You left a week ago.
I had rolled over, into your side, when you shifted and jerked me out of my bleary half-sleep. Two years of this and I still can’t get used to the feel of being in bed with someone. Anyway, when you shifted I woke up and briefly saw the red glow of my clock: 3:07 AM, it read. You pushed back my hair the way my mother might have done, kissed my eyelids and my forehead. And then you dressed, pulled on pants and your oversized Army sweatshirt, and you touched my hand lightly before creeping out the door.
You thought I was still asleep.
As I woke up in the morning, curled up towards the wall, I threw my hand onto your side of the bed. You see, I knew I hadn’t been dreaming when you tiptoed out that night, but I hoped that I was.
You’d left a note stuck on my favorite mug beside the coffeepot, which was unfortunate because it jolted me back into remembering that you were really gone. Until I saw the note, your heavy man’s handwriting on my bright purple sticky notes, I could pretend it simply hadn’t happened and brush the sleep-dust out of my eyes in peace. But you’d even brewed coffee for me – strong, just like I like it – as if that softened the words on the note attached to my favorite mug, which read, We shouldn’t have done that. I threw my mug into the pantry door.
I spent the next half hour sweeping and re-sweeping up the little bits of olive and cream pottery because I never seem to get around to buying a mop and I didn’t want to cut my feet on leftover shards later. The painted owl part of the mug was still intact and I sat it by the sink. I poured the steaming coffee down the drain.
Even I’m sorry would have been better than that note, that voice of yours sounding in my head like reproach, like you were a parent and not a lover.
– – –
You were right, though: we shouldn’t have slept together again. You came because I begged you to, even though I knew that we were over. You hadn’t returned my calls in a month. In that month without hearing from you, without sleeping with you, everything bubbled up. Too many emotions. But finally you picked up and I hated myself for sounding happy instead of angry, and I asked you sweetly to come over.
You said no, and then I begged.
Please, I said, please, Jake, just let’s talk about this. I need to talk about this.
So you came.
My little apartment grew smaller when you entered it, with your big Army muscles and your dog-tags and your regulation shirt, some odd color between tan and gray.
That’s what I get for living near a military base.
You didn’t hug me like you used to do whenever I opened the door. You used to be glad to see me, swallowing me in a hug like a bear or picking me up like I was nothing. But that night you sat in the only chair in my apartment, and I perched on the arm of the loveseat across from you, clutching my knees like a child. I didn’t ask why you hadn’t returned my calls. I didn’t need to.
This isn’t going to work, you said. I’m leaving.
I wanted to batter my fists against you, I wanted to throw something, I wanted to argue that it could work and I could be waiting for you when you came home in twelve months. But you had that stupid final look on your face, the look you would get when there’s no changing your mind, like when I would try to get you to rent a chick flick instead of something gory, or when I suggested going into town for dinner instead of always cooking in my cramped apartment. Not the same look that you had when I appeared at your little house on the base soon after we’d started dating, not realizing that those little houses are reserved for men with spouses, and you opened the door and told me to leave. That look said I’m sorry. That look I could change. This look just said you didn’t care.
So that’s it? I said, trying to get you to meet my eyes. You weren’t going to say goodbye at all. You were just going to leave, get on a plane bound for the middle of Godforsaken nowhere with Al Qaida shooting at you.
You wouldn’t look at me.
– – –
After I saw you at your house on base, I knew you weren’t going to leave your wife. That was fine with me. Chalk it up to daddy issues, a need for something that looks like affection, even the desire for a warm body in bed at night – sometimes – I don’t care. You and me, it was fun. Meeting you at the bar where I poured drinks for so many Army men, letting you stumble home with me after we closed, your number scrawled on a much older sticky note the morning after…even later, when I knew that you were married, we were fun. There’s adrenaline in that, the rush of being with someone else’s man, like being newly in love every time you walked in my door even though I knew I wasn’t really. But it was like that.
You said that your wife had cheated during your last tour overseas, so your marriage was already rocky, sort of a sham. Neither one of you really wanted to go through a divorce. She wanted kids; you thought she’d stopped taking the pill just to make it happen, and you wouldn’t out of sheer spite. But a man has needs. At least that’s what you told me once, apologetic, drunk.
You were seven years older than me, old enough that you seemed almost exotic but not enough to be creepy – you hadn’t turned thirty yet, when we met, but your hair was already a little gray from stress, you had told me, the stress of people shooting at you. I suppose it should have made me uncomfortable that night you started hitting on me at the bar, but I didn’t because it was right after the man I’d moved down to Beaufort for had gotten plastered and hit me, twice, and I had left him. I was feeling pretty low and tired of faking smiles, and it was nice, the new attention.
I got used to you so easily.
– – –
You had the audacity to say, It would have been better that way.
Better? I said. Better? My voice was rising and I knew you hated it when I got shrill, but I couldn’t help it. You were going to go off and maybe die without so such as an it’s been fun? After all of this? After two years?
