“NSA whistleblower turned washer of delicates in a tiny sink.”
This article appears in Blunderbuss Magazine’s new print edition.
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With gratitude to John Haskell
I am not Edward Snowden.
I am not Edward Snowden as he wakes up in the early hours of the morning in a room deep in the bowels of the Moscow airport and wonders just for a second where he is. Half in a dream, he thinks he is in his bed in Honolulu, his girlfriend Lindsay turned on her side next to him, the familiar contours of their life quiet in the dark around them, and then he thinks he is in that hotel room in Hong Kong, but as he opens his eyes wider and comes through to consciousness the reality comes to him that he is in a room in the airport, in Moscow, in a single bed, where he has been holed up now for a week. Just two feet from him, in the other bed, is Sarah Harrison, the British woman from WikiLeaks who showed up at the Hong Kong airport and ushered him onto the plane, before they landed here, before his passport was revoked and he couldn’t go anywhere else. What is she still doing here, with him? She is turned on her side toward the wall.
Is it possible to tell a story about Edward Snowden without politics? I am not Edward Snowden because I do not know what he knows, no classified information, no secret passwords. I don’t know how to encrypt or decrypt anything. I have never worked for the government, never had a background check, don’t know a thing about code in any form. Most of what I know about the CIA I learned from television. Edward Snowden knows what I don’t know, his brain filled with knowledge I don’t have. He carries what he knows in his mind like a disease; he cannot give it back, he cannot not know it. It is what makes him Edward Snowden, who I am not. Is it possible to write of him, to imagine him, without knowing what he knows?
When Edward Snowden wakes up in his tiny room in the Moscow airport, what he wants is coffee. This I can understand. He lies there in the semi-dark, the first light of the day just beginning to peek under the bottom of the blinds behind the bed, and thinks of the days when he used to wake to the smell of coffee. Mornings at home in Maryland, his parents awake and downstairs many hours before he opened his eyes, the house filled with the smell of coffee and the sound of the radio; Honolulu: Lindsay puttering in the kitchen, the aroma drifting through the apartment like an invitation to life. Wake up to life. Now, he is awake, and there is no smell. The air is dry and sterile, the air of a place that is no place. He is hidden in an unknown corner of an unknown place. No one knows where he is; not even he knows where he is. They say it’s Moscow, but Moscow is a real place, and he is somewhere that is not real. A room. Two single beds two feet apart, a TV on the wall. No window.
It is a new sensation, to be alive and yet as dead. After the activity of the last few days, the adrenaline, the hard rocks in his stomach, the shuffling from here to there, people with their hands on his arms, tinted car windows, covering his head to avoid the flashes of cameras, the bright hotel room towering over Hong Kong, to be here is like being submerged suddenly in water. Silence. Disembodied muffled voices announcing flights to other places, flights arriving, flights departing, flights carrying bodies from there to here, here to there, from a real place to another real place, and all the while he is in this room.
The room is dark – it is always pitch dark, unless they turn on the light – and Sarah is still asleep. He rests his back against the wall and thinks of coffee. Real coffee, coffee made with those beans he and Lindsey used to get at the farmer’s market, pressed in the French press in their kitchen (Lindsey in those furry slippers she insisted on wearing even though they were in Honolulu and no one needs slippers in Honolulu), dark and delicious and untainted by anything between the bag and their mouths. It has been weeks since he has had good coffee – a few times something decent in Hong Kong, but still that was always in a paper cup. He is so sick of paper cups.
Sarah stirs, turning over. “Hmm,” she says. They have lived in the same room long enough now that he is learning that she often makes this noise first thing in the morning before she speaks. “What time is it?”
“No idea,” he says. A voice announces a flight to somewhere.
“I keep waking up and not knowing where I am.”
She reaches to the floor and picks up her watch – digital, amazingly (how could she have foreseen this windowless room?), so she can press a button and see the time. “It’s four a.m.,” she says. She lies back down and turns back to the wall. “I would have thought we’d been here long enough to get over our jet lag.”
Jet lag, he thinks. Getting over jet lag would imply being in a place, where time is meaningful because of life, because of daylight, because of having to wake up and do things, because of business and your dog needing a walk and your to do list and what you were planning to make for dinner. But they are nowhere, so what does jet lag mean? Whether they turn the light on in the room, whether they put clothes on or stay in their pajamas, whether and when they eat, these are the only markers of time for them now. Four a.m., four p.m. – what is the difference? They are in between the world.
