Past midnight, & J. & I sit in my car. He’s describing a mortar attack– pitch-perfect whistles that explode in the pitch black of his dark, abandoned street– summer is over, we both wear coats. It’s that rhythm you want to hear,he says, his mouth keening, bursting, keening, bursting. When you don’t hear that? That means you’ve been hit. He pauses. That’s scary, he says. In the dark, I can just make out the outline of his square, handsome jaw; it twitches. Barely.
Like so much of what he tells me– smoking cocaine, incarceration, he & his (now ex) wife’s live-in girlfriend (We slept in the same bed, every night, all three…) I literally can’t imagine experiencing this. I have one other close friend who’s ex-military– Tim, from college, who joined the navy immediately upon graduation. I was furious when he did, rightly imagining that someone with his brains, brawn, & overall good sense would be immediately snatched up & shipped overseas– 9/11/01 occurred within the first week of our senior year. Sure enough, before too long, he was in Ramadi with a Marine sniper platoon he’d joined voluntarily; when he didn’t make the SEALs, he became a corpman. We wrote letters back & forth, & I sent him care packages stuffed with mixed CDs, goofy pictures of me, & favorite books I’d handpicked from the local Salvation Army for $.25 a piece– Jane Eyre, The Exorcist. I imagined him trapped in a vast intellectual wasteland. Who, I kept wondering, does he even talk to? When one of my letters never materialized, he emailed me with his usual combination of gallows sensibility & dry British humor: Your letter never arrived. Someone blew up the local post office. I have his missives, somewhere– slanting, black, Catholic school script from another world, telling me about dead friends, peppered with whatever German philosopher he was reading at the time. Unnervingly cheerful. For my part, I counted days until he returned, had nightmares that I was there with him; the tenor of those dreams stays with me, even now– the air thick with a kind of heartbeat, hissing, nowhere is safe, no one can save you, & me, exposed, wide open to death, stripped of my warm, American cocoon. I panicked about the possibility of his death, something I knew he wasn’t doing. It’s not in him.
Similarly, the man sitting next to me in the car seems to fear almost nothing, dropping a casual, That’s scary, with nary a raised eyebrow when talking about being under literal fire. Part of me wants to reach over & stroke his face, run a finger down the beautiful, frightening line of his jaw.
But, I don’t.
You wanna know what scares me, Em? he says, & I brace myself for something awful, something to do with his daughter, with her potential loss.
“Spiders,” he says, & the absurdity of this brings the dark world into focus, infuriates me. “If you want to see me freak out– like, really freak out– drop a spider down my shirt. I’ll go nuts.”
“That’s fucking ridiculous,” I tell him, drawing the adjective out into four long syllables, running my hand through my bangs for the 99th time that evening. We were out at a bar, earlier, drinking bottled beer, chatting with old, mutual friends we ran into. When I picked him up, I noted a crucial difference between us; I bothered– for his sake, for mine, who knows– to alter my appearance: lashes suddenly longer & blacker, cheeks literally “bepaint[ed]” with Juliet’s “maiden blush,” my whole truncated, pear-shaped figure drawn in, sucked up, & elongated via a pair of sexy black heels & “skinny” jeans. He’s wearing a pair of jeans he’s probably had since 1995, a black leather jacket I am absolutely sure he was wearing the night we ran into one another at the exact same bar back in 2004, &– seriously– slippers.
“You’re wearing slippers,” I told him, as I slung my red leather handbag over the back of the high-backed bar stool, settling in.
“They’re the best,” he says, with total sincerity, with zero guile. It occurs to me that this man attracts women like proverbial flies to honey, & I shake my head. I am, after all, one of those women: sitting there, it’s all I can do not to tackle him. Except that I want to talk to him more.
