OPs, LPs, IPs, and TPs
by Jennifer Percy
There were few towns. Galactic smears appeared in areas of sky that earlier I’d thought were empty space.
The man I was with I’d known for one day. But this was Vermont, at a writer’s colony, and time passed slowly. He was fresh from a foreign war and tattooed in all the places where his muscles had curves. Each one inked with the faded blues of gas station candy bought for a quarter from plastic jugs. I touched the flames on his calf. They gave off heat after he ran.
We’d found a bench made of cement, though it wasn’t really a bench, more like a slab and this slab was in a field near the road. We lay here, side by side, and it was impossible not to think about the two of us in a coffin.
“Would you rather eat food forever in heaven or have sex forever in heaven?”
“Sex,” I said, thinking that would be the answer he would want to hear. An answer that would eventually lead us out of friendship and into love and into sex.
“I would choose food,” he said.
The stars were fish eyes in the dark.
He said he liked to have sex like a praying mantis.
“How do they have sex?”
“Sometimes the female eats the male,” he said.
He told me a story. It began in Colorado when he was snowboarding with friends and had an accident. His unit deployed to Mosul the next month and he was at home with a broken arm. Everyone in his unit got blown up in a Humvee. That story brought us to the question of God. He said it must be God but anyone who believed in God was an idiot. Then he noted patterns in our lives, simultaneous calls and messages, uncanny moments that pointed toward belief. “You made me believe in God.” We decided we were atheists who believed in fate. When he finally shipped off to war again he survived night raids because he had a pair of lucky war boots.
This was the second story, and like most of his stories, it began in America and ended in Iraq. In college, in Virginia, he punched the man who called him faggot. He talked about the way the wound bloomed on porcelain skin, and this got him to thinking about the day in Iraq when the soldiers could not make a decision about killing the girl with no legs.
“Where were her legs?” I said.
I could fit my leg inside his leg.
All over the place. Blown up. No way to put them back on now.
“It was already a bad place for a girl,” he said. “But a girl with no legs?”
This was actually all over a Facebook chat. It was all really casual, our evening wind down.
I told him a colonel had been spreading rumors about how it was easier for the Iraqi people to cope with death than it was for Americans because over there “death is God’s choice.”
“War is fun,” he said. “So what did you think of me when we spoke over the phone?”
“We never spoke over the phone.”
“I was in my kitchen, remember?”
“No it was over email. I have it.”
We never spoke over the phone, but I liked that he thought we did because that meant he was already telling a story about me in his head.
Back in Vermont, at the artists' colony, we woke up with sunflower seeds pressed into our skin. We slept in the bed where the sick poet had slept before she’d left. What she’d told me was she’d taken a nap and then woke up and thought she was inside a hot tub.
“I have promises with three men to punch them,” I said. The sunlight made it impossible to open our eyes. “They’ll punch me back of course. That’s part of the promise.” He started bouncing on two feet.
“Like this,” he said, showing me a one-two. “Go for the nose.”
“I’ll remember,” I said.
“Fuck,” he said, “First night with a girl and I’m already teaching her how to punch. I’ve got problems.”
He told me to come back to the bed and he held my face. He said he wanted to be with me because he thought he could make love to me forever. I told him that was a pretty good reason.
Later I ate Graham crackers out of a Dixie cup while he carried my bags down creaky stairs. They looked like toys in his hands. I skipped the airport shuttle and let him drive me to the airport where I’d take a plane back to the Midwest. “I’m starving,” I said. I held my stomach and bent over.
“You aren’t going to puke are you?”
Instead I listened to him talk about how his father was in Vietnam, how he killed a lot of people. His father left his mother and married a woman twenty years younger.
Our relationship lasted two months. Unlike him, I’m good at ignoring signs.
He had this thing where he asked everyone what they thought about Iraq. These were regular people he ran into at the grocery store or the gas station. I never saw him do it but he told me about his encounters. I thought it was annoying. “We never ask the simple questions,” he said. “Simple questions fuck you up. The problem is I think that the wars are so foreign to Americans that they demand that it be given to them by the spoon, in a homily-like style, like the good little heirs of Tim O’Brien that we ought to be.”
“I tried to go to Iraq when the war began,” I said, “but my dad said he’d come to the airport and tie me up with ropes and wait for the war to end.”
