of these masked terrorists is Makmoud, his shift began yesterday. He's the man to my left, in fact; I can distinguish his deep voice. He ha-ba-boos his way through the song until he gets to my name, which he enunciates enthusiastically: "Jé-ré-mieeeee!"

When I had imagined that I would be released in time for my birthday, I had imagined it happening through providential coincidence. I have never thought that my captors know, much less care, when my birthday is. How do the guards know my birthday is tomorrow? Or maybe it's today, actually, maybe Allan miscalculated the date... Either way, how do the guards know my birthdate? Did the chefs pass it on to them, culled from my driver's license? Is the party supposed to be another morale boost? Do they do this for all the hostages?

The guards have finished singing. The one standing directly across from me bends down and aims a small camera at me. When he's ready, he speaks a word in Arabic. The guard to my right says, "Go, go," and he and Makmoud make puffing noises to prompt me to blow out the candle. As I do, the photographer snaps a picture.

I get it. The photo is for my family. This party is for show: See how well we're treating him.

The guards place a large slice of cake in front of me—chocolate, as I had assumed from the frosting. The cake is lusciously dark, its texture dense. They photograph me again, eating a bite with my fingers. They don't give me a fork, not even a plastic one.

I make a writing motion in the air. "Can I write a letter to my family? Mail? Home?"

The guard to my right waggles his finger and tsks. I feel an urge to cry, but I shove immediately past it.

The photo shoot is complete. Makmoud ties my blindfold back on, but he hikes it up a little and allows me to adjust it further, so that I can still see the tabletop. He jovially slaps me on the back. "Eat, Jérémie."

I pick at my cake. It's a little stale: this shift must have brought the cake with them from Beirut, so it's three days old, at least. But that's not what makes the cake unappetizing. I can't stomach how sweet and rich it is. It's a heavier cake than I'm used to even at home, and I haven't eaten anything remotely like this in over half a year. My body's grown unaccustomed, I feel queasy. I won't be able to finish half of what they've given me.

The guards, meanwhile, have hacked off enormous slabs of cake for themselves, twice the size of the piece they served me. I get a little queasier just looking at how much they intend to pack away.

I point at the remains left by the guards. "Can I take some cake to Allan?" I ask and mime carrying something in my hands. The same guard who wouldn't let me write home nixes this request, too. Makmoud tries to intercede, it sounds like, but the naysaying guard gets the last word. Wants more cake for himself, no doubt.

The guards are enjoying themselves, but I'm done with this facsimile of a party. I just want to go be with Allan. I miss him, I need comforting. I feel lonely, sitting ignored at the table while the guards yak at each other in Arabic with their mouths full. I'm very homesick. I'm sad and angry that they wouldn't let me write to my family. My stomach's upset. The blindfold irritates my open eyes. As long as I'm griping, I'm annoyed at having to lick frosting off my fingers because the guards are too paranoid or inconsiderate or slovenly to give me a fork. I probably have frosting hardening into my beard that I'll need to pull off later. Once again, a potential morale boost has ended up being a lousy experience.

I point to my own half-eaten slice of cake and ask again: Can I take this to Allan? Again, request denied. Someone's frosting-messy fingers dart into my limited field of vision to pluck up my leftovers. Greedy bastards.

They decide it's time for me to return to the basement. On the way, they reclaim the t-shirt; they wanted me to wear it for the photos, so I would be more respectably clothed from the tabletop up. The guard who walks me into the cell pats my back wordlessly before he goes—Makmoud again, I presume.

I tell Allan what happened and apologize that they wouldn't let me bring him any cake. He commiserates about my not being allowed to write home, but he's fascinated by my description of the party. He had been worried while I was gone. Like me, he had assumed at first that I was going upstairs for a haircut; then, when he didn't hear the clippers, he too thought maybe I was being released. But when the singing began, which he mistook for chanting, he had a hard time imagining what they might be doing to me. Praying over me before sending me home? Making me pray with them in an attempt to convert me?

Allan makes a new tissue calendar and recalculates the date, twice. He says he doesn't know how he miscounted before, but yes: today, Saturday, because the new shift started yesterday morning, is September 27, not 26. "Many happy returns," he tells me. Despite the cheery sentiment of the words, his voice is subdued. "You're twenty-four now, right?" Right. He gives me a kind of sad yet hopeful smile. "You'll be home before twenty-five."

I feel myself sinking, so I confess to him that I was... I catch myself before saying "stupid," because Allan won't let me call myself that. Revision: I confess to him that I did something I knew I shouldn't do. I come clean about my superstitious hope. I owe him an apology for setting myself up to get low after I promised him I was going to carry my own weight from now on.

Allan thinks over how to respond to my apology. First off, he's stable now, he assures me. It's been a month since his depression, I don't have to keep worrying so much about him. As for this superstition: Did it help me? Before today, he clarifies. Did it make me feel better to imagine I'd be going home?

Of course, I reply bitterly, that's why I let myself keep thinking it. But I'm paying for it now.

Allan says, "There's nothing wrong with paying for something if the price is worth paying." I can tell right away that this statement is going to be enshrined in our canon of maxims. "You would have gotten low today anyway. This way, you didn't spend the whole month getting low every time you thought about your birthday coming up and having to spend it away from home. So I'm not sure your superstition was a bad thing."

Allan allows me some private time after that, to be low in. But later he makes me sit up and share with him happy memories of birthdays past. After a couple of anecdotes, I tell him this isn't helping me feel any less homesick. So instead he has me recount a novel of my choice in rich, leisurely detail. I obey mechanically.

That night, we're lying down on our backs, not quite ready to turn onto our sides to go to sleep, both pensive. Absorbed in my own self-pity, I don't realize how low Allan has sunk, too—until out of nowhere, he says in a lugubrious voice, "When they had you upstairs, and I was worried about you but couldn't do a bloody thing about it... I realize, that's what I put you through, when I slid away. That's how you felt. For a fucking week."

A cold horror seizes me. "Please don't think about that," I tell him. "I handled it fine. It was good for me, in a way, worrying about you. It snapped me out of myself." I look over at him; he's gazing somberly at the ceiling. "Allan, please don't get down on yourself. I was fine."

"I won't. Don't worry. But I'm sorry I put you through that."

Later, facing the wall, trying to sleep, I imagine Allan rolling over and scooting across to spoon behind me. His knees are tucked behind my knees, his lap cradles my buttocks (but he's not hard, neither of us is hard, that's not what this is about), his chest and stomach are curled against my back, his breath is on the back of my neck (but he's not kissing me; again, that's not what this is). His arm covers my arm, his hand covers my hand, his fingers interlock with mine, as he presses our right hands against the middle of my chest. I bring my left hand up to embrace his forearm.

I keep the scene chaste, so that no part of me can object on that count. Our spooning isn't sexual, it's just for comfort. Nonetheless, I'm breaking a personal rule: when I allow myself the comfort of imagining a man spooning behind me, I'm not supposed to give him a face. I'm letting myself break that rule tonight because it's my birthday. It's a treat, my gift to myself. I refuse to feel bad about it. Fuck off, guilt. Not tonight.

