I wasn’t even supposed to be in Berlin. There was an apocalyptic storm, the plane was rerouted, and I found myself with an eight-hour layover for a standby seat on the next flight to Madrid. I shot an email to my boss and set off on a walk around the terminals to stretch my legs.
I was just making my way back from B Terminal when I spotted Taslimah coming from the opposite direction. There was no one I’d rather have bumped into anywhere in the world. I practically shouted her name. She started at the sound but didn’t at first see me. When she found me, she smiled, and the guts fell out of my belly.
“My God, Charley! I’m so sorry I didn’t see you. I wasn’t expecting…”
We kissed on each cheek. It was not everyone called me Charley.
“You’d no reason to.”
“I thought you were based out of Madrid?”
“Yes. I was in London, but the storm – I’m on the layover from hell. But anyway, what about you?”
It had been a few years.
“I’m here. Not, you know, here here.” She indicated the headphones kiosk just beside us. “Here, in Berlin.”
“Who are you with?”
She flashed a closed-mouth smile. “I’m freelancing. I share a flat with a couple of others. Kreuzberg; you know. Are you still with FT?”
I nodded. “You’re heading home?”
She nodded. “Walk me to the exit?”
“Of course.” My heart sank. “Can I take your bag?”
She pursed her lips for a moment but her smile broke through. “You were always such a gentleman.”
“You look – unrivaled.”
“Charley.” Her eyes were soft, her mouth firm. She took up her bag, pulled the strap back over her shoulder. “After that flight? I very much doubt it.”
But I was right. She looked fantastic, stylish and very Berlin. Her hair was shorter now, chin-length and voluminous, black and iridescent as coal. She wore dark jeans, black flats and a white tank top under a black leather jacket. Her wrists and throat jangled with silver.
Once, for a few months, she had worn a ring.
She walked briskly; I slow-stepped. We caught up quickly. Not much had changed with me. I worked too much. Got tapas with sources and other journalists. It seemed there was no place on earth from which she had not reported.
We came at last to a stop beside the exit corridor. She would walk one direction, I the other. I probed for any detail that would warrant more conversation. I lingered until I saw the light turn behind her eyes. She was distracted now, scanning the television sets in the nearby gates blaring CNN.
So I said goodbye. Let her remember me now as someone who knew when to stop.
To my surprise, she leaned in for one final embrace.
I held her, but she was limp in my arms. At first, I did not understand. When I tried, at last, to pull away, her weight came with me. People around us began to murmur. I took her by the arms and tried to get a better look at her face. Her lips were pulled back in a silent snarl of pain. Her eyes were wide, wild and red with tears, locked behind me.
It took me a minute. Probably because I didn’t want to see. An American reporter had been kidnapped and was being held hostage somewhere in the wasteland of Syria.
Taslimah at last found her voice.
I’d known him well. Well enough. We were in the same class in J-school at Columbia. He was tall and good-looking in a maddening, easy way. His clothes always looked clean and seemed to fit right. I thought at first he came from money because that would explain it, but the opposite was true. He was from the Lower East Side, Jewish. Both his parents were public school teachers.
We drank together a handful of times; we weren’t close.
It didn’t help that I knew he was in love with Taslimah.
I accompanied her back to her flat in a cab. The roads were icy; the cab crawled along in the snow. I managed to convince Taslimah that there was no way my flight would be leaving in the morning.
“I can be helpful,” I’d tried to assure her over protestations.
She relented from exhaustion.
She had recovered some of her nerve by the time we pulled up to her building. I paid for the cab, shoving a wad of Euros over to the driver and thanking him in mangled Turkish. Taslimah was already inside the apartment vestibule when I caught up with her.
“The elevator doesn’t work.”
Her flat was on the third floor. It was wide and spacious, neatly appointed in Scandinavian austerity.
She set her bags down in her room, then came back into the living area, closing the door behind her. She went to the fridge, where a large calendar was affixed with heavy tourist magnets of Bruge, St. Peter’s Cathedral. She flipped to February, ran her finger along the week.
“Everyone’s out. I’m home alone.”
“I can make coffee.”
The words didn’t seem to make sense to her. She raised a hand to her forehead, pressed the base of her palm into her eyebrow. “Yes. That’s fine. No, tea.”
“Tea.” I filled the kettle; banged around in the cupboards.
I waited until the pot was ready to join her in the living room. Taslimah had pulled her feet up underneath herself. After a minute she pulled an afghan from the couch back and drew it around her shoulders. I set the teapot on the coffee table and sat across the low black couch from her.
