After a while he wanted to look away from it all to anywhere else and he noticed a young woman with short blonde hair sitting on a concrete bench. She had her back turned to the chaos and was looking out to the discolored, polluted sea. She was staring at a huge, rusting Ferris Wheel on the beach which had seen better days.
“What did it look like before this?” he asked as he sat down beside her. He wasn’t sure at all if she was aware of him, until she turned her pale eyes on him and studied him for a moment.
“Do you have a cigarette?” she asked in French-accented English. He pulled out a rumpled pack of Gauloises and a Djeep lighter out of his cargo pocket and sat closer so she wouldn’t have to shout above the noise. She took the square, lit up and blew out a thick plume of smoke.
“It’s funny,” she said in French-accented English, frowning. “I can see it exactly as it was.”
“Do you remember the Ferris Wheel all lit up?”
“Of course I remember. At night you could see it from most parts of the city. Around and around with people in the gondolas so small you had to imagine them. The young women in their Paris dresses fluttering when the wind came off the sea.”
“There’s no wind now,” he said, almost to himself. “It’s like the blast flattened it. No waves, either.”
“There were these white birds with big wings, three or four of them swooping and diving in the wind, right by the beach. The wind blew all the time. No bugs. Then came the IDF with their jets. Then came you.”
She turned and looked at him now. Her young, stern face was not yet permanently creased by all she had seen, but her eyelids had already turned down the way eyes do when they’ve seen and felt chronic pain.
He stared back at her for a moment, then they both looked back out to the dull, gray sea.
“Everybody here was pretty happy when we first came,” he said, mildly. “Well, maybe not everybody.”
She laughed, an involuntary burst of a sound and she looked at the beach, littered with everyday garbage, dead fish, and a lot of unexploded cluster bomblets.
He took a deep breath and his eyes filled with tears from the remnants of teargas still seeping from the destroyed Marine sentry post of the embassy. She heard him sniff, looked at his red-rimmed eyes and shook her head slightly.
“Why don’t I cry, too?”
“Training,” he muttered. “I’ve been trained to sense the first whiff, courtesy of the Marine Corps Recruit Depot gas chamber. My eyes burn just thinking about it.”
“Don’t think about it,” she said, holding her cigarette before her narrowed eyes and inhaled its smoke deeply.
“Let’s talk about something else, then. What’s your name?”
Just then, shouts in Arabic pierced the sound of the steady stream of ambulances bearing green crescents or red crosses. They both turned to look. A Marine had just used the butt of his rifle to strike down a gaunt, weathered photographer who had gotten past the media cordon to take a closer picture of the buildings remains when she got too close to what they considered sacred ground.
“Your friends are eager to defend an attack that has come and gone,” Annique said.
He leapt up when he recognized that it was “Fifi,” a photojournalist with almost ten years’ experience in covering wars. He got to the Marine just before he hit her again, assured him that he’d get her back with the other media, helped her up, nothing broken.
When he got back to the concrete bench where they had been sitting, Annique was still there, looking away.
“Do you have another cigarette?” she said in the flat tone she’d used to say almost everything, except when she had described the Ferris Wheel. This time, just a bit softer.
“I’ve got tons of them.” He pulled out a fresh blue packet.
“Where did you get Gauloises?” she asked.
“There’s a lot of French soldiers don’t smoke, so they give their ration cigarettes to me. Friendly.”
Just when he thought Annique would look away again, she stared at him for a while with a hint of a smile.
“So, what are you doing here?” she said.
“Next to you or in Beirut?” he said, smiling a little to himself.
He took another deep breath, and coughed some.
“I go where I’m sent,” he said, lying. He would have begged to be deployed if he had to. “I came to sit next to you because I was tired of looking at that.” He jerked his thumb in the direction of the blast site. This was no lie. “Just like you.”
“I am tired of it,” Annique said, flicking her cigarette away. “I’m tired of it all.”
“So, why are you here?” he asked.
“Contract with UPI,” she said. “Waiting for something horrible to happen so I can photograph it and give it to the world.” She swept her arm to indicate everything west of the Mediterranean.
At that moment, a middle-aged woman standing just ten feet or so behind him started to wail. He turned just in time to see her accept a ring she recognized. The woman collapsed onto the sidewalk. He turned back around and his shoulders sagged for a moment. They sat in silence for a while, then he suddenly sat up straight as if he had just remembered something important.
“I‘ve got to find some chocolate.”
Annique looked at him with a look of surprise and a half-smile. She began to shake her head. “You mean like…chocolate candy?”
“No, listen. I’m on to something here. Chocolate is the answer for everything. It’s medicinal, it’s a stimulant and it can restore a dying man to at least momentary joy. That’s why they put them in combat meals all over the world. Like in C-rations. Like they put cigarettes in the French rations and they used to put cigarettes in ours. But chocolate is better. Much better.”
He glanced at her and saw she was listening for him to say more.
“It’s in the Bible. “How sweet are thy words unto my taste! Yea, As sweet as chocolate in my mouth!””
“Wait – no,” she said, but she was smiling. “That’s honey they were talking about.” “In the King James Bible, yes,” he said patiently. “But in the Revised Standard Version, where they get a better translation from the Hebrew, it was chocolate!”
“You’re lying,” she said, now laughing.
He watched her for a while, studied her face, delighted with how her face lit up. “She can’t be more than twenty-five,” he thought.
“I need some real chocolate,” he said, A Marine’s rifle butt struck down a gaunt, weathered photographer, who had gotten past the media cordon to take a closer picture of the buildings remains when she got too close to what they considered sacred ground.
“There has got to be chocolate in this place. The good kind.”
They talked about other things for a while, sharing thoughts the way only total strangers can– with complete honesty.
Day turned to night and giant powerful construction lights turned the blast scene into an eerie Las Vegas/Disaster Movie set.
“Maybe they’re looking for documents,” he said, but nothing more about what was going on behind them.
“I ‘m going, now,: she said, rising and checking her camera bag for something.
“I’m staying. Got to make sure you media types get what you need and don’t get yourself butt-stroked.”
“Butt-stroked?” she asked, but he just shook his head as if to say, “Forget it.” She turned to him and said casually, “Maybe there is some chocolate somewhere.”
He wasn’t sure if that meant she expected him to find it, or if she was going to find it for him, but he didn’t say anything, except au revoir and smiled.
His relief came sometime during the night, and he walked to a large suite in the nearest hotel that hadn’t been destroyed by the blast. The rooms were filled with a jumble of equipment, four of the other Marine photojournalists and uncomfortable furniture for them to sleep on until their shift at the embassy. None of the exhausted men could sleep. After an indeterminable time, maybe one or five hours, a French soldier with a purple beret appeared at the door and said he had a bag of chocolate from a woman photographer for someone– he wasn’t sure who.