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 7 -- Transferred to an apartment
We enter a new year. 1987. I'm still a hostage, still living with Allan in the cold back room of an abandoned office somewhere in the southern suburbs of Beirut.
About a week after New Year's, our captors decide it's time for a change.
* * *
As always, they come for us at night. I surface from a shallow, chilly sleep to realize that there are more than two guards moving and talking out front. I am instantly caught up in a welter of anxiety and hope.
I pull down my blindfold and sit up as they enter our room. They unchain Allan and escort him out to the front room, but no one approaches my mattress to unchain me. Oh God, no, don't take him away from me... "Allan!" I cry out helplessly.
"Shh! Do not be afraid," an unfamiliar voice says. He's clearly Arab, but his English is fluid and clear. "You are going home now."
My heart leaps, even though I know he could be lying. A second later, a sobering thought seizes me. "Is Allan going home?"
"Do not speak," the same voice insists. But he adds, "Your friend also is going home."
As soon as he says it, I recognize the cruel irony at work: the only way I would have felt certain that I can trust this man would be if he had told me Allan isn't going home. As things now stand, I don't know that he isn't just mollifying me, to keep me quiet.
It sounds like everyone but me is now in the front room. They've left the door between us open—a good sign. It suggests they are, in fact, planning to take me out too.
The scrrrch of packing tape startles me. I flash back to my kidnapping, the miserable trip crammed into the compartment under the van. Not that again. Then I think: No, this bodes well. They didn't tape us up when they transferred us to and from the Shouf prison. So the fact they're taping us now could be a sign that they really are letting us go. They're getting us ready for transport back to the heart of the city. The same journey I underwent when I was kidnapped, but in reverse.
Just before they start applying the tape, I hear Allan say, in a low, tense voice, "If you're not really letting us go, please don't separate us."
"Do not worry," the English speaker tells him, a little sternly. "Soon you will be free."
Allan is silent after that. Once they're finished taping him, some other kind of movement goes on that ends with the sound of something being dragged a little ways across the floor. It can't be Allan's body; the sound is too scratchy, it makes me picture a woven reed mat. I don't understand, which makes me anxious.
They return for me. Standing in the front room, I know there must be at least three guards here, our regular guards plus the English speaker. I have the impression there may be one or two more men shifting around. I have no reason to think that Abed and Fadil are among them; the Brothers Kalashnikov are on shift. Whether I'm going home or to a new holding place, I would have liked to have said goodbye to Abed and Fadil. I would have liked to thank them one more time for treating us as well as they did.
They wrap a few layers of tape around my blindfold. They don't stuff a gag inside my mouth, but they tie a strip of cloth over my mouth and wrap tape tightly around the cloth. Instead of wrapping tape around my body, like my kidnappers did, these guards merely cross my wrists behind my back and tape them together. The tape is so tight, I worry about my circulation. I can clench and unclench my hands normally, at least for the moment—does that mean I'll be fine? I take comfort in the thought that if my hands are behind me, they must not be planning to wedge me under a van again. They'd better not, anyway. God, that would be uncomfortable, lying on top of my hands.
The guards sit me down on the edge of a chair in order to tape my ankles together. Then they thread my feet into a cloth sack. Two guards lift me out of the chair by my armpits as two other guards lift the sack up my legs, past my hips. The men holding my arms lower me down into a half sitting, half squatting position, so the sack can be pulled up over the rest of my body and knotted shut over my head.
I'm panicking. My first instinctive fear is that I'll smother—but I feel burlap on my face and hands, so although the air is hot and close, I know that the fabric is full of tiny holes for air to pass through. But that's the next reason I panic. I'm envisioning seawater rushing through all those tiny holes. Jesus Christ, they're going to dump us, drown us in sacks like unwanted puppies!
The guards can hear my panicked wheezing through my nostrils. Someone prods me through the burlap. "Do not be afraid," the English speaker says again. It's an order, not reassurance; he's losing patience. I bring myself under control. Please, God, let him be telling the truth.
Two guards carry me out of the building by my shoulders and legs as I'm curled up inside the sack. I hear a car trunk pop open. The guards load me inside and shift me around to their liking. I end up pushed in as far as possible toward the front of the car, with my back to the guards. Allan is loaded in close behind my back, a snug fit. The trunk closes over us. Right away, guards get in the car, and we're off.
The gag is squeezing my face because of the tape wrapped around it. I work my jaw, hoping to ease the discomfort. I am surprised to discover that opening my mouth pulls the gag loose in the direction of my chin. My God, I might be able to call for help—if we're not being released. I rapidly open and close my mouth, working the gag down in tiny increments. Behind me, Allan is twisting in his sack, struggling to get free. Is it possible he has an idea for how to escape? Could he know a way to open the trunk from inside?
I've managed to lower the gag to the point where I could speak or shout freely. Should I? I'm in a frantic agony of indecision... I'll ask Allan. If he hasn't slipped his gag, he can at least grunt yes or no.
I crane my neck around as far as I can. I'm afraid that a whisper won't be audible over the noise of the moving car, so I speak in a voice only somewhat lower than usual. My words come out in a mad rush: "Allan I can talk should I call for help?"
Before I've finished, Allan is shushing me; he's slipped his gag, too. "Shh! Quiet!"
In a perfectly distinct voice, an enraged guard barks, "No talk!" He must be in the backseat, it sounds like he's sitting right in front of me. I am taken aback by how clearly his voice carries. I had assumed that the partition between the trunk and the backseat would muffle sound far more than it does. I realize belatedly that the only reason I hadn't heard the guards talking in the car is that they weren't talking. They're talking now, though, urgent and agitated. The car's pulling over. Oh shit!
As the engine idles, a guard jumps out, flings open the trunk, and strikes each of us, twice, with a hard object that I take to be the butt of his rifle. The blows he delivers to me fall on my side, above my hip, knocking the wind out of me a little. I grunt but don't cry out. With a final hiss, the guard slams the trunk closed.
We drive on. Allan struggles a little longer. Then I feel his hands groping around my back and ass through the burlap. He locates my hands, still taped behind my back, and squeezes them. Encouragement, I suppose. No, wait, he's tugging on my hands, as if he wants to separate them. He must be prompting me to twist out of the tape, the way he has. Maybe he does have an escape plan.
I'm able to loosen the tape, but not enough to wrench a hand free. I'm such a goddamn weakling. Exertion and frustration make my breath come out in little sobs. Allan presses a hand high on my back, near my shoulder blades, in what I interpret as a calming gesture. I quiet down, rest a bit, then resume struggling again.
We park, we've already arrived. How long were we driving? Ten minutes? My hands still aren't free. I hope to God I haven't fucked up some plan Allan might have had. Allan pats my back quickly, twice, and withdraws his hand. He holds very still. I do likewise.
The trunk opens. They remove Allan. Someone locates my head through the burlap and raps my skull hard with his knuckle. He hisses softly, a warning, before they close the lid again. The trunk dips, and stays dipped, as a guard leans on the rear of the car. It's a familiar routine: Allan's being delivered somewhere, a guard has stayed behind to keep watch over me. A transfer then, I'm thinking. I pass through multiple emotions in rapid succession. Crushed resignation: we're not going home. Gushing relief: my morbid imagination was wrong, we're not being drowned. Cold fear: what if they separate us, put me back in solitary? A glimmer of optimism: maybe they're moving us because this new place will be warmer.
Long, nerve-wracking minutes pass. It didn't take this much time to move us out of the van when they transferred us to the Shouf prison, and it took nowhere near so long to hustle us into the abandoned office. I have no idea whether to interpret the wait as a good sign or a bad.
Get me indoors already, I am freezing out here.
Finally, the trunk opens again. Someone picks up the knotted end of my sack and hoists it over his shoulder, while two sets of hands lift me up from beneath. Inside the sack, I am hunched over with my arms pulled behind my back and my head pressed toward my bent-up knees. The compression of my lungs forces me to take shallow breaths. Thank God the gag has slipped, I can suck in more air through my mouth.
The guard carries me, on his back, up five flights of stairs; I start keeping count after the second flight. Two other guards are always right behind him to help bear my weight. The guard who has me on his back huffs and staggers but never stops to rest. He wants to get this over and done with. So do I.
A door opens. The guards let me fall, dead weight, onto the floor. My elbow is smashed so brutally that for the next hour, until the pain finally eases, I'll be convinced they've broken the bone. I howl, earning me simultaneous hisses from multiple sources, followed by several kicks to the legs. I restrain myself from crying out again. At least my assailant is keeping away from my back and arms. The blows aren't only because I made noise, I suspect; someone's venting his displeasure at having to haul me up several flights of stairs. Another guard intervenes. I think I recognize the voice as that of the fluid English speaker, although now he's speaking Arabic. The kicker desists.
They drag me out of the sack and sit me upright on the floor with my legs stretched out in front of me. I'm gritting my teeth from the pain in my elbow, but it's a blessed relief not to be hunched over any more. I fill my lungs with fresh, chilled air. As one guard sets to work unwrapping the tape from my blindfold, someone else uses a knife to cut the tape from my ankles and wrists and to saw off the gag, now hanging around my neck.
Unless this is a multistory office building, I must be in a residential apartment, like Paul and Donald before they were transferred to the Shouf prison. If it's an apartment, no wonder the guards were so unhappy that I yelled—in the middle of the night, no less. Now that the stripping away of the tape is complete, everything has become very quiet. Where's Allan?
I am led down a straight path, which I assume to be a hallway. A guard uses a key to unlock a door to my right. I am brought into my new room, seated on my new mattress. Wordlessly, the guards turn, pull, push me around until I'm lying flat on my back. Why couldn't they just tell me to lie down?
A chain closes around my left wrist. Blankets are spread out on top of me. Someone leans close to my face to speak in a menacing whisper. It's not the same English speaker as earlier, this new man has a thicker accent. "Do not talk or move at all. You are sleeping now."
The guards leave, locking me in. Alone? I'm hoping no, I'm hoping that's what it means that the guard forbade me to speak.
I use my right hand to lift the blindfold so that the chain on my left hand won't clink. Even with my eyes uncovered, I'm blind; the room is impenetrably dark. Several feet directly to my left, a sliver of light is visible under the door that leads out to the hallway, but it does nothing to illuminate my surroundings.
From across the room, Allan whispers, "I'm here, Jeremy."
"Oh thank you, God." I didn't intend to gasp it out loud, it just slipped out.
* * *
We don't dare talk much, but Allan and I exchange a few more whispered words that night, mostly about my elbow; having heard me yell, Allan wants to know if I'm hurt. I'll see a hideous bruise on my elbow in the morning, but evidently nothing's broken.
The next day, after the guards have given us permission to speak quietly, Allan lectures me for getting us thumped during the drive. I should never call out, he insists. The odds of being heard by anyone who could or would help us are too slim to make the risk worthwhile. All it will accomplish is to make the guards panic. We need to stay calm so that they will, too.
In self-defense, I tell Allan that I had thought they might be planning to drown us—in which case, the risk would have been worthwhile, wouldn't it? We would have had nothing to lose.
"Jeremy, they're not going to kill us. But even if they were, they're terrorists, not gangsters. They wouldn't want to hide the bodies, they'd want to show them off. They'd take pictures to send to the papers. So they'd shoot us, not toss us in the ocean. But they're not going to shoot us, either. I know why you're worried about it—but those were exceptional cases. You don't need to be afraid of that, it's not going to happen to us."
I ask Allan if he had wanted me to free my hands because he had an idea about how to escape. No, he says, he just knew I'd be more comfortable with my hands free. Were the guards mad when they got him upstairs and saw he had freed his hands? A little, he admits. They smacked his hands, as if he were a schoolboy, which stung like hell. But that's all.
Allan tells me that while I was struggling to free my hands, he kept one of his hands cupped over his genitals. "I was afraid you'd hit my balls. After all that fuss about us sharing the bed, they had us spooning pretty damn close."
We have to joke about things like that, to survive.
* * *
We are, indeed, in a residential apartment. A slummy, crumbling, dingy apartment. We are being kept in a small bedroom—ten by twelve feet, Allan estimates. Apart from our mattresses lying on the floor, the room is bare. My mattress is in the corner directly opposite the door; Allan's is in the corner diagonal from me. The mattresses are arranged perpendicularly, so that their feet approach each other. I am chained to a bolt that has been driven into the wall near my head. The guards have allotted me enough slack in my chain that I can stretch my wrist all the way down my side when I'm lying down, and I can stand up straight near the head of the mattress. Allan is chained to a radiator alongside his mattress, on the wall that faces me.
There are two windows in the room, one above the radiator, the other in the wall alongside me. Both are covered by sheets of metal. Allan tries peeping out the window over the radiator through the cracks at the border of the sheet, but the metal is bolted too tightly to the wall to allow him to see anything. My chain doesn't stretch far enough for me to reach my window, which spares me having to work up the courage to try.
Although the sun lights up the very edges of the metal sheets during the day, the room otherwise remains pitch dark until the guards turn on the light bulb that hangs down from wires spilling out of the ceiling. They leave the light on for us all day and turn it off at night when they want us to go to sleep. We have candles in our tubs for use during power outages.
Our new neighborhood is noisier than our last. We hear more sounds of people living in buildings around us—voices, music. We must be close to the airport; planes roar as they take off. Explosions sound periodically at what seems a not-too-great distance, a reminder of Beirut's continuing civil war. The guards are unfazed by the explosions, so I take my cues from them and stifle my sense of alarm. Whatever's happening, it must not threaten us.
Allan is persuaded that we're in Bourj al-Barajneh, a suburb located just north of the airport. The explosions we hear are probably the shelling of a nearby Palestinian refugee camp, he says. For as long as he's been in Beirut, the refugee camps in the suburbs have been under siege, off and on, by militias who oppose the PLO using Lebanon as a base of operations against Israel.
