Mundleson asked if I wanted to come with her. She arched her thick brown eyebrows, used the word latrine without awkwardness. They had taken her makeup away, revealing a drama of settled red pocks.
Her dye-blond hair had no benefit of product.
I stared at her a little too long. Told her I had a fiancée.
“Oh. I’m sorry. It’s just that, well.”
It’s just that everybody was fucking in the latrines. Port-o-lets labeled in Arabic whose plastic shells would rock and creak, emitting bathtub sounds throughout the night. Just that we were stuffed inside a corrugated-metal hangar outside Riyadh, were sweating, scared, and unwashed, confined to ordered rows of olive-colored canvas cots and duffel bags. SCUD missiles traversed the night sky and the moon hung sideways. Half a million Iraqi troops were poised for the Mother of All Battles.
We stared at each other for days. We picked out the weaklings and placed bets against them. We cleaned, then re-cleaned our carbines. Oiling barrels, breaking down sight assemblies. They knew better than to issue us ammunition.
It’s just that, when not an activated Reservist, Evie Mundleson bar-backed at Game Day, a strip mall sports bar in North Tuscaloosa. Her body was losing to the free potato skins. Her nights were defined by Misty cigarettes, dead kegs, and tip-outs. And she was okay with this, there, between walls covered in Crimson Tide jerseys and plastic NASCAR flags. Here, she was scared beyond panic, wanting only to be groped in the community toilet. Many felt the same.
They flew us to the front in the belly of a loud C–130. We sat in cargo nets attached to the walls, bobbing in turbulence like babies in bouncer seats, too low to see out the window. We landed in a gulf of dust and were jammed into trucks and taken to the compound, a small collection of tents inside a head-high berm of sand. A rocky desert horizon surrounded. We were ordered to calm down but stay sharp. Drink water.
Take chemical pills. Rumor was the pills were untested on humans, yet we stood at parade rest every morning on the Iraqi border in saggy, ill-fitting chemical suits, chewing the pills on command. It had been raining for days, so everything was soaked and beige and barren and slopped. (They had not briefed us on this wet climate.) (They had briefed us that Iraqis use American tanks and planes— we’d supplied them, after all—so the only way to discern the enemy was if he was firing on you.) The chem gear felt like a fatsuit as you lumbered around the compound, your boots sucked into the mud. A–10 Warthogs and F-whatevers ripped the sky, unleashing their arsenal a few seconds north. Concussions from missile strikes buckled your knees, and shook you awake at night. Breathing meant wondering about Sarin or VX asphyxia. A primary concern was whether your gas mask was truly airtight, or whether the atropine needle would break off in your femur when the time came to self-inject.
Take the pills. Drink water.
Atropine: often fused with opiates, used to quell the death rattle.
After a week, one woman refused. She said her body was messing up because of the pills. Actually, she said “fucking up.” She was African American, late twenties with short straightened hair. Thin legs but huge torso. She was ornery, and said fuck that, because the pills were fucking her up.
We took the pills. She would die from a SCUD. They told us she was crazy, and told her “Suit yourself.” They snickered in her face, treating her like another loud black chick with fat breasts and fried hair. Like them, I imagined her cruising the mall in Tuscaloosa, talking loud, dragging a baby boy by his arm.
She refused the pills. A couple of weeks later she had to go to the medical tent. She wasn’t pregnant—they knew that much. But her period had disappeared; she wouldn’t bleed, and nobody could tell her why. The medical tent shipped her down to the battalion hospital, which shipped her down to the main hospital in Riyadh, which shipped her back up to camp to pack. “Mother fuck,” she said. “All I wanted in this life was to serve, then to get home and start me a family. Now I can’t even have no babies.”
More tests were required. They sent her home. We never heard anything else.
Spec–4 Janette cried about her kids. You went to the motor pool to requisition a truck, ducked in the tent and saw their photos taped to her field desk: two boys, towheaded, in miniature Alabama football uniforms. Don’t ask if they’d been to the stadium on game day, or Janette would tear up and tell you about Mike Jr., singing madeup verses to “Yea Alabama.” (Danny had fallen asleep during the Iron Bowl!) She talked and cried over them to nobody, while sitting near you at chow. Raised her voice to nobody at all about DANNY’S TURTLE DIED OH MAN WHY AM I NOT THERE? She missed them while you ate breakfast, just off of guard duty. For hours you’d sat alone in a hutch at the edge of the compound, in the dark, facing the void through a slot between sandbags, your rifle aimed, your mind confabulating structures from the blackness. (Republican Guard Advance or geometric patterns, the mind must see something.) You tried to forget that you’d spent your entire month’s furlough stuffed into the back of a transport truck, breathing diesel exhaust and eating dehydrated pork, in order to wait to use a pay phone to hear your fiancée’s answering machine.
