She came with another female soldier on a sunny afternoon. It was Saturday and I was on the ladder, cleaning the leaves out of the second-story gutters. From the back of the house, I could hear a nest of robins chirping from a large maple that hung far over the roof.
“Hi Ray,” she said.
I looked down at my girlfriend, standing next to her friend; both were wearing berets that made them look a bit jaunty.
“Jennifer,” I said, surprised. “My God, what are you doing here?”
“I’m home,” she said. “On leave.”
“Jesus. You didn’t call to let me know.”
She smiled, looked at her friend. “I know,” she said. “I wanted to surprise you.” When I didn’t say anything, she said: “Come down before you fall off the ladder.”
From the beginning, she held my interest. She was just tall enough to join. Ariel had blond hair that came from a box: short and ruler-straight, dry as cotton batting. I’d like to say I knew her well when I asked her to come home with me, but I didn’t. In a way I still don’t know her, but I’ve given up trying. I could tell right away that Ray was disappointed. Not with me just showing up, but with my decision to bring Ariel. It wasn’t in anything he said. Ray’s a good man. Not always loving. But good. He has a tendency to drift off somewhere, space-out, like in his own special reverie. But I think he wondered about Ariel right away.
That first night home, in bed, he asked: “Is that her real name?”
“As far as I know. Why?”
“I don’t know. It’s a Disney name, isn’t it? It’s a name for an animated character.”
The next morning Ariel was already on her second cup of coffee when I entered the kitchen. My pajamas were bunched up in the crotch, and I was just finishing straightening them when I noticed her sitting at the breakfast table. She smiled, and I pulled my hand away nonchalantly.
“You found the coffee,” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “I didn’t make much because I wasn’t sure how strong you liked it.”
“Strong,” I said, and poured myself the remaining coffee from the pot. I joined her at the table.
“Tell me something,” she said, taking a sip of coffee. “How far back does your property go?”
“Not far,” I said. “Maybe five-hundred feet.”
“That’s pretty far.”
She was wearing a nightgown that was V-necked. From where I sat her left breast was exposed. I could see some words tattooed on it. They appeared to be in Arabic.
“The coffee’s good,” I said.
“Yeah,” she said. She got up to make some more.
Her back was turned to me.
“Jennifer says you teach,” she said.
“Yes. At Case Western Reserve.”
“What do you teach?”
“English poets mostly. Occasionally Rimbaud and Baudelaire.”
The coffee began to brew. Ariel turned and leaned her back against the counter. She smiled. I noticed one of her bottom teeth was chipped, and she kept rubbing her
tongue over it. Her face was narrow; her neck quite long, Modigliani-like, I would say. She stood there, soldier-straight. She was pretty but hard looking, muscular, fit, and I don’t know why but I wanted to tell her to leave my house. I wanted her to go back to wherever she came from.
“I think we could become friends,” she suddenly said. “If you let us.”
“I don’t know you,” I said.
She grabbed my cup from my hand and poured me come coffee. Handing me the cup, she said, “Jennifer and I are soul mates.”
I could say that what drew me to her was the fact she had saved my life—and that would be true—but we would have become friends anyway. Ariel had not been befriended by other soldiers, and I’ve always had a knack for finding lonely people.
Ariel was lonely, though she would never admit it.
She came from Texas by way of somewhere else. She never would say. And her accent—a kind of speeded-up Faulknerian drawl—that lost itself somehow, as if it came from the past like a voice that no longer existed. She had the ability to measure her words, by which I mean that whatever came out of her mouth seemed right for her, as if she could say nothing else.
That first morning, we decided to take a picnic in the country, outside Cleveland. The weather felt perfectly mid-western: mid-seventies; mildly overcast—the cumulus clouds appearing ominous; a look that people in Cleveland tended to ignore. It was my idea, the park, but I should have realized that Jennifer and Ariel would have no interest in hiking, so I left them to take a walk on my own. I left them as they were setting up a cribbage board on an old bed spread; a bottle of Jim Beam separating them. They were smoking cigarettes, and I realized I didn’t know my girlfriend any longer. She had come back from war a different person.
