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What Do We Want?

When Do We Want It?

by

Jeremy Adam Smith

 

 
     
   

 

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SIDNEY WAS THE FIRST TO HEAR.

              Back when Sidney and Samara had dated, he'd go over to her father Ron's house for lunch, smoke a joint, watch World Cup soccer or NBA playoffs. After they'd broken up and Samara had moved to New York, Sidney still dropped into his store, Ron's Used Books on University Avenue. It was the place where Samara had grown up, running between rosewood shelves.

              Though Ron had given up on politics - it's bullshit, man, he'd told Sidney, protesting just makes them stronger - he talked about Samara's career as if it was a series of pie-eating contests that she always won. She's in Sudan, man, interviewing rape victims, Ron told Sidney. Later: She's in Afghanistan for a month, running trucks for the Red Cross. Most recently: She landed yesterday in Iraq and she's starting her own agency, thinks the Red Cross is a bullshit band-aid.

              That afternoon Sidney opened the door and it chimed, the sound hanging like an icicle. Everything looked the same: the leather-bound antiquarian volumes neat in their glass-fronted shelves, the back shelves dim and disheveled, the whole place smelling of mildew. Normally Ron, a tall, white-haired man whose limbs were too long, proportionately, for his torso, would shout "Hey ho!" from wherever he was in the store.   Now the shelves were sinister in their silence. The door swung shut behind Sidney and even the traffic sounds ceased.

              "Ron," he called. "Hey, Ron." But as Sidney spoke he saw Ron, standing not five feet away behind the counter, the phone in his hand, his face bewildered, so still that he was as invisible as a piece of furniture.

              "What's up, Ron?"

              Ron looked up, and spoke slowly. The State Department had called not ten minutes before. Ron told Sidney what they had told him, about Samara.

              "Christ, Ron, you're kidding," Sidney said.

              "No, man," said Ron. "I just heard from her this morning, one of those text messages. She was meeting some families. She said it was hard hearing their stories, about, about how they lost people, mothers and, and daughters and aunts and uncles. Babies. They're killing babies over there. Who kills babies? "

              "I don't know what to say."

              "Don't say anything, man. You'll end up sounding stupid and so will I."

              Ron gripped the counter with both hands and lowered his head down between them. He wept, shoulders shaking, and Sidney stood there watching, conscious that he hadn't moved, wondering what he should do. Finally, Sidney went around the counter and put his hands on Ron's back and whispered: "It's OK, dude. It's OK."

              Sidney helped Ron close up the store, both of them quiet. On the street, they hugged - a manly, backslapping hug; "I'll call you in the morning," Sidney said - and then they walked in opposite directions down University Ave. Sidney crossed the street into the student ghetto where shiny new apartment complexes stood side by side with tattered, clapboard homes. As he walked, Sidney thought about whom to call first. As he ran down the list of names in his head, trying to figure out who would care most that Samara was dead, he felt his eyes sting and tears dampen his beard, and he walked more quickly, hoping that he wouldn't see anybody he knew.

              When he got home Sidney threw his keys on the foyer floor and sat down on the couch in the living room. Out in the yard, in the frame of his picture window, a dogwood shifted in the breeze and the sun threw gold coins of light through the crosshatching branches onto his hardwood floor. He watched the light, which for some reason made him think, vaguely, of being a kid - nine years old, maybe, playing with his Star Wars figures in his bedroom. After a few minutes Sidney reached to the phone next to the couch. He called Amanda on her cell.

*      *      *

 

              Amanda was on a picket line - What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now! - and at first she couldn't hear him. "What?" she shouted. "That you Sidney?" She stepped under the awning of a newsstand and leaned her sign against a newsrack, still holding the bullhorn in her other hand.

              After they hung up she walked through the twenty or thirty picketers, mostly middle-aged Asian women - they didn't know Samara, they don't know me, they're strangers, why do they have to wear their hair that way?- and gave the bullhorn to her boss, the organizing director, a fat man named Borges. Her hand felt heavy and cold as it fell to her side.