And missiles burst. And the rains passed and the mud turned back to sand and windstorms engulfed everything for days, filling your boots, your eyes, your lungs, covering you in rashes. And Spec. 4 Janette yapped.
In our twelve-man tent, talk cycled about her tight, workout body.
One night, PFC Lomes tells everyone that during guard duty he snuck into the motor pool to smoke and found Sergeant Cross pumping her. Says it just like this: “Sergeant Cross was pumping her, man. She had that good-hurt look on her face. Like, she was bent over her field desk, gripping the corners!” While telling us this he throws his hips like Sergeant Cross, grapples the air.
After Lights Out, in the break between jet screams, our tent was alive with fists rubbing against nylon sleeping bags. Everyone coming in silence.
When by-the-book Sergeant Motes was sent home for being too old and sclerotic, Tetley Teabag and I became the de facto Supply and Armory leaders. Benefits included our very own tent, just Teabag and me. We bartered goods with other squads, companies, camps, armies, whomever. Extra boots got us a large, in-tent ice cooler; surplus cammies were good for two foam mattresses; tent poles meant a radio, and so forth. We were sultans.
Tetley Teabag was a late-twenties, rural Alabama high-school graduate, desperate to be seen as a hard ass. He had the mustache, buzz cut, and accent, but was squat and soft and round. He also had the toe.
The Tetley Toe. Stateside, just before deployment, Tetley had thrust a post hole digger at the big toe of his left foot. This earned him an odd reattachment and a relentless wound. The medics made Tetley limp around on a so-called Chinese Jump Boot: an oversized medical shoe constructed of royal blue canvas and white Velcro straps. The roughnecks harassed him for this, as did the officers, and the women.
But forget the boot. The thing about Tetley was that he NEVER went to the showers. Night after night he shut the tent flaps and wiped himself clean with a wet rag. In the dim orange lamplight, he’d turn his puppyfat back to me and use this propane-powered camp stove to heat water in a tin basin. (By this point I was taking two, three, four cold showers a day. They kept drilling us for an attack that never came. The sand was everywhere. My lungs wheezed and my breath stank with it.) (This was also after Charlotte had stopped writing me.) As finale to Tetley’s cleansing, he would put pajamas on, then wrap a Tetley teabag around his blackened appendage. His grandmother sent boxes of them, instructing him that a woman’s remedy was the only kind of medicine a man could trust.
On guard duty one night I realized I had forgotten my gas mask, and had to come back to the tent. Though Tetley curled up the moment I cut through the flap, I saw what might be described as a mole or a nub, protruding from the thick beard between his legs.
I did not care that Tetley had the penis of an infant. Conversely, he seemed relieved to be uncloseted, because the next night, during a violent sandstorm he confessed to me that he was a virgin. Said he was worried about dying unfulfilled.
“Mundleson is lonely,” I yelled. We had to scream over the wind. We lay on our cots with our goggles on and our mouths covered by Government Issue scarves. Rubbers were unrolled over our gun barrels to keep the sand out. It was no use looking at each other because you couldn’t see anything. “What?”
“I bet Mundleson’d be your girlfriend,” I shouted again.
“Screw that, man.” He called her pug-ugly, which was unfair, and which failed to trump the fact that he could not expose himself in theater. No two ways about it: to keep his secret and find a willing partner, Tetley would have to get home and marry some Christian.
After the nonmenstruating woman was sent away, only two black girls remained. Back home they went to the U. of A. One of them, Davis, had screwed this cheeseball Joe Minetti in the toilet back at Riyadh. So there was that, and somehow that had become attractive.
This, too, was after Charlotte stopped writing.
Davis was inspiring. Curvy and defiant and laughing, always sharp. One morning, the X.O. ordered the two women and me to burn the latrine waste. He didn’t say as much, but I figured this was my punishment for hiding in the showers. The black chicks did not have to figure anything. Our company was all Alabama rednecks and Spec 4 Janettes, so they knew they’d just been born wrong.
