The Last Time I Saw Osama...
…I had only just slunk into a heavy, doleful sleep, fuelled on wine and Citalopram. I dreamt I was making the downhill descent into town on my bike, when this deafening bell rang behind me. I peeked around to see what, or who it was, couldn’t see a thing, turned to face forward. The second time it tolled, there was a snot-green flash and I spun my whole bike around in a long, floating arc. I tumbled forward, flailed for a bit, and the third time I had the face of my moble jammed in the nook between my ear and my pillow and I choked out a “hello?”
“Haha. You sound like shit, my friend.”
“Oh. It’s you.”
“I’m back in town. I forgot to say. Come out, come drink with me, as man to man.”
“I was having the best damn sleep.”
The walls of my dream start folding back and I get my bearings. It’s 9.55pm. Only Wednesday night. Shit. I don’t want to see him, really. But I should. And I do want to see him. “Where?”
“Gypsy Tea Rooms, it’s discreet. I don’t feel like I can hang out on K Road these days. Is your phone being tapped?”
“….Are you joking?”
I heard the barest burr of his breath, the penumbra of one of those weird pregnant silences in bad phone conversations.
“You know me, Joe.”
I spied him hunched nonchalantly in the corner of the bar. I have other, bad dreams sometimes where I turn up all over the news in my work clothes, forever - stodgy black lace-ups, a dress shirt from SaveMart, baggy trousers - and I know I have these because of him, and he probably had the same frustrations. That night he was wearing a pressed white shirt that showed the vestiges of a high, arch collar behind a salt-and-pepper beard. And braces - chinos too, Little Brother maybe. I don’t remember. It was a little striking. I caught my breath, and then caught myself, in case that little intake carried across the pageantry of the whole room. He just stared patiently.
“Good to see you, Westy.”
“You too. Been too long.” We hugged like young men, two sets of arms trying to bend awkwardly around two stiff sets of shoulders, while all the while our backs stayed rigid.
After holding that embrace for two seconds, we waited at the bar, each separately, anxiously scanning the room. I ordered two beers. He got tap water. When we sat back down, I made an exaggerated play of clutching both bottles to my side of the table.
“Are you really going to try to put away both of those?”
“Consider my decadence a devil’s sacrifice in the name of your continued clean living and devotion, Osama.”
“Eat a dick.” He swiped one with a reedy sort of strength, took a hit. As an afterthought, he wiped the suds from his whiskers.
Of course, he was really very devoted, I know it. Other friends come from spending a long time overseas and just boast about the coke, and they don’t seize upon the first beer they get like a thirsty man in the desert. Osama didn’t boast about anything, really. I know- knew - to be delicate and not ask what he got up to. I mostly didn’t wind him up about his creative approach to teetotalism, even though he wound me up virtually from the day I met him onward.
Because from that day, I was decadent Western filth, a capitalist swine, an infidel, and worst, I was pretentious - as if my innate and intractable qualities weren’t so despicable, I dared to cover them up with an interest in books and art. This was the man who sent me an grainy video recording from his rabbit warren in the godforsaken corridor of Waqan - not one of the videos you would have seen, but like it, aesthetically - just to give me shit. “Is this cinema-fuckin-verite for you, already? Remember Westy, you may like ‘film’, but the rest of the world likes ‘movies’. And I’m the stuff movies are made of, sweetie.” Cut to static.
Somehow, the bravado wasn’t there when we sat that night. I started to talk about an article I read in the Guardian - Norway’s carbon-trade breakthrough with a starving Central American country - not because I cared particularly, but I wanted to hear one of his tirades about hand-wringing secular liberals. He didn’t cut me off, instead affixing me with a long pained look. I suddenly felt like a person who tries to tell an anecdote after a crushing insult - trying to swaddle the barbs in trivia.
I trailed off and stared into the iris of my bottle. Abruptly, Osama rested his hand flat on mine.
“I heard you’ve started seeing Chloe again.”
From who? The question died in the back of my throat. I knew it wouldn’t be any of the usual gossip channels, and I had gotten up at 7 am every morning for the past fortnight in case there were photos to untag. Not that he used Facebook. For a moment, I felt the same flood of paranoia FOX viewers must get. Al-Qaeda operatives, maybe everywhere. At the movies. Observing the wavering theremin of my sexuality.
“She…got really depressed. These past few weeks, I was worried she’d do something stupid. I figured I owed her spending the time, after all the shit I made her put up with. I felt bad.”
