Crackups and Crackdowns
Ina split second, Matty can tell you a story.
With a click of
the shutter, he captures a life—beginning, middle, or end. His photos tell
tales, expose truths, open worlds. If journalism is a dying profession, I’ve
been watching it kill my husband for years. But at the same time, it’s keeping
A sea of
humanity undulates through Tahrir Square, respiring with simmering fervor.
Sirens have been blaring since evening prayers, punctuated by dull explosions
from police-fired smoke bombs. Casualties, mostly students, litter the streets.
Their luckier peers are staunching head wounds with T-shirts and flushing each
other’s eyes with Maalox cocktails. Hissing canisters snake through the gardens
near the Egyptian Museum. Masked protestors hurl them back. Death to the
dictator, death to the regime!
museum’s been closed for ages. No one in the immediate vicinity gives a damn
about antiquities, so I’ve got a front row seat in the Grand Saloon between a
statue of Amenhotep and an arched window facing the square. The air tastes
flinty, like gunpowder. Pinpricks of fire are creeping down my throat from the
gas. In theory, I’m studying, but you can’t exactly study in the middle of a
Leah.” A bespectacled face pops up beside Amenhotep—the curator, Yusef Hafez.
In his cream linen suit, with a perma-smell of aged vanilla and musk, he’s
something of an antiquity himself. “He hasn’t returned?”
sure,” I say. Though I’m not. Matty is somewhere in the chaos outside. Which
means he has his eye to the lens, so he’ll be the last to notice when the
police don their masks for another round. It means he’ll come home coughing,
clothes reeking of smoke, on a rush that’ll keep him from sleeping for weeks.
Weeks he’ll spend restless, wandering from room to room because he keeps
imagining the smell of tear gas. Where he’ll lose ten pounds because he’ll
forget to eat. Where he’ll catch one whiff of a Lucky Strike or diesel fumes
and it’ll be as if someone opened a window to some long ago and far away hell.
It means being locked in a constant state of vigilance, watching for signs, so
I can run to the icebox for the frozen orange I keep in there, because
sometimes, something cold and fragrant can bring him back before it gets worse.
he’ll be unfocused and get lost doing simple things, then pick fights with me
over stupid crap because it’s easier than letting me help. But then he’ll
finish the story and—poof— he’ll be himself again, the guy who holds me close
and promises me that someday, the world will be what we both desperately want
it to be. It’s our thing. We’re broke and spend our lives dodging bullets or
sleeping under the stars, and time was, I wouldn’t have traded it for the
world. He’s the adrenaline junkie. These days, I just hang on at the fringe.
always this way—I spent my twenties as a humanitarian aid worker in Sudan and
Uganda. The short version is that I got spooked, left the field, and went running
for law school. Now I stay behind while he takes crazy risks. I should be out
there too, but when one’s husband has been killing himself to put one through
law school, one has no excuse for failing the bar exam. At least not twice.
kind of you to let us stay here,” I say to Yusef, blinking as the dots swim on
my practice test. Hours ago, as the clashes intensified, the government
declared all foreign journalists ‘purveyors of fake news’, the new favorite
epithet of authoritarian regimes everywhere. After they yanked our hotel
permit, Yusef, an old friend of Matty’s, offered us a spare room in the
turned down, he strokes the bristles of his beard. “You may need to make other
arrangements. The museum is at risk. The Night Hotel has been set ablaze.”
flickering orange glow lights the square. I tuck my study guide behind me, then
stand on pins-and-needles legs for a better look. Even the palm trees are in
flames. There goes the best fourteen-dollar-a-night hotel in Cairo. “When did
dance in front of the burning building, bare seconds before being swept away by
police water cannons. “They could put it out if they wanted,” I say. “Guess
it’s more fun to squirt protestors.”
“This is Egypt.”
Frustration courses through Yusef’s voice. “We say ‘God will take care of it’.
