Pretend I’m Not Here
November 30, 2016
The Burn Pits
January 13, 2017

Hesca

Originally published in The Esquire Four

Hesca

Flying home from her tour of Iraq, Rochelle found herself next to a talkative passenger named Lynndie who clapped for her as the pilot announced the presence of service members. She was fat, Lynndie was, with elastic jeans and a black leather hip-pack. She had a front butt. She asked for Rochelle’s carton of soy milk, which Rochelle gave her since she wasn’t a big fan, and then Lynndie placed her hand on Rochelle’s knee, told her that she, Lynndie, had just been to this life-changing conference in Sedona, Arizona and now knew that she’d been blind her entire life, that the past and the future were illusions and sure, the present was empty and meaningless, but “Honey, we are meaning producing creatures, and meaning is our choice every time we see something that makes us feel sad and empty.”
But what’s so sad about staring out the window of your home on July 4th after being gone for twelve months and seeing Coop, your boyfriend, pick tomatoes out of his new garden, the wire of the rabbit fence beaded with water from the hose? Was it not some form of living in the past that she was remembering the wisdom slash bullshit from the past? Coop drops to his knees, digs up weeds with a spade. He is unemployed, has put on weight. A Wicca named Cedar lives next door and has been giving him advice on Buddhism and interior decoration. He—Cedar—is the provider of the orange Tibetan altar cloth that now hangs above the couch. Cedar is the reason for the new mystical books and the new flowers in the one bedroom apartment Rochelle shares with Coop.
There are fake corn dogs in the freezer. There are fake hamburgers for him and antibiotic-free burgers for their friends who will be arriving any minute, and Rochelle wonders if Coop has chosen now to pick the tomatoes and lettuce from his garden as a way of announcing to their soon to arrive friends that he doesn’t need an actual factual job.
Rochelle needs to relax, give Coop a break. But she will be home for most of the day for quite a few days in a row now, and was kinda counting on a little space, didn’t want to be one of those soldiers making constant unnecessary trips to the base just to avoid the day-to-day proximities of domestic life. She takes a sip of her Starbucks, returns to the window, watches Coop stir the compost pile, Coop with his little fence around his flowers and fruits and organic waste.
Coop wants her to think about weaning herself off coffee, to try his fair-trade yerba matte instead. He wants her to have more lycopene. Lycopene comes from tomatoes. There are hundreds of different kinds of tomatoes. Heirlooms are the good ones. Coop is now watering his marigolds—which are the same color as the sunny center of the Tibetan altar cloth. He says he still doesn’t know what to do about the white worms he found burrowing in his squash, but he’s doing a lot of reading. He’s deeply afraid the worms will get to his cayenne peppers and may, in fact, be the reason for the recent collapse of his spearmint.
“There’s just no rigidity,” he said last night, looking down at the wilted stalks.
Rochelle almost said something about that.

Quinn and his new girlfriend pull up in Quinn’s white truck. She watches Coop give them the tour of the new garden, figuring it’s time to step outside, show some pride, make some jokes. When Quinn introduces Rochelle to his girlfriend, Lloyda, he pronounces both l’s, and Rochelle is momentarily confused because she doesn’t want to offend a black person. So she doesn’t repeat the name. They walk around, the four of them. Coop strokes Rochelle’s hair softly, clips a tine of rosemary and holds it up to her nose. He whispers in her ear.
“You okay?”
They walk inside, Coop with his canvas grocery bag full of fresh produce, his love handles and his beard and his balding head. He offers everyone an organic micro-brew.
“How’s business?” she asks Quinn.
“Not good,” he says. “I’m do nothing but touch-ups. Thinking about starting a garden.”
Rochelle laughs, takes a very long pull off her beer. She returns to the window. Coop stands beside her with a soft finger on the small of her back. She looks down at the place where they’d just been, the garden—the past. It just sits there looking no prettier than a pile of weeds.
“Let’s go out back,” Coop says.
The apartment being the way it is, they have to walk through the bedroom. They pass the curled sheets. There’s a slab of concrete in the back corner of the yard where the grill and the table and the red, white, and blue umbrella stands. There’s a torn hammock between two knobby trees, which kinda pisses Rochelle off. Cedar, who apparently weighs three-hundred pounds, fell through it.
“I feel like we should invite him over,” Coop says. “But I’m just afraid he’ll get too drunk again. Last time we hung out he kept asking me to get him glass after glass of rum, and it was funny for awhile—I mean at one point he started producing spittle around the corner of his mouth, showing how he used to ghoul out homophobes on the subway in the eighties.
Rochelle looks at Coop and smiles. She likes that he’s drawing a line.
But the thing is, because he’s being kinda strong, it’s weird—it makes her feel kinda weak. She looks over the fence at the colorful Mexican blankets Cedar uses for curtains. She wonders if he’s in there watching TV, drinking alone, masturbating to pictures of boys, or maybe praying on a straw mat. For the first time since she’s gotten back, she feels a softness in her heart.
“Let’s invite him over,” she says.

