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The Waiter Brings Wine

My mother loved baths. Nearly every evening of her life she’d soak for an hour in the tub, a paperback mystery curled damply in her hand. When I think of those chaotic years following her separation from my father, I picture her in the tub of our yellow house at 1457 Idaho Avenue in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, calling for me.


I would be in my bedroom just down the hallway, reading my own mysteries. She had Patricia Cornwell, I had Encyclopedia Brown. “Yes?”

“Can you get me a glass of wine?”

“Okay,” I’d call back. My mother loved her wine as much as her baths, and the two together must have made the perfect combination, for nearly every evening she’d call to me. Sometimes she’d remember to bring a glass with her as the tub filled, calling me later for a refill.

The alcohol was kept in the highest cabinet of our kitchen. But at ten I was an agile little monkey, climbing easily onto the counter where I’d open the cabinet and reach inside for the red wine. There was a small collection of various liquor bottles kept there for entertaining, but after my father moved out we rarely had visitors. So they sat untouched in that high cabinet, red wine being my mother’s only poison. One bottle in particular fascinated me; the liquor was a brilliant shade of blue, blue as Windex, blue as a 7-11 slushee calling out to me, begging for a taste. But a long-ago sip of my mother’s wine had repulsed me, and it would be years before I’d drink on my own volition.

I’d pour her a healthy amount of wine, as if pouring myself a tall glass of Coke. I figured more was always better. Then I’d plug the bottle and place it back amongst the others in the dark of the high cabinet, and carefully carry the glass through the house to the bathroom. Most nights she’d have the shower curtain drawn all the way across the tub, and she’d reach through the slit between curtain and tile and I’d place the glass in her outstretched hand. Now and then, perhaps due to an earlier glass, she’d forget, and I would look away from her pale, plump body- this was years before she began running marathons- and the dark shock of her pubic hair floating like algae beneath the surface of the water. I was too young to understand appropriate parental relations -by then most boundaries had already been crossed- but I gathered from her startled expression and the quick tug of the shower curtain that I wasn’t supposed to see her like that. I certainly didn’t want to see her like that. I was a weird little kid, moody and secretive, but thankfully free of Oedipal fixations.

Those nightly wine errands could be considered a textbook definition of “enabling”, my mother unconsciously setting me up for a future of codependency and addiction. A short line drawn from her to me; cause and effect. But I remain stubbornly independent, or rather, stubbornly deluded about my uniqueness. Because so many memoirs have been written about addiction and illness, I resist writing my own. I want to be different. And I don’t want pity.

But my life contains those clichés: addiction and illness; redemption and loss. It’s what we did. When I was ten my parents split up, my father moved out, and within a year they both came out of the closet. My mother drank and cried a lot, my father was cold and distant. I may not have known the definition of dysfunction, but I knew my family was different, a silent suburban catastrophe.

One late summer afternoon my mother was taking her bath, relaxing after a particularly stressful trip. We had just returned from her mother’s funeral in Kansas. Her mother, true to family form, had drunk herself to death.

I was outside, swinging from the branches of the large oak tree in the backyard. I glanced over the top of our fence and saw Grover, my beloved fat cat, lying in the alley across the street. This wasn’t unusual; Grover often enjoyed soaking up the sun on the asphalt, blissfully unconcerned about the traffic in our sleepy neighborhood.

However, there was a car idling just a few feet away from him, and I ran across the street to get him out of the way. But then I saw the pool of blood and Grover lying there, his sides rising and falling in short breaths.

I must have screamed, running from the stupidly confused look of the elderly couple in the front seat of the car, the man peering at me over the steering wheel. I ran full-tilt back into the house, screaming and crying for my mother, bursting into the bathroom and nearly scaring her to death.

“What?” she yelled, “What is it?”

“Grover’s been hit by a car!”

And then a low, mournful wail came from her, chilling me with its despair. “No!” she moaned, “No!” Her fear and grief frightened me; I wanted her to snap out of it; I wanted her to take charge.

She pulled herself out of the tub and dressed quickly, but the odds were against us. Her car was in the shop, and we had to call my father for a ride. My mother found a small section of plywood in the garage, and we pulled this under Grover and lifted him off the street. By now the killers had left. I babbled to him as the minutes stretched. My father pulled up in his little gold Volkswagen, and the three of us drove to the emergency vet at the University of Minnesota, and though I picture Grover lying on the thin wooden board in my lap, I know that my mother held Grover in the front seat, trying to spare me the sight of his glassy eyes and his dwindling, shallow breath.

An impressive number of vets in white coats rushed into action upon our arrival. But Grover was already dead. A solemn-faced woman came out to the waiting room, kneeling before us to deliver the news. We left him there, donating his body “to science.” We drove home, and I sat in the backseat again, pinned there like a butterfly by a dark despair that grew as the minutes passed. Of our many failed attempts at pet ownership (cats in our care ran away, got sick, or were killed by neighborhood dogs) Grover was by far my favorite, and his sudden absence hurt far worse than my grandmother’s death. I still have a picture of Grover: I am sitting in our black vinyl recliner wearing that ugly brown velour shirt with the zippered collar, squeezing him tight, the camera’s flash catching both his wildly dilated pupils and my smile full of braces.