He gets up from his bed and takes his book, Crime and Punishment, which his lawyer brought for him yesterday, into the bathroom, where he turns on the light and sits on his pillow on the floor with his back against the door. He is careful to avoid looking at himself in the mirror.
Day 8. Sarah is off somewhere in the terminal, foraging for food. Snowden cannot go out there, it is not worth the risk; the airport is crawling with journalists, their fingers perched on their cameras, hungry for his blood. Instead Sarah does all the moving around out there. Her hair tied up in a bun, wearing her hooded sweatshirt and leggings, she looks like any other traveler and no one seems to look twice at her – or at least that’s what she says; who knows what photos of her are showing up in the press. Better her than him.
He stands at the sink in the bathroom washing his clothes. The sink is tiny, really only big enough for two human hands washing each other. Water splashes freely onto the floor no matter what garment he tries to wash – mostly they wash their underwear, though soon they will have to wash everything else as well, Snowden will insist. His lawyer brought him a couple new shirts and a few pairs of underwear yesterday, but the room they are living in is so small that Snowden cannot really stand anything to be dirty in it at all. Gosh, he would make a really terrible prisoner, he thinks. A wave of feeling comes over him at the thought of it – jail. It is a feeling he has grown used to, almost like a shudder, but one that lingers for a moment too long in his stomach. He glances at himself in the mirror and then looks away.
Washing clothes. This is what he does now. NSA whistleblower turned washer of delicates in a tiny sink. Government contractor, keeper of secrets, brilliant computer mastermind, carrier of classified documents, subject of worldwide search and household speculation, turned hand-washer of boxer shorts with plugged tiny sink and bar of soap. If the world could see me now! He wants to laugh. His eyes well. A voice announces a flight to the Ukraine departing in 20 minutes. He grips the sink.
A splash of water hits the floor. He thinks for some reason of the lake house that his family rented for a few summer weeks when he was young, soon after they moved to Maryland. The bathroom in that house had a floor tiled in different shades of brown, and a pink bathtub. He remembers that bathtub – why was it pink? No one could explain it to him. His father said, “Why not?” and Edward could not come up with a reason. He remembers taking baths in the pink bathtub, the Star Wars figures he played with, along with the big plastic boat that he pretended was an ocean liner. A vague memory of his mother in the bathroom with him, washing out the shampoo by pouring water from a glass over his hair, holding her hand over his eyes and tilting his head back. In retrospect, having a pink bathtub is a very great thing, and if he ever again has a bathtub he hopes it will be pink. He closes his eyes and silently prays for the privilege to once again have a pink bathtub.
How do you make a story out of a time and place without a story? There is a beginning, there is a long middle, 40 days of waiting, and then there is an end; Snowden and Sarah Harrison ejected back out into the world where time starts to move again, days have light and variety. But in between, there is a flat line, there is a dead zone, there is time stopped still. At least, that is true for those of us outside the story, trying to peer in. Inside the hotel room, there is a story. There has to be. There are two people, two real people, lives suspended but also not suspended, because breaths are being taken, moments are passing, minutes hours days. One room, an unprecedented situation, an airport. A lawyer who visits twice a week. What happened? These people are real, the story happened. But if you look for it, you will not find it.
The story has to be about the two people, about Snowden and Sarah. That is the way that stories work. If this were Hollywood, there would be a grand romance that no one could ever know about, a romance born out of circumstance but nonetheless meaningful, a romance of the time, of the moment, innocent yet powerful, a romance neither of them would ever forget. The beautiful young woman that risked her life to save him; how could he not fall for her? Two beautiful young people from two different worlds, brought together under strange circumstances, in a web of government secrets and the fight for personal freedom…how can America not get what it wants? They are trapped in a tiny room together for 40 days and no one writes this one? The movie rights are all but bought already. Snowden comes up behind her while she is brushing her hair before the bathroom mirror, Snowden reaches for her, she turns to him. Their hands touch while they are working together at the computer, brainstorming about defense money for his case. He wakes up crying one night, he has given up his life, he will never see Lindsay again, he will never see his parents, what has he done? He climbs into her bed and she comforts him like a child.
