Tamara Adoni looked at her watch.
“Don't worry. It's not far,” said the General. “Besides, he'll wait. You're his only passenger.”
Tamara squinted. “How can you even tell where we're going?”
“I remember what it looked like before drought. Before famine. Before war. Before we began our liberation.”
Tamara looked away from him.
“You still can't stand it when we call it that, can you? ‘Liberation.’”
“By now you know that I am not a political person, General.”
“’General.’ Never ‘Mike,’” he chuckled. “Don't you think we've gotten a little past General, Tamara. I'd like to think that our...our intimacies...and our friendship have made you more comfortable with me.”
“General...Mike...to me, you've shown nothing but kindness. You and the Lieutenant have escorted me safely through hell. I do know the value of that.”
“Ah, then I am to be esteemed only as your Charon on the River Styx. Well, I suppose that's still something.”
They approached the airfield. A prop plane awaited, a bored pilot in civilian clothing dangling a leg from the open door of the cockpit. The Lieutenant lifted Tamara's heavy backpack for her as the General picked up two smaller black leather cases. He anticipated her warning.
“Don't worry. I know. Fragile. They are everything to you.”
Tamara warily took the camera bags from him. “Thank you,” she said. “I’ll take these on my lap.”
“Precious cargo, those memory cards. Sorry our uplink was so slow. You can upload the rest, perhaps, at Orly. Show them to the world. Let the people see our resolve. We are not ashamed of our commitment, even if it is, at times, unsightly.” He sighed and put his hand to her cheek. “I guess this is goodbye. It's amazing, your face. Soft and clean as the face of a baby,” he said. “It's as if you were immune to the heat, the filth. The dust is afraid to touch you. But I'm not.”
He pulled her toward him and kissed her. She didn’t resist. She didn’t quite respond, either. The Lieutenant looked away from them uncomfortably.
“Will you still despise me when I'm president?” the General asked. “Or will you want the first exclusive photo essay?” There was, in his eyes, a glimmer of something less than kind.
He kissed her again, more forcefully. She parted her lips for him, not in passion, but in a complete and humiliating surrender.
He laughed, grimly. “You know better than to burn your bridges.”
The general signaled to the pilot, who came and took the backpack and loaded it into an outside hatch.
“He'll see you through customs,” said the General.
From the air, Tamara saw the General and the Lieutenant drive off into the scorched and ravaged plain.
Eric met her in DC, the airport gleaming and expansive. He was in a suit, but his tie was loosened. A tight hug. A kiss.
“God I missed you. You look so beautiful. One would never know what you've been through. But you must be exhausted. Here, let me take the pack.”
On the way home, she looked out at the sleek freeway. “We take so much for granted,” she said.
“A little culture shock, huh?”
She still clutched her camera bags.
“Tamara, no one's going to steal them while we're driving to your apartment, you know. You could put them in the back seat.”
“Force of habit.”
“The Hope diamond, huh?”
“Pandora's box, more like it. I uploaded many of them while I waited for my connection in Paris. But not all of them, and I have to make dupes on my hard drive as soon as we get home. I have a lot of editing to do. There’s a lot of drek, but lots of keepers too.”
In bed that night, still in another time zone, she lay awake. She kissed his temple, unwrapped his arm from her waist, sat up, and rubbed her eyes. She pulled on her panties and a T-shirt and tiptoed quietly out of the room.
A dozen award trophies watched over her in the tidy study as she opened the laptop and started scrolling through her images from the Africa assignment. She found a little lint or something on the screen and with a quick exhale blew it away.
It glided back.
Eric had woken. Quietly, a bedsheet pulled around him, he watched Tamara, who blew again and then again onto the screen.
He came to her from behind and put his arms around her. She jumped.
“I'm sorry...I...Are you OK?”
“Yes, I'm fine. I'm sorry. You startled me.”
He kissed her temple. “I'm so happy you're back. I have to go. National desk meets in an hour.”
“Right. God. You're an editor now. I keep forgetting you’ve gone over to the dark side. I could make you some coffee while you shower. I left some in the freezer. There's no milk, though. I'll have to get groceries today.”