              "Going somewhere, girl?" he asked, speaking softly; without Amanda to goad them on with the bullhorn, the picketers had fallen silent, shuffling in a circle around her. She avoided his eyes and tugged at the top button of her blouse.

              "Need a break," she said. Why does he always stand so close to me?

              "See ya at the office tonight," he said, his breath like week-old lettuce. "We gotta phonebank and get more people out here tomorrow."

              She left the line and drifted through the warehouses of Tribeca and the canyons of lower Manhattan and if you asked her what she was doing she would have said with a blank stare, " Shopping." She shambled down Broadway, eyes on the sidewalk, in and out of shops and cafes, trying to avoid forming an image in her mind of Samara in Iraq, surrounded by strangers. Every time the pieces came together and formed a picture, she'd punch it with a mental fist and everything would fly apart, and she'd focus on crossing the street or looking at a billboard. At Alice Underground - a place where she and Samara had often shopped together, meeting for lunch at the deli across the street - she picked out a red scarf and a creaky black leather coat that said "Rage Against the Machine" across the back.

              At the register Amanda handed the clerk - a skate betty ten years her junior - her Visa Platinum card. The clerk's watery blue eyes flitted from the card to the leather coat. "Rage against the machine, huh?" she said, eyebrows arched, mouth in an accusatory little O.

              "Just charge it, bitch," said Amanda, surprised by her own anger. Amanda remembered Samara's jean jacket, the one with "The Clash" logo on back.   Did Samara ever even listen to the Clash? Did she ever listen to any music? The jacket was probably more of a political statement than a fashion statement. Samara never danced, but she'd sit in the booth at the Hardback, watching everyone else dance, letting her friends come to her.

              Amanda didn't remember leaving Alice Underground, she just discovered herself back on Broadway. The sun was setting and the air was cold; she put on the coat, ripping the pink tag off the sleeve. She crossed Canal Street and Franklin and Chambers, buying at random, shopping bags gathering around her like fat, brightly clothed children. Her cell kept ringing - the ringtone set to Solidarity Forever - probably Borges, wondering where she was, why wasn't she at the office on the phone, cajoling, explaining, pleading with strikers to walk the line. A strike isn't just a vacation , she whispered to herself. You have to show up everyday.

              Why not a vacation? she thought. Why does everything have to be so serious?

              At Cortland she paused and stared down the street, to the memorial at Ground Zero. The wind blew and she wished she had worn a longer skirt.

              Why had she run that morning, run toward the towers instead of away from them? What did I want to see? She remembered the stench, which called to her mind a mixture of fiberglass and burning tires and Girl Scout campfires. When - after hours of walking with thousands of others across Manhattan, over the bridge, into Brooklyn - she had finally got to her brownstone, she hadn't been able to go inside. Instead she sat on the stoop, cheek against the cold, black balustrade, watching the street. It was dark, neighbors still streaming home exhausted, newspapers in the gutters. Her cell, which had been jammed all day, rang. She answered it. It was Maya, calling from Daytona, frantic. I saw it all on TV, she said. Are you OK?

              Amanda turned east and walked toward the Wall Street subway stop. When she reached the entrance she sat down on a bench, next to a homeless guy who shifted away from her, as if she smelled bad. She took out her cell and called Maya.

              "Can't talk," Maya said. "I'm putting Emil to bed." Amanda could hear the baby wailing in the background.

              "Maya, Samara was killed in Iraq."

              "What? What?"

              "Samara was shot. Sidney says she was riding in a van, on her way to a refugee camp."

              The baby screamed--a sound Amanda found squalid and frightening--and she heard Maya curse.

              "I can't....Amanda, I have to call you back," Maya said, hanging up.