Who’s to say this didn’t happen? I am not Edward Snowden. But I’m also not Hollywood.
Day 12. Does Edward Snowden see himself in the character of Raskolnikov?
Rodion Raskolnikov, in the novel Crime and Punishment, kills an old woman pawnbroker and her sister. He says he feels a kind of predetermined need, as if the deed has been written for him, by some force outside of himself. Why do we do the things we do? Raskolnikov argues that deeds are justifiable if they serve a higher purpose. He argues that all men are divided, there are ordinary men and extraordinary ones, and the extraordinary ones are the ones that move us all forward, that change the world. Napoleon, in the height of his power, was an extraordinary man, according to Raskolnikov. Does killing a pawnbroker and her sister make Raskolnikov an extraordinary man? Are the ends ever justified? Raskolnikov contradicts himself; he knows and he is confident and he also crumbles like a dry leaf.
Edward Snowden reads Crime and Punishment while he waits in a Russian airport to hear word about his fate. This seems a detail too perfect to be real, but apparently this is true (it was reported in Time magazine, source of true things); reporters saw Snowden’s lawyer hand the book to him. What does he feel about the book? Does he think it ironic to be reading a book about crime and punishment having just committed a crime, while waiting for his punishment? Does he see any of himself in Raskolnikov? Does he feel himself an extraordinary man? We know, don’t we, that Snowden thought the ends justified the means? That removing himself from his life was a necessary thing to do? These questions come too close to where I cannot go because I am not Edward Snowden. I am not him as he reads this book, sitting up in his bed with his back against the wall, the TV broadcasting news in Russian.
Sarah is there while Snowden reads Crime and Punishment.
“What do you think of that book?” she asks. “I’m guessing you like it because you’ve been reading non-stop for the last few days.” She is sitting cross-legged on her bed doing something on her laptop.
“It’s fascinating,” he says. “I can’t believe I’ve never read it before.”
“I just read it a couple years ago. I was amazed at how readable it is – I was avoiding it because I thought it would be so dense and heavy-handed.”
“Yeah,” he says, “no, it’s like a strange morbid soap opera.”
Does she ask him if he identifies with Raskolnikov? Does she ask him if she thinks the events of his life were predetermined for him, if he felt that they were all already written?
“And what do you think of Raskolnikov?”
He pauses, not looking up from the page. “I think he’s mostly an idiot, though I do often feel sorry for him. He tells himself a lot of lies.”
Day 15. Who is she, and why is she still here? He doesn’t understand. This room is his, this choice his, this plight his. He should be here alone, but there she is. Is he glad of this? He is not sure. He is puzzled by her, an unknown female creature sharing his 200 square feet. Lindsay would not be happy, that’s for sure. How is this one of the consequences of his action? At home in Honolulu, imagining worst case scenarios – jail cells, men with guns ducking from behind doors, solitary confinement – he never imagined this: this tiny windowless room, day after day of waiting, movies on his laptop, Crime and Punishment, a place that is no place, and a young woman he does not know sleeping across from him. A strange young British woman his body guard, his companion. Incredible, the way cause and effect works; you push one domino over and they all topple in a line, but you can have no way of knowing which way the line is winding and will fall. All you can do is do the one thing, and then the next.
On their first night here, she told him she was going to stay. He had passed out on his bed in his clothes, and when he woke up the light in the room was still on but she was under the blanket in the other bed, wearing a pair of striped men’s pajamas. He blinked at her. “Did you think I’d be gone by now?” she smiled at him. “I’m not going anywhere. You better get used to me.”
He didn’t say anything, just continued to blink at her, disoriented.
“You shouldn’t be alone,” she continued. “There should be a witness to everything that happens to you right now. I don’t fully understand how that came to be me, but here I am. I’ll stay here as long as you do.”
Of course neither of them expected it to be this long. For the first few days they packed their bags first thing upon waking as if they might be called to leave at any second. Then the lawyer reported no progress, no progress, no progress, no progress, and now their cleaned-in-the-sink clothes hang over the shower door one at a time and their suitcases are being used as tables. He has not asked her again why she is still there, but it silently amazes him. So many things done in secret, so many months of hiding, so much planning and plotting and lying next to Lindsay and wanting to tell her but never telling her, not a word, is it really possible he never told her a word? All of that secrecy to end up in a tiny room with this woman, on whom he is dependent for food! He has no secrets left except his thoughts.
