Lee Plaza Hotel, Detroit, photo by Bonnie Beechler via Magpie Tales
What innocence it was to have not known the smell of mildewcide, to not have marveled at the unearthly shades of blood wicking into a sponge, like liquid bruises. The acid-metal taste of fear and revulsion clinging to the back of the throat as the sirens wail grew louder, fingers clawing desperately at the door in a bid to escape before the uniforms and guns arrived to haul us all away. Life before the war seemed so quaint in retrospect.
Under the blue-grey haze of cigarette smoke, you asked me once "What is the difference between the past here and the now there? You are different, you know, but one cannot pin down why." I remember laughing, a raspy howl roughened by Chinese tobacco and that awful cherry soda we drank in a bid to stay sober. I thought you were daft to ask such a silly question, then caught myself to realize that you spoke from innocence. You spoke from not having seen the ravaged past that I had.
I stood amongst the peeling paint and crumbling plaster, recalling the blank look on your upturned face, truly untroubled by the misery that would find you. Find us. The odor of mold and feces made my stomach turn. I took another drag on the cigarette cupped in my trembling left hand, seeking solace in smoke that did not reek of cordite and scorched pavement. Despite my nausea, could not force myself to leave. Your ghost demanded conversation.
"Well?" you said, the mottled wall behind you shining faintly through your eyes. A low rumble seeped through the floor and into my aching legs. The armored vehicle serving as my transport awaited outside. I slumped into the dust-clotted chair. I found it hard to meet those eyes of fog and gauze. You began to fade away even as I spoke into the clammy air of the room.
"The difference? It isn't just that was then, this is now!"
You sat up straight, gained some solidity. Your eyes widened.
"The difference, the one that matters…" I choked, gulped, nearly shouted, "That was Sarajevo where I had nothing. This is Detroit, where I had you. And you are gone."
My head slumped to the table. Her hand faded from my grasp. My cigarette burned itself out in the ashes of another dream. A groan permeated the chill dimness, whether the city or my soul giving vent, I could not tell.