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 6 – Transferred to an abandoned office
Exactly three weeks after Robert Berg was taken away, Allan and I are taken.
They come for us in the night. It's the night at the end of shower day, therefore the night of the weekly shift change. They rouse Allan and me from sleep, take us upstairs together. I'm pretty certain, anyway, that Allan is with me: I hear another guard go into the cell right after my guard leads me out of it, and more than one set of footsteps follow me up the stairs.
I'm breathing a little heavily, from nervous excitement. Donald and Paul's confidence that Robert was released, not just transferred to some other holding place, makes me all the more hopeful that Allan and I are being released, too. Robert's release was the beginning of the end. Everything has been resolved, or at least is in the process of final resolution. Everyone's going home, albeit in stages. Please, God, let it be...
In the front room, I stand waiting for several minutes while activities of some kind go on around me. I assume Allan is still here, waiting too. I hear guards entering and leaving through a wooden door ahead of me—the door to the outside, it must be. Perhaps during one of these trips they took Allan out already.
After a while, the guard who walked me upstairs, who has remained beside me, gripping my arm, passes me off to someone else. I quickly discover that my new keeper is Makmoud; the incoming shift is his. He pats my shoulder. "Home, Jérémie," he says.
I take a deep, shaky breath. I feel light-headed. "I'm really going home?"
"Yes, home. America." Makmoud's voice sounds slightly tense, or maybe just distracted. There's still a lot of movement going on, other guards talking to each other. "No problem, Jérémie. Okay?"
I haven't forgotten that the guards repeatedly assured me I was going home when they transferred me to this prison. Nevertheless, I believe it this time. Makmoud wouldn't lie to me, plus there's the precedent of Robert's release. I feel an urge to cry, out of relief and gratitude—tinged with sadness at the thought that I will not see Makmoud again. More literally, I am going to leave this country without ever having seen Makmoud, his face anyway. I will miss him, strange as I know that is.
"Goodbye, Makmoud," I say. He doesn't respond, but another guard, who has just taken hold of my other arm, hisses at me. Someone is talking in Arabic, apparently I interrupted some kind of instruction to the group. Or I'm just not supposed to be talking, as usual.
Time to go. Makmoud and the other guard lead me out of the house, off the concrete threshold, onto cold ground; I can feel the chill through my socks. The night air is chilly, too—too chilly to be walking around outside wearing nothing but pajamas. Allan was right: we were warmer in the basement than above ground.
I'm leaving this place the same way I came to it, in the back of a van. The guards seat me on the floor, opposite the side door, just a little ways toward the back. Allan comes in right behind me. We sit next to each other with our backs to the side wall, hugging our knees for warmth. Across from us, the van's door remains open. We can hear the guards walking quickly back to the house, except for a single man who stays behind to keep watch on us. It sounds like he's sitting on the threshold of the van's open door.
I lean sideways a tiny bit into Allan, imperceptibly to the guard, I hope. I'm trying to give some muted expression to my excitement. We're going home! Allan presses back. If I'm going to miss Makmoud, I'm going to miss Allan much, much more. I love him so much. I owe him so much. I could not have survived this experience without him. We'll stay in each other's lives, there's no question of that. Close friends, even from a distance. How could we not, after what we've been through?
I am extremely grateful to God that Allan and I are going home together—that I don't have to live with the guilt of leaving him behind. This is an unexpected gift. Because we've assumed that we're being held for different reasons, we've always assumed that we would be released at different times, and Allan has always taken for granted that I would go first.
We're still waiting in the van. I need to do something other than sit here ready to explode with impatience, so I lay my right hand on the floor next to me and explore my surroundings a little. I quickly make contact with an empty water jug, the size that would be used in an office water cooler. Because it's empty, my light touch is enough to set it rattling on the metal floor and against other empty bottles that are packed in close around it. The jiggling of the bottles triggers a plastic rustling atop them—a bag of trash, I imagine, being packed out for disposal in the city.
The guard stretches over and delivers a smack to my forehead that knocks the back of my head against the side of the van. Ow! I hang my head as a show of contrition and resume hugging my knees. Moron! Don't piss off the guards now. They might keep you here longer as punishment and release one of the others now in your place.
Footsteps approach. The guard sitting in the open doorway scoots all the way into the back with us. Someone tosses a few bulky objects onto the floor just beyond my feet. One of the objects lands close enough to my toes that I can make contact with it. It's flexible, like canvas. I intuit that what they've thrown into the van are duffle bags, the outgoing guards' luggage.
The side door closes, a driver and passenger climb in front, and we're off. In contrast to the silent trip that brought Allan and me to the Shouf five months ago, tonight the guards are cheerful and chatty. They, too, are going home.
While we're still making our way down from the mountains, a frightening incident slashes through the upbeat mood. The two guards up front suddenly become agitated by something they've seen. The driver brakes, turns off the engine. The guard in back grabs a handful of my hair and yanks my head down with a warning hiss. I imagine he's doing the same to Allan—or, actually, no, since Allan is sitting to the guard's right, the guard could be using his right hand to hold his gun to Allan's head, as was done to me on the trip up here. Come to think of it, this could be the very same guard who did that to me: it's the same shift.
My face is screwed up in pain from having my hair pulled, but I force myself to hold absolutely still. I don't want to do anything that might make the guard panic and shoot Allan. For what feels like a long time but is probably only a few minutes, everyone in the van sits in silence, except for quiet, tense words exchanged occasionally between the two up front. Then the driver restarts the engine, and we resume driving. The guard releases my hair. The tension in the van eases somewhat, but the guards remain vigilant for the rest of the trip. No more happy chatting.
We reach a level highway. Not long after that, we're back in the city, pausing at intersections, turning at right angles. My anticipation is mounting. I have no idea what the logistics of our release will be, but I'm on the verge of finding out.
At one point, I hear gunshots behind me, away toward what would be the driver's left—somewhat distant, but close enough to be unnerving. I brace to have my hair pulled again, but we simply speed past, leaving the shooting behind us.
We stop. I have the impression we've parked on a street, curbside. The neighborhood is quiet, it must be the wee hours of the morning. The guards seated up front get out and walk away, the guard in back stays with us. This routine is familiar. The guard watching us whispers threateningly, "No talk!" We know, you don't have to snap at us. I console myself that I may have just heard that order for the very last time.
A minute later, the side door opens, and the other guards climb in. Allan and I are made to stand up at the same time, but only Allan is taken from the van. I hear them hustle him away. After a few hurried steps, a wooden door closes. Okay, they've taken him inside a building...
I am standing just inside the van's still open door. I feel and smell the crisp night air. A single guard stands next to me, to my right, with his left arm wrapped around my back, clutching my left arm like a vise. The position keeps my arm pressed close against my side, and me pressed close against the guard. His right hand holds a pistol to my chest. The barrel happens to be touching my nipple, which intensifies my feeling of vulnerability.
As we stand there waiting, he puts his lips to my ear. My body stiffens involuntarily, and my head flinches away—I'm having a flashback to the Bully, in my first prison, whispering into my ear that he "loved" me. The guard reacts to my flinching by squeezing my arm even more tightly and jabbing the gun painfully hard against my nipple.
"You not move," the guard orders in a furious whisper. Since he doesn't add anything more, those must be the same words—ironically—that he was about to speak into my ear, as a warning, just before I flinched. I'm not certain, but I think he may be the guard who Allan and I used to help with his English. The phrase he just used is not one he practiced with us, though.
His manner is giving me doubts about this being a release. Despite all the time I have spent longing to be released, hoping I was about to be released, imagining the aftermath of my release, I've never thought to ask Allan what the release itself would look like, based on his knowledge of past hostages' releases. Do our captors just turn us loose somewhere? Do they hand us over to someone? More to the point: Does a release look like what's happening now?
So far, things are unfolding much like they did when we arrived at the Shouf prison. Oh please don't let this be another transfer...
Maybe they're only letting one of us go. When Makmoud said, "Home," he was speaking to me. Maybe Allan is being transferred. They're dropping him off at his new holding place, and then they're going to come back and drive me to wherever I'm going to be released.
By imagining that, I have betrayed Allan. I have wished him into continued captivity. But if this building they've brought us to isn't a release site, then I am desperately hoping for the treasonous alternative I just imagined.
Except... if they're about to drive me somewhere else, then why am I being made to stand in the van near the open door? Dear God...
The door I heard close earlier reopens. Two guards approach. One takes over holding my left arm, while the guard who has been waiting with me takes responsibility for my right; the extra guard must be serving as a lookout. The guards who are holding me help me step out of the van. My feet touch down on concrete—a sidewalk, I surmise. Goddammit, I'm standing in a cold puddle, it must have been raining. The guards run me across the sidewalk, then I'm inside the building, walking on a smooth floor. My socks are soaked, my feet freezing. As the guards thread me across the room, I hear someone else walking in front of us. That means there are more than three guards in the room. Someone else was here to meet us.
Another door opens. Not a clanging metallic cell door, just a regular wooden door with a knob and hinges that could use a little oil. I pass through into another room, with a rough cement floor, much like that in the Shouf basement. Several steps more, and I'm made to sit on a mattress. The guards leave without a word, locking the door behind them.
Blindfold up, at last. Before I do anything else, I peel off my wet socks. Then I take stock of where I am. The room is dark, but the door—several feet to my left, in the wall facing me—has an abnormally large gap at its base, a few inches high, which allows light from the next room to stream in across the floor. Although my mattress lies on the floor, there is a metal bedframe nearby, closer toward the door, with an equally thin mattress spread out on top of it. Allan is sitting on the edge of the bed, beaming down at me with his triangular grin and waving one hand in boyish delight. What the hell is he so happy about?
Allan pats a spot on his mattress alongside him; he wants me to come sit on the bed. I step silently across the floor. The bedframe creaks as I sit, making me wince. Beyond the door, we hear some guards exit the building while others remain behind.
Allan grips my knee. "I'm glad they didn't separate us," he whispers. That remark leads me to suspect that he assumed from the start this was another transfer, not a release. He leaves his hand on my knee. I want to lay my hand on top of his, but then we would be practically holding hands, so of course I don't. I become acutely self-conscious about what to do with my hands, though. I resort to clasping them across my stomach.
Gesturing with his head, Allan mutely encourages me to check out our surroundings. The room is a rectangle, with its longer axis running left to right relative to our current position sitting on the bed. By the standards we've grown used to, the room is spacious. Tall and long, stretching off to our right for... several yards, I would guess, I don't estimate distance any better than I do time. Even the room's narrow width, which we look across as we face the door, is still a little wider than the cells I've been living in ever since my kidnapping.
The bed is set back in the corner across from the door, flush with the walls. My mattress is laid out on the floor parallel to the bed, but with most of its length extending past the end of the bed. This leaves plenty of space for the guards to approach the bed when they enter the room without having to walk over the mattress. Apart from the bed and mattress, the room is empty, except for two rectangular pieces of furniture stashed against the short wall at the far end of the room, off to our right. The light coming in under the door isn't sufficient to let me make out what the objects are, exactly. Cabinets of some kind? Maybe a dresser and a wardrobe?
Allan points my attention high up on the long wall behind us. I have to bow forward as I crane my neck around. Up close to the ceiling I see a barred window. No, on second thought it's a grate, given how narrow the slats are. The grate appears to look out of the building: the space visible through the slats is fairly bright, as if there's an electric light, like a street lamp, not too far away. Opposite that grate, on the long wall we face as we sit on the bed, is a second grate at a similar height. The second grate evidently overlooks the room where the guards are.
Allan gives my knee another squeeze. "So far this is a big improvement," he whispers. He gives a breathy laugh. "Big," he repeats. He goes on laughing at the double meaning, a little hysterically; he's releasing stress. His laughter rises high enough in volume that a guard drops to his hands and knees on the other side of the door and hisses for quiet through the large gap underneath.
I scurry back to my mattress on the floor. I wouldn't call this new place a "big improvement." Certainly the size is an improvement. But this room is freezing; no wonder, with a grate letting in air from outside. And I don't want to be in another holding place at all. We're supposed to be free now.
On my mattress is a folded-up blanket, topped by the usual tub and bottles. Also, I discover, a pullover sweater and a pair of thick, woolen socks. I put the new clothes on right away. Looking over, I see that Allan is pulling a sweater on over his pajamas as well. When he sees me looking, he grins and nods.
I curl up under my blanket with my head tucked inside so that my breath will warm me up. Not long after, I hear the guards settling down to sleep in the next room. The building becomes so quiet that I can hear the guards' slow, heavy breathing passing under our door.
I'm too agitated to sleep. I'm building a case for believing that we could still be on our way to being released. It makes perfect sense, now that I think it through. They wouldn't release us at one or two or three in the morning, whatever time it is right now. However the release is done, exactly, Allan and I will need to go somewhere for help afterward—our countries' embassies, I assume—which means the release needs to happen at a reasonable hour. So: we're spending the night here, and they'll release us some time tomorrow. That explains why our conditions in this place seem so thrown together. This isn't a place to hide hostages long-term. The security's too poor. A grate in our cell, open to the street? That makes no sense, there's too much risk of our being discovered.
I hear Allan moving around on his bed. Not far from my head, he whispers, "Jeremy? You still awake?"
I emerge from under my blanket and sit up alongside the bed. Now that the guards' room is dark, the only light we have is what filters in through the grate from the electric light outside. I can make out the shape of Allan's head but not his features. Allan lays his head on his mattress, very close to where my head is, so we can keep communicating in whispers. "How are you doing?" he asks.
I'm annoyed that he made me get out of my relatively warmed-up bed to answer such a mundane question. But there is something I want to discuss with him. I want him to confirm my theory about our being released tomorrow.