“That's all right. I'll get something on the way. You’re not giving yourself a break? Nose right to the grindstone? You’ve been on assignment for five months, for God's sake. Take a little time.”
“No. I have to edit these for the banquet. They said they want some of the new ones for the presentation.”
“Oh, yeah. I forgot.” Eric looked over at the awards. “But that’s not for a few weeks, right?”
“Yeah, I know,” she said. “I’m a little compulsive.”
“No kidding.” Eric smiled.
“Well, I have about eight thousand images to wade through.”
“Seriously. Maybe more.”
“Well, one more award to add to your collection,” he said. “I’m so proud of you, honey.”
She didn’t answer, and she couldn’t meet his eyes. He headed toward the bathroom, and she got back to work.
Through the next hours, she had to remind herself to stop to pee or have a snack or stretch. From the endless stream of images, she selected, she cropped, she adjusted white balance or contrast. A few she thought worked better in black and white.
Some were innocuous. Routine. The General and his Lieutenant, arms around each other’s shoulders in a makeshift field headquarters. The general's troops eating their rations in a dingy mess tent.
But then came the displaced, starving refugees trekking along a dry and desolate road. Dying, famished children, skeletal adults, some maimed, blind, wounded. Some missing limbs. Some prone, covered in excrement and blood.
Then an image of the General and the Lieutenant in the front of the jeep, taken by Tamara from her seat in the back. The stills on the screen bled into the movie playing in her mind.
The jeep leading a convoy. The village largely deserted and destroyed. The sudden rattle of automatic gunfire. The soldier next to her suddenly slumped in his seat, a small deep wet hole in his neck.
The panic among the soldiers in the convoy as the sniper or snipers continued to pick several of them off. Only the General looking eerily calm, standing in the jeep, casually picking up a large automatic rifle and spraying bullets at the ramshackle huts from where the sniper fire seemed to be coming. The General leaping out of his jeep, running over to the jeep behind him. Pushing away the soldier holding the grenade launcher. Grabbing it. Turning it toward the huts. The huts disappearing in a sorcerer’s inferno.
Tamara’s mental film snapped as she spotted more nuisance dust gliding slowly, jauntily, insistently across the desk, across the screen. Again, she blew at it. her breaths nudging it slightly away for an instant before it danced back toward the violent glowing images. Then more dust, from a different direction. She stood and slid shut a slightly open window. But apparently, it hadn’t been a draft propelling the dust, which kept gathering.
She closed the editing software. The pictures vanished. The screen was blank. The dust momentarily hovered, then dispersed. Tamara was hyper-aware of her own breath.
She spent the afternoon cleaning the already tidy apartment. She dusted, she swept, she mopped, scoured the tub, the toilet, the sinks. She scraped at the grout and the stove, the oven, the inside of the refrigerator.
She showered, sudsing herself insistently. She dried herself roughly as if even the water were filth.
The children, in paper party hats and carrying noise-makers and balloons, sat at a picnic table. The candy lettering on the cake read "Happy Birthday Isabel." Melissa cut the cake. Tamara snapped pictures.
“It’s so sweet of you to do this,” said Melissa. “I wish you’d let us pay you.”
“Are you kidding? I was happy to be invited. You’ll never pay a cent for one of my pictures. Except maybe that Polaroid I got of you playing doctor with Tommy Ashton in second grade. I guess I could blackmail you with that someday.”
“Nah. I probably wouldn’t.”
“Well, I just hope Isabel appreciates having a Pulitzer finalist documenting her eighth birthday.”
“To hell with finalists. I actually won the Associated Press award. And don’t forget the National Magazine Award.”
“Well, excuse the hell out of me.”
“And my National Press Club award.”
“All right, all right already. I get the idea.”
“Then there’s that one you’re picking up next month, right? Don’t forget that, O Humble One.”
“The John Humphrey Citation for Excellence in War Correspondence. No one’s heard of it except press people, but it’s actually considered the most prestigious of them all. Ten years ago I would have killed for it. But now...”
