"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
“Shane and I had been living in Syria for about a year when Josh came to visit. Shane was working as a freelance journalist, and I was teaching Iraqi refugees.We wanted to show Josh everything. We spent the first few days riding mini-buses through the clogged streets of Damascus, visiting mosques and open markets — then dancing and drinking with our diverse and raucous group of friends at night. Josh’s arrival coincided with a week-long vacation from my job, so we decided to take a short trip. Shane and I wanted to go somewhere neither of us had been. We left a few days later, taking a bus to Turkey and crossing directly into Kurdistan — a semi-autonomous part of Iraq isolated from the violence that wracked the rest of the country.
“After two days of visiting castles and museums, we headed to the Zagros Mountains, where locals directed us to a campground near a waterfall. After a breakfast of bread and cheese, we hiked up a trail we’d been told offered beautiful views. We walked for a few hours, up a winding valley between brown mountains mottled with patches of yellow grass that looked like lion’s fur. Near the top of the ridge we noticed soldiers in the distance, motioning for us to walk in their direction. We complied, and a few frightening days later we found ourselves being driven into Tehran, where we were blindfolded, handed off and driven to Evin Prison. There, we were separated into individual cells.” — Sarah Shourd
I’m crouched in the corner of my cell, rocking slightly back and forth with my eyes closed, trying to remember the ten digits of my sister’s cell phone number. I methodically punch them into the palm of my hand, waiting for it to ring, hoping she’ll pick up. “Hey, Sar,” she’d say in her soft, girlish way. Still, even in my mind, I can’t really hear her voice. I can describe it, but I can’t hear it. No matter how I try, all I can hear is the jagged, deafening whir of the fan between Shane’s cell and my own.
This must be what happens; the more time I spend here, the more I’ll lose the world. My memories will become mere shadows, with all the warmth and flesh drained out of them. Each of the twenty-one days I’ve been here feels longer than the last. I try to fill each minute, each hour, but with what? I think back to my life three weeks ago. There was never enough time then; I was always rushing from one thing to the next, chasing time. Here, time just sits heavy and solid like a giant boulder in my path. How can these minutes, these hours and days and weeks, really be objectively the same as the others I’ve experienced all my life?
My thoughts freeze at the sound of a door opening in the hallway. Is it Shane’s? I sit frozen for several moments, listening. When I hear the door close, I sigh dramatically and try to unclench the muscles in my legs, back, and neck. It must have been a guard opening another cell door down the hall. I need to relax, I tell myself, or I won’t be able to sleep tonight.
I hear a knock on the bathroom wall, climb up on the sink, and put my mouth to the tube. “Hey, baby, what’s up?” I ask Shane.
“I have a question for you,” he replies playfully.
“Go for it.”
“If one of the nice guards offered to take you out into the streets of Tehran tonight, would you go?”
“Um … I don’t know. It’d be risky. Still, if we got caught, it wouldn’t be my fault. Sure, I’d do it.”
“What if I found a way to unbolt the metal screens and crawl through the fan ducts into your cell, would you let me do it?”
“Of course I would.”
I climb down from the sink to rest and stretch my neck for a minute or two. Shane and I now brazenly spend much of our time comforting and joking with each other through the plastic tube, but I can only talk in brief intervals before my neck begins to ache from holding it at a tense, ninety-degree angle. For at least ten days, nothing has happened—no interrogation, no news. We haven’t seen Josh since we broke our hunger strike—it’s been over a week since I’ve even heard his voice in the interrogation room.
Shane taps on the wall again. I get back up on the sink and press my ear to the tube. “What would you say if I told you I’d found another way to get into your cell?” he asks. “Would you let me?”
“Yes! Baby, this is kind of annoying. It’s not fun teasing each other like this.”
“Maybe I’m not teasing.”
“Shane, what are you talking about?’
“Sarah, I can do it. The guards left the window open on my cell door, and they left the key in my door!”
“Shane, are you crazy? You can’t just waltz out there!”
“I already did. A little while ago I stuck my arm through the window, turned the key, and walked out into the hallway. The TV in the guards’ room is blaring, they can’t hear a thing, and there’s no one else out there.”
“Baby, forget about it,” I snap, both astounded and impressed that the cell door I heard open in the hallway a few minutes ago really was Shane’s. “Forget it, no way, just stop talking about it!”
“Sarah, please listen. They always leave the key in your door. I won’t make a sound except for the click of the lock; I’ll be so quiet. The guards have already left. There’s just one out there at night and they never check on us after dinner.”
“If you’re caught, they’ll separate us, Shane. We’ll lose everything.”
“I won’t get caught. Please, baby, let me do this. I need to see you.”
I try to say no … I try to be strong and responsible, but there is no way I can resist the idea of Shane in my cell.
I crouch down near the bottom of the door and listen carefully to the silence for several minutes, trying to see if the guard has gone to sleep. As soon as I hear the tiniest sound, I get up and pace again. I pull up scenes from jailbreak movies in my mind, my only reference point for what I’m about to do. Like in the movies, I bunch up a pile of blankets and drape another blanket over them so they look like a sleeping person.
For hours I go back and forth from the grate on the door to lying on my back with wide-awake, gaping eyes. I think of Sarah, who I know is always attuned to the movements outside the cell at night in a way that, aside from tonight, I am not. She has told me she sleeps with the ceramic cover of her toilet under her head every night, ready to wield it against an intruder. We’ve both read accounts of women being raped while in custody here. And there is a pair of eyes that looks in on both of us sometimes. A man has stared at me as I sit nearly naked on the floor and scolded me whenever I met his gaze. When we saw each other after the hunger strike, I heard Sarah tell the translator about him. He chuckled condescendingly and retorted, “That is a woman guard. No men are going to look at you.”