Sarah is eating a Burger King chicken sandwich on the bed across from him, and has mayonnaise smeared on her cheek. “You know,” she says, chewing, “there was a Burger King that opened up in my town when I was growing up, and I used to beg my parents to take us there for dinner all the time.”
“That was your first mistake,” he says, biting into his Whopper. He touches his own cheek to mirror to her the mayonnaise on hers.
Day 18. At night he walks the hall of the hotel for exercise. It is paltry, it is not exercise, but it is all he can risk. Push-ups, too, he does those in the room, and he runs in place, and he boxes at the air, and he does squats and leg-lifts and pretty much anything else he can do to move his body without really moving it. But nothing is the same as really moving, really getting out of that room, and the hallway is the only place he can do that.
The hallway is dark and stale, a few fluorescent lights screwed into the ceiling offering a pathetic glow, the carpet generic, everything just as one would expect for the hallway of a hotel in an airport terminal, in a place that is no place. He has come to know this hallway very well – the scratches on the door to rooms 30 and 31, the splotch of dark stain on the carpet by the door to room 6, the tiny garbage can with a place for cigarette butts at the top – out of use, but still the only thing anywhere around that reminds him that he is in Russia. He counts his steps as he goes, 50 51 52 53 54 55 56. If he doesn’t count, he focuses more on where he is and what he is doing, and then he becomes too frustrated to keep walking because he wants instead to push the walls over, to scream and pound on the doors.
The only people that have ever seen him are hotel personnel, but they have had to sign some kind of document saying they will not report on his whereabouts or they will lose their jobs. They smile at him, and nod, and go about their business. He is lucky, he knows; there is no reason why other people haven’t seen him walking up and down the hall. This is not a normal sort of hotel, after all – rooms are used for a few hours at a time, and people come and go at all times of day and night. A few times he has heard doors opening and ducked into doorways, and luckily no one has ever turned to look. He has watched a few people walk away from him down the hall wheeling bags. Look at me, Obama! NSA whistleblower hiding in airport hotel doorway so as not to be seen!
Tonight, Sarah walks with him. They walk quick – 84 85 86 87 88 – speed-walking like suburban moms in Maryland, down the hall and then down the hall to the left, all the way to the end and then a turn, about face, and all the way back. They don’t talk. They have been doing this for 45 minutes already, down the hall, left, down the hall, about face, and back, down the hall, left, about face, and he can feel his heart beating pleasantly in his chest, his face beginning to flush. It is different having her with him, though it is difficult to pinpoint exactly how. Easier, somehow, to concentrate only on the steps, their progress down the hall and back. He feels something clearing in his mind, a space opening – he closes his eyes, still walking, and feels it open wider still. Somewhere far away a muffled voice is announcing a flight to somewhere.
He thinks of playing high school lacrosse; he was on the team for a year or so, and played goalie. He remembers the sensation of being behind the mask, wearing all the padding, waiting in the goal for the runners to approach, carrying the ball in their flinging nets. When they were all at the other side of the field he just stood there and breathed, waiting, anticipating them. The mask amplified his breathing, or made him more aware of it, and there was the feeling of being himself inside another being, as if he were one of those Mickey Mouse characters at Disneyworld. He strangely loved those moments, breathing into his mask while the players tousled at the other end of the field. Being behind that mask made him feel safe, and not just from the lacrosse ball.
He feels a similar sensation now, walking in the hotel hallways next to Sarah, his eyes open again now. He is breathing into his mask, watching the players at the end of the field. He is not needed now. Sarah will fight whoever comes toward them. He feels a sense of dizziness but presses on, counting.
For the record, I am making all of this up. Do not hold me to any of this. I am trying to approach the sensation of having given up your whole life; I am trying to imagine it. Packing your bags in the dark, hiding your suitcase in an underused closet, and then when it is time, walking straight out of your life, not knowing what consequences will face you next, but knowing you are leaving for good. The ultimate of lonely acts; no one watching because no one knows to watch.