There are other hostages with us in this apartment—three of them, in a bedroom located across the hall from ours. We hear them being unchained and escorted on their toilet runs. Allan and I aren't supposed to know anything about the other hostages' identity. To prevent the hostages' voices from carrying across the hall to us, the guards speak to them from behind closed doors only. The guards do the same to talk to Allan and me, and they insist we keep our voices down.
Despite the guards' precautions, we know that the other hostages are French. I'm responsible for learning that. After a few days of relentless prodding from Allan, plus practice anticipating the guards' movements, I build up enough nerve to eavesdrop during the other hostages' toilet runs by stretching out to the end of my chain, crouched on the floor. As in the abandoned office, Allan and I are both chained by our left wrists; Allan theorizes that this is because the guards assume we'll use our right hands to eat, as Arabs do. Because my left wrist is the wrist closest to the door, I'm able to stretch out on my chain to within a couple feet of the door. I'm scared as hell the first time I do this, but my success at pulling it off is a confidence-booster, as Allan knew it would be.
I have to repeat the trip to the door on multiple mornings before I overhear a conversation that's sustained enough for me to figure out what language is being spoken. I can't distinguish individual words, but I'm certain that the sounds and inflections I'm hearing are French.
Allan takes his usual pleasure in spinning theories about who the other hostages might be. We know that Paul, Donald, and Robert were held in an apartment with four French hostages, one of whom died, so these could be the surviving three. In that case, this might be the very same apartment that Paul, Donald, and Robert shared with the French; Allan and I might even be occupying Paul, Donald, and Robert's old room. Allan is most drawn to that theory. But there were also four French television journalists kidnapped the weekend before I was—perhaps these three are from that group. This is the first I've heard of that kidnapping, even though it occurred the day before I arrived in Lebanon. Bernie never said a word about it. He must not have wanted to make me anxious.
It's also possible, of course, that these men were taken hostage sometime after the two of us, in which case Allan would have no way to identify them.
We never hear anyone moving over our heads, so we surmise that we may be on the top floor of the building. If we have downstairs neighbors, we don't hear them, but that doesn't necessarily mean there's no one there to hear us. Evidently the guards are afraid that neighbors will hear us, judging from how strict they are that we keep our voices down and not let our chains rattle.
The guards will tolerate us chatting softly during daylight hours as long as they're convinced that our voices aren't carrying enough for the hostages across the hall to hear. However, we are forbidden to talk once evening falls. This might be simply because the guards want to relax at the end of the day without having to monitor the volume of our conversations; Abed did the same back in the office. But where Abed would enjoin us to silence with a mild "Go to sleep now," like a father shushing his kids, our new guards are more menacing. The menace is why we think they may be worried about the downstairs neighbors discovering that we speak English. The evening hours, after all, would be when neighbors are most likely to be in the bedroom beneath us.
The prohibition against letting our chains rattle only makes sense as a measure to conceal us from the neighbors, not from the other hostages. Even if the French haven't figured out our nationalities or anything else about us, they must know that we're here, from hearing us take our toilet runs, and the guards must realize that. Right?
To avoid being harassed by the guards, Allan and I have to keep our chains on our mattresses with us—a nuisance—instead of letting them sit on the floor, where they could drag and clatter. Also, as we move we have to minimize the sound of chain links striking one another. For my trip to eavesdrop on the other hostages, I move to and from the door in a very slow arc so that my chain is stretched taut in the air the whole way. I'm irked that while the guards make some effort to be quiet when they chain and unchain us during toilet runs, they don't require themselves to be as careful as they demand that we be. They'll let the links rattle as they lock the chain onto my wrist, but if, immediately afterward, I make a rattle while shifting the position of my wrist, they'll chastise me.
Back in the Shouf prison, when I first learned about hostages being kept in residential apartments, I had imagined that there would be a high risk of the hostages being discovered. Now that I'm in an apartment, I feel that the guards' measures to prevent the downstairs neighbors from overhearing us are excessive. Paranoid. Allan and I would have to be shouting at each other for the neighbors to recognize that we're speaking something other than Arabic. And while I'll concede that chains dragging across the floor could make a distinctive noise audible beneath us, this business of not letting the chains clink while we shift around on our mattresses is ridiculous. If sound carried that well from one floor of the building to the next, we would hear sounds rising from downstairs too, wouldn't we?
As in the office, we are allowed thirty minutes off our chains each morning to exercise. If this is a norm for hostages who aren't being kept in prison cells, that would explain why Abed offered us the same amount of time. The guards here aren't as uptight about security during the exercise period as Abed was. In fact, I find their attitude peculiarly lax, given how strict they are in other ways. Unlike Abed, our new guards allow the two of us off the chains at the same time. Here our exercise period coincides with our toilet runs, so while one of us is being taken to and from the bathroom, the other is unchained too, working out. Also different from Abed's rules, no one stays in the room to monitor us while we exercise, although a guard may unlock the door and poke his head in if he hears (or doesn't hear) something that makes him suspicious.
Downstairs neighbors notwithstanding, the guards place no restrictions on what we can do for exercise: pacing, jogging, jumping jacks. The guards themselves spend hours banging around in the front part of the apartment and the hallway, apparently wrestling or fighting for recreation. The guards aren't concerned about bothering the neighbors with noise in general, they just don't want the neighbors hearing certain sounds—rattling chains or words in English.
One of Abed's concerns during our exercise period was that Allan and I not touch each other, as ordered by the chef. The guards here don't share that concern. Do they not know about the chef's order? Do they know but just don't bother to follow the order? Have Allan and I passed some kind of probation period, such that we're no longer under suspicion of homosexuality?
That last possibility seems overly optimistic given that we're kept chained on opposite sides of the room. I can't think why the guards would keep us apart like this unless they've been told to. Given how important it is to them that we talk softly, it would have been logical for them to arrange our mattresses closer together. The fact that they haven't done that must mean they don't want us close enough that we could do anything sexual at night. They must figure we're unlikely to try anything of that sort while we're off our chains for the exercise period. Or maybe they're not thinking about this at all, maybe I'm attributing more thought to these men than I should.
Whatever's going on, the fact that we exercise together means that I enjoy some limited physical contact with Allan on a daily basis. Hands on ankles as we help each other do sit-ups—that's something. But I miss the days when we could sit side-by-side chatting, or when Allan could roll over and pat my back as we lay on adjacent mattresses. I miss the huddling. I would very much like a hug now and then, but I don't have the guts to ask for one during our exercise period, when we could do it. I've hugged Allan, what, three times in the seven-plus months we've been together? Two of which, I initiated in moments of high emotion. I'm fortunate that Allan allowed me that much.
Our daily routine in the apartment is similar to the no-frills routine followed in the office by the Brothers Kalashnikov. Gone are the daily showers graced to us by Abed, we're back to once a week. But we're still being fed three times a day instead of two: a main midday meal, plus a sandwich morning and evening. We don't have plastic bowls in our tubs. Instead the midday meal is brought to us on plates, which the guards retrieve afterwards to wash. Because we're served on plates instead of in bowls, I feel like we're getting larger portions than we used to, though maybe that's an optical illusion. The quality of the midday meals has declined from what Abed and Fadil used to serve. The food's not salted or otherwise seasoned. The vegetables are simply dumped on top of the rice, straight out of a can onto our plates, not mixed together with the rice and heated in a pot. Fruit has gone back to being a less frequent treat. Meanwhile, Allan enjoys the usual cigarette ration: two packs for each of us per week.
A taxing departure from the routine at the abandoned office is that we're no longer guaranteed a second toilet run. If one of us asks for an evening toilet run when the guards bring us our suppertime sandwich and tea, we might get it, depending on two things: whether the guards can squeeze it in around the TV programs they intend to watch, and whether they've already promised a toilet run to one of the French hostages. The guards won't allow more than one or two hostages in the apartment the privilege of a second toilet run because that would take more time than they're willing to give up. Since the guards always feed the French before they feed us, Allan and I are usually screwed when it comes to extra toilet runs, because the French usually claim them first.
Competition for extra toilet runs is one reason I come to dislike the French. Another is that Allan and I have to wait for the French to finish their half hour of exercise in the morning before we're allowed to take our toilet runs. It's a security issue: the guards don't want all five hostages off their chains at the same time. If I have an especially urgent need to go, waiting for that last half hour to tick by while the French exercise is excruciating. The French always get their toilet runs and exercise period before Allan and I do. Once I've gotten to know the guards well enough that I'm more confident making requests, I propose that, in the interest of fairness, they should alternate which bedroom gets their toilet runs and exercise first. That request is wasted breath, the guards' routine is already set in concrete.
The most infuriating thing about the French is the way they leave the bathroom towels. For the first time in my captivity, I am in a place where the guards routinely place towels in the bathroom for us. There are only two towels, however, for all five hostages to share. The guards won't provide more towels than that. I don't know why, all I know is that begging for more does no good. Since all five of us take our weekly shower on the same day, and since the French always go first, both towels are wet by the time Allan and I get to them. I'm incensed that the French don't do the patently fair thing under the circumstances, which would be to reserve one of the towels for Allan and me to use. I've tried exiting the bathroom with a towel folded discreetly under my arm, intending to store it in our bedroom; but the guards won't let me get away with that, even after I've tried to explain why I'm doing it.
To make things worse, it's not uncommon to find that the French have simply dropped the towels on the floor instead of hanging them back up. This is so grossly inconsiderate toward Allan and me that it makes me despise not just these three men but French people in general. Maybe they've been the only hostages in this apartment for a long time, so they're not used to someone else coming in to shower after them. But Allan and I are here now, and they can't possibly be unaware of that, so they need to get their fucking act together and change their habits.
Although sympathetic, Allan grows tired of hearing me complain about this. Towel off with your pajamas, he tells me; you have clean ones to change into once you've finished showering. Yes, fine, but the point is we shouldn't have to resort to that. The French should show some basic consideration. Or the guards should get us more towels.
Allan has a different frustration: that the guards won't change the timing of our showers in relation to our workouts. The guards' inviolable pattern is to take us for our toilet runs at the beginning of our half-hour exercise period. They stick to this schedule even on our shower days, which means that after we shower, we return to our room to work out. Allan asks the guards for permission to do it the other way around. He's planned the schedule for them: give us twenty minutes to exercise, then start escorting us to the bathroom. He promises we'll be efficient, we'll squeeze both our bathroom trips into the remaining ten minutes of our exercise period. That way the guards won't have to spend any more time on this chore than they do when they take us to shower at the beginning of the half hour. No deal, the guards aren't buying it.
Our complaints about towels and timing notwithstanding, there is good news about shower day. We have hot water in this apartment, enough to last through all five hostages' showers since we are allowed, as usual, only a couple of minutes apiece. And an unprecedented luxury: we get a fresh change of clothes every shower day! Pajamas, socks, underwear—everything changed except our sweaters. We don't necessarily get our old clothes back once they've been laundered. Rather, they become part of a common pool from which the guards randomly assign us items to wear each week as we enter the bathroom. It's a grab bag of a collection. Button-up flannel pajamas. Thin cotton sweatshirts. Long silky drawers in leopard or tiger prints, cheerily colorful but not warm. A pair of heavy sweatpants is the plum catch.
Our clean clothes come with a stiff texture that indicates they've been hung out in the cold air to dry, not machine-dried, and they're folded so neatly when the guards hand them to us that I'm convinced the folding has been done by a woman. Who? A hired washerwoman? A guard's wife? A guard's mother? Does the person know she's doing laundry for hostages?
The best thing, hands down, about being in this apartment is that we get books! Oh my God. What cigarettes are to Allan, books are to me. The quality of the books leaves much to be desired, but there's no restriction on how often the guards will dispense books to us—no ration. The guards are surprised by how quickly I devour books; even Allan's a little surprised by it. Nevertheless, as soon as I've finished one, the guards will bring me another from the cache they keep somewhere in the apartment. Probably because reading keeps us silent, the guards are unexpectedly prompt about replacing our books. They're not so prompt about feeding us or taking us to the bathroom; those chores get done whenever the guards feel like getting around to them.
The book collection consists of forgettable or outdated titles, the kind that gather dust for years on someone's bookshelf before being carted off to gather dust on the shelves of a used bookstore instead. I assume that's exactly where the guards got these books: a used bookstore. Before that, I imagine the books were the home library of an expat who either died or moved back home and didn't want to transport all the books they'd accumulated over the years. There are mildewed editions of second- or third-tier literary classics, decades-old textbooks on subjects like history and economics, lurid true-crime narratives (our expat benefactor had a creepy streak), and genre novels, including a whole lot of romances by someone named Barbara Cartland. Allan laughs. She's famous in England, he tells me, but there's no reason I should ever have heard of her. He's sorry I'm being introduced to her now. Please don't think less of his country because of her.
When Waleed sees how frequently I request new books, he cautions me that they have only one box of books in English. How big is the box? I ask. "This big," he says, as if he's signaling with his hands—which of course I can't see because my blindfold is down. He laughs, mocking me. Jerk.
To avoid burning through the mystery box too quickly, I read every page of every book the guards give me, however cursorily. I even plow through the economics textbook, which proves more interesting in parts than I had anticipated. I get in the habit of reading a book twice before I return it—once at a gulp, for content, then a second time more slowly, savoring the details and the language, performing literary and rhetorical analysis. Rarely the guards give me a book in French, drawn by mistake, I presume, from the other hostages' cache. I'd be willing to skim even those, as an exercise in reading comprehension, except that Allan doesn't want the guards here to find out we know French.
My favorite read is a history of Lebanon written at the beginning of the 60s; I wish I could supplement it with a more recent history of the country. The Cartland romances feel demeaning at first—am I really so desperate as to read this shit?—but the more of them I read, the more I'm tempted to write my master's thesis on them. I become intrigued by tensions in the novels' operating assumptions about gender; I dig away at unearthing the ideology that underlies Cartland's representations of history; I want to develop a theory of what it reveals about contemporary Western culture that these romances are still popular. Maybe that's a Strange Idea, maybe I perceive these novels as more significant than they really are because they happen to loom large in my highly constricted hostage life.
