(Woman-with-Sign)

Hollie Box

(Woman-with-Sign)

January 5, 2017

My house empty, I mash the volume button on my beaten-up BOSE past 60, like a convertible driving teenager. Only I’m not trying to look cool; I’m standing in my underwear, hoping to hear talk radio over the shower.

Stepping face-first toward the nozzle, high-pressure streams prick my face and fill my ears, muffling a low-pitched British voice. A curtain of hair and water drapes my face, now lowered. I hold my breath with my eyes closed until I struggle a tad. I’ve engaged in this odd experiment regularly since I was a child, maybe age eight or nine. Now, despite 39 years, and a working knowledge of gravity, I’m still convinced until my reflexes kick in—force a successful mini-nasal-test-breath—that I’ll inhale water.

Righting myself, hot water safely relegated to my scalp, the now-audible reporter describes what he calls an “unsettling procedure.” He was only allowed to observe prisoners at Guantanamo Bay from behind one-way glass; his post-U.S. presidential election visit ordered secret from prisoners.

Later I’ll learn General John F. Kelly, top brass in charge of what I know as GITMO, restricted all media access in 2015. He cut visits to one-day, barred reporters from talking to guards, jettisoned their access to the main camps housing the majority of prisoners, and stopped the release of hunger strike data. When asked why, a military spokesperson invoked the Geneva Convention, specifically its requirement of protection for POWs from “insults and public curiosity.”

Water prods lather down my neck and chest. I back step, watching cloudy runnels inch toward the drain. The BBC correspondent says one prisoner approached the one-way glass and raised a handmade sign to the pane: a question mark above a padlock. The programming skips to financial news.

That’s it? Two seconds of airwaves leave me sprawling mentally. Trying to picture where the detainee walked in relation to the reporter, how the other detainees reacted, if the guards seized his sign, was it written in pen or pencil, was he removed—as a result—from this common room, was the reporter removed from “observing,” did the guards react, did other inmates react?

Sloughing off suds, shoving them from my thighs and calves, reaching sloppily across my back, at the least, I should have heard, “Obviously the prisoner knew someone was there.” Is that too much given the media’s limited capacity? Jesus. It’s Britain. Not China. Why not, “We knew we weren’t allowed to do anything, but there we were, my cameraman and I, staring at this man until guards escorted us away.”

I want to ask the gagged guards if this man was charged with anything. I want to know if this man has a wife or kid or brother or dog or hobby. It’s so fucking hard to ask for help; especially when the person you’re reaching out to is a ghost! I need this man to be more than just a parenthetical.

The shower door is fogged thick, the sink-perched radio’s cord strung like tripwire across my closet entrance now barely visible. In their place, steam reveals remnants of erasure the size of my six-year-old’s palm, her marked frustration after transposing the tails on the letters ‘g’ and ‘j.’ Arabic, I know, is written from right to left, making its question mark the mirror image of the English version. My daughter’s reversal is a technical snafu. But the detainee’s chosen direction—assuming he speaks and writes in Arabic—is significant. The circular curve of his interrogatory open to the left could signify desperation or capitulation. Keeping it culturally in tact, open to the right, could implicate jingoism, defiance, even.

Wrapping myself in a towel, high-stepping the cord, I dress, and head downstairs. I recall reading Trump say no more releases from GITMO; he might add prisoners instead. In pre-election debate, he was fine with waterboarding or “stronger.” In a macabre game of Pictionary, I picture myself holding up a sign with a giant “X” or a skull and crossbones. How to communicate in response to a likely gaunt, jump-suited man, “You are fucked.” It’s pointless anyway. He wouldn’t be able to see it. One-way communication isn’t, of course, communication at all. Maybe that is the ultimate torture.

A second beat-up BOSE in my office serves as my faithful-colleague-cum-white-noise. When home alone, I binge on radio. I’ve always preferred it to television, allowing images to free-form in my head. Having sat down at my desk, a New Year’s-oriented advertisement bleats against the hardwood: “Do you want to stop smoking and drinking? Call this number to take part in a free medical study.”

Earlene answers the second time I call. I okay and um-hmm while I scribble on the back of a bill: 2 pills/day, 18 weeks and 1 screen, 10 clinic visits, 2 follow-ups. If chosen, I won’t know whether my group is low-dose, high-dose, or the placebo, she explains. I consent that during those days of the study I will try to stop drinking and smoking. “Before I conduct the phone screening,” she says, “you’ll need to know that if you are not chosen, I cannot tell you why.”

“O-kay,” I say, half-listening, Googling the BBC report, breaking a certain personal taboo while watching Gordon Corera’s muted speak from a deserted Cuba on a solo walking tour. “How much did you drink yesterday?” And, “the day before?” Then, “the day before that?” I admit “two glasses,” and “three glasses,” looking around and speaking softer as if my house isn’t empty. Earlene is non-judgmental when she asks how big the glasses were. She’s helpful answering, “How many milliliters are in a bottle?” I imagine future visits with this woman I picture as middle-aged, maybe a size 12, adjusting her readers, holding a clipboard.

After I answer a litany of yes/no’s (Are you pregnant? Breast-feeding? Using drugs? Antidepressants? Treated in the past year for bi-polar or schizophrenia?) Earlene explains a trial team will review my information, let me know. Is she wearing scrubs or street clothes? Corera’s wearing dress casual, and as my call ends, I’m free to backtrack, click, and resurrect the audio. Camp Echo is an empty building where detainees meet their lawyers and nearby, our guide highlights a candy-cane-striped tape demarcating the exit and freedom.

Two hours later, Earlene calls. “You weren’t chosen,” she says, her manner a notch cooler than earlier.

“Oh,” I say, stunned. Easy-out pills, my exit strategy from exhausting failed battles of will, gone. She fills a bloated silence with offers to email me information or sign me up for future trials. I interrupt: “I’m not trying to do studies. It was this study.”

“You probably weren’t smoking or drinking enough,” my friend says later. Our girls are playing on a slide in her backyard after school. She’s prepping chicken breasts for the oven. “They needed people who were worse than you.”

Before bed, I catch my reflection in the shower door, gaunt, pajamaed, brushing my teeth. At least I had an answer.

Did a high dose of fundamentalism once offer the anonymous man-with-sign in GITMO the promise of safety? Or, like many prisoners eventually released, was he a wrong-place-wrong-timer, rounded up with bad actors when he was only passing through a village, lodging nearby, because he was in a tough spot with his health or family or job—whatever it may be—struggling for a spell.

My life is fine, and yet my drinking and smoking hangs on, a vestige of those tough spots. Like being coupled with bad actors, I can’t seem to separate myself from my bad habits. Even when I know the risks.

With my husband still gone and my daughter fast asleep, I slip outside for a cigarette in my Christmas pajamas. I haven’t packed them away yet with the decorations, but I need to.

from Issue 29.2


HOLLIE BOX lives in Houston, Texas with her family. Of late, her chosen medium is the word. A word. Words. However, rubber chickens and expired pills tell her story better sometimes.