We are pleased to announce Teresa Fazio as the winner of our submission contest. She was chosen among many other excellent writers, and we are looking forward to hearing her read on stage February 25, 2015 at Housing Works.
Jack calls my cell phone, but I hear his voice outside my Harlem window. “Hey T,” he says, “Thought I’d surprise you.” It’s the eve of my twenty-ninth birthday. I run downstairs, sock-slide on the tiled lobby floor, and jump into his arms. He drops a wooden cane. A green t-shirt sways on his six-foot-two frame. He’s been driving for five hours. Jack.
We’ve only recently started speaking again; our deployment ended five years ago. For seven months in Iraq, I was a bespectacled, short-haired lieutenant barreled in a Kevlar vest. As a Marine Corps communications officer, I helped assemble fiber optic networks on a base the size of Upper Manhattan. He was a muscular, married warrant officer in charge of mortuary affairs, retrieving the bodies of those killed in action and preparing them to fly home.
We fell for each other over midnight chess games and tea in a garden on our base. Iraqi civilians, or “hajjis,” staffed it, so we called it the “hajji-mart.” As pawns clicked, Jack steadied me against homesickness, was a beacon of calm after mortar strikes, and made me believe in myself despite my shyness. Mutual attraction pulsed as we taught martial arts classes together. After late-night practice, we’d go to his room and let down our guard, kissing and groping. I loved his attention, and the vulnerabilities he shared with only me. He said his marriage was almost over. He confessed his guilt for signing up his Marines — originally a chemical weapons-detection platoon — to scrape body parts from helicopters and Humvees. He deeply missed his seven-year-old son. After those nights, I walked from Jack’s room undetected. I thought we could map out a way to be together after we came home. After all, the sandbags atop his bunker spelled, “No One Left Behind.”
Instead, we returned on separate planes, to separate units. Eventually I got out of the Corps. Jack and I had only kept in sporadic touch. Until now.
At twenty-nine, I have long hair and contact lenses, and am slowly earning a PhD in materials science. I’m still single. Most of my friends are married, their pregnant bellies counterpoints to my stunted adulthood. No date in five years has felt as intense as Jack’s and my bond. So a few weeks ago, I called him. Because a friend will help you move, but a true friend will help you move a body. And Jack and I are true friends.
In my doorway, he’s balder and thicker than I remember, a fortyish military retiree still living with his wife and son. I let him stash his backpack in my apartment. We sit on my sagging loveseat; it dips us shoulder-to-shoulder. When he smiles, his dimples still pucker. But now he needs meds to ward off flashbacks, and that cane to keep him steady after a fall from a convoy truck.
He admits he still talks to the dead. “But I’m not as bad as Hoss,” he says. Hoss is one of his old Marines, traumatized by nights of cleaning gore and slippery blood. After multiple DUIs, Hoss is out of the Marine Corps, and his job now involves digging graves at a VA cemetery. “I keep having to talk him out of killing himself,” Jack says.
I tell him about school, about my nanotech research, about how good it is to see him. We talk until past 2am, when we’re too tired to talk anymore.
He follows me to my room, rests a hand on my loft bed frame, and flicks his eyes upward. The Ikea deathtrap sways, suitable only for holding my hundred and twenty pounds.
I remember resting on Jack’s poncho liner, cradled in the crook of his elbow after we’d grappled too long on his floor. Sexual tension was a thick block between us, bricks of emotions we couldn’t publicly release. In Iraq, secrecy was paramount; if we’d been caught together, we would have faced disciplinary action. Here and now, we can do what we want, and yet I promise myself I won’t share a bed with him. Not until I get answers.
“No way,” I say, grateful for my loft’s flawed bolts. “We have an air mattress somewhere.”
“Do you want me to sleep in the living room instead?” he asks. I imagine him contorting his limbs on the loveseat, a spinal disaster.
“It’s okay, you can stay in my room. But definitely on the air mattress.”
Before bed, he opens a zip-up pill case: Depakote for tremors. Painkillers. Sleep aids that make Ambien look like Skittles. Each bottle has its own pouch. “Goodnight, beautiful,” he slurs, slipping into unconsciousness. “Goodnight, Jack,” I reply, marveling that this man — after five long years — is finally staying the night.
