How He Leaves You

This is how he leaves you. Door pulled quietly closed, last glimpse of a weathered leather bag and brown hair matted to the back of his head. You sit on the couch in a pair of running shorts—knees up, legs crossed, heels tucked underneath you. He doesn’t look back.

That night you drink orange juice and vodka and write letters to him, one after another. Some of them you fold into thirds, tuck into envelopes, and stamp with two stamps each before putting them in your desk drawer. Twelve letters until your roommate comes home and pulls away your pen and drink and makes you take a shower as she unbuckles her velvet heels. It’s three thirty in the morning.

The water is too hot and the steam is suffocating. You kneel by the drain, noticing the mold creep across the grout. The monsoon has turned Bombay green and grey and things grow in every crevice of the city. You wonder, as the water pelts your still-plaited hair, as the rain slams relentlessly into the window, if you are crying or just silently screaming.

 *     *     *

He leaves you on a Sunday in June and on Monday you are back at the office checking every e-mail he has sent you in the last two years, watching the signature switch from Best to Kisses to Love.

There’s a drawer of birthday cards and notes that were taped to the inside of your bag on weekday mornings. And underneath, on a crumpled piece of yellow pad paper, is the first letter he ever wrote you and slipped into your purse when you boarded a train to Delhi. You sat in the doorway of your sleeper car that morning, reading his tiny blue scrawl, peeling up words at the corner to look for hidden messages.

I’ll think of you, he wrote. I’ll think of you when I run down Marine Drive, slowing down by the bench where I kissed you for the first time, cutting off your laugh and getting my fingers stuck in your uncombed hair.

The letter looks different under the fluorescent lights, without Indian Railway cars chugging along the Madhya Pradesh countryside. His scratched out words look careless, not spontaneous. The middle paragraph, you realize, was more for himself than you. You fold the letter into a perfect square, slip it back into the drawer and wave off coworkers when they offer you a ride home.

Weaving back through the crooked, cobblestone streets you are so close to the sea that your jeans are damp with salty spray. For a second you lean over the fence and watch the rough grey water and breathe into the empty pit of your stomach until you almost feel full.

*     *     *

August days are long, the nights longer, and in the morning, when sleep finally comes, you stay awake by watching the rain fall on the street where a man peddles flowers for a nearby temple on Pali Hill. An imam calls namaz over the mosque speakers next door. Bells ring at St. Andrews church. There is faith everywhere but your dark bedroom, where light bulbs flicker on and off. Some days you walk the length of your bed, back and forth, raising your hands up to the ceiling as if to throw a question at whatever exists beyond the fan.

Kanika still says, Good Morning, still brings you a cup of chai she makes with all milk and no water. But she is growing restless and you are letting the dust settle in your room, turning your feet black and your books musty. The silk curtains have faded from orange to peach. And when she asks you for rent money it takes you the entire day to find your checkbook.

He owes you money, you remember. Not just a little, but for a flight ticket to Goa because he missed a train. For at least a dozen dinners when he forgot his wallet. For the time his card got declined when he was buying his sister a present. He always said it was the American bank account, but none of the other white guys from his office had the same problem.

You wonder what he would do if you called him right now, asking for the exact amount you penciled in your budget notebook.  But then there’s the chance that you would have to hear his voice and not just the echo of last words.

*     *     *

That voice haunts you. It’s the sound men make when they stop caring. When they no longer notice your long eyelashes and tiny hands. Or the way you say the word water so delicately without the twang of his American South. Wotah, wotah, he used to practice out loud, lying next to you with sweat dripping off his brow. He could never get used to the heat—antsy and frustrated through each Indian summer, complaining when you didn’t want to turn on the air conditioning.

Now that voice keeps you up at night, convinced that he is watching his ex-girlfriend wake up in Brooklyn, his hand on her creamy, perfect white skin, relieved that he no longer has to look at your pockmarked back or the stretch marks where your thighs meet your hips. He used to call them your tiger stripes when you tried to cover them with the palms of your hands in the early days of discovering each other’s bodies. But you both knew they were just scars.

That night you walk into Kanika’s room and leave your phone on her nightstand and tell her to keep it for the week. But she puts it back on your dresser the next day—insisting your mother will call her to find out where you are.

Your mother does call. She calls in the morning and the evening and sometimes at night because she knows the break in your voice. When she asks about Nick you say he flew back to America—that you haven’t heard from him in a while.

Such a nice boy, she says, and you are suddenly furious that he ever stepped foot in your home, corrupting the sacred space where your mother does her surya namaskars each morning, where your father makes ginger tea. You remember how Nick said, I love ghar ka kanna, and charmed everyone by eating yogurt rice with his hands like you taught him. But when you were alone in the room he complained that the food was too heavy, complained that the dessert gave him indigestion.

You wondered that weekend if you loved him but he was already there in your childhood room, reading you lines from your third grade diary and kissing you, it seemed, whenever you wanted to ask him a question. By the end of the night your parents insisted on dropping him off at Pune Station with a bag of sweets and snacks.

He’s not a nice boy, you say into the receiver, and wish for your mother’s cool, strong hands on your forehead. She doesn’t say anything more. When you hang up you don’t miss him, or the chords he strummed each night on the guitar, or his thin pink lips, or his attempt to say your name the right way, with a soft th and a long o. There is anger where the longing used to be, and you put all of your letters and his letters into a plastic bag and walk all the way to the dumpster before you turn back and toss it under your bed.

*     *     *

He leaves you with the start of the rains but it isn’t until the sun dries off the roads that you don’t think of him when you brush your teeth every morning.

You take the train home for Diwali in October and notice some extra space between your ribs, between your brows, in the vertebrae of your neck. Your body has released him and you find yourself in tears because you remember what it was like before his scribbles filled the margins of the story you were writing when he showed up. Before he wooed you with his guitar and his dollars and the way he high-fived the bai who cleaned his house.

When you reach the station you are suddenly so hungry that you buy a huge chocolate bar and eat the entire thing in the taxi on the way to your house, hardly noticing the firecrackers that explode dangerously close to the car, or the driver’s curses.

At home you and your mother spend hours creating rangoli patterns in the driveway—drawing careful lotuses and mango leaves with colored powder and placing tiny, illuminated diyas amid the designs. By the time night falls and the guests start to come, your hands are rainbow-stained and your nails lined with red.

You light lamps until there is no dark spot left in the house.

A_Rao_HeadshotAnkita Rao is an American journalist currently based in India, where she writes about health, education, and worldwide inequality. Her articles and photographs have been published in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate, and Quartz, among others.

 Before moving to India she covered health care disparities and policy at Kaiser Health News, a non-profit news service that regularly serves the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and NPR. At the height of the Obamacare debate, she wrote features and breaking news about how the health law impacts the people most vulnerable to poor access, from coal miners in rural West Virginia to the homeless in Washington, D.C.

Ankita is originally from Tampa, Florida. She attended the University of Florida, where she studied Journalism, Religion, and Creative Writing. She is also an alumnus of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

The Walls Are Too Blank, The Holes Are Too Deep

As my father did with me and Tobias, I took my family camping. When I told Roberta that it was time to prepare to lose one of our sons, she walked into our bedroom and packed. Her eyes were pooled with tears, but she didn’t cry.

“Roberta,” I said, shutting the door behind me.

“Please don’t,” she said. Her lips were quivering, and her entire body was flimsy as she folded clothes and rolled socks into one another, as though someone had removed her bones. She wouldn’t look at me.

“You knew this would happen eventually,” I said.

She dropped a shirt into the open suitcase. “How can you be so calm?”

I swallowed and exhaled. “Because someone has to be.”

Roberta refused to answer Tommy and Jason’s questions as she dropped their backpacks and sleeping bags in the trunk. The boys followed her back and forth up the driveway and wore looks of fright and confusion, disturbing expressions on the faces of seventeen and fifteen-year-old boys. I knew that even adolescents can feel tension when it rises up and seeps into all parts of a house, because I’d felt the same thing when my mother began moving like some spectral shell of herself after my father told me and Tobias with no warning that we were going camping. It had sounded like any other announcement of a family trip, but the hollow look in my mother’s eyes, the hushed whispers coming from my parents’ bedroom, and the way she wouldn’t look me in the eye as she filled our battered cooler all twisted my stomach and told me that the gloomy air around her was about more than going into the woods together.

The car was silent: Tommy and Jason didn’t whisper dirty jokes they thought their mother and I couldn’t make out; Roberta wasn’t humming along to the radio; even the air didn’t seem to be whistling through the cracked windows. I hated that silence, and I gripped the steering wheel hard enough that my hands hurt, but I ignored the pain because it wasn’t real pain. It was nothing like what was to come.

I looked back at my sons through the rearview mirror. They were each looking out their respective windows, glancing back at one another every now and then. Eventually their youth broke through the thick dread hanging in the car and they started whispering to one another and hitting each other in the arm every few minutes. But Roberta kept staring forward, unable or unwilling to look me in the eye. I knew she was feeling a mixture of rage and sorrow. Even though I’d assured her no one would die—at least not now, not today—perhaps she didn’t believe me, and I couldn’t, didn’t, blame her for that. Perhaps she’d forgotten, but how could she? How could my wife of twenty years forget the secret I’d told her years ago, only days after I’d first told her I loved her, after I knew that I would marry her one day? How could she forget that her son was going to get sick, that his body would fall apart, and that no doctor, no specialist or scientist or anyone in the world would be able to do anything about it?