Reading makes my life so much more bearable. The books are lifelines from the outside world, they bring other people's voices into the room. If my captors would have given me books back when I was in solitary, I'm sure I could have done better than I did. Not as much better as with Allan, of course. But better. I wonder why they've granted this boon now, so many months later.
* * *
Six guards work in the apartment, in two shifts of three. Waleed, Ameer, and Moustafa are on duty the night we arrive. A couple days later, we encounter Sayeed, Mohammed, and Hikmet.
They don't volunteer their names right away. After a few days, Allan takes the initiative of introducing the two of us formally to the guard who speaks the best English. The guard replies that they already know our names. News to us. "May I ask your name?" Allan says cautiously. "Waleed," the guard tells us without hesitation, followed by the names of the other two guards on shift. When the second shift returns, Allan and I introduce ourselves to them too, at which point they also reciprocate names.
We realize, of course, that the names they've given us are likely pseudonyms; ditto for Abed and Fadil. Real or fake, I have no idea why these guards are willing to give us names to call them by when the guards in our prisons didn't want that, apart from Makmoud. Maybe living together, after a fashion, in a regular apartment prompts the guards to relate to us on a more human basis.
As in the abandoned office, the guards' shifts change every two or three days. Allan figures out the pattern: two two-day shifts, followed by a three-day shift that covers the weekend, Friday to Sunday. He speculates that this pattern is to ensure that the guards get every other Friday free to go to mosque.
The guards stay up late at night watching TV off in the front area of the apartment, toward my left as I face the door. They sleep in a room through the wall by my head. They generally don't use our bathroom, though; there's another one elsewhere in the apartment. Allan, eager to construct a map of the apartment, is annoyed that I won't make afternoon or nighttime trips out to the end of my chain to eavesdrop on the guards' movements out front. He wants me to figure out the relative locations of the TV room, the kitchen, the guards' bathroom, the front door. I won't do it for him, I consider the risk too great even after the confidence boost of my successful morning trips. It's one thing to chance the trip toward the door under the cover of toilet runs and the French hostages' exercising. It's another to move around on my chain in the afternoon, when the guards' movements are less predictable, or at night, when they've ordered us to lie still.
All the guards have at least a rudimentary English vocabulary suitable for routine orders. Waleed's English is quite good; he's the one who ordered me not to speak or move on my first night here. Judging from my eavesdropping on the bedroom across the hall, most if not all of the guards speak some French—better French than English as a rule, I'd say, with the exception of Waleed. Sayeed sounds to me like he speaks French fluently.
Since we overhear and interact with these guards more than we did with the guards at the Shouf prison, Allan and I are able to discern the hierarchy among them. Waleed heads his shift, Sayeed heads the other. Sayeed is also the apartment's highest authority, as we learn during the brief struggle over the radiator.
The radiator in our room is extremely weak. Allan, laid out on his mattress in front of the radiator, has to roll up against the metal to feel the heat; I don't gain any benefit on the opposite side of the room. When I'm unchained to exercise, the first and last thing I do is sit pressed to the radiator, coaxing the chill out of my body, especially my hands and feet. I drape my sweater over the radiator while I'm exercising, so it will be warmed up when I put it back on. I envy Allan's ability to lie against the radiator whenever he wants. Even though I have two blankets, the nights are still rough, especially if I've been assigned flimsy silky drawers to wear that week. One week, when Allan happens to draw a pair of sweatpants from the clothing pool, he generously exchanges with me. I ask the guards if I can have a third blanket, but they claim there aren't any more.
Allan proposes to me that we swap places at the end of each exercise period so we can trade off being chained next to the radiator, the way we used to trade off sleeping in the bed at the office. He doesn't think we should ask the guards' permission to do this, so they can't deny the request peremptorily. We should just go sit on the mattress we want when the guards knock on the door to signal that they're coming in to rechain us. They might not even notice we've swapped, but if they do challenge us, we can explain why we're doing it then.
When Allan first makes this proposal, I'm unwilling to push the envelope. We've just arrived here, everything's too unsettled and tense. By the time we've been here almost a couple of weeks, I feel differently. At that point, our relationship with the guards is more relaxed. We're on a first-name basis with them. They've become more familiar with our habits and personalities and are therefore less jumpy around us. We've mastered the house rules and routines, so the guards are annoyed at us less often. And my success at eavesdropping on the bedroom across the hall has lifted my self-esteem. I tell Allan I'm willing now to try to swap.
Waleed notices right away when we don't return to the correct mattresses and demands to know what we're doing. When Allan explains, he acquiesces—surprisingly easily. I settle in to enjoy my 24 hours pressed full-length against the radiator. Meanwhile, Allan hazards two trips out to the end of his new chain to eavesdrop by the door: one trip after "lights out" to try to follow the guards' movements around the front of the apartment (the trip I've been refusing to take for him), and another the next morning to listen in on the French.
We're encouraged that Waleed proved so amenable to our swapping places. He's a difficult person, arbitrary and domineering, so if he's willing to let us have our way about this, we're confident that Sayeed will, too.
No. We get away with our first swap on Sayeed's shift because Mohammed and Hikmet do the rechaining and raise no objection. But later that day, Sayeed discovers what we've done, becomes angry without giving a reason, and immediately has us moved back to our original places. Allan tries to explain, but Sayeed apparently doesn't know enough English to understand. Allan doesn't explain in French because he doesn't want to reveal he knows that language, for fear of losing future opportunities to eavesdrop on conversations with the French hostages.
Allan persuades me, with some difficulty, to try swapping again the next morning. We have to show them how much this means to us, he insists. This time, Sayeed comes in to help rechain us after our exercise period. As soon as he enters the room and sees us sitting on the wrong mattresses, he hauls me onto my feet and shoves me back toward my proper mattress with a hard, flat-handed blow between the shoulders. He does the same to Allan. He chews us out in his rudimentary English-for-guards. "No move! No good! What you do?" Allan tries again to explain: Jeremy is cold. Allan pantomimes shivering. Sayeed is unswayed. He repeats, "No move, no good," cuffing our heads to drive the point home.
I tell Allan that I am very appreciative, as always, that he's willing to stand up for me. But we need to quit, I don't want the low-level violence to escalate. Let's keep swapping during Waleed's shift, but I won't defy Sayeed, this isn't worth a confrontation. Allan pleads with me not to fold until we see if Sayeed escalates his reaction. Maybe if we stick with it, Sayeed will back down. I dig in my heels. No, I tell Allan. I'm willing to keep asking Sayeed for permission to swap, but I won't try to swap without his permission.
By the time I make that resolution, however, Sayeed has resolved upon his own decisive step to shut down the swapping. He makes his move during that night's shift change. The shift change always occurs in the middle of the night, I assume to prevent the neighbors from seeing armed militiamen coming and going. When the replacement shift arrives, Sayeed wakes Allan and me so that Waleed can translate into English for him. Sayeed orders us to stop trying to trade places. He is giving us fair warning: if we do it again, we will be punished. He doesn't specify how. He advises us that he has instructed Waleed not to allow us to change either. Waleed, too, is authorized to punish us.
Taking advantage of Waleed's presence as interpreter, Allan tries to negotiate. He starts by assuring Sayeed that it isn't our intention to make problems or to disrespect Sayeed's authority. He waits for Waleed to translate that, to make sure it doesn't get lost. Allan then explains why we want to change places. The radiator gives off very little heat, so it's very cold on my side of the room; my hands and feet hurt; I can't sleep. It isn't fair that one of us should have to suffer the cold every day. (Things aren't quite as bad as Allan's making them sound. I'm uncomfortable, yes, but no more so than in the back room at the abandoned office, and never as bad here as the worst we endured there.)
Sayeed responds that we are not allowed to change places because it is unhealthy for us to use one another's bedding and bottles. I readily see Sayeed's point about the bottles—which is why, in fact, we take our bottles with us when we swap, rendering that concern moot. As for swapping mattresses and blankets: I overcame whatever vague hygienic qualms I felt about sleeping in the same spot Allan had been lying, back when we were trading places in the office. It's true that we haven't been taking our blankets with us when we swap here, the way we used to do in the office, which has felt a little... unnatural. Allan's blankets are foreign. They smell different than mine. They smell like him. But that experience is consoling; I go to sleep snuggled up under Allan's smell.
Allan tells Sayeed that if he's concerned about our health, the two of us will be happy to move our mattresses and personal effects with us across the room when we trade places. Sayeed still refuses. Allan presses to know why. Because moving our things around will make too much noise, Sayeed says. Allan counters that we don't have to drag the mattresses across the floor, we can lift and carry them. That won't make any more noise than we already make when we tip our mattresses up against the wall to give ourselves more room to exercise in. And it will certainly make much less noise than we make when we're actually exercising.
Sayeed reiterates his denial, no reason given. Allan haggles: Can we trade places once a week instead of every day? No. Then can we trade just one more time, so that Jeremy can always be next to the radiator from now on? This is the same noble move Allan tried to make at the office, asking Abed to give me the bed permanently. I'm aware that this time Allan's motives aren't purely selfless. He would like to end up in what is now officially my spot so that he can stretch out toward the door for eavesdropping excursions.
No, Sayeed repeats. It sounds to me like Sayeed is on the brink of snapping, but Allan keeps pushing. Can we move my mattress to the wall opposite where I am now, so that I can be chained to the radiator, too? No chance of that, I think. They'll worry that we'll come together in front of the radiator for sex. I don't linger over that image, I gently push it out of my mind.
Sayeed loses his patience although not his self-control; conscious of the other hostages and the downstairs neighbors, he's keeping his voice down. He growls something in Arabic, which Waleed, who's entertained by this exchange, translates cheerfully as, "We say what you do. You are the hostages." Waleed loves that line. He'll adopt it as his standard way to deny us requests in the future.
Allan says he's sorry if he has offended, he didn't mean to make Sayeed angry. Sayeed retorts: If Allan is sorry, he should shut up and do what he's told. Okay, Allan says. His voice is quiet, meek, defeated.
His surrender is not unconditional, however. Allan's new form of resistance is to drape one of his blankets over the radiator after the evening feeding to warm it up. Then he throws me the warmed blanket, and I throw him one of mine in exchange.
He gets caught doing this one night when, unexpectedly, Mohammed enters the room to ask if one of us would like an extra toilet run. I could use one, actually; so thank you, Mohammed, for the unusual consideration—but lousy fucking timing. Mohammed regards the blanket over the radiator suspiciously. "What you do?"
Allan plays it very cool, as if he sees no reason to feel guilty or nervous about being discovered. Without a hint of defensiveness, he explains that he's warming the blanket for Jeremy, who's cold. I would have preferred that he keep my name out of it, but since he is doing this for my benefit, it's only fair that I share the risk of punishment.
Mohammed crosses the room to see if Allan is hiding something under the blanket, but he neither removes the blanket from the radiator nor orders Allan to do so. However, a minute after Mohammed brings me back from my toilet run, someone—Sayeed, no doubt—comes pounding down the hall. Without a word, he confiscates all our blankets.
I'm furious at Allan, but he doesn't regard himself as being at fault. He feels no regret, only outrage: Sayeed never said we couldn't heat a blanket over the radiator, so his reaction is entirely unprovoked, entirely unjust. I rein in my fury. Since I've never objected to Allan heating the blanket, I hardly have a right to be angry at him. Allan's right, Sayeed is the one to hate.
Happily, it turns out that Sayeed is merely firing a warning shot. He returns our blankets two or three miserable hours later, right before the guards go to bed. For the next several evenings, Allan and I are subject to random checks at night to make sure we're not doing anything the guards disapprove. As soon as it appears the checks have stopped, Allan resumes heating a blanket for me nightly. Although I whine in feeble protest at the risk he's taking, I never refuse a warmed blanket.
* * *
Sayeed is unaccommodating and punitive, but at least he's consistent. Waleed is unpredictable. Sometimes he can be more or less solicitious. Entering the room in the morning, he'll express concern for how I slept. "The night was very cold. You had a hard time to sleep?" At first I think he's mocking me. But when I answer yes, he says, "I also had a hard time," in a tone that suggests he sincerely intends to be empathetic. There may be a double edge to his empathy, though. He may be implying that if he can tough it out, Allan and I should stop making a fuss.
That's Friendly Waleed. But there's also Grouchy Waleed, who snarls if, for instance, we don't hold our hands in the "right" place when we're reaching out blindfolded to receive our dinner plates from him. And then there's Calculating Asshole Waleed, who tiptoes to our door and stands there, key at the ready, listening for so much as a tinkle of chain link so he has an excuse to fling the door open and order us to be quiet—forcing us into a scrambled panic to lower our blindfolds. He'll do this even if we haven't made any noise at all.
If another guard were behaving this way, we would write him off as someone to ignore when we can and to endure when we can't. But we can't merely ignore and endure Waleed. He has too much power over us, as head of his shift, and because his superior English makes him the guard to whom we have to direct non-routine requests, we need to cultivate his good will. No doubt he's aware that we depend on him this way, which is to say that he's aware of having that much more power over us to abuse. He relishes his power. We'll make perfectly reasonable requests—like allowing us to take our toilet runs before the French sometimes, or letting us shower after, instead of before, we exercise—and he'll deny our requests for no reason other than that he can. That's why it's so surprising when he doesn't raise a fuss about our swapping places. We've lucked out: Reasonable Waleed happens to be on duty that day. He doesn't show up often.
In a certain sense, however, Waleed depends on us, too. We're the only people in the apartment with whom he can practice, or show off, his English. He likes to come into our room to talk with us. More precisely, to talk at us. Sometimes these sessions begin on a friendly note. He'll ask if we've seen a certain movie or television show; he'll then recount it for us, whether we've seen it or not. Or he'll ask if we've ever been to some place—Las Vegas, say—and then proceed to enlighten us with what he knows about it. If one of us tries to correct him on some point, he'll insist that we're wrong and go on talking.