My parents sat in the front seat in silence, two people who didn’t love each other anymore, and I felt as though it would always be this way; each of us an island floating just beyond each other’s reach. We would never be like other families. We would never be able to do anything right, this splintered family of homosexuality, cheap clothes, unsigned permission slips. Our cars would break down and our pets would always die. We would be naked when we should be clothed.

I knew my father would drop us off and probably sigh with relief as we slipped into the house. He didn’t care for animals. My mother would make frozen dinners again and I’d stand with her in the kitchen, watching with mute dread the fruit flies hovering over the garbage can. And she’d disappear with her red wine, and later I’d hear her crying late into the night, alone in her bedroom upstairs. And in my own room I’d turn to the dependable company of Judy Blume and Casey Casum, wanting to go to her but not knowing what to say.

We pulled into our driveway and I grabbed a tissue from the box lying beside me on the back seat. I crumpled the tissue into a ball, climbed out of the car, and walked across the street to the alley where Grover had been killed. I pressed the tissue into the small pool of blood until its edges bloomed red. I crossed back to our yard, past my parents who stood there watching me. “Michael?” my mother said. They followed me to the corner of our yard where we had recently planted a young seedling. Even the poor tree was barely scraping by, its barren branches drooping towards the ground below. I knelt down and scooped a handful of loose soil aside, and then buried the tissue.

Even at twelve I was aware of my melodrama, but I felt their eyes on me, and I felt their concern, and because it was rare I performed, seeking more concern. I knelt there for a moment, basking in their worried attention, then retreated to the house, leaving them there, forcing them to look at each other and talk.

A Night with Demi Moore’s Mind

The recent articles by Seymour M. Hersh in The New Yorker are worth the subscription price and then some. He’s providing us with the most current and by far the most troubling information behind the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. Highly recommended. Background article on Hersh here.

Also recommended at The New Yorker are Anthony Lane’s film reviews, many of which have been collected in his book Nobody’s Perfect. Here is a sample from the not-so-distant past, regarding Indecent Proposal. Here he describes the first meeting between Robert Redford and Demi Moore:

So when he sees Diana in a Vegas boutique the wheels of lust start to grind, and before you can say junk bond he’s asking her to kiss his dice and throw a seven. She wins, of course, whereupon he installs her and David [her husband, Woody Harrelson] — who have just lost all their cash — in an expensive suite. They look awed and pleased, although it’s probably the nastiest hotel room ever seen on film: a steel-blue mess, rounded off with a delightful touch, at least in the print I saw — a microphone nodding from its boom at the top of the frame. Gage [Redford] then makes his big offer: a million bucks for a night with Diana — no aftermath, no strings. “It’s just my body,” Diana explains. “It’s not my mind.” I was glad to have that cleared up, though it does raise an interesting question: How much would you pay for an evening with Demi Moore’s mind?

Of the eight people currently in the coffee shop, six of us have laptops. I have, probably to my disadvantage, figured out how to install an AirPort card on my Mac and am currently enjoying a free wireless Internet connection. I say disadvantage because I will get less writing done now that I can obsessively check my e-mail or read author interviews on Powell’s. Interestingly enough, Julie Otsuka, who wrote When the Emporer Was Divine, has a piece at Powell’s about writing every day in a coffee shop for the last several years. I know for a fact that Otsuka is a Columbia MFA graduate who still lives in New York City, and of course I want to know which coffee shop she uses, because obviously I will be shopping for a new one come September. Call it coffee shop envy. One has to choose carefully, there are coffee shops where people go with their laptops, and there are coffee shops where people go to talk. Cafe Flore, just down the street, is more of the latter. They also play their music louder and have unfortunately made a switch to some cable radio station that plays pop songs from the 70’s and 80’s over and over. And not the good pop songs, either. I’m talking Mariah Carey. Whereas in this coffee shop the rumpled young Asian man behind the counter is partial to, well, I don’t know what to call it, it’s more John Cage than Mariah Carey. At times it grates on my nerves, especially when I’ve been reading the same sentence in The New Yorker for the last seven and a half minutes, but then the chord changes and Cage fades agreeably into the background.

