Playground - Joanna Grant
Lingering by the Children’s Playground, Manama Naval Base, Kingdom of Bahrain.
We try to take care of ourselves, here. There are rules to follow, and we heed them. Ignorance of regulations is no excuse, we all know that, but even if we are ignorant, there are signs everywhere, reminding us of what is lawful and what isn’t; what to beware of; what we should report and to whom we should report it. The signs sprout like so many cold, sharp blooms in the muggy heat of Manama in April, here in the Kingdom of Bahrain, a tiny, orderly archipelago curling out into the Persian Gulf, to the east of Saudi Arabia and to the north of the UAE. The roundabout marking the entryway to the naval station aims for understatement, like all of our bases in overseas host nations do, but there are the signs. Here a sign marking where taxis are meant to pick up passengers; there a sign marking where the passengers should disembark. Another sign warns the approaching onlooker in five languages that photography and talking on the phone is prohibited in this area. These rules apply to us all who have business here at the naval station, whether we are active duty seamen from the US, the UK, Australia, Bahrain, Japan, Denmark; whether we are American civilian contractors, or dependent spouses, or children; whether we are third country nationals employed on site.
Those of us from hot climates wrap up in sweaters and hoodies, despite the spring balm; those of us from colder climes reel in the April sun, even though it’s nowhere near as hot now as it will be in August, when the Big Heat rolls in from the Gulf. There are trees here, even in the midst of the city. I have been here in Bahrain long enough now to notice such things, to develop routines, to get a sense of the rhythms of the days, the weeks, the seasons. Where was I before? Well, I can’t tell you that, exactly. I can say I taught my college extension classes in that undisclosed location, and that I came into that undisclosed country through the diplomatic lane on my military orders so I wouldn’t have a stamp in my passport, and that I came out of that country the same way on the very last day they allowed flights out before shutting the borders. There had been long lines at the airport in that country, and scared faces, and rattled airline staff, and the computer system had gone down just as I checked in, so I wasn’t sure I would make it out. The system came back up again just in time, and I rushed through the gates in the company of three men in long white robes who were carrying their tame falcons on their wrists. The birds seemed calm in their little leather hoods, their talons gripping the padded forearms of their handlers. Later, it turned out that all three falcons were on my flight, and that they flew economy, just like me. One bird wasn’t wearing a hood, and it stared at us all disdainfully as it was borne back to its seat, our heads whipping around to follow its progress.
So, there had been falcons in that undisclosed location, up in the high mountain desert with the thin, pale blue sky and the harsh, arid winds. But here there are trees, and even grass, and the air has that softness that comes from blowing in over the sea, and we are all half-drunk with spring here on this tiny spit of sand stretching its delicate pearly fingers out into the Gulf.
down here by the water—
so many lifelines
We can drink the water straight from the tap here. We don’t need to worry about accidentally getting nonpotable, chemically treated water in our mouths when we shower. Such a luxury. It’s been nearly a month now, but still I marvel at it all.
Yes, we care for each other here. We live and work under watchful eyes. The signs remind us of what to do. Queue up at the checkpoint. Be prepared to present ID and papers. 100% ID check. No exceptions. Line up with space between you. Approach when summoned by sentry. There are two sentries on the gate checking IDs, weapons on their hips, extra magazines and handcuffs secured to their bulletproof vests. A third sentry overwatches them from behind a small rampart of stacked sandbags. I can feel three sets of eyes on me as I approach, waiting my turn. Now, there are cones set up, marking increments of six feet between individuals, guiding us as to where to stand. We practice social distancing, now. First, it was a strange new phrase, odd and unnatural on the tongue. Then, a recommendation, no doubt just a phase. Then it was a requirement. Now, it is natural, as if it has always been. Sometimes, I remember lining up at airports like I did at the undisclosed location on that last day before the borders closed. I remember jostling with strangers as we shuffled on and off the plane. That recollection—of some stranger’s brush against my skin—is like a flash of some waking dream, lingering as the eyelids flicker.
Now, it’s my turn. Approaching a military checkpoint is its own art, one I’m not sure anybody ever masters. I’ve been here long enough to establish a kind of routine with my comings and goings; I even recognize some of the gate guards now, and they probably recognize me, but still. As I walk up, as anybody walks up, there’s that tensing, that clenching, on either side as the distance between myself and the armed guards decreases. I’ve never gotten used to it, this feeling that in their eyes I am a possible threat, not to be given the benefit of the doubt. It has always been this way, ever since I first started teaching college classes on military bases almost ten years ago. It’s even worse now, with everything that’s going on. We take care of each other, here, and that means trying to keep it out. It. The virus, and its carriers, and they could be anyone, even me, and I might not even know it. I step closer; the gate guard’s hand casually drops to his sidearm. Just in case. I unzip my backpack to pull out my wallet with my ID and orders; his eyes follow my movements. I show my badge, and then I take down my mask, proving that I am indeed the person pictured on my ID. And, in that moment, I feel more naked and exposed than if I had walked up to the pair of uniforms with none of my clothes on.
