I told Miranda I wasn’t going to be stationed in Florida. I said, “I wanted to let you know as soon as I found out. I know you wanted me there.” Simultaneously, Jones leaned in close and tickled my other ear with her breath, and that’s when I laughed. I didn’t mean for it to come out so cocky, like I didn’t care whether or not I was near Miranda. But Jones was distracting, hanging on to every word, and even though I faced the wall and stuck a finger in my other ear, I could hear her giggles and the shouts of the Coast Guard recruits doing push-ups behind me. Miranda was quiet. At least I think she was. It was hard to hear over the yelling of the company commander, Gruber. The boys were getting it bad. Something about an un-made bed.
“Did you hear what I said?”
She took a moment to speak. “Well. I didn’t want you here anyway.”
“Oh, yeah? Having too much fun with the college boys?”
“Yeah.” Silence. “So I guess you’re allowed to use the phone now? I’m shocked to hear from you.”
“We got phone privileges a few days ago. I just haven’t had a chance to call yet. I wanted to wait until I got my assignment so I could let you know. Your letters made you seem anxious about it.” Jones had lost interest and was smirking at the boys doing push-ups. She stuck her tongue out while Gruber had his back turned. “Jones has my secret figured out.”
“Oh, me.” She sighed. “I forgot I was a secret.”
“I don’t know how she knows. I avoid pronouns at all cost.”
“You’re pretty easy to figure out.”
“You think?” Actually, one of the guys, Spires, who had a soft, faggy look about him had been giving me knowing looks since the beginning. Gonzales had a thing for him, and without saying anything that would get anyone in trouble, I’d tried to explain to her that I didn’t think he’d be interested. I wondered what it was that let us recognize each other.
“Especially if you’re flirting with her.” Miranda was still talking about Jones.
“Me?” I feigned surprise, and she finally laughed. It was comforting to know she knew what I was like, even as the sight of Jones taunting the boys with flicks of her tongue (what was she doing?) prompted my cheeks to flush. She caught my eye and smiled with the devil in her eyes. Oh lord.
“So there’s a lot of that going on?” Miranda’s voice was friendly. A bit on edge, maybe. I reminded myself that she couldn’t actually see Jones.
“All anyone thinks about is sex. I’m pretty sure my bunkmate has slept with at least one guy, and she’s already engaged.” Buckner’s fiancé, a physical therapist, she told us proudly, sent a thin gold band with a chip of sparkling diamond a couple of weeks ago. What a stupid thing to do, sending an engagement ring to boot camp. Especially since she’d spent the day in a hotel room with squirrel-faced Murray when we had off-base liberty last weekend. Boot camp turned out to be a lot raunchier than I’d have thought, especially since we were all so hungry and tired and sick. In the shower rooms we commented on the weight falling off our bodies, slipping away week after week like it was nothing. Like fat from roasting pork, I thought. Mmmm…pork. You’d think sex would be the last thing on our minds, but it didn’t take much for me to start fantasizing these days, food or otherwise. Deprivation wears you down, but it also makes you hungry.
“So where will you be stationed?”
“Somewhere in Texas.”
“That’s far.” Her voice was quiet.
“Yeah, it is.” I didn’t know what else to say. Jones had made her way back to the phone and was grinning at me as she tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. I smiled at her, feeling too bad to talk to Miranda. All those letters she’d been sending, at least one every other day, pages and pages of her life I couldn’t stand to read, problems with her freshman roommate, difficulty with classes, nights at bars learning how to swing dance. If anything, I think that’s how Jones figured out. Why else would some girl be writing me letters five times a week? I’d only written a couple of times, and they were double spaced, one-sided letters on the stationary my mother bought me at Wal-Mart before I left. I’d written that I was exhausted and hurting, that I didn’t have time to write, that I thought about her every day. It was all true. I didn’t have time to write. I did think of her every day.
I thought of her while marching with a lead-weighted rifle until I thought the fibers of my muscles would tear and every time I stood at attention at four in the morning, trying not to fall asleep and even the time I threw up in the shower, the orange-pink liquid of my dinner running in rivulets to the center drain after we’d spent the afternoon running up and down bleachers and sprinting to the water tower and back. I thought of her bedroom at home and the moments before I would roll out of her bed and into the sleeping bag on the floor just in time for her mother to come wake us up. It seemed like years ago, but it was really only a couple of months since we’d abandoned our prom dates and spent half the night kissing in a stall of the Regency Hotel’s third floor bathroom.