Late the next morning, my birthday, our stomachs rumble. “There’s a place that sells shawarma nearby,” I say. “Amir’s. We’ll go for lunch.” The pita’s our closest contender for hajji-mart fare.
My former sparring partner limps down the sidewalk. When he takes my hand, I feel shy; his gentle grip hints at our long-buried romance. But instead of crunching gravel under sandy boots, we pad slowly in sneakered feet past students like me. By the time we reach Amir’s, his legs need a break.
I order us two chicken shawarmas. Jack pays. As the smell of roast meat wafts our way, I remember the hajji-mart’s drumbeat of wailing music, pressed layers of bread and chicken, pools of grease under our plates. The teenage waiter had always brought us a tray with two glass teacups, a sugar cube beside each. Jack had left a dollar each time.
Then the hajji-mart staff trucked to Fallujah, ten miles away, on a supply run. The “supplier” was a ruse; instead, insurgents kidnapped the waiters, gouged out their eyes, cut off their tongues, and murdered them.
I shake off the memory as a t-shirted man scoops hummus behind the counter. He seems unconcerned. No chance of kidnapping while dishing our meals onto Styrofoam plates.
Our shawarmas come wrapped in thin whole-wheat pita. They’re different from the doughy folds we knew in Iraq, where the baker slapped round loaves into a clay oven. Amir’s chicken, too, proves less luscious than the hajji-mart’s sweet, peppered chunks cut from licking flames. The baklava tastes drier than the honeyed slabs we’d devoured in the desert. One thing hasn’t changed, though: the flatware. We stab neon-pink pickles in wax paper cups with thin knives and bendy plastic forks. We take measured bites, careful not to drip sauce on our jeans. We can’t wipe greasy fingers on dirty desert camo anymore.
To my left, a slim young mother, her baby boy, and toddler girl prepare to leave. The boy squalls as the woman wrestles him into his Snugli and fumbles for a pacifier. I look at her with furtive longing, as I do with every mom I see around my age. I claw at any possibility that I’ll be a mother someday.
The young woman half-smiles and pushes an oversized stroller onto Broadway.
“Guess that’ll be me in a few years. At least I hope so,” I say. I fumble my fork. “What about you?” I ask Jack. “Would you have any more kids?”
“I like little kids,” he says. But he doesn’t say yes. He looks at his plate. Tahini runs down his stubby thumbnail. I want to go back to the tea garden, when our lives were suspended over a magnetic chessboard, and Jack had said two things: that he loved me, and that he needed to be there for his son. These days, his thirteen-year-old is a handful, talks back to his mom, acts up at home. I’m sure it’s more than typical teenage disrespect; he must feel the unrest simmering beneath his parents’ marriage. As a child of divorce myself, I think I could be a cool stepmom. If I remind Jack of what we shared in Iraq, he might choose to be with me. He’s advised me on how to negotiate with other officers, on how to execute a shoulder throw. Surely he can help me grow up now?
“Whatever happens,” he says, staring at his massacred pita, “we’ll always be friends.”
My hope deflates. He’s given this answer before.
But we’re the only ones who know what happened in Iraq. I cannot abandon him.
Jack sticks around that night for my birthday party. I change into a cleavage-baring dress. My apartment fills with friends from graduate school and my suburban childhood. They filter down the exposed-brick hallway and hug me, stuff the fridge with beer, nab crackers and cheddar. We tune Pandora to hipster bands.
One labmate, Brent, all plaid shirt and Buddy Holly glasses, asks Jack how he knows me.
“We were in the war together,” Jack says.
“Cool, what was your job in the military?”
“I killed people.”
Brent bobs his head to the music and sips his beer. “Um. Right on.”
Soon after, Jack touches my elbow. “I need a break,” he says. He’s jittery in crowds. “I’m just going for a walk around the block. Back in an hour.”
My shoulders sag with disappointment, but I only say, “Oh.”
“T,” he says as he leaves, “You have great friends. They love you.”