To offer the invitation herself is an excuse to step away from the company. She listens to the air conditioning unit crackle as she waits at his door. It’s a hundred degrees, but a hundred is nothing. A hundred and thirty wearing fifty pounds of gear—that’s hot.
“Well, hello,” says the man named Cedar.
She repeats his words back to him with a sudden, unexpected smile. He’s wearing a tie-dyed sarong around his rotund midsection, hair like a hedgehog—with the sort of glasses you normally see on hit men or people working on assembly lines.
“Oh dear,” he says. “Welcome back, honey. Mister Cooper told me you were beautiful, but my goodness. How did you survive those hot and hungry soldiers over there?”
“Never went to the bathroom alone.”
“I bet not.”
Rochelle’s face flushes from the flattery, from a night where she didn’t exactly go to the bathroom alone.
“We’re cooking out and having a few beers,” she says. “Do you want to join us?”
He tells her she’s sweet, stands on his doormat in his tie-dyed skirt, his finger to his lips.
“Let me put on a hat,” he says. “Would you like to come in?”
She follows him into the apartment, smells something like dried celery. There’s an old fashioned cream-colored back vibrator sitting on the couch looking like half a dumbbell. There are no pictures on his walls, nothing but a few brass sconces with more blue and gold candles, all of them half-used. He returns from a back room in a black beret.
“You remind me of someone,” she says.
“People always say that to me.”
“Who do they say?”
“I’m always an uncle.”
Rochelle smiles. She can see it immediately, and it makes her wonder what it means. This man does not seem sleazy. That’s not the feel. He’s more lonely than lecherous, kinda like an uncle of hers, her mom’s brother, Uncle Len, the guy who never married. Uncle Len with his uncomfortable opinions and his sweatpants. She can still remember how he never stayed for more than three nights over the holidays, the way he’d always leave extra early in the morning, how he once kissed her on the cheek thinking she was asleep. She hears fireworks in the distance.

One of the weird things about Iraq was the sudden appearance of dogs in the strangest of places, the drug sniffing Malinois on the choppers at night with their bright eyes, the mongrels playing among the SEALS and the spooks on the edge of the Euphrates in Haditha, these odd beachy scenes of fetch so close to the site of the famous “Haditha Massacre,” the dogs always with their inscrutable tongue-lolling looks of perpetual happiness.
Rochelle had a thing about dogs. When she was a little girl there was one full week where she had both a cat and a dog. The cat was a gray Siamese and the dog was a golden retriever named Deer Meat, a name his previous owner had given him. That’s what the woman at the shelter told her father. It was Rochelle’s job to come up with a new name, “a nice name.”
So one day, sitting by the sandbox in the backyard, Rochelle whispered in the dog’s ear, felt that silken flutter, waited for the answer, whispered again, felt the coil and the twist in the animal’s ribs as he wheeled around and bit her on the cheek.
There was blood on the bib of her dress. Her dad, who was reading the newspaper, ran toward them. One minute he had a newspaper in his lap on the patio, the next he was kicking the dog in the ribs, and the dog was fighting back, growling and biting, up on its hind legs. It was the scariest thing Rochelle had ever seen, this sudden vision of her dad’s teeth like, he, too, was a dog, this sudden awareness that dogs could also get up on their legs.

