Finalist, Remember in November Contest for Creative Nonfiction 2017
When she woke in the air force paramedic’s bed, a weak, warm light was spilling through the narrow window that spanned the length of the bedroom. This was Tucson in mid-November. Palm fronds shuffled and chattered against the outside wall. The wind, she whispered, without really hearing her inflection, or knowing what it was meant to convey.
The medic was awake, too, gazing up at the lofty ceiling, the steel beams. He yawned, covering his mouth, and asked her how comfortable she was with needles, how she felt about putting in an IV. He wanted someone to cure his hangover. He needed someone to shoot him up with saline solution.
Not comfortable at all, she told him. She had to laugh, she was so turned on.
He sat up and dropped his bare feet to the floor. He was short; compact and muscular. A dense crop of red and blue ink covered his left forearm. She was curled into her own body, wearing most of her clothes from the night before, from work, where he had picked her up with some military buddies after her bar shift and took her line dancing across Fourth Avenue at the dive with the tire swing and the canopy of bras. He was a very good dancer. He knew all the steps—how to lift and hitch and shuffle. Had perfect rhythm in his hips, his feet. Somewhere behind the whiskey she’d already drunk was an awareness that when he flipped her upside down her underwear was exposed to the crowded room (she tried to remember what color it was, but could not). She was aware that this was funny and that she liked it. She rested on the tire swing, holding her beer close to her chest with one hand, and watched him move other women around the floor, their lips parted and smiling—they’d lined up for a turn after seeing what he could do with her. When he was tired they shared a cigarette on the porch. The desert air was cold, but her cheeks were hot. They were both sweaty at the hairline. His forehead glistened in the light of a neon Corona sign—deep pores, grayish dry patches around his young eyes when he grinned, the sprays of handsome crow’s feet. His damage endeared him to her. She was easily endeared and easily flattered , which she at once disliked and cherished in herself.
They had fallen asleep talking. She remembered him saying in the dark that he was not afraid to die. That his life had been good, that he felt blessed to have pushed his body so hard, and to have seen the world. He had jumped out of hundreds of planes, had saved many lives. He might have taken some—he said he wasn’t certain. He could survive anywhere in a tent, in the snow. He believed in heaven but not hell, and he wondered how she could imagine that the world existed without intelligent intervention. He loved his mother, who had raised him on her own, and he planned to buy her a house in Santa Fe. He was only 22.
The girl had stayed mostly quiet, listening, making the room safe with her listening. This was a role she felt comfortable in, a role she maybe even sought out, though she wasn’t sure yet how conscious that seeking was.
On the floor of his room, at the foot of an upended snowboard, sat a medical duffle bag packed with pills, latex gloves, gauze, and tubing. There must have been syringes inside, too. The kid was prepared for disaster. Eager for it. He rubbed his temples with his thumbs and asked what she had planned for the day. She knew what that meant. When he got up to take a shower, she left, walking one dusty block to her own apartment with her head bowed into a gust of wind, passing a stray kitten before it slipped behind an ocotillo into the narrow space between two buildings.
They were neighbors, the girl and the air force paramedic. She could have seen his front door from her high-rise window if her window faced west rather than east. When she first met him two weeks ago, she’d been wearing all white, buying a wedge of cheap brie at the corner market on her way to a noche en blanco party hosted by some of her classmates—a small, awkward cohort from whom she mostly felt excluded and thus generally abhorred, but also wished very badly to be accepted by, if only for literary camaraderie, and so continued to show up if invited, even in her resentment and self-consciousness. She had come to this master’s program hoping to find the kinds of people she felt she’d been missing (she couldn’t remember now what that had meant two years ago), and had also recently decided, with a sort of teary, melodramatic pride, that she was a writer because, above all else, she longed to be understood. Which is to say, to be seen and then—or still, or now—be loved. Over the last year this revelation had become a sort of compulsive mantra, rolling around on her tongue like a hot marble, clicking against her teeth whenever she closed her mouth. It hurt. It felt good. She wanted everyone to know about it.
But as far as she could tell, she’d found herself once again an outsider among people she thought would be her people.
The girl’s mother had been angry with her when she was a child. She had needed something from the girl that the girl did not know how to give. Not the way her mother hoped she would.
She asked the girl things like, Don’t you want people to like you?
She said things to the girl like, Pretty doesn’t last. You need to work on the inside. You need to learn to lower your chin when you walk into a room.
