We all knew war was imminent but we did nothing to avoid it. There were many signs of war that spring but we chose to imprudently ignore them, championing our self-righteous cause of isolationism and ‘sitting-this-one-out’, but our naïveté and churlish attitude would make sure there would be absolute hell to pay.
It was if in those nascent days that we thought the war could be drowned out by endless glad-handing, backslapping and clinking of champagne flutes and scotch glasses. That the louder we laughed, the more raucous the embassy parties roared that the war couldn’t ever touch us, no. We were the erudite, the refined, the educated fools, actually; dressed in our tuxedos and our dates in their finery, baubles and evening dresses, all heaping praise upon one another with each practiced smile or phony laugh and each potentially hollow f***. We saw ourselves as Defenders of the Old Guard for believing in our Ivy League ideals while the rest of the world had gone shot to hell.
What did we care as long as the Dom was still pouring, the dress straps lowering and the wolves of hostility were kept at bay from our door? This was achieved with great subterfuge by false accords; secret agreements on both sides while espousing autonomous neutrality and slicing up relations like so many endless stale embassy cakes? Let them eat cake, we laughed. It was a sentiment we choked on in the end.
The first indication of war encroaching upon the great city was the hasty influx of feral dogs and cats. It was only standard to look out of one’s hotel window in the morning to see transients and animals looking for unwanted scraps in the refuse of the well-to-do before the metropolis awoke from its gluttony and sloth. I had seen it in every major city of the world, whatever bureau I had been assigned to cover and the lesser municipalities had even greater incidences, it was just that the hungry were not as well fed.
I distinctly remember the early fall mornings when I was assistant bureau chief in Rome a number of years before when I would awake in the cooled air of an Italian morning and look out the open wooden shutters of the room at the back of the old hotel. The window faced a verdant field between the centuries old terra-cotta houses where laundry hung on the line. In the field, invariably on any morning given, roamed a flock of gray and white sheep tended by a herdsman who carried a large staff with a bell affixed to it. The sheep would graze in the wet, dew-laden grass and crane their heads to and fro like sightseers in the early morning fog. I think about that innocent and now ignorant time and wonder if such a pastoral scene even still exists anywhere in Europe, much less the Eternal City.
The second sign that war was imminent were the closing down of the many embassies and innocuously, the cancellation of many parties. These should have been red flags, but we were so consigned to our indulgences, we chose not to notice as there was always another party to go to, one more soiree. In our ignorance, we thought of it as a convenience, if one can believe such now, as it freed up our schedules. As a result, there were many good friends who bid adieu that summer, promising return, never to be seen again, swallowed by the maw of war, one presumes. The faces tend to blur as the names are now as forgotten as their embossed place cards.
The final and most patently obvious sign should have President Calderon’s stepping down in the midst of the military overthrow while he was holiday in Sardinia with his family, a holiday that turned into forced exile. His cabinet minister, the former Army General Juan Milagros assumed full control in an apparent and finely orchestrated coup d'état many months in the planning. Milagros was anything but a miracle of fate, as he virtually handed over the country to the extremists while Madrid burned.
At night, sometimes Paz and I would lie awake listening to the mortar rounds and rockets firing from the distant hills and I would describe the ordinances to her and their capability in battle and how by being situated up on the far end of the hill, the rounds had less of a chance to hit the hotel, as they were designed for short range pounding and less for accuracy and distance. I would hold Paz close to me, as if I could ever truly protect her, as we both believed so then. She would hold me very tight and tell me that nothing could ever separate us, not time or war, but both would have their own even chance in the end.
It’s funny how you are in youth. If you knew then that things were going to change irreparably and how you would never love the same way again you might have held on a little longer, kissed with every ounce of your being and lied a little less, but you don’t have that luxury. Instead, you persist clueless in your daily routine of ignorance; never truly observing with your innate writer’s eye those closest around you. You still go out to cover the story, putting yourself in harm’s way, even though she begs you not to leave. You continue to drink and carouse at the few bars and brothels in town still operating and your vices not sated; somehow you still manage to bed a friend of hers. It is someone she trusted almost as much as you and now you have both betrayed her. You feel rotten about it and the last thing in the world you wanted to do was hurt her, the one who hurt you least of anyone. With male hubris you remind her as she is inconsolable that you once told her that no one can be trusted in wartime, especially those closest to you.
Blinded by your high opinion of yourself, your good judgment clouded and you never see it coming that her friend was never really in love with you and that she was playing the both of you, always planning to tell Paz. With your perception daunted, you accuse the girl of doing it out of spite or jealousy, but it becomes abundantly evident in the end. You never see it coming that your trusted supposedly invincible writer’s observation is actually flawed and has double-crossed you much in the same way when Paz finally and tearfully admitted the reason for her girlfriend’s treachery was to get back at Paz for carrying on an affair with her man.
Devastated, you learn the cruelest irony that fall; that you were right and that no one can ever be trusted; not even yourself. You and Paz spend more and more time apart; always saying you’re going to work things out but things never do and in the night, you know where she’s gone. You’re aware in your never-ending remorse that she’s gone to her new lover’s bed, a Frenchman from Algiers you’ve learned through your intercepts. You find momentary consolation in the tangle of her ex-best friend’s arms, raw emotions and legs but even that feels false as if both are both unleashing some sort of passing excerpt for each other in place of what had been a sum of a greater story.
You know you can never trust this woman as fully as you once trusted Paz and yet while you are cognizant that Paz lied to you as much as you to her in the end, you ache for her without abandon. So much so, you feel literally nothing when the new girl flees the city in fear as they are looting the art galleries, museums and open air markets of this once proud and bustling capital. You feel much more when you hear of the bombing of the café you and Paz used to frequent and even more when you hear the news of Paz and her Algerian that winter.
