Before My Skin Was Broken

The lost become ghosts

The dog was going to bite me. How many times did Richard say, ‘Make friends with the dog. Make friends.’ I was skeptical of the whole arrangement, and the fact that I was given a gun—a thing I was deathly afraid of—a gun with a silencer, no less, just proved my point. Every night for a week or so we were to sneak over to the paddock and stable where the Lipizzaners were kept and feed cooked chicken to the watchdog, gaining his trust, so on the night we took them he would not bark. If he did, I was to shoot him, while Richard and company got the horses and led them out, each rustler assigned to take two horses at a time—we weren’t sure exactly how many there were now—placing bandannas over the great beasts’ eyes, encouraging them forward with soft, loverlike murmurs, and steering them out to the waiting trailer. Two other men would load up a pickup truck with bedding and feed.

It all seemed preposterous to me. And then somewhere along the line a gun was introduced. A gun! We never started with the idea of a gun. We just started with an idea. And now here I was standing in the kitchen with a gun and a silencer in my hand. I affected a stance in front of the curtainless window when Richard handed it to me that night, the foreignness in my hand glimmering in the dark reflection, but the desired effect was not translatable and my sarcasm eluded Richard. Could we pull it off? Could I? My gaze locked on the mirror-like window: passing chimera shapes shifted and phased in and out. Enesa slowly appeared like an apparition there, ‘I am not brave,’ her wavering form warbled, the sound coming to me from a great distance away. ‘I am not brave . . .’ Her voice summoned me back in time; I stood once again in the middle of the smoldering Marić’s house as if at the gates of hell—the smell, the poison taste in the mouth—the flies—and I knew I could do what was necessary. I could. The lost become ghosts who egg you on. And the air was thick with ghosts and weeds, and my mind was full of rocks and my heart was filled with rubble. I would press the pistol against the hound’s head, if need be, and pull the trigger.

* * *

So, we started the first night just approaching the stables. The dog stood up on our approach; he was secured to a lean-to shed with an overhanging roof as his shelter; when he started growling, we threw the food on the ground and retreated. Turning round, we could see him at the limit of his chain eating the chicken. I decided on the spot to call him “Ernie.” Would his owners notice this extracurricular repast on his breath? We did this for several nights, each time getting closer, until I could stand next to Ernie while the others went in and out of the stables to accustom him as well as the stallions and mares to our presence, the dark house reassuringly off in the distance. The night of the actual seizure, so painstakingly plotted, we took far too long, and Ernie began to growl; I fed him almost everything I had. The horses were coming out two by two, but too slowly. Ernie grew increasingly restless. “C’mon, boy. Good boy. Good Ernie,” I whispered. A rivulet of sweat from under my arm trickled down my side, and Ernie sensed my fear. I plopped down the remaining cache of food, but the horses were skittish and we were not keeping to schedule; every extra minute of delay put us and them in greater jeopardy. “That’s a boy. Yes, such a good boy. Good boy!” The food was gone. Ernie began to bark.

“Shut him up,” Richard hissed at me over his shoulder as he steered past with two mares. “Stop him.”

Ernie barked louder and louder, unsettling the horses, growling, lunging at me, and I retreated beyond the range of his chain. In the end, despite my earlier bravura, I could not kill the agitated Ernie. Panicking, I turned back at him. He leapt up at me and I whacked him on the head as hard as I could with my pistol butt in a cruel and stupid attempt to render him unconscious and thus silent. Of course, this did not silence him; it only injured him and caused him to commence an unearthly howling and yodeling that would wake the dead. After a minute, lights came on in the farmhouse and you could hear doors slamming and the caretakers streamed out to see what the hell was going on. Most of the horses had already gone ahead, there were just four more: three held by one of the girls; the other, the prized stallion, Tulipan Sava, who was not cooperating, shaking his head, dancing in place then rearing up, finally biting at his handler.

Richard ran back and sent the other two on, ordering them to get going, to get the hell out, and grabbed Tulipan’s lead and my gun, motioning me over to the pickup truck where Eben, who had drawn the straw as driver, sat waiting to take off. Richard told me to put the tailgate down and pull out the ramp; he handed me the leads of the three other horses, and he took Tuli around and around in circles and finally got him up on the back of the truck, but there was no time left and he jumped in, pulling me in while he tried the control the agitated stallion. “Let’s go!” he yelled out at Eben, and the truck slowly started with me holding the reins of the three mares trotting uneasily along behind, a reverse Apollo with his chariot riding backwards into the night. A man appeared on out of the darkness and started to run toward the truck.

“Go, go, go!” I yelled, but the three mares would not cooperate, forming a bumping, dragging, pulling mass of glowing white in the blackness, and we could only go so fast for fear of one of them stumbling, plus Tulipan shifting around in the back. Our pursuer was advancing, yelling over his shoulder to two other men who veered off into the woods behind him. He stopped and launched the hatchet he had been holding at the truck in an attempt to blow out the back tire, but his weapon fell short and speared the ground, like a branch broken during a storm, rudely sticking out of the earth. He charged toward it and wrenched it out and resumed his pursuit of us and our cargo. I didn’t think he could catch us, but with the horses struggling this way and that, straining so hard against their leads that I was bent over at a ninety-degree angle—leaning halfway out of the truck, my arms fully extended—we were too slow, and he was gaining on us.

