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The President's Face 

On the first day of the second war with Iraq I was wound tightly in Saran Wrap from my ankles to my neck. My tormentress, who calls herself Jasmine, had the TV on, and we were watching missiles guided into buildings, satellite views of a burning city, generals discussing troop movements and the positions of battleships in the Persian Gulf. Already they were saying it was not a question of how to defeat Iraq but how to rebuild Iraq: whom to install in power, how to build a coalition that won't mobilize the rest of the Arab world against America. How not to go it alone.

"What do you think about that?" Jasmine asked. She didn't expect an answer from me. She had inserted a butterfly gag in my mouth--like a giant rubber pacifier, except the outer flap was in my mouth too, wedged between my teeth and cheeks. Then she had squeezed the bulb that hung from it, inflating it so that my palate ached and I could only just barely breathe through my nose. I was naked, riddled with shame and guilt, and that's how I spent the first day of the war.

It didn't end as quickly as some had hoped. Our troops were bogged down outside of Baghdad, they were taking casualties, and public sentiment had turned rapidly. The New York Times, which had supported the invasion, now ran daily editorials questioning the government's assertions; everyone kept referring to the Gulf of Tonkin, a lie more than 40 years old. The president's face, slimmer and grayer than before his disputed election, full of resolve and contempt, was everywhere, on the sides of buildings and on the billboard in front of the gas station where they used to advertise Eddie Murphy movies and Snickers bars.

I was running out of money, but the more I indulged myself, the more I wanted to be indulged, and Jasmine wasn't about to lower her rates. I took to wearing women's underwear while walking the neighborhood.

"Baby slave," Jasmine says. I'm on a changing table and she's smearing me with lubricant, wrapping diapers around my midsection. The diapers are thick and hard to walk in. She pulls me from the children's room to the dungeon room by clamps attached to my nipples. She's fastened large mitts onto my hands and chained my wrists to my ankles. I can't see through my stiff leather mask. Twice she pulls me into a wall. She's angry with me.

Yesterday a bomb exploded in a housing project in Chicago. Four hundred people were killed. They hit us where we weren't looking; they took out our poor. But the administration's still pushing the tax cuts. Greenspan says the economy will recover when the war is over. The president says this is a war that will never end.

"I don't know what's wrong with you," Jasmine says. "You're the only one that would come in today. Most people are a little freaked out by what's going on out there. Aren't you from Chicago? You probably know some of those people." She's right. I did know one person who died yesterday. I searched the rubble on the front pages for his image. She lifts the waist of my diaper and pours hot water over me, refastens the diaper tighter than before. "Oh, the little baby wet his pants. Isn't that just too bad?" I start to cry.

Baghdad falls. The new leader of Iraq is Nizar al-Khazraji, a dissident general many believe was responsible for gassing the Kurds toward the end of the Iran-Iraq war. Turkey is temporarily controlling northern areas of Iraq. New laws have been put into effect to stem the tide of terror in America. Appeals have been limited, tribunals set up in every city. U.S. citizens are no longer allowed to travel in the Arab world. A German man ran screaming through Heathrow Airport yesterday waving a gun over his head and was shot down near the El-Al information desk.

My father has been sending me letters and E-mails. He wants to reconnect. The war, he says, has made him realize the mistakes he made. It's a little too late for that. I don't respond to his letters. My father was the first person to handcuff me to a pipe. My mother the first adult I ever knew to wear a diaper.

I haven't called Jasmine recently because I haven't been able to come up with any money. Today she called me.

"Come over. We're going to do what I want." We've always done what she wanted--I don't know how today will be any different. I've never requested anything from her.

Jasmine's seated on a black leather couch smoking. I'm kneeling in front of her, holding an ashtray. The TV is on behind me, where I can't see it. I hear the commentator say the Golden Gate Bridge has been closed for the day; submarines are patrolling the bay.

"Open your mouth," Jasmine says. I open my mouth and she ashes in it.

"Now swallow."

Jasmine's legs are on either side of me. I'm staring into her stomach, the black fabric stretched across her waistline.

"I bet you wish you could just lay your face in my lap."

I nod my head. I would like to lay my head in her lap and go to sleep forever.

"Well, that's not going to happen. This has nothing to do with you. Put down that ashtray. Give me your hand."

I hold my hand up for her. She pushes it down on her thigh. She presses her cigarette into the back of my hand, between my index finger and thumb.

"Ow."

She lifts my hand to examine the burn. "That's going to blister," she says. "Give me your other hand."

I teach at a university south of the city. The head of the department calls to tell me they won't be employing me in the coming quarter. Registration is down, he says. I suspect it might have something to do with the quality of my work. I can't seem to focus anymore. I've yet to go to the DMV and get my national ID. I'm having difficulty leaving the house.

"Are you watching the television?" Jasmine asks over the phone.

"I don't have a television."

"Poor you. Or maybe not poor you. I'm sure you're very entertained sitting around thinking about your problems."

"I lost my job."

"Good. You can start coming over here and cleaning the dungeon for me. Anyway, soldiers that fought in the desert south of Baghdad have started to show symptoms of gas poisoning. They think that as many as 50,000 may be infected."

"Wow."

"Yeah. Wow. You're an idiot."

I nod, but she can't see me agreeing with her.

"You're a freak, your family hates you."

"I know." I've told her everything. She told me to write it all down for her, my whole history.

"You're developmentally retarded. There is no one that is going to fulfill your needs for you. Why would they? What would they gain from it? Nothing."

She hangs up the phone.

The streets are full to bursting. There are millions out protesting. The glass has been shattered in the storefronts along 16th. The sirens drown the screams. The radio reports similar demonstrations in London, New York, and Washington, D.C., where martial law has been declared. North Korea has been firing missiles over Japan into the Pacific Ocean. I wade into the crowd, bob along, trying to keep my head above the waves of people. Some of the buildings have been set ablaze. Armed guardsmen in riot gear push against the crowd with clear plastic shields, billy clubs raised. I've painted my lips a deep red. I'm too late. Nobody cares.

The sky is full of helicopters, like dots. I find myself at the front of the crowd, facing the storm troops. Shots ring out. I struggle back; I don't want this. It's almost in slow motion, the bottle that flies over my head, lit with gasoline, smashing into a guardsman, the liquid burning his skin. I see the white of bone inside his cheek through the flames.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tae Won Yu.

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