The car was silent: Tommy and Jason didn’t whisper dirty jokes they thought their mother and I couldn’t make out; Roberta wasn’t humming along to the radio; even the air didn’t seem to be whistling through the cracked windows.

Perhaps she hated that it was going to start somewhere that held such vivid memories, ones filled with laughter and warmth, even the mishaps, like when Tommy was nine and nearly fell into the campfire, coming out with only a sprained wrist and a first degree burn on his right hand that healed quickly, leaving behind a quarter-sized blemish on the knuckles of his ring and pinky fingers.

But I had to do it there. The first rule: it needs to be somewhere familiar.

*    *     *

My father gave me a small ledger when he told me. The foremost rule, he said, more important than where you do it, even, is that no one else, not even your wife, ever reads this book. He tapped it and then held it out to me. Only you and your son, he said, can ever see it, can ever know what it says.

When I first looked through it, I half expected the letters inside to transform into words that would spell out, step-by-step and word-by-word, exactly what I should say—what I could say—to my own son. What I should feel when I sat him down and told him our family’s secret. How I could begin to understand and accept the truths of our family’s wretched legacy, and how I could make my son do the same. But what I found was paragraph after paragraph of vague directives, threadbare advice, and blunt, angry rules. Rules without explanation. Predictions—accurate ones—without consolations. Things that would happen to your brother—“your,” the book said, that vague, malleable word, “your,” impersonal and wide enough to apply to me, my father, my son, my ancestors, my descendents. A word that represented the hollowness, the uselessness, of having clouded answers. Letters that would never numb the pain of guilt that hangs on “your” shoulders, heavier when you know that, really, none of this is your fault. But if not you, then who? Who else can carry that burden?

When I first read the book, I threw it across my bedroom before I was finished. I knocked over a family photograph, shattered the glass in the frame. I thought about burning the book, watching our family’s curse disappear into the sky as nothing more than ash. These dreams left me drenched in sweat and out of breath.

No one in my family has ever known why these rules exist, or why this thing happens, but, as my father told me, we know they must be followed, or the consequences are worse: instead of losing one son, he said when he first told me, one hand still gripping the book, the other gripping my knee, you’ll lose both. I’ll lose both. His smile was thin and limp, one that I would see for the rest of my life when I looked into a mirror.

You must wait until your elder son—you will have two (and this you will not control)—has been seventeen for three weeks. You must take both of them somewhere familiar, somewhere they can be at ease, without explanation or warning. Send the one son off, then explain things to the other. You may take your wife, but you do not have to. This, of all things, is the one flexibility you possess.

So I took Roberta, because I needed her. But afterward I wished that I had not.

*    *     *

Tommy and Jason pitched our tents on opposite sides of the fire pit, and I watched Roberta set out the boys’ things in the smaller green one. Neither of them asked if she needed help or said they could do it themselves, even though they’d been doing so for years. They watched their mother unfurl the sleeping bags, smoothing out the crinkles and bumps as though her hand were an iron, and fluff the pillows she’d stuffed into the trunk of the car. She sniffled audibly, coughing a few times. I wanted to be angry at her somehow, feel ire at her for making it clear that this wasn’t a normal camping trip, but I couldn’t. She was, I realized, doing her best to fake a sense of calmness, but the pain she was feeling was breaking through, cracking the steady exterior she hadn’t had time to practice or perfect. I looked at my sons: Tommy had his arms crossed, and I could tell he wanted to ask what was going on, as if he could smell something amiss tainting the air like rotten fruit. Jason looked up toward Tommy, waiting for his cues, always walking in the shadow of his older brother.

When I tried to bring up collecting some wood to make a fire, Roberta’s forehead wrinkled like a stormy sky and she waved the idea away, suggesting we eat some of the sandwiches she’d packed first. Tommy and Jason warily agreed, taking them out of their plastic baggies as if they half-suspected they were poisoned. The air buzzed with mosquitoes and the thick paste of discomfort. We sat on logs, Roberta with Tommy, Jason and I opposite them. Sitting next to him, I realized just how tall he’d gotten, almost as tall as Tommy was, his golden legs dusted with tiny blond hairs that shimmered in the setting sun splayed out in front of him like long, lean yard sticks.

I felt an immense sadness, and couldn’t look at him, not at any of them, so I stared toward the sun as it disappeared, spackling the ground with the light that shone through the holes between the trees.

*    *     *

Both sons will come home from the woods, of course. You don’t have to actually do either of them any direct harm, but you know that they will both be damaged. The hurt may not appear yet, no bruises, no limps, no wincing external pain, but you know it is there, because you feel it, too. You feel it every day, have for the last twenty-five years, but it feels sharper, more acute, when you first step through your front door when you return home. The son who doesn’t know will shrug off the strange, strained trip, his teenage hormones distracting him from the quilt of sadness strumming through the car on the drive home. You will look at the other son’s face, drooping and pale, through the rearview mirror on the way home, knowing what he is feeling and thinking because you have thought and felt it, too.

While you are out there, though, you must have the conversation. Wait until the one son is far off, out of earshot, and then explain as much as you can to the one sitting next to you, the one trying to look away from you even when you tell him you’re being serious. Be prepared for the disbelief and doubt, then the wonderment, the questions about how and why and where it comes from. You must simply tell him, a sick understanding of his anger and confusion toiling through your stomach, that no, you don’t know where it comes from. You can’t explain it. No one has, for as long as you can remember. Be ready, after you’ve quietly berated him, to see the hollow look on his face, the one you’ll be able to discern through the darkness. He will ask how you can be so calm, so unwavering and blunt. Be ready for the plaintive sigh you’ll hear peep through his lips despite the overwhelming sound of crickets humming through the trees.

When it’s all over and you are home, you’ll find him staring at the wall regularly, when he’s not looking at his brother for signs that it’s started, that is. Any time his brother coughs or complains of a headache he’ll worry, so much that sometimes he’ll get sick too, or be unable to sleep, his eyes bleary and his eyelids puffy as he eats breakfast before school. Your wife will roll away from you at night, and you’ll look up at the ceiling, awash in the silent loneliness that has followed you for so many years. And when your doomed son has to stay home from school sick, your wife and other boy will cry while you must be steady, clench your jaw, and tell them in quick whispers that no, this isn’t it. It hasn’t started yet, because it’s too early. He still has time.

You must accept your teenage son’s flimsy excuses for his tears, ignore the sucking of snot as he inhales, trying to compose himself. You must do so because you are putting him through a hellish thing, forcing him to be aware of but unable to say anything about what awaits his brother. You have gone through it as well, because you were the chosen son, chosen by nothing but your birth, and you understand what he feels, the gloomy tremor in his bones, the wondering: Why me? Why him? Why my brother? The what can I do? The knowing that the answer is nothing. I can do nothing. The worst answer. The answer that eats at you, the stagnant answer, the not-your-fault that drills into your bones with searing pain.

There are two other rules with unknown origins that no one dares defy: no one can explain why it must happen, or how. And no one may go seeking answers. Trying to understand this thing, this curse, this dark mark that follows the shadows of your family endlessly, will only cause illness, cutting, eating pain, to spring up in you, too, where it does not belong.

*    *     *

I finally separated the boys. Roberta insisted we hike to a familiar outcropping of rocks a little less than a mile from our campsite to watch the sun set, its light pooling over the tops of trees we could see stretched out below. As we hiked there, the boys leading the way and me at the rear, Roberta kept herself between them and me. Enough sun was splotching through the tree trunks that I could see the bitter look on her face whenever she looked back at me, the almost taunt in her empty smile, the conviction that she would somehow stop the inevitable from happening.

We finally reached the tableau of rock, a long slate of clay-colored stone that looked like a barren plain, beyond which the forest dropped off. Leaning out, I could see the tops of trees below me, the highway a few miles away, a little stone river cutting a winding path through the swath of branches. For a while we stood in a row. I put my arm around Roberta’s waist and squeezed her hip, but when she turned her head just so, enough that I could see the skewering look in her eyes, I dropped my arm to my side. No one spoke as the sun crept down until Tommy announced that he needed to pee and walked off.

I turned to look at Roberta, who took my hand, squeezing it as hard as she could; I didn’t let the pain she was causing cross my face.

“Jason,” I said. “I need to talk to you.”

His fifteen-year-old eyes were filled with light from the sun, which glossed them over so I couldn’t quite see the look on his face. Roberta started crying, but she shuffled in the direction Tommy had gone. I knew she would keep him busy. Despite her hatred, her indignation, her resistance, she knew that losing one, years from now, was better than losing both, something neither of us would ever say, knowing it wouldn’t fix anything or make what was happening any better. She must have felt the betrayer, the Brutus stabbing Tommy in the small of his back, slowly drizzling his blood out over the years to come. My hands trembled again, and I wrapped them up together.