A couple of minutes ago a guy in a bomber jacket with a white bandana wrapped around his sweaty forehead came in, muttering to himself. I noticed that he did NOT have a laptop, nor did he stop at the counter and order a latte. In fact, he retired to the hallway outside the bathroom, several feet from my table, and picked up the receiver from the pay phone. I watched him out of the corner of my eye. He was the kind of person I would inevitably have to 86 when I was a bartender back in my days of youthful despair. Take it from a former meth addict, this guy was tweaking. Or is it tweeking. I can never remember. He fiddled with the receiver, lifted it to his ear and then, without depositing any change, punched six or seven digits on the pad. The person on the other end must have picked up immediately, for he began talking right away. “Uh, yes, I’d just like to…uh..confirm my job interview for tomorrow and uh..thank you very much.” He hung up and then placed several more calls, all without quarters or, from what I could tell, a Sprint card. I looked up and we made eye contact, whereupon he straightened his posture and inquired as to his checking account balance. Then he hung up and skulked out to the sidewalk. I watched him walk away, realizing with a start our similarites. For here I sit, pretending to work, dependent upon the good will of some unseen authority for the next open door.

Columbia, Closed

After gently (or not so gently) poking fun at the idea of “postcard” spots; cities one collects like souvenirs, I will be headed next week for London and Amsterdam with my friend Jay. The upcoming move to NYC has distracted me from most other concerns, but I’m just now beginning to get excited. I haven’t been out of the country since I turned 18, though I saw many places before then: Mexico, Nicaragua, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Leningrad (when it was Leningrad) and a few dozen of the States. My old passport (age fifteen, flock-of-seagulls hair style, 50 pounds lighter) has finally been replaced by my more current mug. I’ve been reading Monica Ali’s Brick Lane for a decidedly less romantic view of London, and have Dickens waiting (I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never read any of his novels). Maybe I should get Zadie Smith’s White Teeth to stay current. Also watching Helen Mirren in all of the Prime Suspect movies. Man they are good.

I am very conscious of the fact that I will be an American abroad. Not so much in the sense of terrorism; after all, San Francisco would be just as likely a target as London. But just conscious of how isolated our country has become from others, and the consequences of our foreign policy since Bush took office. Maybe it won’t even be an issue, but it’ll be on my mind.

I continue to hit the coffee shop several times a week to read and write, almost like it’s a part-time job, but one I actually enjoy. I suppose it’s my way of trying to ease into the life that I imagine awaits me once I start school, a way of bringing that life a little closer while I’m still here. Trying to be patient and enjoy the summer. Starved for information from Columbia; each day I check the mailbox hoping something new will arrive, something to make it seem real to me. I had to laugh at myself last week; I was having trouble connecting to their School of the Arts website. I could connect to Columbia’s main site, but the Arts site never loaded. Naturally I thought oh my God they closed the School of the Arts, and I won’t get to move to NYC. They’ve run out of money and I’m shit out of luck. This comes from needing to see something before I will believe it, I guess. I’m as neurotic as ever.

I’ve begun to send some writing out to various literary magazines; mainly contests with nice cash prizes. Have received a couple of flat-out rejections, par for the course. Then today I got an actual letter from an editor at one journal that starts out: “I wanted to let you know that your essay wasn’t ‘just’ a finalist in our contest, but was read and reread and worried over and seriously considered and debated right down to the wire – and that I came close to saying ‘Yes, let’s publish it,’ but in the end I had some fairly serious reservations about it…” Turns out I was one of three finalists for this $1000 prize. So close yet. But I’m honored to get such feedback, it’s so rare to actually get a personal letter from an editor, who encouraged me to send a revision or other work. I’m also becoming more and more aware of the subjective nature of writing; the same essay didn’t even make the first cut at another journal. And a device that I used in the essay was judged obvious and successful by Phillip Lopate when I worked with him last summer, but this particular editor thought it failed. In the end I will always have to return to myself and my convictions and somehow stay true to them while remaining teachable. There’s still so much to learn.

The Terrible Smile of Lynndie England

I was thirteen when I was forced, by decree of physical education, to wrestle another boy for the first time. There were more casual battles when I was younger; bouts of boyish strength with fellow kindergartners inspired by pro wrestling, mano-a-mano squabbles with my younger brother. But nothing in such a public arena, and certainly nothing since I had hit ten and realized that the thoughts I had about other boys weren’t the ordinary kind. One would think that having two gay parents might have inspired more comfort in my own budding sexuality. On the contrary, their early efforts at hiding the truth from neighbors and fellow parents proved to me that we were different. And at thirteen, different meant junior high school death.

Wrestling took over an entire week of gym class. That week our class was split up between genders. Where the girls went, or what they were forced to practice (skipping rope?) I don’t remember. But I remember very well where the boys went.

The wrestling room was set off from the gymnasium. A short flight of stairs led up to it, and the heat rose with each step. The walls were padded on all four sides; a novelty that inspired most of the boys to hurl themselves forcefully against the walls, bouncing off and crashing to the floor amid operatic grunts of imaginary pain. The cheerful blue and yellow pads were betrayed by the room’s heavy atmosphere of ritualized aggression.