Spooning with Allan is the last image I remember having in my head before I drift off.

* * *

Paul and Donald ask us whose birthday it was. Unlike Allan, they recognized what the guards were singing. Also, I assume, they've experienced their own birthday celebrations. When Allan tells them it was me, they send back belated birthday wishes.

Those statements require a long explanation.

It starts with what I call the Communication Game. Right after Robert Berg's beating, in early August, the Mustached Hostage and his cellmate get into the habit of tapping once on their cell door, right at the beginning of a power outage, when the basement gets just a little quieter because everyone's fans go off. Presumably they start tapping because they're hoping to get a response from Robert. At first, Robert ignores them, or maybe he's still in too much pain to crawl over to his door, or maybe (as Allan believes) he's being kept sedated and doesn't even hear them. Instead, the Praying Hostage is the first person to start tapping in response. Allan wants to respond, but I won't let him; it's one of the reasons he and I fight before he becomes depressed.

The Communication Game evolves to a new form when Robert finally starts responding. But Robert doesn't tap on his door. He responds with a single cough. As soon as he does this, everyone else realizes that this is safer than tapping because it will sound innocent if a guard hears it, whereas a tap is unmistakably a forbidden attempt to communicate. So that puts an end to the tapping. In its place, everyone resorts to a variety of natural sounds: a cough, a feigned sneeze, a loud clearing of the throat, a pee bottle "accidentally" striking the wall next to the door. Even a very loud sniffle can work if done right up against the silenced door fan.

While this new version of the Communication Game is safer than the initial tapping, everyone still has to take care not to be obvious. If a guard hears everyone making little noises in close succession, he'll know something's up. The challenge of the game, then, is to delay responding to the previous noise long enough that it won't be obvious you're responding, but not so long that someone else won't still have time to respond before a guard comes downstairs to escape the heat. That's the goal: for every hostage to respond before a guard arrives. Once a guard comes down the stairs, game over; everyone understands it's too risky to continue, even with the natural sounds. The game is "won" if every cell responds before a guard arrives—every cell, that is, but the Handcuffed Hostage's, since he never plays.

I don't participate in the game, but I don't object anymore to Allan's participating after he comes out of his depression. The game lifts his spirits, and I know he needs that. A win—an uncommon occurrence—makes him silently exultant. Hours afterward, the memory of a win earlier in the day can make him spontaneously break into that beaming smile I adore. I find his excitement absurd, but I think the same thing about people's enthusiasm for sports. The Communication Game is Allan's sport, in the absence of soccer or rugby or whatever athletic nonsense he would be following if he were free.

Allowing him to play is a sacrifice on my part. The Communication Game stresses me, I'm always afraid they're going to get caught. I have to sit in the back corner of the cell while they're doing it, for the illusion of safety. When Allan first starts playing, I feel impelled to wear my blindfold down as well, as if this would protect me. After a time, I leave off doing that, but I never stop retreating to the corner. Allan keeps trying to coax me to play, or at least to kneel by the fan with him: it will give me confidence, I'll feel better about myself. I consistently refuse.

One day, instead of making one of the usual noises during the Communication Game, the Praying Hostage speaks his name through his fan grill. Allan, listening through our fan, deciphers the name as either Rich or Rick Durham. From my "safe place" in the back corner, I can hear the hostage's voice, but I can't make out what he says, which means he isn't speaking loudly. Still, his violation of the rules brings that round of the game to a grinding halt: no one else makes a sound after that.

I'm terrified and furious at the Praying Hostage—"Durham," as Allan now calls him, since we're unsure of the first name. As it turns out, though, an unusually long time passes before a guard comes down into the basement, and when he finally does, his footsteps come from the front part of the house. Allan concludes from this that the guards were doing their midday prayers when the power went out. Since they pray in the vicinity of Durham's cell, perhaps he could hear them overhead when we couldn't; that would explain why he felt safe speaking.

Allan grants me that Durham probably shouldn't have risked speaking anyway. More to the point, Allan promises me that he'll never take the risk of speaking across cells. At the same time, though, he's thrilled to know another hostage's name.

A week or two before my birthday, Allan ushers the Communication Game into the next stage of its evolution. I suspect he would have preferred to do it without my knowledge, to prevent my anxious protests. But it's impossible to hide his preparations, so he begs me to have an open mind as he delivers what is clearly a mentally rehearsed presentation to preempt my objections.

Allan has figured out that he can use a tine of his fork to impress letters onto the piece of foil that comes in each of our cigarette packs. Allan wants to leave messages on foil in the bathroom for the Mustached Hostage and his cellmate to find.

Where is he planning to leave these messages? I ask in a very tight voice—not indicative of the open mind Allan begged me for.

Allan assures me that he has thought this through very carefully. Obviously the foil has to be left someplace where there's no chance of a guard accidentally spotting it. Allan's plan is to roll the foil up, carry it to the bathroom tucked inside his briefs, and insert it into the mouth of the hose by the toilet. The first time he does this, Allan will tie a white thread from his tank top around the rolled-up foil, long enough that the thread will hang out the mouth of the hose. The thread will be too thin for the guard to see from the bathroom door, but when the next hostage picks up the hose, he will see the thread, which in turn will lead him to see the foil, so he doesn't just turn on the hose and possibly flush the foil before realizing it's there. Admittedly, the thread is the element of Allan's plan that carries some risk of discovery, but Allan emphasizes that the risk is miniscule, and he only needs to use thread the first time he leaves a message. After that first time, the Mustached Hostage and his cellmate will know to check the hose for future messages.

This plan unnerves me, as Allan had predicted. I can't decide if his proposed means of written communication is safer than all the coughing and throat-clearing everyone's been doing; I see risks both ways. But what he's concocted is certainly clever, I have to give him that—at least as a one-way form of communication. Is Allan hoping that the Mustached Hostage's cell will somehow leave us a reply? Since our toilet run always precedes theirs, how would that work?

Here, it seems to me, Allan becomes unrealistically ambitious. His dream is that every hostage will start leave messages on foil for the hostage after him, creating a circle that will allow anyone to pass a message along to anyone else. It only takes one nonparticipant, however, to break the chain; the Handcuffed Hostage is a likely weak link. Maybe the Mustached Hostage's cell won't ever be able to reply, Allan concedes. But at least we can introduce ourselves and pass encouraging words on to them. And maybe if the Handcuffed Hostage or someone else doesn't want to write his own messages, he'll at least put any messages he discovers back in the hose for the next man to find, so the chain won't be broken. At any rate, Allan wants to try.

I'm not sure why Allan is asking my permission. He can do whatever he wants while he's in the bathroom, I have no way of stopping him. On second thought, he's probably envisioning me getting violent again, as I did the first time he wanted to tap on our door. Maybe he imagines me hitting him while he's trying to write his messages, or ripping the foil out of his hands and tearing it up. I feel sick that he may be thinking of me that way. I feel sick that I ever was that way. Even if he's not worried about me becoming violent, he's probably asking my consent so there won't be bad feelings between us again.

