No Shorts After Sunset
Public parks are prohibited in Bahani. According to the 1956 constitution, which replaced the 1955 constitution and overrode the 1943 Omaha Accord, "There is to be no parcel of open land larger than thirty meters squared in the United Republic of Bahani."
The official reason for the open land prohibition is that it "promoted land conservation and equality," but the real reason is the 1995 revolution. Or, more specifically, what happened after it.
The largest patch of open space on the entire island nation is in the traffic circle on the "Airport Superway," a stretch of divided highway that connects the new international airport terminal in the west from the country's old walled city on the island's east coast. Dr. Quatani Lovejoy built the Superway to support the anticipated influx of visitors during the First Annual Africa Disc Golf Games in 1999. The spectators never materialized, but the Superway has remained.
Before 2015, Bahani was unknown to most Americans. It was unknown in 1504 when it was visited by the Portuguese and in 1841 when it was colonized by the French and in 1976 when it achieved independence and even in 1995 when, in the former Soviet hospital, a woman gave birth to Ira Omar Omar, the most "liked" terrorist on YouTube and impetus of this story. It was unknown to Arthur Goodrich at the 1999 National Geography Bee in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, when he misplaced the country in the Adriatic, not the Indian Ocean. Syntana O'Brien's parents and her orthodontist are thankful for the $5,000 mistake.
But in 2015, Bahani was put on the map. Which is to say, it made the American cable news cycle. In 2015, Ira Omar Omar was videotaped with the kidnapped Maribeth Wesnowitz. Blonde and beautiful, Maribeth was the only daughter of spaghetti sauce tycoon and vocal born-again Christian, Herbert Wesnowitz III. She was in Bahani on a mission trip in the north, teaching special education kids how to build schools.
After Maribeth went missing, the counterculture traveling guide, Lonesome Planet, voted Bahani the "Terrorist Safe Haven with the Best Beaches." Since its publication six weeks ago, the previously sleepy nation 300 miles off the coast of Africa has experienced a 400% increase in international tourism.
The traffic circle, and the statue inside of it, are the customary subjects of a foreign tourist's first selfie in Bahani. Local cab drivers know their tips will increase if they allow their charges to take the photo while en route to the island's only hostel. So they move to the outer edge of the circle and slow down, or sometimes stop all together, allowing sedans filled with Canadians or Germans to snap photos of themselves, their friends, and the cab driver in front of the circle, each making a peace sign. The photo is later uploaded courtesy of the hostel's high-speed Internet connection, one of two on the island, with the hashtag #FreeToBe.
The circle also has the highest rate of traffic accidents in the country.
Inside the traffic circle, which has an area exactly 29.99 meters squared, or round as the case may be, is a life-sized gold statute of the country's most recent strongman and cult of personality, His Excellency Doctor Quatani Lovejoy. Its construction was Lovejoy's first presidential decree, followed by his second – outlawing public squares and parks.
Quatani Lovejoy didn't want to be a dictator anymore, but he didn't know why. Perhaps he was just tired. Between signing import/export agreements all day and torturing all night he had developed tendonitis in his left elbow which made it difficult to sleep. Maybe it was his mattress? He remembered something President Udama posted on his Facebook page last week – "Fourteen Reasons You're Too Tired to Go Clubbing." Number seven had something to do with replacing your mattress. Quatani would have Sebastian order a new one immediately.
If he were being honest, he'd admit he'd been trying to get out for years now. But a dictator is rarely honest, so he'll insist this was something he just recently decided.
It's just...well, this was what he thought he wanted. The power. The control. The influence. And once he got it, he couldn't help but feel a bit disappointed.
Running a government isn't at all like fighting a revolution. Revolution is all rousing speeches and fiery passion and inspiring seas of men in open spaces. It is pageantry and drama and people chanting your name. Love. Joy. Love. Joy. And at the end, you ride a tank onto the plaza to take the reins of power. Reins. Revolution is filled with words like reins and treason and volatile. Words dripping with blood and history and deceit.
And as soon as the tanks' engines go cold you are left to run the government. A unwieldy knot of boring men in boring ties presenting boring options for export taxes or banana harvests. His job was now to find policy options that are acceptable to everyone and interesting to no one. The tedium made his jaw ache.
If he were being honest, he'd admit his first attempt to get ousted was in his first term. He was naïve and thought if he pretended to be socialist, the Americans would meddle.
He should have known better. The wall was long gone and Clinton spent more time with his interns than he did with his foreign policy advisors. Should he have gone full communist? Would that have made a difference? If only he had taken power sooner. He was just born at the wrong time.
So his switch to socialism only served to surround him with socialists. Who, of all the wonks, had to be the least interesting. And most poorly dressed. They'd come into the palace in their clip-on ties and short-sleeved dress shirts mumbling about equitable distribution of wages and theories of joint ownership. There was always dirt under their fingernails and scuffs on their shoes. That's when he knew this wasn't the policy for him. It was just too uncivilized.
He tried kidnapping and dabbled a bit in the arms trade, but his heart wasn't in it. They were too transactional for his tastes. Too much quid pro quo. Not emotive enough. It wasn't until he found torture that he felt he truly found his calling. That magical day when he discovered an impassioned battle of wits suitable for his intellect. How could he force another human being to feel pain? Loss? Spread the most fear? For the same reasons some play chess or fantasy football, Quatani tortured.
He massaged the inside of his elbow and winced. He knew he should start delegating the work, but it pained him to think about life without torture.
But torture wasn't his only passion. It wasn't even his first love. As far as he was concerned, there was nothing more sublime than the twang of country guitars punctuated by the thud of boot heels on a polished dance floor. He had been dancing to Shania since "Any Man of Mine" and practiced his bronco twists and corkscrew turns daily on his lunch hour in the basement of the palace.
It was where he went when the loneliness of governing became too much. When he couldn't bear signing another decree. He would change into his tightest pair of Jordache jeans and his best bolo tie. Don his prized black Stetson and newest embroidered shirt with the pearl snaps. He would step into the dimly lit room and for a moment he would fail to recognized himself in the full-length mirror. As he pressed the remote and the slide guitar surrounded him, he felt his ankles effortlessly twist and heard his boots stomp and slowly His Excellency Dr. Quatani Lovejoy would fade away.
But this afternoon, he wasn't dancing to forget. He was dancing to work out a problem. Not so much a problem as an opportunity. An opportunity presented to him by his nephew, his godson. A gift given to him when Ira chose to kidnap that blond girl. Now, apparently, he was a terrorist. Those were the BBC's words, not Quatani's, but he knew that terrorists were the communists of the 21st Century. An affiliation with one could get Quatani ousted in a second and one step closer to opening his very own country bar in Buckhead.
