Lebanon Hostage Ch. 05bytalestitcher©
What you're about to read: This is a work of historical fiction—recent history—inspired by actual accounts, so it's rather realistic though definitely fictional. The novel is built around themes I find erotic: captivity, sexual tension, male intimacy. However (disclaimer and spoiler), you won't find any full-blown sex here. This is the story of a queerly romantic, lopsidedly erotic, but unconsummated relationship between a gay man and a straight man held together as hostages.
Chapter 5 -- A birthday and secret pen pals
As Allan comes out of his depression, he sets himself the task of figuring out again when we are. He's lost track of the date. He stopped keeping count in his head even before he "slid away" completely—right after his meltdown, when he threw his dinner at the wall and started giving me the silent treatment. I know he was "away" for six days, but neither of us is sure how many days passed between his meltdown and the time he stopped eating.
Allan remembers that April 11, the day of his kidnapping, was a Friday. He makes a calendar by punching rows of holes into a tissue with his fork, seven across, then counts his way to the last date in August that he remembers. On the way, he figures out that the guards' weekly shift change happens between Thursday and Friday. Until now, we haven't known what day of the week it is because Allan hasn't tried to keep track of that in his head, only the date.
Once Allan knows what day the shift change occurs, he knows that the guards showed us the movie on a Saturday night—the second night of their shift. Since we lost count of a few days before the six days when Allan slid away, he concludes that movie night must have been August 29. The preceding Saturday, August 22, would be too close to the last date Allan remembers to account for as much time as we think we lost; the next Saturday, September 5, seems too far away.
I leave these calculations entirely in Allan's hands. His ability to juggle numbers in his head intimidates me. I would need pen and paper, not just a plastic fork and a piece of tissue.
The month of September contains two landmarks important to me. On September 11, I will have been a hostage for six months, half a year. On September 27, I will turn 24 years old.
I don't tell Allan about either of these approaching anniversaries. We exchanged birthdays back when we were first getting to know each other, but I don't remember his anymore, only that it falls around either Thanksgiving or Christmas. I assume he doesn't remember mine, either. I hope he doesn't. I'll feel like a heel otherwise.
The reason I don't mention these anniversaries to Allan is that I have developed a private superstition about them. I am harboring the hope that I will be released before one or the other of those anniversaries arrives. I know this makes no sense; I know that I am stupidly setting myself up for disillusion. But I can't help it. I secretly nurture this hope. I cradle it in my hands. I warm myself by it. I indulge in moments of exhilarating anticipation, which intensify as the deadlines approach.
It's like I'm compulsively masturbating my emotions, I suppose. The only kind of masturbating I do here.
I pay the price for my stupidity. At the end of the day on September 11, I am still in our cell, not on my way home, and feeling very low because of it, lower than I've allowed myself to get since Allan slid away. He can tell. Normally, by our rules, he would say I'm entitled to be low for a while and therefore wouldn't intervene until morning. But coming out of his own depression, he's worried about both of us getting mired in quicksand at the same time. He asks me what's going on.
I tell him—just about the anniversary, not about the superstitious hope. Allan says, "It'll be me in another month." And with that, he's sinking, too.
I rouse myself to responsibility. We can't wallow, I tell Allan, we have to do something else. He agrees. He challenges me to reconstruct, as precisely as I can, what I would have been doing on this same date one year ago. I start with generalities—if it was a weekday, I would have gone to class—and from there he presses relentlessly for details until I beg him to let me go to sleep.
I ought to have learned my lesson from that first self-made disillusion, but I haven't. I go right on secretly anticipating that by September 27, I'll be out. Home with my family for my birthday. It's just a fantasy, I tell myself, a daydream to make me feel better. Since I know it isn't really going to happen, I won't get low this time when it doesn't.
Another part of me warns: You know you're kidding yourself. No, I retort, I'll be fine.
I still haven't reminded Allan that my birthday is coming, although every two or three days I ask him to confirm for me what today's date is. I've never cared about the date before, but if he finds my new interest surprising, he doesn't show it. Perhaps he assumes I'm just trying to help him stay focused.
* * *
On September 26, two guards come downstairs in the middle of the day and take me from our cell—literally without a word. One of them just walks into the cell, nudges me with his foot, and helps tug me up onto my feet.
