Dream of the White Chamber

The M.C. or Main Complex of the World Bank in Washington includes a cafeteria with a vast selection of affordable dishes from a variety of international cuisines. Of course, not just anyone can eat there. You have to know somebody who works for the bank, and he or she has to sign you into the building. (And this was before 9/11.) I was down in D.C. visiting my friend Chris, who worked just a block away and whose girlfriend Seung was a World Bank employee, so it made sense to go there for lunch.

We carried our trays out into an atrium where a faux bistro lured us to sit in a tease of real sunlight. Actually, “atrium” may not be the right word. (I apologize for my ignorance of architecture.) The M.C. is shaped like a hollow, square column, some ten or twenty stories high: every floor opens onto the sky-lit courtyard, which is roofed in glass too thick to admit any view of the clouds.

After about 40 minutes, Seung had to hurry back to work, leaving Chris and me to linger if we wanted. Unless he has a beer in his hand, however, Chris is never one to dawdle for very long. Let’s go back to the office, man, I’ll show you around!

On our way out, I paused to admire a large obelisk made up entirely of video screens, broadcasting satellite television stations from around the globe. Not too profound, as such things go, but provocative nonetheless – like the Washington Monument turned into a Tower of Babel. When I turned around to say something to Chris, he was gone.

I usually enjoy being lost. I searched half-heartedly at first, trying to maintain a brisk enough pace so I wouldn’t stand out as an obvious interloper among all the distinguished-looking people of every nationality who crowded the hallways. No sign of Chris. (It turned out that he had been searching for me at the same time. One of us should’ve just stayed put!)

After about ten minutes of this I gave up and started looking for an exit. Oddly enough, I couldn’t find one. Which was the ground floor? Was there more than one way out? Where was all the light coming from? The janitors I queried in a stairwell merely laughed – whether from nervousness or contempt I couldn’t tell. In my panic I started opening doors at random, briefly interrupting two meetings and backing away from half a dozen soft-walled labyrinths filled with the humming of office machines. It was starting to feel not just like a bad dream but the wrong dream, someone else’s dream that I’d somehow stumbled into. When I finally guessed right and found myself facing the front door, it was all I could do to keep from breaking into a run.

And sure enough – no surprise – I did revisit the World Bank in at least one bad dream that I can remember. It’s maybe six months later. The elevator opens onto a room somewhere in the sub-basement, I step out and there’s my old friend Ben, the one who died from a heroin overdose a couple years before. His head’s shaved bare. He’s lying on a mattress with hundreds of fishhooks emplanted in his skin. I edge closer and see the maze of piano wires that stretch away from the hooks in every direction, anchored in the white concrete of walls and ceiling.

You get used to it, he says. Besides, it’s only for another two years.

It’s not the thought of the pain that frightens me but his monotonal voice. This isn’t the joyful/scornful/angry/despairing rebel I once thought I knew so well. I’m thinking, This must be some kind of stunt double or something. He won’t catch my eye for a single moment, winces every time I look at him.

Look, I’ll call the police, I tell him, but already the guards are closing in. Where are your badge numbers? I demand to see your supervisor! I protest, as someone slips the plastic cuffs around my wrists. A desperate appeal to conscience: God is watching you! I say as calmly as I can, while someone lifts my upper eyelids with a pair of tweezers, first the left then the right, and sprays a burning mist directly onto each eyeball.

There’s a high-pitched giggle that sounds almost as if it could be from Ben. He don’t need no phone call – already got a direct line to the Chief! and a hand falls on my shoulder and rests there a half-second too long.

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