Our English composition class project this year is to write to soldiers who are serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. We were given a list of topics to write about, like the weather and our classes. I have to talk about the weather every Sunday at brunch with my family. It’s the most boring conversation ever. Even more boring than church sermons.
I’m not going to write to you about the weather or Differential Algebra because I don’t want to bore you to death.
I’d like to send a care package, but I’m not sure what you would like the most. I can’t send cigarettes, as I am not old enough to buy them.
Very truly yours,
Thank you for your letter. We are always glad to have mail from home. Most of our time here in Afghanistan is boring, too. It seems like we have boredom in common.
While war might seem exciting in movies, there is actually a lot of waiting around and doing nothing. It’s incredibly hot and dry so the idea of sitting and talking about the weather indoors during brunch seems pretty awesome to me.
Definitely don’t buy cigarettes. I’m pretty sure your school assignment isn’t supposed to turn you into a felon. You don’t need to send me anything. Just getting a letter now and then is great. Look forward to hearing from you again.
Pfc. Noah Jackson
FYI: Marines aren’t soldiers; we are Marines. Only the Army has soldiers.
“How ‘bout you, Grace? Who’s your perfect man?” Amy Swanson, my cousin Lana’s sorority sister, stood with Lana and a couple of other Alpha Phis exchanging tidbits on who did what to whom over the summer.
“I’m not getting married. I plan to live a life of bachelorette-hood. I’ll be eccentric, have nine cats, and wear blue eye shadow and fur in the summer,” I said, trying to sound flippant. But based on the weight of Lana’s disapproving glare, I think I slid too far into snarky territory.
Whenever I was asked about why I hadn’t had a boyfriend, ever, I always responded in this manner. I knew I was unreasonably sensitive about my non-existent dating life, but the truth was more embarrassing than any story I could make up.
Other than a few drunken hookups, the closest I had ever come to condoms was finding a packet of them lying next to my brother Josh’s gym bag. Lana harped on the unhealthy attachment I had in high school to a Marine with whom I had corresponded for four years. “Self-fulfilling” and “self-destructive behavior” were among the many therapy-speak phrases that Lana enjoyed whipping out. At first, these were terms she learned in her own therapy sessions. Now they’re from classes she takes as a psych major.
I offered a snarky response to give people some small, delicious detail to focus on so everything else faded away. It was all in the perspective.
Swiveling in my chair, I turned to view my favorite expanse in the library. The reference and circulation desks sat on a balcony above the library’s entrance. The distance was just enough to provide the perfect perspective. I stood up and tilted my head down to peer through the viewfinder of my camera. I always set up my tripod when I worked. Some people studied. Others gossiped. I took time-lapse images, shrinking scenes into miniature, shutting out the peripheral noise, highlighting the minute details, and making everything seem unreal and toy-like.
I felt a nudge at my arm. “Let me see,” Lana was there, offering a silent olive branch. She knew I was still smarting from her disapproving stare, but I knew I should be the one apologizing. I moved away and she peered through the lens, careful not to touch anything. Lana knew how particular I was about the setup of my camera. She stood up and huffed, “I never get to see what you do.” It was a compliment. Lana was good for my ego. She was good for everything. Too bad I was straight. And then there was the whole “cousin” thing.
Shrugging, I looked down again. Two guys had entered the lobby and paused at the monitor’s desk. Their heads suggested diametric appearances. Great contrast. One was blond, the other dark-haired. Both were tall. I quickly moved the camera up the rails and retilted the lens. I took one photo and then looked again. The dark one had knelt down to tie his shoe—make that his boot—while the other waited patiently. The composition made them look like toy soldiers, particularly with the uniformity of their jeans, the dark, plain T-shirts, and the heavy-soled boots. I took three more pictures in rapid succession.
“So Grace,” Amy called from behind me, “are you still coming over tomorrow to take rush photographs?” Her voice must have carried, because through my lens I could see the dark-haired guy’s head jerk up. My heartbeat stuttered, and I moved my hand up to spin the focus on the zoom for a close-up, just as the blond guy bent down and obscured my view. I heard my name again but didn’t move, my eyes glued to the scene in the library entrance below.
I felt something sharp in the region of my heart at the sight of them. I lifted my hand almost unconsciously and pressed a fist against the upper curve of my left breast, as if I could physically press the pain away. I thought I had finally stopped envisioning every brown-haired soldier as my Marine. This wasn’t Noah Jackson, my pen pal of four years, and his blond-haired best friend Bo. These were just two random college guys. Probably on the lacrosse team, by the looks of the muscles on their arms. I blinked rapidly, and resolutely turned away, walking the short distance between the desk and the railing. Between reality and make-believe.