Then we do nothing.”
time we’d been in Cairo was during the 2011 revolution, and so much has
changed. Shop windows once filled with honeyed cakes and risqué clothes are
burned and boarded. Once, students danced on the rooftops, because where else
would you go when the world tipped on its head? Now, if you dare go outside,
you watch the rooftops for the glint of a sniper rifle sight. Revolution isn’t
binary, it isn’t an endpoint, it’s a fluid state of mind, and Egypt’s has been
dark for years.
that’s what the people outside are trying to change.”
that I think arson is a good way to solve problems, but I grew up with a giant
of the civil rights era telling my bedtime stories. What’s happening outside
goes beyond buildings and things. Matty’s photos of sheet-wrapped corpses prove
clings to the crimson ropes around the colossus, contemplating his world, the
hieroglyphs of Isis, the soaring majesty of Horus, the gold in Tut’s death
mask. “Egypt’s greatest treasure is her history. In their anger, youth forget
such things. They forget the past contains the answers.”
it’s simple. These clashes are rooted in three things: power, money, and sex,
which are pretty much all that people ever fight about anyhow. The men in power
have all the money, and this being Egypt, they’re damned determined to control
the sex, too. No one under thirty has a job, which means they can’t get
married, which means they can’t get laid. So instead, shit gets lit on fire.
teenage girl—slams the window, crazing the glass. A dozen cops in riot gear
give chase, shields and batons raised. We will be free, she screams at
them in Arabic, scampering into the crowd. The police start beating everyone
I toss the
world of contracts and torts aside. The way I should’ve done four years and a
shit-ton of money ago. “That’s it.”
his mummies. “Where are you going?”
wrap a scarf around my face, then make sure the long skirt I’m wearing covers
my ankles. ‘Out’ is where people need help. ‘Out’ is where the old Leah would
be. “I’m not doing any good sitting here.”
husband will not like if you leave.”
damn bad. I snap a pair
of swimming goggles on my forehead. Yusef’s been hovering all night. I figure
Matty asked him to babysit, which is ironic for any number of reasons.
look like a bug-eyed Calamity Jane, but my dad, the Honorable Dale Atkins,
Esq., would be ashamed if his daughter sat on her ass while thugs in riot gear
form ranks across Tahrir Square.
doing the one-foot hop with my sneaker, my phone dings. Twice.
Stay put Leah
And get away from the goddamn window
outside. A line of armored vehicles stretches to the cornice at the Nile end of
the square. Matty is perched on the wall of the lotus pond, wearing faded jeans
and a flak vest, a checkered scarf over his mouth and nose. With his
wheat-colored hair and dishwater-grey eyes, he’s the kind of guy who stands out
in any crowd, but it’s really damn obvious here.
different for me—my Mom’s French and my Dad’s roots are Igbo, which makes
guessing my race some weird game show for strangers, who seem to think I’m
either Mediterranean, Hispanic, or ‘wow, for a white girl, you can really tan’.
The good news is that at this time of year, I can pass for a local in Cairo.
The bad news is that the secret police are out in force, so nobody’s safe out
Matty’s mobile, to remind him to cover his head, but then shots start popping
and he hits the deck. The crowd scatters. He scrambles away, and I hang up,
temple with the phone, I watch him scurry into an alley behind the museum. My
mobile rings a few seconds later.
babe.” His breathing is labored. “How’s the studying?”
of relief hits my belly. “Butthead. I’m coming out.”
sounds go quiet. “Leah, it’s bad. There’s nothing you can do.” He sounds
defeated, which is never a good sign.
“Is anyone with you?”
has a couple stringers out here. Or maybe they’re AP. Not sure they know
I meant.” Matty’s parents were missionaries who dragged him from one
godforsaken hotspot to the next, and it messed him up pretty good. What I care
about is whether he’s working with someone who knows him. Knows what his mind
can do to him when things are ‘bad’. Which they have been. For months, ever
since he got injured on his last job in Syria. On the outside, he’s still
healing, but something worse is eating him from the inside, something he won’t
talk about. Which isn’t exactly unusual, but it’s never been this bad for so
long. We’re doing our best to smile through the pain and pretend everything is
getting better. It’s killing me that it’s not.
background, I hear a wolf whistle. “Cahill, is that your wife? Man, I had no
idea she had tits like that.”
swears. “Christ, Sal.”
Yusef’s son, a producer for CNN’s Africa desk, and I can guess what he’s
looking at. A normal guy would carry a wedding photo. Maybe a vacation snap.