He couldn't believe his luck. His nephew, a terrorist. This would work. Now, if only Ira would return his calls.
Bahani was effectively closed on June 5, 1995. On this date, His Excellency Dr. Quatani Lovejoy issued Executive Decree 002 which severely restricted Bahani transportation and communication with the outside world. Effective on this date, regular flights between the capital and both Nairobi and Heathrow were cancelled. The following week, ferry service to neighboring Zanzibar was discontinued, leaving the huge ships to rust and barnacle in the country's only deep sea port. According to Executive Decree 003, foreign visas were only to be issued for visitors who submitted a blood test, provided three letters of recommendation, and could prove they knew the exact location of their television's remote. Dr. Lovejoy then signed Executive Decree 004, which prohibited the wearing of shorts after sunset, and cargo shorts at anytime.
During this time, Dr. Lovejoy allowed one flight in and one flight out of the country per day. Both flights were to either depart or arrive at the exact same time – 5:27pm, in honor of Dr. Lovejoy's birthday on May 27th. Once, in 1996, a pilot landed three minutes and thirty-two seconds early due to significant tailwinds. He was greeted on the tarmac by a SWAT team and shot multiple times at close range.
Six months ago, Dr. Lovejoy suddenly stopped skimming the country's entrance and exit manifests for the United Republic of Bahani. He also stopped going to cabinet meetings and split his time only between the torture chamber and the palace's dance hall. Occasionally, he would binge watch network sitcoms from the nineties. Dr. Lovejoy's personal chef noticed he had stopped eating. Palace insiders speculated he had fallen ill – cancer or AIDS. Only a handful of people knew the real reason. He and his nephew had had a huge argument and the boy had vanished.
Had Dr. Lovejoy been running the country he would have known his tourism minister had completed negotiations on a series of new codeshare agreements with foreign airlines. Had he been running the country he would have known an American adventure travel company, B Adventures, launched its first trip to the island after decades of isolation.
Most importantly, had Dr. Lovejoy monitored the entrance manifests, he would have noticed a familiar name – Ira Omar Omar. Ira's Bahani passport was stamped upon arrival by B. Avila at Lovejoy International Airport on 6 March 2015 and would soon be stamped at departure by M. Ahmed at the Omar Omar Ferry Terminal on 5 June 2015.
The B Adventures management meeting began with the warped sound of three large singing bowls. President Quint Kelly was in the center manning the big bowl. Two doughy balding men on either side played the other two. Steve and John. Or Mike and Frank. Whatever, same thing. They were clearly kissing his ass with an efficiency familiar to most in the "New Economy." Portia DiStephano, Executive Vice President of Adventure Travel, watched them move the mallets around the edges of the bowls with unsure hands and cracked skin around their fingers. These were men kept in the office past retirement due to mishandled mutual funds and expensive preschool tuition. Past the point of their utility, if you asked her. Analog in a digital age. It grossed her out.
You could tell they resented Quint, who preferred to be known as MacC, a man about the age of their sons who was running a company worth more money than they could imagine.
The management team sat cross-legged in a circle because everything in this fucking place happened in a circle. The fountain and the singing bowls were supposed to facilitate her dropping easily into a meditative state. Instead, it just made her have to pee. And in lieu of imagining the expansiveness of the universe, she kept her eyes closed and thought about how she should redecorate her condo.
Portia adjusted B Adventures' mandatory meditation Thai fisherman pants. She ached for her pencil skirts. She felt like the best version of herself in a pencil skirt. She had a closet filled with them, but now they were pushed to the back to make way for drop-crotch harem pants and other loose-fitting knits that purportedly allowed for the free-flowing movement of energy. What was wrong with these people? Didn't any of them know how to operate a zipper?
She readjusted her meditation cushion in a last ditch effort to get comfortable. What's the point? She was stuck next to the mouth-breathing accounting manager. It was so distracting she wanted to punch him in the face. Maybe then he'd actually breathe out of his nose.
Onyx, the B Adventures body worker, tiptoed around the room, rubbing their temples with essential oils. Portia tensed when she heard her getting closer. She hated to be touched.
Portia requested that she not be touched after the first meditation meeting, which prompted a "unification." What B Adventures called a meeting. They sat cross-legged in a circle. Human Resources was there, Onyx wept and fingered her mala beads. MacC looked into Portia's eyes with an earnestness that was beyond repulsive and wanted to know why she was fighting on behalf of disconnection. At the end they held hands and sang softly with their eyes closed.
"Remember," MacC had said, "Changing the world is easy. All you have to do is have a blast."
Not that stupid tag line again. What did that even mean? It was the B Adventures slogan and it was everywhere. Projected onto the screensaver in the conference room, printed on the compostable napkins in the kitchen, embroidered on the tiny pillows in the nap room. MacC had commissioned Oakland graffiti artist, Brthr, to tag it on the huge concrete wall in the meeting hall. Below it, hovered an alien in a Jetsons-style spaceship. She thought he was giving a discreet middle finger, but no one else saw it.
From a marketing perspective Portia knew it was genius even though it made no sense. Maybe it was genius because it made no sense. The most successful marketing campaigns were like that. Think Different. Because you're worth it. Just Do It, for crissake. What did any of it mean? No one knows. But we all think we do. And we think it means we're special. And special people need to buy shit.
Portia also knew that millennials with buying power were 84% more concerned about the global impact of their actions, but 62% less likely to actually do anything. That's why it was so genius. They could spend mommy and daddy's money, climb mountains and sleep in yurts, and the world would be a better place.
And people were paying a crapload to go on adventure trips. B Adventures was one of Silicon Valley's hottest companies right now, which is why Portia had left Connecticut and taken this job.
She had heard about MacC's unconventional management tactics. Everyone had. After all, the "Kindergarten Wunderkind," as the press called him, was the first executive to be featured simultaneously on the cover of Wired and Yoga Journal. In a recent GQ profile, MacC was photographed in lotus position during a board meeting and up to his thumbs in finger paint with the customer service department.
People couldn't possibly buy this "Leading by Play" nonsense. It was the Kindergarten Wundersuck's signature management philosophy in which executives lead their organizations by harnessing their creative energies through a mandatory six hours of structured play. Portia used to fill her days by negotiating multibillion dollar mergers. Now she played "Who's got the banana?" in her mandatory executive improv class.
He and childhood friend, MC Shakti, founded B Adventures after years of bouncing around Breckenridge and Tamarindo and Phuket, chasing thrills and tail. Apparently, their mothers had been the best of friends since they met at a "free climb and free base" trip on El Capitan or some shit. MC Shakti was no longer part of the company, having given up her co-presidentship but not her stocks, to pursue her calling as a rapper and yoga teacher, dropping beats and hip openers to sold out and blissed out crowds from Williamsburg to Santa Monica.