I cleared my throat and deliberately focused on Amy. “Yes, I’ll come over tomorrow.”
“What time?” Amy was one of the rush chairs, and she wanted a photograph of the Alpha Phi house to put on the rush invitations. I pulled out my phone to check the weather app. I preferred cloudy days, because sometimes sunny days made the photos look washed-out from overexposure in the light. The weather app suggested 10 a.m. would be a good time. But I had class at 10.
Peering over my shoulder, Lana suggested, “What about after lunch?” Then she added under her breath, “It’s just for the sorority.”
I made a face at her. I didn’t care about much, but I did like my photographs to look good. “Have you guys talked to the Delts?” For the photograph Amy wanted, I’d need to be high up, and the fraternity house across the street was four stories. If I were at the highest level, I’d probably be able to get a halfway decent photo, sun or not.
“Yup. It’s all cleared with Jack,” Amy said, waving her hand in front of her face. I couldn’t tell if she was indicating he was hot or smelly. At my lack of response, Amy clarified, “Jack’s the president of the Delta Tau Deltas.” I guess the hand movement indicated hot.
“She doesn’t care,” Lana said, to forestall more painful examination of hot guys and their absence in my life.
I gave her a little push to start her moving around the desk. I needed to send the photos I just took to my laptop. Not because I wanted to magnify the images of the two guys but just to see how they turned out.
“I’ll come to the house after lunch,” I said. With that, Amy and the other Alpha Phis wandered off, but Lana remained behind. I didn’t want her watching me as I looked at the photos. “I’m going to study,” I told her in an effort to get her to leave, but my attempts to shoo her along were met with a skeptical glance.
“Right. One week into classes and you’re going to study.” Her tone was flat and disbelieving. “What is it that you’re going to do that you don’t want me to know about?” I fought the urge to look at my camera, at the balcony. I wasn’t sure what she had noticed as I took the pictures.
“Unhealthy realities can be constructed out of imaginary occurrences as a coping strategy disguised as wish fulfillment,” Lana said. She had definitely clued in on my preoccupation with the two guys downstairs.
“I only understood every third word of that,” I muttered.
“It means get real,” Lana said. “See you at home.” She turned, her blonde hair swinging out behind her as she caught up with her sisters.
I forced myself to wait until Lana had walked off the balcony before I rushed over to the camera. In my haste, I fumbled a bit with the controls and almost knocked the tripod over before I was able to email the images to my account.
The time that it took the images to load on my laptop was excruciating. Glaciers moved faster. When the photos finally appeared in my inbox, I zoomed in quickly to see if I had captured the brunette’s face with any clarity. But in each of the pictures I had taken, his face was averted or blocked. I couldn’t even see a chin profile. I switched to the blond’s image. Was that Bo? I squinted, zoomed in, zoomed out. I couldn’t decide. I had deleted the scanned photo of their unit off my drive at the end of last semester, right before Lana and I returned home to Chicago. It was part of the process of trying to “get real,” as Lana had admonished earlier, so I had nothing to compare to these current photos.
Frustrated, I slammed the top of my laptop shut and laid my head down.
Why was I doing this to myself? Last year had felt like actual torture. My heart jumped into my throat every time I saw a tall, dark-haired guy. I wanted so much for him to be Noah, like I could will his presence from his base in San Diego.
Lana wanted me to go to therapy, worried that I was developing a nervous disorder. It took me a week into the first year of classes before Lana had been able to convince me that Noah Jackson wasn’t now or ever going to be attending Central College.
If I was going to be looking at photographs, I should’ve reviewed the selection for my entry into the art department. I had put that off during freshman year, scared away by the horror stories. The dean of the School of Fine Arts had managed to make more students cry and want to drop out than when the on-campus Starbucks shut down for three days after a water leak.
I picked up my battered college course catalog. If I wasn’t going to get up the nerve to apply to the Fine Arts program, I needed to pick a major, something to focus my attention on, so that the rest of the world became blurred-out background noise. It was all in the perspective, I reminded myself.
“Anything wrong, Grace?” I started at the sound. Mike Walsh stood leaning against the circulation desk, holding his ever-present red Nerf ball. Mike maintained that he needed the ball to avoid strangling some of the more obnoxious students, who generally wanted the library staff to do their research for them.
“Nah, just not ready for classes to start again. How was your summer?”
“Can’t complain.” He tipped his head toward my dog-eared course catalog. “Worried you haven’t picked a major yet?”
Mike was my student supervisor and all last year he had watched me page through this course catalog at least once a week. “Kind of. I’m getting so tired of saying ‘undeclared’ to everyone who asks me about it.”
“Just make one up. No one knows the difference anyways.”