“Brace, brace, brace. Hold on. Don’t let go,” I could hear Richard yelling from somewhere.

The man was now along side of the truck. He threw himself onto the wheel panel and was able to hold on. I looked into his face. ‘He will kill me, sure as hell,’ I thought. Richard could not get at him because if he let go of the bridle, Tulipan would have jumped out of the truck. Holding on to the side with one hand, our assailant tried to chop at the reins of the three mares with his hatchet and cut them loose, but he missed, and his weapon hit the top of the tailgate with a horrible din of metal upon metal. Over and over he did this as I screamed, furiously shaking my head, blinded by my hair stuck in my eyes. Spewing hatred at me, he took a big, wretched, wild hack with his hatchet, eerily similar to what I had done with my pistol to Ernie. I ducked, dropping down on my haunches, trying to avoid his blow; the truck swerved severely, and his blade landed on Tulipan’s flank. He whinnied and reared up almost throwing Richard out of the lurching vehicle, Eben frantically twisting the steering wheel to the right then to the left, trying to throw the demon off, but he was stuck to the fender like a tick. He raised his arm and took another desperate swing with his axe; this time it landed squarely across my forearm, splitting the skin open down to the bone. I screamed bloody murder and let go of the leads, just as Richard shot him in the face—righteous mayhem toward the devil—and he slid off out of sight. The three mares peeled away from the retreating truck, one to the left; one to the right. The middle mare stood still for a moment; realizing her freedom, she shook her head, bobbing it up and down, pranced in a pirouette, turned and headed back in the direction of the stables. I lost them: they retreated away into the darkness, further and further outward with each peal of an internal tolling bell, like the white ghosts they had become, getting smaller and smaller. I lost them. I lost myself. All ghosts now. My eyes locked on the starless sky; I began to shiver violently.

It always bothered me that I had lost the other one of my two bras. So I wore the lace one continually, and it had turned grey instead of white, unable to be cleaned properly. The padding over the hook and eyes in the back had worn and frayed so that they constantly dug into my back, but I was loath to take it off. No surrender of my amour, I liked to think. Your skin has an integrity not normally breached, but when it is, not with a small bruise or with the rubbing of hooks and eyes, but a wholesale breach, with a terrifying wound, the terror itself is the paralyzing thing. A fear apart from the pain that feeds upon itself. You don’t know how it will end, but you know you’re going beyond where you’ve ever been before.

I had fallen backwards into the hay bales; there was a rusty, metallic smell from the blood—mine and Tulipan Sava’s—mixing together with the chaff to form some kind of apocalyptic mortar. The truck rattled off into the night, picking up speed, and the white ghost creatures I had unwittingly released floated up to become clouds in the troubled sky. I thought I would be trampled by Tulipan’s hooves as he whinnied and stumbled about with each jerking, swerving change in direction, and it became a jumble of hooves and blood and neighing and clouds and the bumping of the truck over the uneven road that caused Tuli to tread against me even more, and those white figures peeling off into the night—those ghost horses flying up into the night—and the clouds and a bullet through a devil’s eye, and the blood and the pain and someone yelling at me and the stamping hooves and then it all went black.

Auditoriums of the Adopted Bourgeoisie

royal ballet

The dancers were done and stood on stage as the house lights were brought up after curtain call and the petals were swept away with large brooms. Some of the troupe went down into the audience to mingle. A few people came up on the stage to talk, gesturing at the golden headdresses, wanting to touch them, but afraid of overstepping proprieties. Sok wandered upstage, avoiding conversation; she could not disrobe from her public persona and greet them in any heartfelt way. She was safe up here on high behind her smile; no need to come down to earth.

Down below, before the stage, earthbound and stuck in the mud, Lily looked on as the aura of the Apsara dancers, the closing event of the school’s cultural festival, slowly dissolved back into the banality of the badly lit high school auditorium. Her mother pushed at her to go up on stage and talk to the dancers, but Lily was rooted as firmly as Sok, and could only look on from a distance, the two of them not able to make a connection, to bridge the gap between heaven and earth.

“So many of them were killed,” Lily’s mom said to her. “They can never take away the dances you have danced, your knowledge; the only thing they can do is kill you, and even then that won’t stop the music.” The daughter grimaced and did not really reply to her mother, she was so . . . there was no need to trample over the emotion shimmering between her and the stage tonight, to try to break into that world, to force herself in where she didn’t belong; it made her angry like it always did, but her mother’s words burned into her mind and were not forgotten. Her mother was not one of them, as Lily was by blood, yet she felt the need to lecture her, but . . . mom herself was an artist, a good musician; she understood dance, and Lily’s life, adopted as an infant, was as American homegrown as the next.

