Friday, August 14, 2009

Extreme Close Up Chapter 6


Jack nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, I actually am. Confused. Not sure whether to be pissed or happy or...” He rubbed a hand over his face. “Confused.”
Ally swallowed hard. It was surprisingly hard to think of Jack and Brittany as parents. A couple. A couple with something linking them together, forever. They’d been in love once. It wasn’t out of the question that they could care about each other again, especially since they had a daughter to bring them together. The idea caused an ache in her chest. She cleared her throat. “I’m sure Brittany is doing a great job of raising your daughter.”
Jack started the car. “How about we go out for dinner somewhere?” he offered. “My treat. To make up for all the bread I ate this morning.”
Ally laughed. “Oh yeah, that’s a fair deal. But, sure.”
“You decide where. I have no clue.”
She chose a restaurant closer to her home and again gave driving directions to get there. The funky, casual place usually had a long wait for a table, but it was early and they were shown right in.
“This is nice,” Jack said approvingly, checking the place out. Huge bronze and glass light fixtures hung from the high ceiling. Dark wood tables and chairs sat in the center of the room and upholstered booths lined the walls.
“You’re a world traveler now.” Ally wondered how this measured up to some of the places he’d been. He laughed.
“Yeah. But this is great.” Their eyes met and he blew out a long breath. “Wow. I’m sorry to drag you into this, Ally.”
She looked at him and tipped her head. “Isn’t that why you came? To drag me into this?”
His eyes widened and she smiled.
“I’m kidding. Sort of.” How could she not be involved? They were friends, despite her anger at him for ignoring her for the last five years.
“I didn’t really expect you to come and see Brittany with me,” he said slowly, his features relaxing. “Thank you.”
“I’ll do whatever I can to help.”
He nodded, played with the knife and fork in front of him. “Will you come with me tomorrow?”
Her heart expanded in her chest at his low, husky question, his head bent as he looked down at the fork. “Of course.”
He looked up and the emotions darkening his eyes and the lines bracketing his mouth made her throat tighten. “Thanks, Ally. I know this isn’t your mess to deal with, so...thanks.”
She nodded, not sure if her voice would come out if she spoke. There was silence for a moment, while she swallowed hard a couple of times.
“Tell me what you’ve done, Jack,” she finally said. “Tell me about your work.”

***
Over dinner they set aside the monumental problem of Jack’s fatherhood, and he talked about his work in Iraq.
“Things aren’t always like you expect,” he commented slowly. “I spent some time embedded with the Marines.” She nodded, but didn’t say she already knew that. “It was quite an experience. I had to train like I was one of them. Lifting weights, climbing ropes, trekking for miles in the desert. Man,” he shook his head. “Physically, that was tough.”
She eyed his broad chest and shoulders, his hard muscles.
“But it was almost more of a challenge mentally.”
“How so?” She watched his face as he talked, trying to interpret the various emotions passing across it.
“When you’re an embed you have to agree the military has control over the work you do that gets out. I started to almost feel like I was betraying my profession.” He shook his head. “You can lose your objectivity. You stop asking the hard questions, start accepting things. Every day we journalists tried to remind ourselves we weren’t one of them, but you hear the same messages over and over, and it gets to you. And you start to develop relationships, friendships...when you have those ties, you might not be so objective. I wanted to see more. I wanted to know the Iraqi people. I won’t go into detail, but there were stories I wanted to tell that...well, let’s just say not everyone wanted them told.” He lifted a broad shoulder. “So I went out on my own.”
“Oh.” Ally’s eyes widened. “That must have been even more dangerous.”
“Yeah. Without the protection of the military, I was taking some risks. I hooked up with a few other journalists. Another American, a Canadian, and an Irish guy. We traveled around together. We got into some trouble, some pretty tight situations. But we had a lot of laughs, too.” He smiled and she saw the fondness he’d had for these fellow journalists. “I took some time off and I traveled in Europe a bit. Got to see something more than just ‘shock and awe’.
“Then about two years ago I got to know a contact in the Mahdi Army, in Baghdad.”
She looked inquiringly at him.
“The Mahdi Army is a militant branch of the Shiite movement to resist American occupation.”
“Oh.”
“So Mohim and I worked together. He knew I was American and he was basically keeping an eye on me and what I was doing, but on the other hand, he let me get inside and see things that no one else could. You know, you get a whole different perspective on things when you make friends with people. I got incredible access to the workings of the Mahdi Army. There were times where Mohim stood up for me, vouched for the fact that I wasn’t an American spy. I owed him my life more than once. He was a young guy, same age as me, but married with a little baby.” The intense sadness in Jack’s eyes made her skin prickle in anticipation of what she was going to hear.
***
Jack looked down at the table as he talked, picked up a fork and turned it over. “One day I was at Mohim’s home, having tea. I never met his wife. She always stayed in the back room of his home when I was there. We heard the helicopters coming and then the explosions. Mohim and I ran out into the street. I grabbed my camera, of course. They were firing basically right at us. Mohim’s house was destroyed.” He looked up, and the pain and anguish in his eyes made Ally’s eyes sting. “His wife and baby were killed that day. After that, he was a different man. He was from a poor neighborhood in Baghdad. All he’d ever wanted was a life with dignity and freedom. He never had that under Saddam Hussein. And then he never had that with the foreign invasion. All he’d ever known was violence and struggle.”
“Oh, Jack.” Ally watched Jack as he talked, definitely older and wiser now, a little world-weary and cynical.
“But it puts things in perspective.” He fingered the stem of a water goblet.
“It does make you realize what’s important. And how trivial some of our problems seem.”
He nodded. Their eyes met in mutual understanding. She wanted to reach across the table and take hold of his hand to show him she understood, even though she had never experienced anything like he had. But she stopped herself. Memory of the last night she’d seen Jack before he’d left - the way he’d touched her as he adjusted her position for her graduation photograph - sent a shimmer of sensation through her.
They had finished their dinner. “Tell me more,” she invited. “I remember hearing about all the antiquities that were destroyed. That’s so tragic.”
“Well, we still don’t really know the whole truth about that,” Jack answered. “The Iraq National Museum was definitely looted, but there were some miscommunications ...” his mouth twisted wryly, “...or something, about how much was actually destroyed. Some thought looters had even accessed the museum’s underground vaults and destroyed priceless ceramics that had been packed away there. Ceramics that tell the story of civilizations over nine thousand years in Mesopotamia. But apparently museum staff hid a lot of the items in secret locations.”
“Wow,” Ally breathed. “That’s lucky.”
“Yeah. They had a plan in place from the Gulf War to hide things.”
Ally shook her head, amazed at Jack’s experiences, at what he’d learned. What a remarkable man. He put his own life on the line to make sure people around the world saw what was happening.
Typical of him, too, he hadn’t wanted to be bound by rules that kept him from following his own values, his honesty, his deep-seated desire to always do the right thing. As a photojournalist, he felt an obligation to tell the truth, no matter how difficult it was for him.
And now...he wasn’t running or hiding from his obligations. Something expanded and warmed in her chest. It might have been her heart, which had been frozen for a long time. It felt...scary.
She frowned, looked down at the table and said, “I’m still mad at you.”

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