I consent. I'm worried that somehow the guards will catch him; I immediately have to thrust aside the question of how we would be punished. On the other hand, Allan's depression is still recent enough that I fear a relapse, whereas this is something he's excited about, it gives him energy, and I want to encourage that. The plan he has developed is reasonably cautious. The risk of his being caught is less, I calculate, than the risk of his becoming low again, or resenting me again, if I don't consent. So I swallow my fear and say yes. He knows how hard that was for me, so he's appropriately emphatic in his gratitude.

The first message Allan composes contains our basic biographical data as hostages, presented in a kind of telegraphic code. We stack our folded-up blankets against our cell door, and then Allan sets his tub upside-down on top of them, to create a makeshift writing desk that reaches as high as possible to the level of the fan, our light source. Watching him inscribe the first letters onto the foil with his fork, I'm convinced that I could print in smaller and neater letters than he's managing to do, so I offer to take over. He's happy to have me join in, and he quickly concurs that I have better handwriting than he does. He cautions me, though, not to write too small. He knows from his experiments that the impressions will become hard to read once the foil gets crinkled from being rolled up and unrolled again.

He dictates to me:

Allan Porterfield, UK, journlst (GTN), 30yo, kdnp 4/86. Jeremy Lawrence, US, studnt (Eng lit), 23yo, kdnp 3/86.

That's all we have room for, unless I write smaller than Allan thinks will remain legible.

The morning after we've prepared the message, I'm a nervous wreck as Allan takes his toilet run. Back from the bathroom, blindfolds up, he beams at me and nods: Message successfully planted. We listen as the first prisoner from the Mustached Hostage's cell is taken for his toilet run. On his way back to his cell, the prisoner clears his throat, once, as during the Communication Game, which Allan interprets as a signal that the message was discovered. He beats the air with his fists, exhilarated.

The question now is: Will we ever hear back? If the Mustached Hostage and his cellmate plan to leave a message of their own in the hose, the soonest they could do it would be tomorrow's toilet run. Assuming that every other hostage in the basement discovers the message, takes it back to his cell, reads it, then returns it to the hose during the next toilet run for the next hostage to find—all precarious assumptions, in my opinion—we'll have to wait three more days for the message to work its way to us. An absurdly slow way to communicate with a pair of men who occupy a cell just six feet away from ours!

That very night, after the evening feeding, we are startled by someone in the Mustached Hostage's cell pounding on their door. A guard descends and demands to know what's going on. The Mustached Hostage insists that he has to go to the bathroom, something he ate made him sick. The guard doesn't want to let him go. The hostage protests that he can't wait until morning, he'll be forced to shit in his cell. The guard refuses again and leaves.

Immediately, the Mustached Hostage resumes pounding on his door and keeps at it until two guards show up. They open the cell and give the hostage "a thumping," as Allan would say, but afterward they take him to the bathroom. They allow him barely a minute before they start banging on the bathroom door, and then they smack him some more on the way back to his cell. Allan and I think they're making him walk in front of them, unguided, and then slapping his head whenever he slows down or drifts off track.

If this is the Mustached Hostage's plan for communicating with us, I don't think it's worth the price he's paying.

The next morning, Allan goes to the bathroom before me. After I've returned from my toilet run, he silently shows me what he found waiting for him in the bathroom: not one but two pieces of foil, plus a scrap of a third, apparently ripped from the foil we sent our message on.

Once the guards have finished everyone's toilet runs and left us alone, Allan explains to me that the scrap of foil was waiting inside the hose. It has two words inscribed on it: "sink, pipe." The plumbing underneath the giant clothes-washing sink by the bathroom door includes, for some reason, an open pipe that sticks out horizontally. The other two pieces of foil that Allan found were rolled up, one inside the other, just inside that open pipe.

Holding the foil up to our fan for light, Allan and I work together to decipher the messages. This proves quite difficult, both because the light is bad, and because—as Allan had warned me—the letters are hard to make out on the crinkled surface once the foil has been rolled up.

One of the two messages contains the biographical info of the Mustached Hostage and his cellmate, plus that of the Beaten Hostage, separated from theirs by slashes:

Donald McFarrell, US, prof econ, kdnp 6/85. Paul Watts, US, jrnlst (AP), 3/85. // Robert Berg, US, 5/85.

They ran out of room before they could list Robert's occupation, but Allan already knows that he was chief administrator at the hospital connected to the American university in west Beirut, where Donald also taught. Allan is vindicated: These are, as he suspected, the Americans held by the Organization for Jihad—except there should be a fourth hostage in that group, which we'll need to ask them about in a future message.

Their second message to us, written in a different hand, reads:

PW: Great to meet you guys! AP glad you are better. JL how you holding up buddy?

For reasons that I know are unfair, this message gives me an unfavorable impression of Paul, who Allan is now certain is the Mustached Hostage (making Donald the quieter cellmate). I hate that Paul called me "buddy." It's the patronizing way a gym coach would talk while trying to motivate me to complete a chin-up. It's exactly the language I would expect from a man so macho he insists on wearing a mustache.

My hostility toward Paul is born of humiliation. I'm convinced that the reason he asked how I'm "holding up" is that he heard how hysterical I became talking with the chef when Allan was depressed. Possibly he's heard me crying on other occasions as well. Shit. I notice that he didn't feel a need to be so solicitous when talking to Allan.

As I say, I know my reaction is unfair. Paul's concerned about me, I should be appreciative. But I'm not. Don't talk down to me, Mustache Man. I don't need you reminding me how weak I am.

Allan wants me to write a reply to Paul's question, so Allan can leave it for him in the pipe under the sink. I object to them using the sink to pass messages. I understand why the hose doesn't work as a hiding place for Paul and Donald's messages to us: other hostages use the hose before we do and might not forward the messages on. But the sink is dangerous. It's next to the bathroom door, so the guards might hear the foil being slid in and out of the pipe. And even if they don't hear that, they're likely to become suspicious if they hear Allan and the others moving around by the sink, because we have no business there.

Allan dispatches my objections. True, they have to be very quiet moving the foil in and out of the pipe. But the pipe's large enough that won't be a problem. They don't have to slide the foil in and out; instead, they can silently set the foil down in the mouth of the pipe, then lift it up and out again.

As for my objection that the guards will get suspicious if they hear us by the sink: Allan always drapes his clothes over the side of the sink when he's in the bathroom. Don't I? Sure, I say, but that's only once a week, on shower day. Allan is puzzled: Every time he uses the toilet, he removes his bottoms and leaves them on the sink, so they won't touch the wet floor.

Now I'm irritated—at myself, but I redirect the irritation toward him. No, I had never thought to leave my bottoms on the sink. Because I'm an egghead, who can discuss French critical theory but lacks common sense, I've been draping my bottoms over my shoulder, which is a little precarious when I'm squatting. Leaving them on the sink, I realize now, is a smarter thing to do. More to the point for our current conversation, leaving our bottoms on the sink provides a natural cover for Allan and Paul and Donald to leave and retrieve messages there.