More than its appearance, however, the smell of the wrestling room is what lingers. The close, fetid heat of sweat and fear and adrenaline nailed the senses. The humid odor sat heavily in the windowless room. It toed the thin line between revulsion and eroticism. That room, and the few wrestling rooms I encountered throughout my school years, would eventually figure into my sexual fantasies. But at thirteen, when the shadowy terrain of desire had yet to be replaced by the fantasy of actual experience, the odor and the heat terrified me.

Let me be blunt: I hated gym class. This is hardly uncommon among gay boys. But intensifying the usual fear of appearing completely uncoordinated was the fact of my physical appearance. My entire childhood and adolescence was spent at a weight twenty or more pounds lighter than my peers. I was painfully scrawny, such that strangers, upon first meeting me, almost always felt compelled to comment upon my physique. Several years of such comments had taken their toll. I suppose everyone has wondered, at some point, what they would answer to the genie’s offer of three wishes. But would they, like me, wish not for fame or riches, but simply to appear “normal”? Maybe I shared that wish with Ricky, an albino, who knew intimately the cruelty of our fellow classmates. But even adults, who had presumably reached the age when they learned to censor offensive comments, felt no qualms about pointing out to me, as if I had no idea, that I was “so skinny” or that I should “eat more,” insinuating that my metabolism was my fault.

Thus gym class, with its required uniform of shorts and t-shirts, was my most hated subject. Unable to hide my scrawny limbs beneath long sleeves and pants, I slumped my way through each class, forever arranging my arms and legs in an effort to disguise their lack of girth. Wrestling was particularly hellish. One could hide in the dodgeball crowd, for example. But in wrestling there was no hiding. You were paired with another boy, and forced to grapple in front of others, demonstrating unequivocally your weakness. Add to this the embarrassing sexual subtext that flavored such an embrace, and it was a heady combination for a thirteen-year old to endure. Other boys in my circumstance may have feigned illness; may have “accidentally” forgotten their shorts every day that week. But I was a good boy, with near perfect-attendance. I showed up each day for my punishment, staring at the clock as the minute hand stuttered across its face.

Certain matches began with the two opponents facing each other, crouching slightly like animals set to spring. But other matches began with a much more provocative position. One boy knelt on all fours. The other boy knelt at his side, one hand gripping his opponent’s arm, the other arm wrapped intimately around his waist, palm flat against the other boy’s stomach. I can still feel my opponent’s belly, his fluttering breath strangely fragile against my palm.

There must have been many bouts that week, many agonizing moments to brave. But I only remember one.

We were divided into groups of three or four around the padded room. I was friends with two other boys that year, and that day the three of us practiced together. Jeff and Gary had been friends the longest. I think of them now as two sides to the same coin. Gary was pale-skinned; his white-blonde bangs fell lazily over his green eyes. Jeff was freckled and dark, with fiercely glittering blue eyes. Gary was mellow, good-natured. Jeff was an angry clown; his jokes treaded the edge of scorn. They both wore black t-shirts from AC/DC and Iron Maiden concerts. They tucked tins of Copenhagen into the back pockets of their jeans, aligned within the circles faded into the denim. They had motocross bikes parked in the dirt outside their garages and went on fishing trips with their dads.

How I became friends with them remains a mystery. Like gym class, like wrestling, the overbearing machismo of heavy metal frightened me. I hid my enthusiasm for “Thriller” from them, tucked alongside the single rhinestone-studded glove in my sock drawer. I was hypersensitive to my precarious position within the group. There were days when our friendship felt solid. But like many friendships of three, there were days when the balance tipped over, and suddenly it was two versus one. My omega dog to their alpha pair. The sleep-over at Jeff’s house that had started out innocently, the three of us blasting “Asteroids” on the Atari, but ended with the remains of a Domino’s pizza dumped over my head, the two of them collapsing in savage laughter. I walked home alone that night, picking bits of sausage from my hair. Such betrayals, however, paled beside my adolescent need for inclusion. Thus we remained fair weather friends.

Competitive wrestling pits two boys of equal or comparable weight against each other. Thus I was at a disadvantage, being quite easily the lightest person in class. Jeff and Gary, however, were within five or ten pounds of me, and so we formed a natural group. Their skinniness, however, was tough and scrappy. I would have gladly traded bodies with either of them.

My match was with Jeff. We faced each other within the taped-off circle on the padded floor, shoulders lowered, sidestepping like two boxers. Jeff smiled without affection at me. “Gonna kick your ass, McAllister,” he said, swinging a hand at me. It slapped against my shoulder. He giggled, feinted, then swung again. I drew back and his open palm caught only air. He pushed out his lip like an ape, then executed a quick sidestep sequence, ducking and bobbing his head. “You’re going down!”

“This isn’t boxing, dork,” I said without conviction. I turned serious, stuffing my fear down, focusing on Jeff’s hyperkinetic movements. I was determined that for once my solemn desire to win a physical bout would overcome his goofy, taunting malice. Rocky vs. Apollo. I was the underdog. My quiet conviction would crush, unexpectedly, his showmanship.

“Give it up, McAllister,” Jeff sneered. He mimicked my serious look, frowning at me.