Once again, J. is my antidote to Z., who’s been his usual MIA self. Earlier that same day, driving home from school, exhausted, crabby, looking forward to my planned night out with J., (who calls when he says he’ll call, who seeks me out with the same frequency with which I seek him, who behaves, for all intents & purposes, like an adult, like a friend, a real one) my phone buzzed. A text. I was making a left onto my street; I couldn’t wait.
“Hey. How are you?” it reads, snug in its little green comic book bubble, his full, full-blooded, Scotch name at the top of the page.
“Exhausted & crabby, at the moment. You?”
He implores me to call him, which, of course, I do, against my better judgment. We have yet another conversation about his failings, my attributes– beautiful, smart, blah blah blah blah blah– Then why won’t you ever– & I don’t know, Em, I’m just– I’m so tired of this, it’s been too long, you hurt me, over & over again, you do–
Frederica Potter would not endure this. But Frederica Potter also did not have to endure the agony & the ecstasy of Facebook, which, I tell Z., “… is TORTURE, I am so TIRED of looking at that stupid, blue page & being confronted with your stupid face staring at me from the Tetris block of “friends” ‘– alone, half-naked in my bed, where I was attempting to nap when he asked that I call– & why the fuck couldn’t he just call me, when did that become such an impossibility– alone, half-naked in a much-needed nap thwarted by yet another boy, I make wild air quotes around the spoken word “friends,” & as I do so, stare straight into said Tetris block of pixilated folks I both know & don’t know, with Z.’s lovely, sculpted face leading the pack. Fuck me. No, seriously, fuck me. Life is so meta, & so real, & so– his voice is penitent, & sincere, & funny. I tell him, “Being your fuck buddy is like being in a long-distance relationship,” & he LOLs. Or did I text him that? Either way…
“I really wanna see you,” he says for the hundredth time.
“I really wanna see you,” I say, with total honesty, too tired to say something arch, telling him– was it earlier in the conversation, was it later?– “Talking to you is exhausting, it’s like tap-dancing, if I’m not on all the time, you’ll abandon me, bored.”
“I like you however you are,” he says, & I know it’s true. He does. He always has. I am one of his fondest afterthoughts. I always have been. Earlier in the week, I argued with my friend Amanda, from college, about Junot Diaz’s newest book, This Is How You Lose Her. Amanda wants more from Diaz, wants his main character, Yunior, who has narrated all three of his books, to grow up, to stop cheating, to treat women with real respect, real love. I disagree. I love Yunior, I tell her, on a Facebook thread. He’s terribly flawed, but I love his flaws. Later, drawing a bath with the book in hand, I flesh out a more thorough argument in my head, about literature, about how we’re more interested in reading about love’s failures than its successes– say what you will, but no one ever yearned for Mr. Darcy the way we yearn for Yunior, with his Spanglish, his sweet swagger, his awkward, damaged youth, his patchy heart. “This doesn’t mean, of course, that I want to datehim,” goes my inner literary critic with a knowing laugh, a hahaha that perishes the thought. But there I stop cold, because, of course, I am dating him. & if I met Yunior? Forget it. Donezo. Arrow through the heart. The mere sound of Diaz’s voice with its wild, almost profound intelligence, its sweet swagger, melts me into a puddle.
& of course, like Yunior, I let all the good ones get away.
& the evening after J. & I sit shotgun in my car, discussing, as ever, everything under the sun? After we kiss & kiss & kiss until, as Marie Howe says, we are “stoned on kisses,” after we make love, & I rest my head on his lap, & he strokes my back, & says, in the Italian he learned overseas, “You are a bad girl,” & strokes my back some more? After we interrupt one another in the bar with fluid, clashing arguments, & he tells me about the first time he shot a gun– in his father’s house– “I lined up a dozen textbooks, I didn’t know how far the bullet would go; & 7th grade English was first, remember Mrs. Lacity? I never returned that one…” & after I say, “You shot a book, there’s a poem there…” The evening after that?
He calls me at six pm, just to see what’s up, just to see what I’m doing. “How are you?” he asks. & listens when I answer.
He means it.