CITIES IN STRIFE
(EXCERPT)

  by Jose A.
1.
First, I become aware of the city air, mechanically - in my hypodermic hairs - letting me know that I am here. I can smell people, but I donít know if itís the scent of their clothing or their bodies - I hear them passing by on either side of me. My eyes open to a blinding brightness. The world ends at the intersection ahead of me, where everything blends into a big white nothing. If a car came out of the big white nothing, it would look like a sketch, it would crush me and Iíd fall in pieces, sieved through the sewage grate beneath my feet.
     Figures on the street blend into each other, their saturated faces bleed like drops of rain, shadows stumble in a long line, their movement is moored to one building. It looks like a stadium. I press myself against its brown and red bricks, feel their grain on the side of my face and finger tips. Everything needs to be broken down - made simple so I can understand it. Iím on a street, Iíve lived in big cities my whole life, but this one feels alien.

A girlís arm reaches out to me, sheís standing with her back to the stadium wall. She takes me by the hand and leads us to a small motorcycle parked across the street. One of her legs is much longer than the other, thin, blackened and crooked, a burnt twig that she has to bend to the side and drag as she walks. I move ahead of her, and stand with my back to the bright sun. She lowers her body so that it intersects my shadow and the softer light reveals her in detail; dusty tangles of black hair hang over her face like a crooked wig. Her skin seems pale and brittle, an eggshell. Her eyes are empty, but very round and open. A tarnished blue dress sticks to her like a bed sheet. She seems like a product of many intersecting projections.
     Turning herself around, she reaches down there, and grabbing the material between her legs, peels it away from her body. With my nose pressed into her pubic hair I see a forest, a canopy of trees, draped and undulating over mountains - the mountains pour black and yellow birds into the sky. The birds eat the sky, like a virus consuming a cell, filling it entirely and then erupting through it. Dead birds fall through silver clouds, landing at my feet; chests gush out black foam - empty white eyes roll back into their heads.

2.
Ahmed and his sister Abeer stand together in the kitchen of their new home. Other than their own bodies, a refrigerator and a stove are the only things that occupy space in the room. A small window looks out on Mahmoudiya. They live on the second floor, so the view comprises only a chain link fence, a dirt road, and the identical building opposite. Two boys of about his age walk by just as Ahmed and his sister happen to look out, the boys donít run, or talk, their faces look directly ahead, one carries a ball under his arm.
     The boys make their way to a dusty lot that Ahmed can scarcely see behind the apartment buildings set perpendicularly to the road before him. The air is unusually noiseless for the middle of the day; the only sound was that of the boyís footsteps as they passed. From that little opening of shrubs and dirt, the boys could turn to find Ahmedís face staring out of one of many small rectangular opening - they donít, and Ahmed doesnít care that they donít. He is content to watch the boys disappear behind clouds of dust lifted up by the ball that rolls between them.
     Houdaís voice scolds them sharply from behind. Ahmed wants to tell her that he had not even thought of going outside to take part in the game himself, but his eyes are busy trying to decipher hers; then his mother announces that sheís off to buy material for curtains at the market. She picks up her purse, rises from her chair then sits down to think of how she might build fixtures on which to hang her curtains.
*
Ahmedís father, Ali, was a professor at Baghdad University. He disappeared one day, shortly thereafter his family failed to pay rent. Aliís body will never be found; there are many unidentified corpses on the street. Houda wishes she could curse his murderers, but the people responsible do not make themselves known.

3.
I hold on to her and we travel for a while, she says that she would rather hang on to me because a girl driving a motorcycle is an outrageous thing, but that since her life is going to be so short, she might as well try it. My cheek had taken the shape of her spinal column, and I was falling asleep. Eventually we arrive at an apartment building, it looks to me like an old hotel, thereís a powder blue awning over the glass doorway, and a door man who holds one of the panes open by a silver handle firmly in his grip. I cant see his face, but his breathing is loud and gives me a deep, empty, cavernous sensation. Her head reaches as high as the pistol holstered to his side, she seems unmoved by his sheer size and presence. I move to enter the open corridor but he reaches out, and lays his massive leather-sheathed hand my shoulder.
*
A policeman at the apartmentís entrance introduced himself as Ismael. Houda tries, but cannot feel comfortable around him. His friendliness seems out of place in this new housing district - inhabited as it is by re-settled families, who carefully time their expeditions outside to avoid each other. He claims to bear no suspicious feelings toward his Ďnew neighbors;í Even the Americans, he says, pointing to the accumulation of heavy vehicles and barbed wire down the road, are welcome here; providing they only kill the right people.
     Houda turns to view the outpost; she canít decide if itís proximity will make her death more or less immediate. Houda opens her mouth, intending to excuse herself, but instead she is surprised to hear herself telling Ismail of her trip to the market. Searching for toiletries for her two children she could only find toothpaste at a price that was almost ten times greater than normal, she bought one tube, only to come across an Egyptian man, on her way home, selling it for a quarter of the cost out of the back of his truck. Houda laughed, and although it was a rare sound, it attracted nobodyís attention.
*
Sheís standing on the toes of her abnormal leg, I thought it might break under the strain of supporting her entire body, but it endures; she reaches up to slip two golden coins into the doormanís breast pocket. Suddenly my shoulder doesnít hurt like it just did. Iíve never seen a uniform like his before, but looking at it, my mind is overwhelmed by an image of him emerging, out a desert, sand dispersed around the outcropping of his chest and shoulders, as the sun rises and sets thousands of times in the palpitating sky. I want to look directly at his face but it is too high above mine. He pats his pocket, jangling the coins lightly, and after a moment, stands aside. The corridor turns right, and leads us to a stairwell that she climbs ahead of me in her slow disjointed way.

