It was laundry day for him. He was on the phone with me as I drove up, guiding me through the last couple turns. He came up from the basement as I shut off my car, answered the door wearing shorts. Hugged me. The entryway was dark, the kitchen frigid and bare — the whole first floor frigid and bare. They didn’t heat the first floor, saving the money for the most lived-in rooms above. The stairs were narrow, steep, carpeted. Two rooms upstairs, one was his bedroom, the other Hal’s, which was really three rooms — TV room, bedroom, living area. A couch, several rolling office chairs. Hal had a girl over, she’d been practically living there for weeks. Stayed after a party and never left. Ray didn’t know her name. She didn’t talk, but I felt some kind of link with her. We were the same, then.
Ray’s bedroom was painted a muted green. A space heater hummed and pivoted on the floor against one wall. A bookshelf in one corner with no books — only a couple knives, ammunition, sundries. I sat on his bed so he couldn’t put the sheets on it, though they were fresh and warm.
He kissed me. It felt just like when I was 17.
He kept saying he couldn’t believe I was there, that I was with him again. I told him how it felt like someone else made the decision, how I watched myself pack a hurried bag and fill my car with gas, type his address into my phone’s GPS. The drive took exactly two hours. It rained for the second half. I couldn’t believe I was there either. It felt fake, like I was still back in my dorm room sitting at my desk imagining it all. It continued to feel fake as he kissed me again, as he pressed me back against the newly made bed, as I asked him to please turn off the light.
Later, after he was breathing deeply in sleep, I sat up on the edge of the bed in the quiet light of the space heater. I never could sleep without clothes on. I felt hot and sticky and used up. I shone the light of my phone screen onto the carpet so I could find my pants, my t-shirt, before creeping down the stairs, through the icy kitchen. There was no furniture to maneuver in the dark. I locked the bathroom door behind me. The mirrors were all lower on the walls than they should have been. I stood looking at anyone’s body, the head removed. I hunched, my face completing the picture.
I scrubbed my face, the water a bracing cold from the unheated pipes. I brushed my teeth for hours, scouring at the smoke taste that was his skin, his breath.
Returning to the dark warmth upstairs, I took a deep breath before crawling back into his bed. I could have left entirely. Instead of just my pants and shirt I could have found my shoes too, could have waited to zip my bag until I was downstairs — he never would have woken. I could have been a dream. But I crawled back in.
Immediately he rolled over to me, pressed to my back, slid his arm under my neck in that perfectly sized groove over my shoulder. His other hand seemed to never leave my skin all night. I thought I wouldn’t be able to sleep within the confines of his arms (he squeezed me tightly every so often in his sleep, reminding himself as he dreamed that I was real that night) but I woke up hours later. He hadn’t moved his arms. I found myself jerking my body every now and then to see if he would tighten his hold. He did. He would press his mouth to the back of my neck, my shoulder, sighing into my hair.
We slept past 6, sometime in the night moving away from each other.
He had mentioned a special place he wanted to take me for breakfast, but as we languished through the morning hours I could see him adjusting his plans. Eventually we made it through the McDonald’s drive-through several blocks away. It was right next to the gas station where he had driven me the night before to pick up coke and orange juice so he could mix drinks. I had stayed in the car, feeling uneasy about the atmosphere of the neighborhood and the fact that I wasn’t wearing anything under my sweatpants and hoody. Back in the dim, chilled kitchen he had poured some Southern Comfort in a tall blue plastic cup and stirred in the Coke with his finger. The ice cubes clinked in the silence as I sipped it. It had tasted like honey. He let me try a sip of Smirnoff from his cup before he added the orange juice. It tasted like acid and cough syrup, stoking a reluctant fire down my throat and making me cough. He laughed.
After the drive-through that morning we watched YouTube videos on his massive TV monitor while eating our breakfast. I said I would leave at nine, get back to school by noon easily. My knees were shaky and my lower back ached.
I got dressed for probably the third time that morning. I didn’t know why I couldn’t leave the bed. He was full of vigor, pacing around the room talking at me about the awe-inspiring nature of the universe. We are each a universe within ourselves, he said, our cells to us just as the planets are to galaxies. We did not invent math, we discovered it — it has been around since the Big Bang, the language of everything.
The night before as I had waited for sleep I wondered how many women before me had lain in that exact position. I had seen how easily he reached into his dresser drawer, so close to the pillows, how seamlessly he dropped the foil wrappers on the carpet. It did not make me jealous. It was a fleeting thought. I asked him, he made a noise and went on about something else. I asked again later.
He told me about Beckah, the blond track runner who had fought her red-headed roommate over him at a party. She ended his string of one night stands, luring him into a 6-month relationship during which she would do everything within her power to make him Catholic. He humored her, fine with the fact that she believed what she did. He went to Mass with her, but they both knew it wasn’t working. She went to confession each time they had sex. It made him feel like dirt.
He had gotten a haircut that week, and his cowlick swirled conspicuously at the front of his high-and-tight. His eyebrows were thick, black, chiseled. He pulled a dark stocking cap over his fuzz of hair, telling me how Beckah would never let him wear hats or sunglasses around her because she needed to be able to tell if he was lying.
He showed me the holes singed into his t-shirts, even his thick workman’s jeans. He pointed to the corresponding marks against his skin, some almost hidden among freckles. The sparks from his welding gun would fall so thick, he said, that he would have sunspots in his vision at the end of the day.
He asked about me. About school, my future plans. He said there was really no reason to go to college unless it was a trade school or a STEM field. He was not shy about saying I had made a mistake by going into the artistic field, piling up debt for something so unpractical. But he was kind.
He told me about the war. He said that sometimes they wouldn’t even know they’d been shot until they took off their gear and the bullet casings dropped to the floor like pennies. Their armor was godlike in the face of the nationals taking pot shots from the shrubs. He saw single bullets from American guns implode men’s chests, almost remove their heads, cut them in half. Some of them are so big, he said, that they create a vacuum around the point of impact and pull in everything for several inches around. He said the only way he survived was by learning to say “F- it” and laugh. He told me that one afternoon he and his buddies were standing outside the bunker to have a smoke. There was a huge line of nationals in the yard waiting to be assigned their severance packages. The siren wailed, blaring the word “Incoming” over and over. The nationals scattered, trampling each other to get within the walls of the barracks, to get into a tent. He remembered seeing one last man bouncing from tent to tent, screaming, thinking his life would end because there was no room. Ray and his friends did not move. They knew that there was no point, they might as well enjoy their last cigarettes. The mortar round struck a truck across the road. The blast wracked his eardrums, causing his ears to ring from then on whenever it was quiet.
I asked him what he would do if I never came back.
He said he was grateful for the time he had with me, for any glimpse or minute I would give him. He continued to start sentences with “Next time you’re here.”
I finally left at 1:30 that afternoon. I had scoured his room, making sure I left nothing on the carpet between the clean laundry and his assault rifle leaning against the wall.
I drove us both back to the gas station and he filled my tank before I left. I dropped him back at his house. We sat in the yard and talked for those last minutes. His freckles grew thicker just as they disappeared under the collar of his t-shirt. We hugged, he said I shouldn’t be a stranger, gave me directions back to the freeway, opened the hood of his truck to look busy as I pulled out of the driveway.
As I had pulled over the hill on my way there that night, the lights of Duluth spilled down the slope into the lake, like welding sparks under the fresh darkness of nine o’clock. I forgot why I was there, forgot everything, just knew it must be worth it to see this.