There was a little piece in the paper not too long ago about a guy who drove away from his family home in the family minivan and never came back – three days later he was found at the bottom of a ravine a few states away. No one knows why; no one ever will. Could there even be a satisfying why? This is a thing that happens.
Of course there is a difference between that and this, a deliberate choice, a reasoning; for Snowden, leaving his life was a necessary byproduct of doing what he felt he had to do. The man in the minivan could have gone back if he wanted to; Snowden can never go back. The sense of vertigo he must have felt, boarding that plane to Hong Kong, his whole life literally behind him, with no idea what would happen next.
To still be you, the same you that your mother taught to tie your shoe, the same you that almost drowned in the ocean when you were six, the same you that used to love that book of exotic reptiles, that loves to skip rocks – you are the same you and yet here you are, you are nowhere, and you can’t go back, not ever. The hand-knit sweater your aunt made for you that you have loved so much there are now holes worn into the elbows is folded into your suitcase, proof that that other world existed, proof that you are still that you – and yet. A life that had continuity no longer has continuity. Or does it? Is continuity just a lie we tell ourselves to feel tied to the earth?
The fact of life is that we live moment to moment; our body is always here, where we are right now. Edward Snowden washing his underwear in the sink in his Moscow airport hotel room is the same Edward Snowden who stood at his bathroom at home in his house in Honolulu brushing his teeth while his girlfriend slept. We carry our histories with us, we cannot shake them loose.
And yet. We can carve our histories, cut them and twist them and fold them into something else. When someone dies or goes missing or breaks our heart, that part of our history tears off and floats. And when we turn our back on our lives to start a new one, we turn the whole thing into a paper airplane to send away. Only is it that easy? Our lost people show up in our dreams; does Snowden dream of his childhood home, of his house in Honolulu that he can never see again?
Day 20. Night. Snowden is reading Crime and Punishment by the light of the small lamp hanging over his bed. He is almost finished with the book. Sarah is in her bed with her back turned to him, facing the wall, presumably asleep.
He makes a noise – an intake of breath, a sound of recognition. Sarah, who is not asleep at all, rolls over. “What,” she says.
“Sorry,” he says. “Just, well, listen to this.” He reads to her from Crime and Punishment: “In his illness he had dreamt that the entire world had fallen victim to some strange, unheard of and unprecedented plague that was spreading to the depths of Asia into Europe. Everyone was to perish, apart from a chosen few, a very few. Some new kind of trichinae had appeared, microscopic creatures that lodged themselves in people’s bodies. But these creatures were spirits, gifted with will and intelligence. People who absorbed them into their systems instantly became rabid and insane. But never, never had people considered themselves so intelligent and in unswerving possession of the truth as did those who became infected. Never had they believed so unswervingly in the correctness of their judgments, their scientific deductions, their moral convictions and beliefs. Entire centers of population, entire cities and peoples became smitten and went mad. All were in a state of anxiety and no one could understand anyone else, each person thought that he alone possessed the truth and suffered agony as he looked at the others, beating his breast, weeping and wringing his hands. No one knew who to make the subject of judgment, or how to go about it, no one could agree about what should be considered evil and what good. No one knew who to blame or who to acquit. People killed one another in a kind of senseless anger. Whole armies were ranged against one another, but no sooner had these armies been mobilized than they suddenly began to tear themselves to pieces, their ranks falling apart and their soldiers hurling themselves at one another, gashing and stabbing, biting and eating one another. All day in the cities the alarm was sounded: everyone was being summoned together, but who was calling them and for what reason no one knew, but all were in a state of anxiety. They abandoned the most common trades, because each person wanted to offer his ideas, his improvements, and no agreement could be reached; agriculture came to a halt. In this place and that people would gather into groups, agree on something together, sear to stick together – but would instantly begin doing something completely different from what had been proposed, start blaming one another, fighting and murdering. Fires began, a famine broke out. Everyone and everything perished. The plague grew worse, spreading further and further. Only a few people in the whole world managed to escape: they were the pure and chosen, who had been predestined to begin a new species of mankind and usher in a new life, to renew the earth and render it pure, but no one had seen these people anywhere, no one had heard their words or voices.”
He stops. There is a long silence. He thinks she is asleep.
“Read it again,” she says.