Gary, who stood watching us outside the circle, glanced at Jeff then back to me. I could feel his eyes reading me. “No, man,” he said to Jeff, “It’s Mike. Look at him. Eye of the tiger.”

His words were the affirmation I needed. I inhaled the room’s hot smell of sweat. It was the fuel I’d burn. Gary raised his hand and held it in the air between us. “Ready?” Neither of us answered. I stared at the center of Jeff’s chest, away from his smile. “Go!” We fell upon each other.

Several seconds later, he pinned me.

A close family member recently asked to read one of the essays that got me into grad school. For various reasons I’ll keep my relative’s anonymity intact, but for clarity’s sake I will give my relative the name “Diane”, though the choice of gender is arbitrary.

I say “close” family member, though this was not always the case, and even now the strength of our bond is tenuous. We were not particularly close when I was growing up, though we both had similar temperaments; quiet, introverted, stoic on the surface. And while I’ve found introversion to be a desirable quality in some of my adult friendships, with Diane it proved a hindrance; the two of us, alone together, could not sustain a conversation.

Since my mother’s death two years ago, we’ve both attempted frequent gestures of reconciliation. These mutual gestures have brought us closer, and whereas before my mother’s death a few months may have passed between my conversations with Diane, we now exchange several e-mails a month.

Nevertheless, the prospect of sharing my work with Diane was unsettling. It’s easier to share my writing with strangers than with people I know, particularly family members. But I figured it was good practice; if I want to keep writing about personal matters, it’s possible that people close to me will eventually want to read it.

I sent Diane the essay about my mother. A few days passed. Ordinarily she was a more prompt correspondent. Naturally I grew a little nervous. She hated it, I thought. She hated it and doesn’t know how to lie to me. She thinks the grad schools made the wrong decision. My garden variety insecurities nibbled all week at the edge of my more practical concerns.

Finally, a week later, she did write back. She offered mildly approving words: “It is excellent, as you know since Columbia offered you a spot.” It seemed an indirect way of paying me a compliment. We exchanged a couple more e-mails over the next few days. I told her about my vague plans for a book-length memoir, something to satisfy the thesis requirements for school. Then one morning, at work, I found an e-mail from Diane waiting for me.

“Part of me wonders,” it read, “if you’ll be trying – or if Columbia will be encouraging you – to write about other things than your personal experiences, even in non-fiction. I would think that a great writer would have to, at some point, and probably you will. It should be easier once you feel the freedom to travel more and see more of the world.”

I sat back from the computer screen, my face flushed hot with anger. My quick Irish temper blurred my vision. I was nothing, in that moment, but rage.

I forced myself to stand up. I left the office, down the hall to the bathroom, where I pissed furiously into the urinal.

Rejection fueled my rage. Of course, I thought, of course she would say that. We’re not supposed to talk about such personal matters: we do not talk about the past, our mistakes, our regrets. We speak around them, we traffic in allusion, and only then in private. We don’t commit the mistakes to paper. We do not send them off to Ivy League schools for strangers to read. We do not expose our family to outside judgment. I zipped up with a snort.

Back at my desk I stabbed the “reply” button. The cursor, blinking steadily, awaited my command. How to phrase my answer, how best to construct the biting remark, one that would return the hurt? Two seconds later I closed the empty e-mail. Somehow I had the sense to wait. I knew, keenly, the regret that would rise within me should I reply with anger. I remembered each moment in the past when I had fired off a venomous e-mail to others. I could remember each one because I regretted each one; they remained, vivid, a charm bracelet of poisoned words.

I did not reply that day. Instead I spent that day and the ensuing night picking apart Diane’s words, lifting each stone for her pale, skittering motives. She’s scared, I thought. Scared of the truth. Scared that I will write about her with less than favorable insight. I reminded myself that she had majored in journalism, and therefore her interest and experience in writing was with facts, not emotions. She focuses on the externals; the life lived through the five senses. Naturally she would link traveling the world with wisdom and authority. But, I thought righteously, there are two kinds of travelers; the kind that see the world, and the kind that map their own terrain of motive and imagination. I resented her implication that I was more naive in having less experience with the former, when she so clearly had failed to do much of the latter.

“A great writer,” she said, would write about more than just himself. I took exception to that statement. Clearly most great writers return to the same themes over and over in their work, themes that are by definition personal. I wanted to ask Diane which great writers she had in mind.

It’s only now, five weeks after her e-mail, that the roots of my rage are being revealed. Yes, there was the sense of rejection; that she would judge, if only indirectly, the personal nature of my writing as inferior to other kinds of writing. I had been tying my self-worth and identity to the act of writing, and her assessment stung.

But it now seems obvious to me that her words hit too close to home. For the past few months I’ve grown uneasy over the personal slant of my writing, and its inherent worth.

