On Her End
The phone rings. I notice how I grin immediately at the sight of your picture on the screen, a shot you sent me a year or so ago of you in camo BDUs, playing your guitar. I don’t have any right to be so excited: what claim have I to you, anyway?
At first there’s no answer when I pick up, and the smile fades out of my voice as I think that you’ve butt-dialed me once again. It’s something, at least, that I’m the second person on your speed dial, right after your dad. My breathless anticipation changes to teasing irritation as I tell you that you have three seconds before I hang up, realizing even as I say it that the line has already been disconnected. As I set the phone down, you call again. In the split second before I answer, I comprehend that you actually meant to call me, that the call was lost in the bad signal pockets riddling your base. Apparently when planes consistently fly in and out of an area, it interferes with cell phone reception. Go figure.
I pick up again, your name replacing hello or any similar salutation, so happy am I with the prospect of talking to you. Again, I cannot help but notice how my voice betrays a smile. You told me that once; that my voice smiles. You’d say to turn off the stars in my eyes too, if you could see me – if you were here.
The first time I heard that phrase, you said it while we were walking into the movie theater in our hometown, about to see the new Will Smith flick. Turn off the stars in your eyes. I still can’t help but think on that cheesy, beautiful line, even though when you’d it you were pretending to be irritated with me. You’d been teasing me particularly frequently that day, and I don’t know why, but I was laughing. Perhaps at you, perhaps at myself. Probably a little bit at both of us. It was then that you told me how you never meant any of the mean, joking things that you’d said when we were both in high school.
We met through marching band: you played snare drum and I played clarinet, and somehow you always managed to pick on me during our afternoon practices. That night at the theater, you said that you had wanted to see if you could make me angry, if I ever stopped smiling. You said that if I had snapped at you crossly, even once, you would have stopped, as if retaliation would prove I wasn’t as endearingly sweet as I looked. No matter how much you teased me back then, the freshman through junior years of my high school career, I would only laugh and ask how you were doing that day as naturally as if you’d made some pithy comment about the weather. And after this confession, the first genuine honesty I’d seen out of you all day, I laughed again. Then I looked at you, still smiling, and you delivered that baby as if the phrase had been rolling around in that thick, glib, charming Marine skull of yours all night.
I shrug and put those thoughts aside: there isn’t much need for them now, not in the world where I am your best friend. Best friends. Nothing more.
We talk. You tell me you called to see how I’ve been lately, just to talk. I believe you at first: I always believe you, at first, and I think you know that. We chat about my day, the Thanksgiving holiday with my crazy family, and you listen to me ramble on for several minutes before getting down to your real business. You didn’t call to talk, or to just listen to me. We’ve been doing this for years: each time you call is because you want something, or because you want me to magically be able to fix whatever latest problem has arisen in your life. You always want something.
It’s like how you want the letters, the letters I’ve been sending you since you went off to basic training over two years ago. I’ve been sending you at least three a week since you left. I used to write them in Calculus or Biology in high school, whatever classes I didn’t want to pay attention in, and you loved them, you said. That first time you came home after basic, you told me how much you appreciated them and I fussed at you for not writing back. I’d only gotten one letter from you, only after I’d sent five or so. You told me how much you liked getting them, but not to think badly of you if you didn’t write back, because you weren’t very good at writing, and that you wanted me to keep sending them anyway. So I did, and for over two years I’ve been in a very one-sided letter writing situation, all because you wanted me to write you.
I’m only just learning that I can’t give you everything you want. I can’t fix all your problems. You’re the one who decided to graduate from high school early, to enlist in the Marine Corps, to sign your life over to the man in the big red, white, and blue hat. He tells you what to do and where to go. You take orders from men wearing the same uniform as you, only with longer bars and different patches that mean things I can’t remember. I can’t change that. Sometimes I think that all the superficial problems you bring to me are a front for your unhappiness at this life you were shoved into, forcefully molded to fit by the legacy of generations of militant men in your family.
This is why, after I’ve updated you on the goings on of my family, I ask, “So, what’s going on in your life?” and brace myself for whatever comes next as if readying for a hailstorm.
This time, you’re quiet for a moment or two before saying anything. Then you tell me that you want my advice, my “woman’s perspective, woman’s intuition,” as you say. It takes everything in me not to laugh at you, calling me a woman when I still call you – three years older and a Lance Corporal – kiddo. But I do giggle, just a bit, encouraging you to tell me who or what it is you want my advice about and why my perspective is so vital. Giggling masks my ever-so-slight disappointment that this is what I am. I am your insight into the female mind, not the one who baffles you, the one with whom you are at a loss for words.
