The Days You Left (formerly There’s No Such Thing as Safe Sex)

The Days You Left – by me.

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 feeling of being in bed with someone. When you moved, I woke up and briefly saw the red glow of my clock blinking, 3:07 AM. 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, turning halfway to look back at me once before creeping out the door.
You thought I was still asleep.

– – –

Today you’re about to fly clear across the world to do all the brave things politicians like to say that soldiers do for honor, for love of their country. I’m not so sure that’s how it works. To me it just feels like you’re running away from me, or maybe from your marriage.
I watch the woman who is your wife drive onto the base, watch Private 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 because it makes me feel like I can hold myself together, with a baseball cap over hair I haven’t washed all week. It took all the effort I had in me just to find a shirt and a mostly clean pair of jeans to put on.
Your wife parks at the furthest end of the small lot, and I know that she does it so that it’ll take that much longer for you to leave, just a couple more seconds of walking. 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 I’m startled by the way that she’s holding onto her softly rounded belly with the other.
You put your arm around her, 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. But then you look away.

– – –

The morning after you left, I threw my hand onto your side of the bed before I’d woken up completely. Even then, I knew I hadn’t dreamt you tiptoeing out, but I still hoped it wasn’t real.
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 that – your heavy man’s handwriting on my bright purple sticky note – 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 how I like it – as if that softened the note that 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 forgotten 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 the man I’d been sleeping with for the better part of two years.

– – –

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, though I didn’t exactly know why or how. All I knew was that you hadn’t returned my calls in a month. In that month without hearing from you, without sleeping with you, everything bubbled to the surface, some chaotic blend of anger and indignation and attachment to you boiling my skin from the inside out. But finally you picked up and I hated myself for sounding happy instead of furious, and I asked you sweetly to come over.
You said no, and then I begged.
Please, I said, please, Jake, let’s just 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 and 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’m not sure I really wanted to know.
This isn’t going to work, you said. I’m leaving.
I wanted to batter my fists against your hard, solid chest; I wanted to throw something heavy and unwieldy the way that angry women do in the movies; I wanted to argue that it could work and that we could pick up where we left off when you come 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 suggest going into town for dinner at DiMaggio’s instead of 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. I didn’t realize, then, that those little houses are reserved for men with spouses, and you opened the door and told me to leave. The look you gave me that day said I’m sorry. That look I could change. This look was hard and cold, the same unreadable look I see on the faces of the young men who guard the base as I drive up, before they realize that I work behind the bar at Luther’s.
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 Qaeda 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 that overworked excuse of girlish daddy issues, a need for something that looks like affection, or maybe even the sometimes-desire for a warm body in bed at night – 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 through 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 had stopped sleeping with her out of sheer spite. But a man has needs. At least that’s what you told me once, apologetic and drunk, sprawling over the loveseat and me. I was scrunched up in one faded green corner, holding the glass of water I kept forcing on you so you wouldn’t have a head full of cotton when you went back to your house the next morning.
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 around the temples from 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 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.

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 middle of all that, it felt like we went from a casual lay into something more like lovers, or friends.
There was that 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 serving spoon and told me to use that instead. I laughed at you and, while stirring, stuck a finger in the batter and left a streak of chocolate on the bridge of your nose. You just sort of stared at me as if you couldn’t make up your mind how to react, then began running water to wash the dishes I had dirtied. And for a moment I imagined brownie batter everywhere and both of us on the floor, leaning up against your Formica cabinets streaked with chocolate goo, sliding our fingers around the edges of the bowl.
That was when I thought, Shit.

– – –

When you finally met my eyes from across my tiny living room, 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, reserved 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 I could feel the tears building up behind my eyes. They surprised me and 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 try to 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 got meaner once a woman started to cry. All of a sudden I could feel my face heat up and contort the way it does when I’m trying – and failing – to keep myself together and I made that awful sniffling noise, and your hands weren’t on my shoulders anymore, but stroking my back as I bled mascara onto 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. Sometimes I feel as temperamental as the South Carolina fall, wavering one way and then the other. A minute ago I wanted to throw something at you. Shut up, I said, that doesn’t help anything. And then I pulled away from you, not because I didn’t want to stay there, held close to you like nothing was wrong with us, but because I wanted to stop crying.
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.
No shit, I said. Squinty eyes and red faces never do seem to be considered attractive.
You laughed at that and it got me started giggling, too.
Once that happened, I knew it was inevitable. When you’ve been with men as much as I have, there’s a moment you come to recognize when you know they’re going to make a move. I wasn’t naïve enough to think that you’d stay, necessarily, but I did know that I’d get to sleep with you one more time.

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.

– – –

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. You showed it subtly, in the way you’d twist both pairs of our hands together before you drifted off to sleep even though you couldn’t stand displaying your affection like that during daylight, or the way that you’d complain if I moved away from you when your skin burned up the sheets. 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 hate it when people leave the ends of relationships hanging open like so much loose thread, but you sneaking out without a goodbye in the middle of the night, leaving a note that said We shouldn’t have done that and a fresh pot full of coffee? That took the whole damn cake of awful.

I came on base to watch your plane take off today; I’m friendly with most of the privates who work the gate and bribed Owens with a couple of free drinks next time he’s in the bar. He’s a nice guy, Owens; he let me park my beat-up Durango – which you once said you’d teach me how to fix – in the lot beside the gate. I just want to see your plane take off, 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. But what do I have to lose? I’ve been wandering around my apartment like some kind of crazy old Miss Havisham all week, only I’ve been wearing that ugly Army shirt you left in my apartment, unwashed, with mascara streaks still down the chest. I called in sick to work, even, and I’ve been having these crazy, throbbing headaches because I haven’t made coffee since I poured yours down the drain.
I was not supposed to love you.

