:: Article

War Story

By J. Bowers.

We drink all day because the country’s at war. You drink bloody marys and I have Pimm’s. It wasn’t always this way. I still remember that night. You took me downtown to eat Japanese and watch an Icelandic band scrape electric guitars with violin bows. The horsehair strings snapped off as the lead guitarist played, the notes ringing out like transmissions from fractured and violent stars. We stood together in the balcony, shoulders barely touching, as everyone swayed gently back and forth.

Walking home, we held hands and talked about how cold it was, even though it had been an unseasonably warm March. You said we had psychologically willed ourselves into shivering just because we knew the band came from Iceland. You said it was like someone saying “don’t think about a polar bear.” I said they couldn’t help singing about ice, it was like getting sand in your shoes at the beach, inevitable. You lent me the shirt you’d bought at the show, and I wore it like a cape. The subway smelled like tar and french fries, heated by the machinery. We read posters about Coldplay and bought a candy bar to share on the train.

I remember how strange it felt to find your roommates gathered in the living room, painting doves on Brian’s bedsheets and drinking vodka. It was odd to see the TV off and see it for what it really was, a mysterious black cube that attracted furniture. Looking around at Maura and Brian, we knew. Without speaking, we knew.

We knelt on the floor beside a banner that read “the only Bush to trust’s your own” and watched each other, wide-eyed, as gunshots popped on the radio. You kept saying they didn’t sound real. Maura made us drinks and gave a speech about how our generation has been anaesthetized by technology. She said that right now, thousands of kids were doped up on television versions of the truth, while we heard the news firsthand on NPR. She said that come morning, they’d be hooked up to Google News, complacently reading about the movement while we were out on the streets, creating it. We would be among the standard-bearers. The firestarters. The front lines.

In bed that night, you tucked your chin against your knees like a child participating in a “severe weather drill.”

The sky was white that Thursday. We all called in sick. Maura gathered up the painted bedsheets and led us all to a small cancer memorial where people who looked like us were gathering with signs made out of posterboard, beer cases, whatever they could find. They said things like NO BLOOD FOR OIL. NOT MY PRESIDENT. GIVE PEACE A CHANCE. One guy complimented Brian on his gas mask, and another asked if he could help hold up our bedsheets. I said okay.

A crust punk girl with pink dreadlocks and a megaphone climbed onto the edge of the memorial and waved her arms. She said we were going to start moving as soon as she was done talking. We cheered solemnly, like Romans in films. She said it was up to our generation to fight, not with bombs, but with words. It began to rain. She explained that while we, today, could only shut down, say, a city block—more cheering—at this very moment, all over America, people just like us would be shutting down their neighborhoods, boroughs, cities. “This is what democracy looks like!” she shouted, jumping up and down.

At this, the crowd exploded. We waved our bedsheet around over our heads, catching the rain on our arms. The megaphone girl pogoed, shouting “One, two, three, four! We don’t want an oil war!” Then we were all shouting that. A handful of kids with walkie talkies made sweeping motions with their arms, herding us into the intersection. Traffic lights shifted from red to green to yellow while stranded cars honked. A woman yelled “Love it or leave it!” and acted like she was going to keep driving, but she had to stop, we had the numbers.We flashed each driver the peace sign and watched to see if they’d smile or give us the finger. We felt subversive. 1, 2, 3, 4, WE DON’T WANT AN OIL WAR! Our voices shook the street.

Eventually we stopped in front of a large beige building. The pink dreaded girl reappeared, waving her megaphone around. The rain was really coming down now. There was hair dye all over her shirt. She shouted something about our generation. I didn’t realize we were at a high school until I saw the kids’ faces pressed up against the windows, clapping and banging on the glass. Someone said it was the local magnet school for art students. A few dozen kids wearing Doc Martens and Morrissey t-shirts darted out to join us. We screamed 1, 2, 3, 4, WE DON’T WANT AN OIL WAR! at the school.

The crowd shifted back toward the main road. Cop cars lined the sidewalk leading to the square, but the officers were just leaning against them, clutching walkie talkies. The crowd surged forward, knocking us down. We clutched our bedsheet and struggled up, flashing the peace sign as we passed the TV news crews stationed on the corner beside the Barnes & Noble. Soon nobody could shop there, because you, me, Maura, Brian, and about five other kids were wedged in front of the doors. It was like a rock show. Everyone wanted a good place to stand. After a minute we got restless and went back to shouting “1, 2, 3, 4, WE DON’T WANT AN OIL WAR!” The pink megaphone girl, having fought her way to the front of the crowd, leapt up onto the flowerbed in the middle of the square and waved her arms around.

She said that students from five area colleges, and countless private citizens, were here today exercising their first amendment rights. Everyone cheered. She said that we all deserved a round of applause for coming out and taking a stand. Maura pumped her fist in the air as the megaphone introduced a philosophy professor to the crowd. He began by listing our president’s shortcomings, and ended with a passage from the Bhagavad Gita, the bit about becoming a destroyer of worlds.