And so the girl often stood outside herself and tried to see what her face was doing, what her body must be doing, how her voice sounded, to make others come to conclusions about who she was. She thought she probably understood what her mother was saying and was resolved in new situations to try to make others feel welcome. Still, she gave up quickly if her advances were not returned. She thought she probably seemed as though she was someone who needed nothing. Which was in fact an overcompensation for needing far, far more. It was easier to need nothing.
Yesterday he brought her to the wind tunnel, a surprise, driving them north to the flatlands of Eloy in a brand new military-issued Subaru hatchback, beaming with his secret until they reached the airfield.
Look up, he said.
They sat on the grass and watched rainbow parachutes float in, appearing in the bright blue sky as dots, then smudges, then haloed appendages gliding towards the ground. The hum of airplane motors, the thin, tinny shouts from above; and closer, the whoosh and flap of nylon, the thud and heavy patter of feet struggling against momentum to find land. They listened, too, to parachutes being packed in the sunshine; Italian, Spanish, German voices, Aussies. It was warm enough that the girl took off her sweatshirt and tied it around her waist.
This is like a nomadic lifestyle, the pararescue said, holding out a hand to help her up. They probably saved all year. Now they’ll jump until they run out of money.
Beyond the field at the edge of a large gravel parking lot was the wind tunnel, a forty-foot inverted cone built to stimulate the sensation of falling through the sky—wind from a high-pressure fan held bodies aloft.
This is where you’ll learn to fly, said the kid.
They signed waivers. A boy in a red jumpsuit gave them their own jumpsuits, helmets, and goggles. In a windowless classroom the boy in the red jumpsuit made the girl lie facedown on a padded table that could have been in a doctor’s examination room. He told her to arch her back, bending her knees into place with his hands, positioning her ankles up behind her. He taught the girl three different hand signals, which she immediately forgot.
You’re a natural, said the pararescue. He waited patiently in one of the plastic chairs.
When you get in there you have to relax, the other boy told her. Jump up and onto the air and relax, breathe. Watch my face—I will show you what to do.
But it was impossible for the girl to imagine falling through the sky without having ever done it, and she was not prepared for the force, the endless wind rippling over the skin of her hands, loosening her lips into a manic, ballooning smile. Air was out there somewhere—she could feel it all around. But it wouldn’t come inside. Instead, it made a seal over her mouth and nose. Spit and snot flew back against the helmet, and onto the goggles. She flailed her arms and legs, her tiny body wobbling violently in the air. She grabbed for the column wall like a panicked child at the edge of a swimming pool (indeed, she was drowning), pulling herself out to stand on the grate beyond the arched entrance.
I can’t breathe in there, she tried to say over the roar of the fan. She thought about how her eyes must look, bulging and shifty.
What do you mean, yelled the guide, who was somehow now standing vertically on the net above the wind stream. He was genuinely confused.
Just breathe. Relax.
He moved his hands close to his chest and away again as if to remind her that this is what air could do on its own. Generations of families, children and grandmothers, were watching from a set of bleachers beyond the thick plexiglass. The paramedic was watching, waiting, giving her two thumbs up. The guide in the red jumpsuit was waiting, bored.
Ok, she thought. This is what these boys like. This is what these boys do with their bodies.
She took in a breath before throwing herself back inside, the guide tugging on her sleeve and bringing her close down to the net, eventually settling her into a semi-balanced levitation on her stomach. She lifted her face and sipped the air, quick and shallow. Soon she could move up and down. She could glide side to side. She almost stopped wondering about her snot and where it was. Or if there was drool on her jumpsuit. Then the guide gave her a high five and signaled for her to exit, and the medic took his turn, floating beautifully, like she imagined a ghost might do, sitting upright as if in an invisible chair. Together the boys fell into a kind of choreography they seemed to already know, some kind of dance they’d memorized.
You want to go together? the guide yelled to the girl. Want to come in with him? he asked, joining his hands together, signaling for some sort of union.
But the girl shook her head. That was too much. The fluids, the sucking and gasping. She drew her fingers across her throat and laughed.
When it was time for them to switch again, the boy pulled himself sideways out of the column, put his helmet close to her helmet, and said something about being proud of her. He squeezed her hand, and she thought about how good it felt to be taught something new, and to be admired for trying to learn it. She wanted to be fearless like him. She had never known anyone so fearless.
Back in town the girl brushed the knots out of her hair and changed into a pair of jeans. Then the boy propped her up on the back of his motorcycle and gave her his motorcycle helmet. Holding onto him—his ribs pressing against her small breasts when he inhaled, the motor’s guttural vibrations beneath her thighs, the shifting pockets of warm and cool breeze as they sped towards the mountains—she felt all the things she’d imagined one would feel on the back of a boy’s motorcycle in the desert.
