It’s the last week of October and it feels as though we are sliding treacherously into an early Kabul winter. Dusk falls faster now, it edges out the last rays of an afternoon sun that slinks away earlier and earlier each day, its warmth swallowed up by the descending cold.
I’m a girl from the tropics, so I like to defy the advances of winter. Off work, I sling my duffel bag of dirty clothes and head to the laundry in the advancing darkness. The pavement is icy now, I can feel the coldness seeping through the flip flops I insist on wearing. The numbness registers as pain on the soles of my feet. A small matter, I think. There is virtue in a little sacrifice.
There are no street lamps here, so I walk by the light of my iPhone, turned down towards the ground. Overhead, I hear the metal whine of our helicopters trying to rise from the ground. Rotor blades whirr, slicing through the night — whack whack whack — metal attacking the cold air. Just over the T-walls I can see the lights of Kabul blinking, the city laid out like a sequined blanket. It looks pretty, yes — but of course, I know better than to trust the sparkle.
I stuff my laundry in the wash, pop in those plump detergent pods. A week’s worth of clothes. I use up two washers for this round. Forty-five minutes to let the machine do its job, then I have to come back, yank my clothes out and transfer them into the dryers. Through the window of the laundry room, the dark outside has become an indigo kind of blue, and the edges of things have turned blurry, like an ink stain.
I know the temperature is going to drop a few more degrees in the next hour. Almost six years in this place, and there’s no getting used to it. The cold still goes straight to my bones.
For some time now, I have been dancing the dodgy two-step with this guy — an older man who is by turns charming, irascible, and sometimes, just plain tired. Together, we skim the surface of things, unlikely conspirators in a plot to eke out a little happiness.
I’m not entirely sure how I stumbled upon this bit of a dalliance, this little preoccupation. There was that phone call in the middle of the night. He made me laugh and yell at him until about 2 in the morning. I couldn’t make up my mind then if I liked his gruff manner. But the next night he called again, and it was hours before the phones got turned off. We call or Skype each other most everyday now. Sometimes he just grunts at me over the phone, at a loss for words. I kind of like that.
Details began to emerge, photos were swapped, bits and pieces got shuffled around to make room for us. This little preoccupation, it passes the time. It consumes me just enough to make me feed the fire day by day, to tend to it just so to preserve the spark. It is what urban kids nowadays call a ‘skinny love.’ A love that’s not fleshed out enough to be substantial, not solid enough to be defined as a sure thing, or as anything.
I don’t mind it, I mean not too much. There is a connection here that I can appreciate, no matter how tenuous, no matter how brief. But, the both of us, we’re not bothered too much by it. There are no unreasonable demands on time, no shallow arguments, no intrusions into privacy, no intense moments of feeling as though your heart will explode. None of that nonsense.
No, it does not eat us up. It is, after all, just a skinny love.
I’ve sat at a table and eaten with ‘rough men who stand ready to do violence on my behalf’ — and I am all the better for it.
Some days you sit outside and just look.
The sky can be so blue as to seem elementary. There is snow on the mountains now, but you knew that without having to see it, the sting of cold on the soles of your feet tells you as much when you jump out of bed each morning.
You watch people pass by, walking with their hands jammed into pockets, their bodies bent forward in that curved slouch the spine takes on during winter. You think, my tropical bones will never get used to that shape. You think that, but when you stand up to walk, the curvature reveals itself — how the bones arc inwards, trying to form a shell around the lungs, the ribs about to clutch your heart. The body shields itself, even when one is not aware of it.
Some days though, you see beyond the snow that blankets the rooftops, beneath the thin panes of ice on the ground.
Today, some guy turns in his resignation because he thinks everyone ignores him. He feels unseen. One guy confesses he feels betrayed by the locals, he says they pray several times a day and then send out a truck of explosives to try and blow up a gas station, a guard outpost, a camp full of people. He is tired of saving everybody. Some guys just want to move on to the next high-paying gig, go somewhere warm, where one can earn a decent living and be able to drink Jack-and-Cokes. One guy just paid off the last year of his kid’s college and it’s hasta la vista, see ya. Another left because he’d had enough of the crazy running into the bunkers, all hours of the day. And some guys leave because they want better quality toilet paper.
Five years of doing this, and some days when you sit outside you think you’ve seen it all. Some days.
This is my current view, a landscape of blue skies and gray concrete. It’s been set in my mind’s eye, I have been looking at it for close to five years.
The ground is hard, unyielding. We harden it some more, layering it with truckloads of cut rocks, every inch that we can. It is not enough that we already hide behind walls three stories high, we must discipline the earth as well. Imprisoned by rocks, dust, concrete, and steel, I have only the blue skies to remind me of the world that must be still out there. A world where softness is not weakness, where the earth is moist and teeming with life, and where the horizon, unbound, expands freely as far as it pleases.
Some nights, you are so very cold. And so you put on those flannel pajamas to keep warm.
Too quickly, the body forgets the memory of another body against it, how skin warms skin and obliterates the need for clothing. It should be as natural as this, when bodies cling together for warmth. We should need nothing more when we are with one another. We were made to lie close, body to body, nestled in a nurturing embrace. This was how our ancestors survived since the beginning of time, when caves were cold and damp, the darkness — absolute.
Now we have the embrace of flannel pajamas, made all pretty with a length of ribbon. We have the heater on. And in one corner, a night lamp burns quietly, trying to keep the darkness from swallowing us whole.
I tell no one, but it’s been two, no — three months now — that I haven’t been sleeping straight through the night. My sleep is haunted by random thoughts and images, flashing memories that I can’t seem to control.
It’s better when I am at work, because work, mundane though it be, requires a focus that serves to rein in the random thoughts. But at night, the controls fall away and my consciousness becomes a dark, swirling current that sweeps me, helpless and drowning in the flood of memories. Sometimes I’m not even sure if the memories are real, or if they are only imagined, a trick of the light, the cunning creations of a mind that wants a different ending to the story that was.
Trick of the light or true, I just wish I could stop the thoughts, it would be such a welcome rest.