*      *      *

 

              That night--after the bath, the battle of the diaper change and pajamas, Goodnight Moon , the songs, the tears--Maya sat in the living room, the TV on, sound off, worn out.   Evan was at the hospital, on rotation; he wouldn't be home till breakfast; Maya was glad. She pulled her knees up to her chin, watching the blue curtain of TV light sway against the wood-paneled walls and the pictures of her college days: one of her with the classic fist in air, blocking the entrance to Gainesville's federal building; another of Dan with his band Inscrutable Oriental Mastermind, black hair in his eyes, mouth twisted in what Maya had called his Fuck me look; a third photo of herself, Samara, and Amanda, arms around each other, surrounded by placards. She couldn't remember where the photo had been taken, but saw a NOW logo - D.C., maybe, during the big pro-choice march? She and Samara had slept together, just once, drunk of course, fumbling each other's panties. After graduation Maya had moved with Evan to Daytona Beach and Samara moved with Amanda to New York, and they'd lost touch, but Maya followed Samara's career through Amanda and newspapers. She'd even seen Samara interviewed one night on Larry King, introduced as a heroic young woman who helps civilians caught in the crossfire .

              No matter how noble our intentions, we can't just smash Iraq , Samara had said, then leave its children to starve and suffer in the dark . She'd gotten two million dollars for refugees in Kuwait, working with a blow-dried, pink-faced Senator from some prairie-dog state. It's not enough, Samara had told Larry. Samara, Maya noticed, had cut her black hair short, lost some weight: she looked stern, righteous, like a desert matriarch. Seeing her friend on TV, Maya felt as she had when she watched Samara speak at Student Government meetings, of wanting to be Samara. She'd known about her and Dan, of course; everyone did, even Sidney. Maya often imagined the two of them together, fixating, for some reason, on the image of her hand, that silver ring on her finger, on his uncircumcised cock. Once Dan even tried for a threesome, taking off all his clothes - Nothing both you ladies haven't seen, right? - rubbing Maya's shoulders, caressing her arms. She'd looked, eyebrows raised, over to Samara. Samara had just walked out of the bedroom and turned on the TV. They ended the evening watching Ren and Stimpy on Nickelodeon.

              Maya still wished that they had gone through with it. She cried, trying to keep her sobs low, so as not to wake up the baby. She was crying over all the things that would never happen, to her or, now, to Samara. Maya felt her own self-pity and she hated it. Why couldn't she feel some pure grief for Samara? Am I that self-absorbed?

              The weeping ended and the tears dried. David Letterman came on, making jokes about the President. Maya picked up the phone, stared at it until the please hang up the phone message came on, hung up, then picked it up again and dialed.   Dan didn't answer but without thinking she left the news on his machine.

*      *      *

 

              When Dan got home that night after a gig at the Elbo Room and played the rambling message, he first heard only the voice: girlish, cloying, that voice, his ex. What in God's name is she calling about? At the start of the message she talked about the baby, how he had said kitty that day, and when Maya blurted the news out at the end of the message - Look, I'm really calling to tell you that Samara was riding in a van with some soldiers, or something, and somebody shot her and she's dead, I'm sorry Dan - Dan put his right hand to his left cheek, and blinked. A picture popped into his mind, of Samara naked on his bed, early in the morning, sleeping, serene, almost like a little girl. Where had that been? His house in the Duck Pond. Samara had been a great fuck - the best, really, the memories a set of pornos he played in his head whenever he jerked off. Now he tried to imagine the body laid out on a slab in Iraq, bullet wound - where? the neck? the chest? - puckered and pink at the edges. He'd never seen a bullet wound in real life, of course, but drew on movies and CSI episodes to get the picture.

              Dan sat down next to the answering machine, the thrift-store leather chair creaking; he thought of her brown eyes, dark hair, long-fingered hands, small breasts; something unfamiliar rose in the back of his throat. He remembered the drive down from the WTO protest in New York, when they'd talked all night, he and Samara. How long ago had that been? Ten years? Was he really that old?

              Samara had brought along her secret stash of Seventies singer-songwriters and she yelled the lyrics at the top of her lungs. You're so vain , she sang to him from the passenger seat, rolling her eyes. I bet you think this song is about you, don't you, don't you? Samara couldn't sing worth a damn. At the meetings and the protest, she'd been all business, serious and in control--the way she always was in Gainesville. He didn't like Samara when they were around other people; but when it was just the two of them she seemed to let loose.