As you sip your morning coffee at an isolated, still-intact, unmemorable café, an old contact happens upon your exodus from past remembrance and joins you uninvited. You never trusted this black-haired individual who led you down too many blind alleys with too little corroboration and your dispatches suffered for it. You watch his nervous, bird-like eyes as they waver for enemies unseen and as you fold your New York Times in frustration you look at those brown eyes, almost the same color of his wicked, toppled graveyard teeth and even though you hold nothing but contempt for this weasel and his track record of avoiding facts, you find yourself enveloped in his twisted speech, believing him just this once.
He tells you of her Algerian who was spying for the extremists and how they were both accused of espionage and detained and then tried and found guilty of treason by some military tribunal of the moment and consequently lined against the wall in the old city square with students and other undesirables and executed by machine gun. Your heart shreds s at this news and you find yourself not wanting to believe it, but you know in the end that it’s true. You find yourself smiling at the brutal incongruity of how you once read her poetry against that very same wall some nearly forgotten pleasant day long ago and how it is now stained with her blood. You do not wish to believe this account, but you know not even this worthless degenerate with the graying strands could make up such a story if it wasn’t true.
In your grief you hear yourself threatening him for more details but you find yourself loosening your grasp of his greasy lapels from across the table and sinking back down into your chair, broken by it all. The war has come home to you, you mutter. You senselessly add about the absurdity of how Paz and her Algerian were shot by the firing squad in the same plaza that Milagros, having been overthrown by the Ministry, was unceremoniously hanged.
You excuse yourself from one of the few associates left from the old days and you wander the nearly abandoned city in your anguish and stop along the ruins of the world you once had with Paz. The dead have it easy, you think, as wander through your ruined history and you find the power grid has been struck as you enter the hotel you and Paz once made love. It is dark and unseasonably warm in the late afternoon as you wearily ascend the stairs being the elevator is not working in the blackout and you open the door. It is hot and empty in the room where you last saw her and you brush away the dust and flecks of rubble off of her picture you never had the heart to throw away as she was your heart and you start to laugh. You recognize Paz was correct in the end as you look around the room. You notice for the first time that the hotel has been hit, too.
In your vainglorious misery, you wish it was you who had died as you sit on the bed. You learn that while the past stung, so does the present, as you finally feel the ironic chest wound, feel the warm blood against your shirt and see that you’ve been hit. You have no idea when or where but you patch it up the best you can with the first aid kit in the bathroom they gave you when the press corps landed at the airport a lifetime ago. You think of how it is just a scrape, nothing serious and then everything fades to black.
You awake, not in your room but in the hospital after having been found by the hotel maid. You were told you were bleeding out when she found you and her quick action has saved you, but you don’t want to be saved, you want Paz, but once more you can’t have her. You are told by a steady stream of doctors that you are a very lucky man, but you don’t feel lucky without her. You hear them say that the wound is near your heart and that by some miracle your heart has not been injured, but you know better. You listen in the night and think of Paz as you hear the mortar fire getting closer to the hospital basement where they are keeping the wounded. You smile and think of how the doctors only patched you up, explaining that the operation would be too delicate to perform and that such a procedure might kill you, but without her, you are already dead inside.
In the morning you would leave permanently against doctor’s orders, but since they are evacuating the hospital, no one stops you. You ask a cab driver to take you to the railway station but it has been bombed and you bribe him to get you to the airport, but he can only take you so far as the road to the terminal has been hit, too. On the walk to the airport, you think of how there was nothing good about this war. Everyone and everything had been corrupted and compromised. There was no diplomacy left and how a lot of good people had been killed off that winter. You think about all of them, the good and even the bad. The dead speak to you now in memory and nightmare. The war killed them all off indiscriminately and without reason. It spared no one on account of status, responsibility or age. It arbitrarily killed the hero and the coward alike. There would be no glory for the dead and for the living, only the dead to bury, along with the truth.
In late winter of that year a truce was called, which seemed to be an abhorrent idea to those who had been killed. In the end, treaties would be signed, alliances forged in the literal sense of the word, until the next war. There was a sense of putting off the inevitable.
You wanted someone to pay up, explain why so many had to die, but in the end there were no real answers, at least not any that would satisfy anyone. You searched for the truth, but there was none to be found. The truth was covered with peace conferences and each day you hoped for that truth to become known, but so as not to offend any nations still sensitive to the conflagration, you realized that the peace had been as flawed as the war. Too many deals had been struck beforehand and atrocities were glossed over during the proceedings with well-meant platitudes that sufficed as progress. You heard it was history-in-the-making as you went back to cover the conference but you were assiduously aware that history was in effect a glorification of man’s defects and not the contrary and how history is written by the winners; a dirty trick upon the dead.
In the end, you went home and tried not to think about her, but her loss would always be there in the night when you awoke alone. You knew if things had been different, if there had been no war, no Algerian, you and she could have, no would have made it in a world that frowns on such bliss. But the world sought to take her from you and you were always wary of ever truly being happy again in such a world.
With the chunk of metal still embedded in your chest, you were always conscious that you had been spared a death unlike those many others you knew; unlike her. It would always make for a great story with the newbie journalists in the next war, you knew. But with that hunk of shrapnel shifting imperceptibly inside you with the advent of every dawn, you were cognizant that each day could be your last. You knew that with this ticking time bomb next to your already-wounded heart that if the new war didn’t kill you, the old one eventually would. Death would find you. It was only a matter of time.