The cloak of unselfconsciousness Lily threw over herself when she watched these dancers, when she waded into the world of music and was freely at home, and particularly whenever she wrote her poems, was now torn off, and an awareness of her own self and her surroundings engulfed her, suffocating her. Her mother could do that, rip her protection off, just like that, like she did just now. Without its sheltering embrace, Lily was stricken with doubt, afraid her work conveyed little of what she felt; in fact, she carried around a poem by a Russian person, Marina Tsvetaeva—Ms. MT, she called her in her mind—torn out of an old copy of Vogue, and read it whenever she felt particularly enabled.

She would read MT’s words:

Foretasting when I’ll fold
Time like a rough draft…
A flash of the eye, the last,
And the world’s not a moment old…

Then she would read her own:

What would you have done, if they had not broken you so young
The weight of obligation curves my spine.
I am not one or the other
My story is not a case of either/or…

‘A flash of an eye, a flick of the wrist. A flash of an eye, a flick of the wrist,’ Lily now repeated over and over as the evening’s disintegration spooled out without resistance. She had prodded herself with this nonsense mantra into a transcendent state; so much so that she seemed to be bouncing back and forth between the stage and where she stood until she was blurred out and was neither at one point or the other, but somewhere in between and everywhere, that she had somehow managed to overcome, just for this infinitesimal second, the weight of race, and distance, and time, and had become universal.
.
* * *

Sok had danced for Nuon tonight, for some reason she was stubbornly in her head. As though they had just been together yesterday, though she had been told Nuon Sitha probably died that very first day the soldiers marched into Phnom Penh, the last day of the world as they knew it. She hoped so. Sok became aware of the fervent gaze latched upon her as she moved about under the lights, and looked down at the Cambodian girl with the American mom; well the kid was American too, most likely, like Sok herself someday–maybe. Not Nuon, however . . . no. Royal. Eternally so. Khmer spirit, kindred soul. One sister in heaven; one here on earth, standing there in front of the stage, staring as if in a trance. ‘Dance,’ was what she would tell them. ‘Dance, run in your dreams of me. I dream of you. Turn your eyes toward heaven, toward better men; steer your ship into better times. Every movement, every gesture slows our evanesce.’

Reverence

They'll say we were brilliant

“In the end, there are only these things: love and hate, empathy and indifference.”

I said this to Richard, looking up from my letter from Dad—posted six weeks ago—the letter that contained the news of Uncle Henry’s death. The train rattled along rhythmically swaying us left, right, left, right, left right; bearing us along to our destination. We were sitting side by side on our way from Tuzla to Budapest. Richard stared straight ahead, watching the moving landscape out the window opposite him. After a long silence, I continued on with my monologue on faith. I expected him to listen, which he did. I expected no response.

“Once you accept this, a lot falls away. Just as if you were on a crowded train,” I paused. “You’re jammed together, being jostled, and then the next to last stop everyone gets off and the light shines through and you get a seat and it feels so good to sit down and the sun is setting and an evening breeze is wafting through the open doors, and you think, ‘I could ride this train forever . . .'” Her empathy, Richard thought, her warmth, were given generously, not from any state of dependency, any policy of economy. These qualities of hers did not hang around his neck, weighing him down. She gave freely, but he understood she would pack up and move on at any time, the sun breaking through on a grey day and then retreating behind the clouds again—giving without reserve, removing without remorse.

“Why do people always have to put qualifications, limitations on love: I loved her; she was like my child. What does it matter? ‘You’re too old, Uncle Henry. It’s too late,'” I continued, fanning myself with the letter, flapping it up and down on my lap. “Wrong time, wrong whatever. You yourself are wrong. Release your desires, let them go, and never speak of them as they pile one upon another, rising up to a great thunderhead in your heart.”

The statue that was Richard spoke, “You kept bugs, lightning bugs, in jars when you were a kid. Once they die, they get tossed, right? You don’t keep them. You wanna keep them. Some dried up crap stuck on a piece of grass. But you refuse to throw it out. When it’s over, it’s gone. Doesn’t much matter what you do.”

‘I really hate him,’ I thought, not for the first time, but I was too exhausted, too spellbound by the motion of the train for any keen emotion. I turned my head away from him. Neither one of us was willing to speak about Louis. I knew Richard was thinking of him.

“Yeah, well, that’s very neat and tidy. Enesa’s passion—so brilliant—where did that come from? Where has it gone? It just can’t disappear, can it? Uncle Henry’s love drove that damn train. A force so strong—it has to go somewhere, right? The laws of physics. Don’t you find that to be true? Don’t you believe that’s true in your own mind?”

