When Clea writes, it’s always about her 2-year-old daughter. It’s not that Hennie minds too much, it’s just that she loves Clea more. She has loved Clea since they were high school freshmen, when they cut gym class to smoke cigarettes behind the cafeteria, since Hennie joined the Army two years ago and went from Fort Knox to Fallujah. She loves all things about Clea to the point that she knows them, and it is her preference to hear about those first, if not exclusively.
She waits for these pieces while sitting on the floor under the payphone at the base, a single light bulb at the head of the darkened corridor turning the waxed linoleum into a glass sea. She pushes her foot against the tiles, wishing she could slip in the cool oily water and emerge in the swimming hole near Blackwater Falls State Park, her fingers entwined in the blond ponytail that lies like wet rope on Clea’s back.
“Kaitlin is talking so much now, Hennie.” Clea’s voice is twangy, a familiar key of home. “I can’t wait until we come to see you.”
“I can’t wait, either,” Hennie answers, picking at her desert boots. “I don’t have much yet. I’ve got a bed and a futon, though. I could sleep on the futon so you two can share the bed.”
“Don’t be silly—there will be plenty of room for all of us.”
Hennie wants to press the issue but doesn’t. There are nights when she stays on base, when the others go out to drink and shoot pool, that she presses all of Clea’s letters together and reads them like a book, trying to find answers. Words like love and lonely and miss you become taffy, their meanings stretched and twisted depending on Hennie’s mood. And yet she is analyzing a situation that is flat on Clea’s end, dynamic on hers. Hennie has woken to mortar explosions and carried a child’s hand in ice, hoping it could be reattached at the first aid station. She has fired an M4 from a rooftop into a crowd and still feels the clutch in her stomach from it. She has felt sand grinding in every orifice, heat in her nose and eyes like dry fire. She has traded one hell for another.
But Clea has changed as well, in two years, she knows. She is a mother, a wife. Maybe she has exchanged rotten apples for rotten apples. Hennie wonders if Clea has resigned herself to their taste, whether she has.
“I miss you so much,” Hennie whispers, her lips touching the receiver. She hears distant chaos, followed by Clea yelling, a child crying.
“Sorry, Hennie.” Clea’s voice, breathless, returns. “Kaitlin gets into everything, and god knows Gary don’t do a thing around here.”
“It’s okay,” Hennie kicks the floor with her heel, feels the cement underneath vibrate in her foot and up her ankle.”I gotta go, anyway.”
She changes into her sweats and heads to the gym. She will run the indoor track until exhaustion, and then she will run the two miles to her apartment complex off Route 130, to the one-bedroom on the second floor, where she will fall asleep without another thought in her head. Her apartment, except for a few things, is as bare as the day she signed the lease two weeks ago. She does not know yet what she wants her new life to look like, only that she wants Clea to come. She wants to see Clea in the bathroom, combing the knots out of her hair, to see her heating up water on the stove. She wants to see if Clea will fit, if she can make her fit. If she wants to fit.
They fit once, like layers of sediment, their particles distinct but protective of the other, weathering earthquakes, excavations from police, social workers. They had planned to run away. When Hennie found the opening, the Army recruiter who set up in the corner of the high-school cafeteria, his pressed clothes and cologne drawing more girls than boys over to his table, she took it, the promise of adventure, a career, an identity instead of 30 hours a week and no benefits at the box store after graduation. She would pull Clea out of the ground with her, and they would blossom in some other place, weeds that they were.
Until Clea got pregnant. Whether Clea had actually loved Gary or whether Gary just offered her a way out of her mother’s house Hennie was not sure. Or maybe, in retrospect, Hennie is just delusional about things. They all must come to an end. Kids grow up, fairy tales unravel. But Hennie wrote to Clea every week in Iraq, even more than she wrote to her brother or her mother; sweet letters of regret, of longing, and Clea did not discourage them, writing back, and her words Hennie chewed during nights in the oven dark desert, digested, savored.
