Sunday, December 14, 2008

Does This Green Beret Make Me Look Fat?

I was at Fort Bragg, shacked up with a Special Forces soldier. He'd left for work at dawn, with a promise to be home by noon, and I was alone in his studio apartment for the first time since my arrival three days earlier.

After showering, I donned a kelly-green sundress and began the arduous task of applying makeup in an un-air-conditioned room in late August in North Carolina. I curled my hair and then curled it again. I sat primly on the black leather couch, trying to preserve my freshly ironed dress and my auburn shag haircut. I was twenty-two.

I stared across the room at a small TV atop a small refrigerator. I lacked the courage to approach either. If he caught me watching TV, he'd judge me slothful; if he caught me eating, he'd judge me gluttonous. I sat there, willing myself not to sweat.

Noon passed, and two, and four. I left the couch once to pee and twice to brush my teeth. I no longer looked dewy fresh, and I was lightheaded from not having eaten since lunch the previous day.

At five, he walked in, unspeakably gorgeous in olive drab: tall, lean, blond, blue eyed. He kissed me passionately and called me magnolia blossom. His voice was like caramel syrup, like buttered grits, like flannel pajamas on a winter night. He tasted like apples. Without exactly apologizing for being late, he made reference to the incompetence of assorted captains and majors. He'd just eaten...was I hungry? Oh, no! Never! Thank you!

"What did you do all day?" he asked, his tone friendly. "Anything fun?"

"I read Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John," I lied.

"Good for you!" he said.

We had sex on the couch and then in the shower. He was loving and thorough and better every time. I had the clear impression he'd made a list of "Places to Make Love to Polly." My green dress was in a crumpled heap on the floor; my mascara was smeared beneath my eyes. Maybe it'll make me look gaunt, I thought. Is gaunt the same as thin?

We lay side by side on the twin bed, knees drawn up. My long legs suddenly seemed a bit doughy and untoned, although I was underweight at the time.

"I worry about getting fat," I said (preemptively).

"Me, too," he said.

"But you're so thin!" I said.

"No, I worry about you getting fat," he said.

I lay there, eyes wide, resisting the urge to "act out emotionally." (I'd read--in the journal I'd found in his sock drawer--that he didn't care for women who did that.) I began to wonder when he would dump me and how many years I would spend trying to forget him.

***

Two days later, he dropped me off at the airport at dawn to wait for my mid-afternoon flight. I sat alone, reading "Autopsy." When the book failed to cheer me, and it seemed unlikely that the man I loved was going to return to the small Fayetteville airport, rush through the terminal entrance, grab me by the shoulders, and say, "Please don't go...I'll die if you go," I bought and ate four Almond Joys.

(I hadn't eaten much in five days. At a cafeteria, he'd heaped his tray with fried chicken, grits, black-eyed peas, watermelon, two glasses of milk, and a thick slice of chocolate cake. I'd sprinkled a small baked potato with pepper, searching his face for signs of disapproval.)

The Almond Joys kicked in, proving too much for my empty stomach, and I hurried to the restroom. I couldn't get into a stall without a dime, and, once in, I didn't want to leave. A bathroom stall is a manageable size. It was clean; it looked easy to maintain. I had my book, my purse, my memories of love...

My tears were interrupted by a cleaning woman methodically checking for feet and then unlocking stall doors. Apparently, I looked as invisible as I felt, and I was too tired or too sad to insist on privacy. She opened my door. Black, bored, perhaps sympathetic...I thought about inviting her in.

After changing planes in Washington and Chicago, I arrived in Salt Lake City. An hour later, I finally located my Ford Pinto in long-term parking and drove home.

I curled up in a quilt and reviewed the situation. It was clear to both of us that I wasn't good enough to marry. The question remained: Was I good enough to fuck? He seemed to enjoy having sex with me. Of course, he also enjoyed hating me for allowing sex. Fortunately, he was bright enough to see that this made him an ass. Unfortunately, he could also hate me for making him feel like an ass.