My sister called four times since the morning you left; we talk a lot, and I guess she knew something was wrong because I’d been avoiding her calls. I haven’t been answering anyone’s calls. But yesterday I heard her voice on the answering machine, just a little strident, and the muffled sound of kids in the background. I picked up right as she yelled at Cassie to quiet down and play nice with her friends while Mama’s talking.
Lynn sounded relieved to hear me on the other end, and then concerned at my deadened voice, scratchy from crying. My little sister with her toddler and her car mechanic husband – what a role reversal now, her acting as if I’m the younger one because I’m single and work owlish hours at a bar. She asked how you were. I had ended up telling her about us at Christmas a year ago because she kept pestering me about my love life and, since then, you’re the one thing she hasn’t tried to mother me about. I think she’s been living a little vicariously through my misbehavior. You should’ve seen her back in high school: she used to be crazy. When I told her that you and I were over, I started to cry again.
She told me it was time to get over you. By the time we hung up, she’d repeated Move on so many times that it was ringing in my ears.

– – –

The first near-fight you and I had happened a few weeks after the brownie incident. I suppose spending that whole weekend in your house while your wife was gone had been a little heady. I got all swept up in spending so much time with you. And then the next time I saw you, you were three hours late stopping by on Saturday afternoon. By the time you let yourself in – you’d stopped knocking after two months – I had to be at work in forty-five minutes. I looked up from my peanut butter and raspberry jelly sandwich and said hi with my mouth full. It was the first time I didn’t meet you at the door.
I didn’t answer when you asked me what was wrong. What was I supposed to say? Oh hey, I’d appreciate it if you showed up on time? Or how about, I think I might want you to leave your wife?
You apologized anyway, believing – I suppose – that I was just irritated you were late. I’ll be here at 8 o’clock sharp on Thursday, you said. I can spend most of the night.
I remember saying, Good for you. You laughed.

My head turns slowly, following you and your wife as you walk farther away from my car, towards the airstrip and the other paired-off soldiers with their spouses. You’re really leaving.
It’s so sunny today, too bright for my eyes – which I think may be permanently bloodshot because I haven’t cried since I talked to Lynn yesterday, but they’re still swollen and red-streaked – and I raise my arm to shield my face because of course I didn’t remember to grab sunglasses before I headed over here. I’m not ready to look away you, though seeing you with your arm around your wife is about as painful as the time I saw Lynn kissing Shawn Massey, a guy I dated for a while when we were younger, near the Golden Dragon in the food court at the mall.
You’re too far away for me to make out details anymore, and I can see that you embrace her, and then you and all the other men in uniform are swept up into a plane I think is entirely too small to be carrying you safely. The plane rolls down its runway, and then it’s up in the sky and I’m watching this small piece of plastic, glass, and metal barrel through the air.
And then it’s over. You’re gone.

I’m not exactly sure what’s supposed to happen next. But your wife is walking back here now, and she’s with a small gaggle of crying women, and I’m pretty sure I want to get out of here before they reach this parking lot. The Durango’s engine turns over loudly, but it’s on, and I give Owens a small wave as I drive off the base.

I head to the store, stand awkwardly in the middle of the row of cleaning supplies at Harris Teeter, and stare at mops. I’m not sure how long I stand there, but it feels like forever. My mind keeps playing the scene where your plane disappears off the horizon, like it’s a badly scratched record. Mops, plane, mops, plane. A lanky store clerk who can’t be more than seventeen taps my shoulder and asks, Ma’am, are you okay? I jump at the contact, but nod and grab two mops, one with a head that looks like Medusa’s ponytail and another with a flat thing I’ve seen advertised a million times on the television. You’ll need these, the clerk says, handing me a box that sort of looks like baby wipes. He says it’s refills for the flat one.
I check out, try to smile at the boy for being nice and helpful. He looks at me like he’s wondering when my caretaker’s going to show up. After I buy the cleaning things and they’re wrapped bulkily in a brown paper bag, I’m back in my car and a little startled at how loudly my heart’s thudding.
At home I throw the brown paper in the trash. I run a sinkful of warm, soapy water and rub my thumb over the jagged edge of the last piece of my owl mug before I drop it in the trash can. And then I mop the whole apartment.

Welllll…This is revision # who-knows-how-many-but-we’ll-say-two. I’ve pretty much been working on this almost exclusively since workshop yesterday. I did that thing where you cut up your scenes and rearrange them on the floor – that was fun. NOT.  My knee’s still sore since I banged it on a friend’s car two weeks ago.

Anyway…One of the critiques I got in class was that some of the breaks were kind of jarring. I tried to fix that – still a little concerned it might be a bit jumpy. If you’ve been brave enough to read the whole damn thing, let me know if you think it works or not and why. I’m really attached the the way scenes sort of pop up, half-finished, ’cause this character is kind of a bit loony right now. But if it’s confusing or messing with how you perceive the story as a whole, I want to know!

Thanks, all!

***Disclaimer because of confusion on the first draft: this is short fiction. Not nonfiction. Not even loosely-related-to-my-life fiction. (Well, an old boy and I did get into a brownie batter fight in his kitchen once, but he was not married.) But, other than that…not real life.***


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