Something that involves, say, clothes, but this is a photo of me that Matty
took the first night we made love. Like…right after, and he’s been
schlepping it around ever since.
back on the line. “Sorry.”
when are you showing that to people?”
Leah, I just…needed to see it, okay?” His voice sounds distant. Sad.
“Matty, come home. You can have the real
exhales. “God, you have no idea. As soon as things calm down, I’m yours.”
that’s a promise.”
He coughs, away from the receiver. “How’s your stomach? Did that tea I brought
loaded question. The water in Egypt never agrees with me, and as far as he
knows, that’s all it is. The two pregnancy tests I took before we came agreed,
and then there’s the get-it-while-you-still-can-because-fuck-the-patriarchy IUD
I had put in after the election. None of which does a damn thing to explain why
I can’t even remember the last time I had a period. Or make me feel any less
jumbled up inside.
better,” I finally say.
pauses. “How about I scrounge up some of that honey candy you like?”
All I need
is him. Screw that. I need him to be him—the guy who lets me help when
he’s messed up, not the one who shuts me out and keeps secrets, who feels like
he’s one bad day from giving up. Because from the minute we landed, my body has
been doing its damnedest to convince me those stupid pregnancy tests were
wrong. “I’m okay.”
sweep the crowd. The line of black uniforms holds. Fresh volleys of smoke burst
forth. “Hey listen,” he says, “rumor has it the government is shutting down the
internet. Can you get to my website?”
who’s a freelance journalist these days, likes to joke that he got kicked out
of the Fourth Estate and into a trailer park. We met at an Iraq War protest,
and even then, the news orgs were refusing to print some of the photos he
took—too controversial, or they didn’t fit the narrative somebody wanted to
spin. His blog is his voice, in all its raw, unfiltered glory.
loading like a ninety-year-old turtle with a piano on its back,” I say, waking
the tablet beside me. Truth told, I’ve been paying more attention to that than
my review books.
Window, reads the site’s
header. The letters twine around a graphic of the Three Wise Monkeys—See No
Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil, a copy of one tattooed on his arm. All I
know is it was some kind of farewell screw-you to his dad.
your flights while you’re at it,” he says.
they were ‘our’ flights, but one of us is in the middle of documenting a war
and the other has the bar exam in four days. “They’re looking for observers
down in Suez. The military says eleven dead, but Amnesty thinks it’s higher.
Maybe we should—”
fly out tomor—”
going to be the reason you miss that damn test again.”
Okay, so I
didn’t exactly fail the bar the first time. Long story. This time, I have a job
waiting for me in DC, which I have to take if we have any hope of paying
back my loans. It’s immigration law instead of human rights, which means diving
into a system I know nothing about, which I’m only doing because the way things
are going at home, it feels as if I have to. Except taking it means an office
instead of the front lines, which comes with the guilty reminder of the moment
I walked away. When we started out, Matty and I were a team, and deep down, I’m
scared to admit those days are gone forever. But something has to change.
before we left to come here, I found him naked on the beach by my parents’
house—in February, no less—throwing sheaves of story notes and photos onto a
campfire he’d started. High as a kite to boot. Once he’d sobered up, I told him
that unless he got his act together, he wasn’t coming with me to DC. In
hindsight, getting on a plane with him to Cairo wasn’t the best way to convince
him I’m serious about leaving, but I was terrified of what might happen if I
didn’t. If there’s a baby involved, I can’t bear to think what it means.
stomach…thing…is just stress. People who accidentally get pregnant don’t have
to take the bar, or soul-sucking law jobs. They get to dress up their baby
girls in frilly outfits and drink Starbucks all day, don’t they?
Leah. Keep telling yourself that.
“I got a
one-ninety-one on my practice Bar today,” I say. “Finished in under two hours.
With a twenty-minute Angry Birds break.”
that your staunch opposition to the death penalty stops with cartoon pigs.”
green porkers deserve it.”And like he’s any different. “You realize two
hundred is perfect?”
you,” he replies. “I’m sure the Egyptian military will be impressed if they
decide to detain you for a few weeks.”