You tell me how you’ve been spending a lot of time with her, this Lacey girl. You say she’s great, that she reminds you of me in many ways. That statement kills a small part of me. She reminds you of me. I’m pleased, far too much so, but it kills me as well, causing literal twinges of pain in my chest like the pins and needles in your feet after sitting cross-legged for too long. Every girl you’ve tried to be with for the past year reminds you of me, and yet I don’t cross your mind. Not in that way, not anymore.
For such an intelligent young man, I cannot help but feel that you’re chasing shadows because they’re safer than reality. Losing them poses much less threat to you than what would happen if we fell apart, if you lost me.
I don’t ask for many details because I know you: you’ll only tell me what you think I need to hear and, most of the time, you know better than I do. So as you explain that you feel uncomfortable, that the two of you are moving too fast, I listen quietly. “I want your advice,” you say, about how to tell her this, how best not to hurt her delicate girl-feelings. Believe it or not, I realize the gravity of this, you asking for my counsel. I realize it before you tell me that you’ve already asked your dad’s opinion, before you try to remind me that this means something, that it says something about our relationship.
Tell me, darling, what does something mean?
I give you the best advice I can, notwithstanding my limited knowledge of the situation. I really do want you to be happy and a small part of me feels – hopes – that you realize the reason you are uncomfortable is not because of the pace of your new relationship, but because the person you are with is only a shadow, a reminder of the person with whom you should be.
I hold onto that hope as a drowning person holds on to a buoy.
Our conversation is short, so much shorter than they used to be, before you tell me you must go take care of the dogs one of those men with more bars and patches than you has asked you to watch, that you’re responsible for them while he’s off-base somewhere. Responsibility. Responsibility and duty seem to get you off the hook quite frequently with me – out of longer conversations, difficult questions, even out of seeing me if you’re only home on leave for a day or two. I think you realize this, and I think you use words like responsibility and duty to your advantage because you know I won’t push you.
We aren’t in sync anymore…not in the way we used to be. Perhaps the problem is that we became so routine, you and I, and you lost interest. I, on the other hand, fell into this rhythm I can’t seem to break. From my end of the line, it’s obvious that you wait for me to hang up as I stare at the phone for several moments before ending the call, still thinking of you, of what you want from me.
I’m grateful that you trust me enough to ask my opinion: I understand that this is your way of telling me how close I am to you. Words cannot express how thankful I am to mean so much, to be this great big part of your life. I tell myself it’s rational for you to want to keep the status quo; our friendship is too important to risk losing. Truth be told, after seeing your reaction when your last girlfriend broke up with you, the one you dated for nearly three years…you and I grew closer after that. We both needed it. You needed someone to lean on, who’d listen to you talk about how awful it was to be broken up with by email when she was at UNC and you had only just been stationed in Pensacola, your first real assignment after basic training. I needed someone like you, someone who didn’t handle me with kid gloves, who wanted me to learn how to grow a spine and bite back.
I don’t think you could handle it if we ended, and I don’t know how I feel about that. If it hurt what we already have, if it changed how close I am to you, then I question whether trying to be more than this would even be worthwhile. If we screw this up, there are no rewind buttons, no fresh starts. If we were to fight, to be angry with each other, then we wouldn’t be together to fix it. To “kiss and make up” doesn’t work very well via cell phone, not in a relationship like ours. We haven’t had the practice fighting: in the three years I’ve known you, we’ve never fought, nothing more than banter that both parties know is jest. And now you’re several hundred miles away from me and we can’t make up properly if anything were to happen, and what kind of a long distance relationship can handle that much more stress, anyway?
The memories flash like pictures on some sort of mental Rolodex: coming to your house for the first time; prom my senior year, just as friends, your mouth dropping “Isn’t she beautiful, Momma?” to my mom;
All I know is that you are important to me. I will maintain this relationship, however twisted and dysfunctional it is, until you wish to sever whatever it is that binds us together. In the end, that’s all it boils down to, really. Close is better than together-for-a-while-and-then-broken. So I love you, and we’re close, and you’re my dearest, treasured friend. In the end, for me, it’s that simple.
On His End
I end my conversation with Dad, thinking on his advice. He isn’t very helpful, my dad: a man of few words as it is, and wary of women, especially after Mom left years ago. Still, he’s had his share of experience struggling with relationships while enlisted – then again, he watched both his marriages fail, too. So maybe he’s biased.