Allan tells me that he himself had considered using the pipe under the sink as a hiding place before he settled on using the hose. But the pipe is too good a hiding place: other hostages would never notice a message tucked inside the mouth of the pipe unless they were specifically looking for it. Now that we four—Paul and Donald and Allan and I—know to look in the pipe, that problem is solved.

I can't counter Allan's logic. I give in: they're going to go on exchanging messages via the sink. All I can do is pray that we don't get caught. I'm stressed every morning until Allan, Paul, and Donald have all finished their toilet runs without incident.

In answer to Paul's question about how I'm "holding up," I provide a terse account of my track record in captivity:

JL: Alone first 3 mos., very bad. AP's a huge help.

Allan adds in his own hand:

AP: Vice-versa. This brave fucker saved my ass!

I'm moved, although I realize I'm applying a double standard: Allan's praise of me isn't any more or less patronizing than Paul's question to me. I'm at least consistent enough to feel annoyed at seeing Allan "talk macho" back to Paul. Allan isn't fooling anyone, talking that way. It's obvious he's a nerd. He used Latin in the same message, for God's sake.

Our jointly authored message receives this jointly authored reply:

DM: Well done JL. PW: You're gonna make it buddy!

I decide instantly that I like Donald better than Paul. He's understated, he doesn't strike macho poses, he talks intelligently instead of using slang, he addresses me as an equal. I know it's ridiculous to draw so many conclusions about Donald from two words plus my initials. But those words are what I have to draw my impressions from, and draw them I do.

Because each of us receives two packs of cigarettes a week, Allan and I have enough foil to send four messages a week to Paul and Donald, and vice-versa (as Allan would say). We can communicate more frequently if we tear a piece of foil in two and send even shorter messages, but we don't do that often. It's even possible, Allan has discovered, to reuse a piece of foil: since the letters are pressed into the foil, not scratched onto it, they can be mostly rubbed flat again. But letters inscribed on a reused foil prove more difficult to read than the first time around—too much crinkling.

One morning shortly after we've begun exchanging messages, Allan returns to our cell with what turns out to be a message written in both English and French, intended not for us but for the Handcuffed Hostage. Allan alerts Paul and Donald to the failed delivery. They write back, explaining that they had left a scrap of foil in the hose directing the Handcuffed Hostage to look in the pipe under the sink for the longer message, just as they did for us. Evidently, however, the Handcuffed Hostage doesn't want to take the risk of getting involved in the Communication Game.

Paul and Donald report that they have followed up by leaving another bilingual message rolled up inside the hose. This new message informs whoever reads it about the improvised mailbox under the sink and asks the reader to please reinsert the message into the hose for the next hostage to find. Paul and Donald hope that the Handcuffed Hostage will at least pass the message along. It would appear, though, that the Handcuffed Hostage isn't willing to take that risk either, because Allan and I never receive a message from anyone other than Paul and Donald.

Allan is angry at the Handcuffed Hostage for preventing us from making contact with Durham and Robert. I don't blame the Handcuffed Hostage. I have no doubt that if I were alone, I wouldn't take the risk. Maybe, I propose to Allan, the Handcuffed Hostage really doesn't know either English or French and therefore doesn't understand what's going on. Allan doesn't buy it.

Allan has passed on to Paul and Donald his conviction that the Handcuffed Hostage is "Korean diplomat, kdnp 1/86." Paul reacts, "Korean?!"—which makes me realize, for the first time, how odd it is that our captors would kidnap someone from that country. What do they want from Korea?

The Korean was kidnapped for ransom, Allan informs me; his abductors issued the demand right away. I'm floored. How is he still a hostage, nine months later, when his government has known all along that all they have to do to get him home is pay money? Behind that question, I'm thinking frantically that if the Handcuffed Hostage is still here under those circumstances, the rest of us are fucked!

Allan is impatient with my obtuseness, or maybe his frustration at the Handcuffed Hostage is spilling over to me. No government wants to pay a ransom to free a hostage, he tells me in the tone of someone explaining the obvious. Paying the ransom would invite more kidnappings. The Korean government will want to negotiate some other kind of deal, something less direct, behind the scenes. But it takes a long time to negotiate a deal with someone you don't know how to contact.

Paul and Donald are dismayed to learn from Allan how many more foreign hostages have been taken since they were kidnapped. Having seen two of their own group go home, they had hoped things were getting resolved. Allan gets excited when they say "two." He already knew about the release of Baptist missionary Tim Sutton last fall. Now Paul and Donald inform us that Charles Dalessio—the priest whose name Allan couldn't remember earlier—has been released as well. His release occurred just before Paul, Donald, and Robert were transferred here.

At one point, Paul and Donald claim, they were all about to be released, but then "US bombed Libya, fucked us over." Allan can't think what they're talking about, so this bombing must have occurred after his kidnapping. I don't say so, but I suspect that Paul and Donald think they know more than they actually do. Who told them all this? Our captors never tell us what's going on—and the time they told me I was being released, they were lying.

Allan, however, accepts Paul and Donald's account of their scuttled release and then, in his optimistic way, construes it as good news. Sure, things got derailed, but at least we know the train was moving—and moving so rapidly that their whole group was about to go home. The fact that Dalessio went home just a couple of months ago suggests that things are now getting back on track.

Paul and Donald know that they're being held for the release of the prisoners in Kuwait. Evidently their captors told them. So why the hell have Allan and I been left in the dark? When Paul and Donald ask what's being demanded for our release, Allan has me write out this reply:

Not sure. JL, assume Kwt prisnrs b/c claimed by Call of Islam. AP, Palestine prisnrs? UK-Iran? $?

Paul was the Associated Press's main Middle East correspondent before he was kidnapped, so Allan trusts that he'll be able to interpret these shorthand references to Allan's theories about why he's being held. I'm familiar with his theories from earlier conversations on this subject. A couple of years ago, a Palestinian group operating in Lebanon kidnapped a British journalist—who escaped, luckily—in hope of obtaining the release of some Palestinian terrorists imprisoned in England. So Allan's first theory is that our Shiite captors might be expressing solidarity with the Palestinians by throwing their own weight behind that demand.

Allan's second theory is that he's being held to pressure Britain to do something desired by the Shiite regime in Iran. Allan hasn't persuaded himself of either of those first two theories. The problem with the second is that if his captors demanded something on Iran's behalf, Iran would be exposed as connected to the kidnappings, which Iran wouldn't want.

His third theory is that he's being held for a monetary ransom, like the Korean. But if money were all his captors wanted, he thinks they would have photographed him already to prove that they're holding him. Actually, none of Allan's theories can explain why our captors haven't "officially" claimed him yet.

While Allan wants to know more about Paul and Donald's hostage experience, Paul and Donald fish for news about family and friends. Donald wonders if Allan knows anything about his wife. In particular, has she left Lebanon? Allan has no idea. Donald was kidnapped during Allan's first month working in Beirut, and Allan remembers from his company's news coverage that Donald's wife was working at the same university he was, but Allan doesn't know what she did afterward.

