In ’36 in Spain, on the losing side, we realized we couldn’t give more than we had. We’d almost given everything: you were in a field hospital with a bullet in your thigh and we were arguing over how deeply we should be involved. We’d already lived so long and I thought we should be more than just footpads serving time.
Back then we argued so much we almost lost one another. “Small changes can only be effective from the ground up,” you insisted. We were fighting the fascists because we were almost still young, or maybe because by then we were in the habit of following Jonah and the twins Alex and Alexi. Nearly twenty years after the Great War, Jonah still sometimes professed to believe being on the front line was important.
But later, when we went to Rwanda, Jonah was killed. I refuse to remember the year. It was somewhere in the 1990s genocide. It is a stupid waste of time to think about, to fantasize a different outcome, but sometimes he could move people, sway them. You and I are just mercenaries, smugglers infected with the occasional flash of morality. We met Jonah in 1898 in London, 1915 in Vienna. In Anatolia in 1917 we realized he was one of us. He was always our better: he became our heart.
The five of us were in a Land Cruiser. I was driving. Alex and Alexi were catnapping as usual. Jonah jumped out to check directions. Right now we are in a car in Syria. I had the car running. Then Jonah was running; then they were running. Then I was driving—we were shooting, running. This time I am reading the map and you are driving. Since Jonah’s death I’ve been obsessive about maps, directions, contact numbers, fire doors. I’m still surprised how much people can disgust me.
Our apartment on 57th Street is high up and looks away from the park. We bought it many booms and busts ago. Loretta has taken care of it since the ’60s. She’s seen us coming home as the last pieces of a different iteration were fading. She habitually lets family and friends use and abuse the apartment until I call to say we’ll be back on such and such a date. “Can you meet me at JFK?” I’ll ask. (¿Puede usted satisfacerme en JFK?) She never does. When we’ve gone through customs and she hasn’t met us again, I vacillate. You whisper (you’re tired) “Mass transit” and instead of thinking of the subway I invariably remember the Latin mass where we were married. 1813, Rome. I persuade you to split a cab with some other Manhattanite as tired as us. We are changing by then. But listening to the cabby murmuring into his phone it’s always hard to remember how to speak English.
In Syria we’re just getting organized—we’re different from what we were. We used to concentrate on redistributing money but now we’re all about tools and allocation: satellite-linked phones and laptops, video cameras, education, and anything we think might be the trigger for change. Comics. Skateboards for girls. It’s not about teaching people to fish; more demonstrating that fish isn’t the only food. We link teachers to students. Last year we traveled more than usual: Seattle, Port au Prince, Genoa, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bhutan, Birmingham, UK, Birmingham, AL.
We arrive in these places, Alex, Alexi, you and I, and locate some short-timer support: we watch, listen, slowly merge into the crowd. Alex and Alexi are so attuned to one another and the world that they’re always first to adjust. It took me years to notice how one would instantly reflect the other’s slightest change. How they’re always oriented toward each other. To the short-timers, we disappear. If they ask, we tell them we go in country. Their eyes go wide and they nod. They think perhaps one day we’ll teach them how. We used to return to our op center and talk to them, pretend we were locals. But that was a long time ago. Our sense of humor has changed.
Since Jonah, we’ve never met any others like us. The short-timers can never be as we are. Sometimes they ask questions—never the right questions—and we stare them down. I ask them “How can we speak of this?” and they nod, understanding nothing.
I ask myself the same question. Even now. But here I am, speaking.
We change because we did it once and since then we always have. We change. We never get old.
We rent rooms. We are never short of money. We dress for our parts. We enjoy shopping. We walk the streets. We’ve never joined a gym. We wait in cafés: we have outwaited death, we can outwait waiters. We slowly drift into local life.
We become our new selves. We practice eating with one hand, swearing with the other, ordering local specialties without reading menus, spitting when certain names are spoken, praising the resident Great One, the adroit method of cab hailing, averting our eyes when fools walk by, men walking to the right of women. Local customs settle deep inside.