“That’s some totalitarian craziness,” he said.
He invited me to a wedding in Mexico. On the way to the airport he said he just didn’t understand why he always made his mother cry. A dog recently got in a fight with his pit bull. It ripped open the pit bull’s stomach. This was a pet dog on the street, not a stray. The owner ran off and there’s a record out for the guy’s arrest. It was like a hit and run situation, only with dogs. The mother made a joke and asked whether the warrant was for the dog or the owner.
“I didn’t laugh!” he said. “She started crying.”
“I think it’s funny.”
“She’s miserable,” he said. “She’s never gotten over my father.”
In Mexico we searched alleys for cocaina and vicodin. He bought me a peanut butter cup at the pharmacy. The bride was half-Mexican, half-Palestinian and her family owned a house here on the beach near the town of Rosarita. The girlfriends of his hometown friends said they wanted to go the beach. “Is it safe to let them go alone?” one of the men asked. “Yeah,” he said. “The cartel already passed through.” He bought muscle relaxants and shook the bottle as we walked. We drank beer near this bar called Papas and there were little plastic army men falling from the sky, hundreds of them all over the beach.
He gave me half a pill and I hid it inside a French fry.
At the wedding he couldn’t stay awake, he kept nodding off and jerking his head like people do on airplanes. “I took one muscle relaxant and it didn’t work,” he said. “So I took four more.”
At dinner he disappeared. “Where the fuck is he?” his friends asked.
We found him practicing Arabic with the Palestinians. And there it was again, the story of the girl with no legs.
In the morning, he took us surfing. I’d already told him I didn’t want to go because I didn’t know how and I was afraid of sharks. We’d already been parachuting. “Now sharks?” He laughed and said undertow was a bitch. He sent me a video of a shark ripping a man’s boy in half. It was a video from the beach where we would be surfing. We went surfing anyway, escorted by his friend Kevin, a smiling bird-like man with no hair.
I changed into my wetsuit in the parking lot. They both noticed another woman who had cool hair. They were preoccupied with dark women, especially Persians, Palestinians, Egyptians. “I would never date a blonde,” he said. I wanted to suggest that it was because they put on a uniform and invaded countries full of women with dark curly hair and that their imperialism could be reenacted most potently in the bedroom. But I didn’t say this because I was worried it would be true.
I dove into the cold Pacific and paddled and when the first wave came it took me and set me on my back and pushed me under the water. When I emerged he was gone and my sinuses burned from breathing saltwater into my lungs.
Kevin paddled over to me. “How did you get interested in this?”
“All this icky boy stuff.”
I made a joke that when I was a kid I enjoyed ripping Barbie dolls in half.
“I’m on your team,” he said. “It’s just so goddam elemental that I have to break my neck to look away.”
He made his hand into a visor. “I don’t know where he went. Well, you’ll be okay?”
“Fine,” I said. And I just lay there on my back and looked at the sky.
An old man swam up to me like a seal with his nose poking out of the water. He seemed concerned. “Do you need help?” he said.
On the drive back to America, traffic was slow. Customs long. A woman on the street sold him three ceramic skulls. They were the size of children’s heads and he gave one to me. “It’s a gift,” he said, “so you’ll always remember Mexico.”
Back home he spoke in his sleep, muttering the way infants do, and once, I had no idea he was even asleep, in the afternoon, and he rose a little and whispered, “Fifty years of this,” he said, “fifty years.”
I woke him up and told him what he said. I thought it was sweet. That we’d get to wake up next to each other for the next fifty years.
He slapped his head. “Even in my sleep I’m thinking about dying. Just fifty years before this is over and we’re dead.”
Things were happening to him when he slept. Once when I came close he swore and jumped and said, “I thought you were a crescent moon coming in here! And look at this, I’m sleeping in the shape of a crescent moon.” He was a crescent moon: long and elegant like a diver.
He apologized for speaking grunt. “The FOBs and S-VBIEDs and triple-stack 155s and OPs, LPs, IPs and TPs,” he said. He took off his baseball cap and put it on again. “It’s the beautiful clipped banter that says so much by saying almost nothing at all.” It’s the thing he missed most about the Corps. “It’s shorthand, a field poetry that owes existence to Hemingway and Chandler and doesn’t even know it.”