I think I was more in love with the thought of going to war. But once I was in
Afghanistan, it mystified me. I never felt comfortable. The mind-numbing boredom alternated with an edgy high while on patrol pushed and pulled on me so that I never felt like myself. To say that Afghanistan changed me would be wrong. Change implied perhaps something subtle. Afghanistan did much more than that—it altered me, as if my entire life prior to Afghanistan had been lived by someone else; not my double, more like an imposter.
When I returned from hiking, Jennifer and her friend were lying on the blanket; both flushed and inebriated. Jennifer was snoring. They were holding hands. I sat down, and though I’m not much of a drinker, I poured the last of the whiskey in a tumbler. I drank some of the whiskey, swallowing hard. Overhead a hawk screeched. It glided in concentric circles.
“Where did you hike?” Ariel asked.
“Along the river.”
I took off my boots and leaned back on my elbows. I felt dizzy. I handed my glass of whiskey to Ariel. She looked at it a moment, undecidedly, then got up and poured the whiskey on the ground.
“What did you do in your other life?” I asked when she sat back down.
“Yes. Before you joined the service.”
“I drove a truck.”
“Yes,” she said. A full-rig. Across country.”
“Really,” I said. “What was your favorite stop?”
Ariel took off her sandals. Her toes were painted black. The paint was chipped. Her nails were long and needed trimming.
“A little town in Michigan called Hartford. There’s a Tastee Freeze there, on the edge of town. On the other edge is an A&W Root Beer stand. All the young people, in the evening, drive from one end to the other. They drive around the restaurants, wave at their friends. They do this all night long.”
The wave of nausea was still with me, and I wondered if Jennifer and Ariel had put some kind of chemical in the whiskey.
“I don’t feel well,” I said.
“Why don’t you stand up?”
Although it felt like the opposite of what I should being doing, I stood up. Ariel stood with me. I took a few wobbly steps. Ariel held her arm around my waist.
“I don’t know what’s wrong,” I said.
“I did this with the boys in Afghanistan. You’d be surprised how much mothering they needed. Those big men. But they were just boys.”
“What a waste,” I said, and right away I wished I hadn’t said it. I didn’t believe in the war, but I’m a quiet person. Not much on proselytizing. I figured Ariel would pounce on me, but she wasn’t upset. She kept me walking; her small hand on the low part of my back.
“Afghanistan is complicated,” she said.
We walked to a nearby playground, sat I some swings—the flat kind, made of real rubber. Two fat boys were holed up in a play fort, jabbering about games of war. Occasionally one would holler out, and I’d wince at the sound of their shrill young voices. Ariel started pushing me in the swing, and I let her, though I still felt dizzy, and the possibility of falling seemed real. She began to hum, and at first I couldn’t make out the song. I concentrated on her voice, which was soft and sweet, and very melodic. It helped me tune out the boys’ voices, though the contrast was at times violent. “Hush little baby…” Ariel sang, and I don’t know why but I felt comforted by the song. I drifted off somewhere; where I don’t know. I didn’t feel humiliated by her pushing me and singing the song as if I was a child. I let her. The touch of her hands pushing me on my lower back, and the rhythm of the swing going back and forth—it felt right. My hands held tight to the chains on each side of me, but I felt like letting go. I continued to drift.
And Ariel continued to sing.
The boys’ laughs woke me from my reverie. When I looked down they were standing below me, pointing. Dirt was smeared on their faces. From up above, I could still smell their little boy sweat and stink.
“Look at the little baby,” one of them said.
I looked around, but I didn’t see Ariel, and I wondered if I had dreamed her pushing me in the swing. She was back at our picnic spot, and I saw that she and Jennifer were gathering to leave. And I suddenly leaped from the swing, flying over the boys, which surprised them to the point they stopped laughing. I landed hard on my left ankle, and it gave a little, but I didn’t fall to the ground. Limping, I walked to Jennifer and Ariel.
