“Leave”

AUTHOR’S NOTE:

Over the years, friends have told me that the first story in my first chapbook, Collateral Damage, confuses them. And now I realize why: the final paragraph, while included in the galleys, was somehow omitted from the book.

This line is the key to the story; what makes it good.

I’m still wrapping my head around this – actually, more than a paragraph is missing, but the final line is the crucial omission.

Well, it’ll definitely be included in the full-length short story collection I hope to publish after completing and releasing my first novel – but for everyone who read the truncated version, please find the full story below as well.

– Soma

Leave

My daughter tells me to go away. Mama, leave, she says, and my chest constricts. I turn my face into a monkey’s: puff up the cheeks and pull the ears forward. It’s tough to keep my cheeks rounded as I grunt, but with effort I do. Releasing my earlobes I beat my chest, where my breasts once were, and hop from foot to foot. She smiles. Then, looking at her father, she points at the door. Mama, go away. At two years old, she doesn’t yet know how words like these work;; how they’ll follow me out the door and into my car, down the driveway, through our small town, across the threshold of my mother’s front door, into the living room, up the stairs and under the sheets to sit on my sternum, crushing.

“I’m fucked up again,” Jason warned me when I arrived after work, “and not just in the general sense.”

Jason is an alcoholic;; but it’s not the drinking that’s the problem. It’s the problem that’s the problem, and drinking is what he does to avoid thinking about it. The problem is that he went to war and made a mistake there. The problem is that our government trained him, and neglected to untrain him. I’m not

saying that he’s still killing people—but he doesn’t remember how to be a civilian anymore, so the smallest things remind him of his mistake and set him off on me. Last week, for instance, I was making a cheesecake. Its ingredients had come from a box, and the box provided simple instructions:

1.Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Grease a 9” springform pan.

2.In a medium bowl, mix red graham cracker crumb packet with blue gel packet. Press onto bottom of springform pan.

3.Squeeze yellow filling packet into prepared crust.

4.Bake for 1 hour. Let cake cool in oven, door closed, for 5 to 6 hours; this prevents cracking. Chill in refrigerator until serving.

Seated at our little round table, Jason watched me complete steps one through four. While the cake baked, he drank a six- pack of beer and a small glass of vodka. I hand-washed our dishes (something that’s always filled me with a calm warmth) nursing a glass of Nero d’Avola so that he wasn’t drinking alone—and then, when the dishes were done, I opened the oven door. As I did so, Jason rose from the table. “Don’t the instructions say the cake needs to cool with the door closed?” he muttered, lifting the empty ingredient box and squinting at it, and then he hit me in the face.

“It’s just that procedure is so important,” he whispered later in bed. “It can mean the difference between life and death. Don’t you know that?” Answer correctly, his eyes implored.

Please don’t dislike Jason. I could tell you things about him that would make you sympathize—things about his father and uncles on the farm, their life—but I suppose everyone has sad stories, so I’ll just say he isn’t all bad. “People are like paintings,” my aunt Rae used to say. “Some you’ll like and some you won’t, but in judging them just remember that someone once invested time, and maybe love, in the act of their creation. So they must be worth something, right?” Then she’d wink.

It’s true, too: Jason is a work of art. I don’t mean that he possesses traditional good looks (broad shoulders, sculpted abs, eyes like a stormy day and all that) though he does have those things too. What I mean is that, lying sweaty across his bed the first night that I stayed, he suddenly met my eyes and said: “There, Sarah. Now it’s spoken.” And before I moved in, when we used to skip lunch and meet at his place to curl around one another on the couch for thirty minutes, I once put a spoon under his welcome mat. “What’s this?” he asked, walking in with it.

“It’s a spoon, obviously,” I answered, handing him the house key that he’d been looking for under the mat—his one key, which he would hide there so that I could let myself in if I arrived first. I’d been holding my breath for weeks now, hoping for one of my own. Pulling him down on the couch, I fit his body against mine and whispered: “don’t you know about this? Lying together the way we do is called ‘spooning.’”

He didn’t say anything then—just held me until it was time for both of us to return to work—but that evening, when I got home, I found a box on my doorstep. Inside, two spoons nestled on their sides atop a small velvet bag. Inside the bag was a key.

“Work of art” can be a good thing, like that, or it can be a bad thing, like “piece of work.” Jason is both. So tonight, after he warned me that he was fucked up, I started backing out the door. Lilli was in there with him, but I felt safe in the knowledge that he is always, always gentle with our little daughter. In fact, when he’s drunk he’s a better father than at any other time: charming, engaged and extremely cautious.

Caution is a valuable thing that the military gave my husband, although he goes a bit overboard. Every night, for instance, before he can sleep he needs to exit the house and “secure the perimeter.” I used to suspect that he was drinking out there, so one night I moved from window to window and managed to see most of what he did. He was just walking slowly, with a flashlight, looking around.