Borders and Customs. Sighing,
I click refresh. “You realize I’m going to make a shitty lawyer if I can’t even
negotiate with you.”
suck at negotiating when you’re wrong.”
keeps spinning. “They must’ve pulled the plug.”
“The US producer must be having a fit. He wanted a live feed ready as soon as
Jake Tapper finished feeding some White House Nazi his own nutsack.”
keep them straight. The dude who looks like his mother fucked a lightbulb.”
my Matty. “I bet Jake
Tapper would tell me to stay.”
me in the middle of your unholy crush on JT.” His voice grows muffled. “Hey
listen, let me go take care of some things, then I’ll come find you.”
staring at a nekkid picture of my gorgeous wife. Part of me is.”
to like that part. Try not to get it shot off.”
happiest couples have secrets. When we met, I saw him as this exotic world
traveler—born in Brazil, he spoke five languages. He grew up in places like
Mozambique and Iraq; I’m an attorney’s daughter from P-town, Massachusetts,
who’d dreamed of seeing the things he’d seen, and yet to realize they’d nearly
killed him. He says he fell in love with me because I proved to him the world
could change. I fell in love with him because he showed me what had to.
sweet, noxious smoke cloud the air as I slip out of the rear service door,
needing to see for myself that he’s okay. The goggles and my scarf protect me,
though I can’t stay out long. His silhouette is visible through the haze. Head
tilted a little to the left, elbow raised, camera ready. I’d know it anywhere.
always loved watching him work, getting to look through his photos at the end
of a day. Matty has this desperate search for humanity, but he sees it in things
that are fleeting and hard to find. He lives in the infinitesimal space between
the best and worst of human nature, and some days, the camera is all that keeps
it from crashing down on him. Even in the worst situations, he manages to find
some shred of hope. Dignity. But it’s rare to see him this at peace while he’s
doing it, and I can’t help but wonder what’s changed.
American University, students hold vigil beside a stone church which is set up
as a makeshift field hospital. Mourners gather around a lifeless body,
surrounded by others who form a solidarity wall, protecting them from the riot
troops. Matty moves to an alcove by the front gate, transfixed by something on
his camera LCD.
wants is one photo that changes the world. Nobody but journalists and history
buffs remember who took the Kim Phuc photo, the naked girl running from her
napalmed village, but it altered the course of the war. Nobody remembers who
got the shot of the guy staring down the tanks in Tiananmen Square, but the
world still wonders what happened to him. It took a while before I understood
why Matty lets life take so much from him. He rejected the life his parents
led, but parts stuck with him nonetheless. The need to see justice done, to
give a voice to the voiceless. He keeps searching for that one seismic photo
because it’s the only way he’ll ever figure out how to live with himself.
with a dark, shiny braid comes over to Matty. Thirtyish, she’s dressed in a
loose olive pants and a black tunic, with a rose print scarf over her hair, an
Assyrian-style cross around her neck, and a downcast expression on her face. A
few words pass between them. He opens the memory slot on his camera and gives
her the card, which she reluctantly accepts. After that, he draws her into an
embrace, planting a tender kiss on her forehead.
that, I can’t breathe.
At the same moment, she glances across the
square to where I’m standing, and a flicker of recognition lights her eyes.
Matty notices me then too, and freezes. I catch a musky smell, a man’s smell,
and I realize someone is standing behind me.
can even turn, the man slides into the crowd. Western clothes. Dark, flowing
hair, and a pair of silver sunglasses perched on his head, though I can’t see
his face. He circles the mourners like a great cat guarding a kill. Or stalking
expression flits between bemusement and rage, the latter directed at the woman
with Matty, who’s now kneeling in prayer inside the circle. “Come out, whore,”
he taunts. “Do you think I can’t see you?”
lifts. The fear is gone, replaced with anger and grief. She shifts off her
knees and exits the circle, towards a young father and son standing at the
gate. The boy, ragged and rail-thin, holds out a shaggy brown mongoose, which
hops onto her shoulder.
steps protectively in front of his son. “Leave us in peace. We have beaten you.
