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The next best thing to love

In this one, you are standing on the hilltops in the Barmiyan province.  You’re wearing long clothing even though it’s 101 degrees, a green blouse that clashes with your dark skin and you hate yourself for not having any fashion sense even though you hate the thought of spending time on fashion and you’re supposed to be wearing a bullet-proof vest anyway.  You’re trying to get your translator to explain to the villagers that the soldiers are here only as bodyguards, and that the machines are to dig a fresh well so that they don’t have to use the same water to drink as they do to water their crops.   Your translator speaks Pashtun and Russian, and you speak English and Russian, so it’s rough going.

This is the only picture of you we have, right before the bomb exploded.

There are probably others, but you haven’t sent them, and maybe that’s because they’re classified, but it seems like if soldiers could send torture pictures out of a prison then a US Aid worker could send snapshots from a village outside of Kandahar.  I’m just saying.  We both know why you didn’t send pictures.  It’s the same reason I never do.

Mom, who almost never talks about you, once told me that she never understood how her children grew up to travel like this.  Dad pretends to understand it, but he always drinks too much wine after your name comes up.  If you’d kept in touch, you’d have known that his mother is slowly going senile in her apartment in New York City, and refusing to allow home health aids to come in.  He’s trying to get legal custody of his mother so that he can force her to accept help.  I think he’d do the same thing to you, if he knew how.  He’s losing his mother and his daughter at once, one slowly, one fast.

According to reports, and don’t ask me how I get them, because if I told you you’d cut me off, you never wore your bullet proof vest.  Since you weren’t a soldier, they couldn’t make you:  they could only advise you.  Soldiers followed you everywhere you went outside of the Kandahar green zone – a small hive of armored men were summoned every time you went drinking with your friends.   Our taxpayer dollars keeping you safe as they could, and it didn’t last.

You say you’re okay, but that’s what you always said:  you told us the same thing, the exact same way, that you told us when you broke up with Paul.  “I’m okay, don’t worry.”  We’ve learned not to believe you.  According to the reports I have, always one step behind no matter what you do, you’re in a German hospital awaiting reconstructive surgery.  I haven’t told mom and dad, you know you can trust me on that;  I know you’d do the same for me.

But I want you to know that there’s a reason it wasn’t me.  You pushed farther, and harder, against the edge of the world:  you swallowed what I was content to taste.  I’m kinky, but you like it rough.  You’re sailing into space, Elisabeth, and I know that when you’re out of the hospital you’re going to disappear, this time for good.  It’s what I would do, if I didn’t share a smaller stock of our common demons.

I’m telling you this so that you’ll know that I’m not going to let that happen.  So that you’ll know that as far as you go over the edge, I can at least follow you with my eyes.  I’ll get pictures.  I’m telling you this because I know your anger won’t last, and that the next time you’re lying in a foreign hospital, surrounded by strangers, you’ll be grateful that you aren’t as alone as it seems.

It’s the closest thing to love you’ll accept.


Benjamin Wachs has written for Village Voice Media,, and NPR among other venues.  He archives his work at

Read more fiction by Benjamin Wachs


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