That kind of sent the mood south until a mohawked crust punk commandeered the megaphone and started lustily chanting “Food not bombs!” to violent applause. A rumor reached us that the assembled crowd would now march three times around the square, then retrace its route to the cancer memorial. Our roommates cheered.

Together, we slipped into the Barnes & Noble and huddled together among the travelogues, soaked and shaking. You said my lips were blue. Yours were worse.

The next few days were strange. You lost your job for a while because the people at the deli didn’t believe you were sick. Ten of the fifteen workers hadn’t bothered showing up, but you said you were being singled out because your lunch breaks were too long. So you got fired, and I took vacation, citing post-traumatic stress. The news said we all had that. It said our nervous systems needed time to recover from the shock and awe. Everyone was taking vacation. Maura and Brian were using theirs to stay with internet friends in D.C. and await further protests. Maura said they met some amazing libertarian socialists at a march down the Mall. She seemed to have a thing for some freegan named Alonza. She said Brian had let him spray Mace at his eyes to prepare for “their next mission.”

We told her we’d come down as soon as we could, but neither of us really meant it. Some days, we couldn’t bring ourselves to leave the apartment. It was a tenth floor walk-up, and our rooms seemed suddenly precarious and vulnerable, like a treehouse under siege. We felt it was safest to remain, despite the horrifying midnight idea that a plane might crash through the wall at any given moment, killing us immediately.

At some point, you replaced our sheets with a soft, light blue set made out of t-shirt material. I began to experience recurring dreams. The television said these were now common; particularly those involving airplanes or bombs, or things and people secretly standing in for airplanes and bombs. In mine, you and I were the last two alive after the glaciers sank into the sea. We roamed a vast plain studded with derelict shells of refrigerators and office equipment, gathering the moss that grew on them for sustenance. Hand in hand, we wove through great electric monuments, laughing like children after the rains. You spoke gravely, like a movie Indian, but I could never remember anything you said.

You got your job back after the deli people decided they weren’t going to fire everyone, just the people who had called in sick twice before the war. I negotiated Fridays off, allegedly to paint. Really, I spent them doped on Tylenol cold, wandering around the Lower East Side like a drunken pigeon, inhaling exhausted air. Mostly these walks ended at a café on Rivington, where I sat numb, drinking green fortified water and casually wondering what to do if the white powder dusted across the table beside mine was anthrax, not powdered sugar. The people seated near me worried aloud about celebrities and mercury. I ate wheat toast and stared at the white walls. When I was done doing that, sometimes I took Polaroids of things. A stray tortoiseshell cat. Plastic lilies in flowerboxes.

When you looked at them, you said you’d rather see cold steel girders, claustrophobic knots of barbed wire. You kept talking about a dream you had where orange prescription bottles nestled like Easter eggs beside I-87. In the dream, you said you had the vague sensation of being lost under an overpass while a black mushroom cloud made up of flies ascended, swirling, toward the open sky. When I asked if I was there, you said neither of us were, no one was.

You quit work pretty soon after that, citing the sense of doomed finality that had settled over the city like dust. It wasn’t long before I did the same, or I think I did. One minute I was xeroxing a fax, the next, I was walking home. For the first few days, we stayed near our television, with a sort of futile hope that it would tell us what to do. But the Botoxed news ladies only spoke of subway bombings. They said the ice caps were melting, leaving polar bears stranded to drown in the open sea. They said that bees were dying after pollinating transgenic corn. People were dying in Fallujah. We were told to monitor our bags and microchip our dogs. We were told to fear, and in the absence of a concrete focus, maintain low-level paranoia.

It was raining that last Sunday. I remember it seemed as though we were the only ones awake, walking together beneath the Chernobyl-white sky. We waited for the subway silently, watching damp pigeons nurse their mauled toes. The café you’d chosen was self-consciously colorful, like a Saturday morning cartoon. Vegetarians fed their children. We sat in the booth farthest from the door and stared at each other through a spray of hybrid wildflowers. The waitress smelled like hairspray and alphabet soup. Over menus, hands shaking, we agreed that nothing could save us. The only question really left to ask was what would happen after everything familiar collapsed.

You ordered a bloody mary, and I had Pimm’s.



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JB: I wrote “War Story” in response to the effects–or, rather, non-effects–of all the protesting that occurred immediately after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. Partially. I was also hoping to capture a kind of post-apocalyptic tone. I’m interested in how outside events can subtly transform the relationships between people, as well as how they fundamentally respond to the landscape around them.

J. Bowers is a writer working in Baltimore, MD. Her writing has appeared in Baltimore City Paper, Zaum, Zone 3, Chunklet, Quirk, and The Allegheny Review, and online at Silenced Press, Splotch, and Beatbots. She enjoys gazpacho, horse riding, and swimming in reservoirs.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, August 5th, 2007.