“Well.” She shook the sadness from her voice and it splat against me like drops from a wet puppy’s back. “You’re surviving anyway. That’s good.”
“How do you feel?”
“Tired. Exhausted.” Jones was very close now, her finger hooked on the waist of my pants, her back to the rest of the room so they couldn’t see what she was doing. I stared past her, not acknowledging her hand. Technically we weren’t even supposed to touch each other. But I didn’t move away. “I should probably go now. I’m really only supposed to have ten minutes on the phone.”
“I love you.”
“You love you too?” She spoke lightly, but I could tell her feelings were hurt.
“There are people everywhere,” I responded defensively. Like the one with her hand in my pants? I thought, I am an evil person. Jones pressed against my stomach, and my body responded. I closed my eyes for a moment as she removed her hand and moved away to talk to someone else, meaning to tease me I’m sure. Miranda still hadn’t said anything. Finally, I spoke in a whisper. “I love you too, okay?”
Later that night, I fell into a restless sleep thinking about Miranda. Only hours after the last time I kissed her, I signed a piece of paper saying I never had and never would take part in any kind of homosexual activity. They caught me off guard with that one. I guess I thought it would be more discreet, a quiet kind of discrimination instead of the signing-paper kind. I’d been filling out paperwork for twenty minutes, making the whole thing final before they shipped me off to boot camp, and there it was. My neck felt suddenly hot, and my palms started to sweat. I was afraid to look up or move in case Officer Bauer could tell what page I was on. I woke up with a start. In my dream, it was that room all over again, but this time Bauer had pushed me into a chair and held me down while Miranda tied my shoelaces together. Weird. But pretty obvious as far as dreams go, I guess. It made me feel kind of sick.
Sounds of restless and pained sleepers filled the squad bay, a bizarre collection of noises. Almost everyone snored some, but Gonzales and Tate were particularly resonate with deep, guttural inhalations that seemed to echo each other across the room. Thackeray muttered accusations in her sleep, mostly unintelligible, but Jones swore she’d once distinguished dissatisfied instructions to an imaginary boyfriend. The springs moaned and squeaked as I rolled this way and that, trying to find a position so I could will myself back into unconsciousness. It would be bad tomorrow if I didn’t. I’d done enough incentive training for closing my eyes during lectures, not to mention falling asleep standing up at morning role call. After several minutes, I decided I wouldn’t sleep until I’d gone to the bathroom. I slid down from my place on the top rack. Below me, Buckner cradled her balled up sweatshirt in her arms like a lover. I know because I did it too. I imagined her falling to sleep, thinking of her fiancé or maybe even squirrel-faced Murray. I must have been preoccupied thinking of that because I didn’t hear Jones creep out of bed and follow behind me.
I came out of the bathroom stall yawning, and my heart almost leapt out of my chest at the sight of Jones leaning against the wall by the sink, grinning at me. I knew what was coming. It would only lead to trouble, but I couldn’t do a thing to stop myself when I went to the sink to wash my hands and Jones slipped one hand under my shirt, touching the small of my back, and the other on my face, pulling me towards her. We transcended our underfed, blistered, aching bodies and kissed in front of the sink for at least five minutes, not considering the other recruits sleeping in the next room, the recruit on watch, or Gruber, who sometimes woke us in the middle of the night for no reason. Of course, Miranda crossed my mind, but more as an idea of something that I would deal with later. In general, I don’t think we were thinking much of anything until someone in the next room started coughing. Fields?
