I don’t remember the name of the city or who was shooting at whom. Instead, I see the shimmer of the toilet bowl, its pearl-like shine. Eighteen years after the fact, I’m still on the floor trying to curl my shoulders behind white porcelain.
A foreign correspondent once told me that bathrooms are the safe houses of war. The tiled walls and windowless interiors create an explosion-free zone; at least, this was his theory. I insert a prayerlike mantra and keep repeating to myself not this way, not here, not in a hotel, not now. My two electoral companions, Tonko and Bornfree, are neither friends nor lovers, and they stay somewhere down the hall from me, where it is silent.
In time, my head leaning against the bowl becomes as natural as pressing against a lover. If only room service were available, I might take up residence forever by this tank with its flush valve and floating arm. The gunshots aren’t directed at me, but bullets have minds of their own. For now, the three of us remain huddled up against the toilet, our thoughts focused on gunfire.
I begin to weigh safety against stuffed chicken breasts, against puff pastry. I know that no matter what else happens, dinner will be served in the dining room. Finally, hunger trumps fear and pulls me off the floor. The rituals of eating and drinking won’t stop in the wake of minor catastrophe. I retrieve my upper arms from behind the toilet, cross the threshold, and head down the hall, wishing I could take the toilet seat with me as a shield.
The maître d’follows the universal rule of maître d’s everywhere: studied nonchalance. He leads us to a table not far from where a cluster of old men sing off key. Tonko’s there, and he grimly informs me they’re singing the anthem of the Ustaše—these are Nazis, the real deal. Brown leather jackets and pointed shoes. I can’t bring myself to look into their faces.
On the television screen behind me, President Clinton gives a speech [End Page 50] surrounded by solemn blue suits. Something about nuclear war or nuclear proliferation treaties. I can’t hear him over the Ustaše’s drunken singing. And I wonder if this is what the end of the world will sound like: waiters darting table to table, the beat of machine-gun fire, and this terrible, terrible singing. [End Page 51]
Susan Rich is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Cloud Pharmacy and The Alchemist’s Kitchen. The latter was a finalist for the Foreword Prize and the Washington State Book Award. She has received awards from the Times Literary Supplement of London, Peace Corps Writers, and the Fulbright Foundation. Individual poems appear in the Antioch Review, New England Review, Poetry Ireland Review, and Southern Review. She is coeditor of the anthology The Strangest of Theatres: Poets Crossing Borders. Rich lives and writes in Seattle, Washington.