              Sometimes I think you don't take me seriously, he said to her, Neil Young whining on the stereo.

              I don't, she said, patting his hand on the stick shift. That's why I like you.

              It was one a.m. They were outside of Atlanta, passing a Wal-Mart. Without saying a word, Dan jerked the wheel and they swerved into the parking lot, and he drove around to the side of the store, where the wall was big and empty and white. Samara gave him a devilish look, her lips curled, popped the glove compartment and pulled out a can of spray paint. When they left the parking lot five minutes later, the words Wal-Mart Pays Poverty Wages were seared in red on the side of the store.

              Dan shook his head. How many years had it been since he'd done anything like that? He still saw himself as a 22-year-old activist, a participant. He still wore the old T-shirts and sometimes he bought a new one : Not in our name, Keep abortion safe and legal, No more prisons, etc . When Iraq was invaded he'd stood with demonstrators, surrounded by cops, helicopters overhead, at the intersection of 2 nd and Market, imagining that he was blocking traffic and helping end the war. But really, he thought, he was just a tourist, just stopping for fifteen minutes, then threading his way through the police onto Montgomery, past the newsstand, falling in step with the suits and ladies in high heels, all of them on the march to bullshit jobs. The cops didn't stop him, knowing, he suspected, that for him it was all just a pose. Samara had known it.

              Fuck. Fuck me. Fuck us all.

              The phone rang and he cried out, somehow surprised, as if it had snuck up on him. Embarrassed, he snatched up the receiver. It was Maya.

              "Sorry I just left a message," she said, her voice simpering in his ears. "I just got an email from Sidney. He's organizing a memorial in Gainesville."

              Dan only said: "Jesus, that guy still live there? Christ, what a homebody."

*      *      *

 

              After Maya hung up - now it was very late, Conan O'Brien had just ended - she thought about the way Dan had dumped her, the morning after they'd gotten out of jail.   He said: I just don't want to sleep with you anymore, OK? We can still be friends and shit . She cried, she wouldn't go to class for a week.

              Maya stood up and stepped through the sliding glass doors, out onto the concrete patio. There was the red brick grill Evan had built the previous summer, before the baby, and the spotlessly white plastic chairs they'd bought for two bucks apiece at a garage sale, and the baby's toys: a yellow truck, a beach ball, a red plastic flute.

              Could she leave all this? Just walk off the patio, through the palmettos and the neighbor's yard, onto Ormond Avenue? Could she follow Ormond out of Daytona, thumb out, and hitch rides to places where you fumbled with travel guides and shit in a hole? She admitted it to herself: she wanted to travel, be on Nightline, die a martyr's death. To be a heroine in someone's story. But a hero needed a purpose, a quest, and Maya had never had that. Samara never let people tie her down, she was always ready to walk away, always pursuing something that was just over the horizon, something that Maya could never see. People like Samara and Dan - and Evan, she admitted - they would always control the lives of people like her. Maybe I'll never be more than a doormat, she told herself.

              One summer, Samara had shown up on her doorstep at 2 am, after a night at the Hardback. Samara didn't drink often, but that night she was drunk. She stank of smoke and beer, and there was a film of perspiration on her face. At first she was silly, joking about Dan.

              We're in a big club, you and me, Samara had said. The-chicks-who-have-slept-with-Dan club.

              It's nice to belong to something, said Maya. She and Dan had broken up a year ago and she wasn't angry anymore.

              Yeah, well. Samara looked uncomfortable. Sometimes he and I, we still sleep together.

              Is it still fun?

              I don't think so, Samara said. I think, I don't know, I feel like I need a real boyfriend.

              There's still Sidney. He'd take you back. In a second.

              Sidney's such a lost little boy, you know?

              Maya nodded. She did know. She didn't tell Samara that she and Sidney had fucked a couple of times, with little success.

              Do you think guys are afraid of me? Samara asked.

              Guys are scared of strong women. You're a strong woman, Samara.

              That seems like such a cliché, Samara said. I don't feel strong. Why does everybody always say that?