The Greyhound from Big Ugly, West Virginia, almost five hours, comes in at ten o’clock Saturday morning. Hennie watches the passengers depart, sees the familiar eyes and faces of the mountain people she has left behind, proud, hard eyes, set lips, closed stances. Hennie remembers those things in herself when she first left home, the chip on her shoulder. But when she came back from Iraq and got stationed at Fort Meade, Maryland, she took the metro into DC to find an Afghani restaurant she’d heard about. She got a library card. She spent hours looking through the museums at the mall, at Asian and Indian art, aviation, natural history, the world much bigger than she had ever imagined, and somehow, she felt more secure in it than she ever had in Big Ugly.
“Hennie!” She hears Clea’s voice from the steps of the bus. Her face is obscured by a smaller Clea, who clutches a Cookie Monster by the neck. Hennie steps forward, opening her arms as Clea pushes Kaitlin into them and turns toward the luggage compartment of the bus.
“Say hi to your Aunt Hennie!” she says to Kaitlin, who studies Hennie in a daze. She smells of dried fruit juice and sleep. Kaitlin presses Cookie Monster against Hennie’s cheek.
“Kiss Cookie Monster,” she orders, and Hennie touches the matted fur with her lips as Clea comes up with an old hard-shell suitcase and folded stroller. Hennie remembers, when she enlisted, how a favorite biology teacher raised money among the teachers to buy her a soft-shell Samsonite suitcase with wheels that rolled every way. It was the first and perhaps only thing she really owned.
“Hey, girlie, you look fine.” Clea weaves her arms around Hennie and Kaitlin. Hennie can smell Clea’s perfume, a Calvin Klein knockoff she bought at the mall back when they were teenagers, and she feels a wet click in her throat. The small of her back sweats. She bends with her knees and places Kaitlin between them to get a better look. Clea’s acne has cleared, and she wears the faintest trace of makeup. Her hair is unbraided, cut in a shag. Hennie runs her hands through the tips, grazing her cheek, before Clea picks Kaitlin back up.
“Do you like my hair?” Clea follows Hennie to her subcompact. “Gary hates it, but it’s so easier to take care of now, and I just don’t have the time, with Kaitlin.”
“If you like it, I like it, too.” She heaves Clea’s suitcase into the trunk with the stroller.
“I can spike it a little with gel—it looks really nice when I go out with the girls sometimes,” she explains. “Shit, I forgot the car seat. Gary had it in the truck when he left this morning, and I didn’t even think about it. I’m going to have to sit in the back with Kaitlin, Hennie, I’m so sorry.”
“It’s all right,” Hennie answers. “It’s not far.”
“It looks like you’ve done good for yourself,” Clea says. “New car, new apartment. Remember when we were going to hotwire Mr. Jenkin’s truck and run away on thirty-five dollars?”
Hennie remembers everything in between those words. She remembers Clea’s hand in hers, the warmth of her breath in her ear. She remembers their fearlessness, their dreams as hard and shiny as the pennies in their pockets. She still has the blur of tattoo on her inner thigh, a squared “C” made by Clea with a blunt penknife the night they stole a fifth of Wild Turkey from Clea’s father, the night they drew their plans in the air with the ink of sweet drunk.
“Yeah—we were going to find a deserted barn or log cabin and live off the land. I lived in a tent for two years—I’m sure I could do it, no problem.”
“What about Kaitlin?”
“We could homeschool her.”
“You haven’t changed, girlie.” Clea laughs. “That’s what I love about you.”
Hennie tries to catch Clea’s eyes in the rearview mirror but her face is bent, turned toward Kaitlin.
“You miss your daddy, baby?” Hennie watches Clea stroke Kaitlin’s long hair. “I bet your daddy misses you.”
Hennie takes Clea and Kaitlin to the Applebee’s in Columbia for dinner. She had dreamed every night of a little place in Capitol Hill, a French place she had read about in the Washington Post, candlelight and wine and violins. But Clea seems satisfied here, ordering an overpriced, watered-down margarita and a steak.
“Where do your boyfriends take you out, Hennie?” Clea asks and takes a generous sip of margarita. Hennie searches her eyes, pulls apart her word taffy, before shrugging.