Which meant there was a spot in upper management available. And everyone knew it. Which is why every douchebag in the company was there, swirling mallets around metal singing bowls and reading Where the Sidewalk Ends on the magic carpet to their departments.
Portia's muscles became rigid as Onyx's dirty feet approached her. Her "body work" was even worse after the unification. Instead of just avoiding her completely, like she should have, Onyx spent even more time touching her – rubbing her temples, the soles of her feet, even her third eye. It was like she was trying to rub her yogic desperation to be liked directly into Portia's skin.
Portia knew her plan was risky, but it would be worth it. There was a market for these trips. According to her research, adventure travel is the only sector of the market that had expanded exponentially in the last ten years. Even during the recession, people were paying a shit-ton of money to deep sea dive with Great Whites or participate in organized indigenous circle jerks.
The only problem? They had run out of places to go. Blame the Internet, blame cheap stag night packages to the Hungarian Riviera, blame Leonardo DiCaprio's insistence that the modern man must participate in at least one Thai Full Moon Party before he dies. Blame whomever you want, but there were fewer and fewer options for adventure travelers by the day.
Plus, Portia knew her plan would make loads of money. The idea for the jihadi trip came to her when she was watching CNN on the treadmill. They were showing stock footage of an al-Qaeda training camp. Men in hoods ran through old tires and swung from monkey bars under the hot desert sun. She watched their muscles bulge and swell, making their fatigues tighten. For a fleeting moment, she found herself both aroused and intrigued. Even she would go all the way to Yemen for those triceps.
She stopped right there and wrote the copy in a leather-bound notebook she always kept with her. The treadmill whirred next to her and sweat dripped onto the page as she wrote:
Ultimate Jihadi Experience – Calling all social misfits and amateur mystics. Find your passion. Build endurance. Get toned, mentally and physically. Join B Adventures in a three-month journey designed to upend your life. We will guide you through the spiritual practice of Islam and share how it can get your mind, body and spirit in shape. Disconnect to reconnect. After all, it's your planet. Come and get it.
It was genius and already booked 18 months out. Thanks to the kid on the video, who was up to nearly 1.1 million likes. He looked like an overgrown puppy with a semi-automatic weapon. And the girl? A legit Wesnowitz. She couldn't have planned it better herself.
Portia just needed one more big idea and she'd be a shoe in for MC Shakti's spot. No fucking singing bowl required.
Ira didn't recognize himself. The man on the computer screen looked different, more adult. Three months in the jungle and six months of veganism had left his jaw squarer and his eyes a bit more hollow. Ira knew it was him in the kidnapping video, but it looked like his father.
His voice came from the stranger on the screen, "We have Maribeth Wesnowitz and will not release her until our demands of a calistate are met."
Ira winced. He really wished Hunter would have let him change "calistate" to "caliphate." He didn't want to be rude, but he was pretty sure he was right. When he suggested it during the filming, the B Adventures' tour guide said, "I'm pretty sure it's a calistate."
Hunter looked down at his iPad. "That's what the script says. Plus, it's an Islamic state, right? Cali-STATE, makes more sense than cali-PHATE."
Ira didn't say anything else. He remembered what guruji told him at his first yoga teacher training six months ago, "Everyone must be allowed to unfurl on his own terms." He wasn't sure exactly what it meant, but he felt like Hunter might need more time for unfurling.
Ira's height and the toy assault rifle on his shoulders made him look quite scary on camera. If he hadn't known it was fake, he would have been worried for Maribeth. But he knew she had, just like everyone, paid to be there. In fact, she had fought two other women for the role. In the end, her status as the heiress to a spaghetti sauce fortune made her better suited to attract more press. The tour guides had said they would get 25% off their next trip if they reached one million "likes."
Hunter refreshed the page and the rest of the group cheered as it counter approached 999,982.
Ira didn't like the idea of "liking" a kidnapping video. His stomach felt upset. He took a couple of medicinal herbs out of his pocket and looked at the line on his water bottle. He frowned. He had only had ten glasses of water today. Not good. Guruji had insisted he drink thirteen glasses of water daily. Thirteen was apparently an auspicious number for his vata constitution. According to guruji, he needed thirteen glasses of water and twenty-eight medicinal herbs, thrice daily.
Ira got up from his prayer mat in the shala and went to fill up his teapot. He had read that tea counted toward his hydration goals, but only at a rate of seventy-three percent. If he had a pot of tea and a glass of water at dinner tonight, he'd be right at thirteen glasses. Ira took the pouch of herbs and a metal tea ball and started dividing them. Four harouk leaves, thirty-two cloves, cut in quarters, sixty-one green tea tips and two whole lemons.
The idea of tea made his belly hurt. He was skinny but the skin on his belly was taut from swelling. His new hydration regimen had caused extreme discomfort since he since he began it six months ago. He desperately wanted to stop, but guruji said it would be worth it. And Ira trusted him.
From the organic coffee and tea bar he could see his fellow B Adventures travelers sitting cross-legged on their prayer mats in a circle. They had moved on from the kidnapping video to watching clips of dachshunds puppies learning to skateboard. They laughed and passed the remaining agave rum between them.
Ira would join them, but even after three months, he didn't know them that well. Plus, guruji insisted alcohol purged the soul of wealth. And he feared additional purging.
Instead, Ira took his teapot, with its vaguely sour-smelling steam, and walked back to his room to pack.
When he signed up for the jihadi trip he had never expected he would end up at home. Even after three months here, it was weird being at Camp Ngoro Ngoro again. He hadn't been there since Eagle Guides when he was seventeen. It was just like he remembered it. Well it felt a bit smaller, maybe. A cluster of wooden buildings on stilts, connected by a series of winding dirt paths woven between banana trees and aloe plants. The main house with a dining hall and yoga shala sat on a cliff and overlooked the clear waters of the Indian Ocean below.
He walked away from the ocean and toward the cabin he shared with Pavol, a handsome ski instructor and the only other guy on the trip. He opened the cabin's wooden door quietly and looked at the mound of blankets covering Pavol's body across the room. Deep snores rattled in the man's ribcage somewhere underneath the textile mountain. A hairy Hungarian foot stuck out on either side.
Ira knew better than to wake him. Pavol spent most of his nights drinking agave rum with the travel guides followed by several rounds of sloppy sex with Adriana, a semi-retired lesbian with kind eyes and unruly hair. She had intended the trip to be an opportunity for sexual introspection after discovering herself to be forty years old and, much to her dismay and concern, "drawn to phallus." Ira didn't want to stand in the way of anyone's journey. He just wished it didn't have to happen so close to his bed.