“Yeah, Dad?” Jason said. His voice had started getting deep, lower in pitch than my own.

I took a deep breath and then, as the sun disappeared and night fell over the woods, I told him our family’s legacy.

*    *     *

When you are alone with him, you must hand him the book and begin to explain what you’ve kept hidden from everyone else in your life. You must tell your son that, for as long as anyone can remember, each generation in your family bears two sons, exactly two sons, but that one of them must be sacrificed for the sake of the other. You don’t know why. No one knows why, and it isn’t worth wondering why, because wondering—why him and not you, or why either of you, or why any of it—does no good. It just leaves you raw and scared. Weak. Crumbled. Tired.

Be prepared to snuff out interruptions, to tell your son to please not ask questions now because there is little time to explain. You will feel guilty for your tone, and you will let that guilt seep into you, getting clogged up in the rest of the self-hatred that is stacked up inside you. Then tell him as quickly as you can: he’ll need to read the book on his own and keep it secret, but that for now, you can tell him that his brother is going to get very sick in a few years, and that no one will be able to fix him. That he must get sick so that you do not, and if you tell him about this then you, too, will grow ill, and you know all of this because you’ve been told by your father, who was the younger brother, just like you are. Just like your son is.

Your son will cut in, point out that you don’t have a brother, and then you will tell him the whole story, that your brother does exist, in a hospital not far from your home, that yes, his mother does know but couldn’t say anything, because if the elder son ever finds out about his predecessors it will all fall apart and the illness will spread.

You will stare at him when you’re done explaining, when he tries to come up with loopholes, ways to help his brother, and you must smile sadly and tell him you know, that you thought the same things, that all of his solutions will result in both of them getting sick, and you, and your father, if he is still alive, as well. He will be quiet then, as night falls and the woods come alive with buzzing insects and a howling predator or two. You will dwell on this quiet. The silence from both of you will come from shock and pain, a hurt deeper than you will ever be able to put into words. Shortly thereafter your wife and elder son will reappear, him laughing at some joke he’s just made, she quietly staring through the burgeoning darkness, trying to catch your eyes. You will avoid her gaze.

Your son will stare at his hands, folded in his lap. You’ll put a hand on his knee and nod because he’s already hidden the book away in his back pocket. You’ll feel a queasiness because you won’t have had a chance to tell him about the guilt, to tell him that it’s normal and that he must expect it. His brother may get sick, but he, too, will be plagued, not by some mysterious, invisible poison coursing through his bones, but by a cloud of guilt that will follow him for the rest of his days.

But you needn’t worry about failing to communicate this. You know he will discover it quickly.

*    *     *

The only sounds in the hospital room were the blipping of a heart monitor and the soft whoosh of a ventilator; the only light came from a few fluorescent bulbs buzzing down a harsh, too-bright light that made the white, blank walls even bleaker. I stepped forward and rested my hands on the cold metal bedrail. Up close, I could see the bumps and veins of his skull, his head bare like a cue ball. His mouth was open, a gaping dark hole, ventilator tube poking out on the left side like an oversized straw. The plastic mask across his upper lip was a stark, rigid mustache.

“Hello, Tobias,” I said. I reached down and grabbed his palm. The skin of his hand was smoother than I expected. An IV needle was embedded in the back of it, leading up into a maze of plastic tubes connected to various bags and machines surrounding him like candles around a statue.

He looked, by and large, like a normal person in a normal coma. Except in the eyes. You had to look close, bend down and really look, to see that something wasn’t quite right behind those sealed eyelids. Not only did he lack eyelashes—those, too, had fluttered off in the days before his final collapse—but the curve of the skin covering his eyes wasn’t as it should be. Instead of curving outward, over the pupils and irises, Tobias’s eyelids curved inward, as though they were made of putty and someone had pushed the soft dough in with an index finger. His eyes had begun to retreat.

It was almost over for him. The final rule: the eyes retreat last. When the holes where they belong get too deep, too deep for eyes to exist there any longer, you’ll know he is in his final days.

“I told Jason, Tobias.” I squeezed his hand and stared at him. I didn’t expect any response, of course. My voice sounded too loud. “I told him. He knows about you. He knows everything.”

I hadn’t asked Jason if he wanted to meet his uncle. He didn’t need to see what would happen; he was afraid enough. He hadn’t spoken much the rest of the night, opting to lie in his sleeping bag, staring at the curved ceiling. When Tommy had asked him what was wrong, he’d rolled away from his brother and said he had a stomachache. We’d left the next morning. I tried to catch his gaze in the mirror as we drove, but he refused to look at me. I didn’t blame him, or Roberta. They would both turn from me in their anger, and I had accepted long ago that they would do so.

I held Tobias’ hand, staring at his face, the wrinkles on his forehead, his crooked nose, the cleft in his chin. I wondered how I would remember that face, the bumps of his cheekbones, the expansive space of his forehead. When he was gone for good and I would have nowhere to come back to if I needed to know what he looked like, what would I do? Where would I go? I’d had to remove all photographs of him, just in case. There would be no remembering. There would be no funeral. I gripped his hand tighter, trying to memorize the bumps of his bones.

“I told him. He knows about you. He knows everything.”

I couldn’t help but imagine Tommy, and I saw him growing up, his hair receding, the pains in his bones, his athletic build shrinking like some wilting flower unable to find water.

Tobias had decayed. It started with his hair, falling out in clumps in the shower, at the dinner table, when he went running in the evening after work. Then his teeth, his fingernails, his leg hair. It all fell away as though anything that could was jumping ship. I knew, the day he told me that he lost a tooth while eating a banana, that this was it. His skin had become smooth and blank, a wasteland, a pale desert. The tips of his fingers hurt, he said, when he pressed the buttons on the TV remote.

Something deep inside him was poisoning the rest.

He was at my house when the worst of it happened. He’d been staying with me for a while, before Roberta and I married, before Tommy and Jason were even a thought. He couldn’t live on his own anymore; Tobias had grown weak, his skin dry and cracked, his bones poking against the flesh at his elbows. His kneecaps looked like the rims of soda cans. He fell over in my living room, looking at a photograph of the two of us when we were kids, before any of it began. When I couldn’t wake him up, I knew the coma had come. I knew then that he’d finally paid the price for both of us. He never left the hospital after the ambulance carted him away.

I avoided looking at Tobias’ eyes, those sunken craters of ashy flesh. I couldn’t let myself picture Tommy’s own murky blue eyes swallowing themselves up, shrinking into little marbles as they retreated back toward his brain, leaving behind holes that one could fill with pennies.

I tried to picture Tobias’ face when he was still awake, when he was still really him, alive and full. I tried to see his eyes, wishing that I could see them, sharp and alive and happy. Conjure up some memory, I told myself, willed myself, commanded. Know what he looked like when he was happy, damn it, when you were happy, when everything was still alright, before you had this, this thing, this load on your arms that you didn’t ask for and you can’t cast off.

I shut my eyes, squeezing them tight. Colors burst through the blackness, fireworks that were dull, like everything was dull. Like Jason’s smile was dull. Like Roberta’s skin, and hips, and tears, her smile. I screamed to myself to remember Tobias’ eyes. I wished, I imagined, I cried. Tears started to fall, and, in that room, alone with the brother I’d had no choice but to abandon, I cried, hoping I could remember his eyes. Such a small thing, please, please, to hold on to, to let in. But no matter what, the sticky pool of my family’s curse blocked my way. An expansive, gray mass, a thing that will always plague us. I tried to see Tobias’ eyes, but I just couldn’t. I couldn’t remember what color they’d been.

J. Baumann HeadshotJoe Baumann’s fiction and essays have appeared in Tulane Review, Willow Review, Hawai’i Review, SNReview, Lindenwood Review, and many others. He is the author of Ivory Children, published in 2013 by Red Bird Chapbooks. He teaches composition, creative writing, and literature at St. Charles Community College.

The Wife of Michael Cleary

The day before the party, Valerie asked her boyfriend Andrew to buy her a book.

Actually, that’s not how it happened. It was Andrew who volunteered to get Valerie a book, and in the end he bought her two.

“I know tomorrow’s going to be hard for you,” he said. “Is there anything I can get for you? Just a little thing to pep you up a bit?”

That’s how he remembered that moment, his phone cradled against his shoulder as he pulled out of the Stop-N-Shop parking lot (he’d forgotten mustard and paper plates, both of which he was supposed to bring to the party). But what he actually said was: please let me get you something that will make you feel better.

Valerie, though she didn’t seem like it at times, was a sensible girl, sensible enough to know that nothing Andrew bought her would make her feel better. Andrew knew this, and asked anyway.

“Just please come,” she said. Her voice trilled weakly as she stopped. Andrew could tell from her tone that she was eaten up with fear that for some reason—a flash flood or a mudslide, or a more mundane car accident—he wouldn’t come to the party. Her voice contained a profusion of disasters.