In the Foothills they ate lunch at the upscale open-air mall beside an outdoor fire pit filled with glass beads and blue flames. The girl ordered a chopped salad and a glass of white wine. Then the boy dropped her off at work and later they went dancing. She was six years older than him, and his hands shook when they kissed.
Nothing else happened—that’s how the girl described it when there was no fucking to speak of. Nothing else happened, though she’d followed him home, which was also on the way to her home, and fell into his bed. She couldn’t remember too much now except the talking and a fragile sensation that he hadn’t known what to do, that she had an urgent duty to ignore it and persevere. She woke up hungover, not touching his body, wearing most of her clothes.
For almost a month she did not see or hear from him. She was so obsessed with his absence, in the wake of such sudden saturation, that she took a longer bicycle route to and from campus to avoid passing his front door. She drafted text after text about nothing, some of which she sent and instantly regretted. She thought maybe if she pulled a muscle, or slept on her neck, she could call to ask him for pain killers, because she knew he had everything. Then maybe he’d want to take her places again. Maybe he’d remember what she looked like, or whatever it was that had drawn him to her in the first place. But the situation felt heavily irreconcilable, desperate. A transference had already taken place. A misplaced emotion on an unwilling subject. This was the girl’s least favorite kind of defeat. Each day she gathered the few facts she thought she knew and pushed them around into a list inside her brain to try to find logic, to soothe the anxiety of not knowing:
1. The kid was into God and guns.
2. She thought him at once naive and articulate.
3. His arguments about guns were convincing. Maybe because he also listened to folk rock, and that liberal NPR game show she and her father liked.
4. This made her insecure. She felt conflicted, and for the first time thought about learning to shoot a gun. Just in case.
5. He probably knew she could never really love him because of the gun thing and the God thing.
6. This probably also made him know he could never love her.
7. That, and he was much, much younger.
8. That, and they were both leaving Tucson soon. She was graduating and returning to New York; he would transfer to a base in England.
9. He was very focused. He had specific goals, a five-year plan.
10. This made her think she wasn’t focused at all. That she was lost.
11. Which made her feel old and also young.
12. He probably hated that.
13. She wasn’t 100 percent convinced that he wasn’t a virgin.
14. She wasn’t one hundred percent sure that she actually liked him.
15. She had humiliated him.
16. He had found some of her published work online—stuff about irreverent blow jobs and other boys.
17. This was a new phenomenon. Her writing had only recently become public. No potential friend or partner or lover had ever read her stories without knowing her first.
18. Her work made him nervous—he had said that, in so many words. Her body made him nervous. He had said that, too.
19. Just please don’t write a story about me, he had said. I don’t want to become a story.
20. Had she gained weight since they met?
21. A gay friend of hers thought he was definitely a little gay.
22. He paid for everything: sushi, lunch, drinks, coffee, muffins, wind tunnels.
23. He thought she was sexy—he told her that.
24. He shook when they kissed.
25. He wanted to teach her how to fly.
26. He wanted her to ride on his motorcycle. Or maybe he was just riding his motorcycle with her on it.
27. He didn’t like to wear a helmet on his motorcycle because it wasn’t risky enough.
28. But he wanted her to wear one. Or maybe there was just nowhere else to put the helmet.
29. He was not afraid to die.
Then on the Wednesday before Christmas he showed up at a pub in the barrio where she was reading a story about a one-night-stand with an actor who asked if he could keep his potted ferns at her apartment while he went to Baltimore to be an understudy in a production of Othello. While she read, an artist projected slides on the wall, photographs of deserted gas stations dripping with silver tinsel. The tinsel made shadows on the girl’s face like rain on a car window at night, and on the faces of the tipsy graduate students packed into the bar. Another writer read a reimagining of a fairytale about the half-fish woman doomed to be a mermaid forever if her lover catches her bathing with her fins exposed. The artist and the writers were trying to address the existential loneliness in the impossibility of knowing anyone. This was the description on the event flier. The unbearable discomfort of being known and not, the weirdness and sexiness of hasty intimacy; plants, fins.
She considered the wind tunnel, too. How she admired the pararescue’s fearlessness. How she wanted to own their differences, for him to hold them out to her so she could claim them up close. How she never stopped trying to fill the lack that came from being a lone self.
The girl saw the pararescue come in as she was reading, and accidentally said hat lamp instead of heat lamp, which was what she had written. She mentally scanned her body. She was wearing a tight skirt. Her ass looked great; her waist looked small.