Day 24. They have taken to talking at night. When it is dark in the room, when they ought to be sleeping but never are. During the day they often talk about politics, about their positions, about what they hope for what they are doing, about what they expect will happen when their lawyer tells them it is time to move again. At night, they talk about these things but in a way that allows them to talk about what is beneath these things.
Tonight, Sarah says, “I have never spent so many hours in one room before.”
There is a pause. Darkness, an airport announcement calling a flight.
“I have,” says Snowden.
“Yeah. When I was in high school. I was out of school for almost a year because I had mono. I basically spent nine months lying in bed.”
This detail, apparently, is also true. It is mentioned on Snowden’s Wikipedia page, created by someone, somewhere. I also read it in an illustrated Snowden biography.
“Wow,” says Sarah. “That’s a long time.”
He gives a quiet chuckle. “Yes. I was just thinking about it yesterday, how in some ways that experience prepared me to tolerate this one.” Flannel sheets, damp with his fever sweat; the smell of his body after a few days without a bath.
A pause. “I keep thinking about that passage you read me from the novel the other night,” Sarah says.
“Me too,” he says.
“The bit at the end about the ones who were predestined to start a new world.”
“… ‘But no one had seen those people anywhere, no one had heard their words or voices.’ ”
“And, if a tree falls in the woods, does it make any sound?”
If a conversation is had in a room with no windows, does anyone hear it? If days pass in a place that is no place, have those days really passed? If a real life is imagined, does that make it more or less real?
Day 28. There has to be an arc to be a story; something has to happen.
Snowden wants to go out. He’s been thinking of it for days. Every time Sarah comes back to the room from being out there, his desire grows. She carries bags of Burger King, magazines from the newsstand (most often in Russian, but anything is interesting), gummy bears and sandwiches, riches from the world he no longer has access to, and she is flush with the rush of having been out among bodies, of using her eyes to see faces and walls other than these. How much we take for granted until it is gone! A cliché, of course, and he knows this hotel room is hardly a prison, and he may one day face worse. But nonetheless. He is not in prison yet; he wants to go out. He has been nearly a month in this room; the muffled flight announcements have long since entered his nightmares; the air has begun to make him want to vomit.
She tells him about the photographers swarming the terminal, about the reporters sleeping on plastic chairs. Telephoto lenses, microphones testing frequencies, recording airport noises. She tells him it is not a good idea. She is his witness, that is what she is there for, but she does not want to witness him out of the hotel. Doesn’t she want to witness anything interesting? He teases her. What is the point of a witness if all the witness sees is a man in a single bed with a computer or a book?
Today she has brought back salads; they sit, as usual, on the sides of their beds with their knees almost touching. “I want to go out there,” he says. “Nothing crazy, don’t worry” – he holds out his fork – “I’m not going to try to escape or anything. Just quick and easy, something to get the blood flowing.” He takes a bite, the food already tasting better at the thought. “I’ll go in the middle of the night, no one will see me. I’ve just got to get out of here, Sarah. Anything, anywhere, I just – I have to.”
“You realize,” she says, “that what’s out there is an airport terminal? I just want to make sure you have your expectations right.” She digs a bit in her salad, pulling out a nut and chewing on it. “Going out there will not make you feel free, trust me. There’s no fresh air out there. It’s a long corridor with some stores and restaurants, more fluorescent lights and some people milling around. That’s it. It’s an airport. You can hear the announcements from in here. More of the same. And afterwards you’ll still have to come back here. There’s the possibility it will make it even worse.”
“I doubt that. But point taken.”
They chew a few bites in silence. “I’ll go if I can’t sleep,” he finally says. “If I sleep, then I won’t. Okay?”
“Fine,” she says, “it’s your life, isn’t it? But if you go I’m going with you. Don’t you dare try to sneak out there alone.”
Of course he cannot sleep. He never does anymore. He’ll catch two or three hours at a time, then be up for a few, then down for another couple. A place that is no place and has no time is not conducive to full nights of sleep.
“Sarah,” he whispers into the pitch-dark room. He has been lying there for a long time with his eyes open. At least when they have the lights out he cannot see the room, and can imagine he is somewhere else. He would much prefer to go out of the hotel in the daytime, but knows that would be suicide. Then again, why? Who cares if he makes it on a few more news programs? His brain doesn’t work; he doesn’t know the answers to anything anymore. “I can’t sleep.”