Allan does know, through the journalists' grapevine, that after Paul was kidnapped, his Lebanese girlfriend went to the U.S., where she gave birth to their daughter. Paul thanks Allan but says he already knew that. He doesn't explain how he knew; we assume his captors must have found out and let him know. Paul asks Allan about two friends of his, fellow journalists in Beirut. One name rings only a dim bell for Allan, which suggests that he's probably left the country, but Allan is able to report that the second friend is still working in Lebanon.

We learn that this is the first basement prison Paul and Robert have been held in. Only Donald spent time in a basement previously, in what he calls a "cage." Otherwise, the three have passed their captivity in "apts." I'm confused by that statement because I take it to mean that they were held underneath apartment buildings, like Allan was, in which case I don't know why they say they weren't held in basements. Allan assumes that, no, they mean they were held above ground, inside residential apartments—like the apartment Allan lived in before he was kidnapped, or like Bernie's. Allan knows of other hostages being held that way. The two hostages he told me were rescued by a rival militia were discovered in a first- or second-floor apartment by some boys who were climbing around outside and spotted the hostages through the window.

Precisely because of the risk of discovery, keeping hostages in apartments strikes me as insanely, if fortuitously, stupid of our captors. That might explain, I suppose, why Paul, Donald, and Robert have now been moved to a basement, and why Allan and I have always been in basements. Still, I'm puzzled by how slow our captors have been to make the transition in the case of Paul, Donald, and Robert.

Paul and Donald are under the impression that they were transferred to our prison as a punishment. The reason Robert was beaten, they inform us, is that their captors became convinced he had sent a coded message through a video he recorded for them. Their captors have always been paranoid, Paul and Donald complain. They're paranoid of Paul because he served in the Marines, and of Donald because they suspect him of being CIA. "(Not!)" Donald adds, in case we're wondering. Of course, I would expect him to deny it if he were. Still, I'm inclined to believe him if only because I've decided that I like him.

Allan wants to know if Paul and Donald crossed paths with George Will. I'm confused: Why does Allan think they could have met George Will? Because he was also claimed by the Organization of Jihad, Allan says. Now I'm flabbergasted: When was George Will taken hostage? And what was he doing in Lebanon? No, Allan clarifies, not George Will the commentator—a different person with the same name. This George Will was the CIA's main operative in Beirut. The fact that he was CIA became an open secret, so he was one of the first Americans kidnapped by the Organization for Jihad.

Allan pauses, then continues in a carefully matter-of-fact voice: Later, Will's captors executed him. Allan preempts my reaction with a level look. "Don't panic. If anyone's in danger, it's Donald, not you."

As it turns out, Paul and Donald have quite a bit to say about George Will, enough for multiple messages. Paul and Robert Berg were held in the same apartment as Will, though they "only heard," not saw him. Paul reports that Will became "sick, died. (Bumped off? RB thinks no.)" So, Allan remarks with intellectual satisfaction, it wasn't a simple execution. People had speculated as much at the time, because the Organization for Jihad claimed to have executed Will but didn't provide photos or leave the body somewhere as proof.

Donald says that his captors gave him a written confession produced by Will, which they wanted Donald to copy into his own handwriting so they could use the copy to claim that Donald, too, had confessed to being CIA. Allan and I think that's what happened, anyway: Donald's story is hard to follow in the telegraphic form it comes to us, and what he seems to be telling us sounds so absurd that I'm not convinced we've correctly understood.

Will touched their group again, indirectly, in the incident where Robert was accused of transmitting a coded message while recording a video. When Robert inserted some words of condolence for Will's family into his recorded message, their captors decided that his words must have a secret meaning because, unbeknown to Robert, Will didn't have a family. "RB sent condol's to GW's wife, kids. GW didn't have. Ow!"

We learn that for a while, Paul, Donald, and Robert were held in the same apartment (but not, apparently, the same room) as four French hostages, one of whom, like Will, was sick for a long time and then died. Allan is able to tell them who that was: Guillaume Pierrat, a French scholar studying Islamic fundamentalism. The Organization for Jihad claimed to have executed him; they released photos of him with a bullet wound in his head. Paul and Donald are adamant: "Fraud!" Pierrat died of illness, probably cancer. They know this because they "read MD's diary." We assume they mean "doctor's diary," but even on that assumption, the statement remains mysterious to us.

I am terrified to learn that hostages have died in captivity, possibly killed. I vent my terror by lashing out at Allan: Why has he never told me? Precisely because of how I'm reacting now, he replies. He didn't want me to get stressed. I'm furious: You lied to me! No, he insists, he didn't lie, he just didn't disclose. What about the times Allan assured me that our captors would never kill us because, as Westerners, our lives are worth too much to them? Allan defends his integrity: He always meant that our captors would never endanger our lives out of sheer rage.

Anyway, he continues, I'm missing the point: Will and Pierrat probably weren't killed. They died naturally—or at worst, they were on their way to dying naturally, and their captors put them out of their misery. And then their captors falsely claimed to have executed the hostages, trying to show the world they mean business, when what they were really doing was scrambling to cover up a disaster.

I don't see how the fuck that's supposed to make me feel better. Executed or dead from natural causes, the fact is, two hostages are dead. In the "natural causes" scenario, our captors could see the hostages were dying, and they let it happen anyway. They didn't get the hostages proper help, nor did they release them. Maybe Allan's right, maybe we're not in danger of being executed. But we are in danger of dying because of our captors' neglect.

In this moment, I feel toward Allan much as I did following Robert's beating: appalled at his ability to be cerebral about other hostages' suffering. I guess it's how he survives, how he manages to face down the horror without becoming panicked the way I do. Maybe his capacity for detachment is a trait he developed as a journalist, or maybe it's a trait he already had which fitted him for journalism.

I retreat into myself for a while. I'm not sulking, I'm not angry at Allan. Or rather, I'm not allowing myself to continue being angry with Allan. I'm not going to allow a repeat of the breakdown that occurred between us after Robert's beating. But I'm scared. And I've lost whatever inkling of hope I still had of receiving a humanitarian release because of my youth. Our captors don't do humanitarian releases. Two sick hostages are dead to prove it.

Allan moves to make peace by apologizing for having kept me in the dark. He asks me please not to be angry at him, he was trying to spare me, he's sorry if that was the wrong thing for him to have done. I'm not angry, I say. I tell him what I'm actually feeling.

Allan responds that he doesn't think I should give up hope for a humanitarian release. My situation is different from that of the sick hostages. Because no one in the outside world knew that the hostages were sick, no one was pressuring our captors to release them for that reason, whereas our captors are under pressure to release me. A humanitarian release could still be coming for me, even half a year later. These things can take a while, Arabs don't have the same urgency about time that Westerners do.

Furthermore, Allan insists, I shouldn't worry about my safety. Our captors can't let me die, because they couldn't possibly cover it up afterward by claiming to have executed me. That would be too outrageous. If they have decided to keep me because my youth makes me valuable, by the same token my youth will protect me.