Cedar bows regally to Lloyda and Quinn. He hugs Coop, refers to him again as “Mister Cooper.” She watches the four of them drink their beer eagerly, happy to see them smiling, happy to have a stranger to question. She’s glad that she was the one who made the move.
“Coop says you used to live in Boulder,” Quinn says.
“Oh, yes,” Cedar says. “This was the night I fell in love with Mister Cooper. We were watching the lunar eclipse and he mentioned Allen Ginsberg, who used to be a friend of mine. I take it you know who Allen Ginsberg is?”
“Used to see him all the time,” Quinn says.
“Wasn’t he a pedophile?” Rochelle says.
“Socratic ideal of love,” Cedar says.
Lloyda gives Quinn a face, like if she had glasses she’d be looking over them.
“Babe,” Quinn says. “Remember how I told you I used to live in Colorado? I met Ginsberg at the Penny Lane Café, actually got his autograph. There was a line out the door about two blocks long that night—just to hear a poem, babe. Tell me if that wasn’t another time.”
“So what were you doing in Boulder?” Cedar says.
“IBM. I was working with this crazy ass kid named Coleman who, when I got fired, he said ‘fuck it,’ and he left with me. He was Mr. Rogers and I was The Mighty Quinn. We traveled around the country for two years and then we moved back here. Coleman got married just last October, just like that. But, man, the thing about this dude Coleman is this: Coleman marries everything. He gets passionate about everything, which makes him commit to all kinds of stupid shit. You tell him you just got fired, and he says ‘fuck the corporados, you’re my boy,’ and sure enough, he rolls into his boss’s office, blows a goddamn air horn right in the dude’s ear, tells him to go fuck himself, and walks right out. Boy leaves his job just like that for a guy he’s known for less than a year. Now he’s married to a girl who he doesn’t even know, a fucking bitch who’s crazier than he is, and Coop, you gotta hear this story.”
“Oh, goodie. Stories,” Cedar says.
“So all right. Check it out. Coleman takes his wife to a business convention a couple months ago.”
“Is this the one where she pushes him in the back and he gives her the old five across the eyes in the terminal?” Coop asks.
“No, this is part two, the reprise. Long story short, Cedar, this crazy dude hits his crazy wife in an airport and they go into counseling. Cuz Coleman feels bad. Real bad. I mean suicidal. He has become ‘that guy,’ that violent out of control dude who hits women in public places. He is devastated by what has become of his life. He tells everybody. He tells his fucking mom that he’s hit a woman and he tells me and Lloyda, too, and you know what both Lloyda and his mom say? Two women, Cedar. They say, Cole, I would’ve hit the bitch, too. She was killing you. And Coleman, honest as a retard, shares even this exchange with his wife! Dude is like committed, I mean crazy committed, to this notion of honesty.”
“Well, then,” Cedar says.
“Now tell me,” Quinn says. “What do you think his wife did in light of such concerned fellow femmes?”
“I would’ve left right away,” Rochelle says. “I mean what a trap. How can you stay with someone whose worst behavior is reinforced by the women in his life?”
“This is so sad,” Coop says.
Rochelle instinctively looks at Coop’s pants, the slight overhang of his stomach. They have never truly fought. Never once has he come even close to hitting her. Yet still, she can see herself in a car so clearly, driving away, the windows down, signs for Colorado.
“So what happened?” she says.
“Check this out,” Quinn says. “Next time the family’s together, in front of everybody, Cole’s girl—her name’s Cassie—she brings it up at the family dinner table. She asks Cole’s mother about doing some volunteer work, asks her if she was still working at the shelter for abused women. Which, of course, is totally strategic, a big setup. Then she says, ‘Oh, along those lines, Mrs. Rogers. How can you, a woman who used to work for a shelter, tell your son, who hit me, that you would’ve hit me, too?’ Well, Cole’s mom, without batting an eye, says ‘There’s an exception to every rule, honey, and the name of that exception is family. You make my son miserable. I want to hit you right now.’
“‘So hit me,’ Cassie says. And you know what? Cole’s mom stands up at the dinner table, reaches across the table, and smacks that girl right in the face. I never heard of anything like it. A mother and her son tag-teaming a wife. Fucking ape shit fucking crazy.”
“See,” Lloyda says. “I think there’s a difference between slapping somebody across the face and really slugging someone. Now I’m not saying slapping’s cool, but it’s not hard core, and nobody knows what the hell’s going on in anybody’s relationship—the tit for tat, that crazy back and forth that one day makes the crazy shit happen. Like Lorena Bobbitt. Y’all remember Miss Bobbitt?”
“She bobbed it,” Cedar says.
“Yes she did,” Lloyda says. “And maybe she was right to bob it. Maybe that’s what it’s all about. But all I know is my family would’ve lynched Lorena Bobbitt if she’d cut off my brother’s dick. It’s all about tit for tat. It’s all about family.”
“Allen Ginsberg would not agree with that,” Cedar says. “He would’ve climbed across that table, kissed that girl’s eyeballs, and then sat in her lap like a baby, because that’s how you end the cycle. You gotta love. You gotta turn the other cheek.”
“This is the million dollar question, isn’t it?” Coop says. “What do you do with violence? War on war? What do you do?”
“Kiss the eyeballs and coo like a baby,” Cedar says. “It’s the most radical thing you’ll ever do.”
Rochelle, about to interject with a story, decides instead to say nothing. This is not the first time Coop has tried to make one of these cowardly peripheral passive-aggressive points about war, i.e. her life. But there’s no point in talking about how nothing ever changes. That was going to be the whole point of her story. But nobody likes to hear stories like that, for we are meaning producing creatures, honey.

