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She sees his eyes decide, the little flash of letting go, and he attacks her now. She protects the camera, turning a shoulder toward the boy, and she thinks it is only seconds before the interpreter will step between them. The boy hits her hard in the forearm and reaches in for the camera and she throws an elbow that misses and then slaps him across the face.

There is a pause while everyone reflects on what has happened. They see it again. Brita feels it beating in her chest, happening again.

She waits for the boy to look at his father for an explanation. But he stares at her evenly with new contempt, new indulgence in his hatred, and she sees him get ready to come at her once more.

Abu Rashid says something. There's another pause. The interpreter repeats the remark and then the boy picks up his hood and leaves the room.

Brita takes her time putting things back in the equipment bag. She hears the boys in the yard reciting a lesson together. Feeling detached, almost out-of-body, she walks over to Rashid and shakes his hand, actually introduces herself, pronouncing her name slowly.

Downstairs the guide with half an ear is standing with the water bottle cradled to his chest.

Brita is staying in East Beirut in a flat that belongs to a friend of a friend. The hotels are crushed or ransacked or occupied by squatters and the flat has been empty for over a year, so here she is, back out on the balcony again. It's late and she has eaten and taken a bath and read a magazine piece about Beirut because what else can you read or think or talk about in a place like this. She doesn't especially want to sleep. Not that sleep would be easy in any case. All night intermittent bursts of machine-gun fire and many dark rumbles to the immediate east that sound like mountains ringing. And the odd round fired now and then, some despond of the heart or a drug deal gone slightly sour, and she doesn't like being in bed when the shooters are about. Even in the periodic stillness she finds herself scrutinizing the silence, waiting uneasily for the boxy clatter to begin again. So out she comes one more time, half dressed, wanting to stand within it, feel the cordite wash of the city against her skin.

She sees streaky lights bolting from the coast and making long bodiless arcs over the roofscape and down through scuds of dark smoke that roll across the low sky. A black van goes by right below and there's a curly-haired guy sticking out of the sunroof wearing an iridescent track suit and shouldering a rocket-propelled grenade launcher that's about seven feet long. He is the Phallic Master of the Levant, at least for now. A radio plays voices calling in, several radios perched on balconies, people talking about Beirut because there's no other subject.

She wants to stand inside it. It is wrapped all around her like some computerized wall of enhanced sensation.

She goes inside and finds a bottle of Midori melon liqueur. She can hardly believe there is such a thing. She has seen it advertised at airports and convention centers, the walk-through places of the world, but never thought it was more than a gesture, a billboard that rides the skyline in streaming light. And now she finds an actual bottle of the stuff in someone's abandoned flat. Where else but here? Everybody's nowhere. She pours some into a glass and takes it out to the balcony. Sirens going in the distance. On a wall across the street there are layers of graffiti, deep deposits of names and dates and slogans, and she sees in the dim light that Ali 21 has made his way into the Christian sector. He is here in French and English, newly and crudely sprayed.

Ali 21 Against the World.

A silver flare sails briefly over the streets, bits of incandescence trailing away. Radio voices calling all around her. Beirut, Beirut. They crowd in toward her, pressing with a mournful force. People calling from basement shelters, faces in shadow, clothing going dark with heavy sweat, sleeping children curled around their war toys. All the hostages, pray for them stashed in their closets and toilets. All the babies, pray for them lying in rag hammocks. All the refugees, pray for their dead and wait for the shelling to subside. The war is so fucking simple. It is the lunar part of us that dreams of wasted terrain. She hears their voices calling across the leveled city. Our only language is Beirut.

She drinks the scummy green liqueur and goes inside to get some sleep. She has to be up before seven and on her way out of here.

About an hour later something wakes her. She comes out on the balcony again, telling herself to be alert. It is nearly four a.m. and she has a sense of some heavy presence, a grinding in the earth. She leans over the rail and sees a tank come chugging around the corner into her cratered street. Mounted cannon bobbing. She feels the beat of adrenaline but stays where she is and waits. She thinks it's an old Soviet T-34, some scarred and cruddy ancient, sold and stolen two dozen times, changing sides and systems and religions. The only markings are graffiti, many years of spritzed paint. The tank moves up the street and she hears voices, sees people walking behind it. Civilians talking and laughing and well dressed, twenty adults and half as many children, mostly girls in pretty dresses and white knee-stockings and patent-leather shoes. And here is the stunning thing that takes her a moment to understand, that this is a wedding party going by. The bride and groom carry champagne glasses and some of the girls hold sparklers that send off showers of excited light. A guest in a pastel tuxedo smokes a long cigar and does a dance around a shell hole, delighting the kids. The bride's gown is beautiful, with lacy appliqué at the bodice, and she looks surpassingly alive, they all look transcendent, free of limits and unsurprised to be here. They make it seem only natural that a wedding might advance its resplendence with a free-lance tank as escort. Sparklers going. Other children holding roses tissued in fern. Brita is gripping the rail. She wants to dance or laugh or jump off the balcony. It seems completely possible that she will land softly among them and walk along in her pajama shirt and panties all the way to heaven. The tank is passing right below her, turret covered in crude drawings, and she hurries inside and pours another glass of melon liqueur and comes out to toast the newlyweds, calling down, "Bonne chance" and "Bonheur" and "Good luck" and "Salám" and "Skal," and the gun turret begins to rotate and the cannon eases slowly around like a smutty honeymoon joke and everyone is laughing. The bridegroom raises his glass to the half-dressed foreigner on the top-floor balcony and then they pass into the night, followed by a jeep with a recoilless rifle mounted at the rear.

It is over too soon. She stays outside, listening to the last small rustle of their voices falling. It is still dark and she feels a chill in the smoky air. The city is quiet for the first time since she arrived. She examines the silence. She looks out past the rooftops, westward. There is a flash out there in the dark near a major checkpoint. Then another in the same spot, several more, intense and white. She waits for the reciprocating flash, the return fire, but all the bursts are in one spot and there is no sound. What could it be then if it's not the start of the day's first exchange of automatic-weapons fire? Only one thing of course. Someone is out there with a camera and a flash unit. Brita stays on the balcony for another minute, watching the magnesium pulse that brings an image to a strip of film. She crosses her arms over her body against the chill and counts off the bursts of relentless light. The dead city photographed one more time.