***

We'd met early that summer at the Officers' Club at a military post in Utah. I was a barmaid; he was a first lieutenant. He looked so wholesome, so down-home, that I assumed he was a local boy (and, thus, a Mormon), but I was wrong. He hung around until my shift ended, and we sat at a small table and got to know each other. He talked about farming; he talked about how the Civil War had little to do with slavery. I found out that he was a college graduate and a land owner, and that he valued rigorous savings programs and rigorous exercise programs. I smiled, knowing that I couldn't offer much more than my warm and eager body stretched out next to him in my cozy apartment.

The next night, he went home with me, and two more nights after that. I don't recall seducing him, although I've never played hard-to-get. (I had considerably more sexual experience than he did, but cannot recall getting any points for that.) I remember standing in the parking lot next to my idling car, wearing corduroy bell-bottoms and a gauzy peasant blouse, grinning ear to ear and probably ovulating...he really can't be blamed for hopping in. I'm sure he knew that I wanted to wrap my legs around him, to make him laugh, to know more about his version of the Civil War.

After those three nights together (and minutes before returning to Fort Bragg), he revealed that he was a born-again Christian. I was stunned, furious. I knew that this would eventually doom us; I knew that--try as I might--I wouldn't be able to fake accepting-Jesus-Christ-as-my-lord-and-savior. And later I would accept the harsher truth: He wouldn't find it necessary to reject me based on my religious inadequacies, because my other inadequacies were so many, and so glaring.

***

Shortly after our three days in Utah, I flew to Virginia Beach to spend the weekend with him.

"You don't have to do this," my mom said on the way to the airport.

"You think I have doubts?" I asked.

"Yes," she said.

I was disappointed by a lukewarm greeting when he met me at the airport. I was so far from home (my first time east of the Mississippi), and I wanted to draw my knees up to my chin, protectively, sitting beside him in his pickup truck. He sensed something and--bless his heart--pulled to the side of the road and put his arms around me. He held me like that until I felt cherished, and, when we arrived at the motel, he continued to make me feel cherished. (There's a photo from that weekend--his favorite photo, he said--that shows me standing in front of a famous lighthouse. I'm wearing a floral skirt and a red blouse--very modest, very becoming--and my smile is content, even serene.)

I knew he liked me. I knew he didn't love me, because one night after sex he said, "I don't love you." I knew I'd never meet his mama, or his commanding officer, but he liked the way I flirted with him, and teased him, and wasn't afraid to adore him. He knew I wasn't stupid, although once he found it necessary to correct my spelling in a chatty and passionate letter I'd sent.

***

After the Virginia Beach visit--playing house in the motel room, gazing out at the ocean, talking endlessly, learning to be tender with each other--I was sure I wanted him. Nights and weekends, we talked on the phone for hours, revealing ourselves. It was both earnest and erotic, and I never got bored. Weekdays, I'd leave work at lunch time, drive home, and check the mailbox. I didn't have time to enter the apartment or eat anything, but that was okay: My only desire was a letter from him. He didn't write as frequently as I did (daily), but he wrote often, and well. We were connected during that brief time, and adoration and admiration flowed easily, and in both directions.

***

When I flew to Fort Bragg later that summer, I anticipated bliss. We were practically buddies, and I thought I'd enjoy a new sense of ease and belonging. There was some of that, but there was also the feeling that I was being hidden away. I, of course, assumed that he was ashamed of me, and that I must not be cute enough (I was) or thin enough (I was). Decades later, it occurred to me that his failure to introduce me to his friends might have had nothing to do with me, and everything to do with his well-tended reputation as God's warrior.

***

That autumn, I tried to pretend everything was okay. We were planning a third trip (to Washington, D.C.), and he'd even sent me a Fayetteville newspaper with job and apartment listings. But at this point (and I considered not including this tawdry detail in my little memoir), perhaps I tried to sabotage the relationship.