They stood there, astounded, looking at me like I was some kind of fool.
I’m not sure what made me enlist. By this time Ray and I were living together, in his three-bedroom “starter home”; a bungalow near the university. I had been viewing the special summer exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art—cubist painters, all from Europe. I found myself bored, though I couldn’t figure out why. I couldn’t make sense of all the angles and lines, seeing the human body chopped and dissected and put together like a puzzle. It seemed a travesty what Picasso and the others did, attaching legs to arms, nipples to feet, eyeballs to everything. And I don’t know why but the paintings made me see the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, perhaps because of Guernica, though the picture wasn’t a part of the exhibition.
A recruiter happened to be on Case’s campus the next day; a young man standing in the rain outside a red brick building looking kind of forlorn and lonely. On a whim, after picking up two cups of coffee at Arabica’s on University Circle Drive, I walked up to the recruiter. He had a number of pamphlets in his hand and was attempting to hand them out to students as they passed by, but none were taking. I could see the perspiration above his shaved lip as I neared. I don’t know why but I felt sorry for him.
“Want some coffee?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said, while robotically reaching for the paper cup.
“Who are you recruiting for?” I asked.
“Army,” he said. He took a sip of coffee. He put his cup on the cement and handed me a brochure.
I leafed through the brochure quietly.
“Private Donahue, Ma’am,” the recruiter said. He stuck out his hand, and I shook it. “You’re a student?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Not at Case, though. I attend CIA.”
“Art, huh,” he said, taking another sip of coffee. “Do you find that meaningful?”
I wasn’t offended by his question. I gave him my pat answer: “It depends on how you define meaningful?”
He smiled. He flipped to the back page of the brochure and pointed to the picture of a woman in uniform. “This person saves lives,” he said. “Does your art do that?”
“That person might just as easily end a life,” I said.
“Sometimes you have to kill in order to save.”
“The numbers still added up the same. A person dead.”
The young man took another sip of coffee. He sniffed, and I thought for a minute he was going to say something in an angry tone. He cleared his throat. “You still haven’t answered my question,” he said.
“Do you find what you’re doing meaningful?” I looked at him, but I didn’t say anything. “Life isn’t worth living if it isn’t meaningful,” he said.
I laughed. “Are you an army recruiter or a philosopher?” I asked. But he didn’t say anything as a boy who looked to be about age seventeen, wearing a Cleveland Indians cap, came up to him and asked him about how to join the Junior ROTC. I stuffed the brochure in my backpack and headed for my studio.
We met as students: I was attending Case Western as a post-graduate student; Jennifer was a sophomore at Cleveland Institute of Art. She had long hair then and fingertips that aroused me just by looking at them. She was into metals and glass blowing. She loved to spend hours in the glass-blowing studio, getting all hot and sweaty, and, afterwards, she’d run to my apartment—a shabby, one-room studio—where we would make love for hours, in a kind of frenzy; she all hair and fingertips. Afterwards, we would make tacos, or some other cheap student food, and then I would read for hours while she manipulated small tools and bits of metal into crudely-shaped jewelry.
Jennifer had been separated from her biological parents when she was seven months old, an automobile accident having killed her parents instantly. Her aunt, on her mother’s side, raised her. Aunt Julia was already in her forties when Jennifer came to live with her. The few pictures I’ve seen of Julia show a middle-aged woman with short red hair and black glasses. In these pictures she is smiling and always looking at Jennifer, not at the picture-taker, whoever he or she was.