4.
In Mahmoudiya, it is possible to spend entire days laying on the floor, listening for the stray bullets which one knows will come through the wall at any moment, and strike that very spot where one would have stood, adjusting the radio dial, or drinking tea. Ahmed and his family live in what the American soldiers know as the triangle of death. A section of the city where patrols are ambushed so often that moving vehicles of any sort are viewed as bad omens. Since moving here Ahmed and Abeer have spent an entire month inside their small apartment, they are not so young as to dismiss the danger outside or conspire to explore it while their mother is away, doing whatever she can to earn money. But the children theyíve spotted several times, making their way to the dusty field, where they play until they are lost from sight, nag at their thoughts. Houda brings them paper and crayons, and the first picture Ahmed draws is of the two children playing with the ball in the dusty field.
     Ahmed draws their faces with dark, serious eyes that express a determination to play, Abeer draws swirls of dust with a brown crayon, massing the scribbles thickly on Ahmedís drawing until the two figures have almost disappeared. Stop! Ahmed pleas, but Abeer is for once laughing, as she erases the players. Ahmed joins her, drawing his dust swirls on top of herís with his own crayon.
*
In her bedroom she asks me to sit down and motions with her hand to a stool beside the dresser. I look over and see its counter crowded with make up and jewelry. Iím holding up a pair of earrings in the shape of mineral skeletons. Each one is a round perforated capsule, holding a pink ovum at its center.
     Donít ask me to wear them for you.
     I ask her to wear the earring for me, and her eyes grow heavy with sorrow and look away from me; the longer I wait to acknowledge what sheís glancing at, the fuller they become, until they seem so dark they swallow themselves, and a shudder creeps across her face.
*
Their drawings focus on things that they have yet to see in life, or that they remember from childhood. Abeer draws many pictures of their father, in those that depict a real memory or event he is standing on the ground with his arm around her, often these drawings place them back in their old house, in the living room where the extended family gathered for parties.
     In the foreground Abeer draws plates of food and bottles of alcohol, in the background she draws picture frames and family portraits, sometimes she draws her father on a hill, standing level with the grass and flowers. In some drawings her father is floating over the ground, the context of these drawings is indistinguishable from the others except for this one fact.
*
Are these yours? I ask, turning my attention to the drawings on the bedroom wall. Some of them, she replies, here, I drew this one of you - sheís holding out a sheet, with an awful dislocation of facial features drawn within an outline of what appears to be a dogís head. The dog has a skull in its mouth; the skull is smeared with lipstick and eyeliner. The skull vomits the dogís entrails from out of its mouth.
*
Ahmed would rather draw animals, in proportion the human figures in his drawing, the animals are enormous, sometimes he draws a boy atop his animals, riding a lion or an elephant, he draws a scimitar into the boyís hands, itís clear to Abeer and Houda that the boy in the drawings is Ahmed, but Ahmed does not suspects this.