"Makmoud said we're going home," I begin. Suddenly I'm afraid to pose the question that comes next. Does Allan believe Makmoud was telling the truth? I'm afraid that his answer will be no, and that he'll have an unassailable reason for answering no.
Allan thinks before he speaks. That's a bad sign—it probably means he's trying to figure out how to put a positive spin on things. "They could be preparing to release us from here," he whispers slowly. "Or at least, to release you. That might explain why there's only one bed." I am ashamed to hear him propose the same scenario I had imagined in the van: I'm going home, he's staying. Still, I cling to the lifeline of hope that scenario offers me. Allan continues, gingerly: "But they didn't do what they did when Robert went home."
I'm about to say, "I don't know what you mean," when the horrible understanding dawns. The hubbub, as Donald called it. Moving everyone from cell to cell so we wouldn't realize they were taking Robert away. Allan's right, they didn't do that when they took the two of us out of the basement.
I bury my face in my hands and fight not to cry. The evidence is incontrovertible. It makes no sense that the guards do things that way, but they do, we know the pattern.
Makmoud lied to me. He lied. How could he do that to me? All the good will I have ever felt for him is dying inside me at this moment. His betrayal compounds my despair.
Allan puts his hand on my shoulder. "Hey. Don't lose hope," he says. But that's only half our maxim. The other half is: Don't lose yourself in hope. And I have no realistic grounds to go on hoping that we—or even I—am about to be released. The reassuring case I was building for myself just before Allan sat me up to talk was built of straw.
Allan moves his hand from my shoulder to the base of my head and sort of jiggles it. This is an unfamiliar gesture to me—an unknown term in the straight male lexicon of touch. I deduce that it's supposed to mean something like, Buck up. "Let's go to sleep, all right?" Allan tells me. "We'll see what happens tomorrow."
I nod, I don't dare speak for fear of losing control. Allan removes his hand from my head and turns his body around the other way. For some reason, he's decided to treat the end of the bed that's flush against the wall as the head, which means that while we were whispering he was lying down with his head at what he's designated as the bed's foot. If he would sleep that way, we would be able to talk more easily in the future, because his head would be close to mine. But perhaps he wants to sleep with his head at the opposite end of the bed because it gives him a greater sense of distance from me—a greater sense of privacy.
I curl back up under my blanket. Eventually I manage to fall asleep.
* * *
Within a few days, even Allan stops talking as if there's any hope that this new location might be the staging ground for a release. It also becomes clear that judging the new location a "big improvement" was premature. Yes, we have gained some advantages by our transfer to this new place of imprisonment, but we are faced with serious problems as well.
One advantage is that we have several times more space in our new quarters than either of us has ever enjoyed as a hostage. It appears we're being held on the premises of an abandoned small business. The items of furniture against the far wall are a filing cabinet and a tall cupboard, both metallic, both empty. The guards' room, presumably, was the business's front office or reception area, while Allan and I are living in a back room—once a storeroom, maybe, or a workshop. The place has been abandoned for a long time: there are dust bunnies on the floor.
Allan has a fetish for numerical exactitude, so he uses his feet to measure the room's dimensions. The calculations involved in getting from Allan's shoe size to units of twelve inches make my math-allergic head spin, so I don't help out, I just wait for Allan to announce the result. Allan decides the room is about 21 feet long and 9 feet wide. The ceiling looks to be twice as high as we are tall, so he estimates 12 feet.
Allan has to wait to take these measurements until a few days after our arrival, once we've come to enjoy more freedom of movement. Initially, we are confined to our mattresses all the time—which is to say that we don't derive any benefit from our larger quarters apart from having more immediate personal space, which is certainly welcome. The guards don't want to hear us moving or talking at all. If the person on the bed even changes position, the creaking of the bedframe is likely to bring a guard hissing at us through the gap at the bottom of the door.
Allan and I take turns sleeping on the bed, starting our second night here. Once the guards have fallen asleep, Allan whispers to me that it isn't fair that I should always have to sleep on the floor. So we swap places, each taking his blanket with him. Within a few hours, I realize I should have thought to bring my pee bottle as well. Allan's is at hand, so I use it, but I dislike doing so: it feels both unhygienic and erotic in a perverted way. The next morning, the guards don't make any comment about our having traded places, so we keep doing it, night by night, after the evening toilet run. I move my drinking and pee bottles with me during each subsequent swap, and Allan follows suit.
We get two toilet runs a day here, not just one. This is another advantage to our new location, unsolicited and unexpected. Perhaps the guards have decided they don't mind giving us an evening toilet run because it's just the two of us; we hear no signs that there are other hostages on the premises. Or maybe these guards simply don't know that we're only "supposed" to have one toilet run a day. Also unexpectedly, the guards don't harass us to hurry up in the bathroom, they just wait for us to knock on the inside of the door to let them know we're done. The difference, I think, is owed to the fact that these guards don't hang around outside the bathroom waiting for us. Instead, they use a key to lock us inside, then they go down the hall to their room to wait in comfort for our knock, at which point they return.
From the sound of the plumbing, we can tell that the bathroom is located just beyond the short wall at the far end of our room. We reach it by walking down a hall that opens to our right when we're brought out of the back room. The hall is quite narrow, judging from how frequently I brush against the wall as the guard walks alongside me.
Although cramped, this bathroom is in most ways the best equipped that I've enjoyed in my captivity. A squat toilet—but instead of a hose, this toilet has a flushing mechanism, and there's a tiny spigot beside the toilet for personal cleaning (although for that, a hose would actually be more efficient). The bathroom has a small sink, though no mirror as usual. There's a shower as well, with an actual shower head; back in the Shouf prison, we stood under water pouring directly out of the pipe. The shower and sink have taps for both hot and cold water, but the excitement this inspires ends quickly in disillusion: there is no hot water. I'm a little puzzled to find a shower in a workplace restroom, although it makes more sense if, as Allan imagines, our back room once served as a workshop. Besides hot water, another regrettable absence in this bathroom is soap. We find some ancient leftover scraps in the shower when we arrive, but once those have melted and crumbled away, the guards don't replace them.
In addition to seeming not to know the norms for toilet runs, our new guards also seem not to know about shower day. They never tell us, "Douche," or indicate in any other way that we have their permission to bathe. By the time we've been here a week and would therefore expect to have been allowed to shower, Allan and I have both caught colds, so we wouldn't want to take a frigid shower in winter temperatures anyway for fear of becoming sicker. But we're going to need to wash eventually, more than douching over the toilet and splashing water on our faces at the sink.
Once he's recovered from his cold, Allan asks the guards if he can take a "shower, douche." Since we're not sure if our new guards understand either English or French, he supplements his bilingual request with a pantomime of soaping up under falling water. It turns out these guards don't care if or when we shower, consistent with what we have come to know is their general indifference to our needs. In this case, their indifference means we're free to shower when we like, although I'm sure that would change if they came to feel we were taking too much of their time. I decide that I will continue to take a hasty shower only once a week; I'm afraid I'll get sick again if I stand shivering under the water more often than that. Allan braves a shower only a little more frequently, a couple of times a week. Since we don't have towels, we use our pajama tops to dry off and wear our sweaters against our skin while we leave our tops hanging over an open drawer of the filing cabinet to dry.
We have only two guards here, not three. No other shift ever relieves them. The guards hardly speak to us; on the rare occasions they do, they speak in Arabic. Mostly they communicate by hissing to let us know they're displeased or clicking to tell us to get moving, like donkeys. I hate that, it's demeaning. Whenever Allan tries to communicate with the guards, he does it in both English and French, hoping they understand one language or the other.
For our first full day here, both guards are on the premises around the clock. On our second morning, after the feeding and toilet run, we hear one of the guards leave the building. The other spends the rest of the day with us. More precisely, he spends the rest of the day in the room out front, where he entertains himself with a radio and a tape player. He never enters our room, although periodically he peeks under the door to check up on us. The guard who left returns to assist with the evening feeding and toilet run. After that, again, one guard leaves the building while one remains to spend the night.
The next day, our third day here, passes the same as the second. Both guards are present for feedings and toilet runs, but only one guard spends the day with us, and only one guard stays overnight.
On the fourth morning, after completing our toilet runs and locking us into our room, both guards leave the building. At first we can't believe it. We think the guard must be sitting or lying down; we strain to hear him make some quiet sound. It's Allan's day to be on the mattress on the floor, but he motions for me to trade places with him. He bounces on the bed so that the bedframe will make noise. No one comes to the door to hiss. Allan crosses quietly to the door, eases down onto his hands and knees, listens, then peers through the gap underneath into the dimly lit room beyond.
He startles me by speaking at normal volume. "They're gone. I don't fucking believe it."
Almost instantly, Allan concocts an escape plan. He wants to try to bash through the door with the bedframe. We're both worried that the guards, or one of them, could return at any moment; but while that possibility paralyzes me, it drives Allan to take risks. This could be our one chance, he urges me. I parry with the possibility of failure. The door might be too sturdy, and the bedframe might not be sturdy enough. Since the door opens into our room, won't that make it even harder to smash down from our side? We might do enough damage to the door for the guards to see but not enough to do us any good. I remind Allan what he told me about his time in solitary confinement, how he used to get caught up imagining escape plans that only later he recognized as unrealistic. His plan to batter through the door with the bedframe might be a Strange Idea. We need to take more time to think it through.
Allan is desperately frustrated with me. But it might not be a Strange Idea, he insists, and we might not have more time. Because he needs me to help him lift the bed, I have veto power, so I use it. Allan is furious with me, which I find agonizing, but my terror of being caught makes me adamant.
Hours pass. The guards don't return. Allan cools down. I'm on edge, constantly listening for the outer door, but I'm less panicky than I was earlier. Allan says it drives him crazy that we can't know for sure if his bedframe plan will work or not without trying it. But I'm right, he concedes: there's enough risk of failure that we can't risk trying it—even though it might succeed.
He turns his attention to the question of why the guards have gone. His theory is that they've left for the day, he doesn't expect them back until the evening. He thinks these men are new to guard duty and aren't cut out for it. The way they do the toilet runs suggests they're too lazy to spend even a few minutes standing in a hall. The dismal food situation shows they don't want to make more than a minimal effort. They're probably bored out of their minds. And cold. So they've spent the last three days convincing themselves we don't need to be closely monitored—and, good for us, we've convinced them of that, so they're off. Allan predicts they'll show up for the evening feeding and toilet run, then they'll both go spend the night somewhere warmer. He's optimistic it will be this way all the time from now on.
I don't know what to think. I hope Allan's right. If he is, I observe aloud, we'll have much more time to think through possibilities for escape. I intend this remark as an olive branch.
Allan asks if I'll help him move the filing cabinet so we can look out the grate to see what's outside the building. I refuse for fear that the guards will return and catch us. But I promise that if Allan's prediction about the guards not returning until the evening proves correct, and if they leave again tomorrow morning as they did today, I'll help him move the filing cabinet then. Allan accepts this as a reasonable precaution.
Everything unfolds exactly as Allan predicted. In addition to being thrilled about the situation, he is obnoxiously self-congratulatory. "I knew it! Didn't I tell you?" he says, over and over. I tolerate the obnoxiousness because he's wearing his adorable smile. Also, because his excitement makes him "handsy"—he wants to keep touching me. While he's saying, "Didn't I tell you?" for the umpteenth time, he'll grab my shoulders, or drum on my back, or reach over to squeeze my knee or ankle while we're sitting on the bed talking.
The fact that Allan's prediction proved correct is fantastic news for us. Apart from about fifteen minutes, twice a day, when the guards turn up for feedings and bathroom trips, Allan and I are now being left to our own devices around the clock, day and night. There are even a handful of occasions when the guards come by only once a day. (That's not a good thing, though, because on those days we get only a single small meal.) As Allan remarks: The chefs would explode if they knew how much time we spend unsupervised.
Being left alone is the closest we get, as hostages, to freedom. We can talk all we like. We can move around the room all we like. It's at this point that Allan measures the room's dimensions with his feet. We resume our exercise periods, which we had to suspend when the guards were here. I like to pace in a square extending from the foot of the bed to the wall where the filing cabinet and cupboard are stored. Wearing only my black socks, in order to preserve my new woolen ones, I walk around and around for long, meditative periods. Allan jogs the same route.
Most importantly, our newfound measure of freedom allows us to explore our surroundings, searching for ways to break out to total freedom.
As I promised, I help Allan carry the filing cabinet to a position underneath the outside grate. He asks if I want to be the one to climb up to look out. Even though we're the same height, he's under the impression I weigh less than he does, I guess because I'm younger, so he thinks I'm a little less likely to damage the empty filing cabinet, which looks cheaply made. I don't want to climb up, out of cowardice. What if the guards return, unexpected, while I'm up there? Peeking through the grate was Allan's idea, he should be the one who shoulders the risk.
As it happens, I also have an extreme fear of heights, but that's too humiliating to use as an excuse. Instead, the excuse I give Allan is that I've realized I once again left my glasses behind at our last prison. Allan commiserates. Since I never wore my glasses in our cell, he completely forgot that I have (or had) them. Yeah, well, obviously I forgot, too.
Remembering how Makmoud recovered my glasses for me the first time I left them behind during a transfer, Allan encourages me to tell our guards here what happened; he'll help me with a French translation. I tell him it's not worth the bother. We still haven't figured out if the guards understand a word we say, and considering how hard it's proving to get better food and more blankets, I doubt we could get the guards to lift a finger toward the more complicated task of recovering my glasses. Besides, I don't really need my glasses. They're just for seeing long distances, and it's not as if I'll be driving a car anytime soon.
Oops. So much for using my missing glasses as an excuse not to climb up and look out the grate. My slip-up does not escape Allan's notice. "You're afraid they might come back and catch you, right?" he asks. Right, I confess, shame-faced. My acrophobia suddenly seems more mitigating than humiliating, so I add: But I'm also afraid of heights. Allan tells me I should have just said so. And I don't need to feel ashamed of my fear of being caught, either; it's perfectly natural, even rational. He asks me to warn him if the filing cabinet looks like it's starting to dent or bow under his weight.