“Val, come on.” He wasn’t supposed to be on his phone while driving, and as a cop car lazed past him he stuffed the phone into his crotch. He shouldn’t have called her Val—he only called her that when he was mad at her, which wasn’t often, and he wasn’t mad at her now. He was mad at himself. Not for the mustard and the plates, that would come later. He was a bit stupefied by his uselessness; he always thought of himself as a resourceful, bootstraps type, thought that he could fix what needed fixing like it was an economics problem set, but he couldn’t help Valerie and that frosted him.

“Please, Valerie,” he said when the cop car was safely out of sight. “It would make me feel better, anyway. How about a book?” Andrew was always buying Valerie books, after a lucky guess led to him to a volume of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats as a six-month anniversary gift. Valerie’s euphoric reaction led to more books for more occasions: The Works of Edmund Spenser for Valentine’s Day, Sotheby’s Tour Through Parts of Wales for her birthday. Andrew had a vision in his mind of a wedding present, something extravagant and rare. The collected writings of somebody or other. Gilt pages, an embossed title page with gold lettering. He would have to do a little more research. Of course, he couldn’t tell Valerie this, especially now. Any talk of the future made her fold up into a sharply creased little packet, unopenable even to the most skillful fingers.

He could almost hear her biting her lip through the phone. That was her nervous habit, one of many. Andrew sometimes marveled that she hadn’t chewed right through it, that he couldn’t see her bottom teeth when she closed her mouth.

“A book would be nice,” she said finally.

“I’ll bring you two,” Andrew declared, feeling manful and tough for a moment. “I can stop at that used bookshop you like, the one that Mandy’s cousin owns?”

Valerie sighed. She was also sensible enough to know that there was no point in arguing with Andrew, or at least that was why Andrew thought she was sighing. “All right,” she said. “Just—make sure you’re here. I won’t be able to do this without you.”

The next morning, Andrew set out for Valerie’s house in Masonville with a little package of books next to him on the front seat. The mustard and the plates, which he had remembered as soon as he pulled into his driveway and had returned to Stop-N-Shop to buy, sat on the floor in the back. The morning had begun with a spiritless, clammy spring rain, but by the time Andrew turned south onto Route 63 the sun had burned away the early murk and the blacktop gleamed, slick as sealskin.

Andrew’s parents lived in Ashford, about forty-five minutes from Valerie’s house; he was home on Easter break, technically, though no one in his family celebrated Easter. He and Valerie hadn’t met—and he had never given Masonville much thought—until they both went to college in Rochester and he saw her the winter of freshman year, the first day of second semester. They were in the basement of the cafeteria, which had been a bar before the school half-heartedly turned it into a coffee shop. Andrew never went down there, if he could help it—the place still smelled like stale beer when the air conditioning wasn’t on, and it was too dingy a room for studying. His engineering textbooks could be dreary enough as it was. But Valerie liked it. She told him that it was empty and quiet, quieter than the library on most days, and she liked to pretend that she was hidden away inside the bowels of an ancient monastery where no one could find her. Andrew would discover that Valerie liked the idea of entombment, but not until much later.

It was her fingers that had pulled him in—not literally, although he probably wouldn’t have resisted if they had. He couldn’t remember why he had gone to the coffee shop that day—caffeine to get him through the afternoon? Some kind of premonition?—but nevertheless he was there, with a chewy bagel pocked with burn marks and a café au lait. From where he was sitting, he couldn’t see her face or her yellow-white hair (though he would, eventually, when he craned his head around to get a better look at her, like a schoolboy who had just realized he could be interested in the alien creature girl); he could only see two delicate arms in a pale pink sweater, and two long hands, hairless, with arched fingers that bent gracefully at the knuckle and delicate, square nails. They moved elegantly, quickly, folding and unfolding like crane legs over the keys of her laptop. He had never been so taken in by someone’s fingers. He thought about how it would feel to put his mouth on them, and then he was mortified at himself, though not enough not to ask her name and sit down with her. It was his only moment of competence with the opposite sex, ever, and Valerie wasn’t any better; she was his first girlfriend, and he was her first too.

That was three-and-a-half years ago. He had never quite become used to her delicacy, her smallness, could never quite shake the instinct to protect her, whether or not she wanted it—or needed it. The first time they had sex, following some poorly proportioned vodka cranberries about a month after the day in the coffee shop, he was afraid he would crush her; she finally had to wrap her slender fingers around his wrists and pull him down on top of her, crimson with impatience.

*     *     *

There wasn’t much to the village of Masonville: two parallel roads, a school, a motorcycle shop, a dry goods store run by a family of Mennonites, and no less than four pizza parlors. Valerie’s family lived on the village’s only dead-end street, three doors down from an abandoned paper mill that sagged under the snow and the wind in winter, and wilted under the brutal sun in summer. The village had recently torn up the railroad that used to connect the paper mill with the Buffalo and Rochester markets. The railroad ties stood stacked across the street from Valerie’s house in a perfect cube, like an ancient monument whose sacred purposes were guessed at but not known. A fairy mound. A phrase Andrew had learned from Valerie, from some book of mythical places she had, or perhaps it was a calendar, one of the page-a-day ones with Celtic knots and foggy seascapes, she had hundreds of those. She was forever teaching him things; though she would never say it, Andrew knew that she resented, on some level, his ironclad belief that the world was fundamentally understandable through physics and mathematics, that little messes could be put right and lumpy edges smoothed out. The only time Valerie had been even slightly interested in Andrew’s work was during his class on Boundary Value Problems. She saw rough and wild borderlands, fens and swamps and things. Boundaries of a more romantic sort. Andrew didn’t have the heart to explain differential equations and Dirichlet’s principle to her.

Andrew parked his car along the road; most of the other guests had already arrived. The party was conveniently timed to celebrate a lot of things at once: Easter, Valerie’s impending college graduation, her father’s 60th birthday, Mother’s Day. It didn’t make any sense, Valerie’s mother said, to have a separate party for each of them, it was so hard to get the cousins to come up from Utica in the first place and as long as they were here you might as well do it all at once. Mrs. Garret met Andrew when he reached the mailbox and said these things to him while she took his plastic bag; someone was already asking after the mustard, as if they couldn’t just wait a damn minute, the food wasn’t even ready yet, she said.

“But thank you for this, dear.” She unscrewed the top of the mustard and took the seal off with her teeth.

Whenever he looked at Mrs. Garret, Andrew couldn’t help but think of nutmeg. There was no reason for it, really, but nevertheless. Her dark brown hair curled in a bob near her chin, her skin tanned to leather, a khaki skirt tightly belted a bit too short. She was round in a pleasant way, with full calves and a nice rack and a tiny waist, almost the opposite of Valerie, who was thin and boyish to the extreme, neutered almost. Valerie wasn’t like either of her parents. Her father was bulbous and pink with popped blood vessels; tufts of brownish hair stuck out over his ears like an ostrich. He worked as a construction consultant, ripping the asbestos out of people’s houses, and he was as broad and boxy as his wife was round and sultry. Valerie had two older brothers too, both of them beefy and calloused like their father, with buzz cuts to boot. The older one, Mike, was in the army, flying a helicopter in Afghanistan. The younger one, Matt—though Andrew had trouble telling them apart sometimes, because of the buzz cuts—worked for his father, fighting the asbestos. Andrew often thanked his stars that he wasn’t a philosophy major or something equally pathetic—the Garret men respected engineering.

Valerie was the imp of the family, the changeling. That was another word Andrew had learned from her—before Valerie, he had never stopped to think about whether or not trolls would steal your baby if it wasn’t baptized, or whether a small, sickly child in an otherwise healthy family could be of fairy stock. She told him stories when they lay in bed, unable to fall asleep because of the heat, of people who were so convinced their child was a fairy hundreds of years old, sent to do them mischief, that they would hang the wretch over the fire or leave him out on piles of manure in the winter. It drew out their magic, or at least that was the theory.

“They believed sometimes that the child was just a piece of wood, ‘a fetch’ they called it, that had been enchanted,” Valerie said. She ran her fingers up and down Andrew’s stomach, which he suddenly wished was more defined. “The spell upon the wood caused the child to appear to sicken and die, so the family would never guess that their real child was taken. They would assume it died under their care, and then bury it. When it was buried, it would turn back into wood. There were no bones.”

“But there were no real changelings, right?” Andrew asked. “So there had to be bones, somewhere. Maybe they just weren’t fully formed yet, so they disintegrated.”

Valerie sighed, her usual sigh when Andrew completely missed the point. It wasn’t that he didn’t understand this time; he willfully misunderstood. It was too gloomy, thinking about those poor superstitious people, wearing clothes made of burlap, always covered in dirt from picking rutabagas or whatever peasants did in the old days, roasting their babies alive on spits. Coming up with excuses as to why their children starved to death when there wasn’t enough to eat. That’s what most of those stories were, anyway, just a way to explain the hideousness of human suffering.

“But there were no real changelings, right?” Andrew asked. “So there had to be bones, somewhere. Maybe they just weren’t fully formed yet, so they disintegrated.”

“There was comfort in it,” Valerie said after a moment.

“In what?”

