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I won't let the Oklahoma wind whip our words away. They can get lost when David and I fly along like this-him driving his red motorcycle, me holding on tight to him. But tonight, especially tonight, I won't let it happen. Tomorrow is soon enough. Tomorrow is another enforced separation, maybe silence. Only this time it's different. Tomorrow David is really, truly gone.
I lean into the ratcheting wind, into him, and shout, "Say something!"
David's muscled back moves against me. He laughs. I love the sound of his laugh. It's been rare since last March, when he shipped off to OSUT. One Station Unit Training. That's what OSUT stands for. For David and other infantry guys like him, OSUT means basic and advanced individual training slapped into eighteen weeks.
For me, OSUT means Our Separation is Unbelievably Terrible. I never told David this, not in any of our phone conversations during that time. Not at Family Day. Definitely not on the day of his graduation. Positive attitude. That's what I've got to maintain, now that I'm an army girlfriend. At least that's what all the bloggers say. The girls and women in chat rooms. The answers to FAQs on various military-related sites.
Question: What's the best way to help your soldier?
Answer: Keep a positive attitude. Write lots of encouraging letters. Soldiers look forward to daily mail call.
I wrote lots of encouraging letters while David was at OSUT. David, who wrote letters to me all the time before he left-even when we'd already spent an entire day together, did not write at all. No time, he explained. Phone calls would have to be enough. When I saw his schedule, I understood. Still, there were days when I felt bummed about the lack of encouraging mail for me. On those days I'd pull out his old letters. I'd remember finding them slipped into my locker or book bag or mailbox. I'd read them again.
I'd wait forever to get another letter from David.
"‘Say something?'" His voice, echoing mine, is strong against the wind: "Something!"
"You know what I mean!"
But something is better than nothing, so I kiss David's ticklish neck-his brown skin tanned even darker now-until a shudder runs through him and he cries out, "Mercy!"
Now I'm laughing too, laughing like there's no tomorrow. We bank around a sharp curve and bump from two-lane pavement and the outskirts of Killdeer to single-lane, red dirt road and the country. David revs the bike, sending up a cloud of dust. I bury my face in his shoulder to keep from getting an eyeful. My helmet bumps against his shoulder bone. I'm not laughing anymore. Why laugh when I can still breathe him in? Clean, spicy soap. Faint salty tang. And fresh-cut grass, because this afternoon he mowed the yard for his mom and dad. One last time.
When I look up, we've left Killdeer's streetlights far behind. Stars prick the dusky sky. Shapes dart and skitter in the bright headlight-bugs, birds, and bats, trying to clear out of the way. I kiss David's neck again, and we swerve for one wild moment before he swiftly steers us straight.
"Penna! You're distracting me." David casts this over his shoulder like a token. "Stop, or there could be trouble." He flashes his charming, crooked grin and starts singing Elvis Costello's "Accidents Will Happen" at the top of his lungs, all off-key.
"Don't!" With such heat in my voice, I hardly sound like myself. "Accidents-not funny. Or victims. Not now. Not ever."
Immediately I'm filled with regret. That was just the old David, my David, ready to play the fool for love, for me. Now he's fallen silent. He trains his gaze on the road ahead, our tunnel of light in the gathering dark.
"Hey." I sound like myself again, not the kind of girl who wigs out on her boyfriend, not the kind of girl who panics over stupid things. "Sorry. This is crazy-making. You know. Right?"
He doesn't answer.
I lick my lips, gone dry from the wind. Okay. I'll talk about things we used to talk about before OSUT. All our incredible conversations about important things. All our incredible conversations about unimportant things. I should be able to remember something we used to talk about before. I should be able to give us another conversation to remember when we're apart. Never mind if it's just me doing the talking. Right?
Wrong, because tomorrow threatens like an ugly giant just beyond the sunset-orange horizon line. And I can't remember any of our incredible conversations from before. Zero. Zip. Important, unimportant. It doesn't matter. What matters is that in this moment I don't know what to say to David. And David doesn't know what to say to me.