“I know,” she responds quickly.
“What time is it?”
She moves to look at her watch. “Three,” she says.
“Okay,” he says. He lies there for a few moments, then sits up, swinging his feet onto the floor.
She groans. “Seriously?” she says.
“Yes,” he says. “I’ll just do it and then I’ll have done it and can stop thinking about it.” He stands up, stretching his arms into the air. “That’s generally the way I do things.” He chuckles a bit to himself.
“Well I’m glad you still have your sense of humor,” she says, swinging her own feet to the floor.
In the Hollywood version this could be the climax scene, the denouement, the celebratory upswing before the two characters are released back in the world and this suspended time is ended forever. I see cameras swirling, Snowden and Sarah with their heads thrown back in laughter, maybe somehow they’re dancing, there is music playing somewhere, a restaurant that stays open 24 hours has a jukebox and the two of them sway in the corner, knowing they will never again be connected like this. They have evening clothes in their suitcases, they get dressed up and sway as if they are at some a formal ball. Some kind of simple pleasure for Snowden, an ice cream cone maybe, make it peppermint stick, which was his favorite as a child, and he licks it and marvels at its presence here, in this place, and he knows that everything was worth it. Maybe there is a third character in this scene, a reporter even, who came to Moscow searching for Snowden and now has found him, the only reporter out of fleets of them that has seen Snowden, and the reporter realizes that he actually likes this guy, and he doesn’t want to put him in danger by revealing his whereabouts, and so they drink bourbon and talk about sports, not politics, and then shake hands, and that reporter’s life is changed.
But Snowden is real, and Hollywood isn’t real. What would the real story be? Snowden, wearing a baseball cap, his eyeglasses in his pocket so as to have a bit of a disguise, nods to the hotel employee at the front desk and pushes through the door out to the terminal. He is having flashes of memories, for some reason, with every step; as he pushes the door he remembers wintertime, pushing the front door of his family house in Maryland to go out, the cold rushing at his face and neck, swallowing him like an ocean wave. He was never very good at cold weather. But no cold air greets him this time; the exact same air greets him on the other side of the door. It is dramatic to push it, but then he has done it and he is on the other side, he is outside the hotel for the first time in 28 days. Nothing happens. Sarah stands right behind him. It is as she has warned him: an airport terminal. “Where to now, boss?” she says.
“Not sure,” he says.
He slips on his glasses and looks to the left and to the right. The terminal is well-lit, brighter than their hotel room, but though the wall of windows in front of them he can see the darkness of night, broken by lights blinking off a passing plane. Very few people are about. The restaurants and stores he can see have their gates drawn, their lights off. There is one, a thousand feet or so from where they stand, with a light on. “There,” he says. “Let’s go there.”
“That café? Okay, though there will likely be people there that will recognize you. Are you sure you want that?”
He thinks for a beat. “No.”
She laughs. “Okay. Well. How about I go get us a coffee and bring it back to you, we can sit over there in that lounge.” She points to an empty area across from them with a series of arm chairs and small tables. “We should probably get away from the door of the hotel, anyway.”
He nods. “Okay.” He slips his glasses into his pocket again. “I’ll meet you over there.”
Sarah walks away from him, her form swallowed by the dark of the terminal. He sits on a leather chair in the dark lounge, settling into the dark. To the left of him is a window, and he can see outside for the first time in 28 days, but all he can see are the flashing red lights of planes slowly rolling past. He watches the lights, imagining where the planes might be going or coming from. All of the people on those planes are in Moscow, which is where he, also, is.
Can Snowden ever just be a guy sitting in an airport lounge, without all the politics, the international intrigue, the infamy? I am watching him sitting on that leather chair. If I don’t know who he is, he is just a guy, looking at the lights, like anyone else.
He sits and looks around him. From here, he can see the door they came out of, the door leading back to the hallway to their room. How many more days will they be behind that door? What fate awaits him when he leaves this place? So recently, he was a passenger who sat on planes with flashing red lights that flew through the night. He is not that anymore.
He crosses his legs in front of him and leans back against the wall, waiting for Sarah. I watch him close his eyes and then open them again. He doesn’t see me.
Illustration by Debbie Allen.