Hot breath—glasses fog—
Suddenly, cool rush of air—
Their shocked eyes widen
After the first, intoxicating gulp of fresh air, no matter how good it feels, I almost can’t wait to get the cloth folds settled once more over my nose and my mouth, the elastic loops back over my ears.
I push my way through the turnstile marking the actual entrance to the base after I pass the gate guards, using my elbow and forearm to push, not the palm of my hand. Another thing we try to do, now, because it is the right thing to do, because we are good people who mean well. We try not to touch things we don’t have to; we use our sanitizer; we use the wipes provided to us at the gym and the commissary and we throw them away in the correct receptacles. We try to give each other space, the right and proper six feet of distancing, so we won’t cause distress by crowding. We try, we really do. Sure, it’s required, and nobody wants to get in trouble, but I like to think we’d do these things anyway. That’s what I would like to think.
My backpack drags heavy on my shoulders as I cross the street and enter the long line of interconnected brick pathways and courtyards they call the Spine here at Manama. My laptop’s in there, and my chargers, and my calendar, and my notebooks with my lesson plans for class later on this evening and for the rest of the week. Our classes generally run from 1830-2130, so that our students, most of whom work days, can attend without disrupting their shifts. So, I usually walk over to the base in the early afternoon from our faculty apartment a couple blocks over, when the children at the base daycare are out in their playground for recess. I have time to kill, and there are pretty things to see. This base is one big garden. There are mimosa trees, and palms, and trees I don’t know the names of, whose branches twist and clutch at themselves. There are beds of sunflowers, and cacti with large, golden blossoms, and large stands of some kind of flower that’s as red as a beating heart, and red-orange marigolds the size of my fist. And to hold the sandy soil in place, there are borders made up of hardy, twisting vines, some with yellow blooms, some with purple. Their roots keep the earth from washing away in the infrequent but torrential bursts of rain we get here in the spring.
The fourth month of this
new year—yellow-flowered vines,
slow, greening waves—
The brickwork of the walkway connecting all the little courtyards, garden plots, and entrances to the buildings on the base is laid out in a herringbone pattern, and the big courtyard at the end of the Spine next to the large building containing our commissary, the gym, and the enlisted and officer’s clubs is shaded by large, white awnings. It’s pleasant to sit out there of an evening, drinking a beer and tossing a treat or two to the base cats, feral felines who will sit next to you and maybe even let you pet them if you’re lucky. Some nights, the banana leaves sway and rustle in the breeze as if they were arguing some point between themselves.
Rustle in the leaves—
some kind of restless spirit?
No, a cat mid-pounce—
Perhaps I’ll come back and sit for a bit under the awning after class tonight, I think, after the students have pulled their own masks back up and gone their own ways into the night over there at Camp Arifjan, an hour’s flight away there in Kuwait. Since the borders are closed, we are streaming our classes over video link, and there’s always that small moment of sadness when the time comes to hit the red button and leave the meeting. Once the screen fades to black, I’m no more alone in my dim classroom than I was before, not really, but it feels like it. I feel like it. Perhaps it will do me good to sit outside there for a bit, once the heat dies down for the day, and finish my iced coffee, my treat of the day, and maybe listen to the murmur of other people’s conversations, not eavesdropping, just enjoying being alone in their company.
A warm night in spring—
talk drifting on the breeze,
scent of night jasmine
I could stay behind my mask. I wouldn’t mind. It was strange, at first, being behind a mask, accidentally breathing in fabric when I forgot to be careful. At first, I felt hot, and smothered, as if I couldn’t get enough air. Now, I think, I have the way of it—don’t suck in a deep breath; keep the lips slightly parted; breathe shallowly, regularly. Now, I find I almost like the feeling of constriction, of cloth binding my ears, jaw, and chin as if in an embrace.
I think of all the people I saw every day back at my old base in Japan, up there in the deep north of the country, the ones who never took off their masks, not since the days of the last outbreak. A Japanese colleague once told me that it felt good to have a mask to hide behind. If my face cannot be seen, she’d said, then there is no need to remain genki. That meant pleasant, ready, prepared, “on.” I feel now as if I’m seeing what she meant. Especially as a woman, a woman alone, a woman working abroad, a woman working around mostly men, it reassures me sometimes that so little can be seen of my face. It reassures me to feel fabric covering me, draping me. I wear loose, light clothing for ease in this hot climate, but I wear it for other reasons, too. We try to take care of each other, here, we do. But this month of April sees exhibits dotting the herringbone walkways of the Spine—combat boots, high heels, sneakers, all manner of shoes, all painted teal green in honor of Sexual Assault Prevention Month, each pair with a small laminated placard telling its sad, sobering story. Even in this beautiful garden.