Osama closed his eyes, then, and rubbed a temple. He was quiet, the menacing quiet I never expected him to bring to bear on me. “Please don’t bullshit me.”
“I’m not bullshitting you.”
A girl came over to offer to replace our beers. She must have thought Osama was in Fat Freddy’s or something on account of his beard, because she leant in to ask , brushed her hair against his shoulder in that intimation only beautiful girls can manage.
“Those who kill our women and innocent, we kill their women and innocent, until they refrain.” he hissed.
“He means yes. Please. Two more.” I mumbled apologetically.
I was bullshitting. But how do you tell the greatest villain of the 21st century, the foe of modern civilisation, that you just wanted to feel a set of tits - women’s tits - again? That heft and bounce, that padding against you on a cold morning. How do you tell the man you’d once said you loved? I’d come up with other, and better rationalisations before this one, of course - when I had pictured this moment in my head the week before, I think I had some finely-spun line about how girls had this unknowable depth, something that could save me if I dug in deep, stayed good and held on tight, and how I was just afraid I would get to the heart of man and just find a dirty mirror. Or something. But really, I was just dread-afraid of my own biological - elemental - lust, its naked obviousness.
“Tits tits tits.” I muttered.
“She looks like a pair of cantaloupes strapped to a Kabul donkey, you know. A wife like that wouldn’t age well. I should know, I have four.”
“What - no? I wasn’t…”
“No, actually, you know what? Fuck you, because I stay here alone and feel bad for doing anything to make that hurt less, and you go back to four women in a hidey-hole and take me to task. I don’t have to feel bad about shit.”
This was where I just wanted to see the flash of rage in his eyes. To know that he was a mental, dangerous extremist, no heart, no cares, no pity. I could file him away with a decade’s worth of crazy girlfriends. Instead, there was just a boundless sadness, a disappointment I’d never seen before in him.
“Please, don’t leave me like this. We get so little time, less each time. We might not get another.”
“I’m sorry. I am so, so sorry.” Falling over myself to quell that hungry, alien look. Like a pushover.
“I was so afraid you just wouldn’t want to see me. That you were happy, and I was the past, and that past should know its place. An old man should know his place.”
“Osama…you’re not yet fifty.” I felt so tender now toward him. Like before. The boyish face that crested above the bloody beard. Those sad almond eyes.
“Are you over me?”
I rubbed my temples now, speaking low. “I’m over everything.”
“I feel like I don’t know who I am anymore.” My lip was trembling and I felt so stupid, so childish. “It’s like I’ve left this trail of carnage and broken people in my personal life, and I didn’t even get to figure out who I was on the way.”
He sighed gravely. “I have had many campaigns like that too. The Soviets, the Americans. The secular. Carnage, broken people. Perhaps I have not been any more fortunate.”
I sit there, momentarily stupefied. Eventually, his stony expression betrayed this twinkle in his eyes, and it was beautiful. My laugh came out as a ragged sob, another temporary relief in three years of them. “Get fucked. When I say it at least I don’t mean it literally.”
He smiled. “You’ve made me talk about work. I see you for one night and you make me talk about work.”
“Only one night?”
“There’s no other way. Now, if you’ve got the fight out of your system and I have some of the bitter hatred out of mine, I want to get us a bottle of red, and then I want to dance.”
“In here? People will see.”
“Lazy citizens of a crumbling and corrupt regime see only what will satisfy their base instincts. We can tell them I am in one of your hashish-smoking bands.”
I took his preoffered arm. “What about your base instincts, Osama?”
He shrugged. “Done worse.”
If you go down to Grey Lynn Park in the full moonlight, it’s as luminous as any world wonder, and this came from a man who had ordered at least a couple of them to be destroyed. And he didn’t want this place destroyed - he liked the playgrounds, and the way the little paths would all eventually find their way back to each other, and the grass. He liked the way the sandy fields and the lusher greens ones made a haphazard quilt of dark and lunar blue, and he got excited by the flying fox. It was under the flying fox that we made love for the last time.
Afterwards, we held each other, felt the chill and went soft.
“Do you have to go?”
I know he felt me flinch.
“Our cultures do have one thing in common. I’ll admit it.” he said, almost airily. “Tradition is a mark of the strong. Nostalgia is a mark of the weak.”
“What does that even mean?”
“It means, Westy, that we, the two of us, will live and die in the wrong time. Wrong place.”
I remember one of those light rains started then, one of those ones that you’re always torn between going inside for or revelling in until you catch cold. A cool, blowing mist that would never settle.