“In magic.” She shifted her weight so that she no longer touched Andrew’s sticky side, and stared up at the ceiling. “What a terrible thing, to have to bury a child. If your child was dying, or you were dying, wouldn’t you rather think it was because of the fairies?”

*     *     *

She was wearing blue. It was her color; it suited her, though her eyes were green. There was something about that blue, robin’s egg and sky and forget-me-not, and her yellow-white hair. Alice in Wonderland. Perhaps it had something to do with the color wheel, Andrew was never good with that stuff. Every time he saw her wearing that blue, he imagined she was a provincial milkmaid, gathering flowers on a French hill. Untainted.

“It’s not a good time to tell them.” Her face was flushed pink and sweat had formed on her upper lip. She actually wrung her hands, like a nurse in a World War II movie at the bedside of her wounded soldier-fiancé. “There’s already been a fire on the grill, and the Utica cousins are fighting. Everyone’s angry.”

Andrew had been afraid of this, that she would back out. “You’ve got to tell them, hon.”

“I could let the doctor call and tell them. Right now he hasn’t because of confidentiality laws.”

“Would you want to hear news like that from someone else?”

She bit her lip. His insides shook to see her like that, so afraid. He didn’t want to feel like he was yelling at her. “No, of course not,” she said. “It’s just—complicated.”

“Come on,” he said, “let’s go inside and you can open your presents.” He held out his bundle, wrapped in brown paper and twine. He had chosen this combination himself in the bookstore, hoping it looked earthy or woodsy or something like that. Intriguing, at any rate. He knew she would be less excited if he gave them to her in a gift bag.

They took an obligatory walk around the house to the backyard, to greet everyone and be seen before they ducked inside. Mr. Garret waved them over to the grill with a burly hand. Though his wife was by far the better cook of the two, he always insisted that she put him in charge of the grill, lest his man-pride be dented; the burgers and hot dogs, and the occasional Italian sausages were usually blackened on the edges and undercooked in the middle.

“Nice to see you, Andrew,” Mr. Garret said, taking Andrew’s hand and crushing it. He paused to yell at one of the littler Utica cousins, who was chasing around his brother with the seed spreader. “Your mother’s family,” he said to Valerie. “I don’t know why we even invite them.” She smiled tremulously at him and he melted, wrapping his arm around her and kissing the top of her head. Andrew knew that feeling; when Valerie gave him that little smile, he felt like sap was running down his front, warm and gummy. Though he supposed her father felt something different.

“My little queen bean,” he said. “You’re not going to leave your old man alone with them, right? You’re always going to be here with me?”

The breath hitched in the back of Andrew’s throat.

What a terrible thing, to have to bury a child.

“No, of course not,” Valerie said in a small voice. “I’ll always be here.”

Andrew would like to say he wrapped his arm around her, comforted her somehow, took her hand at least, but he didn’t. He stood rooted in place, gawky and arms akimbo (another one of Valerie’s favorite words). She shivered and looked down.

“You’re going to have to fight me for her,” Mr. Garret said, waving the grill tongs at Andrew like a sword.

“The sausages are burning, Mr. Garret,” Andrew said finally. To Valerie he said: “We should probably go inside.”

These weren’t connected thoughts, but they worked well enough as an excuse. Mr. Garret turned to focus on putting out the fire, and Valerie and Andrew slipped away. As they turned back towards the house, Andrew glanced at the road over his shoulder. The stack of railroad ties stood solid and black in the distance, a portent of grave happenings, a somber warning.

Andrew wished that they were telling Valerie’s parents that she was pregnant. How much gentler that would be, for them. She would graduate college in time, with a degree, he could put off grad school for a few years and get a job to support them. A good job, engineers earn good salaries. It would be hard but it would be bearable. He would take the brunt of it, from the Buzz Cut Brothers. You knocked her up? they would say. You knocked up our baby sister? Knocked up, as if he had punched her around. As if he would ever be violent with her.

It was a wild daydream, of course, a fantasy that would make most twenty-one-year-olds shrivel up with dread. What Valerie was actually telling her parents had nothing to do with Andrew. She had to tell them that she was sick, which they knew, or at least they knew part of it. She had had pneumonia in March, right around spring break, so bad she had wound up in the hospital. Andrew had stayed in Rochester for break, bringing her things to read, amusing her, sneaking in some chocolate. He hadn’t had any plans, anyway—he couldn’t afford to go anywhere worth going. And it wasn’t so bad—pneumonia was unfortunate, but at least the doctors had caught it early. Caught it, like the infection was a hog running rampant, scaring the chickens and knocking over fences that someone needed to jump on and tie. A wild thing that could be controlled. But at least they could treat it, and Valerie could come home after her lungs were clear. She hadn’t even missed class, which would have bothered her.

This was as much as her family knew, that she had been in the hospital for a little and then gotten better. What they didn’t know was that she had continued going back for tests. The doctors were concerned. That was the word they used, concerned. The nurses took a liking to Valerie when she was in the hospital, it was hard not to, she was so otherworldly, such a sprite. They liked to whisper about her in the hallway, when they thought Andrew couldn’t hear. So sad, the rest of her life, they said. She’ll never be able to have kids. Life expectancy of fifty years, if that. Such a shame. This was only after they finally diagnosed her, of course—at first they thought it was lung cancer, and that was terrifying enough. Valerie couldn’t sleep; she spent nights in Andrew’s room, lying stiff as a starched sheet in his arms, her green eyes wide and wet.

Cystic fibrosis had come out of left field, or at least it had for Andrew. He thought that was something that only babies got. Valerie was in her twenties. She had hosts of other health problems to worry about in the near future, possible disorders which she could start exhibiting signs of now, but she should have been past CF. That was all Andrew could think about the first few days after she told him. He couldn’t have been much help, he realized later; he was too befuddled, in too much shock. He still was now, in a way. She continued going in for tests and treatment, without telling her parents. When the bill came for the services, Valerie told them that it was follow-up for her pneumonia, and the insurance company paid for most of it anyway. She assured her parents that she was better, and they had no reason not to believe her. For the first few weeks when she kept the news from everyone, even Andrew, and he hadn’t expected a thing.

The doctor sat her down at the beginning of April and told her that her siblings should be tested, because they were at risk too. Even if they hadn’t exhibited signs yet, they could have CF, lurking somewhere like an eyeless monster, ready to strike. Ready to sting. Especially, the doctor said, your brother in the armed forces. He was the most at risk, because there was nowhere to get CF treatment in the Afghan mountains.

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Andrew said, as they sat across from one another in the hospital cafeteria. The more time Valerie spent in the hospital, whether for tests or consultations or anything, the more Andrew ate. He had a piece of lasagna, two breadsticks, a bowl of scalloped potatoes, green beans and corn, and a brownie on the tray in front of him. Valerie had only tea.

“It will crush them,” she said quietly. “I should be the one taking care of them when they get old.”

“You might live long enough for them to find some cure.” Andrew didn’t know who would find it—he assumed there were scientists, somewhere, working on it, fiddling with pipettes full of liquid, or growing yeast in petri dishes, or doing whatever pharmaceutical researchers did. He knew his answer didn’t touch what was so upsetting Valerie, and he didn’t know how to get there.

“It will crush them,” she said quietly. “I should be the one taking care of them when they get old.”

“Yes, that’s true.” Valerie rubbed the outside of her teacup, massaging the hot porcelain like she was trying to break it apart in her hands. Crack it open and read the omens written there. It was as good a way as any, Andrew thought, to work through this problem. It was better than anything he had suggested. Maybe there was comfort in it.

*     *     *

The Garrets’ living room was the ugliest room Andrew had ever seen, worse than some of the apartments he had lived in during college. He had a hard time believing that Valerie’s saucy mama would let a room in her house remain decorated in such a way, but in the almost four years he had known Valerie, barely anything about the room had changed. The same faded lace curtains hung in front of the windows, the same garish pink floral couches stood in front of the outdated TV, the same mottled brown carpet, not shag but something close, displayed dubious stains from bygone years underneath his feet. Someone had arranged a collection of ceramic figurines on a shelf above the TV—Andrew remembered Valerie once saying that they belonged to her grandmother—but they were too tacky to be worth much. Andrew always felt sticky when he left the room, like there had been tape on his skin that left a residue behind after it was removed.

Valerie sat down on one of the detestable sofas and Andrew set the bundle of books in her hands. She breathed in and out, as if steeling herself for something sad, something trying. The first book she opened was The Victorian Book of Plants and Flowers. That was a stretch on Andrew’s part; he had held it in his hands for close to fifteen minutes before finally deciding to buy it. What had sold him on it was the dark violet ribbon slid in between the book’s creased pages, to mark the reader’s place. That was something Valerie would appreciate. It looked old and ethereal, a little enigmatic, just like her. Of course now he felt like an idiot, sitting next to her in the cramped living room as the smell of the grill wafted in from the backyard. The lace drapes, the barbecue, the ugly brown carpet—these were concrete things, real things, parts of her life that were tangible, or at least more tangible than a book about plants. He couldn’t imagine what her parents would think, when they stared down at this ridiculous collection of drawings, lovingly but somewhat uselessly captioned in calligraphy. Agapanthus africanus, the Lily of the Nile. La Ville de Bruxelles, a necessity for any rosarium.

