I: The Temptation
It was lunchtime in D.C., but the sun had yet to break through low-hanging, moldy clouds. So I slipped into the Foggy Bottom Lounge, a hangout for political aides, pundits, and reporters. Or as a local cynic describes: the wannabes, the have-beens, and deadbeat groupies. In short, we are people who have missed out on our fifteen minutes of fame.
But we had aspirations. We were impressing each other with our clever repartee, dissecting the president’s press secretary’s performance on the TV. He had just spent almost an hour orbiting around questions about torture.
I ordered another beer and started to add a witty remark to the banter when a whiff of Chanel diverted my attention. She had long flowing blond hair, and it swayed softly as she walked up to the stool next to me. Her aqua marine eyes and Hollywood smile disarmed me. I could tell she thought she had me trapped. It would be rude not to at least acknowledge her.
I flashed my friendly smile and charmed her with some wry wit: “That press conference was torture to me.”
She frowned and swiped at a curly lock of her hair. I could almost make out my reflection in her glistening eyes. Adroit at small talk, I batted the topic back to her.
“Well, it was almost painful,” I said with a slight grin. It wouldn’t be gentlemanly to slip away, and I was an old school type of guy who was raised to be well-mannered and poised around ladies.
She propped a leg on the lower rung of the bar stool, revealing a silky-smooth thigh beneath transparent nylons. I introduced myself.
“I’m Laurie,” she said.
As she reached out to shake my hand, I surveyed her fashionable black dress, pausing to admired a red hourglass design that stretched from her bust line to her hips. “What do you do?” she asked.
“So, Laurie, how do you define torture?”
She looked at me for moment as if I had just dropped from the sky. “It’s something that might vary according to whom you are talking,” she said. “Are you a reporter?”
To whom? Wow! A blond, blue-eyed babe, long-legged bombshell with education surfing the political watering spots in D.C. “Ah, yeah,” I said, stretching the truth almost to the snapping point. “Freelance.”
“Really? Working on anything interesting right now?” she asked.
“Kind of. I’m looking into this whole debate about torture,” I said, wondering if Laurie was an aide to a congressperson. “Can you define ‘torture’?”
She tilted her head to the right, like my dog does when he is trying to translate a command. “I’m not sure it is so easy to put into words,” she said. “But I know it when I see it.”
“I see. Kind of like pornography.” Maybe that was a bit crude, or maybe it was too clever. I wanted to delete my comment from the record.
Laurie returned her head to the upright position. Her features were disarming, actually. Typical middle American, apple pie, back-seat of a Chevy USA. But her tone of voice conjured up reprimands from my ninth grade English teacher whenever I tried to hide “Playboy” inside by grammar text. “The president wants Congress to give him a law that redefines torture in a way that will allow him and the agencies to extract valuable intelligence from captured terrorists.”
“I see.” It was a lie, of course. When two people first meet, it is convention that they lie a little, just to nourish the conversation. Frankly, I’d say almost anything to keep her there. I didn’t care what she was: an aide, an agent, a spy. I just wanted to explore that red hour glass design on the front of her dress. Pressing ahead, I said, “The United Nations defines . . .”
I nearly tipped over my beer with her abrupt interruption. “United Nations!” She stretched the syllables and hammered the “n” sounds, clearly indicating her contempt.
Maybe she was just a knock-out, sexy, right-winger who needed late night tutoring. Maybe she was a bimbo groupie looking for a sugar daddy. Maybe she actually was undercover CIA or FBI. I decided to lure her in with my exceptional rhetorical talent. “Torture is certainly inhuman and degrading treatment of someone, don’t you think?”
Her reaction suggested either she wasn’t buying my maneuver or she was bored. I was sinking, and although I am adept at swimming in these social waters, I really needed a life jacket to get out of this first round standing. Checking my watch, I pretended to be late for an afternoon meeting. We exchanged phone numbers and went our separate ways.
II: The Chase
I thought I knew a lot about the topic of torture. Hell, I thought I knew a lot about babes until today. I could look up one in the dictionary. As for the other, I began to have self doubt. Or maybe the two were related, torture and babes. I looked up torture on the Webster’s Online Dictionary. The noun torture means “1. Extreme mental distress. 2. Unbearable physical pain. 3. Intense feelings of suffering; acute mental or physical pain; ‘an agony of doubt’; … 4. The act of distorting something so it seems to mean something it was not intended to mean.”
Kind of like trying to pick up blond bombshells in lounges.
The verb means to “Torment emotionally or mentally.” I knew the meanings pretty well.
Kind of like what Congress, the president, and his messengers do to the American public when they quarrel over the definition of torture.
As for babes, I googled and yahooed the term. What I found is not fit for print in family stories. But after surfing the term for a couple of hours, I sure wanted to find out a little more about the term. Some first-hand, hands-on learning was called for. So I decided to move on to step two of the mating ritual: The Chase. I decided to use my knowledge of torture to get a date with Laurie.
We met the next evening at the Foggy Bottom Lounge. I bought the first round, and we exchanged pleasantries. Finally, she asked, “I know you have something on your mind, so quit torturing me and spill it.”
Maybe even undercover agents and political aides have a sense of humor. “You’re right about torture, Laurie. It is not as simple as A, B, C, D.”