Anyway, knowing that he’d be charming and engaging and cautious, I’d begun backing across the porch and was about to turn and run down the stairs when Lilli emerged from behind her father’s legs. Her eyes were wide with joy, and I just had to have a hug. Feeling pulled, I inched back toward the door. I went in and knelt down and she ran to me, but as her father moved closer she stopped. She was just out of my fingertips’ reach: pink shirt a little tight across her toddler-belly, toes free from the day’s shoes. I wanted to kiss her warm cheek—touch and smell her clean hair—but when her request registered and I followed her gaze to Jason’s face, I understood that I needed to go.

Mama, leave, she says again, and I do. I drive straight to my mother’s house, to which I have a key and an open invitation;; but on the way, I decide to come back later.

Three years ago, on leave, Jason asked if we could talk. We were in bed, savoring the afterglow of our reunion. “Of course,” I said, propping myself up on an elbow, and he started telling me about a military operation that had gotten sabotaged.

“The brown-out was bad: birds coming in at 30 or 40 feet, kicking up dirt so I couldn’t see a foot past the windshield. We roped down and moved in, taking fire from every direction.”

I examined him while he stared at our high white ceiling, face pained. Normally, back then, we only said pleasant things to one another—which was actually a bad thing. It had left me completely unequipped to deal with the types of conversations that needed to be had; the kind that people prefaced with requests to talk. “You know you don’t need to tell me this, Jason.” I tried to make it sound as though I was giving him—and not myself—an out.

“But I will need to tell Nancy. Let me practice on you.” “Nancy?”

“Robby’s wife.” I hadn’t met Robby, but for months Jason’s staticky voice had talked about him, calling him the best friend he had over there; the only friend. He put his face in his hands and rubbed vigorously as though washing with cold water. “He was about thirty feet ahead of me, on the other side of the street. What I don’t get is why he pressed his body against that wall.” He stared up at me. “That’s what got him hit.”

I tilted my head, confused.

“Bullets follow walls,” he said as though everyone ought to know that, “and—there were these little boys: small little boys, just popping up in the windows of all three buildings, lifting their weapons and looking at you, and what are you supposed to do?”

I didn’t know, so I stayed silent.

“Sarah, you have to understand that one of these boys had just run out into the street and was waving an operator’s disembodied hand around, doing a touchdown dance.”

“Operator?”

“Helicopter.”

“Helicopter touchdown dance?”

“Football, Sarah!” He scowled at me. “Jesus—I was speaking metaphorically. That’s all I can compare it to. Fuck.” His hands rubbed at his face again. “Well I had a LAW.”

I put my fingers up to my lips. I’d been monitoring this new, taut anger that sometimes amplified his voice. “LAW?”

“Light Anti-tank Weapon—and it sounds kind of strange but the rockets move really slowly. I aimed it at the target and that’s what it hit, thank God. I followed the trail with my eyes and there was a big hole in the building and part of a gun was visible inside. Just part of it left. No little boys popping up, either. Nobody left, thank God.” Scratching at his neck and sitting up against the headboard, he stared down at his naked feet and seemed to lose track of where the story was going. Then it clicked back into place, and he leaned toward me.

“Sarah.” He pronounced my name with effort, as though it were a foreign word. “I’d taken them out, but it was too late. He was—half the team was—dead.” He glared at me. “I, you see, the problem is that I didn’t discharge my weapon sooner. I was supposed to be focused on the target, but I was watching Robby with this bad feeling. If I’d been watching the building like I was instructed, I might have seen movement and…”

I waited for him to continue, but he didn’t. The sun had set outside. I wasn’t sleepy, but unsure of what else to do, I pulled the blanket up to my chin and tried to smile. At work, I smile all the time. I’m in real estate, and when I smile at a potential client it’s socially mandated that he return the smile. As you probably already know: when people activate muscle groups that are linked to specific emotions, they begin to feel those emotions. By constantly smiling, then, I set off a chain reaction that ends up with the client feeling good about himself, and me, and the transaction; but it didn’t work in the bedroom, with Jason, so I stopped smiling. “And what did you do after that?” I asked.

Jason stood up, pulled on his clothes and lifted the heavy flashlight from where he kept it by the bed. He headed out to secure the perimeter. Without pausing, he said over his shoulder: “We got a casualty collection point going.”

I shifted around on the pillows for a while, listening to our neighbor’s dog bark. Jason reentered the house and made noises downstairs. By the time he slid under the blanket, I was half asleep—but in the middle of the night, I woke from dreams of earthquakes. In the last, I’d watched a priest scramble up an avalanche of dirt, trying to make it to a literal higher ground. I opened my eyes from this strange image to see Jason’s silhouette shuddering with quiet sobs. And that is how I knew that the military had left some part of him untrained, and that, if I ever needed to, I could touch that part and be rid of him.

I lost my breasts when I was eighteen. That’s pretty young for a double mastectomy, and I was gorgeous back then, and for a while they plastered my image all over buildings and buses and billboards as part of a breast cancer awareness campaign. My mother still keeps a smaller, print version of the image.