As always in my hostage life, my first reaction to the unexpected is fear. But then they're helping me up the stairs. My emotions swing instantly to the opposite extreme: Oh my God, my premonition was right, it's happening...
No, no, no, do not jump to conclusions. Don't lose yourself in hope. It's probably just a haircut. You need another one.
But there's no chair waiting for me at the top of the stairs. Instead, the guards hand me a t-shirt to put on over my tank top. They're dressing me for the outside world, holy shit, they are releasing me! I am stabbed at the heart: Allan! We didn't get to say goodbye. He's going to be alone now... The pang is swallowed up, however, in my billowing excitement.
Suddenly, confusion: the guards don't give me pants before they lead me on into the front of the house. My excitement crumples. Being pantsless makes it hard to keep believing that they're taking me to be released. And I am unable to imagine any reason why they would want me to wear a shirt but leave me in undershorts. Not being able to imagine makes me frightened again.
They seat me at a table. They take away my blindfold. I close my eyes, of course. A haircut after all?
"Look," someone tells me.
On the table in front of me is a cake. An elegant cake, coated in a buttery-looking, lightly whipped, dark brown frosting. The top is neatly crisscrossed with drizzles of black chocolate, and the upper and lower circumferences are adorned all around with flower-like frosting dollops, some of which, at regular intervals, have little candied cherries nestled in the center. In a bizarre contrast to the cake's elegance, a single white household-sized candle juts out of the center of the cake, alight. Not a petite birthday cake candle, but the kind Allan wishes we had in our cell in case the lights go out.
The guards are standing around the other three sides of the table. They've wrapped towels around their faces to conceal their identities, like terrorists at a press conference. From behind the towels, they're singing "Happy Birthday" in marble-mouthed English. The effect is unsettlingly surreal. Terrorists are throwing me a surprise birthday party. One of these masked terrorists is Makmoud, his shift began yesterday. He's the man to my left, in fact; I can distinguish his deep voice. He ha-ba-boos his way through the song until he gets to my name, which he enunciates enthusiastically: "Jé-ré-mieeeee!"
When I had imagined that I would be released in time for my birthday, I had imagined it happening through providential coincidence. I have never thought that my captors know, much less care, when my birthday is. How do the guards know my birthday is tomorrow? Or maybe it's today, actually, maybe Allan miscalculated the date... Either way, how do the guards know my birthdate? Did the chefs pass it on to them, culled from my driver's license? Is the party supposed to be another morale boost? Do they do this for all the hostages?
The guards have finished singing. The one standing directly across from me bends down and aims a small camera at me. When he's ready, he speaks a word in Arabic. The guard to my right says, "Go, go," and he and Makmoud make puffing noises to prompt me to blow out the candle. As I do, the photographer snaps a picture.
I get it. The photo is for my family. This party is for show: See how well we're treating him.
The guards place a large slice of cake in front of me—chocolate, as I had assumed from the frosting. The cake is lusciously dark, its texture dense. They photograph me again, eating a bite with my fingers. They don't give me a fork, not even a plastic one.
I make a writing motion in the air. "Can I write a letter to my family? Mail? Home?"
The guard to my right waggles his finger and tsks. I feel an urge to cry, but I shove immediately past it.
The photo shoot is complete. Makmoud ties my blindfold back on, but he hikes it up a little and allows me to adjust it further, so that I can still see the tabletop. He jovially slaps me on the back. "Eat, Jérémie."
I pick at my cake. It's a little stale: this shift must have brought the cake with them from Beirut, so it's three days old, at least. But that's not what makes the cake unappetizing. I can't stomach how sweet and rich it is. It's a heavier cake than I'm used to even at home, and I haven't eaten anything remotely like this in over half a year. My body's grown unaccustomed, I feel queasy. I won't be able to finish half of what they've given me.
The guards, meanwhile, have hacked off enormous slabs of cake for themselves, twice the size of the piece they served me. I get a little queasier just looking at how much they intend to pack away.
