I watch the tanks roll into Baghdad on my computer monitor, like everybody else, clicking between news websites from around the world, clicking and refreshing, over and over. Expecting missiles and dirty bombs and anthrax and whatever is worse. Well past midnight, that’s what I’m doing in my computer room, my hand clapped over my chin, rubbing the stubble, imagining mushroom clouds in the Middle East, aircraft carriers blasting open, yawning in half as they’re eaten by the Gulf.
Nothing seems like it can’t happen anymore. This is a year when people are afraid to open the mail.
When I finally stagger to bed, blinking at the ghost monitor, still hovering before me in the gray bedroom, I don’t have any more answers than I did six hours ago, when I officially began to obsess. But I’ve got plenty of questions, and a really fresh strain of dread I’ve forgotten all about, something from childhood, when you really don’t know if there are monsters or not.
So when my wife wakes me up a couple of hours later, my eyes snap open and I suck in a mouthful of air, squinting and raising my hands before my face. The room is a hazy shade of amber now, light spilling in from the hallway, and Marilyn’s eyes are wide and close to mine, her finger at her lips.
There’s a kid in the bed with us, and a couple of dogs. And what’s this, a plate? I pull it out from under the pillow – it’s a children’s book, the cover bent.
Okay, so all that’s normal. I drop back to the pillow and then Marilyn wakes me up again. She’s on the wrong side of me, not in the bed at all, but standing next to it, crouched low.
“Tom!” The kind of whisper that’s also supposed to be a laser-guided shout, and it feels like it’s right in my ear.
“What? What the…”
“Tom, you’ve got to come see this,” she says, gripping my forearm. “It’s Iraq. It’s huge!”
Right back where I started, the memories return. All of the generals were saying they expected more resistance as they reached the capitol, all the news websites had agreed. And the missiles flying already looked like a fireworks display, just absolutely pounding a pathway into the country.
Carpet bombing – quite an image. Wall-to-wall destruction.
What could “huge” mean, after the World Trade Center? I remember suddenly getting the results for my AIDS test, a couple of years ago, when it was time to get life insurance, the dread you feel as you take the final steps toward the person holding the results, no matter how good you’ve been, no matter how careful you were in college.
Take a breath and find out, that’s what I thought then, and everything was fine. So I think it now, since the unthinkable seems so close by. We’re safe here, just go and see what’s going on in Iraq, what’s so huge.
So I get out of bed and the dogs’ eyes follow me without lifting their heads, and my daughter’s tiny legs kick lazily in their fuzzy, one-piece pajamas, and I find myself carrying the bent children’s book with me as I follow Marilyn out into the hallway, where she passes the computer room without even glancing inside.
I pause in the doorway, sticking my head in the little office. The screen crawls with three-dimensional pipes, growing everywhere, not making any sense. I look at the book in my hand – it’s called Ducks Don’t Get Wet. I toss it on a file cabinet.
Where’s she going? We don’t have a television, just this one computer, that’s it, that’s the news.
“Come on,” Marilyn whispers – a regular whisper again, from the hallway, but when I turn to her, she’s tiptoeing around the corner, padding through the living room, moving quickly like a burglar or a kid sneaking in, late for curfew.
So I follow her through the house, getting more and more agitated, because if the danger isn’t on the computer screen, it’s in the house or right outside. And that’s where I find her looking, through the window, out onto the breezeway.
“It’s huge!” She says, talking to the curtain as she peeks around it. Her voice doesn’t sound right, doesn’t sound dreadful, my sleepy brain tells me.
But it seems perfectly in the realm of possibility these days, that terrorists might be parachuting right into our backyard, dropping off pipe bombs in our breezeway. Even a really huge terrorist; why not?
So I move into the spot by the window as Marilyn moves out of the way, and she holds the curtain open for me as I look outside, where the breezeway is brightly lit, and I shake my head – what am I supposed to be looking at?
Swiveling my head over to Marilyn, I see that she’s smiling big, showing me the Northern Lights maybe, or a neat card trick. Nothing malicious, just smiling, waiting for me to help myself to a little late night joy. Then I look back to the breezeway, where a raccoon the size of a small shrubbery is eating out of my dog’s food bowl out there.
It looks at me, a piece of dog food in its little paw. Takes a bite, chewing, looking at me some more.
“Are you kidding me?” I ask, my tone like an explosion – I can see Marilyn’s smile melt away, in the presence of that holy fire.
Feeling bad, even as I stomp back to bed, because it says good things about her, I guess, that she isn’t obsessed with the war coverage. That she shelved it away and slept peacefully, while I clicked and refreshed and clicked.
But not too bad, because even on an average night, I don’t want dragged out of bed just to look at a really huge raccoon.