Ira followed guruji's advice and took advantage of the moment, practicing his meditation skills to the beat of the squeaky bed. Squeak. Inhale. Squeak. Exhale. According to guruji, presence was the ability to accept the today we were offered. And it seemed that Adriana and Pavol having sex in his room was the "today" he was offered on most nights.
But he wasn't worried about that right now. Adriana was out with the others so Ira was able to pack and practice his meditation skills to the sound of Pavol's snoring.
Ira began carefully rolling his moisture-wicking hiking pants and fleece. He always rolled his clothes before he packed because he knew you saved twenty-seven percent more space that way. He took out the stack of gallon plastic bags from his dresser and put some old photos in them. He left his money belt out to use later. B Adventures recommended using one in Bahani.
According to the B Adventures website, you were supposed to travel with family photos to avoid homesickness. Was it even possible to feel homesick in your country? Ira thought so.
He put the most important picture inside his money belt. It was the only picture he had of his father. The image was faded and partially peeled off in the corner from when it got stuck to his FroYo punch card last year. But Papa and Tio still remained intact in the center of the frame.
They were at a gate in O'Hare waiting for their Bahani-bound flight in 1995. Just before Ira was born. And his father died. Papa, at nearly two meters tall, towered over Tio with his arm around his shoulders. They were laughing at something and, as usual, Tio was wearing that stupid cowboy hat. Aunt Minerva was barely visible, hunched in the background in an over-sized sweater.
Today was the the last day of their Ultimate Jihadi Experience and he couldn't help but feel a familiar disappointment. The same feeling he got after the Great White trip was over and Cairo-to-Cape Town cycle trip ended. He threw a six-pack of herbs into his backpack in frustration.
The thing was, everyone in Berkeley talked about pursuing their passions, but he had actually done something. He meditated, he used a neti pot twice a day, he avoided gluten and dairy. He even dropped out of school. During winter break, when everyone was going down to San Diego or Vegas or Tahoe, Ira signed up for his first silent vipassana meditation.
Tears of anger stung his face. Why couldn't he do this? What was wrong with him?
He had done the hard work, he had defied his uncle and dropped out of school and committed to a yoga teacher training and then the holistic meditative extra package, followed by three months installing sustainable wood flooring at guruji's Sonoma tasting room. But it wasn't working. During meditation, his mind still ping ponged all over the place and he still couldn't sleep. During meditation he felt no ease, just more tightness in his chest.
Ease. That's what they promised. The lady who went to Scotland, Latvia and Thailand in Drink, Worship, Lust. The guy who walked the length of the Appalachian Trail carrying only the ashes of his dead father. At the end they felt transcendence. At the end they felt peace.
Had he not committed enough? Did he not try hard enough? He read the GQ article – "all you have to do is have a blast." He looked at the tattoo on his shoulder. He couldn't believe he was actually able to get Brthr to do it himself. That had to count for something.
A lot of good that tattoo did for him. After his first yoga teacher training in Goa, he tried the Great Wall hike. No transcendence, just blisters. Then the ayahuasca trip in Peru. Nothing. Just a stomach ache and an inexplicable aversion to pisco. Then the biking trip from Cairo to Cape Town. More blisters. But no peace. He was about to give up when he saw the ad at the hostel in Cape Town.
Ultimate Jihadi Experience – Calling all social misfits and amateur mystics. Find your passion. Build endurance. Get toned, mentally and physically.
Ira was certain this trip would do what the others had not. This time he would find it. The other trips, they just weren't extreme enough. This was it.
Quatani heard the man scream again from the dark room, his voice echoing off the narrow walls of the basement. Quatani marked the time on a spreadsheet. 7:02pm. According to his calculations, it had been exactly 34 minutes and 12 seconds since the man's last scream.
Many people think torture is all fingernail pulling and waterboarding, but like everything else in real life, it's not really Made for TV.
The fact that the prisoner screamed and did not moan made all of the difference for what happened next. And it was definitely a scream, for sure. Not quite guttural enough for a moan, which was to be marked in a different column and responded to in a different way. Moans were involuntary, the body speaking up for itself and overriding the brain, and screams were not.
Screams were more theatrical, more showy. The brain was still in control, which meant the prisoner was still reasonably comfortable. Quatani wanted do something to disrupt this comfort, but he knew he probably should leave it be.
Because after all of these years he understood that true torture was sitting alone with one's thoughts. In a dark room with no human contact, no concept of time, no Candy Crush. Just anxious thoughts circling the brain, running into each other, feeding more worries, more concerns, which fed more worries and concerns, working the prisoner up into a lather of regret and speculation. Who am I? What does it all mean? What's the point? The imaginary circumstances created by the mind are far worse than those he or any other man was capable of inflicting physically. He looked through the police glass into the torture chamber. A body lay underneath a white sheet. The chest rising and falling rapidly. He'd get there. Quatani just needed to give the prisoner some time. He just needed to be patient.
But Quatani was bored. And restless. And the dance floor was being refinished. He looked down at his cell phone – No Service. He sighed. There was nothing left to do but mark the intervals of screaming for a prisoner.
What did this guy even do? Quatani looked for the paper on the tiny desk in the hallway of the torture chamber but he couldn't find it. While Quatani was meticulous with his control of the country, he never had been able to manage a clean desk. Papers were all over the place. Usually, he could still find stuff, but this wasn't like him. He supposed he hadn't been himself recently. He smiled at the irony of not being able to find the arrest sheet. Did it even matter what the guy did?
Quatani's thoughts drifted to Ira. That little punk, Quatani thought. He should have never taken him in. He hadn't been able to find him anywhere. He knew for a fact Ira was on the island, Quatani recognized the Arvore tree in the background of the kidnapping video. They didn't exist off island. But what he didn't know is how he got there. Quatani would have recognized his name on the travel manifests. Come to think of it, when was the last time he saw one? He couldn't remember. He was getting soft in his old age.
Without thinking, Quatani opened the silver pocket watch he kept in his front pocket. On one side of the engraved silver shell was the face of a clock, one that hadn't worked in years. On the other side, a picture of that fat baby, all potbellied and wearing only a diaper and a party hat. The photo was taken at Ira's first birthday party in the palace. Chocolate cake was all over the place – on his face, on his diaper, tucked deep into the fat rolls of his chunky thighs.
Quatani laughed, remembering the day. Minerva, back when she was beautiful – all strong, lean limbs from the revolution– took the picture right before she brought him up for a bath. Quatani recognized his own arm resting on the back of the wooden high chair, his long fingers looked so much younger than the wrinkled hands that now rested on the top of his paper-covered desk.
The pain of loss quickly replaced the joy of that moment. Ira only came to live at the palace after his father, Quatani's best friend and co-founder of the rebellion, died at the battle of Ngoro Ngoro. He died instantly, with no dramatic last gasp of breath. No crying, no pleading. Adan was there one moment. And then he was gone. Quatani snapped the watch shut and shoved it back into his pocket.
