The news comes from Dr. Lee.  A.k.a. Lee Woo-in.  A.k.a. my mother.  I am staying with Henry, I plan to start looking for my own place soon, but I need Henry’s familiarity, another body around, for just a little while. The new muffledness of my world is slight, but just enough to be disorienting; it slows me down in every way. The headaches are bad.  I struggle to focus, on anything. 

Henry knows generally what happened, that I was on assignment, somewhere, near an explosion—wrong place, wrong time—but nothing more.  He teases me about my short, just-past-stubbly hair and tells me to eat, eat, put some fat on.  We joke and poke at each other, sit in front of the TV with greasy pizza and watch “Lost.”  It’s been a while since we’ve seen each other, but we ask no probing questions, we let each other be. 

Henry, for his part, is in his own fragile place, working through The Twelve Steps. Really working this time, putting days together.  Almost two years sober, and half of that living on his own. My instinct, as always, is to protect him from everything hard and dark. He lives in a small, circumscribed world of rules and stability, which enables him to get through the day.  I can see that he really is a different Henry.  Humbled and worn.  It seems he has decided, for now at least, that he would like to maintain stasis, eschew event or wild swings of any kind, and see where that leads.  These days, it’s enough for each of us to get out of bed in the morning (sometimes later) and we each seem to know instinctively to grant the other the gift of low expectations.

 *

The accident, in a way, was fortunate.  I mean that the timing was fortunate, the convergence of a forced hiatus with a needed one.   Fourteen months straight I’d been in the field—after the split with Paul—taking every assignment that came my way, one right after the other.  My photographs got picked up left and right; my agency was pleased.  I was going going going, focused and efficient, straight to the story, often into danger, bam bam bam.  I needed to work, to clear my head, clear my heart; and for a while, it was working.

I’d been away from fieldwork for almost a year, my longest civilian stint. When I was ready, my agency took me back right away, no questions asked; and the assignments came quickly. It was gratifying to find that the contacts I’d built up over the years held me in good stead, even after a break, and that there was work to be had for a girl with a good eye, quick hands, and the right measure of willing madness.

I stopped off in Paris to check in with my agency a few times, but mostly I went nonstop.  Julian, my agency director, knew every hotel and restaurant in the world with a fax machine it seemed, so he always got me what I needed for the next thing.  Usually nothing more than a name, a location, a phone number, and a password of some kind, my “in”: in The Congo, Tell him it’s for the Consul’s daughter, he’ll know what you mean.  Or in Colombia, Remember: you’re doing a story on exploitation of farmers, you have to talk land reform. 

It was nuts, the whirlwind pace of it—what veterans say you should avoid to keep from burning out. But for me, it was a welcome wave of hard work. I had nowhere else I wanted to be, nothing holding me anywhere.  I didn’t actually imagine I’d escape my demons, I knew better than that; but my instinct was to get far far away and to pay them no mind for as long as possible.  Neglect has its effects, one way or another.

 *

Officially, the incident was unexpected and could not have been avoided.  No one would fault us.  There were four of us, experienced in the field and in war.  But it was more than a coincidence I think, more than just bad luck. For myself, I can’t say that my reflexes were as sharp as they’d been at other times; somewhere—lurking, looming—I had things on my mind.  There is really no forgiveness for distraction when you’re in the field.  Attention is everything.  You feel, you sense from your center, and every nerve is live. Your skin is on alert.  You are all there; or else you’re in trouble.

I was in Baghdad, but I could have been anywhere.  The bomb—planted in a parked car by the then just-budding insurgency—was meant for civilians.  We were in The Green Zone, technically safe.  But we were not even thinking about where we were; or at least I wasn’t.  And maybe that was it (if there is an it): our affront to the universe was in letting our guard down. Believing just for an instant, unconsciously, in some kind of essential peace.  

We had just finished an interview with a Sunni family.  The story was that they had voluntarily switched houses with Shiite friends, because they were each living on the wrong side of the tracks. It was human-interest, low-risk, supposed to be a soft gig for us in between frontline work.  I was with Gerald, the London writer from The Radical with whom I’d been going inside for the last three weeks; Asha, the translator, a U.N. contractor; and Ali, a university student in journalism who had been tagging along as a kind of self-appointed intern.   We were in good spirits.  We knew we had something, something different.  Their eyes—a couple and their two young children—were earnest and pleading; their stories real. 

It was a lead I’d gotten, quietly, from a university contact, someone for whom I’d guest-lectured years ago in Paris; the Shiite was a relative of his wife’s.  The timing was right, it came when we really needed it. We were tired, and relieved to find anything human—people helping people, friendship and decency. It came the way so many stories had come before—out of nothing, out of nowhere. (Of course, nothing comes for free ultimately.  Agreeing to bring along Ali, my contact’s nephew, was in fact “payment,” and, fortunately, a good deal for both sides.) Those gifts had come not often exactly, but at times when I’d been closest to some kind of final straw.  Over the years I came to recognize that the universe and I, we had an agreement that way. And so time went on, and I kept going.

We’d been drinking a lot in the evenings, more than usual, and sleeping little.  Gerald was looking terrible.  I don’t know exactly how old he was, I’d guess about 40.  He looked closer to 60, and not just because of his balding.  But coming out of the interview, I noticed that he had perked up, his posture had opened, he was looking up, literally, and had a kind of gleam in his eye.  He was telling me how the patriarch of the Sunni family reminded him of his favorite uncle back in Leeds—a jolly fellow, a real lover of life, he was saying—when the car exploded.