I point at the remains left by the guards. "Can I take some cake to Allan?" I ask and mime carrying something in my hands. The same guard who wouldn't let me write home nixes this request, too. Makmoud tries to intercede, it sounds like, but the naysaying guard gets the last word. Wants more cake for himself, no doubt.
The guards are enjoying themselves, but I'm done with this facsimile of a party. I just want to go be with Allan. I miss him, I need comforting. I feel lonely, sitting ignored at the table while the guards yak at each other in Arabic with their mouths full. I'm very homesick. I'm sad and angry that they wouldn't let me write to my family. My stomach's upset. The blindfold irritates my open eyes. As long as I'm griping, I'm annoyed at having to lick frosting off my fingers because the guards are too paranoid or inconsiderate or slovenly to give me a fork. I probably have frosting hardening into my beard that I'll need to pull off later. Once again, a potential morale boost has ended up being a lousy experience.
I point to my own half-eaten slice of cake and ask again: Can I take this to Allan? Again, request denied. Someone's frosting-messy fingers dart into my limited field of vision to pluck up my leftovers. Greedy bastards.
They decide it's time for me to return to the basement. On the way, they reclaim the t-shirt; they wanted me to wear it for the photos, so I would be more respectably clothed from the tabletop up. The guard who walks me into the cell pats my back wordlessly before he goes—Makmoud again, I presume.
I tell Allan what happened and apologize that they wouldn't let me bring him any cake. He commiserates about my not being allowed to write home, but he's fascinated by my description of the party. He had been worried while I was gone. Like me, he had assumed at first that I was going upstairs for a haircut; then, when he didn't hear the clippers, he too thought maybe I was being released. But when the singing began, which he mistook for chanting, he had a hard time imagining what they might be doing to me. Praying over me before sending me home? Making me pray with them in an attempt to convert me?
Allan makes a new tissue calendar and recalculates the date, twice. He says he doesn't know how he miscounted before, but yes: today, Saturday, because the new shift started yesterday morning, is September 27, not 26. "Many happy returns," he tells me. Despite the cheery sentiment of the words, his voice is subdued. "You're twenty-four now, right?" Right. He gives me a kind of sad yet hopeful smile. "You'll be home before twenty-five."
I feel myself sinking, so I confess to him that I was... I catch myself before saying "stupid," because Allan won't let me call myself that. Revision: I confess to him that I did something I knew I shouldn't do. I come clean about my superstitious hope. I owe him an apology for setting myself up to get low after I promised him I was going to carry my own weight from now on.
Allan thinks over how to respond to my apology. First off, he's stable now, he assures me. It's been a month since his depression, I don't have to keep worrying so much about him. As for this superstition: Did it help me? Before today, he clarifies. Did it make me feel better to imagine I'd be going home?
Of course, I reply bitterly, that's why I let myself keep thinking it. But I'm paying for it now.
Allan says, "There's nothing wrong with paying for something if the price is worth paying." I can tell right away that this statement is going to be enshrined in our canon of maxims. "You would have gotten low today anyway. This way, you didn't spend the whole month getting low every time you thought about your birthday coming up and having to spend it away from home. So I'm not sure your superstition was a bad thing."
Allan allows me some private time after that, to be low in. But later he makes me sit up and share with him happy memories of birthdays past. After a couple of anecdotes, I tell him this isn't helping me feel any less homesick. So instead he has me recount a novel of my choice in rich, leisurely detail. I obey mechanically.
That night, we're lying down on our backs, not quite ready to turn onto our sides to go to sleep, both pensive. Absorbed in my own self-pity, I don't realize how low Allan has sunk, too—until out of nowhere, he says in a lugubrious voice, "When they had you upstairs, and I was worried about you but couldn't do a bloody thing about it... I realize, that's what I put you through, when I slid away. That's how you felt. For a fucking week."
A cold horror seizes me. "Please don't think about that," I tell him. "I handled it fine. It was good for me, in a way, worrying about you. It snapped me out of myself." I look over at him; he's gazing somberly at the ceiling. "Allan, please don't get down on yourself. I was fine."
"I won't. Don't worry. But I'm sorry I put you through that."