5.
I stand by the mirror and watch her outline my eyes with a purple wax crayon. Then she applies an iridescent ash on my eye lids with her thumb, she holds it there, pushing down on my eyeball until it hurts, then she puts her other thumb down on it too. I grab her wrists and force them apart, she stumbles back laughing onto the bed.
     My vision blurs, thereís a partial reflection of her deformed leg on the window; It looks smooth, a tree branch across the sky. A long mirror hanging on the wall reflects her from behind, this reflection is more material in its appearance than the one on the window; the bone looks crooked and knotty from below the knee. On the bed, she lies on her side with her hands held at her back, her head facing me. In the mirror, I can see her hands are growing into soft sea coral.
     She asks me if I hate it, meaning her leg. I donít. Iím crawling on the bed. She gets up and drags herself to the bathroom, sits on the toilet with her knees spread apart, picks up her deformed leg and rests her calf in the sink. My mouth opens - I plunge my tongue into her, lick her thighs, taste enamel, taste bone; pubic hair in my throat. Iím sitting on the toilet. My eye still hurts, itís red and swollen and leaking down my face, she thinks itís funny, but canít laugh.
*
At night they sit on cushions on the kitchen floor, listening to the sounds from neighboring apartments: a radio, a television, Houda recognizes the sound of a blender. The builders replaced her broken stove, so she spent a bit of extra money on potatoes and vegetables to make a stew. Ahmed spoke while his mother stirred the pot, telling her of the boy whoíd knocked on their door earlier that day. At first Ahmed and Abeer ceased up, breathing quietly and motionless, but they had been arguing loudly a moment earlier, so it was useless to pretend they were not home. The voice in the hallway introduced itself, he said he lived upstairs, was fourteen, and looking for someone to play with. Ahmed and Abeer werenít about to open the door to anyone, they told the voice on the other side of the door to return the next morning, when their mother would be home, and so it did.
     Wahidís family was very poor. This was obvious from his smell and his clothes. His skin was caked in dirt, dark under his nails and behind his ears. Nevertheless, he had introduced himself cordially, and this was a good sign. Ahmed and Abeer instantly took to their new friend, and soon the three were drawing pictures together on the floor.
     Before going to work Houda brought a bowl of water, a bar of soap, and a towel to the living room. Wahid took the opportunity to wash without hesitation. To decline so would have been rude. Afterwards, his complexion had changed so dramatically that his hosts could not help but stare. As Houda was about to leave, he asked if he could take the water home.
*
Sheís holding herself above the toilet bowl with her hands on the rim, her face looks back at me, her shoulders tense, and a lot of tiny muscles pop out in relief between her shoulder blades. Her spine bends the skin of her back like a tent until it tears in half; bones and cartilage hang from her body by net of shredded nerves, dripping blood and fluid. My knees slide on the tiles, she turns around and grabs my whole face with her hand, digging her nails into my nostrils, and stabbing her thumb into the soft spot under my chin. My face feels like its caught in the gears of some machine. I fall off her body. Iím dragged out of the bathroom. Through the space between two black fingers my blurry eye catches sight of the man who crushed my shoulder on the street.
*
Ahmed and his sister lean their elbows listlessly on the window sill. When a hand holding a bowl appears above them, and pours a stream of onto the sandy road below. The shape of the water blistering the sand makes a dark elongated arc. Splashes of wet sand stain the policemanís leg. He looks up in time to see only the childrenís heads falling backwards into the apartment.

6.
The uniformed man stands over me, he removes a glove - his hand shines like a piece of metal - the glove grows slowly into a huge shape that covers up half of what I see. Way up there, his face vibrates like a green and turquoise stain, it looks like a turtle shell; plunging down, three or four faces seem to occupy the same space; his lips shine like strips of black vinyl. One of his pupils is a black slit, the other eye is a glossy screen, words and numbers scroll around in it like a centrifuge, I cant make anything out.
     Two slanted ducts tighten in the center of his face. He shoves a silver mechanical finger between my lips - a strange sound, like that of a small motor, reverberates through my skull; a sharp metal hair pierces through the roof of my mouth and slides upward.
*
I heard what you did to the policeman! Houda grabs her son and daughter by their arms. It wasnít us, they say; the water fell from above. Houda suspects that Wahid gave them the Idea. But the children swear he hadnít come back after sheíd left, and that they only hid from the policemen so that he wouldnít mistake them for the culprits.
*
The metal hair radiates heat from deep in my face, I feel my shoulders slack, my whole body becomes limp. His voice is an amorphous glob inside my head.
     Oxytocin, be primed for touch
     I close my eyes, and feel myself sink into the floor, at first it feels like millimeters, then forever.
*
Ah, then your children are probably not responsible, replies the policeman, come to think of it, there is a poor and reprehensible family that lives in the apartment just above yours, Their father is a drug addict, and their mother is lame, still, they have too many children, and I hear their oldest son, Wahid is his name, has sex for money with many men in the neighborhood.
     Houda was taken a back by this rumor and by the policemanís jovial attitude. Just as she had adjusted to the idea of their new home, and a new community, rumors and suspicion reared their ugly heads. The next morning, when Wahid came to knock on her door, she felt obliged to let him in. Houda asked him if he had thrown the water out the window, he replied that it was his motherís habit.
*
My hand travels along the seam of his uniform, I feel my head bend too far back, I feel it pass between the shoulder blades, through my spine, my lungs, my heart, and out through my chest, back onto my shoulders, heat flashes in my face again.
     Lordosis
     For some reason Iím arching my back and thinking about Mal, two summers ago, we just met, the birds are dead on the balcony, weíre in his bed, Iíve only known him for a week or so, I think he likes me, heís fucking me from behind, Iím holding our two hard knobs together in one hand.
     Imagine a christmas light
     heat strobes deep in my face
     Luminous, sudden
     Iím on the street, looking back at mal on the balcony.
     Gone
     Iím in my room, Iím crying, heís not in love with me, heís just using my ass, he says heís not just using my ass.
*
Wahid says that the policeman hates his family and speaks wrongly of them. His honesty, in admitting his mother threw the water, is remarkable, but it makes Houda feel nervous. Hadnít his mother taught him when to speak and when to hold his tongue? Houda began to wonder if Wahid had been sent to her apartment to fulfill some purpose. She hadnít given a second thought to sharing her water, or letting her children play with him, but now she wondered how these gestures would be perceived. She balanced the idea of never letting Wahid back into her apartment against going up to meet his family herself. In the end, a feeling like constipation held her back from taking any action.
*
I can smell someone who isnít here, heat again, I can smell somebody, for some reason Iím thinking about my sister, Marla, except sheís younger, fifteen or sixteen, which makes me about ten, the bathroom is steamy, the walls are moist and smell like a Christmas light. Iím sitting on the toilet, my legs are shaking, my ass is shaking, I might shit.
     Testosterone
     My feet stick to bathroom the tiles
     Acetylcholine
     My legs cramp, something hot and thicker than piss goes through my body and stains the tiles. If every stain I ever made suddenly re-appeared there wouldnít be an inch of space left in the universe.

