The windows are open, and I'm driving my mother-in-law's car, a turquoise compact number that's festooned with bumper stickers like "Namaste," "Peace," and "Save the Tatas." I'm free, free from my child for the first time in weeks, free from my husband, free from the little rented bungalow on the adorable street where the blue skies are almost oppressive. I've been back in the U.S. for exactly two weeks, and this trip away from it all, up Venice Boulevard, feels like a Carnival cruise.
I'm kind of a terrible driver. Turns out I haven't spent much time at the wheel of a car in the past handful of years. For a long time that job went to other people: cynical, sarcastic, sometimes burly, sometimes handsome, always charming men — men I would hire by the day or the week or the month.
There was Ahmed, in Baghdad, who drove NPR's armored Toyota pickup. He was big and round and baby-faced and soft-spoken and reasonable, with a Hitler-like mustache you would recognize if you've spent any time in Iraq. I want to say we were as close as siblings, but I knew that could never be true. Still, from the day I met him, my first day on the job as Baghdad bureau chief in 2010, I knew we would die for each other if we had to.
And later, there was my driver in Beirut, with his bronze armored Mercedes. It had a leather interior and a sun roof; a car in which I spent hours driving up and down the Mediterranean, a car that made me want to pretend the world wasn't falling apart around me. As my driver told it, he'd been strafed by Israeli planes in that car, had escaped militias in that car. And he always, always knew the exact right thing to do.
* * * * *
The night I first sneaked over the border and into Syria, back in 2011 when the protest movement was clearly turning into a civil war, long before I had any idea what I was getting myself into, our Syrian contacts were furious to hear that my driver's wife was from the nearby village, which meant she was a Shia, which meant she was the enemy. Our contacts were Syrian rebels, and they were Sunnis. These were guys with guns and hard stares, but my driver just smoked and laughed at them under his breath.
"They don't even know who I am," he mumbled. We had stopped at a roadside coffee shop made of corrugated steel in one of those crappy towns near the Lebanese-Syrian border. It was midnight. "My wife might be that. But I am not. I drink! I've had girlfriends!"
Hours later, the argument with the Sunni rebels had been settled and I was about to get on the back of a rickety motorbike with a Syrian girl whom I'd hired as a translator and who had never done anything this stupid in her life. I looked back at my driver and said, "Girlfriends, eh?," and it was clear that was all that needed to be said. He knew me already — just another Western journalist in his stormy homeland. And now I knew one of his secrets. It was as good as being bonded in blood.
Turning left and heading toward Santa Monica, I pass streets with names like Palms and Rose and Ocean Park. I thought my destination was a college, but it turns out to be a fancy private school. It's all windows and staircases and sunset-orange walls with earthy accents. The event is a film screening and fund-raiser for an international human-rights group. After the screening I'm supposed to address the audience. Organizers are excited to see me, give me a name tag, and send me upstairs for cocktails and hors d'oeuvres.
There are lawyers and filmmakers and women who are ten years older than me but better rested and groomed than I have been in a really long time. I'm 50 pounds overweight and the bags under my eyes no longer disappear after a few nights of good sleep. I eat too much cheese and mop my cheeks with a cocktail napkin and listen to the organization's top field researcher imploring those gathered to donate. Then we head into the theater.