We yanked large metal tubs from beneath seat-holes in the plywood toilets and burned what was inside. Having been half-filled with diesel the week before, we found the tubs brim-high with turd and tampax, vomit and ejaculate and toilet paper. And we lit all that on fire, and then walked from tub to tub, hour after hour, taking in putrid black smoke.
Diesel burns slow and won’t explode when you light it. Nor will it penetrate the surface of the sewage. So you use a two-by-four to stir the char, to expose the flame to the sludge below.
Scorching shit in the desert. You get used to it. After a few hours, the three of us flirted around the feces. The sky was beige and gray. The sliver of landscape we saw over the compound berm was as barren as the moon.
“Y’all don’t date black girls in y’alls fraternity?” Davis asked.
“Probably not,” I said. “But I’m not against it.”
“You sayin’ you have dated a black girl?” “Well, no. But I’ve thought about it.”
“I bet you have.” She laughed, then coughed.
She and I both knew a liaison would follow. She had overnight guard duty, alone, at the far corner of the berm. She said she needed company. I needed company.
Diesel will now and again race like gasoline. This happened as I was stirring a tub: a flame shot straight up the two-by-four, which I flung out of panic. It hit Davis across the chest, smearing on her desert camo blouse.
“What tha hell was that, you?” she yelled.
“Sorry, sorry. Fire just jumped.”
“You out your goddamn mind?” She wiped her hands on me, then peeled off her blouse and wiped that on me, too. She was not wearing her required T-shirt and her breasts bulged from the top of her olive green bra.
“Reaction,” I said. “I—”
“What kinda man throws a flaming sticka shit at a woman?”
Both women cursed me and left for other fires. Though I tried to apologize several times, and soon bartered them both to the Frogs, neither spoke to me again.
This, in slow motion: the soiled board, twirling like a helicopter blade, aflame.
* * *
I strung up a large piece of cardboard across the tent wall behind my cot. I pinned photos on it of women I’d slept with, or whose pictures with me indicated that I might’ve. Drunken hugs at fraternity parties, suggestive poses, kisses on my cheek. These weren’t the only photos I brought to combat. But after word got out that I’d spent a week on suicide watch in the medical tent, it became vital that I not be seen as a weak-ass, a Tetley.
Not Pictured: Charlotte, in a royal blue armchair near the window, dressed only in a white cotton shirt that was unbuttoned at the top. Sleeves gently rolled, her tan legs tucked under her on the wide chair cushion. I lay on the motel bed, naked except for dog tags. The windows were open, the transparent curtains billowed. She said we should look forward to being married when I got back. I did.
They dragged rank prisoners down the dirt road beside camp like a slave march. They had stains on the seat of their pants and dust in their mustaches, and begged us for the chewing gum and the salt packets from our MREs. Who knows where they went. Rumor was that they were nobodies, just a bunch of haji towel-head farmers, and we had better forget about them and get focused for the ground assault.
There was nothing happening. It was all outside compound walls, staggering by, exploding in the distance.
My grandmother wrote a letter in scrabbled blue ink. It was the first she had written since World War II, when my grandfather had done tours both in Europe and the Pacific. I do not know why she didn’t send word to my father, in Vietnam.
When I was very young, going through a drawer, I found an old black-and-white centerfold. Opening the tri-folded paper, I was floored by this first vision of glorious sex. So much so that I did not recognize the subject. My mother walked in and caught me ogling, then nervously explained that she’d had her face superimposed on the body as a joke for my father when he was in combat.
Every day, every war, everybody waits for mail call.
* * *
At some point, reborn from a psych eval down in Riyadh, I came to realize that war was more about dividends than killing. I needed a product. I started to make wine.
This old Choctaw cook had deep gulleys in his cheeks and when he spoke he emitted a soft whistle over the letter S: Sholdier, bishcuit, misshile. He gave me a few packets of yeast, and taught me how to make applejack. Soon after, I was trading liters of it, alongside grapejack, orange juice-jack and whatever-fruit-juice-I-could-get-jack, for fresh chicken and near-beer and battery-powered speakers.
One morning, a couple of French troops appeared. Not because they’d heard of my work as a vintner, but because they needed a translator, and because one of the mechanics suspected that I might know a little French, being a college faggot and all. I cannot remember what the Frenchmen officially sought, but the next morning, in exchange for five gallons of two-week-old applejack, an entire pallet of French rations was delivered to my tent. Tetley was angry. I told him to get ready for the Perrier.