For years, I'd been answering personal ads in Mother Earth News, but I'd stopped (well, I'd taken a break) when I met him. But one tardy letter arrived at my house from a man in southeastern Utah, inviting me to spend the weekend. I was considering doing so (in a platonic way, of course). I should have gone, or not gone, but in a rare and misguided moment of honesty, I mentioned the possible weekend trip. I mentioned, too, the platonic nature of the trip. He accused me of being disingenuous. Imagine! I was offended by his lack of trust, and charmed by his insight and his vocabulary. I didn't go to southeastern Utah (I'd only been half interested in going in the first place), but I allowed a new chink to form in our somewhat-vulnerable relationship. Where my sluttiness (for lack of a better word) had been friendly and inviting, it was now worrisome.

***

Funny, really, how you think you're expecting something, but then--when it happens--you feel blindsided. That's how it felt in late October of that year, when he called and said it was over. All those carefully hand-written letters, all those phone calls that lasted long enough to require bathroom breaks, the cross-country flights, the tender and enthusiastic sex...how could it be over?

Once again, I curled up in a quilt. But this time, there was more crying and less reviewing. All night long I cried, until dawn, until exhaustion. Then, I moved on to reviewing. Was it my fault? Sure. I'd reached too high. Before him, I'd been the wholesome one, the disciplined one, the smart one, and I'd found men who were more than willing to cede me those titles. But with him, I'd never been enough. Or I'd been too much. I'd never been just right. I cried some more, but stopped short of going crazy.

***

Seven years later, he called again. Minor changes had taken place in my life (I was married, the mother of a two-year-old boy, working at a grownup job I loved), but the really important things had stayed the same: I became dizzy at the sound of his Opie Taylor voice; I stopped eating when gripped with the realization that if he could get my phone number, he could quite possibly get my address; and a week after he called, I dreamed about him. (In the dream, he'd asked me to marry him. When I arrived at the church, white lace from head to toe, I realized that I'd been invited merely as a guest. He was marrying another woman--lovelier, more virtuous, not given to caustic humor or going without a bra.)

I was home alone when he called, and while I was no longer in love with him, I would always be in love with the sound of his voice. I sat cross-legged on the floor, allowing myself additional similes: His voice was like warm sand between bare toes...like one more praline when you thought they were all gone...like when it's too chilly to stay outside, but you don't want to go in yet, and someone hands you a hooded sweatshirt. The room darkened, and our voices were warm, husky, affectionate, intimate...bearing no resemblance whatsoever to the conversations of people who have seen each other apply deodorant or give birth. He had married (and later divorced). I asked, "Why her? Why not me?" He answered, "Because she was here." He was being kind.

I'm not sure why he called. He was never careless; he was always measured, focused. Everything was carefully planned and executed. My sister suggested that it was a "booty call," but--not only do I detest that term--I think she was wrong. I think he called to make sure I wasn't still curled up in a quilt, missing him, blaming myself, memorizing Wordsworth poems so I could wow him later with my ability to recite Wordsworth poems...

This second act of our relationship lasted two or three months, and included several phone calls and letters. I saved the letters in a large envelope with the letters from earlier, but not in a special place--not tucked deep into the pocket of a seldom-worn coat or protected forever in a cedar-lined box. During one of our last phone calls, I said with a lump in my throat, "I hope you remember me as more Melanie Wilkes than Scarlett O'Hara," and he said yes. I could tell he was smiling.

***

This next part is what I want to happen: He calls; he's in Utah for the weekend (a military outing). The opportunity to see him in uniform is difficult to resist, so I don't. (He hated that about me: my tendency to fall happily into the arms of temptation. Or maybe he loved that about me.) I don a cotton sweater and old jeans and hop into the Honda. At lunch, I order a club sandwich, fries, and a Dr. Pepper. I look at him challengingly, and he smiles and says, "Oh stop it." We linger over coffee, tell jokes, and make sketches on napkins. I surprise him by quoting Clausewitz, and he surprises me by noticing. I kiss his clean-shaven cheek and drive home to the warm embrace of my family.

And this final part is what is likely to happen: I never hear from him again.

1 comment:

Peggy said...

Was I the sister that suggested it might be a booty call? If so, what a bitch!