“Are you – ”
Taslimah turned to me with fire in her eyes.
“Am I what?”
“You’re disgusting, Charley.”
“This isn’t about me.”
“How could it not be? Everything is, always.” She shook her head. “I can’t believe I invited you in.”
“You don’t even know what I was going to ask.”
Her eyes narrowed. “How stupid do you think I am? Am I with him? Am I fucking him?”
“I was going to ask if you were in love with him.”
“Go to hell.”
“This must be a nightmare. I mean, I knew him. Know him. It is a nightmare. It’s a nightmare, Taslimah, and I’m not in love with him. I can’t imagine…”
She did not look at me, only stared out the window. The windowpanes were starting to fill with snow. It was almost impossible to see for the storm.
“I should go.”
I stood. For some unfathomable reason, I felt compelled to pour her a cup of tea.
My bag was just inside the front door. I could get a cab back to the airport.
“I’m going after him.”
She turned to me, wild-eyed. “I’m going after him, Charley. I’m going to get back inside and find him.”
I just stood there. Her expression had changed. The fear was there, still, but there was something else too, that regality, that override that I found absolutely intoxicating about her.
“It’s almost impossible to get in.” It was the obvious protestation.
She began to shake her head.
“But I believe that you can do it.”
I could see that this surprised her. She nodded.
“I can help. I can make calls. I can reach out to my – my contacts.”
She thought about this for some time.
After J-school, I went to work for Bloomberg. Taslimah was a year behind us – me and Jonathan.
We met him for drinks one night. He was working for the Times. He had just gotten back from Afghanistan. I made a few self-deprecating jokes about reporting on the wolves of Wall Street. Characteristically, Jonathan hadn’t laughed.
Somehow, Taslimah got him to talk about being there. About riding with a convoy that hit an IED, how he had scrambled out of a toppled Humvee and followed a nineteen-year-old gunner behind an embankment to wait an eternity for the future to reopen to them. He told it all like he was talking about a delay on the F train.
“Were you scared?” An absurd question. But I had to know. Was this the difference between us?
“Shitless.” He gave a half-cocked grin.
“What was – what moved you? There. Most.” Taslimah.
Jonathan sat for a long time.
“The rural villages. The simplicity, the poverty. But it’s something more than that.”
He was quiet for a long time. I swished my beer in circles, ungenerous, bored. Taslimah wore an expression I had never seen before. She was … waiting.
“There’s this sense, in the villages, that – ” He paused and again that half-grin graced his lips. “Do you believe in God?”
“I was raised Catholic, but I’m agnostic.” My easy answer, and true enough.
Taslimah was slower to answer. I waited alongside Jonathan. It had never come up.
At last she shook her head.
Jonathan took all this in. He sat for a moment, clearly working out how much he wanted to let us heathens in. A long look at Taslimah steeled him.
“I thought I had fallen away from my faith, but I was overwhelmed in the mountains by the – ” he searched for the right word. “The weakness, the vulnerability of life. It suffused the sand, the air. The wrinkly olive trees. I had the overwhelming sense of our contingency, just radical contingency; and it was paired with… gratuity. Gratuitous love. At any rate, I don’t think it was just me.”
That night in bed, Taslimah told me that Jonathan had offered to pass along her resume when the time came.
“When did this happen?”
“When we were talking.”
“I don’t remember.”
“I doubt you were listening. You just… checked out.”
We lay in the dark in silence.
“Is that what you want? To go to Afghanistan?”
“It’s a simple question. I thought, you know – it just seems like it’s going to be hard for there to be an ‘us’ if you’re over there.”
“I’m not going to Afghanistan, Charley.”
“That’s not the point.”
“What’s the point?”
“I just didn’t know that’s what you wanted.”
Taslimah rolled to face me.
“What do you want?”
“To hold the powerful to account.”
“Working at Bloomberg?”
“It’s not forever. Besides, I’m getting a sense of how the rich – ”
“I know, I know.”
“I didn’t know that was a problem.”
We worked side by side. Everyone we knew had heard the news – the world knew.
I messaged a buddy of mine, Karim, based out of Ankara. He had sources in the DoD, the Embassy, CIA. If she was actually going to go through with it, she would have to go through Turkey. He’d know who to call next.
-what’s your interest? i’m triaging, C. my phone is exploding with this shit.
-Knew him in school
-shit sorry. Will see what I can find.
-k thanks. I’m with his gf. She wants to go in.