Blackjack oaks flash past, gnarled shapes that anchor the vast fields and the hulking clots there that I know are longhorn cattle. David guns it and we go faster yet. I wrap my arms tighter around his waist. There, where my right elbow presses, is the sickle-shaped scar he showed me the first time we kissed. (Golden September day. Oklahoma City Art Museum. Ditched our class field trip to hang out in the sculpture garden. Tucked into the shadows of a gigantic bronze statue of Geronimo-our first kiss.) David got that scar long before I knew him, when he was just five years old. He was sword-playing with some other kid. Their weapons were sticks. The other kid's stick struck home too hard. David's scar is just the length of my little finger when my little finger bends to a slight curve.
My little finger bends to just the right slight curve now. And there, where my left wrist rests, are the ribs David cracked in eighth grade, playing soccer. I didn't know David then either; I didn't know him when he played soccer like the Tasmanian Devil. That's what he told me once when it was raining, because those ribs still sometimes ache in wet weather.
"When I was a kid, I played soccer like the Tasmanian Devil, totally out of control, always hurting other kids by accident and getting hurt too." That's what he said. (Stormy February day. Baking cookies in his parents' messy kitchen. The sleety rain drummed against the roof and fell in sheets outside the windows. Checking the oven's temperature, he clutched the sudden ache in his ribs.) When I first saw David play soccer last fall, he was totally in control, skimming and darting across the field, scoring goal after goal, finishing out his senior season strong. In his royal-blue varsity uniform, he never hurt anyone and he never got hurt. Never. Never.
And he never will.
Everywhere beneath the length of my arms, David's familiar warmth reassures me. Always, David reassures me. Never mind what we can or can't say, I decide. Never mind deployment. We can hold tight. I tell myself this, holding him tighter. We can hold tight across continents and the oceans in between. We've got the strong arms of love.
"Beauty is truth," I hear myself shout. This kind of stuff-this is what we talked about. Beauty. Truth. Scars. And so much more. Incredible. Never mind the wind, which is getting cooler, almost cold on my skin. David is warm in my arms.
David throws back his head and wolf-whistles twice through his teeth at the bright white fingernail moon. "Beauty is you, Penna."
Something long, low, and lean flashes across the road in front us, and David gasps. We swerve. He gasps again. He lightens up on the throttle, and we slow down, way down. The thing has vanished into the shadows, but David has gone tense. I can practically feel his nerves jumping against my skin. He leans forward, away from me. The cold air passes between us. The wind whips the back of his T-shirt, grips my throat. David leans farther forward. He wants me to loosen my hold.
I loosen my hold.
"Okay?" I ask.
He nods. "Sorry. Just got a little-" He falters.
He shakes his head. Whatever he was going to say, it's been dismissed. "Nothing. Gotta catch my breath. That's all."
I go for the light touch, just enough of a hold to keep me from pitching off the back of the bike, should David decide to gun it again. I peer over his shoulder at the speedometer. We're barely pushing thirty now. Out here in the country, the limit is seventy, and I can't help it: I want it to be months ago, last year again. Him, the senior guy, graduating a semester early. Me, the junior girl, just moved to Killdeer and new to school. I want David to drive away from tomorrow, not toward it. I want him to drive fast.
"I'm wearing my helmet," I say.
But David isn't wearing his. "Don't want any extra weight. Not tonight. I'll be packing it soon enough." That's what he said earlier when I tried to put the helmet on his head.
We ride on, slow and steady, with David silent and watchful. Grassy fields spread around us. Starry sky arcs above. I lift a hand from David, and, what the heck, I reach for the stars. I tell David what I'm doing. He doesn't make me feel like a jerk for being myself, like some guys from my past. He doesn't do worse, like other guys. David loves me.
And he's about to do what he signed up to do, right before I met him.
I reach higher. I will snag a dark but spangled cloak of sky. I will drag it down and drape it over David's shoulders. He will be dressed like a hero. He will be a hero. He will come home from Iraq.
But the stars slip through my fingers, and then the whole sky too.
I wrap my arms lightly around David again.
"Don't go," I whisper.
He doesn't hear, for the wind.
We turn back toward Killdeer, driving slower yet as David takes a last, long look around town. We cruise past the shopping mall. The big department store stands empty now. There's a string of little stores, all but gutted.
"Oh great, just great," he calls back to me. "The Piggly Wiggly's gone under too."