The French meals came in tins, not brown plastic sacks. You didn’t heat them by dropping floppy packets into warm water, you set the entire tin on Tetley’s propane flame, then let the food baste in its own juices and herbs. Instead of Dehydrated Pork Patty, this was lapin avec haricots verts.
“No shit, Tetley. It’s rabbit, man. Bunny.”
“Yeah. And we got tons of bunny, man. Half yours, too. You can bitch-bath in Perrier if you want.”
This was, indeed, a moment. A fine moment. Cluster bombs, tracer rounds, intestinal parasites—avec haricots verts.
A five-gallon jug of bad wine was only worth a pallet of rabbit. The Perrier was traded for information about the location of the female sleeping quarters, when and where to cross over the berm, whether the women drank, if they were easy, and so on. My French was better than I thought, and my answers worth an ocean of bubbling water.
The next morning we were ordered to a meeting with our C.O. He informed us that a bunch of drunk stinking Frogs had spent the night in the women’s tent. He said this was a war, not an orgy. Guard duty was redoubled. I was ordered to latrine detail.
Charlotte wrote that she was pregnant. Then she never wrote again. I burned shit in the desert and watched A–10s rip the sky.
The battalion colonel briefed us by saying that Intel had lost an Iraqi Special Forces unit in our area—So Stay Sharp, Dogs. That night I left my guard post, climbed over the berm, and walked into the void. The red lens cover was on my flashlight; I aimed it forward and followed the circle. Daybursts of missile hit just up the road, briefly illuminating the blackness. I prayed for someone to fire on me as I neared the front. Nobody did. Darkness swallowed me, though the rocks and sand in the red circle of the flashlight vibrated with the missile strikes. I lay on the ground for a while to feel this, then put my ear against a large rock to see how it sounded. I got up and wandered for an hour or so, scouring that landscape. I found a cluster of three tiny white flowers—the only living nature I’d seen for weeks. I yanked them, then went back to the tent and wrote Charlotte for the last time, asking her to remember no matter what. To please make a list of details about me from back home, from before. I put the flowers in the envelope and was done.
One sunset, some general helicoptered in, gave us a ten-minute speech about victory, then left. He had a slight gut but strong posture, and he walked back and forth in his beige cammies as the red sun melted down behind him. We never saw him again, but he made clear that we would lead the invasion, would spearhead a 155-mile thrust into Baghdad, “crushing any rag-wrapped cunt” who got in our way.
Every vehicle was armored. We sandbagged the deuce-and-a-half truck beds; we welded metal plates on the dozers and dumps. We jerry-rigged a .50 cal mount on a pickup cab and pretended to know how to use it.
They said Go.
For a mute instant there was no gender. We charged north, trucks and guns, past missile craters, charred vehicles and burned trash. It was apocalyptic and eerie, and we were wonderfully on edge.
We located a collection of goatskin-covered foxholes, and exited the trucks. Our rifles set on 3-round semiautomatic burst, we stalked up with gunstocks to our cheeks. The holes were empty save for Arab pinups and empty water bottles and cigarette butts. The airplanes had done all the killing. We pushed on, north, so very much in search of death.
The convoy drove for hours on the same scab of earth, no enemy in sight, our own tracks disappearing behind us in sand drift. At some point the combat-support vehicles just stopped.
They had radioed and said to turn around. The war was over.
We got out of the trucks in the middle of Iraq and took our helmets off. We yelled and unloaded our rifles, ejaculating brass casings all over the desert. The silence was unbreakable.
Tetley and I were ordered to make a supply run and find a victory feast. We cruised the desert highway, a crisp gray seam of asphalt through the beige landscape. Out of nowhere, an enormous cloud of sand rose ahead of us. Tetley drove straight into it, passing a massive armament convoy. Flitting strips of red, white, and blue nylon tied to tank antennae against the grainy Arabian sky.
On the shoulder to our right I saw a camel. She sat there, buckled down on all fours, groaning. To our left, soldiers stood up in the beds of transport trucks, whooping and dancing and grabbing their crotches. Pop music blared, brakes squealed. The convoy trucks were sluggish and clumped together, billowing the enormous sand cloud. Armed Forces Radio announced total victory; President Bush declared an end to the Vietnam era.
A thin film of sand coated the camel’s black eyes, and crusted her eyelashes. The troops, many shirtless, their silver dog tags wagging, yelled and waved, and danced, the exhaust stacks spewing and horns blaring, the music cranked from boomboxes. All of it, us, charging east–west in a horde along an unmarked two-lane in the desert.