I fell into a reverie, thinking about how the one death was so different from the other: one a bloody gashing fueled by hatred, the stealing of a young life; the other a slow attenuation into nothingness in the awful silence of unrequited love. I twisted my head further to the side and up, staring at the clouds as we continued on. I closed my eyes and after a time opened them again, the clouds had stopped their sprint across the sky and were still. I was still. I cast my eyes down and saw I was no longer on the train, but was standing in front of a kitchen sink in a house high on the top of a hilly countryside, on the top of the world, looking out the kitchen window. Down in the sink was a colander full of green beans. I picked one up and snapped off both ends, the sound of it loud in the silence, and put it on top of the pile of the ones already there. I picked up another and snapped it, then another. The pile grew larger, one by one. The clouds remained still and held the wisdom I wanted tight within their domain.

I continued the snapping, thinking one’s departure from this world would not be so bad up here in this beautiful, eerie isolation with the clouds, my white mare counsel, turning golden in the western sky, the wind picking up, singing its own song. I turned round, Jay and Enesa were with me, sitting round a table, Enesa’s elbows on its wooden surface, chin resting in her palms, listening to Jay strum his guitar. She never turned around. Jay looked at me from under his lashes, not moving his head. “We’ll be on the late show, darling,” he said softly. “Play a little music, have a few laughs.” He winked at me. “They’ll say we were brilliant.” When I turned back again they were gone and Evan sat there alone, playing, eyes closed; his gorgeous chords echoing through the room as if brought in by the wind and the sky. I thought the beauty would break me in two. He disappeared as well though the music continued on.

Outside the brilliant light softened, turning the darkened house redder as my pile grew higher. The table behind me was visited by indistinct images tumbling in and out of my vision, a communal board peopled by those I loved or wanted to love, and I felt the force of a passion like Uncle Henry’s running through my veins. I thought of the girls from the mustard-colored building—a world I wanted to know, but didn’t know. Another green bean and the air changed. I lifted my head to smell the breeze, like an animal that knows a storm is coming when the sun is still shining; like the great stallion Tulipan Sava did when he last raised his head as he lay in that boxcar.

One bean left, but I believed there was no beginning or end. The wind died down; the music stopped. A thrill of dread ran through me, but I would not allow myself to turn around; I knew all was gone in the silence and the stillness, gone in those red slants of light. I raised both hands and placed my palms over my eyes, felt the water from the vegetables trickle down my forearms, tickling me.

Richard was nudging me in my side. “Stop scratching. What are you doing? Stop making a scene.” Startled awake, I gave up trying to poke my finger through the bandages to scratch my arm, and Richard went back to staring out the window. Eventually I put my head on his shoulder, and after a minute he leaned his head on mine. The train rattled on toward the border.

Nocturne

nocturne (2)

Since leaving Travnik, I was troubled, not surprisingly, by phantoms. Flies were my especial tormentors: I felt them settle on me as I tried to sleep; I saw them—whirs on the periphery, an abandoned wing on my sleeve. When Uncle Dekek brought out a bottle of plum brandy to offer his hospitality, one floated round and round on the surface of the pale ginger-colored liquid. I said nothing as the living drank their toast to the dead, but I could taste it.

After the events of the Lipizzaners being found, after the boxcar journey, the hatchet blows and the death of the stallion, Tulipan Sava; after Louis’ heroics, Richard and I stopped at Dekek Marić’s home in Zenica. We were on our way to Tuzla as we made our way out of the country. We stopped to pay our respects, which, I think, the family appreciated. Dekek Marić loved his brother, adored his niece, and at one point during our conversation, he buried his head in his hands and wept. I turned my head and looked out the window, spring was pushing itself upward, coming back, no matter the judgments passed on the human race. I was suffused with an unspecified guilt, and did not have it in me to comfort him.

The sun set, and after dinner, in the too hot living room, Uncle Dekek insisted on playing the piano for us; it was all too much to suffer through. He wanted us to hear Enesa and her father’s favorite pieces. He wanted to give us something of them. The roaring fire, unnecessary in this mild weather, the aftereffects of the suspect Rakia, fatigue, dehydration, combined with the torturing of Chopin, produced at once a lethargy of body and a nervousness of mind, the anxiety escalating with each pump of the piano pedal until I thought I would succumb, give in to the panic, and run out of the room screaming. Finally, we were released from his tribute and allowed to retire.

I couldn’t remember putting my head down on my pillow, but woke up in middle of the night to the strains of Chopin ebbing in and out of my consciousness. I sat up and pulled the heavy quilt off me. Three o’clock in the morning and the man was still banging away? How could such a thing be possible? I got out of bed and opened the door to investigate. I found myself not in the hallway I had stumbled through on my way to bed a few hours ago, but in the smoky, rubbled passageway outside Enesa’s old bedroom, yellow light streaming through her open door and the strains of nocturnes ruffling the air. I stood there as I had done what seemed a thousand years ago, but this time there was no hesitation; I wasn’t frightened. Grasping the door jamb with both hands, I closed my eyes, leaned in, then opened them.