You lost.” His accent is Syrian, not Egyptian, which likely explains the
haunted look on his kid’s face. “You have no power over us now. Or this woman.”
bemused smirk, the jerk flicks ash from his cigarette. “This is the thanks I
get? Perhaps I should not be surprised.” He flashes a knife. “Offer her a place
to sleep and she’ll fuck you too.”
mourners break up in a chorus of peace-be-with-yous and as-Salamu Alaykums.
The jerk shoves the father aside, then lunges for the woman. A pop-pop- pop comes
from the rooftops. The crowd screams and scatters. And then my idiot husband
goes and tackles the jerk.
barely dodges the knife on the first swing. On the second, the mongoose leaps,
sinking its teeth into the man’s neck. The knife clatters to the pavement, and
the mongoose prances away, chittering triumphantly.
grabs the boy by the hand and runs down an alley. The jerk gut-punches Matty,
shoving him off. Inaudible words pass between them. Matty gapes at me,
white-faced and startled. Grinning, the jerk flips his knife, then stalks off
after the others.
slow to get up, clutching his ribs, which got broken six months ago during an
airstrike in Syria. I run over and help him out of the line of fire. “You’re
this lost, anguished expression on his face, sweat mixed with ash, greasy black
smudges running from temple to chin. “She’s just someone I know, Leah—that
the pain, there’s guilt, and I’m not sure I want to know where it came from, so
I replace the lens cap. “It’s fine, you can tell me later.”
swells as we make for the safety of the museum. Smoke and flames leap through
the roof of the building across the alley. “I told you to stay put,” he
grouses, as a tank rumbles past.
me better than that.” I stab Yusef’s spare key into the service entrance door.
“What were you thinking, going after that guy?”
having another goddamn flashback, okay?” He squeezes his eyes shut. “Can we not
talk about it?”
hits me hard, deep in the stomach. We’ve spent half our marriage dealing with
his flashbacks. It’s not why he did it.
say, struggling to figure out what he’s not telling me. Which seems to be how I
spend most of my time these days. “Then let’s talk about her.”
the goggles off my head, hands coming to rest on my face. His skin feels raw,
about a million degrees. “Stop looking at me like that.” He walks me into the
darkness of the unlit entryway. “You know I’m no cheat. She’s a source. A
want him to say is why the ‘friend’ with the jealous eyes and curvy figure was
actingif she knows me. Why he was
comforting her. I’d settle for some hint of why she’s in trouble in the first
place, but if she’s a source, with Matty, that’s the end of it. I know he’s no
cheat, sure, but he’s never been as secretive and self-destructive and just
plain messed up as he’s been the last few months either.
I want to
blurt out I think I’m pregnant, but the words won’t come. I’ve seen too
much of the world to want to bring a child into it, and any time it’s come up,
he jokes that his brain should be donated to science, not inflicted on another
generation. Kids were never in our plan. But here we are, and I need him to
tell me he’ll find a way to crawl out from whatever he’s under, that he’ll do
it for me and the baby because he loves us. Yet I love him enough to know it’s
not that simple.
smells of must. A strange, sweet salt tickles my nose. Down here, it’s a maze
of painted metal boxes and shelves, filled with dusty artifacts collected god
knows when. He’s wandering between them, lost and unfocused, so I take his
camera and set it on a nearby crate. “Matty, where are we?”
scanning around. “Cairo, right?”
step between his knees, resting my forehead on his, but when I move my hand to
his arm, he flinches. My hand comes away warm and sticky. I grab his wrist and
pull up his sleeve, revealing a two-inch dig right below the monkey tattoo on
his biceps. I know it’s from a bullet, which is bad enough, but he’s written
his name and my cell phone number in thick, permanent marker on his arm.
Suddenly I’m fighting tears.
ssh,” he says. “It’s nothing, don’t worry about it. I’m here, right?”
years together, I’ve watched him bury a dozen friends, sometimes nothing more
than memories in empty coffins. I’ve been stuck half a world away when the
internet discovers the latest video of some fuckwit beheading a journalist.