Although Waleed starts out sounding fascinated by whatever subject he's chosen, his monologues about Western culture inevitably bend into sermons inveighing against Western immorality. At some point, his friendly, fascinated tone turns stern, even agitated. His volume rises; if the French or the neighbors below ever hear anyone in our room speaking English, it will be Waleed they're hearing. He may get himself so worked up that he storms out of the room as if we have offended him.
On other occasions, he abruptly stops sermonizing and turns friendly again. He'll ask if we're enjoying our latest books, maybe inquire politely about what they're about. Are we out of candles, matches, tissues? He might joke around a little; the jokes might not even be at our expense. Then he'll remind us not to make noise and leave.
That's a good session. Less pleasant are Waleed's political rants. Those are unfriendly from the start. He marches into the room, demands to know what we think about Reagan, or Thatcher, or Israel's invasion of Lebanon, or some current event we couldn't possibly be aware of (but now get to learn some scraps about). Sometimes he plows on before we've finished our cautious non-answer. Other times he makes us sweat by pressing us to give him a substantive response. One way or another, sooner or later, he launches into his own diatribe, fuming, railing, denouncing whoever or whatever has outraged him today. Since the United States is usually involved somehow, I'm usually the one he's ranting at.
Waleed doesn't get so enraged during these soapboxes as to strike us. He's never struck us for any reason. Still, having him rant at me produces a fight-or-flight reaction, intensified by the fact that I can't see him. I sit on my mattress, heart thumping, forcing myself to breathe at a regular pace, willing Waleed telepathically to keep standing by the door away from me, praying that this won't be the day he loses it and hits me. Allan tries to help me, tries to draw Waleed's attention away from me, by interjecting a challenge to what Waleed is saying. Sometimes Waleed is annoyed by the interruption and ignores it. More often, he's in the mood for verbal sparring and will allow Allan to elaborate in order to have the satisfaction of rebutting him.
Allan lures Waleed into conversations about Britain, searching for clues to why our captors are holding him. What grievances do they want redressed? Waleed has much less to say against Britain than he does against the U.S., but he turns out to have two complaints. Thatcher refuses to negotiate for the release of hostages. (Yes, but why are you holding British hostages in the first place?) Also, Thatcher helped the Americans bomb Libya.
It's no surprise to us that Thatcher doesn't want to negotiate with hostage takers, but Waleed views her as incomprehensibly stubborn. He feels the same about Reagan, although he also charges Reagan with being inconsistent about the no-negotiation principle. Waleed resents that Thatcher and Reagan call his group "terrorists." They're not terrorists, they're fighting Western oppression.
As for the Libya bombing: Allan and I knew from Paul and Donald that the bombing had occurred, but we never found out when or why, and we still don't know by the time Waleed's done ranting to us about it. We know the bombing must have occurred between Allan's kidnapping, in April, and Paul and Donald's arrival to the Shouf at the end of July. The fact that Britain was involved in the bombing, we learn from Waleed.
Realizing that Waleed is unlikely to answer direct questions, Allan tries to elicit information by provoking Waleed into a rebuttal. "It isn't Thatcher's fault that Reagan bombed Libya." Or, "Don't you see, Waleed, Thatcher can't give you what you're asking." Waleed laughs at that last gambit, he recognizes what Allan is trying to do. "What do you think we are asking Thatcher?" he challenges Allan. When Allan falters, Waleed continues: "You want me to say a thing I should not say. But I am too smart for you." Why can't Waleed say? Allan asks. "Because you do not need to know," Waleed replies in a smirky voice.
Allan does provoke Waleed into revealing that Thatcher aided the bombing of Libya by letting the U.S. use Britain's "airports" (meaning RAF air bases, Allan assumes). Waleed doesn't drop any hints about what Libya did to prompt the attack.
Alone, Allan and I consider whether our captors might have purchased him from his original abductors as a reprisal against Britain for its support of the Libya bombing. Allan doesn't think so. At least that can't be the only reason our captors wanted him. If reprisal were their only motive, Allan wouldn't still be alive. There's something our captors want Britain to do in exchange for him and the other British hostages they're holding, however many those are now—and Thatcher's refusing to do it.
At least it sounds like they've made a demand. If so, though, it's strange they've still never photographed Allan to prove they're holding him.
In lodging his grievances against the United States, Waleed never mentions the Kuwait prisoners whose release Allan thinks I'm being held for. Allan reads the omission as confirmation, given that Waleed isn't supposed to let us know why we're being held. Waleed has plenty of other things to rail against the United States for. Backing the Christians in the Lebanese civil war. Supporting the Zionists in Israel. Trying to undermine Iran's Islamic revolution. Intervening generally in the Muslim world—the Libya bombing symbolizes that for him. Closer to home, Waleed is incensed that in the early 80s, American battleships bombed Lebanon, including Shiite neighborhoods in Beirut, and he blames U.S. Marines for allowing Lebanese Christians and Israelis to massacre Palestinians in the refugee camps.
I sympathize to a fair extent with Waleed's grievances against my country. My political instincts are liberal. In college, I was influenced by teachers influenced in turn by liberation theology, who deplored U.S. support for right-wing dictatorships in Latin America. I will readily concede that my government is guilty of evil in the world, especially under the Reagan administration. I agree with Waleed that it's wrong for Lebanon's Christian minority to dominate the Muslim majority, an arrangement left by the French colonial government. I don't think Israel should be occupying territory in Lebanon. I think Israel is unjustly holding territory that ought to be used to create a Palestinian state.
I decisively disagree with Waleed on major issues, of course. I believe in separation of church and state, so I don't support an Islamic revolution any more than I support the Moral Majority. I certainly don't accept the Shiite radicals' methods: hostage taking, suicide bombings. I have no doubt the CIA is guilty of outrages, but some of Waleed's accusations against them are too unreal, they have to be conspiracy theories. Waleed definitely subscribes to conspiracy theories about the global influence of Jews.
When I try to get Waleed off my back by telling him that I agree with him about X or Y, he uses my remarks as the opening for yet another speech denouncing X or Y, as if I had disputed him. It's a relief when he finally decides he's done and leaves us alone. Unlike his critiques of immoral Western culture, Waleed's political diatribes never end with a shift back to Friendly Waleed. He leaves either boiling angry, slamming the door, or nastily self-satisfied because he feels he has put us in our places.
I resent Waleed for the anxiety he causes me. The conditions of my hostage life have improved in so many ways during the past couple of months—why does Waleed have to keep injecting stress back into my life with his ranting and sneaking around? Thank God I have Allan to support me and books to console me.
Between unstable Waleed and unbending Sayeed, I miss Abed and Fadil all the more. I devise the idea of lobbying the guards for permission to write a letter to Abed and Fadil, formally thanking them for their treatment of Allan and me. Beyond wanting to write this letter for the sake of Abed and Fadil's feelings, I have the notion that the letter would show the chefs, who I presume would vet the letter before transmitting it, how appreciative hostages can be when our treatment is humane. In my imagination, I see the chefs instructing other guards to follow Abed and Fadil's example, thus making life better for all the hostages. I imagine, too, that this commendation would be good for Abed and Fadil's "careers" within the militant group. I would like to do them that favor.
When I ask Allan if he'll help me convince the guards to let us write this letter, he wastes no time pronouncing this a Strange Idea. He deems it servile, the eighth deadly sin in his book, maybe even approaching the level of the Stockholm Syndrome. Furthermore, Waleed would undoubtedly read the letter, and he would likely interpret my compliments to our previous guards as an indictment of our current ones, in which case he would retaliate against us in some way; he certainly wouldn't pass the letter on to the chefs. I don't admit to Allan that my fantasies included a scenario in which Waleed would read the letter and experience a pang of conscience. I had realized that that scenario was a silly fantasy (probably—I didn't want to altogether give up hope), but I had trusted that the basic idea of writing the letter was reasonable. After Allan nixes the entire idea, I feel extremely foolish.
* * *
Waleed tells us, "Say hello to my friend."
Hello, we say to the person we neither see nor hear.
Waleed instructs us to tell his friend where we're from. I'm from the United States, I say. What city? Waleed prompts me. I name my hometown, adding that it's near Chicago.
Waleed says, "Shee-cago. Al Capone," and expertly imitates the sound of machine gun fire. I'm surprised he's heard of Capone.
Allan says he's from London, a city for which Waleed has no associations to offer.
Waleed's friend says in proudly enunciated English, "Hello. Pleased to meet you." Like Waleed, he sounds to be about my age.
Pleased to meet you, we reply.
At first we assume we've been introduced to a new guard or a temporary substitute. But we're not given a name for the newcomer, and we never hear his voice again, not even later that same day. Allan's theory, bizarre as it would be, is that this was simply, literally, a friend of Waleed's—maybe a relative, possibly not even a member of the militant group—who wanted to gawk at Western hostages and try out his English with them.
* * *
Despite the frustrations and stresses we experience here, there's no question that the physical conditions in this apartment are much improved over the two prisons where I spent the first eight months of my captivity. I'm in a regular room, not a tiny cell. I get three meals a day, hot showers, weekly clothing changes. A toilet that flushes, light bulbs in the bedroom and the bathroom, candles, sounds from the normal world. The books make a dramatic difference, as far as I'm concerned. I can put up with a lot as long as I have a book to escape into.
Even the fact that Allan and I are kept chained on opposite sides of the room has its silver lining. We have just enough distance from each other—enough privacy—that we start masturbating.
For me, anyway, masturbating is something new to this apartment. If Allan did it in previous holding places, I've been oblivious. I assume the urge has returned to me because of our improved conditions. There's relatively more good feeling in my life now. That had been the case under Abed and Fadil's supervision, too; but for some reason I didn't get the urge back in the office, despite the return of my erections during the huddling.
Being chained is only a minor obstacle, since the chain is on my left wrist. Even though I'm left-handed, I've always masturbated with my right, I don't know why. I have to risk some chain-clinking, as I'm starting, to get my left hand into position under the blanket, since that hand holds the folded-up tissue into which I catch my ejaculate to make clean-up quieter. I regret that I can't use my left hand to manipulate my nipples; the extra stimulation would intensify my pleasure and let me finish sooner. I'm always in a hurry because I worry that Allan will wake up and catch me in the act.
I have one iron-clad rule: I cannot picture Allan while I'm masturbating. Otherwise, I allow myself free rein. I will not feel guilty for indulging in gay fantasies. Guilt would be counterproductive. It would undo the benefits that masturbation offers for my survival: the release of tension, the relaxation, the treat. I don't know what God wills me to do about my homosexuality in the long run, but I've arrived at a point where I don't believe that he begrudges me the pleasure that homosexual fantasies yield me in my current circumstances. God wants me to feel better, I'm confident of that. While I insist on keeping Allan out of my fantasies to avoid complicating our relationship, my libido can turn to anyone else it wants.
The reason I know that Allan masturbates, too, is that on one occasion I overhear him. The night it happens, we're both lying awake, unable to sleep, but I'm breathing as if I'm asleep to try to make myself drop off. Apparently I've convinced Allan that I really am asleep. I hear him shifting around for a little while. At the time, I imagine he's tucking the edges of his blankets more tightly under him to make a warmer cocoon. He settles down, falls silent. A few minutes pass, during which I'm focused on the sound of my own breathing, trying to empty my mind of thoughts that would keep me awake. Then, out of nowhere, Allan breathes loudly and heavily through his nose, several times, rapidly. He falls silent again.
I lie in the dark with my eyes open, wondering what just happened. I'm considering whispering to ask Allan if he's all right when I hear his blankets rustle, followed by the soft dry scratch of tissue being rubbed on a surface. Oh... Duh.
I am embarrassed. I am titillated. I resume my fake sleep-breathing so Allan won't realize I've caught him. My imagination uses x-ray vision to generate a picture of Allan lying on his back under his blankets, his bottoms pushed down around his thighs, his top pulled up to expose his stomach, his chained hand propping his blanket up like a tent, his free hand closed around his erection. What happens to his uncircumcised penis when it gets hard? I have no idea how that works, physiologically. Do the head and shaft come poking out through the opening in his foreskin... kind of like when a dog gets aroused? Or does the foreskin stretch along with his cock? Does his erection have a mushroom-shaped head, like mine, or does the end still look tapered, as it did when I glimpsed him soft?
Leaving those details blurry in my imagination, I picture Allan jerking his erection rhythmically, coaxing himself to climax. His eyes are closed, he's thinking about... what? A woman, of course. Or women. I wonder if he thinks about Emily, or if the pain of the breakup precludes that. Does he prefer to fantasize about normal women, women he knows, or does he conjure up some artificially enhanced Playboy ideal? What parts of women's bodies does he focus on in his mind's eye as he tugs at himself? What does he envision doing to them, or them doing to him? What image or imagined sensation tips him over the edge? What is his ejaculation like? Does it fly out in long arcs, or does it well up out of him in gooey burps? Flying arcs could be impressive, but the picture of Allan gushing white ooze onto his fingers instead doesn't strike me as any less virile, any less appealing. Plus, the latter would be easier for him to clean up...
Okay. Despite how intellectual this inquiry into Allan's sexuality has been, it nevertheless qualifies as a fantasy about him and is therefore in violation of my rule. I can't ever think about this again.
I am mortified to realize that if Allan mistakenly believed me to be asleep, I may have been under the same misapprehension about him on other occasions. Does my breathing give me away when I'm having my climax? I've never been aware that I breathe heavily—but it's not like I've ever stepped back to observe myself in the moment of orgasm. God, I hope Allan has never overheard me.
After this incident, I become even more cautious about masturbating. I force myself to wait longer between sessions than I'd really like: the less often I indulge, the less likely I am to be caught. When I do indulge, I listen more carefully before concluding that Allan really is asleep.
I don't catch Allan again. In part, that might be because not long after the occasion on which I do catch him, I give him yet more reason to be vigilant in safeguarding his privacy.
I reveal to him that I'm gay.
* * *
My "coming out" to Allan—I know that term from my surreptitious reading on this subject back at school—is indirectly triggered by Waleed and a new rule regarding the bathroom.