Allan reports that the grate looks out onto an alley. To his right, he can barely glimpse the cross street. On the back of the building across from us, he can see a service entrance at ground level and windows on the upper stories. It looks like the electric light that shines through our grate at night is over that entrance. Even though it's mid-morning, there's currently no activity in the alley or on the street—a cold rain is falling. Plus, our ears had already told us that we're in a neighborhood with only light vehicular traffic.
Next, we move the cabinet across the room for a look through the grate on the opposite wall, the grate that overlooks the guards' room. By now I'm feeling safer and eager to redeem myself, so this time I climb up. My acrophobia gives me vertigo as I warily inch my way into an upright stance atop the cabinet, but I manage it by pressing myself close to the wall and staring straight ahead, scrupulously keeping my eyes away from either the floor or the ceiling. Allan makes encouraging noises: I'm doing fine, but I can stop anytime I feel like, no shame.
The grate actually overlooks the beginning of the hallway that leads to the bathroom. There's a blank wall filling half my vision, but to my left I can see into the guards' room. They have folding cots—with pillows and blankets, goddammit, which they're no longer using! Allan and I have been begging for more blankets, why won't the guards give us those?
The guards' room is cluttered with abandoned office furniture. Extending past the wall that fills most of my view, I can make out the end of a desk with an overturned table stacked on top of it. Another, narrower table stands upright against a different wall. Several wooden chairs are stacked a little precariously on top of each other in sets of three, alternating right-side-up and upside-down. There's another filing cabinet just where the hall begins. The cabinet and cupboard in our room must be here simply because there wasn't enough space to move them out front. I feel a tiny bit sorry for the guards, actually; their quarters are far more cramped than ours. Then I see their unused blankets again, and what little sympathy I felt gets crushed dead like a bug.
I surmise that through the wall in front of me there must be yet another room, an inner office. I can't see the door into the inner office, so it must be in the wall perpendicular to the one facing me. Toward my left, I can see the door that leads out to the street. Alongside that door, also facing the street, are windows, covered with wooden shutters that admit slits of light.
Once I've clambered down, Allan climbs up to look for himself. We agree that it's an agony having seen the outer door, the door to freedom. We also agree that the unused blankets are an outrage.
The filing cabinet has proved stronger than Allan initially gave it credit for, so over the couple of days that follow, he spends a fair amount of time standing on top of it, staring out one or the other of the grates. He's trying to devise means of escape. He gives up when he decides his imagination simply can't generate any more ideas from the views he's offering it. The guards aren't utter fools for leaving us alone. We are securely locked in.
Allan circles back to his initial "bedframe as battering ram" idea. He examines the bedframe closely, shakes it to test its stability. He uses the gap underneath the door to measure how thick the door is. He knocks to discern if the door is hollow or solid. He pitches a revised risk assessment to me—only slightly revised, but revised enough that he thinks it should tip our decision in favor of risking the attempt. Granted, the door feels solid; but despite the creaking, the bedframe is pretty solid, too. I hold firm to my veto. I still think there's too much risk of failure. As when I first refused to cooperate, Allan gets mad at me for a while before conceding, again, that I'm probably right.
He then contemplates smashing loose the hinges, which are on our side of the door, by somehow detaching one of the bed's legs to use as a club. This strikes me as another Strange Idea. Since I'm doubtful that the bedframe is made of material strong enough to break through a wooden door, I don't see how it could possibly be strong enough to break through metal hinges either. In any case, detaching a leg from the bedframe is a pipe dream. Allan uses his inability to dismantle the bedframe as an occasion to lobby me to reconsider yet again the "battering ram" plan: See how sturdy the bedframe is? I don't budge.
The office we're being kept in is apparently on the ground floor of a residential building. We can hear people moving around through the high ceiling and walking up and down a staircase on the other side of the short wall by the bed. Men loiter at times in the alley behind our room, apparently employees of the establishment across the way. Trucks come periodically to deliver supplies to them. Less distinctly, we hear people talking out in front of the building, women as well as men. On days it's not raining, we hear children playing in the streets; sometimes they'll run shouting down the alley past us.
Being held captive in the middle of the city, above ground, not under it, feels bizarre to me. Allan's more used to the idea, from his first weeks being held under an apartment building, where he could hear children playing through the bathroom vent. Surrounded by people—regular people, not hostages—I feel a little more like I'm living a normal life, less cut off from the world. That feels... good, sort of. It makes my situation more bearable in a way. But at the very same time, having the regular world so close is unbearable because it puts freedom tantalizingly just beyond reach. If only the grate were big enough to squeeze through. If only we could open that damn door.
I can see why Allan is susceptible to Strange Ideas about the possibility of escape. It seems like escape should be easy, the outside world is right there. My cowardice, my propensity for panic, is the only thing that holds me back from being swept away with him into wishful thinking and foolhardy risk-taking.
It's tempting to try to communicate with the outside—to speak to someone in the alley through the grate, or to shout for help to someone loitering in front of the office. But even Allan readily agrees we can't act on that temptation. We agree for different reasons. I'm afraid that if we try to communicate with the outside, we'll discover that the reason the guards feel secure leaving us is that they live right nearby, maybe over our heads, and they'll hear us calling for help.
Allan considers the attempt simply pointless. There's no question that we're back in the impoverished southern suburbs, which means there won't be any police to rescue us; but there will be members and supporters of the Partisans of God, the militia who may really be responsible for our kidnapping. The odds are that anyone we managed to make contact with would be unwilling to get involved, if they didn't outright sympathize with our captors. If we're going to escape, we're going to have to get ourselves out.
Nevertheless, I'll hear someone talking outside, and I'll think: Should we...? Then, when they leave: Did we miss our chance...?
Sometimes I have second thoughts about the "battering ram" plan. Maybe I am being overly timid and pessimistic, maybe it will work. I don't confess these doubts to Allan, though, because I know that if I do, he'll throw caution to the wind. And then I picture us trying, and failing, and being caught. And I hear Robert Berg screaming.
* * *
Within just a few days of the guards beginning to leave us alone, Allan sinks from his handsy excitement into a persistent low. He doesn't appear to be in danger of "sliding away" again, he's not that far gone, but he's discouraged and frustrated and testy. Our inability to escape is just one factor dragging him down. There are others.
The guards' neglect of us has two sides. The positive side is that we spend so much time alone, unmonitored. The negative side is that we are deprived of things we need.
When we're first transferred to the office, we find our tubs freshly stocked with everything we're used to, including tissues, matches, and cigarettes. But the guards won't replace anything. Shortly after our arrival, Allan and I both catch colds. They don't develop into anything more serious—miraculously, considering our conditions—but they linger for over a week, and before they're run their course we've used up all our tissues, which we've been also using as napkins, towelettes, and dust cloths. As is usually the case, the guards don't offer any verbal response when we ask them for more tissues. They also don't bring us more tissues. It's not a question of making us wait until an appointed time to replenish the ration. They never replace our tissues.
The same thing happens with cigarettes. Assuming that we'll receive new packs in a week, as we always have, Allan allows himself his usual ten to twelve cigarettes a day. But once he's used up the four packs that were waiting for us in our tubs, the guards won't give us new ones. The most Allan is able to beg out of them is a single cigarette handed to each of us at the end of each toilet run. It sounds like one of the guards doesn't even want to do that, but the other takes pity. The guards have to light our cigarettes for us before they leave because they won't replace our matches, either. As soon as the guards have left the room, I put out my cigarette so it doesn't burn down, but Allan can't save it for later, as he would like to do; he has to relight it with the still burning stub of his first cigarette and smoke it right away.
Nicotine deprivation makes Allan crabby. It's a side of his personality I haven't seen too often before, because until now he's kept it medicated. He's self-aware enough to be apologetic, but I still have to keep my distance, literally and metaphorically, to avoid being snapped at. I'll be pacing my square, for example, and suddenly Allan will lash out. "Will you give it a rest, for Christ's sake?" So I'll stop, and sometime later he'll apologize, and then I'll resume pacing. I'm grateful that he was still well-stocked with cigarettes during the days we were fighting over the "battering ram" plan. If he hadn't been, those fights would have been nastier, and he would probably have nursed his grudges longer.
Allan's crabbiness makes him more aggressive in dealing with the guards, which in turn makes me anxious that they'll react violently. He stops his routine thank-yous. And he becomes openly angry as he repeats his demands for our two most urgent needs—better food and more blankets.
The food situation: The guards give us nothing but cheese-and-flatbread sandwiches. One sandwich apiece in the morning, another in the evening. No tea, which we would love to have for the sake of warming ourselves. We have bowls, forks, and spoons in our tubs, which convinces us that we're supposed to be receiving rice and vegetables in the evening as usual. But these guards can't be bothered to prepare such a dish; sandwiches are easier. On a few occasions, the guards don't show up in the evening to feed us at all. Whenever that happens, I worry that this is it, we're fucked—the guards have decided for good to make a single sandwich per day the new routine. Fortunately, the one-feeding-a-day occasions prove to be flukes.
Oddly, the guards don't come into our room to deliver our food. Their custom, rather, is to prepare the sandwiches while one of us is using the bathroom. When the sandwiches are ready, a guard will crouch by the door to the back room and hiss through the gap underneath to get the attention of whichever one of us isn't on his toilet run. The guard will then pass the sandwiches under the door. It's a puzzling practice. They must not want to open our door unnecessarily, whether for security's sake or just because they find it inconvenient. But then why don't they bring us our sandwiches at the same time they bring back the person who's using the bathroom? They could hand over our sandwiches at the same time they hand over and light our cigarettes.
Allan thinks that the guards pass the sandwiches under the door to intentionally put us down. His reason for thinking this is that often the guard doesn't wait for us to come take the sandwiches from him, he simply tosses them under the door onto the floor. We become convinced, eventually, that one of the guards is in the habit of doing this, while the other normally waits to hand the sandwiches to us. Allan privately dubs the sandwich-tosser Rat Bastard, and the sandwich-passer Less a Bastard. We suspect that Less a Bastard is the one who was willing to give us cigarettes over Rat Bastard's objections.
Allan protests the tossing of the sandwiches, but it doesn't do any good. Anyway, our higher priority is getting something to eat other than sandwiches. Allan begs bilingually. We need rice, riz. Vegetables, végétales. Please, do you understand? Comprenez-vous?
His pleas thump uselessly against the wall of silence. The fact that we can't hear or see a response from the guards makes the situation more frustrating. We have no idea what's happening here. Do the guards not understand what we're asking for? Or do they understand and not give a shit?
One night, while Allan and I are both suffering from our colds, the guards show up, take us for toilet runs, toss our sandwiches under the door, light our cigarettes, and leave. It's nothing we haven't experienced on other nights, but this time Allan's had enough. When the guards return the next morning, he lets them have it. He's sufficiently self-controlled not to raise his voice to the level of shouting, and he retains a plaintive note; even so, there's no mistaking his fury. I can't see what he's doing at the time, of course, because I'm wearing my blindfold, but I learn later that he's brandishing his bowl at the guards as he harangues them. We are sick, we have been sick for days, can't the guards see that? And we will stay sick, we will get even sicker, if we don't get more food and better food. Two pieces of bread and cheese a day are not enough. We need rice, we need vegetables—we need fruit, for God's sake, oranges, we're sick, how many times do we have to beg you?
I'm scared that at any moment the guards will start hitting Allan. One of them finally hisses, very loudly and harshly, to tell Allan to shut up, adding an angry, imperious sentence in Arabic. Shortly afterward, though, while Allan is in the bathroom, a guard hands me our sandwiches under the door rather than throwing them. I would like to read that as a good sign—a sign that they're feeling a little chastened; a sign, maybe, of further improvements to come. Then again, the sandwich-tossing and the sandwich-handing alternate frequently enough that it probably doesn't mean anything.
That evening, the guards surprise us. For dinner, they bring each of us a packet of wrapped foil, inside of which is a veritable mound of rice and lentils—accompanied by a piece of roasted chicken! It's been almost nine months since I've seen meat. The food is still warm, they must have brought it from somewhere not too far away, an eatery, or a street vendor, or someone's home. I eat ravenously. The rice and lentils are tastily spiced, with garlic and I don't know what else. The food sits warm and heavy in my stomach. For once, I feel full when I'm done.
One of the guards says something that I interpret as being along the lines of: There, are you happy now? Allan sounds grudging when he thanks them, so I enthuse to compensate. Thank you very much, this is very good, thank you... Allan reprimands me later. Don't be servile, the guards weren't doing us a favor, they ought to have been feeding us like that every night.
I'm hopeful. Does this mark the beginning of a permanent improvement in our diet? Yes and no. The next day, the guards revert to giving us nothing but cheese sandwiches; never again do they feed us anything different. (Is that because, when they did, Allan didn't thank them effusively enough?) The one improvement is that the guards now dispense two sandwiches apiece in the morning instead of one. Nutrition remains a serious problem, but at least our calorie intake is higher.
Our other urgent need is blankets. Allan warns me that winters in Beirut are rainy and very cold. The temperature doesn't actually fall to freezing, but we'll feel freezing because of the humidity. If I think it's bad now, in late November, the next three months are going to get worse. The open grate to the outside is a big problem in this regard: it will be like having a window open all winter. A sweater and an extra pair of socks aren't going to be enough. If the guards aren't planning to give us warmer clothes—pants, coat, gloves and a scarf would be in order—they at least have to give us more blankets.