              She folded down on the couch, setting her head in Maya's lap. In a minute, she started to snore, a low susurrus.

              I'm afraid of you , Maya had said, stroking Samara's hair.

              Maya walked back inside the house. Now Baywatch was playing on the TV. As she watched Pamela Anderson run down the beach, Maya realized that she'd called Dan instead of calling Amanda back...Amanda, who'd always been Maya's friend.

              Maya picked up the phone, and dialed Amanda's number.

*      *      *

 

              Amanda had been crying for hours in her room, listening to Husker Du and the Replacements, looking at photo albums, getting angrier.   When the phone rang and she heard Maya on the line, she was ready to fight.

              "You four you were always off fucking each other, your special little club," Amanda told Maya. "Where was I? Who was I? The one who made the phone calls, who stayed up all night Xeroxing leaflets and writing speeches for other people."

              "Don't say that," Maya said. "You were the only one of us who could organize anything. Samara and Dan made the speeches but you were the one who kept us together."

              When Amanda hung up with a curt goodbye , "Unsatisfied" was playing on the stereo. She listened - look into my eyes and tell me I'm satisfied - and wondered if there wasn't a subterranean relationship between the songs one liked and the choices one made. You'd think there would be, right? Could you look at a personal list of songs and read it like you would a palm, building a life from the lines you saw there: what you loved, what you hated, how long you had to live?

              At four a.m. Amanda went into the desk drawer, the one with the handle missing, and took out the brochures she'd been gathering, of graduate schools and adult education programs. Why had she picked them up, why did she keep them? It seemed like there were a million things she could do--design, pharmacy, creative writing--but she dreaded the prospect of taking the GRE and filling out applications, cringed at the image of herself sitting in a classroom. She'd always hated her classmates, their smug alliances and fashion sense. The activist scene in college wasn't much different, but seeing two hundred people show up at a protest she'd planned made her feel powerful, nefarious, more than just a TV-watching lower-upper-class girl from Ft. Lauderdale.

              Dawn came, fish-tank light filtering from the skylight through her room. Lying in bed, she turned onto her side and remembered her last meeting with Samara, at that diner in Washington Heights. Amanda had criticized the way she met with Republicans, worked with the military. Samara had just smiled, lips dark red; she hadn't changed her lipstick since they moved together to the city five years before. Why did she pick that color? Samara didn't have to listen to Amanda. She had funding. She would leave the next day for Iraq.

              I love you , Amanda said to Samara. You know that, right?

              Course I know, said Samara, taking Amanda's hand. I'm going to miss you.

              The phone rang. It was Sidney, voice tremulous; he'd lost, for the moment, that stoner drawl. There was a write-up about Samara in the New York Times, he said, short bits on Good Morning America and CNN. "I'm organizing a memorial," he told her, each word running over into the next. Samara's father would speak against the war, the President of UF would share his memories, it was all arranged. Veterans for Peace and the Arab Student League would help out. Could Amanda fly down, write a press release, make a few calls?

              "Sure," she heard herself say. "I'd love to."

*      *      *

 

              Sidney spent the evening organizing the memorial. At midnight he came across the last email he'd received from Samara.

              "Yesterday I saw a car bomb go off, three blocks away," she wrote. "It looked just like one you'd see in a movie, though more like black ball of smoke than a fireball, but in a movie you don't get the impact that an explosion has on your other four senses. I heard the boom and saw the smoke, but I felt the explosion as waves of pressure that made everything inside my body and outside on the street rattle and ripple, and that's what really freaked me out. I thought: people are hurt, I should help. But I just wanted to jump out of my skin and run. I couldn't help it. I stopped being a person with ideals and hopes and just became an animal that didn't want to die.

              "Actually, now that I think about it, I might have been more afraid of seeing bodies than I was of being personally hurt. Either way, instead of helping I ran two miles back to the base camp where I'm staying with some other aid workers. I threw up when I got here, because I had been running in the sun. I didn't tell anybody that I had seen the explosion. You're the only person I've told, Sidney. This morning I heard that ten people were killed, and two of them were kids. And all I can think is, I'm so glad that I didn't see that. Sidney, what am I doing here? I'm not so different from the soldiers. We're all here to help, but I don't think any of us are helping."