After all I have done for that little punk, Quatani thought. The prisoner screamed again. He typed seventeen minutes into the spreadsheet, but let him sit there. After all he had done – the Eagle Guides and the tuba lessons and the nice condo in Berkeley. Quatani was furious. Ira disobeying him by dropping out of school was one thing, but vanishing for months? And reappearing right underneath his nose was inexcusable.
As soon as Quatani saw Ira on the news he sent out his search and recovery team but the useless idiots couldn't find him anywhere. He sent them everywhere he could think of – Ira's empty townhouse in Old Bahanitown, Lagune Beach where he used to swim as a boy, even his father's memorial. Nothing. Just a bunch of foreigners wearing that stupid t-shirt.
Quatani picked up the t-shirt off his desk and read the back again. All you have to do is have a blast. What did that even mean? And why was the graffiti alien giving him the middle finger? More importantly, why were all of these people on his island?
It wasn't difficult to find her. Portia DiStephano, Executive Vice President of Adventure Travel at B Adventures. Harvard business school, Yale undergrad, Dana Hall School for Girls. He scrolled through B Adventures list of upper management and noticed her immediately. Not because she was the only woman. But because she was the only one who didn't smile with her eyes.
And that was something Quatani understood. Her Facebook page was restricted, but her LinkedIn profile was quite impressive. Less so because of her qualifications, which were outstanding, but because of her unabashed comfort with self-promotion. Even he was impressed. She had thousands of connections endorsing her for hundreds of skills. Even "typing." Who bragged about being able to type these days?
He picked up the phone and dialed her directly. He was pretty sure she might know where Ira was.
As he left a message the prisoner finally moaned. Seventy-four minutes and six seconds, he noted. A personal best.
Minerva moaned loudly then immediately covered her mouth. Shit, she was pretty sure she was supposed to scream right now, not moan. She scrolled frantically through the United Republic of Bahani Torture Manual, v3.2 on her phone. Dammit. There it was on page 47, screams were "of higher pitch and less guttural than moans. Execute 4-6 screams before moaning. Average time from start to moan: 82 minutes."
Eighty-two minutes? She looked at her phone. She had twenty more minutes of this garbage. She lifted up the side of the sheet away from the police glass to let some air come in. She was roasting under here.
She rested her phone on her chest, screen side down. The metal table no longer felt cool on her back after 57 minutes. She lay in the silence for a moment. She was bored. She had so much to do back in the palace, but instead of getting stuff done, she had to sit here for another, she looked at her watch, 24 minutes.
It was so fucking hot. She should have never given the torture crew the weekend off, she thought. They were paid well enough that they could work a bank holiday or two. She sighed. That was unfair. They were a great team and really worked hard. Harder than anyone, including her. They deserved a break. If she covered one bank holiday weekend, they would be back, recharged, and ready to go.
Suddenly she got worried about the moan. It was definitely guttural. And vaguely sexual. She perked her ears up held her breath. Did Quatani notice?
Without thinking, she put her palms together and blew into her hands. The air from a fart noise made the sides of the sheet flap. She covered her mouth to stifle a giggle. What did she think she was doing? Her eyes widened and her heart leapt in her chest. Somehow she thought the fart would counteract the moan. Balance things out. The last thing she needed was Quatani coming in here because he was aroused.
In retrospect, she wasn't really surprised by the fart noise. Minerva rarely thought about things before she did them. She just...well, did them. No weighing of pros and cons, just execution. Action. When she decided to create the torture chamber so many years ago, she didn't really give it much thought. There was a problem that needed to be solved, so she solved it. Done and done.
Her phone vibrated. It was time. She screamed again. Much better, she thought. She might get the hang of this by Tuesday.
The truth was, she gave the torture crew the weekend off, because she didn't think she'd even have to do this at all. Quatani hadn't been torturing a lot lately. He had spent most of the last couple of months, since his argument with Ira, moping around the palace. Well, that and dancing.
As nice as it was to have a bit of quiet, she knew it needed to end soon. Minerva knew Quatani well enough to know he had two emotional settings: pouty and angry. On its face, a pouty Quatani looked harmless – line dancing was, mercifully, a solitary activity for him. But she knew there was a fine line between Pouty Quatani and Angry Quatani. And she preferred to control the transition.
Angry Quatani was easier to deal with because you could give him tasks. Distract him with shiny objects. Minerva usually timed the anger so she could be present with a little task, a chore if you will, anything to keep him occupied for several days, weeks even. Once he was distracted, she could actually get some work done.
But she knew Pouty Quatani could transform instantly into Angry Quatani. And if she weren't there to orchestrate the transition, he found his own shiny object.
So she had been trying to poke the tiger for days now, to get him out of the funk, but she couldn't get him angry. He just kept dancing in the basement.
The truth was, she knew how to get him really mad, but she wasn't ready to pull that trigger. Her phone buzzed. Thankfully, she had remembered to put it on vibrate. She tilted the screen up just a bit to look at it without drawing attention to the light.
Ira. Speak of the devil. Quatani would be furious if she told him she had been in contact with Ira the whole time. That she knew he was on this ridiculous terrorism trip in Ngoro Ngoro. Talk about poking the tiger. She felt mildly guilty for keeping this from him, but whatever. Ira was her son, not his.
If Minerva were being honest, she'd admit she liked to poke the tiger. Just a bit. He just made it so easy. She supposed that was one of the benefits of knowing the tiger as well as she did. She knew exactly where to poke. Except right now, unfortunately.
She screamed and scrolled through the book. She was hoping for a loophole to the 82-minute nonsense. She had to get some documents to the health minister before the end of the day and she was late. Her phone lit up. Voicemail. Wonder what Ira wanted? Where he was going next? Maybe he'd stop by the palace? She'd love it if the two of them could just talk this out.
She did feel guilty for lying to Quatani, but it wasn't like it was the first time. In fact, she had lied to him pretty much as long as they'd been in Bahani. It wasn't her intent, but one lie led to another which led to another and so on... It started a couple of years after the revolution, when he had given up on the arms trade and kidnapping. He insisted he was going to get "into" torture. He read a bunch of books and decided he wanted to start torturing. Decided it was going to be his "thing."
So Minerva told him that "a study" revealed that torture was more effective if there was someone – preferably someone powerful – watching it, rather than actually doing it. He always did love his precious "studies." Plus, she sprinkled in a bit of peer pressure. "This was how President Udama did it." Blah Blah. That did the trick. Quatani looked up to that man so much, it was disgusting.