With the food situation, Allan is able to wring some concessions from the guards; with the blankets situation, he gets nowhere. Every time the guards come, Allan insists that we are very cold, très froids. We must have more blankets. Plus de couvertures, s'il vous plait! Being so cold is keeping us sick, malades. The situation becomes all the more infuriating once we've peeked through the grate into the guards' room and have seen the blankets they're no longer using now that they don't spend the nights here. Allan presses them, gesturing toward the other room: Do you have more blankets? Y a-t-il plus des couvertures? It drives us crazy that we can't directly ask for the blankets we know are out there without revealing that we've been peeking.
I have the notion that if I resist the temptation to spend the day wrapped in my blanket, I'll be warmer by contrast when I cocoon myself under the blanket at night, thus making the single blanket feel more adequate. All the pacing I do is partly an alternative means to warm myself up during the day. I can't be so active while I'm sick, though, and I do end up spending long stretches of those days curled under my blanket. For a time I have a fever, which makes me feel that much colder.
During the week-plus that I have my cold, I wallow in self-pity. I want more tissues—or even better, a handkerchief. I want aspirin. I want cough drops. I want orange juice. I want chicken noodle soup. I want more fucking blankets. As long as I'm wishing for things I'm not going to get, I want to fucking go home. I fantasize about a concerned neighbor hearing us coughing through the grate, investigating, and proving brave enough to get us out of here.
My sole consolation while I'm sick is that here I can refill my water bottle twice a day instead of once, so I can get more fluids into me. The guards make us refill our own bottles in the bathroom, where the tap water is apparently (please, God) safe to drink.
I pray desperately that neither Allan nor I will get any sicker. As our colds drag on, the discomfort becomes exasperating, but our health doesn't deteriorate further, thankfully—this despite our lack of nourishment and rest. Neither of us sleeps well, due to the frigid nights and our unrelieved symptoms. I'm sure that sleep deprivation is compounding Allan's nicotine-related crabbiness. My own lack of sleep makes me less willing to put up with Allan's snapping without snapping back myself.
* * *
Beginning on the night of November 30, we adopt a new strategy for dealing with the blankets shortage.
That day is Allan's thirty-first birthday. He informs the guards the day before, using his customary combination of English, French, and sign language to let them know that tomorrow will be his "happy birthday." He sings the birthday song to himself by way of illustration. As usual, the guards don't say anything that would indicate they understand, but Allan is hopeful the message got through. He wants them to take a photo for his family, as the guards at the Shouf prison did for me on my birthday. That photo will be, as far as he knows, the first proof his family has received that he is alive. Paul and Donald seemed to regard my birthday party as a customary event, so Allan is optimistic that there's one in store for him, too. Despite how lazy our guards are, they'll have to arrange a birthday photo if the chefs expect them to.
Allan is anxious, and therefore irritable, all day on the 30th. Nothing unusual happens during the guards' morning visit, so his hopes are now pegged entirely on the evening.
Evening comes. The guards take us to the bathroom, give us our sandwiches and cigarettes, like normal. Oh please, don't just leave... The light in the front room goes off. The door to the street closes. They're gone.
The light entering from the alley through the grate allows me to see Allan sitting on the edge of the bed, smoking. It's his night to sleep in the bed, but if it hadn't been, I would have let him have the bed as a birthday present. I'd like to go sit next to him, but I worry he'll growl at me, so I stay on the mattress. I ask him how he's feeling. "How do you think?" he says sullenly.
When his cigarette is close to burning out, he apologizes for snapping and asks for his second cigarette, meaning the one that the guards gave me. I bring it to him. Would he mind if I sit with him? Sure, go ahead.
This is one of those moments when I wish I knew how to touch him in a convincingly "straight male buddy" sort of way, the way he touches me. A firm clap on the shoulder, an athletic grip of his knee or double-pat on the thigh. Instead, I simply tell him how terrible I feel. "Fuckers," Allan says in quiet rage. He smokes the second cigarette in silence, leaning forward onto his knees. I sit beside him with my hands clasped between my own knees, for warmth, trying without success to work up the courage to lay my hand on his back.
Allan says, "It's been a shitty day, and now it's going to be another shitty night. Let's try to get some sleep."
I lie awake under my blanket, listening to Allan toss and turn on the creaky bed, more than usual, I think. We both still have our colds, although they seem to be moving into their final stages. Outside it's raining, a sad, frigid sound that makes the atmosphere more miserable.
Out of the blue, Allan says, "I can't take this anymore. Listen. What do you say you come get in the bed, so we can put both blankets on top of us?"
For me, this proposal is dangerous. But of course I can't tell him why I ought to refuse. Plus... I've had it up to here with the cold, too.
Allan slides over against the wall to make room for me on the narrow bed. He isn't facing the wall, though, as I would have expected. I lie on my side, on the very edge of the bed, facing away from him. "No, turn the other way," Allan instructs me. This means we'll be facing each other. I guess he wants to use our breath to help warm us up. I comply, nervous. We shift around for a while, tucking the edges of the two blankets under our shoulders, sides, hips, legs, and feet, sealing ourselves off from the cold air. Our knees are bent, touching, so that we'll be short enough to pull the blankets up over our heads, although we leave the upper edge untucked so air can circulate. We fold our arms across our chests. I duck my head so that I won't breathe into Allan's face.
It doesn't take long to feel the difference made by the double layer of blanket and our shared body heat. "This is definitely better," Allan says.
It's definitely warmer, which is why we go on sleeping this way every night after that. But our sleep is fitful, and crabby Allan is prone to snarl about it. Any time one of us moves or coughs, it's likely to wake the other. I hold back as long as I can before getting up to pee, but I know Allan's irritated by how often I still have to do it.
Because of how frequently we wake each other up, I don't think we gain any sleep by huddling together in the bed. Nevertheless, we keep doing it because we value what we gain in warmth. To compensate for the lack of sleep at night, we nap a lot during the day. We usually take our naps huddling, too.
"Huddling" is Allan's term for what we do. I think of it as "snuggling," but I train myself not to use that word, even in my own head, so I won't ever slip and say it out loud.
We agree that it would be unwise to let the guards catch us huddling, although why we feel that way remains unspoken. So how will we make sure we don't get caught? There's a mosque in the vicinity that broadcasts the pre-dawn call to prayer loudly enough to routinely wake us up. I would feel safest using that as the cue for one of us to move back to the mattress, but Allan thinks that's ridiculously early. The guards are in no hurry to come take care of us. The sound of people on the streets and the sight of daylight through the outside grate will let us know it's time to expect the guards. What if we sleep in late? I worry. As frequently as we wake each other up, that's not going to happen, Allan assures me. He offers the same assurance about huddling during the afternoon. We just have to remember, every time one of us comes out of a doze, to check the grate to see if it's getting dark or if the electric light across the alley has come on.
In addition to the problem of fitful sleep and the risk of being caught in bed together, huddling brings, for me, the problem of sexual tension. That problem proves less persistent, though, than I'm initially worried it might be. I've reached a point in accepting my sexuality where I don't feel guilty about enjoying the huddling per se, despite knowing that as a gay man I enjoy it for reasons beyond the physical comfort that Allan derives from it. Probably Allan derives some kind of emotional comfort as well. For me, however, the intimacy of the huddling fills a huge emotional gap, which I assume isn't the case for Allan. Snuggling with a man wouldn't fill that gap for him; he'd need to snuggle with a woman. I've indulged before in comforting fantasies of spooning with Allan. Huddling is as close as I'm going to get to turning those fantasies into reality.
Again, I feel no guilt about that. Even if God doesn't want me acting on my homosexual impulses, I can draw a clear line between snuggling and sex. I've read enough historical and cross-cultural scholarship on same-sex relationships to know that in different times and places, social mores have allowed men to express intimacy more freely than my society does. If I lived in a different society, I could meet my emotional need to snuggle with a male friend while remaining perfectly chaste. So I don't need to feel at all guilty about that aspect of enjoying huddling with Allan.
On the other hand, such close proximity to Allan's body is sexually exciting, too. To the point where every now and again, I get hard. Every time it happens, I am terrified Allan will discover it. I can't believe it's happening. I've always assumed that my suppressed sex drive was linked, in part, to being undernourished. So why am I getting fully aroused now, when I'm eating more poorly than I have at any time during my captivity? It must be because of how intensely the huddling satisfies me emotionally. Every so often, my body manages to take that satisfaction to another level.
Whenever I go hard, I breathe very deliberately, four slow beats on the inhale, four slow beats on the exhale, concentrating on the count, denying myself any sexual thoughts, until my damn dick wilts again. It's the strategy I used back in junior high, when I slammed into puberty and began spontaneously springing erections in the middle of class. Please, God, don't let Allan catch me. If possible, please stop me from getting hard at all. I honestly don't want to experience the huddling as sexual. Let it be intimate in a different way.
One night, I jolt awake—Allan must have moved in his sleep. Now he's awake, too. He grunts in annoyance, settles back down. I begin to drift off again. Then Allan says, "Shit."
He gives a little sleepy laugh. "Peter thinks you're somebody else. So don't be alarmed if you bump into him."
"What?" Is Allan talking in his sleep?
He laughs again. "I've got wood. He must be confused."
I suddenly need to swallow, but I'm afraid that as close together as our heads are, Allan will hear it if I do. I feel thrown, and uneasy, and excited. I try to envision where Allan's erection is in relation to my body. I wonder how big a tent it is creating in the lap of his pajamas. I want to see the tent. I want to brush it with my hand. I want to stop wanting those things. I am breathing slowly and deliberately but as quietly as I can. I am willing myself not to get hard.
Allan is silent and unmoving, as if he's sleeping, but his breathing isn't heavy enough to convince me that he's actually dropped off again. He can tell that I haven't gone back to sleep either, because after a while he says, "It's all right now, it's gone. Sorry if I made you uncomfortable."
"That's okay," I say automatically. It's what I always say when Allan apologizes to me for something. I decide to take a mild risk, thinking that it's in my interest to appear as at ease about the situation as he is. "It's happened to me too before."
"It's natural." Allan's mumbling, he wants to go back to sleep. "We're just reacting to having another body so close. It's a good sign. If we can still get it up, our health can't be too far gone yet."
After that, I am able to enjoy the intimacy of the huddling without fear. I know that Allan won't interpret an erection as a revelation that I'm gay. My erections have an alibi. And an erection on either of us doesn't have to turn the huddling into something sexual. If I get hard, if Allan gets hard, it's just a joke to him. He gets hard on a couple more occasions that I'm aware of. When it happens, he announces casually, "Peter's back." It happens to me more than a couple times, but I only acknowledge two or three instances. The line I invent for myself is "Head up," which Allan tells me is clever.
Joking about our erections feels improper, but in a way that makes me feel thrilled rather than guilty. Allan and I have transgressed a line together, we've broken a taboo together, and in doing so we have achieved a new degree of intimacy. A safe intimacy, though, an intimacy within the bounds, evidently, of what Allan regards as permissible for heterosexual men.
Allan continues to ask the guards for blankets every time they're here, but we don't feel quite as urgent anymore about that request. We like to huddle. At least, I think Allan likes it. He doesn't mind it, anyway. We do it a lot. In a 24-hour period, we probably spent more time huddling than everything else we do put together.
There are periods of the day when we need to get away from each other, to recover some personal space. We do our workouts, I pace, Allan jogs. One of us will retreat to the other mattress for some "alone time," even to nap alone for a while. We'll sit or curl up on separate ends of the bed, chatting. Or we'll sit side by side on the bed with our backs to the long wall, similar to how we used to chat in our cell in the Shouf prison, with the blankets laid across our laps or pulled up to our chins, depending on how cold we are. That arrangement is halfway to a huddle, but it's not quite as intimate.
We huddle every night, starting as soon as the guards leave and continuing until morning. We huddle off and on throughout the day, usually dozing, sometimes chatting, sometimes just lying awake together in silence. As the temperature keeps falling—we're in December now—huddling makes our life in this cold back room endurable. It's cozy. It's comforting. It's a pleasure.
* * *
It's a pleasure until we're caught.
We're huddling in the afternoon; we've both drifted into a warm nap. Perhaps we slept more soundly and longer than usual, perhaps the guards turned up earlier than usual. All I know is, Allan is shaking me awake, desperate. "Jeremy, they're here!" They're unlocking the door to the back room as we're struggling out of our cocoon. The door opens just as I'm throwing off the blankets and rolling out of the bed onto my feet. Stupidly, with our guilty haste, we're making the situation look more illicit than it is.
A guard shouts, and they rush us. I realize with horror that I have forgotten to lower my blindfold. In the yellow light flooding in through the open door behind the guards, I glimpse an enraged face before I close my eyes. Thin mustache, no beard—I shouldn't have seen that, I'm dead! The guard yanks my blindfold down into place, screaming incomprehensibly.
I stand beside the bed, blind and trembling. The guard slaps me across the face. I cry out. Allan is still sitting on the bed; they make him stand up, too. One of the guards launches into an Arabic rant, which concludes with him slapping each of our faces while shouting, in English, "Bad! Bad!" As if we're dogs.
"We weren't doing what you think." Allan's trying to speak calmly, but his deep voice quavers. "We were sleeping. That's all."
Allan is slapped again. The guard rants some more. He storms into the front room and clomps around, apparently looking for something. Returning, he sets whatever he's brought back with him against the wall with a metallic clink. My heart is racing.
Amid impatient orders we can't understand, Allan and I are pushed down onto our knees and made to lace our fingers behind our heads. Metal scrapes across cement as the guards drag the bedframe away from the wall. I hear them doing something to Allan, shifting his position. The bed creaks. "We didn't do anything wrong," Allan protests in a mysteriously muffled voice. Hisses and blows dissuade him from saying anything more.