              Sidney shut off the computer and collapsed on the bed, and wept until he fell asleep.

              He woke on his stomach in a T-shirt and boxers, arms curled around his head. He sat up and looked around his room, surrounded by a knot of blankets and sheets. The light streamed through the blinds he forgot to close, hitting his face. The warmth felt good, like a bath.

              He jumped out of bed, dressed, made a cup of coffee, and made some phone calls--one of them to Ron, who didn't answer. He left the house and walked down to Bageland, humming a Nirvana song, kicking at fallen clumps of Spanish moss. They would all come to the memorial, he hoped - Amanda, Dan, Maya, and the others: Michelle and Jay, Nikita and Lou, David and Louise. He imagined his old friends gathering together in his living room. He'd have beer on hand - he'd grill, maybe - and they would talk and share stories, old ones and new ones. He'd make an agenda, pose a question - how has your life changed? how do you stay an activist and still hold down a job? - and then read some of the press coverage aloud.

              Sidney went into Bageland and ordered a sesame. He sat down at the window, waving to people he knew - his professor from Introduction to Semiotics (bane of his sophomore year), Duane from the record store across the street, a middle-aged woman who volunteered to work the door at the benefit the other night. He tried to remember when he first met Samara, tracing events and conversations back to the first one, in their Deviance class. On the first day Samara had argued with the professor, saying that tagging a person as a "deviant" was only a way of controlling her. He didn't think Samara was pretty, the first time he saw her, but a week later they had coffee and Samara asked him to come to a protest she was organizing.

              I dunno , he said. It seems like protesting doesn't make a difference.

              I know how you feel , she said, taking his hand. The moment felt electrical to Sidney. There was the sexual promise of her touch, yes, but Sidney also sensed how important it was to Samara that he, and everyone, come to the protest. I know how it seems hopeless , she said. Don't come because you think you'll change the world or something. Come because it'll change you. You'll make friends. You'll do things that you never thought you'd do.

              Is that why you do all this stuff? Sidney asked.

              She laughed, nineteen years old. I guess I never thought before about why I do it. I suppose I'm just testing the world, seeing how far I can push it. Just like I'm pushing you, right now.

              At the party, he thought, he'd read the piece from the Times. It was a good piece - written by a reporter who had gotten to know her, apparently - and it made Samara out to be a tragic heroine and even mentioned Gainesville in two places. Gainesville in Baghdad , he thought. Good name for a band. He imagined one place superimposed upon the other, but Iraq was nearly invisible, impossible; he could only see Samara, standing in a deserted street, surrounded by sand and wind and anonymous brown walls. It's a place I'll never see. The thought made him feel happy; he was glad to be in Bageland, the sun in his face, eating and drinking coffee. Sidney finished his bagel and took the article out of his backpack. He unfolded it and spread it out on the table. For the fourth time that morning, he read it to himself, whispering each word.

              On the day she was killed , it said, Ms. Katz was visiting Iraqi families that had lost relatives to the violence here. She sent a text message to her father in Gainesville, Florida saying the stories had been painful to hear.

              An American Army medical officer who arrived on the scene shortly after the sniper struck said that Ms. Katz was slumped in the back seat of the van, surrounded by security contractors, still alive and conscious, with a single bullet wound in her chest. The officer treated her and heard her last words.

              Where am I? she said. Where are we going?

 

 

     

 

Jeremy Smith with his son Liko.

Jeremy Adam Smith is managing editor of Greater Good Magazine. His essays, stories, and poems have appeared in Fourteen Hills, Instant City, The Nation, San Francisco Bay Guardian, San Francisco Chronicle, Utne Reader, Watchword, Wired, and numerous other periodicals and books. He blogs about the politics of fatherhood at Daddy Dialectic and the politics of pop culture at Other Magazine The parts of this story that take place in Iraq were inspired by passages from the New York Times and the blog This is Your War II.

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