The bathroom is located just a few steps to our right as we're escorted out of our room, apparently at the end of the hall. Most importantly, we suspect, for explaining the new rule, the bathroom looks out of the apartment building. The little window has been plated over with metal, but there's a ventilation fan embedded in the outer wall, the back wall, through which we can see natural light. Standing on the lip of the bathtub, we could peek out through the fan—if the rule weren't in place to prevent that.
Although filthy and decrepit, the bathroom is equipped with most everything I could reasonably wish for in hostage life. It would be nice if they hadn't removed the mirror that used to be screwed onto the wall above the sink. (Why won't they ever let us have a mirror? So we can't break off a shard as a weapon?) It would also be nice to have a sit-down toilet for a change; on the other hand, I've come to realize that the squatting position somehow speeds the process of emptying yourself, which is helpful since we're back to being rushed by the guards. We have a bathtub here, in which we stand to shower. I would kill for the privilege of soaking in a hot bath one day, assuming I could scrub the tub first.
The new rule—the obnoxious, humiliating new rule—is that in this apartment, we cannot close the bathroom door. It remains open as we squat over the toilet and clean ourselves afterward. It remains open as we stand naked in the tub, showering without a shower curtain. It remains open as we towel off and change our clothes. If the guards didn't use our bathroom on occasion, I suspect they would simply remove the door from its hinges.
To keep us from seeing the guards' faces or looking down the hall through the open door, we are allowed to hike our blindfolds only partway up. So we're half blind the whole time we're using the toilet, or toweling off, or changing our clothes, or rinsing out our pee bottles, or refilling our water bottles. We are allowed to remove the blindfold entirely while we shower, but we have to keep our eyes closed or our back to the door, which is problematic since the shower head and taps are oriented in such a way that to face them, we need to stand with our side to the door.
Presumably all this inconvenience and humiliation is to prevent us from peeking outside through the fan, so there's no chance we could identify this building after we're released. One more paranoid security measure. An additional consequence of the open-door rule is that Allan has no chance of planting messages on foil somewhere in the bathroom for the French hostages to find.
While we're inside the bathroom, the guards who are conducting the toilet run stand at the doorway, monitoring us—in theory. However, I can see from under my hiked-up blindfold that their feet usually aren't pointing into the bathroom at me. The guards stand, rather, with their backs turned toward me. They could easily turn their heads to check what I'm doing, but I doubt they do as a rule. They often chat with one another while I'm taking care of business, which gives the impression they're not paying attention to me. That in turn makes the situation a little bit less shaming for me. Perhaps also for them.
Fundamentalist Shiites are highly averse to nudity, Allan tells me, even in same-sex situations, so the guards are probably as embarrassed about seeing us naked as we are about being seen. They must be doing this because they're under orders, for security. Probably they would prefer to let us close the door just as much as we would prefer it.
That holds true for all but one of the guards. The exception is Waleed. When he's on toilet-run duty, he stands at the door looking into the bathroom the whole time. If I don't keep my head turned constantly away from the door, he'll bark. He's most vigilant, of course, when I'm showering with the blindfold off, when he knows perfectly well that I have to open my eyes a crack to be able to find the taps. He keeps making warning noises, with a note in his voice that tells me he's enjoying this. It's a game to him. I tell myself to ignore his harassment and just do what I need to do. But if he senses I'm ignoring him, he adopts an extremely threatening tone that my body finds hard not to react to even though my mind knows it's just bluster. Probably.
Allan loathes being watched by Waleed. He complains vehemently—not to Waleed; to me, when we're alone. Allan's fury about being watched is different from his outrage about our poor treatment at the abandoned office, or about Sayeed taking away our blankets. There's something unstable at the base of Allan's anger at Waleed. Waleed's gaze on his naked body jabs at something raw inside Allan. I assume that Waleed watches us because he enjoys hassling us, but Allan interprets it as something more. Waleed, he thinks, is a repressed homosexual. That's a polite paraphrase, rather. What Allan actually says is: Waleed's a fucking closet queer.
If Waleed has administered that morning's toilet run, Allan seethes through the rest of the exercise period. He works out with a vengeance. At times I hear him breathing, "Fucking queer, fucking queer," in time with his exercise. After a while, his rage will cool. He'll read or take some closed-eyes "alone time," recover his equilibrium. Later that day, if necessary, he can manage a perfectly controlled exchange with Waleed during one of Waleed's political soapboxes. Allan never shows Waleed how upset he feels about being watched. He never challenges Waleed, never insists that Waleed should stop looking. This surprises me, as Allan hasn't been shy about pressing the guards when it comes to other grievances.
Although I'm not convinced that Waleed is watching us for prurient reasons, I want to be supportive, so I ask Allan if he would like to protest together in some way. We could demand that Waleed respect our privacy. We could report him to Sayeed if he's violating the group's religious strictures about modesty. Allan smacks these proposals down emphatically: We cannot let Waleed know for a second that he's getting to us. We cannot look vulnerable. Anything we do to try to put a stop to this will only make it worse. We can't say a word, not to Waleed, not to anyone. Stone face, do I understand?
I feel confused and unfairly lashed out at. I tell Allan I don't understand why he doesn't want to at least try to do something given how much this upsets him. His answer is fierce. "I'm just venting, all right? That's all we can do about this. Will you just let me vent, for Christ's sake? I put up with all your whining. Can you return the favor for once?"
He apologizes abjectly for that later. It was completely uncalled for, he was very upset at the moment, he doesn't really feel that way about me. He felt put on, but that wasn't my fault, he shouldn't have taken it out on me.
Wanting to show Allan I don't bear a grudge, and thinking that maybe he rejected my earlier proposal merely because he was upset, I repeat the offer now that he's calmed down. Would Allan like to protest, if not directly to Waleed, than to Sayeed? Allan's face clenches. I've triggered him again, but he's holding back. "No," he replies, strained. "I'm serious, Jeremy. We have to play this perfectly cool." I don't understand, I tell him. What is he afraid will happen?
He stares at me like he can't believe my naiveté. Belatedly, it clicks: I know what Allan fears. I've feared it myself at times—just never here, in this apartment. Since I haven't understood Waleed's watching us as something sexual, it hasn't occurred to me to be afraid of rape. I'm still not experiencing that fear, even now that Allan has raised the possibility. I see enough difference between our current situation with Waleed and earlier situations, such as the Bully harassing me at my first prison, that the fear I felt in the earlier situations doesn't transfer over to our current one. I've come to realize that in some situations where I feared being raped, the fear was sheer paranoia; I'm inclined to pass a similar judgment on Allan's fear of Waleed.
"Allan, I really don't think you need to be afraid of that." In my head, I start assembling a reasoned argument in support of this statement. Even if Allan is right about why Waleed is looking at us, I don't see how Waleed could do anything further to either of us without another guard's help, or at least complicity, and clearly none of them are interested in that...
Before I've said any of this, Allan himself appears to have second thoughts. Maybe just knowing that I disagree has prompted him to place his fear under suspicion of being a Strange Idea. He says, "You're probably right." He adds, "But we're still safest not doing anything that would let the queer know he's making us nervous."
Every time Allan calls Waleed "queer," I feel stabbed. I am paranoid enough to briefly wonder, at the outset, if Allan intends me to feel stabbed. Has he come to suspect that I, too, am a closet queer? Is he taking this opportunity to warn me against ever looking at him the wrong way? I quickly assure myself that Allan wouldn't do such a thing. If he had a problem with me, he would take it up with me directly. So, on the contrary, the fact that he freely expresses to me his contempt for Waleed's suspected homosexuality means that Allan must not suspect mine.
Knowing that Allan doesn't know about me is an enormous relief. But I am also nagged by guilt, seeing how deeply it threatens Allan to be the object of homosexual desire. Whether or not Waleed is homosexual, the point is this: What Allan suspects that Waleed is doing to him, I have, in fact, been doing to him. I haven't done it with the impunity that Waleed does, if that really is what Waleed is doing. But I've stolen glimpses. I've indulged in illicit fantasies—including my recent visualization of Allan masturbating. And as I always knew he would, Allan resents being exploited that way. He would feel toward me the same rage he feels toward Waleed. If he knew.
I can't ever, ever let him know.
Except... Don't I owe it to him to let him know, precisely because I see how deeply disturbed he is by the thought of being ogled? I ought to tell him so he can take whatever precautions he feels are necessary. If we're still hostages come summer (obviously I hope we're not), and if we're still together (obviously I hope we are), Allan is going to want to strip down to his shorts again. But he probably wouldn't do it if he knew about me. The entire time we've been together, he would probably have kept more distance between us if he had known. He probably wouldn't have hugged or touched me the way he's done. It's inconceivable that he would have invited me to huddle in bed with him.
The more I think about this, the sicker I feel. I have been using Allan terribly. Is it... Does what I've been doing to him qualify as a kind of sexual abuse? A kind of molestation?
I spend a couple of days obsessing and stressing about that question. I decide I have to tell Allan. Even if it fucks up our relationship beyond repair. He needs to know. He's entitled.
This decision scares me. But it also lifts the burden of guilt. And the more I contemplate telling him—the more I imagine doing it—the more convinced I become that he'll handle it well. This is Allan we're talking about. He'll be empathetic. He'll see right away the difference between me and Waleed, he'll recognize that I've tried to honor boundaries, even if, yes, I should have been up front with him from the beginning. He'll roll with it. We're friends. I'm sure he'll feel... imposed on. Used. Maybe even betrayed. Maybe even violated. But I'll apologize profusely, I'll explain that I kept it a secret because I was trying to prevent him from being uncomfortable—although, again, I realize now that was the wrong way to go about it, I should have been honest. And he'll understand all that.
Once I've worked out in my head a scene in which I tell him, and he accepts it, accepts me, I feel a growing yearning to come out to Allan. I want to turn that imagined scene into reality. What a relief it would be, not to have to hide from him anymore. God, it would be wonderful to eliminate that particular stress from my life. Don't I deserve that? Hostage life is stressful enough as it is.
Then again, if I tell him, and he doesn't take it well, if this turns out to be too threatening for him, beyond his limits, beyond his capacity for generosity—my life will become far more stressful. Both our lives will.
What should I do, God? Tell me, don't let me do the wrong thing...
I'm going to tell him. It's risky, it's a leap of faith. But I have faith in Allan's goodness. And whatever happens, I am ethically obligated to tell him, I'm convinced of that. If I don't tell him, then I am... not as bad as Waleed, but enough alike that I can't live with that.
It needs to be a day when Sayeed's shift is on duty, so there's no chance of Waleed bursting in on us for one of his rants. Also, during a Sayeed-led shift, Allan will be in a better place to receive the news because Waleed won't have been ogling him in the bathroom that morning. I need to be sure he's in a good mood when I do it—not low or irritated. I should do it in the afternoon, after the midday meal and Hikmet's English lesson, when the guards typically leave us alone.
A day comes that meets my criteria. I almost chicken out. A voice in my head tells me: This has all been a Strange Idea, don't do it... But the guilt is stronger than the anxiety. So is the hope.
"Allan, can I talk to you about something?"
He looks up from his book. "Hmm?"
"There's something I need to tell you." I can't look him in the face. I take a couple of heavy breaths. I can't turn back now...
"What's wrong?" He's concerned.
Eyes on the floor, I break through the wall. "I'm gay."
That's it. I've done it. Shit.
I still can't bring myself to look at Allan, so I can't see his face, but he's silent for several beats. When he speaks, he sounds a little tense, but I wouldn't say he's upset. "Are you sure? How do you know?"
I've imagined Allan reacting both positively and negatively to my announcement, but I've never imagined him questioning the announcement. He's reacting as if he thinks I might be in the grip of a Strange Idea. "Um... Because I'm attracted to men."
"Yeah." Why did Allan have to say that word? It makes me wince.
"Are you saying that because of... what used to happen sometimes when we would huddle?"
God, how humiliating. "No, it's... I knew before that."
"Before you were taken hostage?" I nod. Allan absorbs that. "I asked because... you know, when men are imprisoned... sometimes they feel the need to... seek release with other men. Even though they wouldn't normally have a desire to do that. I thought maybe that could be what you're experiencing."
I can see why that would be an easier scenario for Allan to live with. Or maybe he intended that scenario to be reassuring to me. Unfortunately, I can't give Allan the easier scenario.
"No," I say. "This isn't that. I already knew about this, for a while, before I came to this country... It's the main reason I came here, actually. I wanted to talk to Bernie about it. But we never got to. You're the first person I've ever told. But I've known for a long time."
Despite how scary this conversation is, it felt good to finally disclose to someone what I just did. To let it out.
Allan seems to be groping his way forward. "So... what made you want to tell me?"
Does the question mean he would rather not have known? Or was that question code for: Are you sexually attracted to me?
"I feel like I should have told you sooner," I say. "So you could... do whatever you feel you need to... to protect your privacy."
That was painful.
Allan's looking into space, lips pursed. Not angry, I'm pretty sure. But not rushing, either, to assure me of his acceptance, as in my optimistic imagined version of this scene. "I appreciate that," he says carefully. "But in that case... why didn't you tell me sooner?"
Just as I feared: he feels used, violated. "I'm sorry. I know I should have. I was afraid of screwing up our friendship."
"You're not afraid of that now?"
"Yes, I am. Very much. But I felt like... I owe it to you to let you know, either way."
Allan looks toward the ceiling. "I assume you want to keep talking about this." His tone implies that he would prefer not.
I blink. "Not if you don't want to..."
"No, we definitely need to talk about it. But I'd rather not do it now. Do you mind if we wait a few days?"
A few days? I thought for sure he'd want to hash this out now. This is bad. He's pushing me away. He doesn't want to deal with me, it's beyond his limits. I have fucked things up.
"Sure," I say.