Someone grabs my sweater by the neck hole and starts pulling it up and off me. As the sweater is removed, my blindfold gets dragged toward the top of my head, so I keep my eyes clamped shut, but that doesn't stop both guards from yelling at me as they retie the blindfold. Then they press the sweater up against my face and tie the sleeves behind my head. I breathe with my mouth open, sucking air through the wool. What in God's name are they doing?
They make me walk on my knees until I reach the edge of the bed. They bend me face down onto the mattress, positioning my arms so that I'm reaching over my head to grip the far edge of the bed. Allan must be in the same position beside me. Jesus Christ... I realize that the sweater covering my face is to muffle the cries they anticipate from me. If I'm lucky, they're planning to beat me. But I'm terrified they're positioning me to be sodomized. A punishment to fit the crime.
One of the guards stands between the bed and the wall so he can press our faces down into the mattress. The other beats our buttocks and the back of our thighs with a metal pole, maybe a broomstick. He alternates between us, a blow to me, a blow to Allan. He's beating me through my pajamas, not on bare skin, which I presume makes it hurt a little less. I'm able to restrain myself somewhat: I make noise, but not as much as I really want to. Allan is more stoic.
The beating goes on and on. If the guard is administering a prescribed number of blows, I haven't been keeping count. I'm losing my self-control, I'm bleating more loudly now. I feel shame in addition to the physical pain.
The guard decides we've had enough. Behind my sweater, hot tears burn my eyes. My arms and shoulders are shaking, but I'm forcing myself not to break down into sobs. I want to preserve some shred of dignity.
The guard who is holding our heads keeps us in our bowed-over position. Meanwhile, the guard who administered the beating drags the second mattress away from its position near the bed to the far end of the room, where the filing cabinet and cupboard are. He makes a return trip for the tub and bottles, kicking the tub across the floor in front of him.
The guards stand me up. They allow me to put my sweater back on, then they haul me across the room to the mattress. I have to lie face down with my hands laced behind my head. I'm dreading that now they may pull my bottoms down, but they don't. Back on the other side of the room, I hear them make Allan climb up on the bed.
One guard leaves the building while the other remains in our room, keeping watch. He paces slowly, in silence, except for hissing if one of us moves.
Maybe half an hour later, the other guard returns. He has brought short, thin lengths of chain, the kind you might use to lock a bicycle or leash a dog, and a few small padlocks. As I continue to lie on my stomach, they wrap one end of a chain tightly around my ankle and lock it in place. Then they remove the bottom drawer from the filing cabinet and smash a hole in the side so they can loop the chain through and back onto itself with another padlock, thus chaining me to the cabinet. They chain Allan's ankle to the bedframe.
"We don't deserve this," Allan insists. "We didn't do anything wrong." A guard picks up the broomstick and delivers a few more blows to Allan's buttocks.
As further punishment, the guards deny us our evening sandwiches and toilet run. As usual, though, they leave us alone through the night. Despite the chains, we're able to turn over onto our sides to sleep rather than on our stomachs, and we can clamber up onto our knees to use our pee bottles.
The guards forgot to give me one of the two blankets on the bed before they left. Allan throws a blanket into the middle of the room, not close enough for me to reach it, but he hopes this way the guards will realize in the morning to give it to me. He tells me he isn't going to use his blanket as long as I don't have one. I tell him he should use his blanket anyway. To put some kind of protective layer between me and the cold air, I curl up tightly at the foot of the mattress and fold the head of the mattress over on top of me. The cramped position is made more uncomfortable by how tender and increasingly stiff I am from the beating, but being folded inside the mattress does conserve some of my body heat.
Allan and I lie awake, miserable.
"I hope they don't separate us." My voice catches as I say it, and I start to cry.
"Me too," is Allan's dull response.
I beg God not to let it happen. Please. I need Allan. I love Allan. You brought him into my life. Don't let them take him away.
The next morning, the guards unchain us to take us to the bathroom. I crane my neck around to try to see the damage to my backside. I glimpse ugly bruises on my thighs, but the skin doesn't appear to have broken. The guards rechain us lying face-up, which causes some pain because of the bruising but is better for our backs.
Now that we're chained, the guards can't throw or hand us our sandwiches under the door anymore. When they approach Allan's bed to give him his breakfast, he tells them that he will not eat until he is allowed to speak to a chef. He speaks slowly and clearly, with determination. The guards understand enough of what he's saying to become angry. The guard who did all the ranting yesterday berates Allan, again in Arabic, to which Allan keeps responding like a broken record, "I will not eat until I speak to a chef."
Allan hadn't told me he was planning to do this, but I immediately announce to the guards that I won't eat either. The guard keeps jabbering menacingly at us, but he doesn't become violent. Finally the guards leave the building. We toss the sandwiches they left on our mattresses out of reach.
Allan tells me I don't need to do this. I insist I want to. He thanks me, but he makes me promise that I'll stop whenever I feel the need to, for whatever reason I feel I need to. "No guilt, all right?"
The guards don't return that evening. I imagine they're letting us think things over. By the time they return the next morning, Allan and I have gone 48 hours without eating, because when Allan announced the hunger strike, we already hadn't eaten anything since the morning before that. During my trip to the bathroom, I fill my stomach with water from the tap in addition to refilling my bottle. I'm suffering, but I want badly to stand beside Allan to the end. I've heard of people having to fast 48 hours before medical procedures, and I've read that Jews fast for 48 hours during Yom Kippur; I've been repeating those facts to myself as proof that there's no reason I can't do this. Now that we're crossing the 48-hour threshold, I'm getting scared.
I get scared for a different reason when the guards bring me back from my toilet run. They chain me face-down on the mattress, then peel my sweater up so as to cover my face and force my arms above my head. A sandwich is pressed into my hand, and I'm asked a question in Arabic whose meaning is easily inferred. I shake my head and refuse to hold on to the sandwich. Allan has done the same. We are again beaten on the buttocks and thighs with the broomstick. Because I'm being beaten on top of my bruises, I can't stop myself this time from howling at each blow. This beating is shorter, perhaps because I'm making so much noise. Again the guards try to give us sandwiches. Again we refuse. Again we're beaten.
By the end of the second beating, I'm wailing incessantly. This prompts the guard who's been administering the beating to grab my hair and yell at me.
The second guard intervenes. He talks in a tense, unnecessarily quiet voice—like he wants to have a private conversation and isn't thinking about the fact that Allan and I can't understand them anyway. Both guards retreat to the front room and close the door.
"I'm sorry, Jeremy." Allan's voice is muffled and wretched.
Behind my sweater, still tied over my face, I'm crying, but my mood is defiant. "I'm fine," I sob. "Fuck them." I ache and sting, and I'm famished and weak and frightened of another beating. But I'm also furious. The beatings have actually strengthened my resolve, enough that I'm able to hold all the other feelings in check. For the moment, my fury is in charge. Robert Berg went through worse and survived. If I finally fold, it won't be because of the beatings. It will be because I can no longer endure the hunger.
Through the gap under the door, we can hear the guards talking in the other room. One of them sounds like he feels things have gone too far; the other sounds indignant and self-justifying. My guess is that the one having qualms is the one Allan calls Less a Bastard, the one who we think used to pass our sandwiches under the door, instead of throwing them, and who was amenable to giving us cigarettes. It would be in character for Rat Bastard, the sandwich-tosser, to be the unchastened one. I imagine he's the one who's actually been administering the beatings. The two of them argue for a while. Less a Bastard is alternately cajoling and firm, but he's not backing down.
Abruptly, our door flies open. A guard stomps into the room. Rat Bastard, we now discover, has known some English all along. He addresses Allan angrily.
"You want chef? Okay. I call chef. I say him what you do. Louti!" He spits out the unfamiliar word. Later, Allan will inform me that louti is the Arabic equivalent of "poof" or "queer."
"We're not louti," Allan replies. I admire him for managing to sound only slightly nervous. "Bring the chef, so we can tell him. We did nothing wrong."
"You lie!" The guard is so enraged, he screams at Allan in Arabic for several sentences before he's blown off enough steam that he can return to English. "You lie to chef, he beat you. He say me, I beat you, inshallah. You want? You want I beat you more?"
"No," Allan replied. It's a statement of fact, not a plea for mercy.
"Too bad for you. I want. Chef come, we see what. You be sorry fucker." Tacking on some final insult or threat in Arabic, he slams the door as he storms out.
The guards leave the building shortly afterward, at which point Allan and I work our sweaters down from around our faces.
That evening, I'm dizzy and can't get up for my toilet run without the guards' help. I feel like I'm going to faint—all the way to the bathroom, the whole time I'm inside, and all the way back. Less a Bastard brings us sandwiches. He plays good cop, coaxing us to eat; it turns out he knows a little English, too. He assures us, "Chef come boukrah," tomorrow. Allan insists he won't eat until after he's spoken to the chef. Less a Bastard turns his attention to me. "Eat," he pleads. "You sick." Well, look who gives a shit about my health all of a sudden.
Less a Bastard leaves our sandwiches on our mattresses, two apiece. "Eat, okay?" he urges us one more time before shutting the door so we can lift our blindfolds. He and Rat Bastard hang out in the front room, waiting to find out what we'll do, I guess.
Allan hurls his sandwiches at the door. When I pick up mine, I begin weeping. I tell Allan I can't keep going, I'm sorry. He consoles me wearily: It's all right. I promised him no guilt, remember? I keep crying, ashamed because I'm giving up and afraid because Allan isn't. Why can't we both stop now, together? I plead. They said the chef was coming.
For my sake—maybe his own, too—Allan proposes a compromise. How about we eat one sandwich each? That way, if the guards are lying about the chef coming, they'll know we haven't totally given in. I nod, grateful, relieved, humiliated. Since Allan has already thrown his sandwiches away, he asks me to throw him one of mine. I'm louti, I can't throw worth shit even when I haven't gone three days without eating. The sandwich lands on the floor out of Allan's reach. He tells me to go ahead and eat my sandwich, he'll ask a guard to bring him the one I threw. Less a Bastard is pleased by the request, although he's disappointed we won't also eat the two sandwiches Allan discarded.
The guards arrive unusually early the next morning. According to an agreement we made the night before, Allan and I eat only half a sandwich each from our breakfast, even though Less a Bastard promises that "chef come soon." We'll eat the rest after we talk to the chef, Allan tells him.
Today the guards remain in the building, waiting for the chef. He arrives sometime in the middle of the day. It's the same chef who came to the Shouf prison, the young English speaker.
Without any preliminaries, he asks sarcastically, "Why will you not eat this time? You want another video?"
Allan launches into an angry speech protesting the guards' mistreatment of us. They don't feed us properly, they don't give us enough warm clothes and blankets, and now they've beaten us and chained us up when we didn't do anything wrong.
The chef makes a disgusted sound. "That is the difference between our people and yours. We still know what is wrong."
"We're not homosexuals," Allan says. My heart skips a beat. Introducing the word homosexual feels dangerous to me, even for the purpose of denial. "We were just trying to stay warm. We're freezing in here. We fell asleep, and the guards startled us when they came in. That's all that happened." He adds, "What's wrong is the guards treating us the way they do. We'll become very sick if they don't—"
The chef interrupts. "If you were cold, why did you not ask for more blankets?" His tone suggests that he's trying to poke a hole in Allan's story.
"We did ask. We've been asking ever since we came here. Every single time the guards turn up here, we beg them for blankets, but they never bring us any. We couldn't stand it anymore. We had to share the blankets we had if we were going to get any sleep at night. Now that we're chained up separately like this, we're too cold to sleep again—"
The chef interrupts again. "You slept together in the bed at night?" He sounds shocked and outraged. Oh Allan... what have you done?
"No one ever told us we couldn't."
The chef says something in Arabic; Rat Bastard responds. "You are lying," the chef says to Allan.
"You never slept together in the bed at night."
Huh? Obviously the chef is repeating something Rat Bastard told him. But for what possible reason can the chef be imagining that we would invent that particular lie? If we weren't really sharing the bed at night, why would we want him to think that we were?
Allan says, slowly and emphatically, "The guards didn't see us in the bed at night because they weren't here. They're never here at night, and they only turn up for a few minutes during the day. They leave us alone here nearly all the time."
"You lie!" Rat Bastard shouts, after which he rattles something off at the chef.
As soon as Rat Bastard is finished, Allan tells the chef in a calm voice, "If the guards had been here, we wouldn't have shared the bed. We didn't want them to see us, because we were afraid that they would think we were doing something we weren't."
The chef makes Allan repeat that, he had difficulty following Allan's logic. This time Allan phrases it more directly: We shared the bed because the guards weren't here.
Several long, tense moments pass in silence. Then the chef issues agitated orders in Arabic. Rat Bastard starts to speak again; the chef cuts him off. I am unchained and led out into the front room. From there I'm taken through another door, into what must be the inner office I detected the time I peeked through the grate into the hallway. The guards seat me on the floor in a corner. To block my hearing, they cram wet tissues in my ears. So—all this time, they had more tissues they could have given us when we needed them. Assholes. Come to think of it, the tissues they just inserted into my ears are probably wetted with their spit. Goddammit.
The door to the inner office closes, unnecessarily loudly. I can hear enough through the tissues to know there's still at least one guard in the room with me. It sounds like he's on the other side of the room; I assume he's trying to eavesdrop through the door on the chef's continuing interrogation of Allan in the back room. I hope it's Rat Bastard hovering there, sweating bullets.
Allan is fucking brilliant. I hadn't realized he was planning to expose all the guards' misdoings, I thought he just wanted to protest the beatings and the chains. I love the ironic justice of it. By revealing to the chef our supposed offense, Rat Bastard gave Allan an opening to reveal their actual offenses. In trying to screw us over, Rat Bastard made it possible for Allan to screw them over. The pride I feel in Allan lifts my heart—as does a very satisfying vindictiveness I'm feeling toward the guards, Rat Bastard most of all. Who be sorry fucker now? Moron.