She looked suddenly sad.
“But now what?”
“Now...It all seems like such a sham. We go into somebody else’s hell for a while, then come back and congratulate each other on surviving. Meanwhile, what good have we done? It’s just voyeurism. It doesn’t help anyone. ... It might even hurt them.”
“Hurt them? How?”
“It’s hard to say. I don’t know. I'm still jet-lagged.” Tamara snapped herself out of it. “Anyway, I don’t think Isabel cares about awards. I think what she and her pals would appreciate right now is a really big piece of that yummy cake!”
Tamara got back to snapping pictures. She noticed something on the lens. She pulled out a soft cloth and carefully wiped at it. She snapped a few more shots, but then had to wipe the lens again. Exasperated, she wiped her forehead with the back of her hand, and noticed a smudge mark left near her knuckles.
Isabel, a bit of chocolate frosting on her face, stared as the other kids yapped away around her.
“Mommy,” she said.
“Honey, let me give everybody one piece, then we’ll see if there’s enough for seconds.”
“Mommy,” Isabel said more insistently.
“Sweetie, please. I know you’re the birthday girl, but can you show mommy how patient you can be?”
“No, mommy. Look.”
Melissa looked up at her friend, covered with grime, standing helplessly, disoriented.
Melissa laughed. “Lord, Tamara, look at you! What happened?”
But Melissa’s smile faded when she saw that Tamara was crying. She hurried over to her, put her arms around her. She looked down and saw the camera, shattered, on the stone patio at their feet.
“My God, Tamara. What happened?”
Tamara shivered. “I don’t know,” she said.
“Well, I know it wasn't your idea to come here,” Doctor Chambers said, “but I think it's good that you did. Your fiancé was right. It sounds as if you've been under tremendous strain. It's not at all surprising that it's catching up with you.”
“I suppose. But I just don't understand. The dirt was real, not imagined. Melissa saw it. The children saw it. I was dirty.”
“Say you were dirty, Tamara. Perhaps you weren't as dirty as you thought, and perhaps you've blocked out some perfectly reasonable explanation for it. Maybe you sat on a stoop or brushed against something and, in the anxiety of the moment, forgot about it.”
“But the anxiety was because of the dirt, Doctor. The dirt came first.”
“Did it? Think about it, Tamara. You've spent five months covering a civil war in Africa, close on the heels of several similarly traumatic assignments. You're fairly well compensated by this news agency, you say, but with no long-term job security. You're engaged to be married and haven't faced up, it seems, to the logistics, if not the commitment, involved in that. You're to receive a major professional award.”
“Hmm.” Tamara liked the doctor, who had long gray-streaked hair, a pretty pastel-print dress, fashionable glasses, and a gentle voice.
“You see what I'm getting at, don't you? You've had an awful lot on your plate. A little anxiety doesn't seem so mysterious, does it?”
“No...but I just remember the dust . . . and those children's voices. Then I heard the camera fall, and the lens shatter. Or that was the weird thing. The lens might have shattered before it hit the ground. I know that sounds insane.”
“Forget the camera for a moment,” said the doctor. “Perhaps next time we could discuss a little further what significance children—those children, any children—might have for you. As you mentioned several times today, for all your professional achievements, your friend Melissa has chosen a very different path.”
“And don’t forget to pick up the Tacitex. I think it will help. You’re going to get through all this, Tamara.”
Tamara nodded and said thank you. “See you next week.”
Tamara dressed for an elegant night out. A simple but chic ivory-colored dress, nude stockings, hoop earrings, and an understated necklace. Even a touch of makeup. She looked at herself in the full-length mirror on her closet door, and she liked what she saw. A beautiful, successful, very alluring young woman. She shook her head in wonder at the silliness of the last couple weeks. Of course she needed time to adjust. After all, she thought, think what I’ve been through. For the first time since her return, she felt something akin to carefree.
The doorbell rang. She opened it for Eric.
“My goodness. Aren't you a vision,” he said “You look like you're fresh out of a magazine. But you're real.”