“No one except the students who are actually in that major,” I pointed out with what I hoped sounded like wryness. I wasn’t good at lying. For the longest time, I always thought Lana was just super-perceptive, until she told me that every emotion passed across my face like a parade of black ants on a white picnic blanket.
“So, you hear the gossip?” Mike leaned closer, his eyes bright with mischief. Mike was known for two things: his red ball and sourcing more gossip than TMZ.
“Is someone sleeping with their professor already?” That was about the only kind of gossip I figured was juicy enough to account for the eager look on Mike’s face.
“Nope. We’ve got some celebrities in our midst this year.”
“Like movie stars?” I hadn’t heard anything about this, and you’d think that Lana and the sorority girls would’ve been all over this.
“No, mixed martial arts fighters. Two guys who transferred from some junior college in California.”
If my heart had stuttered before, now it completely stopped. All the blood drained from my face, and I may have ceased breathing for a moment.
“Grace, you don’t look so good,” Mike said, leaning back as if he was afraid I was going to infect him.
“No,” I croaked. “I don’t feel so good.” I pressed my fist against my heart again.
“You should go home. There’s nothing going on tonight.”
I nodded my agreement. I needed to go home, and not just to the apartment I shared with Lana, but all the way home to Chicago. Instead, shaking inside, I packed up my tripod and camera with little conscious thought, muscle memory taking over. Mike may have even helped me; I don’t remember. I felt like my head was filled with cotton. All I could hear was the name Noah, over and over, thumping with each beat of my heart.
“Tap your Goddamn pencil one more time, and I’m going to snap your fingers off along with it,” Bo muttered to me. I looked down at my hand, not even realizing it had been in perpetual motion. “Just go and talk to her.”
“Can’t. She’s working,” I said. But she hadn’t been working two hours ago, or the many other times I had spotted her during the past week. The truth was that I was a coward. Facing Grace Sullivan after nearly two years of no contact was more terrifying than the first time I was on patrol in Afghanistan. At this point, I’d rather face down ten angry insurgents than one 5’ 6 girl I could probably pick up and toss with one hand.
But back then, I had been through ninety days of basic training and was surrounded by my buddies, all of us armed to the teeth while we were deployed. Here my only weapons were my lackluster verbal skills and the knowledge that she had written to me, once a month, for four years.
I justified the two weeks since classes started by telling myself I first had to do some recon. No mission is undertaken without good intelligence.
I had to find exactly the best time to not exactly ambush Grace, but at least find the right way to let her know I had landed back in her life.
I found out she had all early classes and was done by noon every day. I learned she lived in a swanky house two blocks away from campus. Bo had chatted up some chick down at the library desk and learned that Grace did her required weekly hours of service on Thursday nights and Sunday afternoons. The one thing I hadn’t managed to obtain was her cell phone number, so I resorted to stalking her around campus.
“If I told the guys that the idea of meeting Grace has turned you into a quivering pussy, they wouldn’t believe me,” Bo mocked, smugly leaning back in his chair and folding his arms behind his head.
“Half those guys would give their left nut to be me right now,” I shot back.
After a few months of regular care packages, Grace had become our unofficial mascot. When the boxes from Grace arrived, the unit hovered around me like vultures and would randomly grab stuff out of the box. They weren’t jackasses enough to take the letter, though. Everyone knew that was hands-off. But I had made the mistake of showing Bo her prom picture, and then everyone wanted to see “their Grace.” My CO even made me pin the picture up, as if she were some kind of community property.
I suspected more guys jacked off to that picture of Grace than to the chick on the cover of Juggs. I guess I was doing my part to benefit unit cohesion, but fuck me, the next picture she sent I kept for myself.
About two years into my service, all the young, single guys and some of the attached ones had begun to view Grace as something of a myth. She was faithful and generous and, after the inclusion of her prom picture, we knew she was, hot, too. She was curvier than the average coed, but I liked that. In her prom dress, she looked like a ‘50s pinup model, with her dark hair curled and a flower pinned near her forehead. While it could have been the padding of her dress, I suspected that she was stacked.
You couldn’t tell the color of her eyes from the picture. She said they were hazel, a mix of yellow and brown that changed depending on what she wore. I may have fantasized a few times about what color they would be when I went down on her or when she was stroking me off.
I looked back over at Bo, still leaning casually back in his chair. “After she’s done working,” I told him, not sure if I was trying to convince him or myself. I’d wait until she was off work and then walk her home. Sit on the swing that hung on the big wraparound porch of the house she lived in, and try to explain my complete silence for the past two years. Automatically, I wondered what color Grace’s eyes were when she was angry.
I hadn’t ever been good at explaining myself, and I knew this time wasn’t going to be any better. I was, however, good at doing. Only this time, when I went to the circulation desk to actually do something, Grace was gone.