I looked around for something to throw at you as you stood up. I’ve always been hot-tempered like that, I suppose, and it’s not like I could have fought you. I could tell your wife, I said, spiteful. I think I just wanted to see if I could get a rise out of you. You were always so stoic and devoid of emotion until we got a few shots of whiskey into you. I ought to tell your wife, I said. I threw that at you, words instead of objects.
And finally you showed something, some emotion, sober. You stood over my curved body on the arm of that loveseat, you grabbed my shoulders and the two hard shakes you gave me tore my arms free of my legs. You think she doesn’t already know? you said. I was glad that you looked angry, in pain. You think it hasn’t been clear already, what we’ve been doing? You shook me again, once, and it tore something else inside me that had been holding back the tears I didn’t know I had, and they made me even angrier.
I’d love to know why I always seem to cry when I get angry – because I was angry, not sad, angry at you for the cowardice of leaving without ending things cleanly, clearly. How dare you disappear like that, get on a plane headed towards deserts and terrorists without saying goodbye. How dare you.
And of course because you’d made me cry you backed off at once. In a way, that was nice, predictable even. I’ve never met a man who gets meaner once a woman starts to cry. And all of a sudden I could feel the ugly streaks of black mascara running down my face and I made that awful sniffling noise and your hands weren’t on my shoulders anymore, but stroking my back as I soaked mascara into your ugly Army shirt.
Shh, you said, like that could help, could make me stop. Shh, it’s okay.
My fist thumped your chest, but it was more playful than angry then, and I was sort of laughing at myself even as I kept on crying. Shut up, I said, That doesn’t help anything. And then I pulled away from you, not because I didn’t want you, but because I wanted to stop crying. I was feeling so many emotions.
I dragged the back of my hand across my face like I was five years old. You thumbed mascara off my cheek. Not your best look, you said, almost grinning, but still beautiful.
And then, of course, it happened.
In bed with you after, I buried my face in the hair on your chest, trying to memorize how it felt, how you smelled. You’ll be careful, won’t you? I said. Promise you’ll be careful.
You said, Okay.
I remember falling asleep while your hand leafed around in my hair.
– – –
We fell into such an easy rhythm, you and I, even though we both knew that us fucking was fucked up. I think we needed each other. You needed…well, we both know what you thought you needed. I thought I just needed a good time, some honest flattery. And somehow, in the midst of all that, we turned into lovers, into friends.
There was this weekend when your wife went out of town, about six months after we first met. It was the first time I’d been in your house, and I was baking brownies. I couldn’t find a wooden spoon to stir the batter with, and I started to make fun of you when you didn’t know what I was talking about. You never had a wooden spoon, not even for stirring sweet tea? I asked. What’s wrong with you? You tapped my hand with a normal serving spoon and told me to use that instead. Then there was brownie batter everywhere and we were both on the floor, leaning up against the Formica cabinets, sliding our fingers around the edges of the bowl.
And that was when I thought, Shit.
It was dumb to get attached to each other – I’m saying each other because I know you were attached to me, too, in some way. It was just too complicated.
And now it’s been a week since the last time that you walked out my door, and I didn’t even get to say goodbye, not really, and that bothers me. I’m bad enough with closure – I hate it when people leave the ends of relationships hanging open like so much loose thread – but you leaving without a goodbye in the middle of the night, and a note that said We shouldn’t have done that? And a fresh pot full of coffee.
So today you’re flying all the way across the world to do all the brave things politicians like to say that soldiers do for honor, for love of their country. But to me it just feels like you’re running away from me, and from your wife.
I came on base to watch your plane take off; I’m friends with most of the privates who work the gate and bribed them with a couple free drinks next time they’re in the bar. And Private Owens – he’s a nice guy, Owens is – let me park my beat-up Durango and hang around the lot beside the gate. I just wanted to see it, to see you leave, to make it all seem real. To say goodbye to you, even if it’s only in my head.
I know it’s messed up, I get that. I’ve been wondering around my apartment like some kind of crazy old Miss Havisham all week. Called in sick to work, even, and I think my fish died of starvation. And I’ve been having crazy, throbbing headaches because I haven’t made coffee since I poured yours down the drain.
I was not supposed to love you.
I watch the woman who is your wife drive onto the base, watch Owens tip his hat at her as your truck comes through the gate. I’m sitting in my parked car, knees pulled up against my chest again because it makes me feel like I can hold myself together, with a baseball cap over hair I haven’t washed all week, wearing that Army shirt you left in my apartment. It still has mascara streaks down the chest.
Your wife parks at the furthest end of the small lot, and you’re going to have to walk past me. I can’t decide whether or not I want you to notice. You both get out and I see you swing your bag out of the bed of the truck. She’s standing there, brushing at her eyes with one hand – even though I can’t see any tears – and holding onto her softly rounded belly with the other.
You put your arm over her shoulder, your newly pregnant wife, but I see you glance at my car as you walk by and I can tell that you recognize it, that you see me. Just a glance, and maybe – maybe – your lips moved half a twitch closer to a smile.
More fiction! More finished fiction, which is really an improvement over the half dozen, half finished short stories I’ve been working on lately.
ALSO…I’m still on the fence about the title. It’s the first time I’ve chosen a title after writing a story and I’m not sure how I feel about it.
Let me know what you think.