The black and gold cavendish swirls just right, a strong whiff of this smoked green tea, and a song I haven't heard in years. All of a sudden...
I'm there again. Seven thousand miles away, hunched over on a plywood bench carved with monograms and epitaphs. Elbows on knees, thankful for a blue sky and a spring breeze that for once, bears the black pillar of burning garbage away from us. Cheap pipe clenched between my molars, I'm squinting into the sun and lightly running an iron nail, pulled from a shipping pallet and hardened with a blowtorch, over a steel Zippo case. I have one headphone on, an earbud shoved into my left ear.
The cord runs with a graceful curve into the ear of the man sitting just to my left. He is writing a letter to his wife, who he will soon divorce because she is sleeping with a man who is conveniently not seven thousand miles away. He's also wearing my last clean undershirt. Later, we will wrestle to determine who is responsible for laundry this week. He will lose, but only because I will fight dirty, and he's too much of a gentleman to respond in kind.
Meanwhile, back in the now, I shiver back into an overstuffed burgundy leather chair and run my fingers over the deep-etched scrimshaw in a steel Zippo case. Mug of green tea cooling now, finer than anything sipped in Afghanistan since the last King was still in power. It cost me some few dollars in an Asian grocery down the road, and would be a symbol of status in any office in Kabul.
I brew it now mostly for the smell and the warmth. Still can't stand it with sugar, and I brew it intentionally bitter as a sort of belated compensation for the years of weak tea I've swilled in the company of savages noble and inhuman.
It's been chilly all day, but now, in the middle of the night, at least the rain has stopped.
Rain. Rain on a tin and plastic roof. Hunched under the eaves and huddled around a guttering flame, over which is perched an incredibly ugly teapot.
I'm sitting with two ancient old men, low ranking jailers at a prison that has been a dumping ground for the political prisoners of decades of oppressive regimes. Not far from here is a mass grave with at least 2,000 bodies still buried in it. Nobody wants to prosecute the people responsible for the live burial of 2,000 political undesirables, because to do so would leave gaping holes in the current power structure.
I'm here as part of efforts by the United States Government to convince the Afghan Ministry of Justice that eight men in a one man cell is at least six too many. We'll worry about the rampant filth, bribery, gang rape, and unflinching torture later.
Sometimes, during the rainy season, the gardeners find bones in the rose beds.
I felt a very dangerous feeling recently. It was boredom.
Not the kind of boredom that causes you to rummage in the cabinet again hoping something with too much salt and fat has somehow shown up in the last few minutes. The kind of boredom that penetrates to the foundations of the life you've built for yourself.
It was boredom and complacency.
Believe it or not, after leaving my last consulting job overseas I decided I ought to get the fuck out of that line of work for a while at least, or maybe forever, lest I become one of the splintered shells of humanity that filled the expat community all around me.
Eyes hollow, voices monotone, living a Groundhog Day of bush wars and contracts and consulting gigs, permanently burned to a crisp and beyond all hope of salvage. It was a gallery of thousand yard stares. No, thousand year stares.
Robots powered by black coffee and old hurt and loathing. You could hear the eyeballs click-click as they scanned the grey hallways that are the same everywhere in the world, you could hear the tickticktick of ratcheting clockwork hearts over a droning hum from deep inside, carefully-tuned coils broadcasting on the frequency bands reserved for the darkest hate and misanthrope.
And I realized, after some time, that I was squinting against the glare of my own fate, shining in the fires of the perpetual need of the monied and guilty to blunder around in the suffering of others.
There are pigs in this world who think that they can wallow hard enough to turn shit into shoe polish, and they'll pay good money to see it put into cans.
So I punched out and came back to the real world. I enrolled in college, determined to get the piece of paper that would tell the real world that I was qualified to do what I'd been doing for years; that is, unfucking the complicated messes that people leave for themselves when there are more than three of them in a group. Systems Engineering, they call it.
But it's really just Unfucking, or if you get there early enough, Fuckproofing.
In my advanced composition course they want that we should write about our feelings and opinions.
They want me to write about telephones and the insatiable consumerism that drives Americans to upgrade their phones yearly for no practical reason. They want that I should support my essay with personal experience.
My personal experience with illogical telephone purchasing habits is that anybody buying a bunch of them is likely using them as triggers for IEDs that will send steel pipe caps, ball bearings, and little pieces of telephone into the body cavities of eight year old kids wearing UNICEF backpacks and yellow injection molded foam sandals.
My personal experience with insatiable consumerism is watching two old men beat the shit out of a kid who spilled six ounces of rice out of the fifty pound bag they were making him carry because those six ounces of rice are what they were going to eat for dinner tonight.
My feelings and opinions are not appropriate for the venue and are unwelcome among civilized people. I know this without having to be told. I choke down my objections to the absurdity of being an American sitting in judgment of a goddamned thing and write generic analysis according to the prompts in the Norton Field Guide.
Like a trained rat pressing a lever, I am rewarded with pellets of praise and many numbers that approach 100.
But this is why real boredom is dangerous: I am one phonecall away from excitement.
A new stamp in my passport and another first class ticket to Whereverstan. Maybe coastal Africa this time. Maybe somewhere back in Southwest Asia. Maybe Iraq or Sudan or the Sub-Saharan. It doesn't matter. It's all the same. Dangerous shitholes where someone or other has decided that they need a distributed infrastructure monitoring system. Or a solar supplemented commercial radio network. Or any of the other hundreds of things that I can cheerfully rig up between bouts of self loathing and glass-eyed regret.
Somewhere that has decided to make some kind of progress, usually over the bones of the recently and violently dead.