All over the bases in Iraq were these things called Hescos. They were like hedgerows of sand bundled in wire and cloth. On Rochelle’s first assignment as a Public Affairs Officer, she’d followed a journalist to a base in the Al Anbar province. For three days they stayed with a special forces unit. They took a tour of a bombed-out girl’s school, did reconnaissance in the desert, interviewed a sheikh who was now living with his father because his son—the sheikh’s—had this cancer that kept coming back and the radiation treatments had taken all his cash. There were rumors that the epidemic of cancer was a function of a burn pit, a chemical weapons dump on the shore of the Euphrates.
Here was an interesting story. But that’s not the one that came out. One day, after an interview with a local mayor, a small IED tore through one of the lead vehicles on a convoy several miles from the base. One soldier lost two toes. Another suffered a concussion and a mild, psychotic reaction. Everybody else in the humvee just got cuts and bruises, ringing ears.
This was pretty much the story the journalist told. The play-by-play of the IED, the “persistence of the resistance.” He didn’t say more than a word about the cancerous son of the sheikh or the work on the bombed-out school or the power-line project or the hospital or the really interesting NGO official, this woman who was once an architect in St. Louis but was now dedicating her life to missionary work in the most unstable region of Iraq. There were a lot of good stories to tell, but the journalist only seemed to care about violence.
Yet the truth was: the obsession with violence was not really the thing that bugged Rochelle. It was the laziness of the story, the absence of an attempt to capture the bigger picture. If Rochelle wasn’t restricted by the military, and she could’ve told a war story, she would’ve told the tale of Hesca, not another blip about another IED. Hesca was one of the dogs of Haditha, a mutt named after the Hescos. She was one of about twenty on the base with the special forces guys, and the thing about these dogs was this: the soldiers fed them and cared for them. They adopted them at the local market at the beginning of their tour. They bought sheep and dogs, and then, after awhile, they just had to start shooting them. Two had been shot the very morning the journalist left, right outside his room while he was still packing before dawn. Rochelle heard the scream, the drowning whistle. She walked along the planks that connected the Conex box cabins and watched as one of the puppies raised its paw at the barrel of a rifle before taking its bullet to the mouth in a slurry sound she’d never forget.
“You want this war in a nutshell? Here it is,” a soldier named Polo had told her. “We buy, I repeat, buy, these dogs. We feed these dogs. We train these dogs. These dogs have dogs, dogs that future platoons haven’t signed up to care for, and these growing ranks of dogs bark at seven in the morning after we’ve been out on recon till three, so we are ordered to shoot these dogs. We shoot Hesca right in front of her puppies, and then we just throw her on top of a Hesco to rot, and maybe we throw a little sand on top of her, to cover her up, but it doesn’t matter. Her carcass gets all bloated and nasty and stinky, and her puppies, which we’ll eventually shoot, start to starve, and dogs love the smell of stink, because dogs don’t care about good or bad, they just want richness, right—richness. Dank dirty goodies, right? So what do they do? They dig mother up. They trot through the base one morning tearing at their mommy’s rotted leg. Eating on their own mom like she’s just another piece of meat. There’s your war right there.”