As I write this, there are several American military personnel being investigated for alleged abuses against the Iraqi prisoners they were “guarding” at the Abu Ghraib prison. Photographs documenting this abuse have been shown all over the world. The consequences of this scandal, as it’s being called, have yet to be fully determined. To say that the photos have damaged our already fragile reputation in the Muslim world would be an understatement. As one foreign policy expert said: “Those Americans who mistreated the prisoners may not have realized it, but they acted in the direct interests of al-Qaeda, the insurgents, and the enemies of the U.S.”

One can only imagine that at this moment the seven accused soldiers are questioning the bright idea of documenting their exploits with a camera. Several photographs have been discovered, with more to be revealed. One image in particular drew my immediate interest. It shows Hayder Sabbar Abd, one of the Iraqi prisoners, naked and hooded, his fingers laced on top of his head, his genitals pixilated for public consumption. Private Lynndie England, an American soldier, crouches next to him, pointing at his genitals and flashing the camera the “thumbs up” sign, her mischievous smile captured forever.

Of all the American soldiers under suspicion, Lynndie England is the one most often pictured in the photos. Another image shows her holding a leash attached to a dog collar around the neck of an Iraqi prisoner laying on the floor. I’m sure part of my interest in Lynndie is her gender. We expect such acts from men. From women we expect compassion. Gross generalizations, but Lynndie still seems an exception to the rule. Thus she is intriguing.

The sequence of events that led up to these photographs has yet to be determined. Were these soldiers acting on their own volition? Were their various commanders either aware or encouraging of such abuse? Were the pictures taken, as one soldier says, to show new prisoners what can happen if they disobey orders? Was Lynndie England acting under orders or was she, as she reportedly told her mother, “in the wrong place at the wrong time?”

Lynndie, it turns out, was romantically involved with fellow solider Specialist Charles Graner, who is acknowledged to be one of the natural “leaders” of the group, and a prison guard in civilian life. Did England act out of loyalty to Graner? Did she pose for the pictures in order to please him?

In his memoir of the Gulf War, Jarhead, Anthony Swofford opens the book with a description of his platoon readying for war, put on stand-by at Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base, in California’s Mojave Desert. They march together to the base barber for fresh high-and-tights.

Then we send a few guys downtown to rent all of the war movies they can get their hands on. They also buy a hell of a lot of beer. For three days we sit in our rec room and drink all of the beer and watch all of those damn movies, and we yell Semper fi and we head-butt and beat the crap out of each other and we get off on the various visions of carnage and violence and deceit, the rapings and killings and pillaging. We concentrate on the Vietnam films because it’s the most recent war, and the successes and the failures of that war helped write our training manuals.

He goes on:

…Vietnam films are all pro war, no matter what the supposed message, what Kubrick or Coppola or Stone intended. Mr. and Mrs. Johnson in Omaha or San Francisco or Manhattan will watch the films and weep and decide once and for all that war is inhumane and terrible, and they will tell their friends at church and their family this, but Corporal Johnson at Camp Pendleton and Sergeant Johnson at Travis Air Force Base and Seaman Johnson at Coronado Naval Station and Spec 4 Johnson at Fort Bragg and Lance Corporal Swofford at Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base watch the same films and are excited by them, because the magic brutality of the films celebrates the terrible and despicable beauty of their fighting skills. Fight, rape, war, pillage, burn. Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man.

Do Lynndie England and her fellow soldiers look at those photos and see images that the rest of us back home do not? Do they see the beautiful proof of their raping and pillaging? Or do they see themselves as protectors of America, punishing those who would destroy our country?

I certainly don’t have the answers to these questions. I wasn’t there. But even if I had been there, it wouldn’t have been the facts that interested me.

What I am interested in, what I keep returning to, is Lynndi’s smile. Perhaps she was acting under orders. Perhaps she was influenced by Specialist Charles Graner. Which may explain her presence in the photographs. But not the smile. She’s not faking the smile. It’s her smile that sends me over the edge; it overwhelms me with the evidence of the things people will do to each other, given a little bit of power. The smile, coupled with the idiotic “thumbs up” sign, infuriates me. Maybe Lynndie is smiling at her lover. Maybe she is acting out of frustration. Maybe she believes, like most Americans, that al-Qaeda was responsible for the September 11th terrorist attacks. Maybe her smile is one of triumph over the enemy. Or maybe it’s nothing more than the smile of a playground bully.

Looking at those photographs, I feel that I would do anything to distance myself from Lynndie England and her smile. I could never be her, and I could never do what she did.