I don't know how much credence to give this, but I derive some comfort from it, if not as much as Allan intends. Also, the longer Allan talks about it, the guiltier I feel. Why does Allan's energy have to go into comforting me when he's in a worse situation—still unclaimed and without the advantages of my "celebrity" status? I need to shake off the goddamn self-pity and carry my own weight. Even better, I need to help Allan carry his weight.

Trying to lighten the mood, Allan says he wants to tell Donald and Paul about my mistaking George Will the commentator for George Will the hostage—they'll get a kick out of that. In a flash, I'm angry at Allan again. The man is tragically dead, you can't joke about him! Allan, unruffled, maintains that I'm mischaracterizing the situation. But he respects my feelings, and if I would rather he not do it, then he won't.

I suspect he knows me well enough that he's banking on my relenting in a few hours out of guilt. So I force myself to wait a couple of days before I relent. You were right, I overreacted, let's tell Paul and Donald, they could use the laugh. I want Allan to be happy, yes, but I also have my pride.

I'm glad that Allan has Paul and Donald now to "talk to," I know how much the contact means to him. I appreciate our exchanges with them, too. I appreciate the expanded network of support. I appreciate the scraps of information that Paul and Donald provide. I am drawn into the anticipation, the entertainment, of seeing what our secret pen pals have to say today.

But push come to shove, I would be perfectly happy if Allan were the only other person I had. He's all I need.

* * *

October 11 is the six-month anniversary of Allan's kidnapping. He remarks on it at the beginning of the day, but he takes it in stride. Perhaps he's been preparing himself ever since my six-month anniversary. I give him a good amount of "alone time," then ask how he's doing. Fine, he assures me, he was thinking about happy memories. Would he like to tell me about them? I ask. Sure, if I don't mind listening to him ramble. Of course I don't mind.

Some of the memories Allan recounts to me involve friends from college, but most are about his parents and siblings. None are about Emily. Allan rarely talks about his time with Emily.

I envy Allan's family life. They seem close knit, even as adults. Allan refers to his parents, in the third person, as "Mum" and "Dad," whereas I talk about "my mother" and "my stepfather." And, of course, I envy him knowing his father at all. Sometimes, when I wax psychoanalytic, I wonder if the differences in our family lives explain why Allan copes with stress better than I do: he grew up feeling more secure.

I have also wondered, in my psychoanalytic moments, if growing up without a father at home explains why I'm gay. Bernie was a big presence in my life, but I was always vividly aware of being fatherless. I've read enough to know that the "distant father" theory of homosexuality has fallen into disfavor, but it seems like it could work in my case.

Anyway, Allan handles his six-month anniversary well. He thanks me for listening. We're sitting side by side at the back of the cell, and I sense that this would be the right moment for me to casually pat his thigh, the way he's done to me on a couple of occasions. But I know I can't pull off the unlabored manliness that gesture requires. So I don't.

* * *

In October, we receive buzzcuts again. Also, now that it's autumn, the guards put us back in pajamas. As part of the clothing change, they give us fresh underpants for the first time since June. God, it feels good to put on new underwear, even if it is another pair of those silky briefs I despise. We're given socks again, too: black, but sturdy like athletic socks, not flimsy like dress socks. The change of clothes lifts my morale. For the first time in months, I sit in the cell feeling clean and... something else. Properly clothed, yes, that's what I'm feeling.

I look at Allan in his pajamas and sexy beard stubble, and I think that he cuts a handsome figure. It's a shame they didn't leave him a decent amount of hair up top, he'd look really good then. He would have looked so good, I might have been in trouble. I've gotten to a point where I can say something like that to myself as a joke, not as self-flagellation. I feel safer, more licit, less exploitative, admiring Allan's appearance, now that what I'm admiring isn't exposed flesh.

The nights are getting chillier. Allan maintains that the temperature hasn't actually dropped that much yet, but we feel the drop that has occurred more intensely because of the humidity. Winter will be the same way, he informs me: it will feel colder than it actually is. The good news—that's Allan, always looking on the bright side—is that we'll be warmer in the basement than the guards will be upstairs, just as we've been cooler in the summer.

I don't find this reassuring. Since I never felt cooler in the summer, I don't expect I'll feel any warmer in the winter. I'm already wishing we had a way to turn off the fan in the door. The guards aren't going to leave it running all winter, are they? I huddle under my blanket at night, hoping for a power outage. Thank God I have socks again to help keep my feet warm. I fastidiously safeguard the single pair I've been given. I don't pull them on too tightly, so my toenails won't poke holes in them. And I always remove my socks before my toilet run: I want to delay their wearing out, and I don't want them getting wet on the bathroom floor.

Despite how miserable I was during the summer heat, I don't like the current change in climate any better. I generally dislike changes in our conditions. I want things to stay normal. Dammit, stop saying that. I mean I want things to stay the way they were, the way I got used to. Some things, anyway. I welcome the change to pajamas, for instance. But really, that's not a change; that's just going back to normal—I mean (dammit again!), it's going back to what I knew originally, at the beginning of my hostage life.

"Normal." I have got to stop using that word.

* * *

After a few days of privately stewing—privately because I'm trying to carry my own weight—I confess to Allan that I think I may actually, literally, be going crazy.

He appears to take the announcement calmly. Why do I think that? he asks.

"More and more often, it feels perfectly normal to me that we live like this."

Allan probes for clarification, still calm, cerebral. Live like this, how? What do I mean, exactly?

"Living here, in this tiny little cell, 24/7. I don't feel so... closed in as I used to. Or trapped. It feels normal that we wear pajamas for clothes. Or that I pee into a bottle. Go to the bathroom once a day. The food, the tea. I'll be eating, or peeing, or whatever, and I'll realize I feel... totally natural. Like, why would I expect to live any other way? That's crazy. How can I be thinking that?"

Allan looks reflective. "I don't think you're going crazy. I think you're adapting. That's good. Adapting is how living things survive."

* * *

The Communication Game enters the final stage of its evolution as we cross from October into November. We won't realize it's the final stage until later, of course.

It begins with our being woken up in the middle of the night during what must be the guards' shift change—we know it's that day of the week, and there are more men than usual in the basement. But what they're doing is entirely unexpected. They spend several minutes bustling around, moving hostages to different cells, one right after the other, seemingly at random. They don't move our mattresses and tubs, just us. All through this process, cell doors open and close noisily. No one speaks; the guards preemptively hiss for silence.

I'm moved across the way, toward my left, into what must be either Durham's cell or the Handcuffed Hostage's cell. I spend a few minutes there, stressing over the mysterious commotion and my separation from Allan. Then they return me to my usual cell. Allan's not there, so again I'm alone, but a minute or so later they bring him back, too. We hear a couple more hostages being moved around. Then all the guards clomp back upstairs, they shut the trapdoor, and that's that.

