- Once a River
"It is the only way to end poverty," says El Presidente. I look at the land below us and yearn for green and blue, instead of this ash gray, dust brown. A hazy sun. My eyes burn. I have not been home for going on two hundred days. This morning, I looked in the mirror and saw my liquid eye squinting out from leathered skin. A murmuring babble coming from my lips, something about another source-become-friend now dead. People associate my name with violence, think I must like it, all the horrific acts, but I don't. I confess to be drawn to it, absorbed by it, obsessed with the way it manifests itself in the most unlikely ways. But when I left the camp, and returned to the hotel amid the ruins, I wept. There's predator and prey, which is just survival, and then there's sport, the doing that comes simply from the knowing that you can. Then there's a kind of power that's the last step before evil. Or maybe evil comes first.
It seems odd to me that El Presidente is piloting this helicopter, but he likes to fly, he says, has learned to trust only what he himself controls. Information deemed classified—yet passed on to me, thereby declassifying it—shows at least seventeen assassination attempts on El Presidente. I asked him yesterday if this was true, and he seemed offended.
"Surely," he said, "there have been more."
I have known El Presidente for over twenty years. Our first interview was in a small hotel room, two chairs, no bed. Why? I asked him. He shrugged, said he didn't need one, had given up sleep. It was his custom, he said, to have all furniture removed wherever he stayed. He liked to pace, and if he did need to sit, he rested against a wall. The chairs in that room were a courtesy, on my account. He seemed to me then a mystic, and against my own cynicism, I found him charming, despite that charred lithified face so badly burned it reminded me of wax once dripping now hardened. I couldn't take my eyes off him. He wore wire frame specks then, the lenses magnified, so as to bring to mind a giant fly. I asked him if he'd ever considered surgery.
He smiled. "And why?" he asked. "To mask all that I have survived? No, friend. My face is my history." [End Page 52]
This was before the coup that had brought him to power, before the dark black glasses that would become his trademark. Too small for his face, these glasses. Now he looks not like a fly but a bespectacled snake.
I am sitting in the copilot's seat. Earlier, he had offered us each a blindfold. When I refused, he'd smiled, shrugged. There are five of us. The woman sitting behind me is the wife of a commander whose name you used to see on the news, that same commander who now sits in a federal prison for a betrayal against immorality. Crime of all crimes, he told the truth, finally. Sometimes treason is just a man with a conscience, though he found his a little too late. Last night, I saw her, the wife, sitting alone in a corner of the hotel bar. I noticed she was crying. That is to say, tears streamed down her face, but she stared straight ahead with that distant look that I had heretofore only seen in soldiers, victims. Now that look is everywhere. A longing for a home that would never again exist for her. I walked to the table, meant to offer her some kindness, not knowing what that might even be. "Fuck off," she'd said, without looking at me. I had left her to her horrors. Today, when offered the blindfold, she had taken it without a word. She wears it now, though we are many miles from the refugee camp. The people who end there will have walked over a hundred starving miles. It is estimated that only about 37 percent of those who...