Jones and I froze. I breathed in the soapy fragrance of her hair, brittle after weeks of boot camp abuse. Suddenly, making out in the bathroom next to the squad bay didn’t seem like such a good idea. We both heard the first footsteps, the careless slapping of bare feet on the concrete floor. I grabbed her hand and pulled her into the communal shower where we flattened ourselves against the wall. The lights were off in the showers, and if someone glanced in our direction, they probably wouldn’t see us. As long as no one actually walked inside, we would be fine. The floor was still damp and soaked through my socks. We breathed shallow, deafening breaths. Jones dug her fingernails into the soft part of the bottom of my wrist, and I clenched my teeth to keep from yelping. I wrenched my arm away, and we both stared straight ahead, resentful and terrified. I counted a full two minutes after the toilet flushed before I turned to Jones. It was all I could do to keep from laughing out loud, hysterical laughter that felt like it would split me open from the inside. We doubled over, gasping for breath, trying to be quiet. Even when I calmed down and stopped laughing, I smiled at her like a maniac. I thought I might throw up. I finally spoke to her in a barely audible voice.
“You go ahead. I’ll wait and follow you.”
“That’s it?” She asked, but we both knew the moment had passed. Plus, somewhere in the last few, alarming minutes I’d finally thought of Miranda. The guilt rushed in, and I knew I couldn’t go through with it. “See you in a couple of hours, Halsey,” Jones whispered and punched me in the shoulder on her way out.
The last week of boot camp was the hardest in some ways because we all felt so close to being finished and were terrified that something would go wrong so we’d be rephased and left behind a class. I twisted my ankle in drills, and worked through the pain, careful not to wince as I stomped my foot down marching. Jones and I now confined our extracurricular interactions to friendly chats and the occasional prohibited pat on the back. Sometimes when the recruits had a few free minutes, Buckner would go off chattering about her wedding to the physical therapist. She’d describe the white lace veil she wanted, the church decorations, the bridesmaid’s dresses, the color of the flowers, even the main course for the reception. I would look at Jones, and I knew she wanted to laugh too but didn’t. Then I’d look at Murray who stared miserably into his hands. Even though he was a jerk in some ways, I felt bad for him, and I was glad Jones and I quit when we did. I talked to Miranda once before my graduation, another short and awkward phone conversation. Her letters had been coming less and less often, a change I’d noticed but didn’t have time to worry about. If anything, I was relieved at not having to wade through the pages devoted to her adjustment to college, a problem that seemed trivial while I was half-starved and sleep deprived. Even so, I missed her.
On the day of graduation I stood with my class through the ceremony on the parade field. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest. I was going to see my family and Miranda, who’d planned to come with them before she even left for college. We were in formation in front of the bleachers as they called our names, the sun glaring bright in our faces. The people who caught sight of their families had to maintain military bearing and pretend they didn’t see them, and the rest of us squinted into the crowd trying to distinguish parents among the sea of proud and anxious faces. After it was over, people wandered around eagerly. Mothers clutched their embarrassed, pleased children. Father’s shook hands and patted shoulders. I looked half-heartedly for Miranda’s red hair. I had a few days leave until I was expected in my new station, and just minutes ago, I’d wanted out as fast as possible. I found myself hanging back, though, reluctant to be claimed by my family. I stood next to Buckner, who squeezed my hand and squealed when she caught sight of her fiancé.
“There he is!” She pointed to a skinny man with a black ponytail and started to wave. A grin broke out across his face, and he pushed his way towards where we were standing. When he reached Buckner he pulled her into a hug that lifted her so only her toes were touching the ground. She introduced him as Mike. He shook my hand, keeping one arm around Buckner’s shoulders.
“Nice to meet you, Halsey.”
“You can call me Laura.” I smiled.
“That’s right. I almost forgot we had real names.” Buckner laughed and leaned against Mike, who kissed her on the cheek. Watching them, I was hit with a wave of homesickness, and the realization that my family and Miranda were close made my mouth go dry. When I finally found them, Mom almost cracked my ribs she hugged me so hard. She started crying, which made me start crying, and then Dad teared up, and we all started laughing while Dad tried to get someone to take a picture. It was a nice change from the way things had been before I left. I looked around.
“Oh, that’s right!” Mom fussed with an already secure strand of my hair. “I knew I was supposed to tell you something. She couldn’t come.”
“A test maybe? I can’t remember.” Mom laughed and smoothed my collar. “Honey, you look like I just told you that Spooner got hit by a car.”
Dad frowned. “This is more of a family affair anyway, don’t you think?”
“She’s my best friend.”
“Well, you know how I feel about it.” He stopped and was about to say something else, but Mom broke in.
“Ross, I don’t think this is the time.”
“She’s never been a good influence.”