It was Halloween and we took the job to heart. We were going to dress up as Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn. When I picked him up at the airport we were in a long line of cars, and when it came our turn to pay parking, the box for credit cards broke. That same day the pipes in the house where I was living broke and shit filled the basement. My bank account drained. “Destruction follows me everywhere,” he said. “What do we do?”
We decided today was the day to jump out of a plane. We had to wait a long time for our turn. When my parachute opened and floated over Iowa strapped to an instructor I was cold and felt like vomiting and there was a sign on the ground made of old parachutes that read, Will you marry me? We were quiet and waited for the earth to reach our feet. The sign wasn’t for me. The parachutist asked: “What did you imagine when you were falling from the plane?”
“That I was invading another country,” I said.
We were still in character after all.
At home we searched for reasons for our exhaustion. “I can’t keep my eyes open,” he said.
“Look here,” I said. I showed him a site I found about adrenaline and exhaustion. “We used it all up. We have nothing left. But we can’t go to bed now,” I told him.
I peeled back the lids on one of his eyes. It had felt important to me that we reenacted our life before we lived it. I guess that is what we had been doing all along, imagining ourselves as people who went to war and came out the better for it. We had made plans to go to Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria.
“Hang on,” I said. I painted a mustache on his face with my eyeliner. “Looks real,” I said.
“It won’t be real without whiskey,” he said. “And we need cigarettes.”
“Should I be sexy Martha Gellhorn?” I said, showing him my shorts.
“No just be real Martha Gellhorn. She wouldn’t wear those. You need pantaloons.”
“But I don’t want to wear pantaloons.”
We ate a box of fried chicken. He was mopey and never mentioned the war.
I brought up the fact that we were supposed to go to Afghanistan together. “I can’t just go alone,” I said.
“If you are going to go to Afghanistan,” he said, “you might as well go when it’s most dangerous. The longer a war goes on, the more you come to resemble your enemy, which you chose and obsess and pine over. Men being men together. Haji and L.Cpl. Schmuckatelli aren’t getting any, so they take it out on each other in frustration.”
“No, please. By killing each other.”
“How does this relate to me?”
“I think there’s a certain restlessness, secrecy and self-destruction that comes with war work. I think it’s tempting for veterans to think that if you ever explained your experience completely that there wouldn’t be any mystery left to trade on. That’s all veterans have in the end. The mystery.”
“Why does it need to be a mystery?”
“Sometimes it’s good to leave a lot of it unsaid or merely hinted at because if it were explained, there would be no romance. War never loses its mystery but for someone who wants respect, the mystery is a card. It’s a card that always plays to win.”
I asked why he was so upset. He said he didn’t know. He said he thought it was because he made lots of promises but couldn’t fulfill any of them. Like what? I asked. He couldn’t even tell me. He promised me love and when the fantasies ran out, so did our relationship. And it was all a fantasy, he told me. None of it was real.
“The day I went from dumb jarhead to war journo I was washed of my banality and women got interested in a whole new way,” he said. “I’ve spent years on sweaty cots formulating all this doggerel.”
My friend offered me an anecdote from an essay written by one of his students. In the essay there was a boy who texted the author only when he wanted sex. Otherwise he didn’t talk to her. He ignored her on campus. One night, it’s snowing and below zero and he tells her to come over. She is outside on the sidewalk. She says: let me in. He tells her to wait because there’s another girl there and he isn’t sure if he wants to be with her or not. He says he needs to think about it. He says to wait. The guy never texts. The girl waits and waits. She doesn’t have a coat but she stays because she is waiting. “You are that girl in the snow,” he said.
I didn’t notice until a few weeks later, but on top of my fridge I found a paper grocery bag with a face on it, staring at me. I remember the day we went shopping together and used that bag. We’d made salmon and sweet potatoes and he took the bag and stood away from me and started drawing on it. I wasn’t paying attention. I was hungry, busy scooping diced garlic from a jar, mixing salt and ginger. On the bag he drew what must have been the face of Hemingway, with a mustache drawn in permanent ink, and eyes wild and full of lines suggesting exhaustion or fury. He’d been watching me this whole time. I slipped the bag over my head.”