We pass the barren supermarket, and I see the darkened sign-that familiar pig in his funny hat. Once the pig shone bright and jolly. Now in the gloom, he sports a menacing leer.
"This whole town is tanking. I'll never get a job." In despair, David leans back against me.
"You've got a job," I remind David. "Fifteen months, you'll be done. I'll be graduated. We'll be out of here. Together."
"And don't forget my leave." David sits up straight again. "Eighteen days. I'll do my best to bring in the New Year with you. Allocations go first to the guys who have, like, pregnant wives. But if I can get the holidays, I will."
"It won't matter when we're together as long as we're together," I say.
We drive past Killdeer High. (One more year. My new mantra.) Beneath the bright streetlights I glimpse our reflection, flickering along the tinted windows of the cafeteria. David got so dark at OSUT, sweating all day in the sun. Compared to him I'm a ghost. I tell him that.
"So haunt me over there. Promise you will." Then, as the bike slows even more, he says, "Hey. It's Ravi. Hey, Ravi!"
I glimpse a tall, broad-shouldered guy with straight, black hair, trudging along a parallel path past the school, hands stuffed deep in the pockets of a gray hooded sweatshirt. That's Ravi, all right. I've seen him around town. And David has told me about him: how when they were young, they were just about the only brown-skinned kids in school. On bad days David got called "spic" and "beaner." Ravi got called "A-rab" and "towelhead."
In spite of the bullying, or maybe because of it, they played by the rules. They did park district sports-David, soccer, and Ravi, basketball. They joined the lily-white Cub Scout troop. They earned badges, went on campouts, entered pinewood derbies. David, always charming and easygoing, became increasingly popular. Ravi, shyer and more intense, hung in there. They were loyal to each other.
Then in fourth grade 9/11 happened, and things got way worse for Ravi. Kids didn't know exactly where his family came from, but they called him "terrorist" anyway. He got beat up all the time. Year after year he kept getting pounded. David tried to protect him. But as time passed, Ravi hung more and more in the shadows. He just wanted everyone to leave him alone-even David. That's how David remembers it anyway.
Junior year, Ravi dropped out of school. David said he'd heard that Ravi was waxing floors over at the Walmart, graveyard shift. I saw Ravi there once late one evening in the parking lot but never said anything.
"Hey, Ravi! Where you been, man?" David yells.
At the sound of David's voice, Ravi glances up. His striking black eyes widen. He waves.
"That dude is so lost. And what's with the sweatshirt on a July night like this?"
David speaks loudly so I can hear. From the way Ravi's expression hardens, I think he probably heard too. David would feel bad about this, so I don't tell him.
David revs the bike. Ravi watches us drive away. I wave. This time Ravi doesn't raise his hand.
"He's probably on his way to work." I rest my chin on David's shoulder. "The Walmart's always so cold. I bet it's freezing in the middle of the night."
It's weird, defending someone I've never even met. But something about Ravi's eyes got to me.
David shrugs. "Man, shoot me if I ever look that desperate. Okay, Penna? People must just think ‘Taliban,' seeing him. They'd probably think that about me too." David shivers. "I'm so over getting hurt."
David could still be talking about Ravi, the bad stuff they endured in grade school. Or he could be talking about soccer, since we're passing the high school's soccer field now. Or he could be talking about OSUT.
Or he could be talking about whatever's next.
I won't think about whatever's next.
I'll think about now, our roundabout ride. David and I know this route like the backs of our hands. We know this route like the life and love lines creasing the palms of our hands. I pressed our hands deep into plaster last week, so we know them really well.
"For keeps," I said when the plaster molds turned out perfect. David agreed.
"When I come back," he said, "we'll add this to your portfolio."
So we know this route like the five-fingered molds we made, which I will fill with honey and flowers soon. Baby's breath for love lines. Purple nettles for life. I'll preserve our hands. Somehow. I'll keep them safe. When David comes home for good, we'll add this to his portfolio too. Scholarship material. Art Institute, here we come, we'll say. We'll clap our honey-hands together. Applause! Cheers! War and high school-over and done! We'll crack our honey-hands open. We're heroes for holding on! We'll spoon honey into steaming cups of tea. We'll swallow ourselves.