“Open the next one,” he said, a little breathlessly. Was he sweating? How stupid it all was. It wasn’t like the next book was going to be any better. He had tried to get closer to what he knew Valerie liked with the second one—a book of Norwegian folktales in a new translation. She was the one who had taught him that there were different kinds of fairy tales. He had assumed there was one version of a story that had existed forever, and that everyone more or less knew it if they watched the Disney movie. But apparently there were lots of different kinds of stories—the original source material, which in most cases had been lost, and then the accounts by Europeans going out into the hinterland and “discovering” the stories, which Europeans seemed to think they did a lot. And then a lot of the tales were adjusted for children, and given morals, and most of the gore was taken out—the ogre mothers-in-law, the rampant cannibalism. Then there were knock-offs and rewrites and retellings, and the movies, which was where Andrew came upon them first.

“Didn’t anyone read to you when you were little?” Valerie had asked, her green eyes wide with what could have been pity. Of course someone had read to Andrew. His parents were great believers in the Power of Education. But he remembered the Berenstein Bears and Clifford, none of the grisly stories of boys being roasted and eaten and girls dancing to death that Valerie treasured so much. He thought of his mother, overworked and always dieting, sitting down on his bed with her bathrobe plastered to her and her make-up removed so her eyes puffed up like bread dough, reading to him from the Brothers Grimm. It wouldn’t have happened. He liked Thomas the Train books, and Sesame Street. No one had ever told him about changelings, until Valerie.

“They’re beautiful, Andrew, both of them,” she said. He had never felt more helpless.

She held on to the flower book; the book of fairy tales ended up on the floor. Andrew knew it made sense, somehow; he had been wrong earlier, flowers were real things, they could be planted in the earth, and afterward you could see the remains of the dirt on the creases of your palms. She ran her fingers along the corners of the book, her long, lovely sylph’s fingers—sylph, yet another one of Valerie’s words—and pressed down on the cover so hard the tips of her fingers turned white. Andrew was seized with the urge—seized, like his walls were overrun by a foreign desire, invaded—to take her hands and kiss them, to crush the palms to his lips and run the fingers in and out of his mouth.

A distraction, merely. There wasn’t anything substantive he could do anymore, besides make her forget sometimes. That’s what the books had been too, a diversion, like magazines at the dentist’s office to take your mind off the wait. Taking your mind off. He imagined drilling into her head, cutting off the top of her cranium and lifting the pulsing pink mass underneath it out. In a way, they were also a bribe. Giving a dog a treat when it fetches a stick.

“I’m glad you like them,” he said finally.

A pause. Actually, several long pauses strung together with little sighs as Valerie looked at the floor.

“You know,” she said quietly, “it wasn’t just the simple people, the medieval cowherds and ignorant swains who believed the fairy stories. As late as the nineteenth century, there were incidents. An Irishman killed his wife because he thought she was a changeling. In front of witnesses. He didn’t even go to jail.”

A pause. Actually, several long pauses strung together with little sighs as Valerie looked at the floor.

“Come on, Val, you know that’s not—”

“There was a children’s rhyme about it.” Valerie hugged The Victorian Book of Plants and Flowers against her chest. “Are you a witch, or are you a fairy? Or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?” A hysterical, shrieking laugh bubbled up from her throat and burst into the room. She clapped a hand over her mouth. The sound vanished into the air as soon as it was emitted—and yet it hung there, tangled in the drapes and soaking into the ratty carpet, bouncing off the figurines. It was a big, ugly blister of sound. To Andrew, that horrible, horrible screech was now indelibly lodged into his gut, and would be forever.

“Baby, what’s the matter?” Mr. Garret stood in the doorway. Behind him, Mrs. Garret held a tray of hotdog buns.

“Valerie?” said Mrs. Garret.

Andrew thought about taking her hand then, but he didn’t want to feel how badly she was trembling. He sat apart from her, his hands on his lap, while she, the fairy child, shrank before his eyes, shrank and shrank until she would leave no bones to bury.

C. Moran HeadshotCaitlin Keefe Moran has written for The Iowa ReviewPost Road, Pleiades, and The Toast. She graduated from Boston College and now lives in New York City.

 

A Nest of Arms

It was almost 6 AM and Heidi lay awake in bed, trying not to think about the war. Lately, when she looked at her girlfriend, Dara, she was reminded of a Sultanese woman—a civilian—that her unit fired on. The woman had been carrying a basket full of fruit, which from a distance posed a threat, possibly held an explosive device that could have killed several soldiers. What reminded Heidi of her was not Dara’s long curly hair—so like the woman’s—but a look in her eyes, a look of feigned surprise that the woman maintained even after she died and lay surrounded by bananas and pears. Those eyes, jeering eyes, were just like Dara’s, but Heidi couldn’t tell her that. How do you tell someone to remove the look in their eyes?

Heidi fired on the innocent woman. They were there to help bring order to Sultan after its conflict with Arelia (America’s biggest Middle East ally), but certain civilians and rogue military units retaliated. Back home in New Jersey, there was no fighting, only residential blocks with restored Victorians, an old church on the corner, a high school with a track, a commuter rail within walking distance. There were some abandoned sites, lots under construction, empty storefronts, and stray cats. But nothing like the bombed-out shops of Sultan—its crumbled schools, week-old dog corpses, blood on the doorstep.

Dara moaned in her sleep and turned on her side, her perfect butt cheek framed in the pale light. Her lovely arms silhouetted the wall, and her thick hair dressed the pillow. Nothing, it had no effect—as if Heidi’s ability to love the little things had been singed. Fizzled in a ring of fruit and a dead Sultanese woman lying on the sandy road. A mother, of course, with three kids. Heidi and two soldiers delivered the corpse to the family who lived in a thatched hut. The woman’s three boys and husband met them at the door. They took the body bag but didn’t seem surprised: none of them cried or said anything, as if the woman’s death were scripted. “I’m so sorry,” Heidi said to the father. The mustached man in a robe looked Heidi in the eyes then slammed the door in her face. She had to push back her tears the whole ride to the base.

“Heidi,” Dara said, turning to her on the bed. “Are you awake?”

Heidi’s head was propped in her hand and her Captain America shield tattoo shined on her wrist. Dara gently toed Heidi’s knee, but she didn’t respond even though she liked Dara’s nimble feet.

“Talk to me,” Dara said with her throaty voice and curvy lips.

Heidi stared at the ceiling and began to count the little squares in each tile.

“Are you thinking about that interview you got this afternoon? I know you’re gonna do fine. You’re great at selling yourself.”

Heidi’s head was propped in her hand and her Captain America shield tattoo shined on her wrist. Dara gently toed Heidi’s knee, but she didn’t respond even though she liked Dara’s nimble feet.

Heidi smiled slightly. “You know me so well.”

Dara again worked her toes up and down Heidi’s leg, tickling the fuzzy hairs. With her hand she gently squeezed Heidi’s chin.

“I want you to beat me,” Heidi said, turning onto her elbow again and staring ahead of Dara.

Dara rolled on her back and looked up.

“It won’t be that difficult,” Heidi continued, almost robotically. “I’ve got all the soldier’s gear. This’ll add another dimension to our sex life.”

“You never wanted that before,” Dara said.

“Maybe I just want to try something new.” Heidi chewed her inner lip.

“It’s really weird.”

“It could be sexy, Dara. I’ve got a burka, a turban, a hijab. A bisht.”

A deep sigh escaped Dara. Then her eyes hardened and she smacked Heidi in the face. It was a light smack, a nothing smack; Heidi hardly felt it and almost laughed. “That’s a start, I guess.”

“What you want, I don’t know what you want,” Dara said.

“I want what I’ve always wanted,” Heidi said, then felt like she had misspoken.

“What the fuck does that mean?” Dara kicked away the cover. Heidi’s muscular, tattooed calves revealed themselves—one of her best features, she thought.

Dara’s eyes seemed amused and angered like those of the dead woman who wanted to feed the troops. “Maybe I’m not the one for you. Maybe I’ll never be who you want me to be.”

Heidi felt a frost go up her leg. The sun, now brighter, slanted in the room through the blinds.

“What if I don’t wear the burka?” Dara said. “Is that a deal-breaker?”

“What?!”

“You can tell our queer friends, ‘Dara wouldn’t don the bisht, so I dumped her ass.’ I bet they’ll find that a hoot. Or post it online so more people can laugh out loud.”

“You know I’d never do that,” Heidi said and clutched her knees.

Dara got up, grabbed her robe off the small couch, and slammed the door on her way out. Heidi gnawed on the corner of her lip, then spat some dried skin. “What the fuck is wrong with me?”

She imagined a woman in a burka shoving her foot down her mouth. Again she bit her lip and for a moment touched herself. Then she recalled the interview at the after-school program in the city. It was a chance at regaining some sense of normalcy—at the very least it would get her ass out of the house. I should apologize.

