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.