Allan and I lie awake whispering, trying to figure out what the hell that was about. Allan brainstorms: Maybe they removed us from our cells so they could search for contraband—maybe they've come to suspect, somehow, that we've been passing messages? But our tubs haven't been disturbed. I'm finicky about how I organize mine, I can see nothing's been moved. Maybe they were treating the cells for roaches? That would certainly be welcome, but we don't smell bug spray, and a look under the mattresses doesn't reveal traps or anything that resembles poison. Maybe they were trying out a new arrangement for distributing hostages among the various cells, but they decided they didn't like it, so they put us back? Or maybe they haven't put all of us back where we were, maybe some hostages have been moved permanently? We'll have to try to check during tomorrow's toilet runs.

Allan regrets that we had no way of knowing this was going to happen. If we had known, we could have prepared a note for me to leave in the cell to which I was moved. Or if the guards had left me in that cell longer, and if I'd had the presence of mind, I could have written a note right there, using the hostage's own fork and cigarette foil. Did we just miss our only chance to communicate with Durham? Allan didn't pass through an occupied cell; the guards moved him to the empty cell next door to ours, the cell we were housed in before Paul, Donald, and Robert arrived. We wonder who may have passed through our current cell.

I tell Allan it was weird being in someone else's cell. Everything was the same yet foreign. The hostage's possessions were identical to ours—mattress, blanket, tub, drinking bottle, pee bottle—but he had arranged them differently than either Allan or I do it. I felt like I had invaded the hostage's home, his privacy.

The next morning's toilet runs reveal that there is now only one person in Paul and Donald's cell. Otherwise, the same number of hostages occupy the same cells as before. One person, then, is missing. Either Paul or Donald, assuming that everyone ended up back where they started.

Actually, no. It's Robert who's gone. Donald is now in Robert's cell. On the second morning after all the commotion, Allan finds a note from Donald under the sink, informing us of the change. "RB must have gone home," Donald writes. "Hubbub was so we wouldn't know who was going." I infer that Donald and Paul have seen this kind of thing before, when Sutton and Dalessio were released.

Home. Robert's gone home.

I'm in shock. It doesn't feel real. Every one of us in this basement longs, constantly, to be released—and suddenly, without any warning, it's happened to one of us. Just like that, Robert's gone. He could be back in the United States, with his family, at this very second.

If Donald's right. Which Allan and I have no reason to think he isn't. Donald would recognize the signs of a release better than we would. Paul, too, assumes that Robert has been released.

I am profoundly conflicted. I should be happy for Robert, and I suppose in some corner of myself I am. But I'm incredibly, painfully jealous, too. Why was it him and not me, goddammit?

Inevitably, I feel guilty for thinking that. Robert was kidnapped ten months before me, obviously he should go home first. If anyone has a right to feel cheated, it's Paul: he's been a hostage even longer, a couple months more than Robert. How did our captors pick who to send home? Did they pick Robert as compensation for the beating? And why did they send him home now? Are their demands finally being met, perhaps in installments? Was Dalessio released back in July because some of the Kuwait prisoners were released? Now some more of the Kuwait prisoners have been released, so Robert's gone home? Is that what happened?

Two hostages released three months apart. One way or another, it seems like wheels are turning, albeit slowly. Will someone else go home a couple more months from now? Paul? Donald? Me?

Maybe not even that long. Maybe Robert's release is the beginning of the final resolution, the one that went off track whenever the U.S. bombed Libya. Maybe the whole remaining group of us will be going home very soon...

"Don't lose hope, but don't lose yourself in hope," Allan reminds me. I imagine (we don't talk about it) that his emotions must be even more turbulent than mine. Robert's release is a sign of hope for me, since we assume that I, too, am being held for the release of the Kuwait prisoners. But we have no reason to think it's a sign of hope for Allan; presumably his release depends on some other demand. Thinking about Allan's situation makes me sick—part grief, part guilt—which puts the brakes on my own hopes, keeps them from running wild.

I feel sick, also, that Paul and Donald are back in solitary. I feel sick for them, of course. But also because their separation forces me to confront the reality that Allan and I, too, could be separated at any moment, whenever our captors feel like it.

Passing messages becomes more complicated now that there are three parties using the pipe instead of two. If Donald leaves a message for Paul, it will always end up sitting in our cell for a day, since Allan can't unroll the message there in the bathroom to figure out who it's for—not enough time, too much noise. Once Allan brings the message back to our cell and realizes it's meant for Paul, he has to wait until the next morning to return the message to the bathroom. An extra day's delay will likewise occur every time Paul leaves a message for us or we leave a message for Donald.

Paul quickly devises a system to get around this problem, which he explains in notes to the rest of us. When we see one or more messages waiting in the pipe, we need to check the corner of the rolled-up foil that's closest to the pipe's mouth. If the tip of the corner has been ripped off at an angle, that indicates a message for Donald. If a piece in the shape of a square has been ripped out of the corner, the message is for Allan and me. If the corner is intact, the message is for Paul.

Okay... but how are we supposed to remember that arbitrary code? After mulling it over for a little while, Allan announces that it isn't arbitrary, he's cracked the logic. Tearing the corner at an angle means removing a right triangle, which resembles the letter D, for Donald. Tearing off a square requires two rips, hence a message for the two of us, Allan and me. I'm not convinced that this is what Paul had in mind when he devised the code, but if it works as a mnemonic for Allan, whatever.

Once the code has been instituted—which is to say, once Paul can send a message to Allan and me without Donald intercepting it—Paul advises us:

DM tried suicide last time he was alone. Please support!

Allan appears as alarmed by this announcement as I feel, which surprises me, since I tend to anticipate the worst while he's generally steadier. During feedings, I keep an ear out for the sound of Donald shattering his tea glass, since that's the suicide method I contemplated in my first prison. I can't imagine any other method he might try.

Donald shows signs of growing low within just a week or so being moved. Messages like this—

Glad we can communicate, even just to say hi. Means a lot to me.

give way to this—

Bad day. I miss my wife and kids.

followed in turn, one day, by—

You two are lucky. Be good to each other.

That last sounds so much like a farewell missive that Allan dashes off the following reply in urgently drawn letters:

Donald, your wife and kids love you. Don't hurt them! You could be home soon!

On the same day he leaves that message under the sink for Donald, Allan leaves a message alerting Paul that he thinks "DM may be about to hurt himself."

From the morning we receive Donald's "be good to each other" message, it takes three more days—the minimum possible—for Allan to leave his urgent answer and then retrieve an answer left in turn by Donald. During those three days, Allan is more anxious than I have ever seen him. He wonders aloud: Should he just call across the basement to Donald and have done with it? A thumping's a small price to pay if it saves Donald's life.

In an odd role reversal, I find myself in the position of urging Allan to calm down and be reasonable. We haven't been able to think of any way Donald could try to kill himself except cutting his wrists with glass—and we haven't heard him shatter his glass. Paul, who knows the details of Donald's first suicide attempt, hasn't called out to him, even though we know Paul's willing to do that (from when he called out after Robert's beating)—so evidently Paul doesn't believe the situation is that urgent yet. Let's wait for another message from Donald and see what it says.