Coop kisses his finger and touches Rochelle’s cheek with that same special finger after the firework goes off. But it’s not the little pops from the bottle rockets that have her looking away. It’s not like she’s some jangled Vietnam vet, jumping this way and that. Instead, it’s like she knows she’s supposed to be like that, but she’s not. It’s like she carries this ghost of a real veteran, a real solider, this figure from the movies who feels things more powerfully than she does. The ghost soldier is an older man, a sort of Uncle Len who can’t stay in the moment, has to run away and hide in the neighbor’s shed, cleans his gun late at night, tastes the cold metal of the barrel under winter light in the white empty kitchen, nothing lonelier than the holidays, time ticking by. But that’s not Rochelle. Fuck all these pussies claiming PTSD. That’s not Rochelle. She’s fine. She’s sitting with friends, drinking an organic beer with a vampire logo. She’s hanging out with an overweight male witch and he is now asleep in his plastic chair, and he’s making little gurgling noises.

“Can we eat?” she says.
“You okay?” Coop says.
Rochelle smiles real big like yeah, I’m great, especially when you ask me if I’m okay in front of friends. Rochelle sometimes wishes Coop could just have one minute inside her skin. Rochelle came from a military family, a colonel for a father and a morbidly obese mother who was on the verge of her first gastric bypass when she—Rochelle—met Coop. According to the online profile, Coop read books, was athletic and toned, drank once a week, and wanted kids someday. Under religion he put Christian/Other. His slogan was a quote from Boris Pasternak:
“Yourself in others. This is your soul.”
Rochelle had never heard of Pasternak, but she had Wikipedia, so whatever. Coop wrote to her and said he liked her smile. He made her laugh by telling her he’d been receiving way too many profiles of women who looked like famous men: Bill Gates, Steve Young, and Jay Leno, just to name a few. Who do I look like, she sometimes wondered in the mirror. Growing up, a certain group of boys had taken to calling her Mike Tyson because of the space her orthodontist had placed between her two front teeth prior to the installation of her braces. For awhile, after that, they called her a dog. She sometimes wondered if Coop had been one of those mean boys, if his occasional wit was an echo of childhood cruelty. But another part of her, a really big part of her, just liked the fact that he liked her, that he could draw a clear line between her and these other women with the frightening echoes of famous football players and nerdy software designers housed in their faces.
Their first date took place at a Thai restaurant on a summer night. The prospect of her tour was already in front of her and it brought an air of immediacy to the evening. They talked about how not knowing where you’ll be tomorrow can make today exciting. So much seemed up in the air. Coop, for his part, didn’t know yet that the video store he managed was about to close. He sipped green tea, said the recession was changing everything, said he played in a rock band as a backup plan. Just before they had sex, he broke out his guitar and played her a song that he’d written just for her, or at least the version of herself she’d advertised online.
But it wasn’t until early that fall—a week before she left—that she fell in love with him. They were at a struggling art gallery. A co-worker of Coop’s had composed a short film about two soon-to-be-extinct birds living in a cave in South America. She was extremely young, the co-worker, and she had a smoky voice and a charisma that Rochelle felt she lacked. Apparently there’d been a time where Coop and this woman—her name was Artemis—had done everything together, but because the Artemis was missing her left leg and a good portion of her abdomen, the relationship had never gotten physical.