*     *     *

Heidi was knotting her tie when the phone rang. The caller ID number froze her. Dara, who was getting dressed for work at the local vet, said, “Why don’t you pick up?”

“It’s that number again.” Heidi tossed the phone onto the living room couch. It was the fourth time they had called in the last two weeks and she was becoming curious because they didn’t leave any messages. Dara then did something out of character—she picked up Heidi’s phone and answered it. “Hello?”

“What the fuck are you doing?” Heidi tried to grab it from her, but Dara was too quick and hopped away in her long skirt. “Hello?” she said again. “It’s her…roommate.”

“Give me my fucking phone right now,” Heidi yelled, “or I’m gonna kick the shit out of you.”

This turned Dara on because she knew Heidi was serious. Heidi chased Dara around the couches. “She’s here,” she said to the man, “but can I take a message for her?”

Finally, Heidi caught up with Dara and yanked the cell from her and yelled into the phone: “What the fuck do you want from me? How many times are you gonna harass me?”

“Heidi, do you know who this is?” a twangy voice said.

Dara mock-grabbed the phone—Heidi flinched and clawed the air at her. “You remember me?” the voice said. Then it came back to her. It was the voice of a soldier, an Assaultman with red hair and a red beard. He was there when the woman with the fruit basket was shot. She didn’t remember his name, she’d forgotten so much of that day—images buried beneath her brain’s rubble—except for certain painful flickers: the child carrying a dead cat in her arms.

“You do remember me,” the twangy Assaultman said, and her eyes refocused.

“What do you want?” she responded. Dara stood, intently watching by the kitchen.

“I just want to talk to you. A bunch of us do. We don’t want to make your life more difficult, but we need to talk about some things that happened overseas.”

“Negative,” she said. “I don’t need any bullshit-ass Kumbaya therapy.”

The power of her memories was enough. After her unit blew up the woman with the basket of fruit, she felt as if her skin were drying up and that a match had been struck down her throat. She felt that pain now. “Stay the fuck away from me. I don’t want anything to do with you guys.” With that she clicked off and tossed the phone on the couch.

Dara stepped into the living room. “Who was it?”

“Don’t ever answer my phone for me, unless I give you permission. You hear?” Heidi got closer.

“Was it a veteran?” Dara’s voice was excited.

Heidi held up her palm. “Just stay out of my business. I’ve told you again and again. I left it all on the battlefield.”

Dara leaned against the wall and thoughtfully pinched her chin. “But you still want me to wear the burka.”

Heidi imagined herself flying in a rage.

“I shouldn’t have said that,” Dara said. “I just want you to get better is all.”

“I’m fine already. Under the circumstances I’m great. I got an interview today in the city.”

Dara put her hands on her hips and closed her eyes. “Come here.”

Heidi didn’t move, so Dara hugged her. “Let’s try to make this work. I just know you’re gonna give a great interview.” After a pause, Dara added, “I shouldn’t have answered your phone. You’re right.”

Heidi touched her back and kissed the top of her ear.

*     *     *

At first the train ride relaxed her, but with each stop she got a little more excited. When they pulled into Watsessing Avenue, her cellphone rang and she checked the number. It had the same area code as the Assaultman’s so she let it go. She’d have to change her number, she decided, looking out the window at the bright and cloudless sky. The landscape of bridge and sand reminded her of those abandoned training camps that her unit had captured from the Sultanese. Further on, a junkyard full of yellow school buses, some long like torpedoes, others bulky like light tanks. Every freaking thing reminded her of the sand. Her phone beeped, which meant that the Assaultman or perhaps the Machine-Gunner had left her a message. I’m not checking it. The city steadily approached through the scarred glass.

She had to focus on what she would say at the interview. But as the train rattled along, she seemed to forget all the tips she had studied online. Instead, a series of scorched images radiated through her mind and she squeezed the arms of her seat.

When she landed at Penn Station she had a minor revelation: I function better in moving crowds. She enjoyed snaking around people; it reminded her of the touch football she used to play with her brother’s friends. The faces always changed yet they were somehow all the same characters she was able to decode through her training and deployment. A Long Island upper-crust woman in a mink and a load of makeup. Everyday Joes and Janes in their business slacks and polished heels rush to catch the train. Teenage girls in short skirts and long black coats. Everybody in black, like an open-market funeral. Two marines with M-16s guarded a drug store. Heidi walked more quickly, even though she was fifty minutes early.

She had to focus on what she would say at the interview. But as the train rattled along, she seemed to forget all the tips she had studied online. Instead, a series of scorched images radiated through her mind and she squeezed the arms of her seat.

She walked downtown instead of taking the train. Stepping amongst the nameless crowds felt wonderful. Purposeful without needing to prove anything. Egg-white clouds topped the buildings and the occasional prim tree. The smell of mustard mixed with grilled kabob. Endless whiffs of horse shit stirred something childlike in her, and she thought of Christmas. On 8th Avenue, she helped an old lady cross the street; then she gave a shivering homeless man a dollar.

Wasn’t this what she was supposed to be doing overseas? She had arrived at the sandy dunes of Sultan almost two years ago, after America had gained control of the situation and averted a full-scale Middle East war. Heidi believed that she would contribute to the peacekeeping effort in bombed-out places. But after her first week, she realized the situation was more unstable, graver, and that the locals didn’t fear death anymore.

Near 8th Street she lost herself in a crowd of international arts students, each one dressed sharply, wearing glasses of varying styles. Heidi smiled at an Asian girl with an ostrich feather crowning her hair. She felt like kissing her on the mouth and telling her how beautiful she was and how lucky not to have to see dead children floating in canals. A marching band suddenly emerged near West 4th Street and played New Orleans-style jazz. Heidi stopped in the middle of the block and felt her soul stirred. Why don’t I come here more often? She took several pictures with her phone and sent them to Dara and wrote—“wish you were with me.” Heidi had first been exposed to big-band jazz while in basic training down South.

Dara didn’t reply right away, but that was okay. Heidi had her interview to look forward to at the after-school program, where she could help kids in English and math, and be in the city four days a week. She walked further west and noticed how colorful were the buildings and people. Spiky dyed hair, orange gloves and scarves; a man in a Batman cape and speedos stood outside of a gelato bar. A fairy tale land, even though she didn’t live that far away. A croissant shop with two statuesque servers. Heidi imagined biting the neck of a pretty model and making her scream bloody murder.

She turned onto a seedy block with a CD shop, a bar playing bad ’90s music, and some hairy dudes hanging up front. Where was this school located? A sex shop window flashed its all-purpose vibrators and rubbers. Two stores down was another sex shop, bright with a t-shirt in the window that said: Kitchen Bitch. The head shop that followed glowed with glass pipes. Heidi felt as if she had left Disneyland and fallen down a dark rabbit hole.

*     *     *

She still had about a half hour to kill, so she walked into one of the sex shops. A man and a woman browsed the video aisle, which was sectioned off according to fetish. She felt funny for a moment then noticed a wall of costumes and accessories. She looked more closely at the display. There was combat gear—camouflage tops and bottoms—and she imagined role-playing with Dara in a budget hotel somewhere off the highway. Perhaps Dara would agree to donning the combat gear and Heidi could wear the burka. But there was something in her that seemed averse to anything war related, whether it be a film or a game or a conversation. But why? What fears did it trigger inside her?

“Are you looking for anything specific?” a man said with an Indian accent.

Heidi stood at attention.

“We have peep shows in the back—the girls will wear anything you ask.” He was short and round with curly hair and a loose button-down shirt.

“How do you know I like girls?”

The man smiled with bright white teeth. “I know the customers.”

“I’m not your customer,” Heidi said, half-smiling. Had she been here once before and now couldn’t recall? “What if I need a burka, or a hijab?”

The man narrowed his eyes at her and licked his bottom lip.

“I’m serious. That’s what I’m into. I’m not asking for any other reason.”

The man scrunched his lips, tapped his chin, then disappeared behind the side counter. Interesting guy, but not to be taken seriously. She checked her wristwatch and saw that she had twenty minutes left before her interview—a lifetime, it seemed. She looked at a tray of probes, sticks, and rods, and wished Dara were more adventurous.

The pudgy man returned and said, “What do you think?”

It looked like a normal blue burka to her, but now she wasn’t sure what to do with it, or why he’d even gotten it for her in the first place. She suddenly felt as though all the displays were staring at her; the rods and whips came to life and hissed. She looked about nervously and the man read her discomfort. “Just bring it to the girl of your choice and she’ll wear it. It’s fifty dollars for fifteen minutes.”

“What is?” Heidi said, dizzy with sensations.

“Just go see a girl.” He gestured towards the back of the shop. “I have one in mind. She’s tall, big boned. She likes your type.” He looked Heidi up and down and escorted her to the back, down a short flight of stairs. She gave herself over to this strange man in this strange city. He led her to a curtain, where he took the burka from her and said, “Have a seat inside and wait for the light above to turn red.”

He showed her inside and she sat in a soft leather chair. “Get comfortable.”