There was Uncle Dekek, playing in the corner, but playing smoothly, playing not as before, playing beautifully, his back to me, hunched and dark over the keys like a crow. Enesa still at her desk. Her dirt farmer stood next to her slumped body. He lifted her out of her chair and took her in his arms. She was roused by his touch and he placed her lightly on her feet; she walked around behind him, running her hand over his shoulders. She faced him, and pressed her hand against his cheek. They danced together, swaying rhythmically back and forth, Enesa never breaking her gaze into her lover’s eyes, her arms round his sunburned neck. Dancing unconstrained, sweet and free. She left his embrace and glided out to the hallway and turned to look at me. I reached out a hand for her, but she shook her head and smiled at me, turned and ran into the darkness. The dead are never truly gone until they return, one last time, to tell us that it is all right, to force acceptance. I turned back to look in the room again—it was empty, the setting sun, glaring through the window brighter and brighter and brighter, as it did the day of her death, until I opened my eyes, the brightness giving way to the whiteness of the ceiling above my head. All was silent except the twittering of birds in the bright morning distance. A tear left the corner of my eye and ran down my cheek to fall into my ear, tickling it. I rubbed my head up and down on the lace of the pillow, turning my face toward my bedroom door. Heavy footsteps sounded on the stairs, then knocking on the door. Time to get up. Time to go. To Tuzla, then to Budapest . . . somehow. Then home.

Welcome to the NFL

“You gotta come to Philadelphia, man, you gotta come,” Howie said to me. I think he said it to me. At least he said it in my general direction.

“What’s in Philadelphia?”

“Absolutely nothing . . . nada . . . the Liberty Bowl’s there, ain’t it?”

“Liberty Bowl?” Jay was incredulous. “It’s the Liberty Bell, you fuckin’ moron. The Liberty Bell.”

Yeah, yeah, it’s cracked, right?”

“You’re cracked, man.”

“Damn straight.”

Sometimes lunacy pays off. Freida and I were backstage at the Beacon Theater. It had been arranged for the two of us to receive an award for our rescue efforts prior to the televised portion of the Rock for Animals benefit show, and thus be bestowed with laminated passes that allowed us to mill about and gawk at the mostly New York-based bands that were performing. My mother had a hand in securing these, a peace-offering of sorts, because she had been hard on me lately. We weren’t the only ones to be so honored, and this access—crumbs for the beggars—apparently was the chosen way to pay off debts, settle scores, and give out chits. But it was fine because Evan Dorenberg was headlining and I was a fan. I would swallow my pride to see him. Being backstage was unsatisfying, however, and I acutely felt my lack of occupation. Every outsider there wanted to be a rung higher, a shade cooler, except Dorenberg, who didn’t appear to want any part of this world, but was given it fully nonetheless. He did not hang around back stage, and I only saw him emerge from his green room, deeply drawing on his final cigarette, on way to stage, inwardly focused in that world of his.

But Jay and the rest of Yellowbird were there, so we hung around with them instead. We were more successful here. If you were young and female, no explanation was necessary for your presence, the more the merrier; you were considered part of the rider, you might say. I mentioned to Jay that I’d seen him before, and explained that I was my mother’s daughter. Recognition registered in his eyes; he smiled, looked me over up and down. “Nice clean up,” he said. He said that to me. I was only able to respond with some vague, jerky gesture, hugging my certificate of appreciation tighter.

While I did not end up traveling with Yellowbird to Philly (although Freida took up the invitation), I did start going to more and more of the band’s gigs when I could get to them, hanging out backstage and afterward with their bassist, Howie. Howie—Bobby Howard—was an exceptional bass player, a better musician than man. The open door to the rock scene he provided because he was not exclusive in any sense, and the fact that he was deeply unhappy, was a combination many women could not resist. He was wrecked a lot of the time, but when he smiled, which he did rarely, it was an artless thing, and, even though deep down you knew better, you felt as though you could be the one who healed this creature with the broken wing.

I myself fell into this trap, sitting with him on the hotel couch, both of us silent as he smoked and fingered the strings of an imaginary bass. Everyone called him Howie, except Freida, who called him Bobby. “Bobby!” she would say in that deep, husky voice of hers. “Bobby.” A single-word imperative. That “Bobby” was enough to raise apprehension in the hearts of the stoutest of men. Freida could not be said to be careful.

More and more I wandered through this world of strange strictures and borderlines. The band was working hard, the crew working harder; the only person not working hard was me. The truth was I should have stuck with walking my avenue, but I threw caution to the wind one weekend and flew with Howie and Yellowbird to Indianapolis, my desperation waxing. I didn’t want to end up like Dad, or like Uncle Henry, sitting day in and day out in that tin shack of his, staring at the cornfields, letting time have its way amid the rustling of the drying stalks.

* * *

That night in Indianapolis . . . I should not have been there. I’m not sure how it even happened: I had too much to drink; by the process of elimination we were the only two left. Later in bed, Howie struggled against me as if he were pulling on a rope to climb back out of the hole he had fallen into, and it was a nasty thing, being that rope. It was all over when he pulled me up by my shoulders to a sitting position so our faces were about an inch from each other’s and yelled, “Welcome to the NFL!” Then he let himself slide back down into the twisted sheets and fell asleep. I sat stunned for several moments, then went into the bathroom and got dressed. I tiptoed out of the darkened bedroom and opened the door to the glaringly bright hotel hallway. The harsh light sent waves of nostalgia sweeping over me as I ducked my head and stepped softly over the threshold into the sunshine childhood days of my uncle’s farm—the simplicity of running down the hill, or lying flat on the ground, a blade of grass in my teeth—and I felt as if I would never be that unencumbered again, and I longed to return and now more fully understood its lure.

