The Days You Left
You left a week ago.
I had rolled over, into your side, when you shifted and jerked me out of my bleary half-sleep. I’ve been sleeping with men, or boys who thought they were, on and off since I was seventeen, 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 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 always 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 you 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 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 beside you, 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. Your lips twitch as if they want to smile. 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 your socked feet padding 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 rub 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 would soften 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 do seem to get around to buying a mop and I didn’t want to cut my feet on forgotten shards later. The painted owl fragment of the mug was cracked, but 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, you 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 came to 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. 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 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, that scowl your mouth sets into 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 you had when I dropped by 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 sort of unreadable look I used to see on the faces of the young men who guard the base as I drove up, before they realized that I work behind the bar at Luther’s. But even then, once they recognized me, they’d crack a smile and let me in.
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 that you were telling the truth when you said you weren’t looking to leave your wife. That was fine with me. Chalk to up to that overworked, girlish excuse – daddy left when I was young – or 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 pour 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, the one you’d gotten back from shortly before we met, and that your marriage wasn’t doing too well. Actually, I think you said it was a train wreck, but that both of you were ignoring the rubble heaped over the tracks. 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 said that you’d 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 drove 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 Luther’s, 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 what we were doing 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. Maybe I was a little cocky about it all; I’d fallen hard and suddenly for someone else before you, and before the man I moved to Beaufort for, and I didn’t think that anyone else could hurt me like Curtis had when we fell apart.
The thing about that relationship had been that I couldn’t stay mad at him – it wasn’t really his fault we didn’t work out. He was five years older and I’d just started at College of Charleston, and we were just in two very different places in our lives then. At least, that’s what he said when we ended. I didn’t think I could blame him for that, but it did mess me up pretty badly. And by the time May rolled around I’d gotten really good at mixing drinks and doing things that got a guy’s motor humming, and not so good at turning papers in on time. One English professor even failed me because he said that, although I knew the material, I didn’t apply myself well enough. Or show up to class, much. So I lost my scholarship and moved in with some friends, took a few classes at the community college. But Curtis had moved on, and a year later I met the guy I ended up moving down here for. Clearly not my best life decision.
I thought that since I’d fallen in love once it wouldn’t happen with anyone else, that I couldn’t get hurt again, at least not like that. I think men smell that self-awareness and read it like a challenge, to make the jaded little cynic care. But you didn’t need me to care about you. You didn’t ask for commitment; you were married. Maybe that was what made me feel safe, sleeping with you, giving you increasingly larger chunks of my time and my life.
There was that weekend when your wife went out of town, about six months after we first met. It was one of the few times you’d stayed at my place for a whole weekend, and I baked banana bread. While I was running water for the dishes I had dirtied, you came up behind me. You put your arms around my shoulders and squeezed for a second or two. No kissing my neck, no sex on the kitchen counter. You just held me.
And 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. My voice was rising and I knew you hated it when I got shrill, but I didn’t care. You were going to go off and maybe die without so much as an it’s been fun? After all of this? After two years?
You still didn’t look at me. Why do men think the best course of action in the face of a mad woman is silence? Don’t you people get that it makes us even angrier? I could tell your wife, I said, spiteful. I think I just wanted to see if I could get a rise out of you. Most of the time you were so stoic, reserved until we got a few shots of whiskey into you. I ought to tell your wife, I said.
And finally you showed something, some emotion, sober. You stood over my curved body on the arm of the 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. 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. Their heat surprised me, made me blush, and that 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. The nerve.
And of course as soon as you’d made me cry you backed off. In a way, that was nice, predictable even. I’ve never met a man who got meaner once a woman started to cry. But niceness is probably the worst thing in the world when I’m teetering on the edge of crying. All of a sudden I could feel my face 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 gripping 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 another. 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 come in style.
You laughed at that and it got me 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 you’d stay, necessarily, but I did know 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 tickled my face, how you smelled. You’ll be careful, right? I said. I’ll kill you if you aren’t careful.
You laughed at me and said, I will be.