Next to the camel was her calf. It had tire tracks on its belly and a bunch of bloody black gut-ropes shooting out its ass. I was amazed at how precisely indented the tread grooves were on the tiny ribcage. Tetley never saw this. I looked over and watched him pump his fist at the soldiers, and I didn’t say anything. We passed the camels, the female’s head cocked upward, her eyes staring at me, her mouth open, bleating.
When we started to break camp, Saudi farmers loitered outside the compound, lured by our discarded plywood and burlap and such. Given their gestures and keyword English, we determined that they wanted to use the scraps to repair animal hutches, make sheds and so forth. Do whatever it is farmers do with wood and corrugated metal. Hour after hour, days in the sun, the men stood there, white robes and red headscarves. They grinned and mock-saluted, standing just beyond the compound wall next to their tiny white Datsun trucks.
We were ordered to give them nothing. Haji fuckers are tricky, they said. You never know what kind of weapon can be fashioned from canvas or particleboard.
After a few days the farmers brought their daughters out to greet us. Not kids, not sons, but daughters, head to foot in black robes, bearing the wind like polluted ghosts. Waving at us. When this had no effect, the daughters were made to remove their veils. They prostituted smeary lipstick smiles. (One of the guys who talked to them swore it was house paint, not makeup.) Still, we trucked all of the materials out, passing them by, diesel exhaust and catcalls from cabs, en route to the burn site.
Tremendous pyres dotted the desert expanse around us. Streaks of black smoke rose into the sky. Tents, tarps, plywood scraps; Meals Ready to Eat, water jugs, candy wrappers, tires, extra uniforms . . . All of it was stacked into large pyramids and set on fire.
The farmers still stood there, waiting. We tried to run them off. Their enthusiasm waned but they still smiled, smiled and waved when you took stuff to be burned, and we couldn’t look at them anymore, and we yelled at them, or just waved and smiled and said “Hi, Haji fuckface” or whatever, or swerved the truck at them just a little bit, just enough to get them to jump back. We catcalled their daughters. We spat.
Alongside the order to burn, we had orders that every single grain of sand be removed from every single piece of equipment: dozers, pans, back-end-loaders, trucks, and so on. By no means would we be bringing home any Holy Land. They built a massive parking lot in the middle of the desert, then parked hundreds of vehicles there, in rows. With the pyres littering the landscape around us, we washed sand off of things.
Evie Mundleson and I were ordered to scour the ambulance with power sprayers. It had never been used, so the detail was a joke. We opened the bay doors and sprayed the metal walls and the metal bunks and the open metal shelving. Sandy water poured onto the ground. Three large black scorpions washed out.
I walked over, kicked the scorpions around for a minute. Laughed while they pinched at my boot.
“Come on, man,” she said, then stomped them.
I asked her if she was excited to go home.
“No way. You?”
Last stop was Khobar Towers, a residential building complex outside Riyadh. In the courtyard between the high-rises the Army leashed up a camel. You could pay five dollars for a Polaroid with it. They set up vending, bad pepperoni pizza, and nonalcoholic beer, and kiosks sold cheap Saudi souvenirs, prayer rugs and T-shirts. There was a pool.
Amid the thousands in that sober Araby I ran across D. Garcia, this skinny Mexican I’d grown tight with during basic training at Fort Jackson. An Army truck driver, D. Garcia had logged over a million miles in theater. I told him I only wanted to be back in that sand. He wanted to be back on that highway.
That night—the last time I would ever see him—D. Garcia and I falsified a requisition for a transport truck, a deuce-and-a-half, and stole into some immigrant area of the city, Filipino, where he’d discovered you could buy black market rotgut. It was nasty and clear and came in plastic water bottles. We got drunk and skidded all over back-alley Riyadh, screaming out of the truck cab.
Back at Khobar we staggered through the hallways, playing commando. We gave hand signals like in the movies, and then snuck into rooms. There, Garcia aimed his fingers at sleeping troops, mock-fired several rounds, then stepped back into the hall and on to clear the next quarters.
Behind one door we found the women, splayed out on cots, sleeping in army green panties, a thin layer of sweat on their exposed skin. Evie Mundleson was among them, asleep on her chest, shirtless, her breasts all smushed out. D. Garcia cocked his eyebrow at me, raised the barrel of his finger-gun to the roof, motioned for me to go inside. I nodded. He pointed two fingers at his eyes, and then at me, and then disappeared forever. I saw myself stumble over to her; I heard the moan that would erupt as I yanked down her battlefield panties and shoved it all straight up her ass.