I was the last of our party to get off the plane when it arrived back at LaGuardia the next day, the last to get to the van waiting to take us back into the city. When I got there, every seat was taken, the entire band jammed in, plus Eric, their manager; the drummer’s sister and two friends; and Freida, who must have met the van at the VIP gate, crushed in next to Howie, his arm around her shoulder. The vehicle was overcapacity and there was no room for me. “Can’t take any more,” the driver said. All eyes were on me.

“It’s okay.” I said. “I can take a cab.”

Jay said, “Just cram in,” but the others were silent.

“Really, it’s okay. I can take a cab.” Howie did not speak up for me. I stared at everyone seated inside as if in a daze. “I’ll take a cab,” I repeated, waiting for the spell to break, holding up everyone. “I’ll . . .”

“Take a cab,” Howie said, looking out the window, not at me.

“Stop being an ass,” Freida told me.

“Jesus Christ,” Jay said, hauling himself up out of his seat. He ducked out of the van, straightened up, grabbed my hand and pulled me down the sidewalk. Later,” he called over his shoulder. The driver pulled the van door shut and drove off. “Bunch of fuckers,” he muttered, not for the first time. We waited in the taxi line for a cab into the city, and though I suppose it should have been a coup of sorts to be standing there with Jay Burton of Yellowbird as a companion, I looked with envy at every traveler, no matter how weary, every terminal employee, all of them seemingly possessed of an agency and grace I at that moment lacked.

We headed to my mother’s office, where I was to be deposited, but first ducked into the little deli on the corner and picked up sandwiches and beer. At the checkout counter, I grabbed a tub of olives as well. Thankfully Mom was not in, and we brought everything to an empty lounge I knew no one ever used, closed the door, and collapsed on the couch, pushing the papers and books off the coffee table onto the floor, taking the food out of the paper bag, spreading it out like a picnic.

Jay could see I was shaken. “If you met him at a different time and place, you’d like him better.”

“He yelled at me,” I told him. Why I would confess something like this to his bandmate, I’m not sure; it broke all rules of propriety, as did my being with Jay now, if one was bent on being particular, but that boat had long sailed. Jay responded by telling me about Howie’s long-time girlfriend, Ivy, a woman almost ten years older. She ran away with another man, leaving a note taped to the dressing room mirror one night an hour before the show. The stunt stung him badly.

“Was he serious about her?”

“I don’t know; he liked her. He liked to get her drunk . . . she’d dance around to old music. He liked to watch her.”

“Because nothing was required of him?”

A pause and a sip. “Right. Just wanted to drink beer and have his . . .”

“Oh, crap. Crap.”

“What?”

“These olives have pits in them.” I said, holding up the container.

“So?” Jay asked, collapsing back against the couch. His hair was in a tangle, some of it caught inside the collar of his black shirt, some of it outside; his eyelashes dark against his pale skin.

“I don’t want a bowl of chewed-over pits; it’s gross.” Tears started in my eyes, my body began to tremble, as the self-imposed embargo on acknowledging the humiliation of last night finally broke, sending an overwhelming sadness flooding though me.

Jay leaned forward and touched my face. He brushed his thumb across my cheek, wiping away the tears. The sudden intimacy was deliverance from a world of letdowns and fiascoes. After the rough and tumble vulgarities of Indy, it felt sweet and warm and kind. And that was all I wanted.

Jay collapsed once again against the back of the sofa.  He was exhausted. He became solemn and turned his head to look at me. “I ain’t gonna yell at you,” he said softly, eyes half-shut. “I ain’t gonna yell . . .”

I rested my head on Jay’s chest; he laid his hand on my hair. We stayed in this position, silent, until one of the interns knocked on the door, sticking her head in and saying they needed the room.

Heaven Song

heaven song (2)

We’d had no contact with Nazer for over two weeks. Still under cover of UNICEF, we were heading back to an area near Travnik, so we decided to visit his parents once more to try to garner information from them. This would most likely be our last visit. I had arranged to have Dorenberg’s new album and a CD player sent to me from the States and was amazed that neither were lost or stolen in transit. Now I could give them to Enesa in person; she just had a bunch of cassettes and listened to the radio. This would be pure gold to her (along with the AA batteries). Just before leaving, we were told the village had come under shelling, and we were unable to move for a day and a half.

When supposedly safe, Louis, Richard, and I drove in the old car with the UN decal duct taped to the upper right section of the windshield, through the frozen countryside and across the river to the edge of the village. But Nazer and Enesa’s village was no longer there. The village had disappeared, like Brigadoon. But instead of a dreamscape expanse of moors and fog, it was all smoke and rubble and an overwhelming sense of things gone horribly wrong. Lou slowed down the car as we passed a body on the side of the road. “Shouldn’t we stop?” I said, well after we had gone by.