“Revolution comes from within,” you once said. I knew you were quoting, but I swear the abundant French wine had addled my memory.
“Jesus,” I said. “Marx, Steve Albini, Henry Ford?” The table and the world were spinning; we revolved around Alex and Alexi, around one another.
When Jonah died we changed. Alex and Alexi took pity on us. They got us out of Africa, pampered us in the Alps. Then they’d flown us to see wars in Chechnya, Bosnia, and Sri Lanka, and held us back from involvement. They’d shown us by pure weight of numbers that short-timers’ deaths were the natural run of business, and we came to understand that for our lives to be on the line, what we were doing had to be important. If it wasn’t, we should stop.
We were cold to one another. We grew calluses that we took with us wherever we went. We had never had anything permanent before, besides one another. Alex and Alexi ignored the distance between us. They were forever foreign, inscrutable; we never were.
We had tried stepping lightly on the earth. We had dallied, played. We became active and purposeful. We began to seed change in the very ground, distribute tools and sometimes weapons, spread communication and devices for same, teach quick lessons, encourage dispute and discussion, bring teachers to those wanting to be taught. We provided the possibility of ignoring borders and government firewalls—virtual or physical. It was a heady thing.
We followed our dream. Something nebulous about planetary carrying capacity, local food and education, peace and slowing birth rates—since half the babies will no longer be lost to war and famine.
We are sitting, not talking, sipping small glasses of water, waiting for the café owner to bring us the morning’s first demitasse of sweet Arabic coffee. I’ve always hated sugar in my coffee. From my seat I can see the boiling water and sugar mixture rise up and the practiced move he uses to take the rakweh off the boil. Our dream is far away and hard to recall. He adds two spoons of fresh ground coffee, puts it back on the flame. I don’t know anyone in this country and I can’t yet distinguish revolutionaries from party men. The man (poet, warrior, old guard, new wave?) pulls the pot off again to let the foam subside. He has to boil the coffee three times to produce the proper amount of thick sludge at the bottom, the thin froth at the top. You daringly touch your foot to the tip of mine and say, “Alex and Alexi and I will do this. Go to Damascus. Maybe you’ll be converted.”
“The Azem Palace, the Straight Street . . .” I say. We were here fifty-some years ago.
“Come now,” you say. “There are digs. Water wheels. Mosques. More than enough to make you dizzy.” You are still whispering, as you should. I wanted to be the woman this time, but wanting has little effect. “It won’t be long until we’ll find out where best to leave our little packages.”
“Conduits to unexpected futures,” I say, quoting your enthusiasm from before we arrived.
“He who foretells the future lies, even if he tells the truth,” you say. I don’t know whom you’re quoting, but it fits the rhythm of this language. The café owner slowly pours our coffees. He won’t look at you; I long to.
Is it nothing but memory that the two years in France, just before Rwanda, were our best? Now I can’t extract the one time from the other. Always I see Jonah drinking with me in Paris, among the dead on the streets of Kigali.
It took a year to slowly and expensively deduce Habib No-Last-Name’s existence; almost another year to arrange a meeting. At first we had thought we were watching the emergence of a new group. “One man,” I said, and Jonah raised a glass. He was an egoist and had a penchant for the great-man view of history. You eventually agreed that perhaps all the signs, signature actions, skilled lack of repetition and weaknesses, pointed to a single incredibly smart and hard-to-find man.
Alex and Alexi were in Rouen infiltrating what we’d thought was a sister group to our theoretical Parisian group. We’d come in as Algerians, but Paris wouldn’t acknowledge us, so we took a trip to Belgium and became white middle-class European intelligentsia. I was short, squat, balding, given to tanktops and ABD forever. You were tall, lithe, dreamy, and teaching Alternate Middle Eastern Viewpoints. Jonah drove a cab, played at being a dropout, never combed his hair, and experimented with body odor. We were disenfranchised, disingenuous, dis-this, dissing that.