“E, F, or G, either,” she continued with a sly grin on her face. She bought the second round. “I thought you’d see the light.”
I turned toward the waitress who was bringing our drinks, and that’s when I noticed a couple of “suits” standing at the bar glancing at the front door. Two more “suits” walked in and sat at a table near us. The two at the bar stayed put. The bartender turned up the TV. On nightly prime-time news, a senator was accusing those who opposed the attempt to redefine torture of being disloyal to the country. I fidgeted in my chair and cleared my throat.
“You OK?” Laurie asked.
“Probably allergies,” I lied. “The humidity, I guess.” After a commercial, network news presented excerpts from a speech by the Secretary of Defense. He warned Americans that those who opposed the administration’s efforts to “reexamine” the meaning of torture were aiding and abetting terrorists. I choked and began a coughing fit.
“Have you ever tried allergy shots?” Laurie asked.
“A shot of Jack Daniels, sometimes. I just live with it. It comes and goes.” The symptoms were clear to me. I had just experienced the first stage of torture: Extreme Mental Distress.
“Would you excuse me?” Laurie said. “Got to visit the ladies room . . .” She got up and walked past the two suits at the bar. They tipped their heads to acknowledge her.
Was it my imagination or did the plot just thicken, I wondered.
All four of the suits were now staring at me. I imagined the second stage of torture--vividly: “Unbearable Physical Pain.” In reality I had already developed a mini migraine from anxiety. Then on the nightly news, the president began talking. And within three minutes he repeated at least ten times that he will use whatever techniques and tools necessary to protect Americans from the terrorists. My imagination pictured the four suits and Laurie applying leaches to my body to make me confess. “We will not allow terrorists to change American values,” the president said. “It is my job, that is, I was elected to . . .”
I took a deep breath, held it in, and waited.
“You know, there is evil in the world,” the president said. I exhaled, catching my breath.
“Hey, you OK?” Laurie asked as she sat back down, looking genuinely concerned.
She turned to the table with the two suits and motioned for them to join us. “Do you mind?” she asked after the fact. “Some friends of mine.”
One was so tall that he had to bend at the waist to meet my eyes when I stood. The other man blocked the daylight from the window with his broad shoulders.
I was well into the third stage of torture: “Intense Feelings of Suffering—an agony of doubt.” To hell with blond bombshells. I was faint with fantasies of secret agents and spies. I stood, but had to grab the table to steady myself. Laurie said their names, but they got mangled in the pain from their crunching handshakes.
“Ma . . . my turn,” I stuttered to Laurie and motioned to the restroom.
“Don’t get lost,” she teased. “You want one of my friends to help you?”
As I walked away I heard her say, “Or maybe it was ‘Redskins by five?’”
III: The Escape
Just as I started pushing against the restroom walls hoping for a secret passageway to escape, the other two suits walked in. One went to a stall while the other turned on a faucet but looked at me with squinting eyes. I mumbled something about hearing a sound like rats or something scurrying behind the walls. “Guess I was … wr … wrong …” I stuttered and hurried out.
The others were still at the table waiting for me. “A new round, bartender,” Laurie said. She had loosened her hair, and it was falling freely onto her shoulders. The two suits and Laurie were joking about sports. She said something about Sunday’s game with the Cowboys. “A hundred,” she said to the two suits.
I dropped back into my chair and sighed, like a balloon collapsing. It was one of those rare Zen moments. Insight into the rationale behind the three earlier stages of torture. The fourth stage begins when the victim starts “Distorting . . . so it seems to mean something it was not intended to mean.” Maybe they’re not spies or agents. Maybe they’re enforcers for the Mob. They know I like to bet on the games. I couldn’t remember if I still owed anyone.
After a while the four suits got up and left together. They could have been secret agents. They could have been enforces. Hell, they were so big they could have been the front four for the Washington Redskins.
Dinner was quiet and uneventful. Laurie and I exchanged a few lies and agreed that we’d “do lunch” some day. I didn’t ask who the suits were. I hoped they were members of the Redskins’ football team. We left the lounge separately.
That was the last time I ever saw Laurie. I phoned her once, but as we talked I heard a clicking sound every few seconds. I blurted out that I had an emergency and hung up. Maybe it was just a bad connection.
On the TV news that night, the president was his normal combative self. He warned that without his secret terrorist surveillance program the American people would not be safe. All around us there were “conspirators who wanted to help al Qaeda. Some of them were even American citizens,” he said. “Some of them look just like you and me," he said.
I examined myself in my bathroom mirror. A beard might look nice, I thought. And leave the gray. Makes me look older and more distinguished. Maybe Laurie was CIA or FBI. Maybe she part of the Mob. Or maybe she was simply a Washington Redskins cheerleader. But I wasn’t taking any chances. I sold most of my material possessions and hit the road. I’ve never been to New Zealand.
Maybe I’ll return to the fast lane in D.C. and maybe I won’t. But one thing I learned from my fling with Laurie. I know when to stay and when to fold when it comes to the babes game. I also know what torture is. At least I know it when I see it. Maybe I’ll go out west and try my hand at fiction for a while. I can write a story about babes and torture. Might be a best-seller in the adventure-fantasy-mystery-politics-romance-spy market.