Julia, before Jennifer came to live with her, had been a melancholy person, often spending days in bed, or holed up in her tiny house watching black-and-white movies; a glass ashtray between her legs. I know this because Jennifer told me, and I’ve never known Jennifer to lie. Besides, Julia admitted as much to me. She described the years before Jennifer came to live with her as “unworthy” years, and, though I’m not entirely certain what she meant by this; she said raising Jennifer gave her a purpose. From Jennifer’s perspective, she had never known her aunt to be anything but a happy person. Julia encouraged Jennifer to become an artist. She provided Jennifer the funds necessary to attend the Cleveland Institute of Art. CIA is the home to Cinematheque, a showcase for Indie-type films. I’m a silent film buff, and the Cinematheque was having a Charlie Chaplin retrospective. Although I prefer Buster Keaton over Chaplin, I decided to take in The Gold Rush. I was running a little late and I stumbled in the dark as I entered the theatre, finding a seat close to the door, next to a young woman. That young woman turned out to be Jennifer. I remember, as I sat next to her in the dark, that she gave off a smell of earthiness, like dried leaves, or ashes. I remember, now, after the movie, how she looked at me when the lights were turned back on. She had been crying; her face was tear-streaked, and her cheeks red. She said she found all silent films inherently sad, even comedies.
Ray was pulling weeds out of the petunia beds when I walked up to him. It was 7:30 in the morning.
“You’re up early,” I said.
“I’ve been up for two hours,” he said. A gray T-shirt clung to his back, dark with sweat.
I bent over and pulled a dandelion from the flower bed and tossed it on the pile Ray had made. “You haven’t been sleeping well, have you?” I asked.
“Because of Ariel, I know.”
“I don’t understand her,” Ray said.
“She’s mysterious. I’ll admit it.”
Ray stood up. He wiped some sweat from his face, leaving a smear of soil on his cheek.
“It’s much more than that, Jennifer.” Ray started to say more, but suddenly stopped.
“The thing is Ray; we’re going on a trip. A road trip.”
“Yes. We’re going west. Not far. Ariel wants to take pictures of make-shift memorials. You know, the kind you see on corners in back roads.”
Ray stopped weeding. The smudge of dirt still clung to his cheek, and I wanted to brush it off.
“I don’t understand,” Ray said. “Are you gay?”
“What?” I started to laugh.
“Just tell me,” Ray said.
I stood in silence. The sun was in my eyes, and I was having a tough time with the glare. Suddenly, like an apparition, a deer appeared, high-stepping its way from behind a cedar bush. It looked at the both of us, stood alert, and then bolted away.
I turned back to Ray. “Is that what you think this is about?” I asked.
“I’m sorry,” Ray said. “I shouldn’t have said that. I didn’t mean it.”
“I think you did.”
“I want to come.”
“I’m coming with you.”
We’ve never talked about marriage. Weeks before Jennifer enlisted; I began to feel something slip away. It wasn’t anything that I really understood, or could name. But she was spending less time in her studio. I’d catch her daydreaming and make fun of her, but she’d only laugh. Still, I knew something wasn’t right with her.
As an assistant professor, I was busy teaching several freshman English classes. My days were full, too full, but my position carried with it the possibility of tenure, and I was determined to get it. And though I could not afford it, I bought a house as a way to convince myself that it would all work out. I liked Cleveland. The weather suited me. The summers, when they finally arrived—sometimes as late as July—brought with it warm days and cool nights. Having been born in nearby Columbus, and spending much time in Cincinnati, where, at least in the latter location, there was too much sausage and beer, I found Cleveland with Lake Erie and its incessant cloud cover, to my liking.
When Jennifer had announced, one day after she had returned home from her private studio, that she had joined the army, I thought she was kidding. By then she had already dropped out of school. When she produced the papers to prove she had enlisted, I demanded she tell the recruitment officer she had made a mistake.
“It’s not a mistake,” she said.
“I’ll go with you,” I said.
“You’re an artist,” I said, “not a soldier.”
“I’m a soldier now.”
I wanted to tear up the papers. Finally I said, “Jennifer, you can’t do it. The army is for the poor, uneducated.”
“Don’t be elitist,” she said.
It was our second day on the road. Yesterday we stopped at several places along back roads out of Cleveland. Ariel was full of excitement, snapping digital pictures of everything. Ray sat in the backseat, encumbered by suitcases and boxes. Occasionally I’d view him in the rearview mirror, slumped over half asleep, or looking perturbed by something Ariel said. More than once I wanted to slap him.