A blue bead travels from his finger to my face; itís hot in my skull, mechanical sounds, I feel my body again, my heart beating fast, my face turning cold, bands of phosphorescent colour flash around everywhere.
*
Wahidís eyes spoke of some sad experience; most Iraqis, Houda knows, live with an anxiety of death that cannot be measured, but those whom poverty had always forced to live in desperation seem almost calmed by this preposterous environment. Wahid took genuine joy in the games he played on her floor, games which would have bored a normal fifteen year old boy.
*
His fingers move in slow circles, stretching my skin, his teeth bite my ear, two fingers stretch the corners of my mouth, his slitted pupil gushes black foam into my mouth, I feel it moving in my sinuses and in my ears, Iím sitting at the toilet, my bones melt and gush out of my dick; glove enters between my legs, fist smashing through teeth in my mouth. Iím on the subway, I remember, I can smell someone who isnít here, I donít know who, I want to know who, Iím crying. Iím staring at peoples knees, rows and rows; my legs walk away from my body, my hands float away Ė nails stripped from the fingertips - teeth falling out of my mouth Ė a cock stabbing my mouth Ė lips breaking - stomach and organs erupting, seething out of me like shiny black balloons.

7.
Houda listens to the sound of a truck engine idling at the building gate. The sound of men climbing the stairs and talking loudly to each other comes easily through the walls of the apartments. In a terrifying moment, Houda hears them walk by her door. Uniforms and guns are cheap; itís impossible to know who they really are. Ahmed pretends to sleep, with his eyes closed and his ears covered by his motherís hands, he listen to the sounds coming from the apartment above his; the loud intimidating commands of the policemen and the audible responses of crying children, footsteps coming down the stairwell. He listens silently in the darkness.
*
A leather glove enters through my stomach. A Christmas light sparks off in my head - it feels like cocaine; I say I love you, my love seethes out of me in globs and black foam - Mal doesnít smell like anything. I love Mal, Iím stuck in my bedroom, its locked from the outside, I donít have the keys to get out Ė my clothes are on the floor around my mattress, like dead skin Ė a skull is regurgitated by the sleeve of an old sweater Ė it floats around my room.
*
The shouting continues out on the street. The policemen accuse their captives of corrupting the community; a motherís begging is heard, and a man desperate to reason. Their voices silenced by kicks and smacks.
*
Imagine an almond glowing brightly in your head. Iím sweating, cant slow my heart down, cant stop crying; the floor is made of hypodermic needles that stab my body, Iím full of holes and gaps, Iím nothing but gaps. Iím standing in a dark hallway, Iím laying down on the street, Iím cold, I donít know where I am.
*
Houda stands at the kitchen window, on the street, two men in police uniforms stand on Wahidís hands, a third man hold his motherís head in his hands, and keeps her eyes open. A familiar face watches from the shadows. They shoot Wahid in the stomach, his legs twist and kick tersely at the air, he squeals like a dog caught under the wheel of a truck, they shoot him in the chest, and in the head.
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