He can hear how tight my voice is. "Jeremy." He waits for me to look at him. "It's going to be fine." The reassuring words notwithstanding, his voice is rather tight, too. "We will... make this work, the way we make everything about our situation work. But I need some time to think about it. I'm assuming that you thought about this for quite a while before you brought it up, right? So now I need some time to think it through. I don't want to speak off the cuff and say something I might end up regretting. All right?"
I nod; I don't say anything because I'm worried that I'll tear up if I do. Allan's words made me feel a little better. But I'm still regretting that I did this. It was a Strange Idea after all.
Something has broken, and the pieces are lying scattered between us. Things have changed, permanently, for better or for worse. Allan and I have crossed over to someplace—I have propelled us to someplace—from which we can never come back. Goddammit, why did I open my fucking mouth? As if we didn't have enough shit to deal with already.
* * *
As Allan promised, it's fine in the end. I was right to have faith in him.
A couple of days pass before Allan announces that he's ready to talk about "it." During that time, he makes a point of showing that he's not pulling back or giving me the cold shoulder. He initiates small talk about this or that, as usual. He doesn't behave any differently toward me when we're unchained to exercise; he still holds my ankles and asks me to hold his for sit-ups. We've always been in the habit of peeing into our bottles with our backs to each other, so nothing changes there. The only noticeable difference during these days is that Allan spends more time than usual lying down thinking rather than reading—although he does some reading, like normal, too.
I came out to Allan on the first day of a three-day weekend shift for Sayeed, Mohammed, and Hikmet. On the last day of their shift, Allan tells me he's ready to talk. That's sooner than I had expected when he said he wanted "a few" days to think things over. Perhaps he wants us to talk before Waleed returns.
We sit on our mattresses, facing each other across the room. The first thing Allan tells me is: "I like that we're together. I hope they keep us together. What you told me doesn't change that. I appreciate that you told me, especially that you did it out of respect for me."
He goes on to say that he's been thinking during these past couple of days about what he might want to do differently going forward—what new rules he'd like to have to protect his privacy, as I had said. But he hasn't been able to think of anything. I have been "a gentleman." He doesn't have anything to complain about in the way I've conducted myself, except that maybe he would have appreciated knowing sooner. But he doesn't regret anything we've done in the past. The huddling, he admits, is something that's a little uncomfortable for him in retrospect. "But even that... I probably would have done it anyway. We needed the warmth."
Relief makes me misty, but I don't actually cry. I entered the conversation already expecting this outcome, since Allan's behavior over the past couple of days had led me to anticipate that this was going to end well.
Allan does want to implement a few new rules to make sure we both feel respected in this new situation and, most important, to keep me safe. First, we should never say what I am—by which he means we should never speak the words "gay" or "homosexual," even between ourselves. We can't take any chance of the guards overhearing and understanding. In fact, Allan suggests, we should avoid the subject altogether during Waleed's shifts, given his habit of lurking outside our door to catch us making noise.
Second, I need to feel totally free to tell Allan if he's doing or saying something that makes me uncomfortable, and he needs to be totally free to tell me the same thing. Allan wants us to agree now that we won't be offended by these requests—or at least he wants us to agree that we're not entitled to be offended.
Third... here Allan falters, becomes euphemistic. We need to think of ourselves as being like coworkers, where our job is helping each other survive. To avoid complicating our ability to work together at that job, we need to always keep our relationship professional...
I get what he's saying. He doesn't want me to ever make a pass at him. Or, if I interpret what he's saying more generously—which, knowing Allan, I should—he's gingerly cautioning me against becoming attached to him in an unhelpful way. I tell Allan I understand what he's saying, and I agree. Professional relationship.
Good, Allan says. So, now, by way of implementing these new rules: Is there anything he should do, or not do, to avoid making me uncomfortable?
I tell him that things are fine right now. But so he knows for the future... Back in the summer, when he had jock rot and lay around our cell naked... that was extremely uncomfortable for me.
Allan squirms. He can see, he says, why that would be a problem. He assures me that he definitely would never do that here, in the apartment—for multiple reasons, not just because of... what he knows about me now.
In hope of making the situation less threatening to Allan, I tell him, "You're not really my type, physically." I feel very awkward as I'm saying it: judgmental and perhaps inappropriately revealing. I'm also well aware that while the statement is true, it's misleading to the extent that I'm suggesting he doesn't need to worry about me having sexual feelings for him. Yes, Allan is not my physical type, but that fact has never stopped me from lusting after him. He doesn't need to know that last part, though.
Allan responds with an uncomfortable little laugh, but he also says, "I appreciate knowing that. It does make things more comfortable for me." He looks like he's tempted to say something more, but then he decides not to. On a later occasion, however, once my sexuality has become a freer subject of conversation for both of us, he'll say, "If you don't mind my asking—what is your type, out of curiosity?" He sees right away that the question has flustered me, so he hurriedly follows up with, "I'm sorry, just tell me if you're uncomfortable answering that, that's the rule." I tell him I'd rather not answer.
That's a later conversation. During this first conversation, I thank Allan for responding so well to my coming out. He confides that my announcement wasn't a total surprise, he had suspected before. But he had assumed that if I was gay, I didn't realize it yet. "Why did you think I didn't realize?" I ask. Because I never said anything to him about it, Allan replies. Also, because of how Catholic I am. (How Catholic am I? I thought I was keeping my religion unobtrusive.)
I ask Allan what made him suspect I was gay. He doesn't want to answer that question, he hems and haws, but he doesn't actually invoke the "I'm uncomfortable" rule, so I press him. If I'm obvious in certain ways, I want to know it. He prefaces his answer by making clear that he knows these are stereotypes, which is why he never assumed I was gay, he just thought sometimes that I might be. But the stereotypes are: I'm very emotional. I told him I've never had a girlfriend. (So, he did pick up on that.) I know nothing about sports. I study literature. (I protest that one. "I told you," Allan says in self-defense, "these are stereotypes, I know that.") And then there's something about the way I move and hold my body... It's subtle, he assures me, so subtle that he couldn't pinpoint for me what it is.
I'm unnerved by what Allan said about the crying and the body language being clues. "Do you think the guards suspect?" I ask. Allan shakes his head right away. No. No. In this country, openly homosexual men are... He chooses his words carefully, picking his way around slurs. "They're overtly effeminate," Allan says. "You're nothing like that." In which case the guards wouldn't have any reason to suspect me—beyond the fact that they may still suspect both of us, because of the huddling.
On the subject of being careful with words, Allan apologizes to me for the language he's been using when he vents about Waleed. He says he hopes that I didn't take that language as an attack on me, though he can see why I could have. Did what he said about Waleed make it harder for me to feel like I could tell him about myself?
A bit, I admit. I start to explain that there was a much more pressing issue: I felt guilty seeing Allan get upset about Waleed looking at him, when I knew that I too have secretly looked at him... As soon as I begin this explanation, however, I realize I cannot tell Allan this, not after assuring him that he isn't my type. Secretly panicked, I change course midstream: I tell Allan that I wouldn't want him to think that I had been looking at him the way Waleed does.
Allan responds to this by telling me again that he appreciates my wanting to respect him. At the same time, he insists, me looking at him would be totally different from Waleed looking at him. I'm not a guard. I don't have a gun.
Allan will continue to become enraged at being watched by Waleed, and he will continue to vent that rage in my hearing, especially while exercising. But he never again refers to Waleed as "queer." Instead Allan calls him a "fucking pervert," to which I have no objections. Allan wants to know what I think about his theory that Waleed is gay. He wants my expert opinion, I guess. I tell Allan I'm not sure what to think, but the idea that Waleed might have secret homosexual inclinations had never even crossed my mind until Allan brought it up.
Allan feels there's one thing he needs to ask me even if it makes me uncomfortable. Do I have any reason to think I might have the AIDS virus? I seem healthy, but if it's in my system, waiting to make me sick, this is not the place I want to be when that happens.
The question is unsettling but not terrifying. I had considered getting tested after I stopped seeing Dale, but I didn't have the nerve to walk into a clinic, and my fear was never strong enough to goad me into doing it. Dale had made a big deal about "playing safe," and everything he and I did was consistent with what I had read about safe sex, at least when it comes to what did and did not enter my body. I allowed Dale to insert two different things into me, but his dick wasn't one of them. Dale took the risk of sucking my dick, condomless, after he was persuaded that I was a virgin.
The fear that somehow I might have contracted AIDS anyway had crossed my mind when I learned about Guillaume Pierrat, the French hostage who became sick and died. The possibility crossed my mind again when Allan and I spent that wretched week-and-a-half with colds in the abandoned office. But I've always written this fear off as morbidity, to which I know I'm prone. I have the same reaction now to Allan's question. It's an unnerving possibility, and I wish I had the peace of mind of having been tested; but no, I don't really have a reason to think that I've contracted the virus. It's a worry I'm going to shoulder aside.
Allan and I keep discussing my homosexuality over subsequent days. Shyly and tentatively at first; always quietly, with a cautious eye and ear on the bedroom door; but with increasing ease. We're reliving, to some extent, those first days after we were brought together in the Shouf prison, when we were just beginning to get to know one another. I discover that I feel nostalgic for that initial stage of our relationship, when we were still virgin territory to each other. We're experiencing again, now, the pleasures of exploration and self-revelation, as I introduce this additional part of myself to Allan.
After overcoming an initial awkwardness, Allan is intrigued to know about my experience as a gay man. He says he had a gay coworker in London, but they never had occasion to relate more than casually, so I'm the first "gay bloke" Allan's ever gotten to know. I know that Allan's an inquisitive person by nature—he's a journalist, after all—but in addition to that, I get the feeling that conversing about my sexual orientation makes him feel worldly.
When Allan learns that I've had sex with only one man, and never with a woman, he questions how I can be sure that I'm really gay. Maybe I'm still experimenting, figuring out who I am. Well, okay, I say. You tell me: what's it like to be sexually attracted to a woman? And I'll tell you if that sounds like something I feel.
Allan waxes enthusiastically explicit in describing the pleasures afforded him by women's bodies. I no longer need to wonder what was going through his head the night I heard him masturbating. Also, I am left convinced that I am not in the slightest degree heterosexual. I have at best an academic interest in female anatomy, but I'm not much interested even at that level. I sincerely cannot understand Allan's fascination with the things that fascinate him. I don't feel so much as curious to experience for myself the sights and smells and tastes and textures that he describes for me with evangelistic zeal.
Considering his nerdish qualities, I'm a little surprised by how sexually experienced Allan comes across as being. He's tried a lot of things, and it sounds like he's tried them out with a good number of women other than Emily. (Before his time with Emily, I trust, not during.) I can't reconcile the intellectual side of Allan's personality with the locker-room tenor of his sex talk. Not that his language is crude; his vocabulary leans toward the clinical, actually, words like areola and vulva and lubrication. But the subject matter feels inherently crass to me. He's talking about tits and pussy, basically, which is... tacky. Low class. But then maybe I feel that way about it because I'm gay.
I tell Allan I don't feel any of the attractions he's described. "Or... I have those kinds of attractions, but for men's bodies, definitely not for women."
"Hmm." Allan regards me, pensive. "I guess you and I really do have totally different orientations."
At the time, I take this to mean that he's convinced now that I really am gay, not merely experimenting or confused. Much later, it will occur to me that the statement might have had meaning for Allan in the opposite direction, too. In saying that he and I have "totally different" orientations, Allan might have been making an assertion about his own sexual identity as much as an assertion about mine.
Did the revelation of what I am lead Allan to question who he is? During those two days before he was ready to talk to me, is it possible that Allan was working through doubts I had suddenly raised for him about his own sexuality? Was he reconsidering what it might mean that he got wood while huddling in bed with a gay bloke? Was he sifting through his fond feelings for me, looking for signs of something gay in himself that he might not have recognized before?
I don't ask him any of that.
Aside from his abortive question about what my type is, Allan doesn't prompt me to describe my sexual tastes or experiences as explicitly as he has described his. I don't know to what extent he's deferring to what he perceives as my shyness, versus to what extent he has qualms about discussing gay sex acts in detail.
I came to this country last March for the purpose of talking about my homosexuality. I'm finally doing that, ten, eleven months later. In the interval, my attitude toward my homosexuality has become less negative. I don't berate myself anymore for having gay feelings, even if I'm still not persuaded that living a gay life is what God wants for me—or what I want for myself, given what I'd have to pay for it, socially.
Allan is more accepting of my being gay than I am; he doesn't have the religious scruples I do. He asks me how I reconcile being "this way" with being Catholic. I don't, I reply. The church says I shouldn't act on these feelings, and maybe that's right, I don't know. I haven't figured out yet what I feel God wants me to do about this.
Allan looks thrown, like he never would have expected me to answer his question that way. Am I hoping I can be cured? he asks. He says it in the same incredulous tone I imagine he would use to ask if I believe in channeling or creationism. No, I say, offended. I'm not a Protestant fundamentalist, I'm not antiscientific. But everyone has their particular weaknesses and temptations, certain impulses that will lead them away from God unless they're brought under discipline. Everyone has their particular cross to bear, and if Thomistic moral theology is right, then homosexual impulses are mine.
Allan says, "I realize, since I'm basically agnostic, I'm not in a very good position to say this. But if there is a God, I can't imagine that he would disapprove of consenting adults doing what makes them happy and doesn't hurt anyone. That would be a theology that makes sense to me, anyway."
I could readily answer that objection; Allan's not equipped to say anything in a theological vein about this subject that I haven't read and philosophized about already. But the theology undergirding the answer I could give isn't as generous as Allan's theology, which feels like a big strike against the answer.
Because Allan finds it easy to believe in a God who wouldn't disapprove of my being in a gay relationship, that possibility comes to feel more persuasive to me as well. I'm aware that this is a psychological effect of the isolation we experience in captivity. The fact that Allan is the only person present to voice his opinion about this subject gives his opinion greater force than if there were other people in the room propounding competing views. It's the same phenomenon that makes us susceptible to Strange Ideas: ideas seem more plausible to us as long as there isn't someone else around calling the idea into question. If Allan had happened to disapprove of my homosexuality, then I would have perceived that judgment to be more potent.