Now, as we traveled along route 67, in Michigan, Ariel said, “Let’s see what this thing can do,” and pushed the accelerator to the floor. The car shifted into overdrive, moving swiftly over the uneven road: 50, 60, 70, 80 miles an hour. The engine sounded like a small jet; I thought we were going to fly. I hung onto the dashboard as the car leapt and lunged over the patches and ruts: 90, 100, 110…. The Dodge finally peaked at 115.
“Pull over. Please!” Ray shouted.
Ariel vaulted right, the tires skidding as she turned down a side road, a dirt road pocked with ruts and holes filled with dirty brown water. At the end of the road, which was no more than one-hundred yards, lined on both sides by a dense thicket of maple trees, was a pond. Ariel stopped the car just short of the water, scattering a half dozen ducks swimming near the edge.
“Jesus,” Ray said, as he exited the car.
Ariel and I got out too.
Ray pointed at Ariel. “What were you thinking?” he asked. His hand shook so
hard he grabbed it with his other hand to stop it from moving.
“Ray, it’s okay,” I said.
“Bullshit,” Ray said.
“Sorry,” Ariel said. “I just needed a little action.”
Ray threw his arms in the air. “Jesus,” he said. “Action! This isn’t Afghanistan.”
Ray walked off. He trudged his way around the pond, and we watched—Ariel and I—him high-step through tall grass. He slapped aside cattails, all the time mumbling to himself. He didn’t stop until he got to the other side of the pond.
“He’s funny,” Ariel said.
“He’s mad,” I said.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I couldn’t help it.”
“I know,” I said. “But he doesn’t understand.”
The thing I had come to understand about relationships—good ones, bad ones, it didn’t matter— was that they all had a breaking point. Couples either came out on the other side damaged beyond repair, or, as Baudelaire might have said, simply unable to live without each other. He, too, once claimed that there were only three kinds of beings that he understood, two of which was the soldier and the poet. Now, I knew something of the poet, but I knew nothing of the soldier.
After the driving incident, before I set off through the underbrush along the pond, I looked at Jennifer, and I realized I no longer knew her, but, most importantly, perhaps never did. I didn’t blame her for this ignorance. I blamed myself. We belonged to different universes. I belonged to words and sentences and phrases that helped explain what was life and beauty. Or so I thought. I thought I lived a life worth living, but I realized after this incident that I knew nothing about the way most people lived. I knew nothing about the war in Afghanistan, and, furthermore, like most Americans, didn’t care to know. It was over there. I lived in my universe, and I was happy there and that was all that mattered.
When I got to the other side of the pond, I stopped and looked at Jennifer and Ariel. They were too far away to tell if they were talking to each other. I couldn’t even make out in which direction their heads were turned; whether they were looking at me or each other, or, perhaps at the ground at some insects that moved about their feet.
It all seemed ridiculous, standing there, looking at them—they perhaps looking at me; not stupid, mind you, ridiculous. The smart thing to do when something was ridiculous was to laugh, but I didn’t feel like laughing. Right then I knew that if they were standing where I now stood, and I had been standing near the car, I would have driven off without them. I would have left them, gaping at me as I drove off.
He came out of nowhere, from the other side of the hill, I guess, carrying a gun, pointing it at me gracefully.
“What’s going on here?” he asked.
“Jesus,” I said, and instinctively raised my arms.
“You’re on private land,” he said.
He was a round man, and he wore a cap with some kind of tractor emblem on the bill. He sniffed and spat. There was a bit of grease on one side of his cheek.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “We took a wrong turn.”
I looked over at Jennifer and Ariel. I could see that Jennifer had started running,
making her way around the pond.
“That don’t explain why you are on this side of the pond,” the man said.
“I needed to use the bathroom,” I said.
“Shit,” he said. “You could have done that on the other side.”
To say I was scared wouldn’t explain anything. I stood there with this big man pointing his gun at me, and I thought for a moment I was going to die.
“Please put the gun down,” I said.