When Allan's interrogation is finished, the guards lock him into the bathroom so they can return me to the back room without the two of us being able to communicate in any way. Then I hear them conduct Allan from the bathroom to the inner office. They can be scrupulous about security when they want to be.
In the back room, the chef and I sit across from each other in chairs that have been set up near the far wall, where my mattress is now located. This location puts us well away from the door, which the guards close as they leave. The chef talks to me in a low voice, and I respond in kind. He evidently realizes that the guards are trying to eavesdrop.
The chef tells me I have nothing to be afraid of as long as I tell him the truth. I will not be beaten again unless he discovers that I am lying or I refuse to cooperate. The words are supposed to be reassuring in their way, but the tone isn't. The mere fact of being interrogated makes me anxious. I worry that my anxiety will lead the chef to doubt my honesty. I've had that problem with him before, during the first grilling he gave me on the day I was kidnapped.
The interrogation begins with inquiries about the guards' habits. The chef wants to know what time the guards arrive and leave. Do they always come as a pair, or does one ever come alone? How do I know they're actually leaving the building? When did they start spending time away? How many hours in a day do they spend away? How often do they leave the door to our room open or unlocked? Did they ever chain us before they found us in bed together? How many times each day do they feed us and take us to the bathroom? What do they feed us? How much? Do one or two guards accompany us to the bathroom? How often do they tell us to shower? What did they do when we were sick?
Some of his questions are obviously trick questions. He's fishing for inconsistencies in my answers, or trying to lure me into confirming something that the question assumes to be true and would make the guards look better if it were. I take it that he asked Allan the same questions and is checking to see if our stories match.
Next, the chef probes into what Allan and I have been doing while we've been alone. Since I can't know what Allan has or has not confessed to, I calculate that total honesty is the best policy. I trust Allan was shrewd enough to think the same. Eager to convince the chef of my candor, I volunteer incriminating facts without waiting for him to ask. I tell him that Allan and I debated whether to try smashing through the door with the bedframe. I tell him about peeking through the grates. I tell him I thought about trying to communicate with someone outside, but Allan didn't think anyone would help us, so we never did.
The chef tries to play clumsy tricks again. "I know you are lying, your friend already told me about the men you talked to." "How many notes did you push outside? I must know the exact number." (Notes pushed through the grate—how did that idea never even cross our minds? We might have used the foil from our first cigarette packages.)
Once the chef has decided that he isn't going to get anything from me through trick questions, he says, "Your friend is right, no one here would help you. They hate the West. But we will not accept that you make any risk for us. If you talked to anyone, or if anyone saw you, you must tell me now. I will not hurt you for it—if you tell me now. If we find out later, we will hurt you worse than you have ever hurt before. Do you understand?" My throat has closed up, so I simply nod in reply. Is there anything else I need to tell him? No, I manage to say, I've told him everything. He presses: Am I sure? This is my last chance to tell him the truth. Fear and hunger are making me feel faint, but I answer in as level a voice as I can pull off: I have told him the truth.
Finally he brings us to the subject of the huddling. His voice indicates that he finds the subject distasteful. How many times did we sleep together in the bed? I explain that I can't give an exact number of days because I don't know today's date. But I know we started on November 30, because that was Allan's birthday, and he was upset about not having his photo taken for his family, which is why he decided he wasn't going to put up with the cold anymore. I have to repeat that for the chef, inserting clarifications on the way. Apparently Allan didn't provide these details. I hope this convinces the chef I'm being forthcoming.
When the chef asks me why we did it, I try to sound matter of fact, not defensive. We were too cold to sleep alone. I resist the urge to say "nothing happened" (too defensive), but I explain that we were almost always sleeping while we huddled. If we weren't sleeping, we would lie there talking. At the risk of seeming to protest too much, I add that we always wore all the clothes we have; that was the whole point, to be as warm as we could. I offer an unsolicited description of how we used to position our bodies—on our sides, knees bent, arms crossed over our chests—to show him there was nothing sexual about it.
If we weren't doing anything wrong, the chef asks, why didn't we want the guards to see us doing it? Because of what in fact ended up happening, I reply. We were afraid the guards would misinterpret what we were doing.
I'm afraid the chef will ask me point blank if I'm homosexual and that I won't be able to lie convincingly. To my relief, he doesn't ask that. Still, I'm afraid of him detecting my anxiety and becoming suspicious, so I give vent to a different anxiety as cover. I ask him to please not let the guards beat us again; I've told him the truth about everything, but I think the guards still have the wrong idea...
The chef cuts short my whining. His tone is irritated, disdainful. "Don't cry."
"I'm not," I say, just a tiny bit huffily. "I wasn't going to."
To observe the damage from the beatings, the chef tells me to stand up and lower my pajama bottoms (but not my underwear, he's explicit about that). He betrays no reaction. If he was present at Robert Berg's beating, then he's seen—and helped administer—far worse.
The interrogation is over. The chef calls for the guards. I'm rechained to the filing cabinet, Allan to the bed. We have evidently persuaded the chef we were telling the truth, at least about the guards' misbehavior, because out in the front room, the chef lays into them. A cowed Rat Bastard delivers a speech of protestation. The chef lets him go at it for a while, then shuts him down. The chef grills them; they answer with protests and excuses. At one point, the chef enters our room and grabs our tubs to take out front. His voice becomes angrier, more accusatory; the guards' become more plaintive, submissive. Then they fall silent, and the chef rages uninterrupted, "ripping them new ones," as Allan will contentedly describe it later.
The chef leaves the building. Shortly afterward, the guards come into our room. I'm afraid they may be seeking revenge, but they're bringing back the sandwiches we wouldn't eat earlier. "Chef say eat," Less a Bastard tells us glumly. Rat Bastard doesn't say a word. As soon as they see that we're eating, the guards retreat back to the front room. We discover that they'll allow us to talk now. Either the chef has told them to, or they're too engrossed in their own gloomy conversation to care.
I alert Allan that I told the chef everything we did, I hope that's all right. He assures me he didn't hide anything either. He asks if the chef gave me any hint about what's going to happen to us now. Just that they would hurt us if they found out we'd communicated with anyone, I reply.
Allan tells me that he asked the chef straight out not to separate us. When the chef was noncommittal, Allan begged. He told the chef that being together keeps us mentally healthy. We're good friends, we help each other to not break down, the way the chef saw Allan before. "Just friends?" the chef asked sourly. Allan told him again: We're not homosexuals.
Allan assumes that the chef is less upset about the guards' poor treatment of us than he is about the time we've spent unsupervised and the fact that the guards have been fleecing the organization. They must receive a salary for watching us—plus funds to buy the food, cigarettes, and other things they're supposed to give us, which no doubt they have been pocketing. Allan would not want to be in their shoes right now. He speaks with malicious cheer. They must be out there shitting themselves; he's surprised they haven't bolted from the building.
We wait to see what will happen next. To see what will become of the guards. And of us.
* * *
The chef returns some hours later, accompanied by other men. The building is full of activity, which unnerves me. Are they transferring us? Or one of us? Apparently not: they've brought thicker chains to replace those the guards have been using. As one of the guards is putting my new chain on, the chef chews him out some more, I think because he's displeased about the hole they punched in the filing cabinet. Even so, they enlarge that same hole to accommodate the new chain.
The new chain is heavier but longer; by the time they've adjusted it to their liking, I have maybe three feet of slack instead of one. However, where the guards had been chaining us by an ankle, the chef instructs that we be chained by a wrist. As a result, despite the increase in chain length, the range I can reach with my hands is reduced. The chain is long enough that they could have allowed me another couple of feet of mobility if they'd wanted, but they didn't. The extra length spills wasted onto the floor, hanging off the padlock that keeps the chain attached to the filing cabinet.
Out front, it sounds like men are moving all the furniture from the outer office to the inner office. I don't know why they didn't do that earlier, to give the guards more living space—unless, perhaps, they were planning to keep a hostage in the inner office. It occurs to me that rather than placing Allan and me on opposite sides of the same room, our captors could have separated us more decisively by transferring one of us to the inner office. I feel a mixture of horror and relief. We dodged a bullet.
In addition to moving furniture from room to room, I think the men are lugging new items in from outside the building. Some major change is taking place. Not knowing what's going on is nerve-wracking.
As all the activity winds down, the chef gives Allan and me a final dressing down. He informs us sternly that we have been given separate mattresses for a reason; it is forbidden for us to share a bed. I don't say anything, but I don't see how sharing a bed is fundamentally different from occupying adjacent mattresses in a six-foot-wide cell, as they made us do for half a year. If they're afraid we'll have sex, why did they ever leave us together in the same cell?
Allan asks the chef if they're going to unchain us. I understand the logic behind that hope. Why would the chef be warning us not to share the bed again if they're going to keep us separated by force? On the other hand, it doesn't bode well that they just finished giving us new chains.
My pessimism proves correct. No, the chef tells Allan, they are not going to unchain us.
"Why? It isn't fair to punish us for something we didn't know was against the rules yet."
"This is not punishment. It is normal that you are chained."
"We were never chained before," Allan protests.
"Many things here were not normal before," is the chef's icy retort.
The chef announces that he is leaving us with new guards. We are to do exactly as they tell us. In particular, we are to eat when they tell us, and we are to eat everything. If we make problems again, the chef warns, he will not return to see us. Instead, he has given the guards permission to beat us as badly as needed to make us cooperate. Do we understand? We understand.
The chef and all but two men leave. The two who remain introduce themselves as our new guards. One of them does all the talking because he's the only one who speaks English—fairly good English. His name, he informs us, is Abed. His partner is Fadil. In spite of the chef's parting threat about having authorized the guards to beat us, Abed's manner is what I would call professionally friendly. He says, without a hint of irony, that he and Fadil are here to "take care" of us. He asks us for our names and remarks that he is pleased to meet us. He comes across as serenely self-confident, no intimidating bluster.
Abed announces that they have "brought things" so we can have better food. Also, they have a second blanket for each of us, which they give us now. If there are other things we need, we should tell them. Allan tests that invitation immediately by explaining that we have been beaten: would it be possible to get hot water to soak our bruises? Abed asks if there is hot water running in the bathroom. When we tell him no, he promises to look into that. Meanwhile, he and Fadil will heat water on the cooker for us so we can take a sponge bath.
Not long afterward, I'm in the bathroom using a dish towel to press hot water from a pot against my body. I shiver in the cold air, and I still don't have anything to dry off with but my pajama top, but the hot water feels incredible. This is the first time in my captivity that I've been given hot water to bathe with.
Abed is an excellent guard. However much longer I have to spend as a hostage, I hope I get to spend the time under his supervision. He is conscientious, reliable, reasonable, humane. As promised, he gets the hot water running. He tells us we have to be sparing, so he gives us a choice: We can take a long shower once a week, or a short shower every day. How short? Allan asks. Two minutes. Since that's as much time as we were permitted for a weekly shower in the Shouf prison, we jump at the opportunity to spend that long standing under a stream of hot water every day. Unlike Rat Bastard and Less a Bastard, Abed and Fadil keep the bathroom stocked with soap.
We ask Abed if we can have towels. He brings us a single one to share a few days later, when he and Fadil start their next shift. We're not sure why he brought us only one when our request was couched in the plural. Are people in poor Lebanese families accustomed to sharing towels? Is the towel on loan from someone who couldn't spare more than one? We don't push the issue. He allows us to keep the towel in our room after I explain that it will dry out better and stay more sanitary if I drape it over a drawer of the filing cabinet rather than hanging it, bunched up, on the shower head, as Abed initially wants us to do.
Our food situation under the new regime is better than it has ever been. We are fed three times a day, not two. Sandwich and tea in the morning; rice and vegetables at midday; another sandwich and tea at night. For the first time, we experience variety in our sandwich fillings: sometimes cheese, sometimes jam, sometimes yogurt. Abed and Fadil serve the midday rice dish to us hot, which hasn't always been the case in the past. It's never spiced as richly as some food I received in my first prison (I'm convinced now that those dishes must have been prepared by a woman), but the food Abed and Fadil make is salted, an improvement over the Shouf prison. We eat what they eat, at the same time they eat. They serve generous portions, plus they often return to let us finish what's left in the pot when they're done. Abed and Fadil bring us some kind of fruit, fresh or dried, virtually every day they're on shift: not just oranges and bananas, but fruits I've never eaten before, like figs and quinces and pomegranates. When we're done eating, the guards wash our bowls, which is a first. In fact, they take our bowls from our tubs to store them out front.
Abed and Fadil restock our tubs with the necessities we've been missing: tissues, matches, cigarettes—the latter rationed at the usual rate of two packs a week. Allan is a happy man again. Another long-held wish of his comes true when the guards put candles in our tubs for use during power outages. While the power's on, we can use a light bulb that Abed and Fadil have screwed onto the end of a wire suspended from our ceiling. Chained, we can't reach the light switch, but Abed or Fadil will turn it on and off for us whenever we ask. The light makes the room less tomblike, especially now that the grates have been covered.
Covering the grates is one of Abed and Fadil's first priorities when they arrive. They temporarily unloop the end of my chain from the hole in the filing cabinet and rechain me to the bedframe, so they can use the filing cabinet to climb up and tape cardboard over both grates. I understand, obviously, why they want to cover the outside grate; I'm not sure why they feel the need to cover the grate that looks out into the hallway. We couldn't possibly peek through anymore now that we're chained.
While I'm chained to the bedframe, the guards insist that I sit on the floor, not on the bed with Allan. That's how strictly they're enforcing the "can't share the same bed" rule. However, when they're done covering the grates, Abed and Fadil leave the filing cabinet under the inside grate instead of returning it to the far wall by the cupboard. As a result, when they rechain me to the cabinet, I'm now closer to the bed by several feet. Abed explains that having me closer will make things easier for him and Fadil, in addition to allowing Allan and me to talk more easily.