Later, facing the wall, trying to sleep, I imagine Allan rolling over and scooting across to spoon behind me. His knees are tucked behind my knees, his lap cradles my buttocks (but he's not hard, neither of us is hard, that's not what this is about), his chest and stomach are curled against my back, his breath is on the back of my neck (but he's not kissing me; again, that's not what this is). His arm covers my arm, his hand covers my hand, his fingers interlock with mine, as he presses our right hands against the middle of my chest. I bring my left hand up to embrace his forearm.
I keep the scene chaste, so that no part of me can object on that count. Our spooning isn't sexual, it's just for comfort. Nonetheless, I'm breaking a personal rule: when I allow myself the comfort of imagining a man spooning behind me, I'm not supposed to give him a face. I'm letting myself break that rule tonight because it's my birthday. It's a treat, my gift to myself. I refuse to feel bad about it. Fuck off, guilt. Not tonight.
Spooning with Allan is the last image I remember having in my head before I drift off.
* * *
Paul and Donald ask us whose birthday it was. Unlike Allan, they recognized what the guards were singing. Also, I assume, they've experienced their own birthday celebrations. When Allan tells them it was me, they send back belated birthday wishes.
Those statements require a long explanation.
It starts with what I call the Communication Game. Right after Robert Berg's beating, in early August, the Mustached Hostage and his cellmate get into the habit of tapping once on their cell door, right at the beginning of a power outage, when the basement gets just a little quieter because everyone's fans go off. Presumably they start tapping because they're hoping to get a response from Robert. At first, Robert ignores them, or maybe he's still in too much pain to crawl over to his door, or maybe (as Allan believes) he's being kept sedated and doesn't even hear them. Instead, the Praying Hostage is the first person to start tapping in response. Allan wants to respond, but I won't let him; it's one of the reasons he and I fight before he becomes depressed.
The Communication Game evolves to a new form when Robert finally starts responding. But Robert doesn't tap on his door. He responds with a single cough. As soon as he does this, everyone else realizes that this is safer than tapping because it will sound innocent if a guard hears it, whereas a tap is unmistakably a forbidden attempt to communicate. So that puts an end to the tapping. In its place, everyone resorts to a variety of natural sounds: a cough, a feigned sneeze, a loud clearing of the throat, a pee bottle "accidentally" striking the wall next to the door. Even a very loud sniffle can work if done right up against the silenced door fan.
While this new version of the Communication Game is safer than the initial tapping, everyone still has to take care not to be obvious. If a guard hears everyone making little noises in close succession, he'll know something's up. The challenge of the game, then, is to delay responding to the previous noise long enough that it won't be obvious you're responding, but not so long that someone else won't still have time to respond before a guard comes downstairs to escape the heat. That's the goal: for every hostage to respond before a guard arrives. Once a guard comes down the stairs, game over; everyone understands it's too risky to continue, even with the natural sounds. The game is "won" if every cell responds before a guard arrives—every cell, that is, but the Handcuffed Hostage's, since he never plays.
I don't participate in the game, but I don't object anymore to Allan's participating after he comes out of his depression. The game lifts his spirits, and I know he needs that. A win—an uncommon occurrence—makes him silently exultant. Hours afterward, the memory of a win earlier in the day can make him spontaneously break into that beaming smile I adore. I find his excitement absurd, but I think the same thing about people's enthusiasm for sports. The Communication Game is Allan's sport, in the absence of soccer or rugby or whatever athletic nonsense he would be following if he were free.
Allowing him to play is a sacrifice on my part. The Communication Game stresses me, I'm always afraid they're going to get caught. I have to sit in the back corner of the cell while they're doing it, for the illusion of safety. When Allan first starts playing, I feel impelled to wear my blindfold down as well, as if this would protect me. After a time, I leave off doing that, but I never stop retreating to the corner. Allan keeps trying to coax me to play, or at least to kneel by the fan with him: it will give me confidence, I'll feel better about myself. I consistently refuse.
One day, instead of making one of the usual noises during the Communication Game, the Praying Hostage speaks his name through his fan grill. Allan, listening through our fan, deciphers the name as either Rich or Rick Durham. From my "safe place" in the back corner, I can hear the hostage's voice, but I can't make out what he says, which means he isn't speaking loudly. Still, his violation of the rules brings that round of the game to a grinding halt: no one else makes a sound after that.