Then we'll pick up this roundabout ride where we left off. Country roads. Red dirt. Starry sky. David showed this all to me early last fall, back when we bought Cokes at the Piggly Wiggly for the first time. He showed me Killdeer too, with its moldering, nineteenth-century brick buildings.
"That was a bank once. That was a brothel," David said. "Now they're both just wannabe bed-and-breakfasts, for when Killdeer finally comes into its own again. Ha."
David showed me the oaks, scrub pines, locust trees, red patina bushes, stinging ants and scorpions, brazen sunsets, sulfuric storm clouds, and red clay earth. He showed me abandoned oil rigs. Right here in the center of town by the shuttered train station, David showed me the one rig that's still pumping crude, its derrick seesawing like a giant's teeter-totter. There were tons of rigs here back in the '80s, David said, when oil was busting out all over. Most of those have dried up now, and the towers and pipes have come down.
"But," David told me, "there's still one fat-cat corporation lining its pockets. Some CEO big shot's making some cold, hard cash. Example for us all, I guess."
Even this time of night, that rig is pumping away.
We jounce over the train tracks. By day, girls perfect cartwheels on the iron rails. Boys set out pennies to be flattened. Where are their parents? I'd like to know. That's what I think, seeing those kids.
"My mom would never let me do that," I told David once. This was close to Christmas.
David laughed. "Let you? You're eighteen, Penna. Shake off Linda's clutches."
Then David helped me tie my old Barbie dolls to the bitterly cold train tracks. He cast his shadow over their plastic bodies while I snapped photos before the next freight train thundered through town. One blasted by right after David and I unbound the Barbies, but for once I didn't feel like Linda was hovering, afraid for my life.
I've pretty much shaken off Linda's clutches now. But still, I can't help myself. I glance back, checking, and glimpse my house a block away, sagging like the neglected thing it used to be before Linda and I moved in and tried to spiff it up a bit. Four end-of-the-season azalea bushes, planted by the front steps, that just managed to hang on. A new coat of gray house paint on the front and the back. (Linda says we'll get to the sides next year.)
Linda has left the porch light on. The round ring of the kitchen light glows blue too. Otherwise the place is dark.
I see her then. I catch my breath.
David must feel the change in me-a sitting-up-straight-because he glances back. "She's home already?"
"No." I shake my head until my helmet wobbles. "It's just that old lady who walks our block. I swear this is her third time today, though. Way late for her." I bite my lip, feeling concerned. "Too late for someone her age."
I watch the lady's frail figure grow smaller as we zip away. Like always, she wears a simple dress-it was pale yellow earlier today, so it probably is now too. She clasps her hands at her thin waist. She picks her way over a broken stretch of sidewalk, lifting her feet in their sandals almost as blind people do, searching for the next safe place to set them down. Her ankles are so narrow that any wrong move might snap them in two. She keeps her eyes fixed on the horizon as she did this morning and afternoon when she passed by. And yesterday morning and afternoon. And mornings and afternoons before that, like clockwork. She looks fairly steady on her feet, even this late. I have to give her that.
We turn a corner and the lady's gone. I lean into David again. "Linda's still at Red Earth."
David nods. No real surprise. More and more in the past few months, Linda seems to have shaken me off too. She's always at the old-time saloon she inherited, along with the house, from her dad. I never met him before he died, but I'd heard that he was a mean drunk who ran my mother out of town when she was about my age. At the very, very end of the day, dead, my grandpa made amends as best he could for his actions.
"Unlike some people," Linda likes to say. Linda's not big into trust.
If Linda were home, it would be way past midnight and our whole house would be ablaze. It takes Linda a while to wind down from work. She's wired like that. Plus, for the first time ever, she cares about her job, so she's got this extra buzz thing going on.
"Adrenaline rush," she says. Ultimately, though, she likes to wait up for me. The last of her clutches, I guess. "I like to know where you've been. I like to know where you're going," she says.
When I glare, Linda glares back.
"I'm entitled. We're the only family we've got," she says.
Until this year, that fact didn't bother me. Linda and I didn't need anyone else. We didn't need people who dumped us, ran off on us, or worse.
Now, in those moments when I feel like Linda is suffocating me, I just breathe in the scent of David, lingering on my skin.
I breathe him in.
What will I do when he's gone?