“Honey,” she warned.
“Fine. We won’t talk about it now.” He threw up his hands and offered me a conciliatory smile. I looked at the ground.
“You can call her as soon as we get to the motel, okay?” Mom hugged me. “You can talk for as long as you want.”
“Okay.” I bit the inside of my cheek and hugged her back.Before I left, I bumped into Murray standing with a girl who looked about fifteen years old. He introduced her as his girlfriend and told me that Jones was looking for me. “She was walking toward the barracks,” he said as he rested his arm on the girl’s shoulder. He put his hand on the back of her neck in a way that made me remember why I’d thought of him as squirrel-faced Murray. I ran to catch Jones and found her inside, leaving with her sea bag thrown over one shoulder. We found ourselves alone together, and she smiled and dropped the bag at my feet. It smacked against the floor with a sound that echoed down the hall. We both laughed.
“Well.” I shifted my weight from foot to foot.
“I guess this is it.” She stepped forward and hugged me. “I couldn’t have done it without you.”
“Likewise, Jones.” I hugged her back hard. “We’ll always have New Jersey.”
“And the bathroom.”
I blushed. It was the first time either of us had mentioned it. “And the shower room.”
“So you have my number?” she asked. “You’ll have to call and let me know what Texas is like.” I was about to make some joke about Texas when Jones leaned over and kissed me on the mouth so fast I wasn’t sure it even happened. She picked up her sea bag, her face flushed. “Bye, Halsey.”
“Bye, Jones.” Flustered, I held up my hand to wave, which didn’t make sense because she was walking away.
My parents and I went for pizza at an Italian restaurant by the hotel. I ate a basketful of breadsticks, a salad, half a large pizza, and Mom’s leftover meatballs. Mom kept reaching over to pat my hands and touch my hair. Dad couldn’t get over the fact that I ate more than he did. “Look at her, Ross,” Mom said. “Her body’s trying to get back to a normal weight, that’s all. Didn’t they feed you?” Then she patted my arm and passed me the green peppers from her salad. I dumped them on a piece of pizza and bit into it. I concentrated on my food, the grease pooling in valleys of hardening cheese, the ground meat with spices, the soft hot bread. Because every time I looked up, I felt a sinking feeling from the slow, clumsy movements of my parents and the bright carelessness of the entire restaurant. Nobody was telling me what to do. Nobody was telling anybody what to do. I ate until my stomach distended and still I finished half an hour before Dad put his napkin down and leaned away from the table. I drank my refilled coke and waited to leave, my leg shaking under the table until Mom put her hand on my knee to stop it.
Dad wanted me to use the phone in our room, but I said I wanted to look around. It’s not every day you become a free woman. The motel lobby was empty, and there wasn’t much to it. Just a couple of tables, some chairs, and a complimentary USA Today. I pulled a chair over to the phone and dialed the number at Miranda’s dorm. She answered on the second ring.
“I missed you today.” I’d planned to say something less desperate-sounding like, “Hi, Miranda,” but that’s what came out.
“Are you mad?”
“I don’t know. Why didn’t you come?”
“I have a biology exam next week.” She sounded tired. “We have a review session this weekend. Didn’t your mom tell you?”
“She wasn’t sure.”
“It’s my first college test.”
“I guess that’s important.”
“Yeah. But I wish I could have been there today.” If she’d really wanted to be there, she could have been. I thought about telling her about Jones, just to see what she’d say. Maybe not the part about the bathroom, maybe just the kiss today, so quick, I couldn’t have stopped it. I picked at a splinter raised on the arm of the chair. “Laura?” she asked after a while.
“Are you okay?”
“Sure. The whole thing’s just overwhelming, I guess. I feel strange.”
“That’s understandable.” She took a deep breath. “I should probably go soon.”
“Okay,” I said, not wanting to say goodbye.
“But call me when you get in tomorrow. I’ll come over.” Then she said she loved me and I said it back, and even though I knew it was true, it didn’t make me feel any better. Later I crawled into the empty double bed across from my parents, who’d left the bathroom light on and turned down the covers on my bed. Their snores comforted me, and the uneasiness in my chest felt smaller. I plunged into sleep with the sheets pulled over my head to protect me from the overwhelming world.