Instead, Allan's acceptance lends strength to that part of me that yearns for a lover and argues that surely I could build a relationship with a man of which God would approve, a relationship that was faithfully devoted and mutually supportive. A relationship like the one I have with Allan, but grown beyond the limits I can never cross with Allan. I would love for that to be true. So when Allan says in effect, "Sure, why not?" it's tempting to respond simply, "Yeah. Why not?"
I resist that temptation because I'm aware of the isolation effect and the wish-fulfillment. I remind myself of the logic of the church's moral teaching. God created sex as the means to create life. To use sex for a different end is to distort God's creation, to kick rebelliously against God's intentions. I rehearse this argument to Allan—but not very vigorously. I frame my exposition as: If you're going to criticize the church's teaching, at least know what it actually is. Give them credit, at least, for having a consistent, thought-out philosophy, they're not just waving a few Bible verses around. I'm defending the church's position to Allan, but in a non-committal way. He's apologetic—he didn't mean for me to feel attacked, he was just saying what he thinks—which prompts me to voice an even less committed stance in reply. That's okay, I'm not offended, I'm still deciding for myself what to think, I appreciate you sharing your perspective.
I resist Allan's ready tolerance out of a perceived intellectual obligation: I can't just go along with what I'd like to believe because Allan happens to believe it, too. But I don't resist very hard. The more I talk with Allan about my being gay, the more natural it feels to me to be gay, and the more positive I feel about it. Allan accepts that being gay is part of who I am, and while this part of who I am creates some complications for him that he has to learn to live with, he takes for granted that I'm entitled to let this part of who I am flourish. It's an eminently just and humane and dignifying attitude. It envelopes me warmly, it feels nurturing and healthy. How can that not be of God?
I can recognize the church's disapproval of homosexuality as loving in a technical kind of way. If they're right about what God wills, then obviously it's loving for them to warn me against doing what will separate me from God. But the church's teaching doesn't feel warm and nurturing, the way Allan's tolerance feels. The church's position feels disciplinary, restricting. It feels like a chain around my wrist.
I don't want that. I want to be free. Allan is convinced I have the right to be. As I go on living in the warmth of his conviction, I too become increasingly convinced.
* * *
This is going to complicate the story of my coming out to Allan, because it happens during the same period. But I have to tell about Hikmet.
God, this story makes me cringe.
Hikmet is one of the guards on Sayeed's shift. At the outset, my feelings toward him are neutral. He doesn't go out of his way to be friendly or accommodating, but he isn't particularly rough or obnoxious, either. He does his job, that's it. In the course of doing his job, he'll reprimand me or deny me things I would like, which is irksome; but these are ordinary grievances, so I don't feel unusually wronged by him, the way I do by Waleed or Sayeed.
One day Hikmet asks me, "You teacher? Engleesh?" I don't know why he would think that, except that's what I told the young chef on the day I was kidnapped, to simplify my job description. Was Hikmet there that day? Did he hear that I'm a teacher from someone else who was there? Is it possible that some kind of written file accompanies me to each holding place? How strangely bureaucratic that would be.
I tell Hikmet yes, I teach English.
"You teacher me?" he asks.
Um... sure. I did offer, after all, to teach the guards English back in my first prison, hoping it would result in better treatment.
I move very quickly from feeling weird about my new role as English teacher to filling it with enthusiasm. Planning my lessons gives me an additional way to fill the empty hours (thus making that box of books last longer). Plus, I love to teach—and I think I'm pretty damn good at it. I discovered in graduate school that despite my introverted nature, I relished being in front of a classroom. The security of my authority as teacher let me take risks, drew me out of myself, made me lively and dramatic and playful. Teaching Hikmet has the same effect. It boosts my morale and self-esteem. It's another source, a big one, of the good feelings that I surmise are fueling the return of my sex drive.
I'm proud of the course I design. It's "Conversational English for Guards," English that Hikmet can put to immediate day-to-day use here in the apartment. I anticipate he'll find that gratifying and encouraging, and of course it will be helpful for Allan and me. I'll teach vocabulary related to feedings and toilet runs, showers and clothing changes, exercise, blankets, cigarettes, candles, books, chains, guns, the guards' TV watching, the physical features of the apartment, the sounds of the neighborhood, the sounds of war. I'll teach principles of grammar as I show him how to put his new vocabulary into sentences: instructions, requests, inquiries, responses. "Please talk quietly. Do not talk loudly." "Is the chain too tight?" "Do you have warm pants?" "Did Allan like the book?" "Could I please have an orange for breakfast?" Hopefully, as Hikmet comes to trust me, we can hold practice conversations on topics I've actually wondered about: the guards' lives outside work, their families, their upbringings. Maybe I can coax Hikmet into conversing about the French hostages—or even about why Allan and I are being held.
I decide that the focus of the course will be conversation rather than reading and writing. That seems the best strategy for handling the absence of a textbook and the necessity of teaching blindfolded. However, Hikmet takes the initiative of bringing a notebook to our lessons, which I'm allowed to view from under the bottom of my hiked-up blindfold. He expects me to write down in the notebook the words and phrases I'm teaching him; he comes to me already knowing the Latin alphabet. Hikmet's determination to struggle with written English peeves me. Forget trying to read, let's just talk. The notebook proves indispensable, however, as a drawing pad: blindfolded, I can't see Hikmet pointing or pantomiming, so we rely on sketches for nonverbal communication. Hikmet's drawings, like his handwriting, are a child's—clumsy and laborious and difficult to decipher. I have the notion that he doesn't handle a pen on a regular basis. He's amazed to realize that I write with my left hand, my chained hand.
When we begin meeting, Hikmet is paralyzed: he lacks confidence in his ability to deduce what I'm saying from context, and he's impossibly shy about speaking. He loosens up once he sees that I never scold him for being wrong. In my mind's eye, I see Hikmet as a boy, attending some wretched school where an unsmiling, bearded teacher twisted his ear or rapped the top of his head every time he made a mistake. Even if that is Hikmet's past experience with teachers, his fear that I will reprimand him is bizarre. He's a guard, for heaven's sake! He has a rifle slung over his shoulder, while I'm chained to the wall. I am very conscious of those intimidating facts during our first lessons; I have to work to project my cheery teacher's persona over those facts.
Despite my initial nervousness about Hikmet being the guard and his nervousness about me being the teacher, we soon become relaxed in one another's company. We sit together on my mattress. The first day, he brings a chair to sit on, but I coax him down to my level. By our third lesson, I've built enough confidence to request that he remove his shoes so he won't get my mattress dirty. He readily complies, and after one subsequent reminder, he routinely remembers to remove them.
I use humor and play in my teaching, which he's not expecting at first, so it confuses him; but after he gets used to it, he laughs often. His laughter makes me like him better. When he laughs, I can think of him less as a guard, a militant with a rifle slung over his shoulder, and more as a fellow human being who wants to be happy in life, like every other human being. As Hikmet's English gets better, he tries to piece together jokes of his own. They are, of necessity, very weak jokes, but the effort shows that he has a sense of humor. I would never have seen that aspect of his personality if I weren't teaching him.
Sayeed monitors our lessons. The bedroom door is left open, or at least ajar. Tape-recorded music plays in the hallway, presumably to keep the French from overhearing Hikmet and me speaking English through the open door. I assume Sayeed doesn't observe us constantly, since if that were what he's doing, he could just come into the bedroom with a chair, close the door behind him, and be spared the bother of setting up the tape player in the hall. So he must check up on us only off and on.
I'm not entirely certain what Sayeed is watching out for. Maybe he's ensuring Hikmet doesn't fraternize with me to a disapproved degree. Maybe there's a rule against a guard being alone with hostages, for the hostages' safety. Or the guard's safety. I do know that Sayeed doesn't want our lessons going beyond a certain time limit; he'll come order Hikmet out of the room if we pass it.
I also know (but there has to be more motive for the surveillance than this) that Sayeed doesn't want me learning any Arabic. On one occasion, Hikmet is watching me sketch out for him the meaning of a new English word, and when finally it clicks, he spontaneously, triumphantly speaks the Arabic translation. I echo the Arabic word back to him, a quick role reversal, me the student, him the teacher, just for fun, a moment's relaxation. We do that sometimes. Hikmet corrects my pronunciation—and suddenly Sayeed hisses from the doorway. "Arabe, no! English!" I chafe, but it makes sense that Sayeed wouldn't want a hostage learning the guards' language. He doesn't want us eavesdropping on them.
On another occasion, Sayeed offers me a compliment, which I stupidly turn into a problem. The day's lesson has just ended, at Sayeed's orders. Hikmet has thanked me in the unexpectedly deferential way that he does—"Thank you, teacher"—and is putting his shoes back on. Standing in the doorway, where I sense he may have been for some minutes, Sayeed tells me, "Good teacher."
His voice isn't friendly, just not so stern as usual, but the words tickle my ego, already boosted from the rush of the teaching. Feeling cocky, I show off a little by responding in French. "Merci."
Sayeed turns hostile, suspicious. "Tu parles francais?" he demands. Too late, I recognize my error. Un peu, I reply, holding my finger and thumb very close together. Sayeed asks me something further in French, which I genuinely don't understand. I shake my head. Je ne comprend. In retrospect, it would have been smarter for me to say that in English.
Allan is livid. He accuses me of permanently fucking up any future chance he might have had to eavesdrop on Sayeed talking to the French hostages. Sayeed will be even more careful now, what the hell was I thinking? I apologize: I don't know what I was thinking, I wasn't thinking, it just came out. I hold out a silver lining: Sayeed still doesn't know that Allan knows French. Maybe this will actually work out for the best. Maybe Sayeed will make us swap places, so I can't get so close to the door—which would mean that Allan can. That would be perfect!
I fail to pacify Allan. "You are so damn thoughtless sometimes," he says. I repeat my apology, this time without any mitigating self-justification, an act of true contrition: I'm sorry, I feel so stupid. "Yes, for all the bloody good it does us," Allan snaps. "I wish you'd think first instead of being sorry later."
I retreat into myself, sulky now instead of contrite. Underneath my wounded pride, I know that Allan's right, but I'm determined to nurse a grudge against him anyway, at least for the rest of the day. Allan's just grouchy, I tell myself, because the English lessons are a nuisance to him. Since he has to stay blindfolded while Hikmet's in the room, he can't read; but he can't nap either, between Hikmet and me talking and the music playing in the hallway. Exhilarating for me, the English lessons are boring for Allan. I've felt guilty about this at times, but not at this particular moment. Allan has no right to lash out at me when I'm helping to maintain the guards' good will, from which he benefits. I'm creating, for both of us, a new channel of communication with the guards, an alternative to Asshole Waleed. Allan definitely owes me gratitude for that.
So I don't have to rush to make up with Allan. I will have to make up by the time we go to bed. When Allan prepares a heated blanket for me in the evening, I'll have to swallow my pride, and relinquish the grudge, and gratefully accept his generosity. But I don't have to bow and scrape right away. I can tolerate some tension in the air between us for a while. I don't rely exclusively on Allan anymore to buoy me up. Now I have Hikmet, too.
I like Hikmet. I like Hikmet a lot. I like Hikmet in a way I know I shouldn't.
Hikmet and I are engaged in a kind of mutual stroking. Teaching him makes me feel good about myself; learning from me makes him feel good about himself. The rapport we have developed during our lessons spills over "outside class." He proudly uses his English during feedings or the exercise period, or when bringing me a book. He craves my praise. I am his teacher, a teacher whom, for once, he likes, not fears. He is... adorable.
Sometimes, during a lesson, as we sit on the mattress facing each other, talking, laughing, I feel a tingle move from the base of my neck up my scalp. A yearning flows out of me to envelope him.
"You two are getting chummy," Allan remarks to me after a lesson. His tone sounds neutral, but I immediately suspect that he intends to convey disapproval. The timing isn't entirely clear in my memory, but I'm pretty sure he says this to me after I've come out to him. In that case, his remark may be more heavily fraught with meaning. Or, alternatively, I may be guiltily reading more into his statement than he intends.
"Is that a problem?" I ask, a touch aggressively.
He lifts and lowers his eyebrows in a kind of facial shrug. "As long as you're not having any Strange Ideas."
I sense that he's waiting for me to ask, "Like what?" But I don't ask it, nor does he say anything further. Even if this exchange is occurring after Allan knows I'm gay, his reference to Strange Ideas could just be a warning not to make the same mistake he didn't want me to make with Makmoud and Abed and Fadil—the mistake of imagining that our guards are friendlier than they are. That could be all he means.
In the conversations we've had about my sexuality since my coming out, Allan has never asked if there's anything romantic or sexual about my affection for Hikmet. He's never asked if I have those kinds of feelings for any specific individual, himself included. Nevertheless, Hikmet is the reason I become flustered the time Allan asks me what my physical type is: I don't want Allan knowing that Arab men fit my type.
I am physically attracted to Hikmet. To be absurdly precise, I am attracted to his hands, the only part of his body I can see, peeping under my blindfold, that isn't covered by clothes. The backs of his hands are covered from wrists to knuckles with long, black, arched hairs, miniature versions of which sprout on the base of his fingers. His forearms, beneath his sleeves, must be equally hairy. His chest, too, I imagine, though my sliver of vision doesn't climb that high. Not that I'd be able to view any of his chest hair, anyway, bundled up as he always is in a sweater or coat—no open-throated shirt to afford me a peek inside. I imagine, though, that I might be able to see a few stray hairs arching out, grass-like, from under his clothes at the base of his throat, a tantalizing promise of the lawn concealed underneath...