I ought to call you. You might know what she’s thinking or how to tell her that I don’t want a girlfriend but, at the same time, not hurt her feelings. I hate being around crying women. I think it’s been a few days since you called, so you’re probably wondering how I’m doing. Worrying about how I’m doing is more like it.
I step outside to call: outside is the only place I can find any signal on this damn base in BFE, South Carolina. After several attempts, I finally hear your cheery voice say my name sweetly before firing off your standard questions: How are you? How’s work? What’s new? Are you happy there yet? I answer them briefly. I want to hear your news before diving headfirst into mine.
I can tell you’re in a good mood because of the way your voice smiles when you start talking, and I know you’re glad to hear from me. I bet your eyes are shining, too, like they do when you’re especially pleased about something.
We talk. I don’t seek your opinion right away, instead telling you I’ve been thinking about you, that I’d just like to talk. I ask about your day: yesterday was Thanksgiving and I know you love your family, but even for you they’re a little much to handle in large doses. At least you’re with them, though, not several hundred miles away in some cramped, hot compound with a hundred other men all equally irritated at their inability to spend the holidays with their own. Finally, you ask me that loaded question, “So, what’s going on in your life?”
I know you. I know that you’ll be at least a little jealous of a new girl and of my daily time with her, when you and I barely see each other every few months. I phrase my next words carefully, asking for your perspective as a woman, for your woman’s intuition and help. You stifle giggles at my words, but I know that you secretly enjoy the flattery.
So I tell you how I’ve been spending time with Lacey and how much she reminds me of you. Even at twenty-two, she has somehow managed to retain that innate innocence I love about you, and the gullibility that allows me to pick on you both so much without inciting the slightest bit of anger. I’ve forbidden you from watching Full Metal Jacket because that movie shows all too clearly how ugly the military can be and I don’t want you to see that, for it to mar your childlike view of the world. You trust easily, agreeing without argument. Lacey doesn’t get mad at me for doing things like that either…well, she hasn’t gotten mad at me yet, though she might have reason to do so soon enough. Most of the time I’ve spent with her lately has been easy, and she’s laughed a lot. That reminds me of you, too: she scrunches her nose up like you do when you’re trying not to snort your laughter. And when she smiles, the corners of her eyes crinkle up like yours do. They smile.
Once, I mentioned that to you, the way your eyes smile. We were at the movie theater, I think, and no matter what I said you just kept laughing and laughing at me. Your eyes sparkled. I used to pick on you when we were both in high school, about being so happy all the time – you practically oozed joy out of your pores, even when I teased you by pretending to be irritated, questioning your cheerfulness. You’re nearly always happy and you giggle at the slightest provocation. For as long as I’ve known you, whenever you smile or you laugh it seems like it’s not just your mouth doing it, but your whole being saying that you’re happy. And that night at the movie theater, I told you to turn off the stars in your eyes because that’s what they always reminded me of: stars. It sounds so cliché, but somehow it suits you and your constant exuberance. I still find it strange, how happy you can be. You’re the kind of person who acts like it’s your own personal mission to conquer the world with love and laughter and homemade chocolate chip cookies.
“I want your advice,” I say, about how to tell Lacey that I think we’re moving too quickly towards serious relationship territory, towards heady feelings I don’t want to deal with yet, maybe not ever again. That I’m even asking your opinion says something about our relationship, yours and mine, and I want you to know that, even if that something isn’t exactly what you want to hear. You’re a huge part of my life and, while I tend to forget how important you are to me, I really don’t know where I’d be without the ability to call you and talk until two in the morning just because I need your help extracting the claws of irritation or anger or whatever it is that’s curled up on my chest like that enormous cat of yours does when I’m at home. I need you to listen and be calm and get it off. And you need me too, sometimes, I think.
You called me crying at school one Friday morning. It’s the only time I can remember you being upset at all and I hated it. I didn’t know what to do or how to take it, you trying to quietly get hold of yourself on the other end of the line and failing repeatedly. Whatever upset you wasn’t even important: you were just stressed over everything about the beginning of your senior year. I couldn’t fix it and you knew that – I’d been gone for six months, having left for basic training before spring semester of your junior year – but you called me anyway. You kept sniffling and blowing your nose – that must have been a pain, considering the quality of the brown paper they stocked in the high school bathrooms. I felt weirdly responsible, like I should have been able to make you feel better even though it wasn’t my fault you were crying in the first place. I told my sergeant I had a family emergency and somehow managed to get the weekend off, sped up I-95 on my rusty Jeep and made it to the parking lot at the high school right before the band buses rolled out for the away game that night. I jumped the stairs at the front of the bus, nodded to our old band director, and scrambled across the wide, scuffed leather seats until I reached the back rows where you and the other seniors were all sitting. You just sat there staring at me with your mouth open. Then you smiled and swung your feet over the edge of the seat, making room for me beside you.