Unfortunately, while I can tell she’s terribly proud of me— how brave I was—she’s upset by the photo. This is because, after the mastectomy and what followed, I opted not to have my implants replaced. The doctor had put them in because, as I’d explained in his office before the first surgery, my breasts were “one of the things that make me who I am.” This was back when silicone was considered safe—but in my case it wasn’t. On a flight to Mexico, my left breast started to bubble. I could hear and feel it: a gentle fizzing, as though someone had shaken and opened a soda under my skin. Months later, one of the implants sprang a leak and the silicone began extruding through my skin.

“That’s it,” I told the doctor. “Take them out and sew me up.”

His nose wrinkled. “Are you sure, Sarah?” He touched his nametag—a nervous habit, as though he sometimes forgot who he was—and exchanged a dubious glance with my mother. “You’re a beautiful girl, and I remember you saying that your breasts were a part of your identity.” My mother stayed silent, but nodded vigorously in agreement.

“My identity has changed,” I told them.

So on the billboards, and in my mother’s smaller print image, I am completely bare-chested. The scar—now white and smooth— was raw and inflamed at the time of the photo shoot. This, claimed the campaign organizer, was what gave the image its power: the stark contrast between my perfect, eighteen-year-old body and that imperfect red line. My mother hides the photograph in her dresser drawer, but Jason loves my scar. Sometimes after he hits me, he kisses it and says: “I will never, never hurt you again, Sarah. How could I do these bad things to someone who’s already lost so much?”

A few days later, he says: “If I ever do that again, please have me locked away.”

Then, when still more time has passed and he’s fallen off the wagon, he says: “I’m so sorry. You don’t know how sorry I am. Don’t leave me, Sarah. If you ever try to leave, I’ll kill myself.” But the military has changed my husband, and I know that what he really means is “I’ll kill us.”

I return to the house after midnight, when I know Lilli is dreaming. She likes to sleep on her back, arms sprawled, flanked by her two frog-shaped green blankets. Roadkill warms her left side, Mr. Slim her right. The blankets are identical, but she can tell them apart. Sometimes I’ll place them on the wrong sides, and she’ll correct me. Move da fwogs, she’ll instruct in her small, bell-like voice.

When I walk in, he’s slumped at the kitchen table. The ubiquitous beer cans are there on a book called “Harriet Hamster,” beside an empty vodka bottle—plus something I’ve never seen before: scattered blue pills. I walk right up to him. “These are new,” I say. When he lifts his head to study me with bleary eyes, I swipe the pills onto the floor and crush them with my heel.

“What the fuck?” His spine straightens.

“That’s right. What the fuck, Jason? What the goddamn fucking fuck?” I note the bluegrass blaring from the living room. This will mask our noise.

Jason doesn’t stand, but flops back in his chair. “Sarah, I warned you.”

“What did you warn me about? All the danger we’re in? The neighbor’s dog can’t even take that seriously. He barks at you every time you go out to ‘secure the perimeter.’ And you know what the barks mean? ‘You dumbshit, we live in the suburbs. There is nothing to secure.’” I should have prepared something, but I’m ad-libbing.

Baffled, my husband gawks.

I put my hand on his hot forehead and push it backward, hard. “Idiot!” I hiss.

Reluctantly, Jason unfolds to his full six-foot-four, and as soon as he’s on his feet I charge him—not with my body, but with words. “Idiot! Poor country bumpkin, fucked in the ass by shit- kicking redneck uncles, grows up to get his best buddy killed by little kids. Little fucking babies with guns. Talk about friendly fire. Are you going to tell Nancy how you had his back when he was up against that fucking wall? Laid down some cover for him? Huh? Or are you going to tell her how you let some pimply little boy shoot her husband in the head?”

“What are you doing?” he asks softly, his speech slurred as it has been for several weeks straight now.

I speak in low tones that match his, partially for impact but mostly because I’m afraid of screaming and waking Lilli. “Someone has to tell you these things, Jason. Someone has to tell you what a fuck-up you are, beating your wife and killing your friend. Because Jason, you’re not just a common fuck-up. You’re a royal fuck-up; and not some minor noble like a duke or a prince. No. You are the fucking imperial king of fucking up. Don’t think you won’t ever hit Lilli, either, you fuck. She’s little now, but later she’ll be big. Is that what you want your daughter to learn? How to get hit in the face over a cheesecake recipe by some fat-ass…” I pinch his gut as hard as I can “…wets-his-pants- at-night…” spitting in his face “…sodomized friend-killing LOSER!”

Finally, he hits me. And hits me. And hits me. And hits me. I feel the pain, but it’s a good heat, a reward. He hits me silently, with little soft grunts, and I grunt back as quietly as I can. It goes on and on until, when he stops, I know the deed is nearly done.

My head awkward against the ecru wall, my husband spent on all fours above me: the moment is intimate. Familiar. I put two fingers to my bloody face, wipe, and hold them up. Minutely, his own face collapses. “Leave, Jason,” I say softly.

 

 

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