“And do what?” Lou asked. We skirted around many dead animals and two more corpses. I had never seen a dead body before and inanities looped through my mind—how a dead person was very different from a living person; how the ignominy of being dumped along the road seemed the worst thing to me, as if there was a more seemly way of being butchered; many other thoughts beyond the pale. When we drove up to the Marić’s house, my mind stopped. Getting out of the sanctuary of the car, I could not speak to Louis or Richard, or explain to myself what had happened here. I could only hear and smell and be aware of things small and near: the buzzing of flies even in this frigid air, our breath swirling out into the stench, the scuttling and scurrying of vermin more imagined than seen, and the cold and the flies and the smoke of fires left burning unattended.

Louis and Richard went into the house ahead of me. They headed to the back where there used to be a small shed attached to the kitchen. The back of the Marić’s house was charred and crumbled, still smoldering, while the front remained intact. Every room was ransacked. I found Enesa’s mother lying facedown on the living room floor. I felt it my duty to cover her with something, but I was too afraid to look around or focus on anything too closely. I stood in the middle of their house determinedly not seeing anything, wanting to be anywhere but here. Anywhere on earth but here. I made a move toward the kitchen when Richard appeared in front of me. He put his hands on my arms and stopped me from going further.

Don’t go in.” Richard said. “Find Enesa.”

Richard pushed me toward Enesa’s bedroom. Halfway down the hall I stopped and could go no further. The sunset light streaming from her window through her open door into the murky hallway frightened me as I had never been frightened before, even more than when I was grabbed by the man across the street from the Port Authority. Then everything was permeated with a sense of super-reality; here this light was otherworldly. I knew what that man wanted; I didn’t know what I’d find beyond this door. I didn’t know what this would take from me. I stood still, swallowing the saliva flooding into my mouth, throat tightening, struggling to move for several minutes. I could hear Louis and Richard roaming around the burning ruble, hear Louis’s exclamations of disgust. I stood there in the hallway with the strange yellow light shining out through the doorway, and I knew that once I entered that room, I would relinquish something fundamental. I have no memory of walking in.

Enesa’s body was hunched over her desk, but her head was twisted, her eyes locked open looking sideways and up; by the strange position, I knew she was gone. I couldn’t believe it. My poor, poor Enesa. My darling Enesa. I started shaking and whimpering. I went over to her. Her hair was matted and bloody, her clothes torn and bloody as well; she had been beaten. Her diary with a piece of paper stuck in it was under her one hand. I pulled the paper out and unfolded it. ‘Dear Mr. Dorenberg . . .’ Enesa, Enesa, Enesa. This letter would have been sent to me to give to Evan, I was sure. She never did believe I didn’t have some sort of relationship with him, no matter what I said. I crumpled up the note and stuck it in my pocket. I stood staring out the broken window. More revulsion flooded through me and I bent down and looked under her skirt. The nausea came without resistance this time.

I straightened up and ran my hand over my face. I fumbled around for my bag and took out Evan’s CD and the disc player. My hands were shaking so badly I struggled to get the disc out of its jewel case and almost broke it. I could barely snap the disc in the player. I plugged in the earphones, the little foam cover things had already fallen off somewhere. I sat down on her bed and turned the player on; the disc spun round and round. I turned it off. I stood up and went over to Enesa, gently moved her hair away from her ears and put the earphones on her head. I put the CD on her chest as well as I could, close to her heart, and slid the tiny latch, my fingertips now stained a dark crimson, to the highest volume and turned the player on. The disc spun round and round. I stood there and became aware of the leave-taking. Leaving the wretchedness, the barbarism and stupidity, leaving the work of men who knew nothing of what it meant to be a man, what it meant to be human. Even though I could just hear hissing coming from the earphones, I could feel her departure, suffusing into the sunset glow, leaving on those soft notes and sweet voice. I became mesmerized by the revolving disc catching the light, throwing prisms toward the setting sun, and I stared into that light, gripping onto her.

Richard came into the room. The horror of what he had seen here and the guilt he felt for our part in bringing the attention, the visitation of evil upon the house of Marić was making this cautious, taciturn man wild. He turned his fear and anger outward at me, afraid of his own emotion, snatching the earphones off Enesa’s head and flinging them aside, trying to pry my one hand off Enesa’s arm and my other one off the disc player, ordering me out, “Let’s go. Go! Go!” I struggled with him, refusing to let go, and he smacked me hard across the face. The physical shock of this made me release my hold, and he pull/pushed me out of the room, down the hallway, out of the house and into the backseat of the waiting car. He got in next to me in the back and slammed the door. Louis drove off.