– – –
The first near-fight you and I had happened a few weeks after the dishwashing incident. I suppose that having the whole weekend with you 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 we were able to see each other, you were three hours late stopping by on a Saturday afternoon. By the time you let yourself in – you’d quit knocking after two months – I had to be at work in forty-five minutes. I looked up from my peanut butter and raspberry jam 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 right at 8 o’clock on Thursday, you said. I can spend most of the night.
I remember saying, Good for you. You laughed.
– – –
You showed your attachment to me 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 the daytime, or the way that you’d complain if I moved away from you when your skin burned up the sheets. In the time that you held me while I stood over the sink.
Did you know you left that ugly Army shirt behind in my apartment? I found it wedged between the headboard and the mattress of my bed, with mascara streaks still down the chest, and wondered if you wife noticed its disappearance. I mean, you do have half a million of them, and you did have a sweatshirt on that last night, but still. Maybe the mascara stains would have been worse to explain than the disappearing shirt.
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 at a little past three in the morning, 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 wanted 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 – and I hate that reference, I find Dickens boring and stilted – all week. 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 two or three times a week, and I guess she knew something was wrong because I’d been avoiding returning 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 playing 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 by my deadened voice, scratchy from crying. My little sister with her toddler and her boat 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 me 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. Even when I told her last Christmas, it wasn’t like I acted like I cared; I just said that I was sleeping with a Staff Sergeant from the base, and your name, and that you were married. I never said anything about loving you.
By the time we hung up, she’d repeated Move on so many times that it was ringing in my ears.
– – –
A couple weeks before you disappeared for that month, you came over looking even more serious than usual. I already had a teapot nearly boiling on the stove, and I fixed two mugs with chamomile teabags while I asked you what was wrong. You told me to sit down, so I hopped up on the counter.
What is it? I said. Spill. I tried to hook my legs around your torso but you pulled away, pacing all of three steps back and forth in my little kitchen. Calm down, I said. Whatever it is, I’m sure it’s okay. It’s not the end of the world. After all, we already knew you were being deployed again. I didn’t think it could get much worse than that.
You stopped pacing and looked at me. Remember how we went and played paintball up in Charleston last weekend?
The kettle whistled and I nodded, sliding off the countertop to pour the water. I’m sorry I ended up staying the night there with my sister. Cassie had been sick for a few days; Lynn just needed a night off.
Yeah, no, you were fine. That wasn’t your fault, I didn’t mind, it’s just…I slept with Katelyn that night. You started pacing again, talking faster. You weren’t here and we’d had such a good time, and she was here and you were there…
You trailed off, waiting for me to say something. We did have a good time that day – you were grinning and whooping and carrying on – and I suppose that my staying up in Charleston hadn’t been exactly how you wanted the day to end. Still, I didn’t know what you wanted me to say. I settled for, Jake. You’re married to her, not me. I hopped back on top of the counter and might have held my mug a bit too tightly, but other than that I think I looked pretty calm. You just seemed so upset. I mean, for you.
Finally standing still in front of me, you squeezed my knees. Are you sure? you asked. You seemed so young all of a sudden, like my niece seeking approval for her outfit. I just…it’s the first time that’s happened since way before me and you met. And I feel awful.
Perhaps I should have told you how awful this made me feel, but you already looked so worried. We didn’t have long until you were leaving, heading to the desert for a year, and I didn’t want any of that time to be wrapped up in fighting. So I pulled you closer and pecked your forehead. It’s okay, I said. You’ve got too much guilt rolling around in that big Army head of yours. She’s your wife. It’s not exactly like you’re cheating on me.
– – –
My head turns slowly, following you and your wife as you walk farther away from my car, towards the airstrip and the other soldiers paired-off 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, yet 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 from 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, but I 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. It rolls down the 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 over 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 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. Like it’s some sort of badly scratched record, my mind keeps replaying the scene where your plane disappears off the horizon. 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 and slide the flat mop-thing into the space between the fridge and the countertop. 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 scrub at the tile flooring in front of the pantry with the stringy mop. The thing’s too wet – how do you wring these things out? – and rivulets of water stream out in all directions and I follow them, scrubbing. Soon I’ve mopped the whole apartment.
– – –
Well, if you just read all of this, thanks so much for talking the time! For some reason, it seems like I’ve been experiencing with form lately in my fiction. So let me know what you think!