Late one night in Café de Flore (we never waited in bars) we were drinking espresso and lazily arguing the pros and cons of existentialism when Jonah came over with his arm around a small, intense woman—teacher? unionist? pharmacist?—who said she’d followed us from the afternoon’s anti-Pen protest. She quizzed us far into the early morning, never once dropping her flirtatious manner. When she left, we laughed at Jonah’s dour face. But he was right, we never heard from her again.
The next afternoon an envelope was slipped under our apartment door. Letters cut from magazines told us where to meet our man. We were excited. I wanted to call Alex and Alexi but you counseled patience.
Two of us were to wait on the steps of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle at three the next day. We drew straws and Jonah drew short. He shrugged and said he’d wanted to waste a morning at the Jardin du Luxembourg. We made him promise he’d stay away from the meeting. Later he told us he’d spent the day looking for the woman who had contacted us and that night he’d even returned to Café de Flore. He met a woman, but it wasn’t her.
We were ten minutes early for the appointment. At three a man approached and asked us the way to the nearest Métro. He had a broad Brazilian accent. We were sure this was not Habib. We asked which station he wanted and discussed which were close. Eventually all the passwords were exchanged and he gave us directions to a café where we were to wait the next morning.
We went back to our tiny apartment and amused ourselves by drawing the outlines of one another’s bodies on the bedroom wall. We discussed moral relativism and how (and why) plate tectonic theory should be applied to politics. “Are you merely a prophet of the Western way?” you asked.
I cursed you in our temporary native tongue, “May your penis shrivel, your teeth fall out, and your tongue grow as long as a cow’s! Strike me from this city of bestialists if I am nothing more than a footpad of the capitalist hegemony.”
You added your newly elongated tongue to the picture on the wall and began adding suggestive arrows in case I didn’t understand.
Later, without the distraction or the consequences of our attempts at outsider art, when we met Habib, he asked a similar question.
His table was bare but for a tiny pink admirably hard-to-acquire Nokia videophone. He was short, perhaps five feet three, with a crinkled look around his eyes that showed either a dislike of sunglasses or a good sense of humor. He dressed like us—forgettably—and looked up from Le Monde as if surprised to see us. He pressed the call button on the Nokia.
“You understand, of course?”
We nodded and also understood this was not his only precaution. Later, when you and he were deep in negotiations, I entertained myself trying to spot his people, but they were either far away, non-existent, or very good.
He stood, shook our hands, bowed a hello.
“We live in hope,” I said, meaning to go on and say something about trust breaking down borders.
Habib shrugged. “This is part of Paris I haven’t seen?”
We were delighted. So few revolutionaries have a sense of humor.
“We’ve been following your work,” I said, and you sat back, content for the moment to listen. “Although it has taken a long time to find you.”
Habib almost smiled. He would be a hard man to convince.
“Times have changed,” I said. “You’ve seen your people arrested, their homes raided and everything taken from them. The price of resistance on the resisters and the populace is too high. But we both know that isn’t really important: it’s the transaction itself that’s flawed.”
Life carried on around us. The café–four small, wrought-iron tables outside, four inside–was quiet. Habib waved to the owner, asked for tea. We ordered café au lait and croissants. It would be hard to leave Paris.
When breakfast was delivered the owner lingered and Habib offered his paper.
“Merci, monsieur,” the man said, shaking his head. “My own never survives breakfast.”
“It’s complicated,” Habib said, when the proprietor had settled himself at a table inside. We knew Habib wasn’t his real name, but we also knew that was unimportant. We had left our original names behind long ago.
“We want so much,” he said, “and there are certain pressures for more immediate results. But I remain unconvinced.”
Habib pushed his tea away. We remembered breakfast in Algeria—chickpea soup over fresh baguette with a soft-boiled egg and homemade harissa sauce—and sympathized.
“So many civil wars have been fought this way,” he said. “But how many won? How can we gain public support if the public itself is our target?”