I still don’t know what stopped me from doing this. Really, there was no barrier left. Yet I’m pretty sure I went to my bunk and jerked off in silence.
Families and cameras on the tarmac at Bragg. It was hot and humid, and Charlotte was not there, though I couldn’t stop looking for her. People hugged people, hugged children, hugged reporters. Every hand waved those little American flags you find in the cemetery. Someone handed out Southwest Asia Service Ribbons, the same medal awarded to Vietnam vets.
That night we put a bunch of bottles together, tequila, Jägermeister, Jack, whathaveyou. It was guys only. Everyone brought a fifth of the liquor they’d missed most. We drank violently, sitting Indian-style on the patio outside the barracks, our dog barks reverberating off the concrete into the warm southern evening. We piled into a minivan cab and went to town. The driver didn’t even ask, “Where to?” He just dumped us on a busy, soldiered street full of bars. We wandered among hundreds of redeployed troops, amidst loud music and vendors and neon. A barker talked us into one of the endless, nasty clubs.
Cigarettes and air freshener and terrible music. A brown-skinned woman in a denim miniskirt and halter top marched up to me, and I asked her for a beer. She said nothing, only yanked me to the back of the room by my upper arm as the guys howled. She pulled me behind a curtain, lifted her halter, placed my hands on her large breasts, then put her own hands over mine and began rubbing us in circles. It made me think of a Laundromat.
“You like these tits?” she asked.
“Uh-huh,” I answered. She might have been Mexican. She walked me into a small room with a lamp and an olive-colored military cot. I had to put both hands on the wall to hold myself up as she undid my pants and put a condom over me. She sat on the cot and started to work me over like a machine, licking my anus for a few seconds, mouthing my testicles, fellating me just enough to promote erection. Straight-up checklist: hike miniskirt, panties to ankles, bend over. Enfranchise me with hard statements about my masculinity as I penetrate. I finished instantly but tried to keep going, accidentally lodging the condom inside her. I handed her all my money, then stumbled into a bathroom stall and wept.
In Tuscaloosa I borrowed a pair of eyeglasses from a friend, pulled an Alabama ball cap low on my brow, and went to see Charlotte, unannounced. I had never worn glasses, so everything was blurry. My clothes felt borrowed and dated, and were musty from a year in the drawer. She answered the door and we stood there, saying nothing, until finally she said she was glad to see me. She was sorry how things worked out.
It had just rained and was July hot. There was no baby. You could smell that the box hedges outside her apartment had just been clipped. I had not re-acclimated to southern humidity and a constellation of zits had erupted on my face. I asked if she wanted to go to the zoo or something. I cannot remember if we went. I really have no idea.
I am positive, however, that the next time I saw her it was twelve years later, far from Alabama. At the edge of the frozen fish section at Costco Wholesale, in Chicago, Illinois. Another Bush was president, and a war in the same desert was breaking wide open. And there she was.
Only, I wasn’t nineteen. I was a grown man. One of thousands who’d been slowly drawn away. Away from fathers who fought in better wars, from male friends whose only interest was whether or not they’d killed anyone. From churches in small southern towns where they were made to stand on Veteran’s Day. Instead of the VFW or the VA, this crybaby diaspora sought out spaces both alien and familiar: exurb, highway, divorce court, Costco. These were grown men who shopped for discount liquor in bulk. Grown men whose doctors could not explain the sensation of fire beneath the skin. Men who could not pin their failed relationships on anything quantifiable, who obsessed over the inability to recover the lives they saw on TV. A grown man in a beige suede jacket that had lost its nap, and who had spent the many previous days on the floor of his efficiency, watching a new invasion unfold on a small television. Missile strikes at remove, rabbit ears adjusted, a rerun that somehow eclipsed the original. He showered and sobbed and masturbated.
Nobody ever asks about the grown women.
Charlotte was still pretty and soft-spoken, though now with a master’s and a career, and the confidence to look squarely at the past. We stood under the fluorescence, smiling past each other, eyeballing bulk cod, scrod, halibut. Before I could ask, she got my phone number, and said we should get a cup of coffee.
Of course, she never called.
“Why on earth would we ever go back?” was the last I ever heard.