After the film, Artemis hobbled up to a podium and discussed her work, a multi-media presentation clicking behind her. When a close-up image of the soon-to-be-extinct bird appeared on the screen, Rochelle not only watched Coop’s mouth open, but she also heard the sharp release of a breath, what would strike her as Coop literally losing his breath. It was one of the most innocent, delicate things she’d ever seen—heard—in years. She didn’t know men were capable of such fragility, such audible reactions to beauty.
She tries to remember this, tries to appreciate his efforts. He’s made a salad, a cold blend of kale, quinoa, cucumbers, and tomatoes. She watches him fix a plate for Cedar, who is sleeping. She stands with her back to the weeds that grow around the neighbor’s shed. She stands close to the grill, looks down in the ashes, listens to the sizzling drip of fat, says she just wants salad.
“How was the food over there?” Lloyda says.
“Most of the cooks were Indian, so they had curried chicken almost every day, but I got sick of it after awhile. Way too many days of the mystery meat and the midnight snack.”
“But you look great.”
“I feel like shit.”
Rochelle smiles, not fully knowing if she’s telling the truth. Does she really feel like shit, or was that just the easiest remark? If she really feels like shit, it’s because of moments like this where her tongue seems to release words that have nothing to do with where she’s actually at.
Lloyda is barefoot. Cedar is asleep. There are contrails in the sky, Coop opening the hot dogs with a steak knife, and Cedar’s not getting up, and there are sirens in the distance, and there’s something about the way the sunlight hits the meaty spit on the knife that makes her remember the blade of the man with the blue bandanna and the gray in his goatee, and it’s not so much a twitch as the absence of a twitch, an absolute stillness, that makes Rochelle’s breathing go nuts and suddenly she goes blank, red and white and gray, and next thing she knows she’s shaking Cedar’s face and he’s coughing out a sound like there’s something in his throat, like he’s about to vomit.
“Rochelle!” Quinn says.
For a moment she has no idea where she is, but then someone’s touching her and it pulls her back, Quinn’s hands tight around her waist. As the sirens fade away into another neighborhood, she can see her fingers twisted up like claws and she can see the redness around the neck of their gay neighbor who does not have a gray goatee. She sees the way Lloyda stares down at the ground, the strangeness of how normal a black and white couple seems when confronted with this, a woman like Rochelle. So Rochelle, too, looks down, sees the shards of pottery on the slab, Coop’s tomatoes in the grass, the tossed grains scattered like maggots.
“Oh, dear,” Cedar says. “What did I do? Did I do something wrong?”
“I’ll get you some more salad,” Coop says.
“No, I’ll take care of it,” Rochelle says, and then hurries off to take a moment in the bathroom.

Several hours later, while they’re cleaning, Coop touches the small of her back once again and whispers in her ear:
“You okay?”
Rochelle almost says something, but she doesn’t want to go down that road. She turns off the faucet and backs up. She wants to feel him against her, wants something to just fucking happen. She sees a flash of them in the dark door of the microwave. They look like a two-headed thing lost in a night where the only light is the strange green of the bones in the digits of the clock.
Coop pulls away, taps out on the back.
“Hey there,” he says. “We still got a lot of cleaning up to do.”