Habib’s practice, the masterstroke that had brought us to Paris, was to plant bombs that never exploded. Café society theorized that only one of his bombs—in the Latona Fountain in Versailles—had been live. Latona lost a hand and a couple of the villagers-turned-frogs were broken. You didn’t believe it had been Habib. We never got to ask.
Habib’s bombs were real and deadly, but he never attached detonators. He’d sidestepped the traditional notification approaches. Instead he sent mass emails from one-time accounts and posted to mobile phone text lists. Readers forwarded his messages all over Paris—and all around the world—within minutes. He dead-dropped leaflets and posters to an anarchist collective who distributed them last-minute at Métro stations. No matter how efficient the police were, the bomb squad were always the last to arrive, having had to fight through crowds who brought central Paris to a standstill.
The almost-bombings were art installations, tourist attractions, political theory lectures, and the hottest ticket in town. Habib’s job became harder as the public competed with the police to find the bombs before his announcements. The finders became nine-day wonders themselves. His leaflets and postcards were instant collectibles, and some of the earliest Minitel political sites were born in the forums devoted to deconstructing his political message. Habib had engaged Paris the way it wanted to be engaged: intelligently, with style, finesse, and a frisson of danger. The government continually ordered the public to go home: the bombs might be the first step in an operation that eventually would produce a death toll that was, at that time, inconceivably high. Paris weighed the risks, ignored the warnings, and waited for the payoff—all the while half-expecting a copycat bomber who wouldn’t hold back.
“What do you want from me?” he asked. “My people are not European, neither do we want to be. My friends and I look to the future and see the first socialist Arabic nation, where, Insh’Allah, we will take our people, our land, and our oil and become great in our own right. A great nation which will keep the West at arm’s length.”
He watched us and we were quiet. “Why do I need you?” he asked.
“We need you,” you said. “You can act. We can live anywhere, but we cannot settle. We can’t forge a past, a history, a lifetime of acceptance. Family.”
I kicked your shin.
“We want what you have, what we can’t have.”
“I have no family,” said Habib. We all knew it was almost the truth.
“Neither do we.” The truth.
It was the break, the crack through which he could see into us and see why we were here listening. His total stillness encapsulated his lifetime of frustration at the never-ending bloody war ruining his country. He saw us watching; he saw others looking away.
When he left the café, Habib took a cashier’s check made out to Argent, our list of suppliers, and our contact information. But we knew we wouldn’t hear from him again. We could wear the bodies and speak the language, but we weren’t the revolution. The revolution is forever beginning one or two people at a time. We could only be always attempting to bring it from latency to actuality. We can only always hope the costs won’t be too high. We are often wrong.
Habib returned to Algeria in ’99 and, among other things, became the anonymous patron of a number of faith-based social justice groups. He was assassinated in ’01. When the news reached the West, eighteen months later, a compatriot mailed his sharp and concise posthumous letter to Le Monde and the story of his anti-bombings became more popular than ever. I think of him often.
Loretta scorns our central A/C and leaves the windows open. Last time we were home, as I went around closing windows, I thought I could hear someone on the street, screaming. I’m blessed with good hearing but out there was New York City so I thought I had to be imagining it. All I could make out was “Shit” and “Motherfuckers”—it was important to this man that even I, twelve floors up, heard how unhappy he was. No wonder we’re busy.
I doubt I was the only one awake at five-thirty on a Tuesday morning but no one else was listening even if they could hear. He disappeared when I closed the last window.
In the late 1970s, because the best hotels demand (and check) references, résumé-building took us to Italy almost three years before our targets would arrive. I liked you Mediterranean and you told me the same. I don’t think you knew you were lying—you always choose Scandinavia for vacations. “I love the way your hair piles up on top of your head,” you said. “It’s as thick and wiry as your accent.”