-talk her off that ledge. Jesus C you gotta nix that hard.
I looked up. Taslimah was huddled in her afghan. Her laptop was open on her lap. She was typing furiously. From time to time, she turned her attention to her phone, which vibrated almost constantly.
She didn’t seem to hear the question. I turned back to my own laptop, wracking my brain for someone, anyone, else to reach out to.
I looked up. She had withdrawn from the machinery around her. Moved inwards. The windows rattled with the wind. Taslimah set her laptop, still open, on the coffee table, her phone screen down on the keyboard. She took up her cup of tea and took a sip.
“I never wanted to fall in love with him.” She moved her eyes to mine. “I’m sorry, I – ”
“It’s okay. It was a long time ago.” My innards twisted with remembrance. Not so long. “When did you – ”
“Fall in love?”
“If I am brutally honest, it was New York. But I think you already knew that. I think that’s why you let me go. You were many things, Charley, but you weren’t…” She seemed to search for the word.
She snorted. “A fighter. Maybe if you had fought for me.”
“If I had fought for you, I would have ruined you. I have some pride. I set the bird free and it did not come back. You never loved me.”
“You were good to me.”
“I would have been, always.”
“Jonathan – loves me. But it’s different. I’m his second love. I think that’s why I was drawn to him. I couldn’t be a first love.”
“I don’t understand that. You don’t deserve that.”
“Talk to my mother.” Taslimah laughed bitterly. She set the tea down loudly on the coffee table. She rose, discarding the afghan. “I need to pee.”
She went to the far side of the flat. In the noiselessness of the stormy night, I could hear everything, the details that I remembered from our cohabitation. I never turned my head, but I would not have been surprised to see that she had left the door ajar, the way she used to. I could see her standing, pulling her underwear up before her jeans. Running her hands, wet from washing, through her hair. What the hell was I doing there?
She reemerged and returned to the couch by way of the kitchen. She brought a bottle of whiskey and two tumblers.
“I can’t do this alone.”
“I can’t do anything alone.”
She smiled at that and poured us each a fingerful. We tapped glasses and took a sip.
“I’m glad you’re here, Charley.”
I’d have replied if she had remained there. She had moved inwards again. I checked my phone for updates. The Times, the Post, the Journal: everyone was covering the story. There were no new details. I had little doubt that if there was news, it would get to us fast. By now everyone who knew us – who knew him – knew we were waiting. I sent a couple of follow up texts.
“Do you remember when he came to New York?” Taslimah.
“I think that night was the first time that I understood myself.”
“I have no idea what you mean.”
Taslimah stared into the pool of whiskey. “I never understood before that night that I had spent my entire life running from fear. Have.”
I laughed. “Come on. That’s some kind of reverse psychology. You’re fearless.”
She shook her head. “I’d have stayed, Charley, if you had seen it too. But you couldn’t see that.”
“But Jonathan did?”
“I don’t know. But I understood that he wasn’t like me. Like you.”
“He’s not afraid?”
“Jesus, Charley. That’s not what I’m saying. He feels fear, he’s afraid of being shot at, of being killed. He’d probably scared out of his goddamned mind right now.”
I didn’t dare interject.
“What I’m saying is.” She breathed deeply through her nose. “He isn’t ruled by it. I can’t – can’t put my finger on it, exactly. He’s not a stoic. He moves through the world with that sense of what he talked about, that sense of gratefulness for the mess of it all. And I can’t even imagine what that would be like. I’ve been chasing it, racing around the world trying to get my hands on whatever that is. I’m chasing a high I’ve never even known. I just know I want to grab it in my hands and breathe it and smother myself in it.”
She wiped away a tear. “I’m rambling. It’s the whiskey, the stress – it’s… fuck, Charley.”
Her phone pinged.
Taslimah sat for a long time staring past it. She nibbled from time to time at her lower lip. The whiskey in its tumbler sat unfinished in the palm of her hand.
After another minute the phone pinged again. I reached for it. She had an email from another reporter. I knew her byline.
“Anikah says that if you can get to Turkey, she can get you by bus across the border. After that, there’s a network…”
Taslimah nodded. She was quiet for a long time.
“This is insanity, isn’t it?”
“I mean – yes, but… Yes, Tas.”
“I suppose I should let the government do this. I’m sure there are policies, procedures.”
She jutted out her jaw. Turned her gaze again to the window.
“I just don’t know…”
“What you should do?”