It was a small explosion, relatively speaking. A handmade bomb, one of many planted simultaneously in civilian areas around the city to keep the insurgency at a steady clip. A reminder, a statement.  Still, we were close enough.  It was all noise and force, I couldn’t tell you a thing about who was there, what the car looked like, or how far away we were.  We were inside of it as far as I could tell.  All space collapsed; and then we were thrown, a million miles, or more.  The word blast had never meant anything in particular to me before. In my line of work, it’s a word as common as day, inert as milk.  Now, for me, it has a singular meaning, specific to that moment.

Gerald must have died instantly, or at least quickly.  A metal shard, likely a piece of the car’s fender, impaled him from the back, straight through the neck. Asha was closest to the explosion, she was also killed instantly, her body dismembered. I didn’t see any of this, but was told by Ali, who saw everything and spared no detail, describing the deaths in absurdly flat tones, like a true reporter.  He had fallen behind after stopping along the road for a Coke. 

As for me, I was thrown hard into the side of a convenience store, a concrete building, but not hit by anything airborne. Somehow, the force of the explosion propelled Gerald and me in opposite directions—him into the path of the deadly detritus, me away from it. I came out with a concussion; second-degree burns; minor fractures in my left hand; a generous smattering of cuts and bruises.  Because of the disorientation, it took three days to diagnose the real damage: loss of hearing.  Partial—about 10 percent—in both ears.

Twenty-four people in all were injured, seven killed.  Almost all civilians, many women and children because we were near a street market.  There were two off-duty Iraqi soldiers in the vicinity—one spending time with his wife and children (all of them severely injured but survived), the other on his way to visit a woman at a brothel.

Gerald had only his elderly mother who lived in London, and an estranged teenage son who’d been adopted by a stepfather, as far as immediate family.  While recovering in the hospital, I wrote his mother a short letter saying that I was sorry for her loss, and that I came to think very highly of Gerald during our time working together.  I asked if she would kindly send me his uncle’s name and address in Leeds, but I never heard back. 

Asha’s ex-husband came from New York to identify and claim her remains—what were thought to be her remains.  He stopped by my room to introduce himself and ask a few questions: how was she doing, did she seem happy in her work.  They’d divorced less than two years previously, after 30-some years of marriage.  She’d discovered his infidelity, an affair with her cousin’s wife.  This she’d mentioned to me one night after too much drink.  Mister Asha (I never got Asha’s last name; or maybe I did but can’t recall) was a handsome, compact man in his 50’s, wearing a tragic look of contrition. He clasped his hands together in front and looked down at his feet while we talked, which was just a few minutes.  “Thank you,” he said as he left, avoiding eye contact and yet also trying to make it, “thank you.”

Ali came to see me almost every day during my weeks in recovery.   The burns were the worst and took the longest to heal, especially my scalp and arms.  Ali did not flinch at the sight of me—my shaved head, pocked with scabs and abrasions; my swollen, scraped-up face, half-wrapped in gauze to absorb the fluids that drained and oozed before healing could begin.  Nor did he seem to experience any particular post-traumatic stress; he was focused and coherent. This was his world, after all, it was all he knew. My own state of mind, on the other hand, was both foggy and flinchy—like a strobe light in a smoky club.

Ali came, initially, to tell me that he had taken copious notes at the interview and wanted to write the article, in honor of Gerald.  I knew of course that it was really for himself, a big break for him since The Radical agreed to accept his draft if he could submit it quickly. I was happy to do it, it gave me something to focus on, other than the pain of the burns. So we worked on it together, there in the hospital room.  Ali’s ambition heartened me; without his daily dose of youth, I suspect that something inside me may have given in—curled up and withered away.  I’d been there before, with Paul, I knew how easy it would have been. Ali’s visits kept me awake and alert.

My recovery was slow, and boring.  I did not have a TV in my room, but there was one down the hall in the patient lounge, where we all—strangers in war, compatriots in trauma—tuned in daily to “The Family Ahmad,” a new soap opera, Iraq’s first, to which nearly all Iraqi televisions (civilian and military alike) had been tuned since its premiere.  The big wedding, the one viewers had anticipated for weeks, between a high government minister’s daughter and a handsome soldier from a lower class, had just been ruined by an unannounced weapons search by American troops. The Americans were portrayed alternately as bullies and buffoons; the patients seemed to enjoy this especially.

After they discharged me from the hospital, I took a week to just sleep, take off-assignment black & whites with my Leica, and sit around in cafes smoking and bullshitting with other journalists. Listening to their grisly bravado was strangely comforting. Some of them knew what had happened, but they didn’t speak of it other than a few kind words about Gerald; and thankfully, they didn’t tip-toe around me.

I checked in with Julian in Paris to let him know I was up and around but would be unavailable for an undetermined period of time.  When I was ready, I sent an email to Henry back in New York and bought a one-way ticket. I was on my way home.

I was returning with the idea of rest in mind—an idea that in truth sounded to me like a lot of work.  But I was longing, I was ready, for a clearing.  Everything I’d left behind had begun to back up on me, and I suppose I knew that at some point this time, this readiness, would come.

As I turned toward home, an image formed in my mind—of me hacking through a tall thick brush, methodical and focused; the scythe a gracefully-curved steal beauty, deadly sharp, solid and heavy in my hand.

But those notions and images scattered by the time I actually got home.  I had a premonition of this—a vague tingling somewhere behind my heart, a nervous quickening as the plane touched down at JFK airport—of something awaiting me, something unforeseen and yet inevitable. And what I’ve come home to is turning out to be a different kind of explosion.

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