In the days that followed the breaking story, the New York Times ran an article that touched upon the famous 1971 study at Stanford University that created a simulated prison in the basement of one of the campus buildings:

They randomly assigned 24 students to be either prison guards or prisoners for two weeks. Within days the “guards” had become swaggering and sadistic, to the point of placing bags over the prisoners’ heads, forcing them to strip naked and encouraging them to perform sexual acts. The landmark Stanford experiment and studies like it give insight into how ordinary people can, under the right circumstances, do horrible things — including the mistreatment of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq…

Dr. Philip G. Zimbardo, a leader of the Stanford prison study, said that while the rest of the world was shocked by the images from Iraq, “I was not surprised that it happened. I have exact, parallel pictures of prisoners with bags over their heads,” from the 1971 study, he said. At one point, he said, the guards in the fake prison ordered their prisoners to strip and used a rudimentary sex joke to humiliate them.
Professor Zimbardo ended the experiment the next day, more than a week earlier than planned.

Prisons, where the balance of power is so unequal, tend to be brutal and abusive places unless great effort is made to control the guards’ base impulses, he said. At Stanford and in Iraq, he added: “It’s not that we put bad apples in a good barrel. We put good apples in a bad barrel. The barrel corrupts anything that it touches.”

Am I fooling myself, then? Would I, in Lynndie’s shoes, become equally corrupted? I could tell you all the reasons that I’m not Lynndie England, beginning with my sexuality, the scrawny arms of my childhood, the wrestling room. But maybe it’s just a thin string of circumstance that separates us, beginning with my liberal, highly educated parents, who impressed upon me the benefits of education. College was a given. I had opportunities that many people never had. People like me rarely end up in the military, because people like me can afford a different life. Maybe I would end up like every other apple, should I be a soldier.

Maybe it was never in my nature to join the military; maybe my aversion to violence is innate. Or maybe it grew as I grew. Maybe after a few incidents like the one in the wrestling room I realized that one has to choose one’s battles. There are some battles you will always lose. No matter the intensity of your motivation, no matter the earnestness of your dreams, there are limits you can’t transcend. I would lose most of my battles in the physical world. And who doesn’t want to win? So, over time, encouraged by my mother and the occasional English teacher, I chose to fight within the limits of imagination. I avoided the wrestling rooms, the football fields, the schoolyard scrapes of childhood. I fought with language, if only because I could sometimes claim victory.

It’s not true that I hadn’t traveled a bit, that I hadn’t seen a bit of the world. I traveled twice to Nicaragua when I was in high school, during the Contra War, during the Reagan years. The first trip, at age fifteen, was with a group of fellow teenagers, an exchange project organized by a Minneapolis nonprofit. The second, at age seventeen, was a solo return trip.

There was a boy there, slightly older than me, who lived down the street in the small villa where I stayed with the other Americans. Each of us stayed with a separate family. There was a small set of steps on the concrete path that cut through the center of the villa. Each house faced this center path, each house with a small dirt yard where the families would gather at night. Scattered palm trees stretched overhead. Each evening, as the sky grew dusky and violet and heavy with stars, I sat out on the steps with Alfredo. From the inner courtyard of my host family’s house were the sounds of chickens clucking. Across the path lived the only family rich enough to own a radio. Voices singing in Spanish drifted down to us; the Cathedral bells rang, woven through the snatches of song. I knew very little Spanish, and Alfredo knew no English. We pieced together conversation the best we could, Alfredo often acting out various stories for me; half-imaginary tales of romancing girls, fighting boys, a treacherous encounter with a penned-up bull. He bragged about the brave way he’d take on the Contras, once he was drafted. He’d stand, facing me, holding an imaginary rifle. I sat on the steps, watching his mouth move, his white teeth flashing around his words. Once he placed his hands on my knees and leaned his weight against me. No boy had ever touched me like that. I hid from him my enormous affection, sitting on those steps; face calm, nerves singing.

It was there that I first became aware of the disparity that often exists between reality and the world that our government paints for us. Everyone that I met in Nicaragua asked me to return to the States and tell the government to stop supporting the Contras. And for awhile I tried. I wrote stories of the trip for my school paper. I presented slide shows, set to sentimental folk music, to classes and church groups. I participated in street demonstrations, getting arrested once in downtown Minneapolis. When it seemed likely that the US would send troops to the Nicaraguan border, I attended an information session on becoming a conscientious objector.

But the enormous apathy that greeted most of my actions was discouraging. My adolescent idealism was countered and scorned by some of my fellow classmates, who had no knowledge of the war’s particulars, who were merely inclined to believe whatever the president said because, well, he was the president.

And then Alfredo was drafted into the war. Days later, in a truck headed for the war zone, his troop was ambushed by the Contras. He was killed.

I understood, with finality, the limits of idealism. I felt only despair. I could march with thousands in Washington D.C. to protest our intervention in Central America, but it didn’t matter. There were millions who would counter us with bloodlust and willful ignorance, and they would always win.

I grew to hate the trappings of the activist culture; bowls of tasteless brown rice in organic cafes and co-ops. The smell of stale incense and patchouli in Socialist bookstores. The gentle, foolish nature of boys with blond dreadlocks. Peace rallies with folding tables displaying obscure newsletters and anarchist bumper stickers curling at the edges. I turned my back on the lost causes of activism; they brought nothing but frustrated pain.