“Nowhere. I don’t go out very much. Sometimes I go out for wings with friends.” She does not tell her about the men from the base who ask her out. Some of them are earnest, gentle. They’re lean like sticks but strong, pliable. The kind of men she imagines taking care of her, if she wanted to be taken care of. Nor does she tell her about the time she took the metro into the district to that women’s bar, where she met the Georgetown student, lithe and covered in black, holding a globe of red wine in her palm. She wants to tell Clea how some have it so easy, they wear their feelings like a badge and their families don’t care and their families have money that sends them to Europe and to college and no one worries about getting beat up or whether their friends won’t speak to them anymore. She doesn’t tell her about the kiss in the girl’s apartment, the paper with her phone number that Hennie threw away, ashamed, before she got back to the base.
Clea breaks a mozzarella stick into thirds and gives a piece to Kaitlin, who shakes it in her hand like dice.
“I’ve been staying at my mom’s a lot,” she says after another sip of margarita. “It’s not that I regret having Kaitlin…it’s just that having a baby is so hard, and Gary is no help.”
“What does Gary say?”
“He always says he’ll change. He changes for a little while, but it never sticks. I feel so stuck sometimes. Gosh, Hennie, I wish you would come home.”
“I got a job here now. And I got my own place.” Hennie reaches across the table and takes Clea’s hand, stroking her knuckles, before she drops it. “Why don’t you move here, with me? There’s all kinds of stuff here for Kaitlin—children’s museums, and good schools.”
“Yeah? That sounds nice.” Clea holds her empty glass toward the waitress. “I’ll take another one of these.”
“You got to buy some curtains, Hennie,” Clea says. They have dragged the futon into the bedroom and tucked it underneath the window, where Kaitlin sleeps in the dark with kicked blankets and Cookie monster dangling precariously from a relaxed hand. Moonlight from the window angles over her and onto the bed, cutting across Clea’s stomach and Hennie’s hand, which rests on it.
“I just pull the covers up tight,” Hennie answers, bunching them in her palms and pulling them over herself as she straddles Clea. She feels Clea’s breath, hot and sweet, in the space between them as she leans in and kisses her. She has not kissed Clea since the summer after graduation, in her father’s truck at the railroad tracks. The train had come, miles and miles of cargo cars separating them from Gary’s place, where Clea was going to get a dime bag. They kissed jokingly and then kissed for real, and Hennie said I love you and Clea did too and then the tracks were clear and the dirty trailer stood in darkness before them except for that red and blue window lit up, where a confederate flag hung as a curtain. Gary’s place. Gary, just a dropout dealer Hennie never thought much of, until he was at the party in the Turner’s field and Clea left with him that night. Just to his place, to score some weed, Clea had winked at Hennie.
They hadn’t kissed since then but they are kissing now, soft and full of sweet drunk and just sweet, too. Hennie keeps the covers over them and they fumble with shirts, with bras until Kaitlin stirs on the futon, a soft thud, and they stop. Clea pulls the covers down. It’s only Cookie monster on the floor, but she gets up anyway, puts him back in Kaitlin’s grasp, then presses her shirt to her chest, goes to find her cigarettes.
Hennie waits in the bed, listening to Clea smoke, talk to Gary on her cell phone. In the bare living room, even her whisper bounces off the walls.
“I miss you, baby,” Clea says to him, as Hennie lies on the mattress, spread eagle. In Fallujah she’d think of the smell of apples, Red Delicious, Ginger Gold, Empire. They reminded her of home. She thought about all those apples, heavy on branches for the taking, and how they’d fall off, rot on the ground. If she could have just one, she used to think, she’d be happy. The moon slivers white on her leg. She crawls back under the sheet and waits.
About the Author:
Jen Michalski’s first collection of fiction, Close Encounters, is available from So New (2007), her second is forthcoming from Dzanc (2013), and her novella May-September (2010) was published by Press 53 as part of the Press 53 Open Awards. Her chapbook Cross Sections (2008) is available from Publishing Genius. She also is the editor of the anthology City Sages: Baltimore (CityLit Press 2010), which won a 2010 “Best of Baltimore” award from Baltimore Magazine. She is the founding editor of the literary quarterly jmww, and is co-host of the monthly reading series The 510 Readings in Baltimore.