With him gone, I find no excuse not to get roaring drunk. My Estonian labmate gifts me a bottle of her homeland’s specialty liqueur. I lose track of the shots she pours. Someone finds my officer’s sword, and I brandish it in my low-cut dress, barely controlling the weapon in drunken drill.
A friend I’ve known since seventh grade corners me. She’s heard about Jack ever since I returned from deployment. “So?” she says, with raised eyebrows. With false nonchalance, I say, “We’ll see what happens.”
At least, that’s what I remember saying. In the following days, I will be told that I shouted, “for the next five years, IT’S ANYBODY’S GAME!”
I blame the Estonian liqueur.
Jack calls from a neighborhood bar to ask what flavor Gatorade I like. I tell him blue is a flavor and purple is a fruit. He hurries back with a rainbow of bottles under his arm.
As I chug lemon-lime, his cell phone rings.
He answers, then says, “hang on,” and thrusts the handset at me. “It’s Hoss,” he whispers.
I take the phone.
“Hey, Hoss,” I say, unsteady. We barely spoke in Iraq. What the hell can I tell him now?
“I’m having a hard time, ma’am,” Hoss says. He doesn’t realize he doesn’t have to call me ma’am anymore.
I repeat hoary platitudes out loud and in my head: “We’re thinking of you, Hoss. We’re here for you. I’m sorry you’re having a hard time. But you’ve done your time. You’re home now. Hang in there.” I am drunk and high on life and dammit, Jack is here, and dammit, Hoss, don’t kill yourself, it’s my birthday and we’re back and everyone should be happy. Have a beer. Be all right. We’re back. Isn’t it great that we’re back?
Except we haven’t really come back. In our minds, Jack and I are still locked in his bunker. It’s a headspace we enter when we feel weak and nostalgic, when a few sips of beer will lean us back in a plastic chair, awaiting the helo at 0100 ‘cause the trilling phone tells us so. And we sit another sleep-deprived night, wearing stained uniforms under buzzing fluorescent lights, and my stomach grinds with anxiety. We’re still there. We never really left. I run my fingers through the graying wisps at my temples. “Fahhhk,” I say, in a Boston accent, like Jack’s old sergeant from Massachusetts. I know this feeling that Hoss tries to numb with booze. I understand now, three shots of Estonian liqueur and a vat of beer in. “I totally get it, Hoss,” I yell into Jack’s cell phone. “I get it. I do that, too.”
Our talk lasts maybe five minutes; by the end, Hoss sounds mostly okay. Jack waves away the phone when I offer it back. I’ve relieved him of his evening duty. We leave no one behind. Isn’t that, after all, why we found each other again?
After the guests leave, Jack lies on the air mattress in my room, facing the ceiling. “Happy Birthday, T,” he says; he’s taken his last pill. I stave off the spins with sips of Gatorade and lie down on the hardwood floor next to him. We’re both exhausted. I hold his left hand in my right, but do nothing more. Not when he’s said we’re only friends. Soon he snores lightly. When my nausea subsides, I climb my creaking ladder to bed and sleep.
Several hours later, I wake to Jack’s thrashing and mumbling, his limbs spastic on the air mattress. It frightens me, this giant man out of control. I clamber from my loft and crouch down, lay a hand on his shuddering shoulder.
“Jack, it’s T, you’re in New York. Jack, it’s T, you’re in New York,” I repeat as I shake him awake. He stops convulsing. Finally, he opens his eyes. “Hey,” I say, squinting without my glasses, “you’re okay. It was a nightmare.”
For the first time, I glimpse what it must be like to be Jack’s wife.
For the first time, I do not envy her.
Daybreak bleeds into midmorning, Advil candy coating and more Gatorade. Jack and I fill three black trash bags with empty beer bottles. They remind me of body bags. We don’t speak of his dreams.
When he says, “I need to get going,” I can’t choke down the lump in my throat. But beneath the feeling of loss lies a seed of relief. The strong, sure Marine I once knew is gone. The new Jack will not stay. And I have spent the past five years building a life without him. I walk him to his car and give him directions to the West Side Highway, toward his home.
I know then that I need to wake up in New York, too.