“But he has facial hair,” she said.
“No men are going to look at you,” he repeated, and sent her away.
I’ve told Sarah to knock on the wall when she can’t sleep, but she never does. Is every night for her like this, hearing these little sounds that I’m hearing with my ear pressed against the door?
There have been no sounds for a while now. “It’s time,” I tell her through the tube. “Let’s do it.”
As I snake my arm down again, unlock the lock, and gently open the door, a screaming fear courses through me. I can’t go back now.
Being out of my cell, closing and latching my own door, is like floating in purgatory, between my cell and Sarah’s. It’s better and worse than being in my cell all at the same time. It takes only one step to cross from the door of my cell to hers. This is taking forever. No, it is only taking seconds. Standing at Sarah’s door, I am more exposed to the guards’ station down the hall. My heart is ripping through my throat. I feel red. I’m trembling. I’m worried they will hear me breathe. I’m not even sure if I’m breathing. In one quiet smooth motion that sounds to me like a loud ringing clamor, I open the little window in her door to ensure that once I’m inside, I can reach through it and turn the handle to exit. Then, I go in. She is there. Her face is beaming and her feet are dancing nervously.
I can’t take my eyes off him. He turns around, closes the door, and gently closes the window with a little string he takes out of his shirt pocket. I watch him closely as he bends down and puts his ear to the slot at the bottom, listening for the gentle slap of dreaded footsteps. There are none.
Shane turns to me and our eyes meet. His eyes never had that quality before. He is undaunted by his own fear. This moment, like so many moments, feels surreal to me. At first, I’m watching it happen, like my eyes are trying to catch up to what my mind is telling me. Then, when Shane reaches out his hand to touch my face, it is suddenly happening to me and only me. Shane’s breath is delicious. I look at his sweet face, his gentle eyes, and his sensuous, cherry red lips. My finger traces his lovely neck, strong shoulders, and dewy skin. His hands help me remember why I love having a body, not only a source of complaints and needs that I can’t satisfy, but pleasure, beauty, joy!
I don’t know how our clothes come off, but they do. Seconds later, we’re on top of each other, around each other, and inside each other. What a joy to see Shane, who had only been a voice for me for three weeks, naked and alive, his face soft, his muscles tense, words of love and lust and longing spilling from his lips. I abandon myself. For fifteen or twenty minutes I forget everything else, the blindfolds, the interrogation chairs, the yelling, the screams, even the fear in Josh’s voice as they led him away from us.
We have defied them; the fabric of this place is forever torn. No matter what happens to us in the next few days, weeks, months, these moments will live in me forever. I will carry this love like a shield.
It’s dark. I don’t hear the fans anymore, but they are spinning on as they always do. For once, the fans are our allies—they cover the sounds of two people starved for each other. I kiss her whole body softly. In this moment, the kisses on her smooth, radiant skin melt away my ever-present fear of punishment. We need to do this right. We don’t know when we will ever be able to do it again. I feel electric inside, not like I did when I opened my cell door—that was an electricity of risk and danger. This electricity is the warm buzz of yearning, a current that knows it won’t be ruptured, but will be nourished. When she lies on top of me, I am overwhelmed by the warmth of her body. It’s only been a few weeks, but this feeling of another person’s skin has been completely cut out of my life. Now her skin is all over mine. Her back arcs and she moans softly. The hard floor, the marble walls, the boundaries between each other; all are gone. The muscles in her thighs are mine. My hips are hers. She doesn’t cry out like she usually does, but her deep gasping breaths make me crazy. In a flurry of breath and lips and skin and light we collapse together, my head in the crook of her neck and her hand on my back. We each say, “I love you.”
Almost immediately, the fear returns. We fumble through our heap of clothes and get dressed. I give her one last, long kiss. We pause and look at each other; I squeeze her hand and go. There is less apprehension in the return trip because there is no other option. It simply needs to be done and it passes in a flash. I close her window and reenter my cell. I leave my window slightly open, my subtle way of mocking the guards.
The next morning, the older guard is standing in my doorway. She’s balancing a breakfast tray in one hand and propping the door open with the other. For the last week, I’ve been working hard to convince her to bring me two plastic cups of tea instead of one. Today, there is only one, and she looks at me apologetically.
I sit down and begin to butter the thin, flat, tasteless bread, adding two packages of honey and three dates I saved from dinner last night. As I sip my lukewarm tea, I watch the sunlight from the window casting shapes like little silver dancers across the walls. I had slept without fear or doubt. Despite the cold, hard floor of my cell, I felt like a woman who would wake up in the morning, throw on a robe and slippers, and water her plants while she brewed strong coffee and checked her e-mail.
The guards have already taken Shane out. I can hear his plastic sandals hit the loose tile outside my window every few seconds as he weaves in and out of the three lonely plants in the courtyard. I feel loved, deeply loved. I feel like I should feel. I walk into the bathroom and wedge my thumbs into the elastic band on each side of my pants, beginning to pull them down before I sit on the toilet. Suddenly, I notice something out of the ordinary and gasp. My mind flashes to Shane out in the courtyard in his light blue prison uniform and I laugh out loud.
A few minutes later he’s back in his cell and I’m standing up on the sink. “Good morning, Shane,” I say cheerfully through the vent. “How do you feel?”
“Wonderful, I feel so in love with you.”
“Me too, baby, it’s incredible. Hey, have you noticed anything unusual?”
“Not really, what do you mean?” he asks.
“You’re wearing my pants.”
Excerpted from “A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran” by Shane Bauer, Josh Fattal and Sarah Shourd. Copyright © 2014 by Shane Bauer, Josh Fattal and Sarah Shourd. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)