She shook her head. There was no impatience in it. “I don’t know whether the fear is in the staying or the going.”
“I mean – it’s in the going, Tas. Right? It’s in trying to get into Syria.”
“Perhaps.” Taslimah nodded. I had lost her again.
“Anyway, I’ll tell her to plan for two. For two of us.”
She turned to look at me. “Don’t even start.”
“It’s not your decision.” My heart was pounding. I thought I might shit myself right there on her spotless Scandinavian couch. But I had the insane need not to be sidelined for this. “I know Jonathan, too. I’m not letting you do this alone. It’s too dangerous.”
“You’re going to protect me?” That same smiling incredulity, maddening in its unintentionality.
“Yes. I mean, no. It’ll be what it is. You just don’t have to go there alone.”
“Charley, you’re being absurd.”
“It’s too late.” I sent a hasty email back to Anikah. “I’m on the hook now. We’re on the hook. We can face your fear together.”
“It’s your fear, Charley.”
The universal fear. Fear of death. Fear of pain.
No, it’s worse than that. Taslimah knew it. Jonathan knew it. They were kind enough not to say anything, not to laugh at me, even behind my back, even after.
Fear of discomfort. Fear of inconvenience. Fear of not being fluent, not being understood. Not really understanding.
Not being what she really wanted.
We were down in the Bowery, just coming out of a show at the Ballroom. Jonathan was there, along with a couple of other J-school friends, and despite my buzz, I was pissy. I walked ahead of the group. I managed to get across Grand street alone, leaving the others on the other side of the traffic.
Taslimah and Jonathan were talking. He was leaning against the light post, arms crossed. He said something that made her laugh, and she put her hand on his forearm. I clicked my jaw and turned away.
A short, wide-faced man was standing too close to me. His head was stubbly, and though it was early spring, he wore a heavy black overcoat. One of his eyes was swollen shut. A seeping laceration ran from his forehead to his cheek. I started.
“Buddy, you got a few pennies you can spare, a dime?”
“Guy, you need to get to a hospital.” I turned to traffic, raised a hand. “I’ll pay for your cab.”
“I asked for cash,” he hissed, and he took me by the front of my shirt. He was holding a short curved-bladed knife. He pushed it hard against my belly.
“You need a hospital,” I said stupidly. He couldn’t have been aware of the bleeding eye or it would have made sense. A cab made sense. Unless the whole thing was fake, the cut and the eye were a makeup job calmly applied to put people like me off my guard. That made sense, too, if you thought about it.
There was a shout and a screeching of tires. Horns blared. I turned to see Taslimah dashing across the street, through the deathly slow cluster of cabs turning off Grand onto the Bowery. She was pulling Jonathan behind her by the hand.
I did not think of the danger to Taslimah, to Jonathan. If they were going to hold hands while they saved me…
I woke to the feeling of my phone vibrating under my fingertips. I pressed it on, but I was so bleary-eyed I couldn’t see the time. I blinked my eyes into focus. The snowstorm had stilled, but the sky was dark. The phone’s face came into focus. It was three fifty in the morning.
I had a text from Karim.
-Are you there, Charles?
A text in full sentences.
-Is Jonathan’s girlfriend still with you?
I looked around. At some point, exhausted from the planning and the logistics, we had drifted off on the couch. I had fallen asleep still seated, but Taslimah was stretched out under the afghan, her head at the far side of the couch, her feet tucked under my thigh. My hand was on her calf. I pulled it quickly away, then set it back. The smallest thing.
-I’m sorry, Charles, but you’re going to have to break the news.
The phone buzzed a few times, but I could no longer see the words. I felt hot all over, just waves of heat. I thought I was going to throw up.
I leaned forward to pour myself another glass of whiskey. My hands were shaking like crazy. I poured the whiskey. I knocked over the bottle as I reached for the glass. It slipped, clanging loudly against the glass top of the coffee table. The bottle landed on its side. I watched as the liquor came glugging out, running in rivulets across the table, her papers, under our laptops.
Taslimah moaned softly. Somehow through it all she had remained asleep on the couch beside me. I knew that if I moved she would awaken.
I sat in the darkness and listened to the dripping of the whiskey. From time to time my phone buzzed to remind me that I had not yet seen the messages from Karim.
I turned it off.
Thomas Jacobs was raised overseas, mostly in South America, Turkey and Spain. He is a graduate of St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md. His fiction has appeared most recently in River River Journal, The Oddville Press, and The Oakland Review, among others.
© Variant Literature Inc 2021