As I realized we were leaving Enesa there, exposed, alone like that, I lost it in the car, sobbing, grabbing at my face. The disc player fell on the floor and Richard, in his fury, stomped on it, smashing it again and again with his foot as if he wanted to wipe out anything beautiful, to wipe out anything that had any meaning. I screamed, “You son of a bitch!” and lunged at him.

Barely able to contain his own emotions, my outburst just made him more abusive, and he caught and grabbed me by my elbow, pulling me toward him, continuing in his bullying, yelling in my face. “You didn’t sign up for this? You didn’t sign up for this? This ain’t no fuckin’ . . .‘

“Richard! Richard! Knock it off. Knock it off.” Lou shouted at Richard without turning his head around or taking his eyes off the road. He took a hard left. “Knock if off!” Again he turned the wheels hard to the left, sliding the two of us in the back to the one side of the sedan in a heap of rage and despair, and the car sped off into the distance, skirting Travnik, away from Enesa and Nazer’s village, heading east away from the setting sun, never to return.

Star Gazer

bosnia scan

My warm and dreamy reflections on my lover are broken by the clicking and clanging of fork and spoon against dish and bowl, as in the other room my family scrape away at the last of the always too little food.

“Very dramatic, Enesa,” I said flipping the diary shut.

“It’s just the way I write,” she shrugged her shoulders. “Someday I’ll write a movie about me, about my life. Evan will star in it.”

“Well, he’s a singer, not an actor, though if you’re famous enough, they’ll let you do anything, I suppose. It’s annoying. Actors singers, singers actors. Do what you’re supposed to do, I say.”

“I’m sure Evan can do whatever he puts his mind to.” Here Enesa flicked her hair out of her eyes with her fingers, a slight look of annoyance passing across her face.

Enesa Marić was a fifteen-year-old girl living in a small village near Travnik, Bosnia Herzegovina. Enesa Marić was a lover of language and music, and Enesa had been in love for years, it seemed, with the singer/songwriter, Evan Dorenberg. When she found out that I had been at some of the same festivals with him when Jay and I were together, she grilled me for every last tidbit of information. I told her many times I had only spoken to him once or twice, but for her this didn’t matter. I had been photographed with him, so that was that. For all her self-proclaimed sophistication, her idea of America remained one of a bunch of rich, famous people all shopping at the same stores, all friends, all lovers. She didn’t understand the isolation or the bleakness that engulfed so many there as well as here. Only her world was streaked with grey and splotched with mud; America was all candy and smoke machines.

“Tell me again,” she would say.

So every time I visited her and her family, I needed to repeat like a mantra, “Evan’s cool. He’s cool when he plays; all the women fall in love with him, and he’s funny.” She always tried to extract more from me than I had, but was ecstatic with what she got.

And then I would explain as well that it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. I’d tell her everything was bartering, money, commodities. I’d tell her the tale (her mother would banish me if she knew) of Howie yelling, ‘Welcome to the NFL!’ right in my face after a most unromantic grappling session in an Indianapolis hotel room.

“To say such a thing at sexual climax,” she would muse. “I don’t understand American football.”

Her love burned on bright and pure, untarnished by me or any brush with reality. Her brother, however, knew what was going on. He had worked at the Lipik stables for two years before becoming Richard’s contact. Nazer had been there during the shelling and bombing, had seen several stallions felled by the smoke, and barely escaped with his life. He was now working with us as well as he could without raising too much suspicion as we tracked where the Lipizzaners were being taken; we knew they were in Karadordevo, Serbia, moving northward.

I met Enesa when Nazer invited us to his parent’s home for tea with bread and olives. She had that one photo of Jay and me and Dorenberg and his date, lined up couple to couple, from some fan publication and stared at me until she figured it out and I admitted my past. Her excitement was charming. I stopped by a few times to chat with her when I could, but it was becoming too dangerous. I knew these visits would have to stop. Our cover was not holding, and Richard was sure our movements were being monitored. When their village came under fire, the Marić’s front door would be one of the first to be kicked in.

Partly to assuage my guilt over befriending this girl, then bolting, I told her that once things were “sorted out” and life returned to normal, maybe I could arrange for her to visit me in the States, and maybe even meet Evan before one of his concerts. Whether or not I had the chits to do this was not clear; I felt I was being generous with things not my own, like taking some pretty thing off someone else’s mantelpiece, and announcing, ‘Here’s a gift from me.’ But it didn’t matter because I knew these promises would not be kept, these dreams would never happen. The cessation of violence, Enesa visiting America, Enesa meeting Evan; it was all pie in the sky.

But I pushed this fantasy along as the road looked bleaker and bleaker. Always the contrarian, Enesa seemed surprisingly hesitant about the whole idea, reluctant even. “Well, don’t you want to meet him?” I asked her one day. She gave me her look.

“It’s not that. It’s like staring at the stars and suddenly shooting up into space, flying though the blackness.” Enesa made a wavy motion with her hand. “So far away, and now close. And you would never want to come down. But you do.” She stopped and looked through her smeary window. “How could you go out the next night and look up at the sky? I am not brave. What if it didn’t happen again? What if it never happened again? Just memories . . .”