When it was over, the kid walked through the crowd and encircled her, clasping his hands behind her back. She was nearly his height.
You remembered, she said, leaning back, away from his face. I was wondering what happened to you.
She knew she wasn’t supposed to talk about feelings with boys who were prone to disappear, but she couldn’t help herself. She never could.
I still want to learn to shoot a gun, she told him breathlessly. The heat of the wine rose up her chest, her face. He had to leave, but promised to take her the next day.
The shooting range was 30 minutes southeast of downtown. There were no signs—the boy drove from memory, turning off Route 10 onto a dirt road and driving slowly through low desert brush. To her right the girl could hear carefully placed gunshots.
One two. Three. Four five.
At the end of the road was the firing area. Picnic tables were lined up beneath a long tin roof, where three men and one woman were hunched over rifles, or holding up handguns with their arms outstretched, aiming into a sand pit.
Nearby sat a beat up trailer perched on cinder blocks; a hand-drawn sign marked it as OFFICE. The boy parked and went inside, emerging a minute later to ask if the girl had any cash. Cash only.
Of course, she said. Is this enough?
She took 13 dollars out of her wallet, which was all she had. He went in again and came out with two paper targets in the shape of masculine silhouettes, broad shoulders and buzz cuts. The boy was shaking his head, laughing, telling her about the obesity of the man inside, the mountains of stuff—he couldn’t even say what the stuff was, just lots of it.
The smell, he said, fuck.
Then the boy opened the trunk of his Subaru, and his face became tight and serious. Much more serious than the day at the wind tunnel.
Shooting a gun is a state of mind, he told her. It’s a violent act. You have to get tough, be aggressive.
The trunk was full of ammo and emergency medical equipment. He pulled out a long black case with a military assault rifle nestled inside and a smaller black case that held a black hand gun.
I am tough, she said, smiling.
But she had never seen a gun in real life. She was nervous. They put on noise cancelling headphones and he picked a shooting lane on the far end away from the others, setting up their targets when an official ceasefire was called. He told her the rules as though she were a child. Do NOT cross this line. Do NOT take off your headphones. Then he lay down on his stomach, tucking the assault rifle beneath his body, and opened fire.
It seemed to go on for a long time, his shooting. She was grateful for this, because she could only think about what she would look like while doing it. She turned slightly and watched two men at the other end of the range. Both wore ponytails and navy blue sweatshirts. They looked alike from where she stood, like brothers. The woman was alone at one of the picnic tables, playing with her cellphone. The air was dusty with displaced sand. The landscape was bright, the wind was cool, and apart from sporadic gunshots it was very quiet.
Then the boy was done. He stood up and showed the girl how to load her own bullets. He held her fingers, positioning them around the different mechanisms, demonstrating how she should stand, lean in, touch the trigger with a light finger. She thought maybe she was shaking beneath him.
Breathe in, breathe out, lean into the butt, pull—you don’t need to jam it.
She did what the pararescue said. The gun was heavy so he had her rest it on a waist-high cement block.
One. Two. Three, four, five, six.
A few puffs of sand exploded beyond the wooden targets where they’d taped the paper silhouettes. Her shoulder stung from the backfire.
Ow, she said. He laughed.
Keep going. You’re good! Really. I’m impressed.
She folded herself over the rifle once more, trying to make her body look the way he had told her to make it look, or the way the boy’s body had looked. It was just a posture—it was like anything else.
She fixed her gaze on the center of the farthest target and felt the pararescue standing safely behind her. Felt him loving and hating the gun he had given her to hold, loving and hating his own stocky body. And somewhere in between this, she felt both his immediate care and complete ambivalence towards her. How easy he made it look. The girl was not nervous anymore. She was relieved. It was over now, and no one had gotten hurt, not really. Not at all, actually. Truthfully, hadn’t he given her so much? She let herself smile while she tapped the trigger, lips tightening against her teeth. In a few days she would be far away, back on the East Coast. Eventually she would forget and then remember that morning with the IV, when he had almost needed her. She would write it down, would recall him intimately. Eventually she would send her friends the video he’d taken of her shooting the rifle, and then later she would send it to other boys, so that they would also understand, so they would see how tough she was, how fearless. Someone had once stood behind her and recorded the proof. How—look, really—you needn’t to be afraid. She had everything she needed.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Andy Clordia
I thought this piece was so clever, and each time I read it, the cleverness became more apparent to me. I’ve no doubt your ability to take care of and protect yourself comes in no small measure from the power you hold over your writing subjects. It was really crafted and the balance of your characters was spot-on. Congrats again.
Thank you for your kind words, Dina!