And the memory of this surrender still shames me, as if, having returned to the luxury of the States, I no longer cared about Alfredo and the others I knew. But my experiences in Nicaragua had consequences that outlasted my despair. I know the incredible wealth that our country takes for granted, and since that trip I’ve cultivated a healthy suspicion for our foreign policies. I have notebooks full of memories from those trips. The writing contains heavily veiled references to my unrequited love for Alfredo. I was, after all, fifteen and hiding in the closet. But the intensity of that love spilled over and touched everything I saw down there. I loved, in romantic, adolescent fashion, his city and his country and his language. I loved the generosity of my host family and the easy, gentle forms of physical affection between men. When I heard of our bombing in Iraq, the campaign of “shock and awe”, I pictured the villa and the palm trees and the steps where we sat.

Activism still seems to me a lost cause. The forces of evil, backed by money and indifference, usually prevail. But thrusting my head beneath the sand no longer seems adequate. One could take refuge in popular culture or beauty, the sterile art of aesthetics, but those are false realms; the barest breath of reality knocks flat their paper walls.

I wish, as Diane implied, that writing with conviction about the world was as simple as taking a few trips. Perhaps she meant that I should take more trips like hers: the package tours and the cruise ships, the postcard spots that travelers collect like souvenirs to prove their sophistication. “Seeing the world” meant Paris and Dublin and Alaska, not Managua.

I’m writing this in a coffee shop on Noe Street, at a table in the window. The late afternoon sun pokes fingers through the leaves of the tall tree outside. The wind tosses the branches, and the sun plays across the tabletop, like light thrown off the surface of a pool. I’ve discovered, contrary to my previous belief, that I can write in coffee shops. I’ve come here everyday for the last three days. It gives me the feeling of going to work, and I escape the depression and isolation that I so frequently slip into at home. I look up and every person in here has a laptop. It’s the good kind of peer pressure. There’s a framed poster, from the Bay Guardian’s 1995 annual survey, proclaiming the coffee shop as the best place to cruise nerdy gay guys.

In the bathroom the wall is covered with graffiti in true San Francisco fashion: the messages are mostly political, left-leaning rabble rousing; blanket statements and declarations of the Bush Administration’s inadequacies, violence in Israel, gay marriage. Every statement seems to me naive and self-righteous. I smile only at the dirty messages: “Good Head for Bad Boys”, a local number scrawled below.

Maybe, Diane said, you will feel more comfortable writing about things beside yourself, once you’ve traveled more. Maybe she’s right. But facts interest me less than human nature, which defies easy answers. The more I see, the more is called into question. Declarations seem inadequate, easily opposed. Lynndie England is reportedly pregnant with Charles Graner’s child. She has been reassigned to Fort Bragg. Soon, if she keeps the child, she will be a mother. One cannot simply explain away a torturer’s smile. Look, I want to tell Diane, I don’t get more comfortable, the more I see. There are only more questions, and between them the intricate dance we perform to stay on our feet.

As the hours passed after opening Diane’s e-mail, my anger cooled, the cloud cover broke, and I grew wistful. It seemed as though our reconciliation, the growing bond between us, had reached its limits. The possibilities were finite. I had misjudged her introversion, her core sense of quiet, for introspection. I had forgotten why I had always preferred my mother’s company over nearly everyone else in the family. My mother understood that part of me; she encouraged the introspection. She “got me” at the most fundamental level, because she too explored the terrain of the imagination. She would lose her glasses, her wallet, her keys. The external world of the five senses was her obstacle course. But she understood emotions and the tangled skein of relationships. Perhaps I hoped, unreasonably, that with enough time Diane would take my mother’s place. I sold us all short.

We continue to correspond, but the exchange has returned, if only temporarily, to a more superficial level. We talk about moving, school, the weather. She tells me about the renovations on her townhouse. I resolve to accept Diane as she is, and to guard against my tendency to judge others who fail to show a talent for introspection. That in itself may be a lost cause; after all, who doesn’t secretly believe that their way of seeing the world is the most honest? And here I am, betraying Diane, using her words to paint myself the victor.

Last Thursday evening I walked down the hill from my house to the Castro. A friend of mine, whose first book of poetry had won a prestigious prize, was giving a reading at a bookstore on Market Street. I sat in the bookstore’s back room on a folding chair, listening. His poetry reminded me of the inherent beauty of words, each line condensing and polishing language, each poem a deft construction of idea and emotion.

Afterwards I felt remarkably alive, buzzing with energy, my senses heightened. I climbed back up the hill slowly, deliberately. I yearned to describe the world I saw around me, the landscape and the people who fascinate and trouble me. My mind wrestled with the delicate play of words. Behind me the houses fell away. I turned to see the evening city spread out; the shimmering lights on the bridge, a plane descending over the bay. I turned back towards my house; the moon cast my shadow on the path before me, and I struggled to find the words to tell you this. And the struggle was impossible, exquisite, and complete.