Donald's next message to us reads:

I'm not that bad, but thank you. Sorry I scared you. Fuck Paul for telling you.

Allan is immensely relieved. But he also feels immensely foolish, which he takes out on me: We're supposed to challenge each other when we get caught up in Strange Ideas. So why didn't I challenge his overreaction to Donald's message?

I react defensively: I did challenge him, I told him he should wait for another message from Donald before panicking.

Allan's not going to let me off the hook; he's determined to stick blame on me. I didn't call it a Strange Idea, like I should have. He claims that would have made a difference to him. And I should have said something sooner—before he preached at Donald in that god-awful way about not hurting his wife and kids.

I know this isn't about me, it's about Allan feeling ashamed, so I stop responding as if it's an attack. Instead, I try to say the kind of thing Allan would say to soothe me if I were the one lashing out. I assure him that he hasn't done anything to feel bad about. He was worried about Donald, as was I; and yes, we overreacted, both of us, in different ways; but the only result is that Donald knows how much we care about him. What's wrong with that?

Allan retorts that it's easy for me to talk, I'm not the one who made an ass of myself. I tell him he didn't make an ass of himself, and I feel sorry that he feels like he did because he has absolutely no reason to. That said, I ensure myself the last word by lying down on my back and closing my eyes. I interlock my fingers on top of my chest and cross my calf over the other shin to show that I'm relaxing, not upset. I leave Allan to work through his grouchiness.

Following that night's feeding, Allan and I end up kneeling beside one another, rinsing out our bowls at the same time. I find the scene pleasurably domestic. Like we're a married couple, keeping house together.

Allan takes advantage of the moment to apologize for jumping down my throat earlier. He says it lightly, as if we've already made up, which in a way we have since I haven't been holding a grudge. If I were the one apologizing, I'd be hanging my head, mumbling remorsefully or sullenly. But as a rule, Allan doesn't do dramatic guilt. I'm equally light as I accept his apology: That's okay, we're fine.

He catches my eye. "You handled yourself pretty well," he says in the tone of someone compelled to acknowledge an opponent's prowess.

A wave of delight rolls through me, so powerful I can't stop my mouth from stretching into a self-satisfied grin. I'm immediately embarrassed. Once I've managed to put on a modest expression, I say, "I'm just glad Donald's all right."

"Me too."

Lying back to back with Allan, waiting to drop off to sleep, I bask in a sense of... I shouldn't say "contentment." I'm not content to be here, I'm not insane. But I do feel happy. More precisely put: there are a number of things that, tonight, I feel happy about. Donald's not suicidal after all. Robert's gone home, which gives me hope that my own release has moved some increment closer. In the meantime, I'm blessed not to have been separated from Allan. I'm adapting to hostage life, as Allan says. At this very moment, lying here, I have that feeling of everything being natural, which I still find weird, but which helps me keeps my spirits up. I'm not homesick, not at the moment, anyway, although if I dwell on that fact, I'm liable to become so.

I feel happy—comfortable—in my pajamas, my socks. The power's out, so I don't have the fan blowing cold, humid air over me. I've been curled up under my blanket long enough to warm me up to a cozy temperature.

I feel happy remembering how I handled myself today with Allan. We fought a little, like friends do at times. Like even lovers do. But I stood my ground. I'm proud of that. And what makes me even prouder, I moved beyond standing my ground to rise to the occasion and be the mature one, for once—the one who was serene and reasonable and saw what this fight was really about, saw what Allan really needed. I gave him what he needed: the assurance, the boosting, the perspective. I was the older brother. I was the steady one. And in the end, Allan praised me for it.

So yes, I'm happy. For the moment.

I enjoy my happiness as I sink into sleep.

* * *

I wake up, some hours later. I'm still curled up warm under my blanket. Behind me, Allan is snoring softly. I have no idea how close it is to morning. The only way I can know it's morning is when Allan gets up to take his long piss. His full bladder is our cockcrow.

Usually when I wake up in the night, it's because I need to empty my own smaller bladder. I feel a little bit of a need to do that now. But there's no way in hell it's going to happen, at least not right away.

I am hard. Not one of those automatic half-erections I wake up with in the morning now and then. This is a full-on, stretched-to-the-limit, almost-painful, I-want-sex erection.

I haven't had an erection like this since before I was kidnapped. The last time I had an erection like this, I would have been back in the States.

Was I having an erotic dream? I don't remember.

Very softly—Allan's still snoring, I want to keep it that way—I move my right hand from where it's tucked under my chin for warmth, down to my lap. I wrap my hand around my hard-on, groping it through my pajama bottoms and briefs. As I squeeze, pleasure radiates out from my groin into my thighs and stomach. Ohhhhh...

I want to jack off so badly. I want to fondle my nipple with my left hand through my pajama top while gently pinching the head of my dick between my thumb and fingers, over and over, rapidly. It's an efficient but satisfying method I relied on in my college dorm to hide what I was doing from my roommate, in bed on the other side of the room. I could pull that off here, in the cell, without being detected, couldn't I? Allan asleep, me concealed under my blanket...

Actually, speaking of Allan... Jacking off isn't what I really want to do. What I want to do is turn over and grab Allan and rub my pajama-clad body against his until I squirt into my briefs.

Nope. Stop. You can't do this.

As soon as my id draws Allan into my sexual fantasy, my superego won't let me go further. I let go of my dick, tuck my hand back under my chin. I'm not beating myself up, I'm not berating myself for being disgusting or perverted or anything along those lines. This is merely... improper. I can't jack off lying right next to Allan. Not only because of how mortified I'd be if he woke up and caught me, though that's certainly a major consideration. But also because it would be an imposition on him, an assault on the paper-thin barriers that preserve what tiny amount of personal space we each have.

And I shouldn't indulge in sexual fantasies about Allan, it complicates things. The last thing I want to do is create for myself a situation in which I can't look him in the eye because of guilt over the thoughts I've been having about him. I'd give myself away.

Not to mention the impracticalities of masturbating. It's not like I have an extra sock lying around. I can't change into a new pair of underwear in the morning. I have tissues in my tub, I could use those, I suppose. The tissue paper would make a scratchy sound, though, I'd be at risk of being discovered. I could try constricting my dick when I cum, the way I used to do when I first started masturbating, as a teenager. If I can still get the technique to work—it's been years since I did that—most of the ejaculate would stay backed up inside my urethra, and then I could piss it out.

Having to think through the mechanics is killing the mood.

As my urge to masturbate slowly subsides, so does my erection. I regret the loss. Who knows when I'll have sexual feelings again? I still don't know what caused me to get aroused tonight. Because I felt so good when I went to sleep, would be my guess. Together, my body and my subconscious mind found another way to express my happiness.

It's better for me if my sex drive stays suppressed, under the circumstances. That's the intelligent, pragmatic way to think about the situation.

Still, I can't help but feel that I've just watched a window of opportunity seal shut. I lost my chance. I let something get away that, for all I know, might not return.