“Not until you tell me what you’re doing here.”
Jennifer arrived. She wasn’t breathing hard. Her breath had control.
“What’s going on here?” Jennifer said.
The man pointed the gun at her. “You with him?” he asked.
“Put the gun down, sir,” Jennifer said.
“What you all doing on my property?” he asked.
“We’re leaving, sir,” Jennifer said. “Put the gun down.”
“I should call the police on the lot of you. But I don’t care for the police.”
My arms were still raised. But Jennifer hadn’t raised her arms. She looked over at Ariel.
“Mister,” Jennifer said, “you see that woman over on the other side. She has a rifle pointed directly at you. She and I just got leave from Afghanistan. She can kill you with that rifle faster than you can move your right leg up and down. But she’s not going to kill you if you put that rifle down.”
“Bullshit,” he said. “You trying to tell me you two ladies have been over in Afghanistan.”
“Yes,” Jennifer said.
“I don’t believe you,” he said.
“You see,” Jennifer said. “Before I ran over here, we had an agreement that if I raised my arms she was to shoot you. She won’t kill you. But she’ll shoot you in your arm so that you drop the gun. It will shatter your arm, and you’ll never use that arm again.”
Before the man could say anything the air erupted, and I thought for a moment that he had shot his rifle but somehow had missed me or Jennifer, that he had instead fired a warning shot. But then I saw a large bird—a hawk—suddenly fall from the sky; its one wing flung uselessly to the side while it helicoptered through the air and crashed into the ground. We all looked at Ariel and watched as she moved her rifle back toward the man.
“Get off my property,” the man said, and he lowered his gun.
Ray and I ran around the water, circumventing the dead bird. Ariel still had her rifle pointed across the pond, though when I looked in that direction the man had already disappeared over the hill. We all got in the car, me in the driver’s seat, and I drove back to the main road. Ariel kept her eye out the back window for miles before she relaxed and turned her attention forward. Ray appeared stunned, too scared to say anything. He sat in the front passenger seat, his hands clasped upon his lap.
“Jesus, you brought a gun,” Ray finally said.
“Yes,” Ariel said, “and you better be glad I did. This gun saved your ass.”
“This isn’t Afghanistan,” Ray said. “You’re crazy.”
I drove for several miles. Ray and Ariel didn’t say anything more. We came to a small town and Ray asked to stop. I pulled over at a gas station. Ray got out, and I followed him. Ray walked around to the side of the gas station where the bathrooms were located. He was still shaking. He opened the door to the men’s bathroom. The door slammed behind him, and I thought about going in with him, but I didn’t. I heard water running, and Ray came out with his face and head all wet.
“I’m going home,” Ray said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I mean I’m driving back home.”
“Let’s ask Ariel what she wants to do.”
Ray brushed his fingers through his wet hair. “I want you to come home with me,” Ray said.
“Let’s go talk to Ariel,” I said.
We walked back to the car. Ariel was outside the car, leaning against the front bumper, her arms folded across her chest.
“Ray wants to go back home,” I said.
“I want to keep going,” Ariel said.
“Let’s go home,” Ray said, looking at me. “She’s nuts.”
“I’m taking the car, no matter what,” Ray said.
“You’d leave us?” I asked.
Ray didn’t say anything.
“Never mind him,” Ariel said. “We’ll catch a bus.”
“Ray?” I said.
“Come with me,” Ray said.
“I can’t,” I said. “She’s my buddy. I’ve got to stay with her.”
For a moment Ray stood looking at me, his hands in his pockets. I felt sorry for him then, and a part of me wanted to reach out to him, but I stood there and didn’t say anything more. And then he did something that completely surprised me. He ran to the spot where another car had just been, in the shade of a maple, his sneaker in a spot of grease as he pointed down the road where there was nothing. Then he yelled a clear, loud yell that parted the air. I stared in the direction Ray pointed and didn’t say a word. He hadn’t a notion of what might come for him. Ray kept shouting because he thought this small loss was a tragedy.