Our attraction to one another became more and more pronounced, our desire less disguisable until it was obvious to everyone in the office whether they wanted this knowledge or not that something was going on. Natalie even took me aside one day and asked, “What’s going on?”
Things finally went public. Paul’s prediction of having ‘more than enough to do,’ had come to pass very quickly. We assisted each local and student group with their work on behalf of their “adopted prisoner,” organized and conducted local conferences on human rights, held fund-raising and membership drives, sent out mailings, developed an outreach program aimed at various ethnic groups concentrated in the area (my job), maintained data bases, and coordinated our efforts with the national drives coming out of headquarters. Ross traveled extensively, speaking to groups, attending trials, occasionally serving on international delegations. He filed amicus briefs, wasted time sparring in New York with Gretchen and John Robinson, HRI USA’s executive director. As members of the National Detention Project, Ross, Paul and various law students put in hours representing asylum seekers before the INS and the Immigration Court, counseling those detained in local jails. We did the best we could, but the ways of the world plowed on ahead of us and we were always running to catch up.
And so it was with the initial report promised headquarters on INS detention of political asylum seekers. Working more than a week beyond deadline, Ross, Paul, myself, and one of the grad students had been in all weekend trying to wrap it up, Gretchen calling every two hours, wanting it ‘right now!’ For various reasons it was not an easy delivery, and we were so sick of it we could no longer stand it or each other. At one point Ross declared a moratorium on sending out for food until it was finished, and Paul kept finding errors and had so many last-minute changes that I teetered on the brink of tears every time he came near me.
This continued on wretchedly through Monday night. But here it was Tuesday morning, the clouds had cleared, and we just needed to print the final version and fax it to John before he left for London, except now the formatting was all screwed up, the printer putting page breaks halfway down the pages and doing inexplicable things to the figures and tables. I stood at Ross’ side while he sat at the computer in Tyler and Renny’s office, each of us carping at the other as we tried to fix the damn thing. Ross was exhausted and beyond aggravation; there were dark circles under his eyes, softening his looks, intensifying the bait. I was none too thrilled myself, having spent the last week with very little sleep being jerked between the HRI office and Sterling like a yo-yo. “If you’d buy regular software instead of getting this cheapo stuff, we wouldn’t be having these problems,” I lectured.
“Look, I’m not going to pay an extra couple hundred bucks for the exact same thing. We don’t have the funds; you buy it if you think it’s so great,” he shot back, exasperatedly hitting the enter key again and again and getting beeped at again and again. He let out a stream of abuse at the machine. People were making a God-awful racket out in the outer office. I strode over to the door and ferociously slammed it shut, a stunt worthy of Madam Riley. Either the door soundproofed the room or I frightened everyone into silence. Flushed with success and agitation, I put my hand up to my cheek—it was hot. Just looking at Ross, his dark head bent over the manual, his long legs awkwardly wedged under the low table, totally absorbed in his computer misery, made my insides seize up. I wanted him in a way that was useless to argue against. Lurid thoughts ran through my head as, now in our own little world, I went back to him, positioning myself behind him, leaning over close, way beyond any boundary of any appropriateness, leaning closer, steadying myself with a hand on his shoulder, our faces cheek to cheek as I pointed at the screen.
“See, it looks right there!”
If my proximity made Ross uncomfortable, he didn’t give any indication of it. In fact he tacitly participated in this little game, collapsing against me for a second or two, turning his face into my hair, sending out sparks of his own. Again succumbing to that magnetic pull, we instinctively curved toward each other. Despite, or more likely because of our growing arousal, we continued to bitch at each other, fiddling with the document, but nothing worked. My earlier sense of decorum, any remaining hesitation had long ago been burned off by these smoldering fires, replaced by a willfulness to push this relationship to where it needed to go. His indecisiveness was beginning to irritate me. I wanted to shock him, push him until I got a response–dangerous but irresistible. Trying some ill-conceived fix, Ross converted the report into hieroglyphics, and wound up way too tightly, I sprung out of my erotic trance, straightening up and peremptorily ordering, “Reveal your codes; hit F3 and reveal your codes.”