Abed lets us talk freely during the day as long as we keep our voices down, but he doesn't like us talking at night. Right after dinner and our second toilet run, he expects us to settle down to sleep, even though he and Fadil stay up quite a bit later, talking or listening to the radio. I suspect he wants us to go to sleep early so the two of them can unwind without having to keep an ear on us. Like adults after they've put the kids to bed.
The possibility that someone might hear us speak English is one thing that Abed is uptight about. He'll shush us if we let our conversation rise above what seems to me a needlessly low volume. If we need something from the guards while our door is closed, Abed instructs us to call out, "Afwan"—meaning, "Excuse me"—rather than the guards' names or any English expression.
Being chained is an aspect of the new regime that I absolutely hate. Apart from feeling degraded, I find the loss of mobility maddening. I can stand with the chain on my wrist, but I can't walk any farther than I could when Allan and I were sharing a six-by-six-foot cell. The most Allan can do is pace in a small arc from the side of the bed to the short wall at the head of the bed.
Allan appeals to Abed. Not being able to exercise our bodies more freely is bad for our health. Allan can accept that the chef wants us chained regularly, for security. But why can't we have a little time off the chains each day to exercise, to keep us from getting sick?
It's a diplomatic falsehood that Allan "accepts" the chef wanting us chained. Allan is still convinced that either we're being unjustly punished or we're still under suspicion of being homosexual. Both possibilities make him mad as hell.
Abed assents to Allan's request, with conditions. He'll give us thirty minutes of exercise time every day. But we can't both be off the chains at once, meaning we'll have to exercise one at a time. Also, we'll need to be watched while we do it. The implication, Allan and I realize immediately, is that we'll have to exercise blindfolded. Allan clarifies: Thirty minutes, so... fifteen minutes for each of us? No, Abed's willing to give us each thirty minutes.
This is more generous than we had hoped for, so Allan negotiates. We'd be happy to settle for fifteen minutes each if Abed will let us exercise without a guard present so that we can lift our blindfolds. I want to pace, Allan wants to jog. When he sees how much we're willing to give up to get what we want, Abed makes a concession. We must exercise under a guard's supervision, but the guard will cover his face so that we can remove our blindfolds. We can still have thirty minutes apiece. He cautions that while one of us moves around the room unchained, we "cannot touch." Chef's orders.
We accept. So we exercise, one at a time, under the watchful eyes of a guard seated in a chair with an assault rifle laid across his lap and a scarf wrapped around his face, concealing everything except his watchful eyes. The image produces a fight-or-flight response in me that diminishes over time, although I never cease to find it unsettling. I don't think the gun unnerves me so much as not being able to see the guard's face. Or maybe, come to think of it, what's unsettling is the fact that I am seeing part of the guard's face, that being our ultimate taboo.
Abed sounds to me like he's in his mid-twenties. Fadil is quiet by temperament, but from hearing him talk to Abed, I have the impression he's quite young, eighteen or nineteen maybe. I might be overestimating the age difference between them because Abed's voice is deeper and Fadil's is higher. Fadil is certainly slight, I can see that when he takes his turn guarding us while we exercise. Abed has a broader build.
Abed and Fadil are pious. Abed, in particular, prays loudly and impassionedly, and their prayers go on for an unusually long time. When they want to relax, Abed and Fadil listen to music, but at other times during the day, they listen to sermons or religious chanting, either on the radio or the tape player. They rarely laugh, which I take as another sign of their fundamentalist piety. They're not dour, though. They're pleasant, as a rule, to Allan and me, and their conversations with one another sound cheerful if subdued.
I find the relationship between Abed and Fadil endearing. As the man in charge, Abed is often telling Fadil to do things, but his tone isn't bossy; it's more like he's gently cueing Fadil how to help him. They sound very comfortable together, chatting out in the front room or exchanging quiet words as they carry out a job in our room. They seem to find an easy-going pleasure in one another's company. The intimacy that I sense between them leads me to suspect they're related. Cousins? Brothers? I lean toward brothers. Abed, the older brother, tucking quiet little brother Fadil under his wing—the way Allan took me under his wing. I like thinking about Abed and Fadil in those terms. It gives me a tender image of them to hold behind my blindfold. I prefer that image to the scarf-wrapped militiamen I see when the blindfold is off.
Allan doesn't understand why I think Abed and Fadil are related. He doesn't perceive any unusual intimacy between them. Yes, Abed is calm and accommodating, fortunately for us, and clearly he and Fadil get along. But Allan thinks my notion that they're brothers qualifies as a Strange Idea, because he thinks I'm romanticizing the relationship between them, which could in turn lead me to romanticize their relationship with us. I shouldn't imagine that Abed and Fadil are nicer than they are, Allan cautions me. They wouldn't hesitate to hurt us if they thought it was needed to keep us under control.
Allan thinks I'm too effusive when I thank Abed for his concessions. The guards aren't doing us favors, they're giving us our rights, and that only partially. Thank them, but don't grovel. I protest: I don't "grovel," I'm sincerely showing Abed and Fadil how grateful I am. Shouldn't we give them positive strokes so they'll be motivated to keep treating us well? I respect that Allan wants to make a statement about our rights, and I'm in awe for the risks he took standing up to the last guards and the chef to protest our abuse. But I worry that he may alienate Abed and Fadil by coming across as demanding and unappreciative. Why can't our two approaches to dealing with the guards complement one another? Allan will insist that the guards give us our due, I'll show them how happy it makes us to get it. Stick and carrot, in a way.
Fadil is curious about Allan and me. After his initial shyness (trepidation?) has lessened, he asks us questions in his soft voice, using Abed as interpreter. He inquires about our families, the places we're from, places we've traveled. He's keenly interested in the material goods we used to enjoy. Clothes, electronics, cars, houses. Did we have a swimming pool? Horses? Fadil's impressions of life in the United States have been formed by television programs such as Dynasty, so I have to explain that while most Americans are wealthier than most Lebanese, what he sees on TV isn't a realistic picture of how most Americans live. Fadil continually asks questions of Allan that presuppose he's American, too, even though Abed has explained that Allan is British; the distinction seems meaningless to Fadil. I can see why it is meaningless from his vantage point. The bottom line is: Allan and I are both richer than Fadil can ever hope to be simply by virtue of where we were born.
Fadil wonders why we came to his country. Allan replies that he came to work as a reporter—not a precise description of his job, but true enough for the purposes of this conversation. I tell Fadil that I had intended to be in Lebanon for only a week, visiting my uncle, a Christian priest, and working in a school for Muslim children. Abed struggles to make sense of that. Why would I take a job at a school if I were only going to be in the country a week? I explain that I was here on vacation, but I didn't want to be a tourist, I wanted to do something helpful.
I tell Abed and Fadil the story of my "accidental" kidnapping: how the militiamen were waiting to take my uncle hostage, but because I happened to be visiting there was a mix-up, so they grabbed me by mistake. "You had bad luck," Abed remarks. His attitude is philosophical—like he genuinely feels it's too bad I was taken hostage, but that's life, what can you do?
Later, Allan will point out to me that, conceivably, Abed may already have known the story of my kidnapping because, for all I know, he may have been there. I immediately thrust that possibility away. I refuse to envision Abed in that role.
I would like to reciprocate questions; I would like to find out about Abed and Fadil's lives and families. Where did they grow up? What do they do when they're not in this abandoned office, guarding us? What life experiences led these fundamentally decent young men to join a hostage-taking militant group? But I worry that any personal questions about them—even questions as innocuous as what their childhoods were like, or how Abed learned English—will make them stiffen, pull back, throw up walls, for fear that when we're free, we might somehow use the information to help the authorities locate them.
Abed and Fadil are not our only guards. They trade shifts with a second pair every two or three days. The second shift follow the same routine of two toilet runs and three feedings a day. But they're less generous about portion sizes, they may dawdle until the food has cooled before they serve us, and they don't bring us fruit. More aggravating, they forbid us to chat, and they don't extend the special concessions that Abed does: they won't let us off our chains to exercise, nor will they permit us the couple of extra minutes we would need in the bathroom to take a daily hot shower. They'll turn our light bulb on for us while we're eating, but otherwise they see no reason not to leave us in the dark. When we can't stand the gloom anymore, we light our candles.
Allan complains to Abed about these discrepancies in our treatment, hoping that Abed will intercede for us, but Abed maintains that the other guards are entitled to set their own rules on these matters. Allan does persuade Abed to double our allotted shower time when he and Fadil are on shift, from two minutes to four, on the rationale that we won't be using any more hot water than if the other guards were allowing us to shower daily. I don't think Abed and Fadil are all that strict about the time limit anyway, although they do rap on the door to tell us to stop.
Like Rat Bastard and Less a Bastard used to do, the guards on the second shift speak to us rarely, and then only in Arabic. At first, in fact, we wonder if they may be Rat Bastard and Less a Bastard, but we become convinced that they're not as we overhear them talking in the next room. The new pair are the opposite of Rat Bastard and Less a Bastard when it comes to their unusually strict attitude toward security, during toilet runs in particular. With other guards, the norm for toilet runs is for one guard to guide us by the arm while a second walks behind, presumably armed. With this new pair, we're left in no doubt that the one walking behind is armed because he holds his rifle to our backs the whole way. This stressful habit inspires me to dub the new pair the Brothers Kalashnikov. (I have to explain the literary allusion to Allan; he only knows Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. Meanwhile, it's thanks to Allan that I know what a Kalashnikov rifle is).
The Brothers Kalashnikov make me appreciate Abed and Fadil all the more by contrast. When the Brothers K are on duty I get low, lying around all day in a dark room, unable to talk with Allan, permanently chained without an exercise break. After two or three days of that, I'm thrilled to hear Abed's quiet "Good morning" as he opens the door to bring us breakfast. It's the same thrill I used to feel when Makmoud would say my name.
Abed won't grant us everything we ask for. Because it's getting colder, we ask for a third blanket apiece, to which Abed responds that he and Fadil each have only two blankets, implying that we should man up. It's not a fair comparison. I've seen how they're dressed: thick pants, a coat, a scarf when they're not wearing it around their face. Not to mention they sleep with a portable space heater running in their room as long as there's power! They loan us the space heater off and on during the day, about which I'm grateful but ambivalent, since being warmer some of the time makes the cold periods feel colder. Not surprisingly, the Brothers Kalashnikov never loan us the heater.
Another request Abed denies us is swapping places between the bed and the mattress. Allan explains that we used to trade each night because it's unfair for one of us to always have to sleep on the floor like a dog. Abed doesn't understand, he keeps repeating sternly that it is forbidden for us to share the bed. Even once he's grasped what Allan is really asking for, he won't do it. Allan demands a reason. (His success at getting rid of Rat Bastard and Less a Bastard has made Allan more confident and therefore contentious.) Abed gives a tedious explanation of how, in order to trade places, we would both have to be unchained at the same time, which wouldn't be "safe." But Abed and Fadil have guns, Allan argues, how could we possibly overpower them?
When Abed won't budge in the face of argument, Allan turns noble. If Abed won't let us trade off, then I should be given the bed permanently, and Allan will take the floor. Abed refuses a permanent switch for the same reason he refused a nightly one: exchanging places would require unchaining us both at the same time. Allan gives his own tedious explanation of how that problem could be solved by swapping our chains along with us, as Abed and Fadil did when they chained me to the bedframe so they could move the filing cabinet. But Abed must find Allan's explanation of the process too hard to follow, or he just doesn't see a good reason for the swap, because he again refuses.
Allan's next move is to insist that they take the bed away so that both of us have to sleep on the floor. But they need the bed, Abed observes, to chain Allan to. Well then put the mattress on the floor next to the bed! By now, Allan is coming across to me as pouty. Abed hears it, too. "Do not be a child," he tells Allan mildly. "Thank God because you have a bed." And that's the end of that conversation.
I urge Allan to let it go. I appreciate the sacrifice he's willing to make for me, but I'm fine staying where I am. I don't find it as demeaning to sleep on the floor as he does, it doesn't make me feel like a dog. Anyway, if either of us deserves an extra privilege, it's Allan, for the extra work he does taking the lead in our dealings with the guards.
Allan says I shouldn't think of things that way. I do my share. He may lead off, but I'm the one who makes sure the guards feel appreciated. I give them their positive strokes, right? For a second I think he's being sarcastic, then I'm delighted to realize that, no, he really does accept us as playing complementary roles. It's silly how much that delights me, but it does. Allan promises me he won't push Abed any further on letting us swap places... unless, he hedges, a natural opportunity arises to bring it up again. He knows better than to even try to ask the Brothers K.
One of the concessions from Abed I prize most, which thankfully the Brothers K also respect, is permitting us to read! I've never tried asking guards for reading material—partly because I didn't have enough light in my prisons to read by, and partly because it has never occurred to me that the request might be granted (any more than it would have occurred to me that the guards would show me a video). Now that we have a light bulb, Allan asks if we could have something to read. Abed says he'll see what he can do. I'm worried that Allan will be too pushy in following up, so when Abed and Fadil return to begin their next shift, I take the initiative of asking if they "were able" to find anything for us. "Soon," Abed says. That's not an encouraging reply; I suspect he's merely fending us off. Allan informs Abed we can both read French, if that makes things easier—whereupon Abed leaves the room without a word. Now I'm angry. Just as I feared, Allan has offended Abed by coming across as pushy.
We hear Abed open the inner office. Seconds later, he and Fadil are back, each carrying a hefty stack of yellowing newspapers. L'Orient Le Jour, Lebanon's major French daily. It would appear that these back issues have been sitting out front the entire time we've been here. I gush gratefully. Allan plays it cooler, of course.
