“When Abu-Alaa said he was driving you to Baghdad, you trusted him?” a new friend named Donna recently asked. She had learned of my Iraq sojourn years after it happened, and asked questions I’d long forgotten to address. So did I trust him?
Of course, I knew he’d driven Olivier, Reiner, and Jurgen to Baghdad for release because they’d gotten in touch with Diana once they arrived back in Europe free to freedom among their loved ones. What made my “liberation” complicated was the presence of Circelia in Baghdad. The trip north felt like an extradition. Abu-Alaa, if ordered, would have tortured or killed me. I knew that. Left to his own devices, as he had been, he showed friendship and hospitality. Rather than take me north via the teahouse in Hilla, he could have invited a friend along, spoken Arabic the whole way, relegating me to the back seat.
As I waited for Circelia, I felt less free than I had in months. I stood there, holding my bags, in a windowless hallway, fearing what lay ahead. It was a fear quite different from the one I’d overcome in Iraq. I suspected Circelia had come with an urgent agenda: take custody of me and convince me to annul the divorce proceedings. I stared at the floor contemplating that, in the next seconds, my sanctuary would implode.
“How were things where you were?” The words came from one of the women sitting at the table with the minders. Her voice sounded far away. I didn’t really know how to answer. Her question presumed an intimacy I didn’t want. My experience was mine to share with whom I chose when I chose. The hallway closed in, and I felt like I was drowning.
As Circelia approached, her heels clicking in the hallway, a wave of emotions built within me, reaching tsunami height by the time she appeared. I saw her face as smug, a triumph in her eyes I didn’t understand. I wonder now if I really could recognize those attitudes. I kissed her cheek and, mechanically, hugged her. Feelings of violation and confusion swirled in my brain as I followed her, silently, down the hall.
“Why did you come?” I asked, setting my bags on the bed beside me, happy the room had two beds.
“I had to rescue you,” she said.
I resisted an urge to retort, “You didn’t need to rescue me.” Rescue was a loaded word for me. My American boyhood taught that was what males might do for females, a noble ideal maybe but one that had left me vulnerable to manipulation.
“How are the kids? How’s Junior’s eye? Where are they?” I asked.
“Relax. They’re well taken care of. Don’t worry,” she said. “Let’s talk about us.”
Again, I struggled to stay silent. It’d been two years since I’d filed for divorce, almost three years since we’d shared a roof, much longer since we’d shared a bed, and yet the tension had lost none of its volatility. “Don’t worry” and “Relax,” two forms of the imperative made my throat constrict. Her social commands had already touched nerves that could jerk me into a rage. How dare she command me to do anything, politely or otherwise.
“How long have you been here?” I asked, looking toward the balcony.
“Only two days,” she said. “You look thin,” she changed the subject.
“Well . . . I have lost some weight,” I said, realizing the absurdity of my statement. My brain struggled for clarity. I didn’t want her to talk about me, make observations about my health, or express feelings about me or my plight.
“When are you going back?” I asked. I feared her controlling this conversation. I wasn’t conscious then how I scattered the conversation all over to avoid sinking at all below the surface.
“The same time as you,” she said.
I was no longer thinking about returning—not that I had lost desire to see Diana or my children, but just that I felt netted anew. I’d gotten out of Asmida, only to have emerged in a worse bind: to my imagination, Circelia represented an unexpected weir that extended all the way back to North America: the only way to see my children was to go with her. In the months since August, I saw only the obstacles that existed in Kuwait and Iraq, concluding these were all that separated Diana and me. Now I stared at a much larger quandary, one that I thought I’d stepped away from two years ago when I decided to divorce.
“But I’m going to New England when I leave here,” I blurted out, not really to her.
She inhaled deeply. “I suppose you’re going to see your stupid girlfriend there.”
I studied the door to the balcony, as if it led to a safety exit.
“I heard that you wanted your stupid girlfriend to come instead of me. But where is she? She was a chicken, just like your family. Your parents, your brothers, they were too scared to come.”
I blinked, many times. Her voice grated and my eyes stung. Blinking felt good because it kept me from cringing at the sound of blood rushing through my inner ears and head. After months of losing fear and hatred, it jumped back in front of me, coating my eyes, stifling me.
“You should love me. I saved your life. Your stupid girlfriend didn’t. And you should call off the stupid divorce.”
“I need some air,” I said, quietly, looking toward the balcony.
“If you go out there and leave me, I’ll scream,” she said, moving partway to the sliding door outside.
I got off the bed. This threat was absurd, but maybe she thought I’d jump. I took my bags with me out to the balcony. They contained my calendar and survival supplies, what was left of them. The most recent installment of the diary, which had helped me cope, would be harder to deliver to Diana than getting the two previous parts to her.
In the darkness I could make out the Tigris below, less than 500 feet away. The black water shimmered with reflections from the buildings on the far bank, river water as murky as in August, probably as in the days of Nebuchadnezzar and before. I imagined myself becoming a hawk, gliding off the balcony and outward to splash into the river whose opacity could hide me. I could transform into a turtle and stay under for 300 miles southward through swamp, under the reeds, around the fat buffalo and fish, to the Gulf, and then . . .
“Come back in here,” she said. Maybe she added, “You coward.” I couldn’t remember if my life depended on it now.
For some time, my back to her, I ranted, reciting lies and the least intimate recollections I could so that I didn’t have to hear her, so that I stayed fenced off from her, off-limits and unapproachable.
“Oh yeah, it was quite difficult.” I said. “The other hostages and I . . . we supported each other. The guards were horrible. All Iraqis are terrible. We never talked with them. The guards were so horrible. I hope they all die . . .” I seethed on and on, not letting her say anything.
Until she gave up and went to sleep, I babbled, suspending enough measure of self-control that she’d think I’d slipped over the edge of sanity, maybe then she’d leave me alone. While talking, I’d stared at the river, the current slowly making its its to the Gulf and the world’s oceans.
I stayed on the balcony much of the next day, watching the Tigris. Circelia was free to leave the hotel and tour the city. I was not. I was still a hostage, still confined to this hotel floor, still prevented from choosing my own roommate. Part of my behavior I knew to be petty, maybe even mean: I could have acted grateful, or just gracious, but what prevailed was the thought that she should not have come, especially not with a group that seemed to be unaware of our impending divorce.
December 8: A digest of news from the New York Times
December 8: Tariq Aziz and Joseph Wilson speak.