Worry isn’t a choice, it’s something that tattooed itself onto my heart long
tough guy. You and I have a date with the first aid kit.”
his face in my neck and slips his hands under my skirt, cupping my rear. “Leah,
I don’t need a damn Band-Aid. I need you.”
swallows the night, deep, wet, and lingering. He wants me to let this go, but
we both know I can’t. “What’s wrong?” I say, caressing his temple. “Are you in
good lawyer couldn’t handle.” He nudges my knees apart with his hip, shucking
his T-shirt. “Though I’ve got something else for her to handle instead.”
the scars on his torso, making sure there are no new ones. Darfur above his
left hip, Kirkuk across his left pec, Aleppo all down his right side. “You’re
help it.” He lifts my top over my head. “Is this okay?”
because once, someone didn’t. It’s not something I think about much these days.
“It is if you tell me what’s going on.”
A kiss, a
nibble, a caress of my hip. “I’m making love to my wife.” He peels down the cup
of my bra, flicking his tongue over my nipple. “Who should know I’m completely
mad about her.”
mad about something.” I say, surrendering in a swirl of emotion, dust, and our
own tangled history. Fine, I need him too.
comes a commotion upstairs. Smashing glass, running footsteps. Bitter, angry
shouts. Looters. Yusef’s muffled shouts rise above the fray.
weight drops onto me. With a groan of frustration, he rolls off, contemplating
the ceiling. “He’s about to get himself killed over some clay pot, isn’t he?”
buttons his jeans, I sit up. “Where’s my skirt?”
over for a quick kiss, he snags his shirt. “Stay. I’ll only be a few minutes.”
I snag it
back, draping it over my breasts. “Seriously—what’s got you so spooked?”
wiping sweat from his forehead. “I don’t even know where to start.”
mean he knows?I bite my lip. “For starters, you could tell me how you
feel about it.”
furrows. “Are we talking about the same thing?”
make myself say it, so I put my hand over my midsection. His jaw goes slack,
and a rush of breath escapes from his lungs. “God, Leah, I—”
another crash, a scream. Eyes closed, he kisses my forehead. “I love you, but
right now I am scared to death. I’ll be right back. Then we’ll talk. I swear.”
death is better than I expected. “Okay. Go.”
sound of his footsteps fades, I slip on his shirt, and while I’m buttoning it
up, I notice he didn’t take his camera. Given that it’s his sixth appendage,
it’s odd. Not to mention the frustrated way he tossed it onto his bag. As if
he’s tired of it ruling his life.
turn it on, an error comes up on the display, and that’s when I remember him
passing the card to that woman.
she? What did she want with it?
looting upstairs reaches a fever-pitch. Ear-splitting scrapes, floor-shaking
thuds, triumphant shouts. It’s either looters or a herd of zebras dancing Swan
buzzes. Matty’s number comes up on the display. I hit answer. “Hey, where are
says, breathing heavily. “Needed a smoke.”
inside me goes cold. We have a code phrase. In case something ever goes bad.
That was it.
puts a tremor in my hands. My legs. My pulse poundsin my ears, loud enough I
can hear it. Forcing down the panic, I try to remember the questions we worked
out, the ones we agreed to use if someone could be listening. “Could you get
some ibuprofen while you’re out?” Can you get away?
sirens, people shouting. “Stores are closed, babe.”
My legs go
bag,” he says. “Side pocket. Should be some in there.”
I dive on
his old green duffel, hands trembling. The pocket is empty, but the lining is
ripped. Inside, I find a Brazilian passport in my name. He has dual
citizenship—there are places he goes where being American is a bad idea—but if
I have it too, it’s news to me.
going on? Where did this come from?”
your back, baby.”
rush of breath comes out of the receiver. “You don’t know anything. I haven’t
told you a thing, right?”
sounds, like footsteps off an alley. More than one pair. “Say it, Leah.”
be asking if you had?”
his voice low. “Listen to me. Put on my sweats. Tie the biggest goddamn knot in
the waist you can because there are gangs out here who will make you regret it
if you don’t. Then get your ass to the embass—”
A low pi-too
sound, like gas escaping in a rush. He gasps and drops the phone. My
heart stops. “Matty, say something, please.”
picks it up again, his voice is slurred. “I love you—you know that, right?”
I lose it.
“You’re supposed to come home, Matty. You promised you’d always come home.”
“No choice,” he
murmurs again. “You’re the only home I ever knew.