My exposure to French is limited to a semester-long crash course I took during my first year of graduate school to prep me for my reading exam, which is to say that I can't actually read French without a dictionary. But I search for news stories on more or less familiar subjects (the back issues are all from 1985), so I can practice decoding from context. How I have missed this type of intellectual stimulation! Allan helps me improve my pronunciation, which wasn't covered systematically in my reading comprehension course.
We remind Abed periodically that we would be grateful for something else to read. In the meantime, these old newspapers make our days less tedious, especially the days of enforced silence when the Brothers Kalashnikov are on duty. Shortly after we've been given the newspapers, the Brothers K become willing to leave our light on for us. I'm convinced that Abed must have said something to them.
This is our new life as we move through December, on our way to the end of 1986.
* * *
I miss the huddling. I'm extraordinarily thankful that Allan and I are still together in the same room. At the same time, I hate the enforced distance, and I hate the chef for imposing it. After Abed and Fadil relocate the filing cabinet, there are only two or three yards between my head and Allan's, but that's more distance between us than we're used to. We've never slept so far from each other before. Back in the Shouf prison, that distance would have been a whole cell away. It's as far away as we were from Paul and Donald.
I miss lying next to Allan. I miss that we can never touch. Never a pat on the shoulder. Not even hands on ankles as one of us does sit-ups.
I worry that the chef has done this to us because he knows about me. Or suspects—has suspected from the beginning. He can see it or hear it, in my voice, my movement, my posture. Maybe the crying was the clue. So when the guards told the chef that they'd found us in bed together, he jumped naturally, immediately, from suspicion to conclusion.
If so, then it's my fault that we're chained like this. My fault that we were beaten. Allan's right in a way and wrong in a way when he says we're being punished unjustly. The punishment is unjust because nothing happened, and nothing was going to happen. On the other hand, I am what we are being punished for. Allan's protestation to the chef is technically true: We aren't homosexuals. It's just me who is.
I bear the burden of responsibility, then. That's not the same as guilt; I don't feel guilty because of what has happened to us. Guilt implies that there is something I should have done differently, or could do differently now, to change things. But that's not the case here. I can't change what I am, what they detect in me. This isn't like entertaining sexual thoughts about Allan when I know I should push them away, or like when I went home with Dale even though I knew that would complicate my life in ways I shouldn't allow to happen. I feel guilty about doing those things because I could and should have not done them. But I can't not be gay. Realistically, I can't even cover up whatever signs people may be seeing that tell them I'm gay.
So I don't feel guilty that we've been beaten and chained on suspicion of being gay. But I do feel responsible. Which makes me feel low. Which makes me wish all the more that I could be touched by Allan, or lie close to him, for comfort. The infuriating, depressing irony is: the very fact that I wish we could touch or lie close—that is, the fact that I am gay—makes me responsible for the fact that now we can't touch or lie close.
* * *
Christmas comes a couple of weeks after we receive new guards. The Brothers Kalashnikov are on duty for Christmas Eve, so Allan and I have to spend the day silent. I read L'Orient Le Jour for a while, but my thoughts keep being pulled toward home. How is my family spending this day? I imagine they're trying to have as normal a Christmas as possible, but they must feel my absence as painfully as I feel theirs. I wish I could write them a letter.
I start to compose one in my head, and then the fantasy letter turns into a fantasy tape recording, in which I'm telling them about Christmas memories with them that I cherish. The fantasy is melancholy and makes me teary-eyed, but at the same time I feel it's healthy. I'm not wallowing inside myself, I'm reaching out beyond myself, to them. I wish I could reach out to Allan, I wish the Brothers K would let me talk to him. I would ask him about his Christmas memories.
That night I want to do something as a substitute for Christmas Eve Mass, so I light a candle, stick it to the floor, and sit cross-legged on my mattress in front of it. I'm vividly aware of the chain on my wrist. I stare into the flame and silently sing Christmas carols, in my head, for maybe an hour. I probably look spaced out; Allan takes the risk of asking if I'm all right. I nod.
The next day, Christmas Day, Abed and Fadil come on shift, which allows me to initiate the conversation I'd wanted to have with Allan yesterday. We talk about our families' Christmas traditions. The exchange is both uplifting and wistful, which is to say that it's tough but I still feel glad we did it.
Normally, Abed and Fadil feed us before giving us our evening toilet run. This evening, however, they take us to the bathroom without feeding us first. As they're escorting me back down the hall, Abed at my arm, Fadil behind, I ask if we're going to get dinner. I'm thinking that maybe they forgot. "Soon," Abed promises.
For once, "soon" really means soon. The guards return to our room immediately after the toilet runs—not to bring us sandwiches, though. Instead, they arrange something in the empty part of the room beyond my mattress, near the cupboard. As part of the process, they plug the space heater into the socket that hangs from the ceiling on that side of the room. Without explaining anything, they disconnect the end of my chain from the filing cabinet so they can bring me, with my chain hanging from my wrist, over to whatever they've arranged. They sit me down, comfortably close to the space heater, on the edge of a blanket spread on the floor. They shackle my left wrist loosely to my right ankle; I can still move my left hand pretty freely while I'm sitting here, but I imagine I'd be hard put to walk, much less run. "Do not look," Abed instructs me. They unchain Allan from the bed and seat him next to me, shackling him the same way they did me.
The guards retreat a few steps behind us, whereupon Abed gives us permission to lift our blindfolds. On the blanket in front of us is a pan of baklava, a little pile of sugared almonds, and another little pile of dates. "Happy birthday, Jesus," Abed chimes from behind us.
Cynically, I think: Another photo op. Still, I'd rather communicate with my family this way than not at all, and this is very good news for Allan, assuming they're planning to send the photo to his family, too.
But it turns out the guards do not have a camera. This Christmas spread is not for show. It's just for us. In my emotionally vulnerable state, I tear up. "Thank you," Allan says, "this is very kind of you." His voice is as restrained as it always is when he shows gratitude to the guards, but his use of "very" strikes me as unusually, if subtly, emphatic.
Allan invites Abed and Fadil to sit down with us to share the goodies. Abed doesn't want to. Allan presses. He tells them this is what we do at Christmas: they gave us a gift, so we should give them a gift, even if all we have to give is sharing their gift to us. I wonder if Abed has religious objections to joining us. I would prefer the guards not stay, either. If they do, we'll have to put our blindfolds back down. Plus, I don't want to go to the work of playing host or guest or whatever my role would be here. I just want to relax with Allan.
Nevertheless, Allan persuades the guards to stay. So he and I pull our blindfolds down most of the way, and Abed and Fadil sit on the floor across from us. They have their weapons slung over their shoulders, I can see the rifle butts pointing toward the floor under their arms. Everyone except Allan starts out rather tense—as fondly as I feel toward Abed and Fadil, this level of fraternizing feels unnatural, even unsafe—but as we eat, the guards relax and enjoy the moment.
As with my birthday cake, I find I can stomach only a little of the pastry, but I enjoy the almonds and the dates. I tell Abed and Fadil I've never eaten dates before, which surprises them. Dates are very good for you, Abed advises. He urges (orders?) me to eat some more. He asks if I dislike the baklava. Not at all, I hasten to assure him, I'm just not used to food this rich.
Allan requests permission to save some baklava for later, so Abed sends Fadil to fetch our tubs for us to set the baklava aside in. From under my blindfold, I can see that until Fadil returns, Abed takes the precaution of unslinging his rifle from his shoulder and holding it in both hands, at the ready in case Allan and I try anything. What would we try? Following Allan's example, I leave some baklava in the pan for Abed and Fadil to finish, which they do in quick order.
Fadil asks a question, which Abed translates as: Do we know any "Christmas sing"? Allan maintains he can't sing, so I go solo with my favorite carol, "Adeste Fidelis," having first been enjoined by Abed not to sing loudly. As I'm singing, it dawns on me—how did I not realize this last night?—that Beirut is not all that far from Bethlehem. I have a decent voice, and the guards seem sincere in their applause afterward. They want another carol. "Silent Night?" Allan proposes. I beg off: "I think I'll cry." So Allan tries singing that one; but when he can't get the melody started right, I come in to help him and find that I'm able to keep going after all without breaking down. By the time we get to "Holy infant," Allan is carrying the tune well enough that I improvise a harmony line for the rest. Abed and Fadil are impressed.
For a third number, we do "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (yes, Allan answers me coolly, they know that one in England), with me adding the spoken bits between lines. Abed interrupts immediately after we've started to remind us to keep our voices down, which smashes a dent in the cheery mood. The guards' reaction to that song is tepid. They don't ask for another.
Fadil asks another question, but instead of translating, Abed tsks at him. When Allan asks what the question was, Abed replies only that it wasn't polite. That's okay, I say. If there's something Fadil wants to know, we're happy to answer, we won't be offended. Abed hesitates. Allan jokes that we won't be able to sleep tonight, wondering what Fadil's question was.
Abed lets us have our way. Fadil asked if we miss our families, he explains. A heavy silence falls. Yes, Allan tells Fadil, we miss our families very much. Fadil says something, which Abed translates as an apology for making us feel bad.
Since Fadil has raised the subject of families, and since the atmosphere now seems to me quite intimate, I decide to risk asking the question I've been wondering. "Abed, are you and Fadil brothers?"
Abed turns instantly tense. What do I mean? he wants to know. Shit. I knew I shouldn't have asked a personal question. Flustered, I can't think how to back out of what I started.
Allan intervenes, speaking in an exaggeratedly casual voice to try to ease the tension. "Jeremy wonders if maybe the reason you and Fadil work together is because you are from the same family."
"No." Abed's voice is stern. Austere, actually, would be a better word to describe it. "We are brothers, yes. But not the same father or mother. We are brothers for God. Brothers for jihad. You understand?"
Yes, I say meekly, I understand. The word jihad hangs over our little Christmas celebration like a black cloud. I wonder if Abed responded tensely to my question because he thought I was fishing for information about their militant group; I remember that the chef who visited me shortly after my kidnapping referred to the guards as "the brothers." Perhaps I'd be better off just dropping the subject, but I want to clarify that my motives were innocuous. "I thought maybe you were brothers—from the same mother and father—because it seems like you are very good friends."
Abed considers this for a few moments. He translates what we've been saying for Fadil; I assume that's what he's doing, anyway. Then, more relaxed, Abed tells me that I am right, he and Fadil are indeed good friends. They have known each other for many years, he confides, because of their families. (Does he mean they're relatives? Did they grow up as neighbors? I'm certainly not going to probe for clarification.) When they were younger, the two of them were "not so much friends," but they have become so now. Fadil "is new"—to the militant group, I take it—and Abed is showing him "how to do." In the process, they have become inseparable. "We like very much. We are always together." If their friendship is why I mistook them for brothers, then Abed is pleased; he hopes that their friendship makes them better brothers for God.
Abed pauses again. "I think you also are good friends. You like very much, yes?"
Now it's my turn to become tense. The question feels loaded, maybe a trap. Is he asking this because of the huddling? I'm too nervous to answer, so Allan does it, his voice tinged with caution. We haven't known each other for many years, like Abed and Fadil have; but yes, we have become good friends. We are very happy that the chef allowed us to keep being together. Allan doesn't say anything about us "liking" each other.
Abed responds, in a matter-of-fact tone, that he also is happy for us. It is good to be with a friend, especially when things are hard. The guards who were here before misunderstood. They made a mistake, is how he puts it. Abed understands that we did not have in mind to do a bad thing. We are friends who wanted to help each other. That is good. We are good men, Abed knows this. He hopes, inshallah, that our governments will do soon what is needed so that we can go free and return home to our families.
I can hear the restrained excitement in Allan's voice as he tells Abed that we do not know what our governments need to do so we can go free. "Do you know?" No, Abed replies, suddenly brusque. That is not his job.
I'm not convinced by Abed's denial; I'm sure Allan isn't, either. But clearly Allan has crossed a line, so I try to pull us all back into safe territory. I tell Abed that we know he and Fadil are good men, too. I thank them for treating us well, for making our lives better.
Although he translates my little speech for Fadil, Abed deflects my gratitude with pious modesty. "We do good for you because God says, in al-Quran al-karim. If your life is better, you should thank God." Yes, I tell Abed, I do that.
On that note, Abed decides it's time to call it a night. He and Fadil reach across the blanket to shake our hands, a gesture that takes me by surprise. Allan asks quickly if he and I can take this chance to permanently swap places—me on the bed, him on the floor. Abed's willing, but I insist I don't want to. I'm used to things the way they are, I don't want any more change. "You'll be warmer up off the floor," Allan tells me. That doesn't matter, I'm fine. I ask Abed to please take me back to the filing cabinet.
"Wait," Allan says. "Abed, I would like to give Jeremy a hug before you put us back." Abed doesn't know the word hug, so Allan mimes. Abed has to think it over before he answers. He has orders from the chef not to let us touch. On the other hand, he's just said that he doesn't believe we're guilty of the impropriety we're suspected of. He gives the okay.
Because of how we're shackled, Allan and I aren't sure we'll be able to stand upright, and the guards aren't moving to unshackle us yet, so we get up onto our knees, locate one another from behind our blindfolds, and embrace with just our right arms. As our arms close around one another's backs, my whole upper body relaxes. I've been needing this so badly. At the same time, a sense of loss makes me want to cry. When was the last time Allan and I embraced? How long will it be before we're permitted to do it again? Ever?
Allan holds me for just a couple of seconds before he starts in with the damn backslapping. I don't follow suit, I keep my hand pressed to his back. "Happy Christmas, mate." "Merry Christmas."
Lying on my mattress, chained to the filing cabinet again, I reflect that I can easily envision having spent this day under worse conditions. So comparatively speaking, this was a good Christmas. I give a prayer of thanks—for Abed and Fadil, and for Allan.