She offered to set up the torture chamber herself to save him the the trouble, since he was so "busy" and all. She looked through the dossiers of all of the active duty soldiers and sailors and found four young officers who had studied improv in New York and Chicago. Plus one who had just completed a run of her one-woman show at the LA Fringe Festival. She adjusted their deployment paperwork and had them permanently detached to the torture chamber. Then arranged for a sizable donation to Second City in Chicago for the training of future recruits.
She set up the desk where Quatani would "watch" the sessions. She even put in imported one-way police glass and everything. Each member of the torture crew signed a nondisclosure agreement. In return for 8,000b an hour plus an annual bonus and a generous retirement package, they would take improv classes with the officers to learn how to be "tortured." They learned how to fake electric shock and dry waterboarding. If they were able to convincingly "die," they received a bonus.
The torture program was expensive and risky, but she did it because she knew Tani wasn't evil. He didn't even like torture. He just thought he did. Minerva ensured that the improv torture was intentionally fake looking because she knew he couldn't handle it. This was the same man who came up with any excuse to get up during the torture scenes of Scandal. He had to get popcorn, go to the bathroom, make a call, whatever. He couldn't take it. Hollywood torture was far worse than what he saw on a regular basis. And even when he did watch, she could tell sometimes he was forcing himself to watch it. Why he subjected himself to this was beyond her understanding. It was like he was torturing himself almost.
She bit her lip. She might be slightly responsible for the fact that he thought he was a terrible person in need of torture. Her phone buzzed again to remind her of the voicemail. She felt bad that she knew where Ira was and wasn't telling Quatani. He had even been sending out search parties. How cute!
But Quatani didn't understand. Ira just needed a bit of space. To figure stuff out. Like those terrible 90s country songs Quatani wouldn't stop playing. Wide open spaces and all of that nonsense...room to make a big mistake, etc... Blah, blah. She was just doing what was best for him. For both of them.
But she knew it all needed to stop soon. It had gotten to be so much. It was exhausting. First it was the torture, then the fake assassination attempts and then buying imaginary drones and pretty soon, she spent most of her days running around making sure Quatani didn't find out that he, the emperor, was wearing no clothes.
She was gobbling Tums, which were extremely expensive due to American embargoes. She had tried the French version, but they were too chalky. And she didn't like the quatre fruits flavor.
She had been thinking about ending all of this for a week now. When she got the alert on her phone about Adan's birthday. It was in one week. Had she really known Quatani over 20 years? Had she really been lying to him that long? She really needed to do something. Her son was out of the house and she was ready for something different.
She had read some article on Facebook the other day - "14 Reasons You're too Tired to go Clubbing." She missed having fun. She hadn't been dancing in so long...probably about twenty years. One of the suggestions in the article was to treat yourself to a Spa-cation. Draw a bath with salts, listen to some relaxing music, that sort of thing. It even had a link to instructions for a self-administered foot massage.
That's what she'd do tonight, she thought. After all, she deserved it. The health minister could wait. Plus, how much trouble could Quatani get into in one night?
That's it. She was done. She wanted her spa-cation now and she had to pee. Seventy-four minutes was plenty. She let out a loud moan. She pulled up the surveillance camera on her phone. She could see Quatani hunched over his phone, probably updating his Facebook status. He was done. It was 8:00, she could call it an early night. Everything would be fine. She was going to take the night off because she deserved it. End of story.
Ira always had trouble sleeping for as long as he could remember. He listened to Pavol snoring deeply next to him. As if he were mocking him. Here's something you suck at, let me advertise how well I can do it.
Adriana had just left so there was no squeaking. No moaning. Ira could swear Pavol had started snoring before they had even finished.
It wasn't just the sex that made it difficult to sleep. Ira had always had trouble. When he was younger he tried biting his arm. If he bit hard enough he could cry himself to sleep. It worked until Minerva noticed the bite marks. "Is everything alright?" She had asked.
He stopped after that. In the darkness he could see his arm. Should he bite it now? Why was he thinking about all of this now? He had been exhausted all afternoon, barely able to keep his eyes open, but the moment he laid down his mind started to race.
Where was he going to go now? Everyone from the trip was talking about staying in Zanzibar for a while. Getting jobs as scuba instructors or hair braiders. A couple of hostels hired travelers to work the front desk and change the sheets in exchange for room and board. Maybe he could do that?
The red numbers of his alarm clock taunted him. 3:02. What are you still doing awake? What is wrong with you? He had been trying to sleep for exactly three hours and twenty-one minutes. The B Adventures shuttle van would be picking them up to take them to the ferry building at 7:15. There was one final prayer in the morning which meant he had to be awake at 6:23. Three hours and, now, six minutes.
He sucked. At sleeping. And everything else. Ira knew he shouldn't have stayed up with the group. After dinner, they sat around the fire and passed their last bottle of agave rum around the circle. Ira joined them, but just sipped his tea.
He tried to call Aunt Minnie to get her advice on what he should do now. Where he should go. But she hadn't picked up. She was never there when he needed her.
Ira switched on his headlamp and grabbed his notebook. He started flipping through the pages. He had been writing things down on his trips to see if any of it meant anything. To see if he could glean some sort of inspiration from his travels.
He wrote down what he ate and what people said and what he saw. Every night he would skim the notebook, waiting for an answer to reveal itself, jump from the page and tell him what to do next.
If he could discern the meaning of all of this it would make it better. He would understand his "purpose" and then he'd know what to do with his life. He knew the answer was there, if he just paid close enough attention.
But from what he could tell the notebook merely documented incredibly boring details of his life: how much water he drank, how to do the right burpee, that sort of stuff.
He couldn't help but notice his handwriting. Its uniform size and precisely executed loops. His handwriting was perfect, with precisely executed loops. According to Tio, terrible handwriting was only to allowable for real estate agents and savages.
He was one of the only kids at Cal who still knew how to write cursive. Miss Maher used to have them write stories to practice instead of practicing letters. He remembered one story he wrote about a purple dog.
That's stupid. What does a story matter now? He didn't know what he wanted to be, but he knew he didn't want to be a writer, so why did he care? It shouldn't matter. Why was he thinking about that now?
He switched off his headlamp and threw the notebook on the floor. Pavol still snored.
The purple dog story was the first one he wrote. When he was ten. The story was about a boy who was really sick and waiting in the doctor's office. He had a purple stuffed dog with him and, when the boy got scared, the dog came to life and told him everything was going to be okay. Ira couldn't remember why the boy was scared or why the doctor was late, but he remembered the ending. As soon as the doctor comes out the dog turns back into a stuffed animal.
He wrestled with the last line, tried several on for size, but they seemed too vague or too obvious. But then, all at once, it came to him. The last sentence that felt like a punch to the chest. That's how he knew he had found the right one.
When the doctor called the boy's name he got up and looked back at the stuffed dog on the chair.
"Suddenly, he didn't feel so bad anymore."