Images of Hikmet—invented images—come to me as I masturbate at night. My fantasy isn't set here, in the apartment. I picture the two of us in some other room, under an entirely different set of circumstances, an alternative universe. We're in the United States. I'm back at graduate school, Hikmet is a foreign student. He's come to my apartment, or I've gone to his. We're in the bedroom. He's laughing quietly, eagerly, that pleasant, pleased laugh of his, as he undresses, as he watches me undress. I leave his facial features vague, but I give him a tidy beard, trimmed close enough for me to find sexy. A hirsute body to match his hands—profusely furry chest, a more modestly fuzzy stomach. Dark hair covering his forearms and legs and thighs and ass. A virile patch growing at the base of his otherwise smooth young back. The gumdrop-shaped head of his dick (Muslims are circumcised, right?) looks plump and heavy, but the shaft isn't hard yet. I find dicks more appealing to look at while they're still soft, curled up endearingly like a sleeping animal you want to pet...
I end up shoving these images aside, I don't allow myself to hold them in my head while I climax.
I can't be entertaining these thoughts about Hikmet. They're perverse, they're sick, they're wrong—for multiple reasons. He's my captor. He's my student.
Mohammed wants English lessons, too, but I have no interest in teaching Mohammed. I don't like Mohammed. I resent the way he ordered me to teach him. He doesn't show me the respect that Hikmet does. He's dull, without a sense of humor. I conduct myself professionally toward him, but I don't go out of my way to be encouraging. Fortunately, learning English turns out to be harder than Mohammed expected, and he lacks discipline. After a couple of lessons, he stops coming. I make a token effort to ask if he wants another lesson, partly out of guilt, partly out of concern for offending him. When he tells me, "Soon," I don't follow up.
I feel like Mohammed was muscling in between Hikmet and me. Mohammed wanted to take something from me that I want to share only with Hikmet.
In the end, though, it's Sayeed, not Mohammed, who comes between us.
I've just brought another lesson to a close. Not at Sayeed's insistence—Sayeed doesn't appear to be around at the moment—but because we've done good work, and I can feel it's the right moment to call it a day. Hikmet knows he did well today. He's happy. I'm happy.
We face each other, cross-legged, drifting down from the high energy level that my teaching style generates. This is the moment when normally Hikmet would thank me and put on his shoes. But instead he keeps sitting there, and in the silence, an intimate atmosphere grows up around us.
"I like you teacher me," Hikmet says. We practiced "I like/I don't like" statements during an earlier lesson, in the context of food; he's taking the initiative to stretch the grammatical form to this new purpose. I'm proud of him for that.
"I like teaching you," I reply, enunciating carefully. "You are a good student."
I can hear, in his voice, his flattered smile. "Thank you," he says.
And then he reaches over to hold my hand.
It's not a handshake, his right hand clasping my right hand—it's not that. Instead, his left hand reaches straight across to grab my right hand, my unchained hand, which is resting on my crossed legs. He closes his fingers around the side of my hand and pulls it a little toward him, off my leg, so that our clasped hands are at a more equal distance between us. And then he just keeps holding my hand, not saying anything.
I know that Arab men hold hands—as a wholly permissible intimacy, not as something gay. I picked that information up sometime before I came to Lebanon, probably when I was covertly reading scholarship on homosexuality in my college library. I saw the custom for myself during the brief window before I was kidnapped. Boys at the primary school held hands or draped themselves over one another's shoulders. The night before my kidnapping, as Youssef was driving Bernie and me from the mission office back to Bernie's apartment, we stopped at an intersection, and two men, probably in their thirties, both conventionally masculine, crossed the street in front of us. They weren't walking hand-in-hand, exactly, but one had his arm tucked languidly into the other's—the only thing about them that didn't look masculine to my Western eyes. Bernie noticed me looking at them and smiled. "It's not what you're thinking," he said.
So I don't imagine for a second, I don't even wonder if Hikmet might be holding my hand because he's gay. I know that's not what's going on here.
Hikmet is holding my hand to express how much he likes me. I am moved by the gesture at that level. But I'm also thinking: This doesn't make sense. He's my guard. Just as I shouldn't be feeling sexually attracted to him under the circumstances, he shouldn't be feeling hand-holding friendly toward me. It's unnatural. It's complicating.
Surely his affection for me must make it harder for him to do his job: to keep me captive, to keep me chained, to keep me by force from my home. How does he reconcile himself to that? Does that question prod at him? Is he thinking about it now, as he sits here with me, silent?
I tip my head back a little so that I can see, under the blindfold, my slender academic's fingers folded into Hikmet's hairier, rougher workingman's hand. Dale and I must have interlaced fingers at points during sex, but I don't remember it. Anyway, I've never before just sat holding hands with a man. So this is what it feels like—
I jump when Sayeed snaps at us from the doorway, a sharp order in Arabic. Hikmet drops my hand, leaps to his feet. He doesn't wait to put on his shoes, he snatches them up from the floor and carries them as he scuttles out of the room. The bedroom door is pulled harshly closed.
"What happened?" Allan asks, tense.
"I don't know, I guess we went too long." I can tell I sound unnerved, but I can't tell if Allan doubts my truthfulness because of it. He doesn't probe further.
The shift changes that night, so Hikmet is gone for a couple of days. When his shift returns, he doesn't come for more lessons. He doesn't even talk to me except as necessary during feedings and toilet runs.
Finally, during a feeding he's administering with Mohammed—not with Sayeed, that's crucial—I ask him: Will he come later for an English lesson?
"No," he says, brusquely. A few moments later, he mumbles, "I'm sorry."
I push: When? When can we do another lesson? But I already know what he's going to say. "Never." Or, since he hasn't learned that word, some intended equivalent.
Actually, he says something worse: "Soon." Which in this context is clearly the same as saying "Never," but with the added indignity of denying me an honest answer.
It's not Hikmet's fault, though. English lessons have become a taboo subject, something he has been forbidden to talk to me about. Fucking Sayeed.
That's it, that's the end of my "romance" with Hikmet. How long was I teaching him? Between three and four weeks, it must be. But only on the days when he was on shift, so really half that time, the equivalent of one-and-a-half to two weeks.
Why did Sayeed put a stop to our lessons? What exactly did he disapprove of when he saw Hikmet and me holding hands? Does he know about me, or suspect, from hearing about what happened at the office? Did he think I might be coming on to Hikmet? Trying to seduce my way to an escape? Or is homosexuality not a factor in Sayeed's thinking? Did he simply disapprove of Hikmet fraternizing that closely with a hostage? Did he want to prevent Hikmet from developing the pangs of conscience I wondered if he might be experiencing?
I miss Hikmet. I mean, he's still here, he still works as one of my guards. But that makes things harder. I wish he didn't work in the apartment anymore. I wish we didn't interact at all.
I become low. I lie under my blankets doing nothing, unable to take pleasure even in a book. Allan asks me what's wrong. I don't know, I tell him, it's just a mood.
He knows better. "Is this about Hikmet?"
My heart skips a beat. By this point, definitely, I've come out to Allan. So I should hardly be surprised if he has come to suspect.
I'm ashamed to respond to Allan's question. I don't need to, my silence is answer enough. Allan says, gently but in his "lecture" voice, "They're guards, Jeremy, not friends. I'm sorry you got hurt. But you need to stop brooding about it."
Fuck you, I think, but I don't say it out loud. I owe Allan too much. He's been too supportive—most recently about my coming out—for me to snipe at him, even in a moment of weakness.
The emotional burst of my silent "Fuck you" sends a single tear trickling out of each of my eyes and down the sides of my face, into my ears, as I lie on my back. That's as much as I'll ever cry over Hikmet. Later I'll feel mortified that I shed even those two tears.
Allan's right. How moronic, how pathetic, to become attached in that way to a man who's helping to hold me hostage. Captivity fucks with your emotions, twists them into grotesque shapes.
* * *
Sometime around the middle of February, a stomach flu makes all the hostages in the apartment diarrheal for a couple of days. While we're sick, the guards consent to give us extra toilet runs. We signal we need the toilet by knocking on the wall; we're forbidden, as usual, to bang our chains or call out. The guards dislike being at our beck and call, though, so if they feel we're requesting toilet runs too often, they'll ignore our knocking and leave us to squirm for a while.
During our sick days, the guards administer a final, rushed toilet run to all five hostages just before going to bed—the guards are in their stocking feet and sleepwear, I can see under my blindfold. After this toilet run, we're expected to suffer through until morning.
On the first evening of our special toilet-run dispensation, I become desperate to go to the bathroom while the guards are watching TV out in the front of the apartment. They don't respond to my knocking; they want me to wait for their shows to end, when they'll administer the last-call toilet run to all the hostages. At the time, though, I don't realize that they're planning a final toilet run, and anyway I'm not sure I could have waited that long. Frantic, I resort to clanging my chain on the floor and shouting, "Afwan!" Sure enough, this flagrant violation of the rules brings someone running. He punishes me with blows to the shoulders and upper arms, but when I beg him to let me use the toilet, he does.
While I'm in the bathroom, the guard retreats down the hall so he can keep watching the show. Finished, I stand waiting in the open doorway for a while before Waleed sees or remembers me and orders the guard to return me to the bedroom. The guard—Ameer or Moustafa, I can't tell which—rechains me so hastily that he doesn't squeeze the padlock hard enough to actually click it shut.
With the guard safely away, I lie propped up on my elbow, twisting the base of the padlock back and forth as it hangs unattached from the hooked portion. "Allan," I whisper, "he didn't close my padlock."
I whispered too softly, I have to repeat myself before Allan understands. He's silent for a few moments. Then he whispers back, "Don't close it. Don't fall asleep."
I lie down with my head propped against the wall, to keep myself uncomfortable and awake. There's no danger of my falling asleep, though, not with my adrenaline racing the way it is. What does Allan have in mind? I'm excited and nervous to be unchained because I feel I'm getting away with something, but I don't see what good it can actually do us. Clearly, however, there's something Allan wants me to do. Something more than eavesdropping on the guards' bedtime movements? The suspense is maddening.
Finally, the guards turn off the television. They come down the hall to administer the last toilet run of the night, which we hadn't yet known to expect. They skip me since I went not long before. As they hustle Allan to and from the bathroom, I lie very still, heart pounding, so as not to attract the guards' attention. I don't want their eyes falling on my padlock...
Waleed forbids us to knock on the wall again for the rest of the night. The guards retire to bed. The house settles into silence.
Allan whispers my name. Moving very, very carefully—now it's me, not the guards, who's paranoid about small noises—I extract the padlock from the chain links. I soon give up trying to unwind the chain from my wrist slowly, realizing this will merely prolong the inevitable sound. Better to remove it in one swift motion. I figure that won't make any more noise than I would produce turning in my sleep.
I crawl slowly, blindly, across the floor to Allan. I follow the edge of his mattress toward his head. To avoid rattling his chain, Allan doesn't sit up, but he uses his free hand to locate first my arm, then my shoulder. He tugs me down so that our heads are close together. He whispers slowly, exaggerating the pronunciation of each word so that he can be understood while releasing hardly any breath. "Go... see... if the door... is... unlocked."
Ohhhhh, no... He's asking me to go miles beyond the limit. This is far, far riskier than stretching to the end of my chain to eavesdrop under the door. If the guards catch me trying to get out of the room, they'll do worse than yell at me. They'll do worse than "thump me." This could get me shipped back to the Shouf, or my first prison, or some other place where they can beat me the way they beat Robert Berg, without having to worry about anyone hearing me scream.
What is Allan expecting me to do in the unlikely event that the door is unlocked? Sneak down the hall, past the guards' bedroom, open the apartment door, and make a run for it? Does he want me to sneak around the apartment looking for keys? Guns? This is crazy, he's having Strange Ideas. I'm going to crawl back to my mattress.
"I can't do this," I whisper.
Allan's hand, still on my shoulder, gives me a squeeze. The gesture feels more insistent than encouraging. "One... step... at a time. Just... go... check... the door. Turn... the knob... very... very... very slowly. Then... come back... here." Another squeeze. "You... can... do this."
Allan is dreaming, there is no chance the guards could have been so careless as to leave both my chain and the door unlocked. Or could they? Since the guards know—or think—we're securely chained, they could conceivably let themselves get sloppy about locking the door. Maybe it's left unlocked more often than we realize. Or maybe more often than I realize, maybe Allan has noticed something I haven't...
However remote the chance that the door is unlocked right now, we have to check. Which means I have to check. I wish it was Allan's chain that had been left unlocked, not mine.
If I find the door is unlocked, maybe I should interpret the improbable coincidence as an act of God, screw my courage to the sticking place, and do whatever Allan's plan calls for next.
Or not. I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.
I inch to the door on my hands and knees, pausing repeatedly to rebuild my courage. I feel light-headed. I arrive. Next stage of danger. I kneel upright, supporting myself with one hand on the wall. I pause again. My free hand, the one I'm going to place on the doorknob, is shaking. I close my fingers slowly, slowly, around the knob. I turn it by tiny increments.
It's turning, it's turning—it stops.
I'm relieved, actually. I'm relieved to be spared the decision of whether or not to lie to Allan.
I crawl back to report. "It's locked."
Allan takes a long, disappointed breath. He tries to put his hand on my shoulder again, but in the darkness he lands on the back of my neck. "You did good anyway," he whispers. He's not pausing between words anymore.
He squeezes my neck. I relish his warm, heavy hand on my skin. "I'm really stressed," I tell him. "Could I just lie down next to you for a while? Until I calm down?"
He doesn't reply right away, but he keeps resting his hand on my neck. "You'd better not. They might hear my chain."
That's... a plausible excuse. But not a convincing one. No guard woke up and came investigating when I rattled my chain taking it off. I'm grateful, I suppose, that Allan is trying to spare my feelings with his semi-honesty. And I'm grateful that he's still willing to touch me the way he's doing now. But I feel spurned. I get it, he's not comfortable having a gay guy lie next to him in bed. It's understandable. It also hurts.
I start to turn to crawl away. Allan's hand on my neck holds me in place for a final message. "You have to lock yourself back up. They can't find out."
I crawl back to my mattress. I loop the chain as quietly as I can around my wrist. I thread the padlock through two links. I hesitate, feeling the degradation, the injustice of what I have to do next.
I relinquish my scrap of freedom. I become my own captor. I snap the padlock shut.