I tell you once more how hurt I was when my last relationship ended, how I still have trust issues, and how being genuinely interested in someone is mildly terrifying for me. I don’t want to hurt her feelings, just as I don’t want to hurt yours. And that makes these situations – yours and mine, mine and Lacey’s – so much more difficult. I cushion my questions to come to you with this, to ask your advice.
Your voice seems to hesitate a bit, as if you aren’t sure whether to tell me something true or just something sweet I’d like to hear. I can almost see you sitting cross-legged, wrapped in a quilt from your bed, head cocked sideways as if weighed down by the force of your thinking. After a few moments, you tell me to be honest with her, but gently, and that even if she’s upset a decent girl will respect the honesty and the courage it took to tell her. You don’t ask many questions, which is unlike you in some ways, so I tell you anyway. How I met her at a bar close to the base a few weeks ago, how she’s been helping me dog/housesit for one of the Sergeants here, and again how much she reminds me of you. You listen, but you’re quiet, and I wonder what you’re thinking. You used to chatter incessantly whenever I called, I think in an effort to take my mind off all the bad things here and in my own head, and now when you get all quiet I have to wonder what’s being left unsaid, debating whether or not I ought to pry it out of you.
Soon I tell you it’s time for me to go. I need to go feed those dogs, and playing with them reminds me of the two I have back home. I nearly ask you to go check on them – my dogs and Dad – for me, but think better of it. He probably wouldn’t appreciate that, me sending someone (even you) to check up on him, so I just say goodbye for now and wait for you to end our call. You hold on for a moment though, and I can hear you on the line still thinking, as if doing so will prolong our conversation.
What do you want to say? Just say it!
You’re gone before I can speak again, the line going that peculiar brand of silent that somehow tells you there’s no one listening on the other end. You do this all the time! And after each phone call it only leaves me wondering what’s been left unsaid, and why you didn’t say it. I feel like you’re normally so straightforward – as cheerful and naïve as you are, there isn’t much room in you for hiding feelings or words – so hearing you reel yourself in drives me crazy.
The night I drove home to surprise you because you’d been so upset, our football team followed their usual game plan and lost 42-13, or something ridiculous like that. I was more entertained watching you and the band, dancing in the stands and yelling harassments at the opposing team’s players, than the game itself. After our team’s predicable loss, we ended up back at my house and made a late dinner of buttery grilled cheeses, fed half of them to Sam and Lou, and watched the corniest animated movies we could scrounge up from the entertainment center, Up and Despicable Me. Somewhere in the middle of the first movie, you laid your head in my lap, half nodding off as I played with your hair. That night, you asked me why we never dated. I sort of tricked you into it, mentioning girls I was meeting near base, then squeezing you tightly and then saying I that they weren’t important when you asked about them.
We needed to talk about it, and I knew that, but I didn’t want to all at the same time. I wanted it to be your fault, your decision to bring up in case I changed my mind and wanted to bail out of the discussion. So you asked, and I stopped petting your hair like it surprised me and I needed to think. I told you that you were my best friend, that your friendship mattered too much to risk losing. I told you how I would hate to risk dating you from several hundred miles away, and failing (inevitably, it would happen), and then lose you as a friend. It sounded so cliché, exactly like what the guy says to the girl when he doesn’t want to hurt her feelings except that, with you, it’s actually true.
Sometimes, I think you’re a little bit in love with me. If that’s the case, it might not be right to keep at this, to keep calling at all hours of the night and pursuing our friendship. But it’s unthinkable for me not to call you: every promotion, every fight, every success or loss over the two years, you’ve been the first person other than Dad who I’ve wanted to tell. You’re the closest friend I have, especially since I signed my life away. You dated my best friend in high school but that didn’t last, and he and I grew apart after I left. My girlfriend ended things less than six months after I’d been gone, and there wasn’t anyone else I was really close to in high school. But you told me you missed me and it felt like you meant it because you kept writing even when I told you I wasn’t going to write back.
Like so much of our weird friendship, the truth is almost cliché but, somehow, still true.
So I love you, and we’re close, and that’s all that it can be. It’s that simple.