He couldn't wait to show Tio the story when he came home from school. Ira remembered jumping out of the backseat before the driver even put the car into park. He raced through the palace halls – past the soldiers, past Aunt Minerva – and directly into the library. This was way better than the stolen second base that weekend. Way better than last month's tuba concert. Miss Maher encouraged him to enter it in a contest. If he won, they'd print it in a magazine with his name and everything. The magazine was thick and glossy and smelled like perfume. It would be sent to every house in Bahani.
Ira jumped into Tio's lap and threw the story under his nose. Ira watched Tio read his struggling cursive. Bumpy and uneven. Labored. He watched as Tio's eyes moved from left to right, watched his wheels turning. Ira couldn't wait until he got to the end. Would he like it?
Tio read the last line. Ira waited for a hug, a kiss. Then, without even looking at him, Tio plucked the pen from behind his ear and began to write.
He returned the ink-covered paper and said only to him only this, "Dogs aren't purple."
The edited story won the contest and was printed in the magazine. They announced his name over the loudspeakers in the morning.
Aunt Minnie was so excited when his copy came in the mail. They even printed his name on the cover. Ira Omar Omar.
It was his name, but not his story. Ira threw it directly into the trash. Where it belonged.
Why was he thinking about that now? This was why he never slept. He looked at the clock and sighed. 4:42.
Quatani was an orator, though much mocked in dictatorial circles for his inability to make a speech last longer than five hours. Chavez hated him. Idi Amin called him a homosexual. Dr. Lovejoy blamed his inability to project for long periods of time on adult-onset asthma, something he acquired in his late thirties, but the others whispered it was his lack of revolutionary fervor.
His longest speech, lasting four hours and three minutes, was one made in the Paladium ballroom of the United Nations. It was a winding, meandering speech about the volatile reins of treason or something, but the specific topic was irrelevant. Dr. Quatani Lovejoy's solitary goal was to speak for five hours and prove his autocratic brethren wrong.
The most famous line of the speech would later be taken out of context by Portia DiStephano to attract the hipster dollar. Had these bearded, mason-jar drinking, artisanal honey-making Brooklynites ever read the original transcripts of the speech, they would understand the context and feel differently about the speech. But instead, the headline was skimmed and passed along. Liked and upvoted without thought.
The speech was not televised, nor were there any audience members in attendance. Except for two unsuspecting tourists from Muncie, Indiana who accidentally stumbled into the ballroom at four hours, two minutes and fifty-seven seconds. Dr. Lovejoy would end his speech with a sigh thirteen seconds later.
The line – "I don't tell others how to be. So don't tell me. I am free to be me" – would become the rallying cry of 2015 and the main reason the Extreme Social Advocacy Trip would sell out. With a little help from Portia's contact at WikiSneaks, of course.
Portia considered herself an open book. Her LinkedIn page was robust and documented all of her professional skills and interests. Hiking. Abstract art collection. Portia saw this recent macrame revival coming and registered for classes early. She saw all of these bullshit hobbies for what they were – excellent networking opportunities.
But there was one hobby, one interest, that never made it on the page. One she wanted to remain hidden from the public eye.
She looked into the rearview mirror as she pulled into the underground parking garage, making sure she wasn't being followed. No one must see her. In the elevator she pushed '5,' got out and took the stairs to the seventh floor. There was an acupuncturist on the fifth floor that she claimed to see on a regular basis for her non-existent sciatica. Her nerves were just fine, thank you very much. Portia went so far as to put the appointment on her shared calendar in case her assistant or the rest of the executives wanted to know where she was.
But she never went to the acupuncturist. She didn't believe in that Eastern Voodoo tarot shit. Or in feng sui or meridians or whatever. She didn't even believe in the thing where you're supposed to throw out everything you own and fold your underwear like origami. But she did have a regular appointment on the seventh floor between 7:30 and 8:30 pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Portia had seen the flyer in the locker room at the elite women's gym, Venus & Athena. Therapy for the Busy Executive. Meets community service requirements. It would take her several weeks before she would make the call. Only because she noticed the tiny words at the bottom – discreet.
Now, she was in a small dressing area similar to V&A's locker room. Chrome fixtures, aromatherapy candles, expensive hand soap. She hung her clothes on the padded, scented hangers and changed into a pair of high-end yoga pants and moisture-wicking, cleavage-enhancing tank. She washed her hands and applied organic lotion.
She was nervous and excited the same way she was before every appointment. Her palms were damp and the lotion started to sweat off. She took a deep breath and opened the door. It was a large room with high ceilings and exposed brick. An exact replica of a high-end loft apartment, complete with a sectional couch, rug, and flatscreen TV. She heard a voice over the loudspeaker. "Ms. DiStephano are you ready?" it asked.
She could feel her pulse quicken. "Yes," she said. And she was.
A door opened to the left and seven golden retriever puppies scampered out. Flopping and tripping over their paws. She sat cross-legged on the floor and opened her arms. She spent the next fifty-nine minutes surrounded in a blissful circle of puppy breath and tiny razor-sharp teeth.
After puppy therapy she looked at her phone.
"One new voicemail."
Due to its colonial history and its location, the United Republic of Bahani has always been a blend of cultures. Persian traders used the island for rest on voyages between the Middle East, Africa, and India, bringing spices to trade with a small contingent of Portuguese who brought port and remained on the island year round.
The resultant community is one that regularly mixes cultural traditions beyond discernibility. For example, the most popular dish is a curried rice sandwich on French bread with a side of clove-infused sauerkraut and pita bread. The national drink is a glass of wine with a port floater. And an umbrella.
There is an official ritual in Bahani in which prior to eating one must circle the table counterclockwise before sitting down to eat. While circling, one must ensure the the Goddess of Nourishment blesses the food by reciting a local proverb: "Peace be the sun's bounty in the harvest." The origins of the ritual are vigorously debated: a Swahili tradition in which you must speak in the same direction as the earth's rotation to facilitate digestion, superstition from Provence in which circular consumption promotes goat health or, in a more progressive explanation, an example of how Europeans manipulated indigenous peoples and turned them into puppets for their own amusement.
In the early 1990s, two Bahani men were working at the National Public Radio affiliate in Chicago. One genuinely believed social change was possible through the education of the masses. He wished to take what he learned back to his home country and become the Bahani Ira Glass. The other was there to fulfill what he described as a "ridiculous PhD requirement." He wished to become the next Donald Trump. Due to the Bahani diaspora's small size, neither men expected to run into one of their own in the middle of America's heartland. And without this small ritual, there was no way for them to identify each other as Bahani.