The man left. Within moments, the strobe light above her turned red and the curtain spread to reveal a bed with two fluffy pillows. A micro-thin glass panel separated Heidi from the bed. Music emanated from the corners of the ceiling, a low rhythmic drum, African or Asian. Sweat dampened her forehead, while her lips and tongue felt dried up. She checked her watch. She still had ten minutes.

A tall black woman entered the room. She was barefoot and wore the burka. Her voice replaced the music on the speakers. “Hi there. What’s your name?” She sat on the bed with her legs crossed. Her green eyes seemed to glow, which, Heidi realized, were contact lenses. But at the time, in the moment, she could believe anything. “I’m Heidi.”

The woman slid the burka over her knee and her shapely calf was visible. Her breasts, Heidi could tell, were large like those of the dead Sultanese woman. Curly hair escaped from the burka’s eyehole and Heidi felt her body tense up—she had always found black women beautiful. “This burka is so smooth,” the woman said. “I like how it feels on me.”

“It looks perfect,” Heidi said, all throaty, surprising herself.

The woman spun around on the bed and the burka rose, unveiling her legs and her butt. Again Heidi felt herself getting hotter—hotter but more frightened. The image of the dead Sultanese woman arose again, her lying on the ground, surrounded by fruit, her burka blowing in the wind-swept sand. Heidi held back her tears and felt consoled by several officers. A male trooper added, “This shit happens. This is a motherfucking war!” That got a rise from the room. “Fuck these rag-heads!” they yelled. Heidi herself said, “We warned her ass, didn’t we? ‘Don’t move forward, lady—don’t move an inch.’”

Heidi gritted her teeth and stared at the black woman in the burka rolling around on the bed.

“So why the burka?” the woman said, snapping Heidi awake. “Nobody’s ever asked me to wear one.”

The Assaultman, she then recalled, had said, “The woman was my sixth-and-a-half, or sixth-and-a-quarter, since a bunch of us shot her.” Heidi felt her skin crawling with sand.

The black woman danced like an Egyptian.

“Don’t take it off,” Heidi said in her seat, her legs jittery.

The woman sat up on the bed, lowered herself to the floor, and crawled toward the glass.

“I need you to wear it.” Heidi checked her watch but didn’t register the time.

“It’s just gotten really hot in here,” the woman said.

“Do you want to hurt me a little?” Heidi said.

The woman in the burka stopped then started crawling again. “What do you mean—hurt you? How can I hurt you when I don’t even know you?”

“I wish,” Heidi said, “that you’d stand over me, slap me in the face, and piss on me.”

The woman laughed and stopped crawling. “I’m not sure you’re in the right place for that kind of treatment. But I could give you a referral.” She crawled again, then rose and hiked the burka above her beautiful back and Heidi imagined being beneath her, open to whatever the woman desired. “What’d you do,” the woman asked, “that makes you want to get hurt?”

Heidi finally inched toward the glass, oblivious of the time. “You don’t want to know.”

The woman lay back on the bed and began to touch herself. “I think you’re really hot,” she said, surprising Heidi. “In your short hair and that tie of yours. You’re fit, too, like a soldier.”

Heidi’s nose grazed the glass before her.

“You want to come to the other side? I’ll keep wearing the burka if you tell me what you did.”

A green light flashed and a glass door slid open. Heidi remembered the interview but she couldn’t leave somehow. “Come in,” the woman said. “We need to talk.”

Perhaps I could call the school and say I’ll be late? Then the door clicked behind her and the room darkened. And the woman grabbed her.

*     *     *

She awoke in her own bed and found Dara watching her. What time is it? A pale light poked in through a broken blind. Heidi felt déjà vu, except that now their roles were reversed and Dara had some advantage. She looked sexiest in the morning—messy hair, rose cheeks, angular jaw. What if they stayed in this position forever? The sun brightened slightly and Heidi realized that Dara’s eyes were trembling, that she had just been crying.

Heidi started to move but Dara put her hand out as if to stop her. Heidi cautiously lay back. “What’s wrong?”

Dara twitched a half-smile then looked out the window.

Heidi sat up fully and said, “What the fuck is going on?” She shook her arm and said, “Say something, Dara.”

Dara’s skin was cold and she tensed up and swallowed hard. “Maybe you should do the talking. I left you three voicemails yesterday.”

“I didn’t get them,” Heidi said, yesterday slowly taking shape in her mind. Her eyes widened at the flickering images.

“I want to be there for you,” Dara said, “but it’s starting to wear me down.”

“How did I get home?” Heidi asked, the back of her head suddenly pounding.

“All I know is, you stumbled in and went straight to bed. I took off your clothes, which were wrinkled, and tucked you in. You were missing your tie and you smelled strange—wasn’t your smell.”

Heidi recalled the black woman with the burka, the free drinks at the happy hour, stumbling down Christopher Street with total strangers. Bit by bit, the images appeared, and for a moment she doubted whether they were real. Then she recalled lying in bed with the beautiful black woman on top of her.

“What the fuck happened?” Dara said. “After I took off your clothes, I saw the bruises and bite marks… Did you go to your interview?!” Heidi shook her head and pulled the sheet over her shoulder.

Dara touched her forehead and looked in Heidi’s eyes. “Talk to me. Please.”

The woman with the burka sat on top of her, slapped her face, spit on her, cursed her out, spread her legs, and laughed like the devil. Heidi had multiple orgasms. By the time she left, she had only her return ticket, but no reason to go home right away—who knew when she would be back in the city? She hit herself in the head. Maybe I should go right back to the army. At least there I had the routine, money coming in, the promise of something beyond my next deployment.

“What the fuck happened?” Dara said. “After I took off your clothes, I saw the bruises and bite marks… Did you go to your interview?!”

“I’m a failure,” Heidi said. “You should just leave. I can’t stop thinking about the war.” She turned to her other side and faced the door and her tears flowed. The black woman slapped her until Heidi felt the sweet taste of blood on her tongue, the reward for her punishment. When it was over, she quickly left the shop and found the bar, two blocks south of the school where she never interviewed.

“I don’t deserve you, Dara. I should have listened to you and never enlisted in the first place.”

“You did a brave thing—you really care about our country, about our relationships abroad. How could anybody fault you for that?”

Heidi turned back and stared at her sharp beauty, her oil-free skin, and again shook her head. “You’re just saying that. Even before I signed up, there were reports that soldiers were questioning the order. They were saying that Arelia should be able to protect itself without our help.”

Dara, forehead wrinkly with compassion, brought her nose close to Heidi. Her stale breath warmed Heidi’s cheek and for a moment she forgot everything.

“Did it feel good?” Dara then said. “Did she give you what you wanted? Were you satisfied?”

Heidi moved back against her pillow. “I’m just a wreck, baby. I don’t want to disappoint you more. I’ll give you your deposit. Whatever you need.”

Dara moved closer and touched her again. Then she took Heidi’s head in her soft hands. “Why would I just abandon you like that? Don’t you know I love you?”

“I know, I know. But look at me.”

She did. “Just tell me what you remember and we’ll try to work through this. Okay?”

“You want to know about her, don’t you?”

Dara nodded and said, “Start from where you met her.”

“It’s all a blur.” She moved from Dara’s hands.

“Was she tall?” Her upper lip was full of contempt.

“It’s over now. Who cares?”

“Was she tall, dark, and round like your exes?”

Heidi didn’t respond. “Did she do something special besides beat you?” Dara said.

Heidi’s tears returned and she couldn’t speak. She wiped her eyes and shrugged guiltily.

“I want you to call that number on your phone,” Dara said. “They left you another message and I listened to it.”

“I thought I told you never to answer my fucking phone!” An uncomfortable silence followed and Heidi recalled the moment when they shot the Sultanese woman with the basket of fruit. The fruit flew, the woman fell, and everybody that fired on her paused. Smoke and silence.

“I listened to your phone because I’m worried,” Dara said, exasperated. “It sounds like these guys really want to help you. Whatever you did, Heidi, whatever you saw, how will you ever live with it if you can’t express it?”

Heidi violently threw off the bed cover. What did Dara know about war? The thought of getting drunk with total strangers suddenly sounded appealing. The black woman with the burka eased the pain, made Heidi’s sins negotiable, for seventy bucks and a tie.

“I don’t want to give up,” Dara said, sitting near Heidi, who moved away. “Let’s take baby steps. We’re both on edge.”

Heidi stared out the window. The pale sky had darkened but a patch of light broke through. Then darkness returned, followed by a smaller patch of light. “I can’t predict what’ll happen.”

“No one can,” Dara said. “But we have a good life here.”

Heidi traced the shape of a cloud with her eyes, while Dara touched her bruised arm. “Are we still one?”

Heidi nodded vaguely and fell back on the bed.

“So tell me what you remember.”

“If I don’t have to call the Assaultman or the Machine-Gunner.” Heidi smiled.

“Will you at least listen to the message?”

Heidi winced, her bruises burning. “Where’s my phone?”

B. Tsessarsky HeadshotBoris Tsessarsky’s stories have appeared in Folio, Temenos Journal, and PIF. Currently he is working on a collection of speculative war stories. He holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, and teaches writing at William Paterson University.