They kissed long and tenderly.
At the restaurant, he told her how worried he’d been about her but that he hadn’t meant to be pushy.
“You weren't,” she said. “You were right. It was a good idea. I like her. She’s very nice. No-nonsense. The pills are helping too, though I hate to admit it. And now that I've cleaned the apartment again, I feel much better.”
Eric looked at her in alarm.
They made love that night, intense and ecstatic and free. But as Eric slept, Tamara lay awake and remembered the soldiers’ corpses turning to cinders. An old man who was suspected of hiding government troops being bound and beaten, then questioned by the General. The General shooting the old man in the head. The old man falling face first into the dirt but, strangely, laughing--like an hysteric or a fool--even as he fell. The Lieutenant had grown up in the village and told the General that the old man was said to have powers, powers of the heart. The General scoffed and jeered at the Lieutenant for being old-fashioned and superstitious.
Eventually, Tamara fell into a fitful sleep.
How long was it before Eric shook her awake?
“Mm. What is it?”
“Tamara . . .”
He indicated with a nod that she should look. She did. On her pillow was a thick layer of soot. She felt her face, her hair--full of grit. She lifted the sheet to see the grime clinging to her flesh. The window was open, but there was no wind. Not even a breeze.
“There's an explanation, Tamara. I'm sure there's an explanation. Tell me, where did you go? What did you do?”
“I was with you! I didn't go anywhere, Eric. I was here all the time!”
“OK, honey. It's OK. … Then in Africa. Tell me about Africa now.” He brushed the soot from her face and kissed her. “Tell me what you saw there, Tamara. Tell me what you did. Tell me everything.”
Tamara and Eric sat side by side at the banquet table. They had on their game faces, but all was not well between them.
“Eric, please. I can't stand for you to look at me that way.”
“I'm not looking at you at all. I can't look at you. And after tonight, you won't have to see me looking at you ever again.”
The other guests at the table glanced sideways at this whispered tete-a-tete, but pretended not to notice and continued with their casual chit-chat.
“Eric, you told me to tell you everything, and I did. I was honest, and now you're punishing me for it.”
“I respect your honesty, Tamara. For what it’s worth, I do respect that.”
Tamara tried to pull herself together when her parents arrived.
“Tamara, sweetheart, are you all right?” asked Mrs. Adoni. “You look pale.”
“No, I'm fine, mom, thanks. Just a little jittery, I guess.”
Her father chimed in, with his charming, cosmopolitan accent. He laughed, and said to the table at large, “She can face every form of horror. Wars. Epidemics. Famines. But a hall full of colleagues, well-wishers, and old friends, that terrifies her.”
“Ambassador, imagine how strange all this must seem to your daughter after what she went through,” said Charlie, an affable photo editor with thick glasses and a shock of white hair. He turned toward Tamara. “You must feel like a diver coming up from the deep. It was a million years ago, but I remember it was like that for me coming back from Beirut.”
“You hit the nail on the head, Charlie,” she said.
“Well, you can always come try a desk job here in D.C. I'm sure we can find a good spot for you at the home office. I know how editors look to shooters. I used to think the same way. But who knows? You might like the change of pace. Especially,” he added slyly and glanced at Eric, if you're making a few other domestic adjustments.”
There was an awkward moment. Ambassador and Mrs. Adoni stole worried glances at one another.
“Well, anyways” Charlie jumped in, “think it over, Tamara. Try it for a spell. If you hate it, you can always go globetrotting again.”
“Thanks, Charlie,” she said. “It's a nice offer. I'll think it over.”
Eric excused himself. Tamara, about to lose her composure, followed him toward the banquet hall’s exit.
Charlie looked after them sheepishly. “I hope it wasn't something I said.”
Tamara was in tears when she caught up with Eric. “Please. Please just talk to me. Just look at me.” She grabbed his arm and pulled him around to face her. “I can’t take this.”