Ross tilted his head back, leaning heavily against me at this command, and looking up at me asked, “Is that all you want me to reveal?” He completely threw me for a minute; I had to push away the heavy cloud of my irritation before I could realize I was finally getting what I wanted. It was his way of saying, ‘Look, we’re defeated. Let’s admit it and go at each other; that’s what we really want.’ Laughing, immensely pleased, I put my head back down, pressing my cheek against his, sliding my hands down his chest. Tyler chose this inappropriate moment to burst into the room.
“Sweet Jesus!” he exclaimed, slapping his chest, striking a dramatic tableau in the doorway. “Man, gettin’ it done, gettin’ it done,” he announced loudly and sarcastically before retreating, looking up at the ceiling, shaking his head, and closing the door again. “Working real hard. . .” We whirled around at this intrusion, both of us looking like we’d been caught red-handed, which of course we had.
* * *
Our project coordinator, Reynaldo Angel Montecinos, former university lecturer, torture victim: he stayed at Ross’ place for a while when he first fled to the United States from Chile, but recently felt secure enough to rent his own apartment. His position here at the office had more to do with keeping the INS off his back than for any productive purpose. He did occasionally counsel other newly arrived escapees, shuttling between Kennedy International and New Haven. A vague presence, a ghost of a big man with a closely cropped beard and a scraggly black ponytail hanging down his back, fading in and out of the present, struggling to mend the mind/body connection, constantly keeping doctor’s appointments—his left eardrum had been punctured, he had problems with his lungs and kidneys, problems sleeping. No one ever questioned his whereabouts. Women, particularly the pretty ones, were encouraged to call him “Renny,” although he would tolerate no male person doing this. We all obliged; who could have a problem with such a small affectation—one fledgling step toward reclaiming the manhood destroyed.
We all obliged . . . bound by our convictions, we remembered why we were here. This staff, these individuals—no matter how peculiar the personal agendas—all gripped tightly, held on to the frantic outstretched hands, maintained the sustaining connection with those cut off from common sanctuary and under a siege of terror, with those accorded no human value. Here was the conscience center, the conscious center; they were not forgotten here. Whatever forces had assembled this disparate group together, self-serving or noble, were they to fade away, the backbone would still hold, the work would still stand. For some, the flower bloomed only briefly, but it revealed something still alive inside. They might return any day and we continually watched for them.
This was not an easy way to operate, with the most visceral fears—the ones you try never to let loose—so close to the surface. To work in the human rights field is to function continually on split levels. The horrific stories permeate everything; the terror and disgust sink in and stain your psyche. That stain can never be removed. It changes your understanding of the limits of the human mind. So generally it was much easier to skim along on the smooth surface. To dwell on the inhumanity too much would be counterproductive. Like trying to work without skin. Account after harrowing account poured out of the fax machine day after day, something twisted within the human spirit rolling out these tales of horror as relentlessly as the moon pulls the tides. Reports of dismemberment, of torchings with gasoline, of electric current convulsing bodies, razor blades mutilating bodies, rapes and murders of unspeakable description—unthinkable things done as a matter of course.
These tales of far-away torture would enter my mind as entities with a will of their own. They established residence up close and personal. There were no reins on these thoughts; they were irretrievably out of control. They would surface when least expected and dominate, debilitate; once there, they never went away, running over and over again in the background like a malevolently possessed tape loop. What would I do if it were me imprisoned in that cell, strapped to that chair? I wouldn’t last half an hour; my mind would crack, and yet people survived. My mind would be sent in a tailspin trying to reconcile the love, the beauty in this world with the evil in men’s hearts. It would shatter trying to accept the fact that where you fell on this spectrum of happiness to unimaginable suffering was a matter of luck. That scared heartbeat pounding in the silence is your own.
And so we filled up that silence with clutter noise—banal chatter, nasty backbiting, lusting after rock stars, actors, anyone who conveniently came along, but always underneath the surface that scared heartbeat was pounding, pounding, pounding—if we quieted down, there it was, and it came to the surface as blood flowing from a reopened wound upon an execution or disappearance, or as the clean clear joy of someone’s release, some breakthrough, but that heartbeat was always there which explained why we were always so loud.