The air conditioner and the dryer and the dishwasher are all running. When the dishes are done the green light will stay on until she opens the door and releases the chemical steam that always eases her mind like the fumes from the gas pumps she used to love as a child. She stands at the blinds, looks at the outline of the angular patterns in the blankets Cedar uses to shade his windows, wonders if witches really do things differently than everyone else. She hears the report of another firework, looks at the thin silver fence around the twisted arms of the garden, sees a rabbit pop out and freeze in the center of the yard under the light of the moon, like it feels her eyes, her life, always running this way and that.
The dryer goes off like the sound of a contestant being eliminated on a game show. Rochelle walks through the living room, the books and the TV, Coop’s acoustic guitar in the corner behind a plant that needs water. She likes it when he plays, but knows he thinks more of it than she does. She gathers their warm laundry against her chest, dumps the scented load on a wicker chair in the corner of the bedroom. Coop is sitting Indian-style on the bed with his computer on his lap and there is an image of a blond model with scholarly glasses in a caption on his screen. She, the blond model, is a character in an ad for an online university, and Rochelle wonders what Coop’s been thinking while she’s been gone, what he’s been searching for, how much porn he’s watching, what secret lonely people he’s been confiding in during the late hours of the night. But Rochelle has nothing to worry about because Coop is an unemployed man with some serious love handles. He has this balding head like a singed, deforested oil-slick world.
She doesn’t want to be one of these people who gives up and marries the wrong man, but she doesn’t want to be too judgmental or impatient, either. So she takes a deep breath. She closes her eyes and takes another. She joins Coop on the bed and kisses his head, tastes his salt, his little patch of hair. She curls around him like a pole, kisses the lid of his left eye, holds onto him by the back of his skull.
“Hi,” she says.
“Oh, dear,” he says.
She pinches his neck and tells him to never use that voice again. She lifts the laptop, reaches back, and places it atop the warm pile of clean clothes. She closes the bedroom door, puts her right hand between his fourth and fifth rib.
“If you start to scream, I’ll put my knife right there,” a sergeant once said in the dark of a storage bin, his gray goatee grinding into her neck. They called him Pick. His real name was Barkin. He wore a blue bandanna, put his fingers in her mouth. Rochelle tries to shut it out. There’s a strap-on dildo and some vanilla scented oil in the drawer of the small table next to the bed, but she doesn’t want to resort to toys right away, some thing they’ve done before. She can feel Coop’s ribs like they’re the kind you eat, like she could get a grip and pull them right apart if she wanted. She pushes her fingers into that strange biblical space, hears his pain, the sound of his breath. She looks at his face for a moment, wanting to catch him in that instant of wince, but he just looks worried and confused, so she wraps his shirt around his head and spins him around until he’s face down on the pillow.
“Oh, dear,” she says.
She’s on top of him now, riding his back like a horse. She reaches for the light with her right hand, leaves on the overhead fan. She uses the back of his shirt like a rein, pulls up on his head. She bites her way down his back. She pulls off his pants, goes soft and hovery like a bird above the white expanse of his ass, and for the first time all day, she can see where she needs to go before she goes there. She’s in complete control when she buries her teeth, and she can taste the vinegar of his shit, feel the arch of his spine, and if she needs to taste this kind of tang to stay alive, well, bring it on. But she will not become another bloated couch-surfing front-butted reality-TV robot, a twenty-first century veteran with screaming ear buds in a quiet sedan making useless runs to the dead-faced base, and no, she will not sit by and become another American cretin afraid of the most basic transcendental fact of life that every fat fucking American respects when it comes to their soldiers but is terrified of when it comes to the one in bed: pain becomes pleasure. No, Rochelle will not be a fat clapper in search of seven steps and sacred stones. She will not be a missionary recipient of token touches, another one of the sedated assholes who goes to sleep chewing meds because the military won’t allow them any weed. She will not sit back and take it when “it” means a life that can end any second.
“Glad to see baby hasn’t changed,” Coop says, finally taking control and flipping her over and locking his grip real tight around her throat and giving her a big slap across the face, just like she demanded after that first night when he started her off with his Thai food and his acoustic guitar, his sweet little songs about love.

copyright 2017 M.C. Armstrong

M. C. Armstrong
M. C. Armstrong
M. C. Armstrong recently embedded with JSOF in Al Anbar Province, Iraq. He published extensively on the Iraq war through The Winchester Star. He is the winner of a Pushcart Prize. His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Esquire, The Mantle, The Missouri Review, The Gettysburg Review, Mayday, Monkey Bicycle, Epiphany, The Literary Review, and other journals and anthologies. He is the guitarist and lead singer for Viva la Muerte.

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