One man, a child of the elite, Quatani Lovejoy, was extremely superstitious and proud. He was embarrassed by his compulsion to circle the break room table before eating and struggled to break himself of his habit. He tried to mask it by pretending to be interested in the coffeemaker to the left of the table, then fill his a glass with water at the cooler, then throw something into the garbage to the right. The movements designed to get him completely around the table in a counterclockwise direction. Finally, he would sit and mumble the proverb in between coughs. And eat.
The other, Adan Omar, a fisherman's son with four sisters, was emotionally intelligent and empathetic. He noticed the counterclockwise movement immediately, as well as the man's attempts to hide it. He would wait several days before introducing himself. And he did it by allowing the other to see him openly circle the table.
This table was the same place where they would later discuss the fate of their home country. With the soles of their dress shoes squeaking against the buffed linoleum, it was the same place they would later discuss their big dreams for their homeland. As they shoveled 99-cent microwavable burritos into their mouths, it was the same place where they would dream of their country being run by a man for the first time in its history. It was so crazy it just might work.
Without this ritual of disputed origins the two would never have become friends. And our story...well, it wouldn't have become a story at all.
It was Portia's first call from a dictator. She had spoken to a couple of borderline autocrats, but never an actual, certified dictator. How exciting! She hardly believed it when she received the message. He actually left a voicemail! Who does that these anymore?
"Miss DiStephano, this is Supreme Ruler, His Excellency Doctor Quatani Lovejoy, BS, MBA, PhD, Lord of All of the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the European Empire in Africa in General and Bahani in Particular. There is an urgent matter I must discuss with you."
She called him back, but not until she had done a bit of snooping. According to his Wikipedia page, Dr. Lovejoy was a graduate of Oxford and the University of Chicago. He received his PhD in something dubiously called Human Organizational Development months before he returned to Bahani and, along with a band of rebels, seized power in 1995.
Portia searched Google images – most were of him speaking to large crowds on cobblestone squares or delivering hours-long speeches at the United Nations. She couldn't help but find him sexy in an off-putting sort of way. Something about that confidence. And that snarl. Especially on a shorter man. But what was up with that hair? Seriously.
Apparently, there were others who found him attractive as well. She clicked on a Tumblr page called WePutTheDicInDictator. She scrolled past gifs of Sadaam Hussain's bulge and Hitler-inspired mustache rides, to a strapping young revolutionary in crotch-hugging green fatigues. Yes, please. She bookmarked it for another time.
Portia kept clicking until she found what appeared to be someone's Facebook profile picture. It was a young Quatani smiling with a fat baby on his knee. She clicked the link and found her way to the Facebook page of an Ira Omar Omar. Why did that name sound familiar? She clicked through his profile pictures – a tall, sinewy teenager doing a handstand on the beach, riding a bike along the rural countryside, smiling at a frat party with a red solo cup. He looked sort of familiar, but she didn't know why. He was a student at the University of California, Berkeley and nearly fifteen years younger than she was.
Wait a minute, she thought. She clicked back on the handstand picture. She moved her eyes from her computer screen to the large poster on her office wall. The white sand, the turquoise waters. Even the cluster of rustic fishing boats beached on the sand. Both images were identical.
He must have been on the B Adventures yoga trip in Goa. The marketing department specifically identified Profile Pic locations on every trip where tour guides must take travelers. These visits were made to seem coincidental, happy accidents, if you will, but the exact time of day and angle had been predetermined by a handful of professional photographers. Basically, they set up an "original" picture no one could fuck up. And B Adventures got a crap-ton of free advertising from it.
She clicked through the rest of his profile pictures. There was Macchu Picchu just as the clouds separated, the Sphinx with a desert sunset, even a picture of a bearded Stellenbosch winemaker pouring a glass of Pinotage. Jesus, how many trips had this kid been on? Get a life.
That's when she realized it was the kid from the kidnapping video. She pulled up the jihadi trip manifest and there it was – Ira Omar Omar. I'll be damned.
She searched Ira Omar Omar and Quatani Lovejoy and found a short article in the International Herald Tribune from 1995. Adan Omar, Quatani's close friend and Ira's father, reportedly died in battle just months after his son was born. In Quatani's inaugural address he describe Ira as the Child of the Revolution.
What was a dictator doing calling her? Did it have something to do with the kid? Was there a problem with his Child of the Revolution?
With the time difference and her packed schedule of mandatory creative fuckery, it took them several days of phone tag before they were able to connect, giving her plenty of time to do some research. And come up with a plan. It was as if the universe manifested this gift and dropped it into her lap. Maybe there was something to this new agey mumbo jumbo, after all.
Portia DiStephano kept using words like "opportunity" and "next generation" and "pioneer." Empty words designed to inspire. "Call to Action" words. Quatani knew he was getting played, but he couldn't help but think about how nice it would be to be relevant again. On the front pages. Or the homepage, whatever. She claimed she could arrange an interview with journalist Susan Watters. He'd been trying to get an exclusive with her for decades. And maybe Sanderson Crooper would actually visit the palace like she promised? Quatani could show him the refinished dance floor. Come to think of it, he'd probably fill out a pair of tight jeans quite nicely too.
The truth was, no one had talked about him in years. He used to be able to pack the Plaza, but now he couldn't even fill the stupid Paladium ballroom at the United Nations.
He burned with shame thinking about the last time he gave a speech in New York. The room was empty save the hotel staff. Men in white, collared shirts padding around thick red carpet clearing plates of cold chicken and uneaten herring from the tables previously packed during Vlad's speech the hour before. The only thing that kept him going was the desire to prove them all wrong.
But when that couple opened the door his heart broke. Beefy midwesterners in matching Bubba Gump Shrimp t-shirts and fanny packs, no doubt looking for the Hard Rock Cafe or the M&M store. He watched them opened the door, its creak slow and mournful. He kept speaking, but his attention was with them. Watched as they scanned the empty room, watched as they looked him directly in the eyes. Those big dumb Midwestern eyes. The same eyes that didn't show fear or loathing. No, they only oozed pity. Then, he watched the door creak shut.
If he did this promo thing like she said, he would be relevant. Sure the plan was a little crazy, but he could finally make the American news. And no one, especially not a couple of fatties in head-to-toe polyester, would pity him ever again.
"I might be willing to make a deal for your nephew," she said.
He knew he should have masked how important Ira was to him. Negotiation 101. But he was too tired. Too worried.
Quatani wondered if she could tell he had been crying. It was something he unfortunately did regularly and without warning these days. He would be in the middle of polishing his Luchese boots or watching reruns and he would lose it. Blubber like a child. It happened once at a cabinet meeting. So he just stopped going all together. What were they going to do? Fire him?
"Yes, he's very important to me," he said thinking about how complex the statement actually was.
He thought she would ask him to murder an ex-boyfriend of hers or smuggle some heroin. Never in his wildest dreams would he have guessed this. Would he say yes? Was it crazy?