“You can't take this. Christ, Tamara! What about me? If I were dressed up in a clown suit wearing a plastic red nose, I couldn't feel any more ridiculous, any more humiliated. What the hell do you want from me? I'm sitting at that damn table for my sake, not yours. My friends, my colleagues are in that room, too, you know. Why should I give a damn about what you're feeling?”
“Because you love me. And because you know I love you.”
“What if I do? Do you think I can look at you, do you think I could ever make love with you again without picturing you and . . . and him?”
“Eric, it was a mistake. A big mistake. The worst of my life. And if I have to crawl and beg to get you to forgive me, then I will.”
“Then why, Tamara? Why? Tell me he forced himself on you. A general, after all. He'd have that kind of authority, right? Tell me it was rape. Tell me something. Lie if you want to. I'll take a lie. ...I'll take anything.” His anger was melting into helplessness.
“He didn't...But...but somehow I felt like there was no choice. How can I explain? I can't. I thought it's what I had to do. I thought it was the only way to get what I needed to get. I thought: that's who I am. And I was wrong.”
“You were wrong. Then...tell me,” he said. “Who are you?”
She took his hand and kissed it. “I...don't...know. I'm in trouble, Eric. I know I need help, and I’m getting it. Thanks to you I’m getting it. Be angry. Be very angry if you have to. For a while. But please, please don’t leave me. I won't make it without you.”
He looked down at the carpet, and took her hands in his.
“I don't know,” he said. “I just don't know if I can do this.”
Charlie popped out into the hallway. “Guys! Where the hell you been? Come on! They're starting!”
A guard in the hotel security center split his attention between surveillance screens and his channel surfing. On a news show, an anchor said something about a general in Africa dying of severe respiratory distress. Exact cause unknown but no foul play suspected. Unclear, said the anchor, what effect all this might have on the rebels’ advance as they close in on the capital.
The guard was bored and flipped to a celebrity gossip show.
In the banquet hall, Richard “Red” Simonton, his face familiar from his late-night TV news magazine, introduced Tamara. As he spoke, a selection of Tamara's photos from her Africa and other assignments was projected onto a huge screen.
“...the daughter of an Italian diplomat and a revered stage actress. The globe was Tamara’s playground from an early age. Paris, Brussels, Moscow, Bangkok, New Delhi, Washington. Wherever she went, even as a girl, she was sure to carry a camera...”
In the security center, the guard noticed a strange static on Screens One through Four, all exterior cameras. The static disappeared for a moment and he saw brief gusts of wind stirring dirt into strange, intense little eddies. Then more static
Simonton continued his introduction in his unmistakable stentorian baritone.
“...And whether she was snapping Polaroids at the zoo in kindergarten or witnessing combat in Ukraine as a professional journalist, she has always been unflinching and unrelenting in pursuit of the image at hand. With a truly uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time -- or is it the wrong place at the wrong time? …”
That got a knowing laugh from the crowd.
“... she has caught heroes and tyrants, the powerful and the powerless, the elderly and the infant, at their most unguarded. As if by tacit agreement, they all wear their dreams or their despotism like an encrypted code that only her lens can decipher.”
Cameras Four through Nine got staticky too. “What the hell?” said the guard. He poked his head outside the surveillance room into the hallway leading to the kitchen. He saw what looked to be a strange cloud at the end of it, like a swarm of tiny insects.
“With no further ado,” Simonton said, “it is my privilege, speaking on behalf of the board and this year's selecting jury, to introduce the recipient of the John Humphrey Citation for Excellence in War Correspondence. Ladies and gentlemen...Tamara Adoni.”
The room burst into applause. The noisy guests didn’t hear the hotel’s doors, the thick multi-paned windows, the roll-down gates at the delivery docks crash and shatter and splinter. It was only when the foul, merciless, granular storm exploded into the banquet room itself that the attendees knew anything was amiss. For an instant they saw a sandy tempest of bone, gut, and thick horizontal strings of blood. Then they became part of it.
#Unreal #AlexanderCKafka #Fiction #CreativeWriting #ShortStory #Prose #Wartime #Conflict #Politics #Liberation
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