I slowly let the accent go and became a cosmopolitan Florencian, a girl on the up and up—up at six every morning with fifteen rooms to do before lunch. Paperwork is easy to fake: cleaning a room hungover while keeping up on the gossip takes practice.
The other women thought I was sleeping with the manager, Pietro, and we didn’t discourage them. The girls were solicitous to you, the country husband being cuckolded by his hardheaded wife.
I quit, and the women supposed I’d been dumped by Pietro. Two days later you apologized to Pietro and explained that you had to follow your wife. “Let there be no mistake,” you told me Pietro said, taking pity on you, “your wife is a beautiful young woman who should be treated well or else you will lose her.” I wouldn’t let you forget that one for years.
Two more hotels, four and eleven months, respectively, and then we applied for positions at our target: a discreet mid-sized pension near the business district.
They needed waitresses. I was hired immediately. There was a sous chef position open and, until you met the head chef, you were interested. Instead, you became the general manager’s gofer—a position with no power but a high profile, not what either of us were looking for, but it was a foot in the door.
You enjoyed the pressure, the lack of real responsibility, the continual crises, and the tension between the front and back of the house. We both enjoyed the uniforms. We drank Chianti after work with the rest of the staff and then wasted good sleeping hours exploring each other’s bodies again and again. New countries, you reminded me, late at night, exhausted, exhilarated, lead to new bodies.
Eight months later—long enough for me to have moved to a better station in the restaurant—with the pension nearly empty during the off-season, you checked in the people we had been waiting for. We knew they would stay for three weeks planning campaigns for the next few years before returning to their ordinary lives in Austria, Germany, Hungary, and further.
We emptied our rooms and dumped everything but the necessities far from the pension. When you took over reception for the night shift, we hid our travel bags behind the front desk. I was relieved to be wearing flats again. We had tired of the tight uniforms. I had mapped the most economical route to all the rooms. You used your master key and we went silently and efficiently from room to room and killed each and every guest, gluing the locks behind us. We had marked their trip wires and disabled their silent alarms that morning. One couple were awake. While I pretended drunkenness and they reached for weapons you stepped in and shot them both. Some of the guests had to be innocents but we did not stop. Neither we nor any of our sources had ever been able to conclusively pinpoint all the members of this group. The group were never heard from again. We had decided long before that the price was reasonable.
When a job was over and we moved on, we discarded the topical parts of ourselves we’d custom-built for the situation.
“Prune the self,” you said. Your knuckles were white and all but the smallest most-adrenalized part of your attention was intent on the road as we skipped out of Mother Russia ahead of the Stalinists. “Reshape the garden of yourself.”
“What if,” I asked, “we forget what’s original and what are additions?”
I hadn’t enjoyed our time in the newly Sovietized Union. It was supposed to be a new era, a new land, where women and men were equal. We had heard differently and gone in to investigate. Three months later and if it hadn’t been for a good-hearted poet we’d either have been dead or in a gulag.
“Unlikely but unlucky,” you said. “When it’s gone, it’s gone. Just hope that the you you are is the one you wanted to be and not someone else.”
Not very comforting.
“Topiarist,” I said. But I was happy to be leaving. I opened my cardboard suitcase and started throwing our Worker’s Collective clothes out the window.
“No one else is being forced to wear these things,” I said. “You hated them, remember?”
Since meeting in 1811 in France (after which, Napoleon was always my favorite dictator) we’d always at least liked one another. Especially if we forget the 1940s—you limped from your Spanish War wound and I was running, always running; unable to believe I couldn’t stop another end of the world. But every marriage needs a break, and the cultural constrictions, the black lists, and the heavy reliance on martinis just to survive the ’50s in the USA were enough to bring us back together.
We called the period of acclimatizing ourselves to the local culture the construction phase. We didn’t have a phrase for what happened afterward. We were always building up, never breaking down. We took long holidays. We island-hopped the Caribbean, walked the West Highland Way, skied in Norway.