While I have been thinking these thoughts, I’ve been walking. Now I’m standing on the brickwork walkway of the Spine, watching the children at recess in the playground of the base day care center. The day care center is in the building next to ours, so I pass it every day on my way to our classrooms and administrative offices. Usually, I get to base while the children are at play, and I often stop and watch them, listening to them. We do our best to keep our children safe, here. The play area is shaded, its white awning keeping off the harsh sun. There’s a fan whirring off to the side of the jungle gym to keep the children from overheating. There’s a tiny water fountain, built to the children’s scale, and tiny cubbies for them to keep their things in, and the childminders often play cheerful music while their charges climb up the ladder to the slide or clamber up the tiny rock-climbing wall or make excavations in the sandpit. The play area is surrounded by a high wall, part stucco and part decorative, filigreed metal, so that the children can’t run off and come to harm. There are cameras under the awning, one facing me and one facing the children, to monitor the caretakers as well as us onlookers. The men and women minding the children all wear masks, but the children themselves don’t, as we think the virus doesn’t harm children, or at least not as much as it harms us adults. I hope this is true. I think we all do, all of us here on base, where we try to take care of each other. If such a frightening thing must come into our lives and blight our futures; if only such a thing could be relied upon to spare the children. As if a virus could have the wit to distinguish an innocent child from some other victim and the conscience to act on that insight.
As I watch the children, I notice a squabble breaking out. Two little boys and a little girl are bickering over whose turn it is to attempt the little rock-climbing wall. At first, the children content themselves with words. But then—one boy pushes the girl out of the way, his face a darkening scowl. The little girl starts to cry as the caretaker hastens over to break things up and scold and comfort the children in turn. For a moment, the face of the little boy who pushed his playmate is a study in shock, in horror. It’s as if he can’t believe it himself, that he did the thing he just did, as if something else, some malignant force, had seized control of him for that one throbbing instant.
And it did, even in this perfect garden, where all of us try to take care of each other. I look down at the Spine’s brickwork, and I see that its elegant herringbone pattern is buckled. The mimosa tree in its raised bed, the tree with the delicate, demure, pale green leaves, has sent its roots out in a clutching, spiraling riot of growth, one with no respect for the straight lines we humans try to impose on nature. The roots had rayed out from their tree, and I could tell from the buckled brickwork that the old, wild roots were headed straight for the stucco and metal filigree of the playground. Towards our children.
Even so. With all our care, and our procedures, and our hand sanitizers, and our placards, we can feel it. Threat. The palm trees and the banana leaf plants dip and sway up and down the Spine, the rustle of their leaves in the breeze so much quiet laughter at our hubris, our delusions of safety and control in the face of nature, or even in the face our own human nature, the worm in the bud of our otherwise perfect creation.
Early spring ending now—
drifts of fallen petals, so
many young lives over…
Perhaps all our walls, our cameras, our signs and our warnings aren’t enough to keep our children safe, not here in our day care playground at Manama Naval Station or anywhere else, no matter how much we try to take care of each other. Just like the mimosa tree in its raised bed, perhaps our own stubborn roots buckle the brickwork of our good intentions and our conscientious, well-ordered lives. I feel it in me, more often than I’d like to admit, that urge to snap, to snarl, to take what I want, pushing others out of the way. I feel it in that mean, twisted look I get on my face sometimes when the ugly comes out in me, just like I’ve seen the ugly come out in my family, my friends, in strangers I’ve bumped up against in the street, in the howling mobs I see on the TV screens in stories from back home. Back home, with all its poisonous infighting, seems so far away, here in this garden in the Persian Gulf, but maybe it isn’t.
See the caretaker helping up the child who got pushed over, brushing sand from her clothes? As the caretaker’s face darkens as she steps under the shadow of the awning, could her soft smile contort into a scowl? Who are these people, and who am I, at my best, at my worst? What pathogens do I carry on myself, my clothes, the soles of my shoes, in my genes, even, or my soul itself? And when might they erupt?
Even the children themselves carry it—that wrong we all come into this world stained with, try as we might to shield them. Here in this garden where nothing seemingly ever changes—who amongst us here will see out the end of the year, I wonder.
Let us admit that we will fail in much of what we do, in much of what we mean to be. Every day, the attempt. Every night, the reckoning. And again, and again, until the eventual end.
Until then—take a moment, like I will now. I have some time before I have to head next door and press the button and connect to my classroom in another country, an hour’s flight away from here. Let’s linger, here, by the children’s playground, here at Manama in the Kingdom of Bahrain with its border of sweet-smelling vines. Peace has been restored, and the children are friends again, so let’s listen to the shouts, and the laughter, and the games. Listen, until the shadows lengthen and it’s time, once more, to hurry on, to work. To home. To dinner, to bed. To the next destination, whatever that may be in this uncertain season.