Now I don’t remember how to feel like me. In the mirror I see an unrecognizable face—something that isn’t age suddenly settling in. Behind it there’s nothing I recognize as me. Just an agglomeration of survival behaviors, mental maps, and habits too abrasive to be worn away. Is there anything left of nature or is it all now just nurture? I’m only getting harder and narrower within.
Alex and Alexi like to bet long shots. They like to allocate a certain amount of tools to fascists or communists, aristocrats and monarchists, pro-business Astroturf non-profits, agrari-libertarians and populists. Even here in Syria they go off to find radicals, playing their side bets, while we wait in each new town hoping to find the men and women who might one day run for village selectperson. Those who have, stored high above a wadi far from here but with fingerprints all over the cases, the remnants of a library their father, grandmother, friend’s brother knew of and which they couldn’t see destroyed.
“There’s no harm in it,” says Alex. When we travel we often share a room. They’re kind to us and after a day like this, always anticipating sirens or a tap on the shoulder, we try not to argue with them. He won’t tell us where they went, what they did.
Alexi is reading email on her phone. She shoots me a smile without looking up. She knows I’m watching her while the two of you argue.
From 1964-72 the four of us lived in Israel. There were too many other effects and actors; everything we did went for naught. Alexi has a list—although she hasn’t gone through it since Jonah’s death—of all the other places we might have been, jobs we could have done in those years.
What I want to say to Alex is that there will be damage and he and I both know it. We each have our private games and survival techniques. He is taller than me in this country, although we have been with each other so long that it takes an effort to really see his physical appearance. Alex and Alexi are much older than us. We’ve never found out how much older. As far as we know they are twins: they always look alike and each tilts slightly toward one gender. We wondered sometimes if, like us, they swapped that, too, but a decade or so ago I realized they didn’t. When we met them they were lovers. We were young enough—in our fifties, not yet knowing how long we would live—to be horrified. Now they call themselves “old-marrieds” and laugh. After Rwanda they were kinder than we deserved. I will never leave them unless they ask me to.
How did we end up on this path? You’ve given up on Alex and done that thing where you’re suddenly deeply asleep on the bed beside me. Alexi and Alex are discussing whether to go to the souk tomorrow. No matter what they do, their conversation is always superficial, light. Of course we will go, we go every day. They stop talking and watch me. I am breathing heavily, heart heavy, the air pressing down on me. They come over and Alexi pulls me to my feet, hugs me. Alex holds us both. I am small and old and tired and nothing you or I have done has made a difference.
Alexi kisses me lightly on the cheek. “Don’t worry, child,” she says, and Alex moves away from us. I hear him fumbling for something on the table. Alex never fumbles, and I think something is wrong.
“Is it time?” I ask, not looking up. I’ve always thought Alex and Alexi wouldn’t leave us alive if they left.
Alexi unwraps herself from me.
“No,” she says. “That time’s past.”
Alex sits on the edge of their bed. “Remember Berlin?”
I nod, sit. In the early ’60s, before Israel, we were going back through the wall. When you answered a question there was something wrong with your accent and suddenly all the guns were pointed at us.
“We could have let you go there,” Alex says. Alexi nods, puts her feet in Alex’s lap and he begins to rub them. “That was the last time we really considered it.”
Rwanda, I think—I am always thinking. Rwanda and Jonah. Jonah and his women; always women. I am crying.
“You amuse us,” Alex says. He’s trying to be cruel, but Alexi won’t let him.
“Yes,” she says. “But you keep us busy. Rub the instep, Alex. Why won’t you learn?”
Alex and Alexi go on talking quietly as they prepare for bed. I lie next to you. Whoever you are, I always wake next to you. At home Loretta’s family will be snubbing the doorman and hoping this time we won’t come back. Loretta knows that if anything happens to us she will inherit our apartment. She knows we’ll never have children, just in case they’re like us.
I lie beside you. In this country my body enjoys the night heat, but I won’t miss it when we leave.
“We Are Never Where We Are,” by Gavin J. Grant, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.
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