The minute she came back, she was different. Although, now that I think of it, who else would have read it in her? Her walk belonged to her, her skin belonged to her – the sullen face, dark hair and that old, mildly surprised expression. She came out of the depth of the arrivals terminal and stood in the airport fluorescence, smiling. It was meant for me, and she moved in to land a kiss. Her aura, and her smell was just as I remembered it, yet I waited.
Anybody would be changed, I mean I read the stories of Vietnam. Those men who saw combat came back in pieces, amputated legs, eyes gone, not talking. Not just the ones who had their jaws blown off either; every one of them stayed schtum. If pressed, they would say there was nothing to talk about. If pressed any harder, they’d say there was a lot of mud. That’s all you could get out of them, the mud.
I read a lot of those accounts before she came home. I kind of felt like a student who hasn’t studied for finals week.
I couldn't get much more out of Alice, just there wasn’t any mud in Afghanistan – just sand. The sand was in your eyes, in your mouth and any open crevices on your body. That’s what she’d say. The word crevices itself was startling, and weirdly tender coming from her. It was something she obviously thought about.
* * * * *
I keep thinking of the first plastic surgery operations. Not the very earliest disasters, but the glass balls as breast implants, corpse ears stitched onto living, earless heads. I’ve read about those too, but I mean the ones after the assorted horrors of World War 1. Like that man who was missing his face because it was burned off. He got a wide strip of his chest cut out and slapped into a rebirth as his forehead, eyelids and nose were reconstructed. They kept the band attached to his torso with long tentacles of flesh until the bloody supply was established. You could see the doctors’ frustration with their material. It puckered, it glowered, it wouldn’t lie the way they wanted it to lie.
Alice was physically fine. She does have this small blister on her heel that won’t close up though. It weeps like an angel that was denied access to Heaven, and cast outer. She does allow me to place Band-Aids on it for her, which is good. She lets me do a lot of things. She still goes running in the crisp mornings, she still eats tuna sandwiches, she folds her shirts into neat squares, but the best part of her is – misplaced. I think that’s what I mean, I look at her, and some kind of threads are holding her down, as if she were a balloon in a parade, and the parade is in the desert, moving on and on through the golden light and sand, moving away forever. She doesn’t twitch, she doesn’t sit around hollow-eyed. She’s fine, she’s completely fine. She just comes out with these odd words sometimes, a little British or something else, unlike her. Crevices. Trousers. Football. My heart laid bare.
* * * * *
I mean, you can watch The Exorcist and believe in the spinning head, but even churches say possession isn’t real. It’s a metaphor for something, like being lost to God maybe – but Alice isn’t lost. She’s right here in her sweat pants, or sweat trousers, laying her heart bare, or not. When she hugs me with her long arms, I know the hug and the arms, the soft grace of her hands rubbing on my back, followed by the pats and love yous. Her head doesn’t spin, she’s calm, she watches Netflix with her feet up on the back of the couch, the same as ever, but in my mind, I keep seeing a wasp nest. A grey papery shell, full of building and buzzing in some insect language I don’t understand.
She doesn’t move in her slumber. She says that she doesn’t have nightmares. She doesn’t have dreams at all apparently. She breaths steadily throughout the night. I sometimes ask her about her sleep in the morning, and she just smiles at me and stretches, clear-eyed like a child.
Pretty last night, I found her on the couch with our dog, and the laptop. It was after I came strolling downstairs into the living room, and I could see the screen, the naked women looking skilled and efficient at what they were doing to each other. Not trying to make it weird, I said hi and she turned around and flashed a charming smile at me, then went back to watching.
“Come to bed” I said softly, standing next to the stair post.
She craned her head at me. “Look at this. Mindless romance.”
I glanced at the laptop screen and watched for a second. Their movement were slumberous and slow, almost as if they were trapped in a vat of honey.
“I see plenty of bodies. Come on, it’s late.”
“The bodies don’t matter, don’t you see? They’re not the point.”
Not the point of pornography? What are you talking about?
I shrugged the thought off and walked over towards the couch, and graced her shoulder with my hand. “Alice, did you see any bodies in Afghanistan?”
She turned and looked at me, her face illuminated by the soft glow of the laptop. “Bodies are never the point. They’re just primers for the experience.”
I felt an electric jolt course through my veins; it felt like I was breaking through the wall that separated us. Before, she would just shut her mouth. I climbed over the couch to kneel by her feet. I put my hand on her leg. “Sweetheart, I’m here. You’re home, and we can talk. You can tell me everything.”
She was still smiling, except it morphed into a puzzled expression. “Sure Ape, I’m going to stay down here for a little while longer, okay?”
* * * * *
“Mindless romance” I heard it, all right. I sat up in the bed alone. She used to call me Ape when we first got together, like I’d popped up all saintly out of Gone with the Wind.
I tried to read a novel, and I was reminded about a time when I was young and obsessed with the Brontës, more so with their lives than their actual novels. People Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester left me feeling pretty cold, but I’d thought a lot about Charlotte Brontë’s death. I mean, she was the last of her young siblings, and it left them unable to believe that she was going now that she was happy, married and pregnant at last. I’d cried a bit at the time, reading about that, but why?
Maybe that was what Alice was talking about; A wishful connection with somebody else, somebody real but seemingly impossible. Like watching someone naked on a screen, feeling like you understand them, but how can you? What did I know about a writer dying of morning sickness in a Yorkshire parsonage in the 1850s?
Charlotte Brontë was angry with the world, and I understood that kind of resentment. Life had no other plans for her, and she just died. No fireworks, or nothing special. After she passed on, her father cut up her letters and manuscripts to send to desperate fans that were seeking a piece of her handwriting. Any word, any mark, any piece of her, they didn’t care. I’d be pretty pissed off too.
* * * * *
Alice didn’t come upstairs at all. This morning, she’d just wandered off somewhere. Maybe towards her veterans’ PTSD group, but the issue with that was she didn’t have PTSD. She just liked to go and hang out, have a bit of coffee maybe – her words. That’s mostly what they do there anyway.
Now I’m filled with anger. I’m seething, and feel like I’m going to collapse and die right here on the kitchen floor with my teeth bared to the gums. My pulse is banging and ringing in my head and neck. I lean over the sink and run the icy water over my scalp.
What I really want is – I want to drag her back from wherever she’s gone, from the dead maybe, only she’s not dead. I want to cut up all her clothes into voodoo shards, shake her, duck her underwater, reassemble her. Only she’s not broken either. That’s the problem. She just kissed me goodbye and drove off at a normal speed, like a perfectly reasonable person.
* * * * *
I decided to take myself and the dog for a walk. A few of the neighborhood houses have pumpkins squatting on their front steps. Further up the block, two girls are running around in their yard, wearing identical skull masks. One is holding up a pink plastic Barbie broom above her head and screaming “Yaaaaaahhh!”
Does Barbie do her own chores? My dog barks at the girl, or maybe at the broom. He didn’t bark at Alice when she came back from her tour, even though it’s been more than a year since they last seen each other.
The smaller of the two girls trips over a lawn chair and howls for real, but she doesn’t pull off the mask. The other girl crouches to peer at her through her own two eye-holes. Maybe Alice has a new face. Maybe she isn’t Alice, but a body snatcher wearing her skin. Do those exist in Afghanistan?
The little girl goes on howling. I cough, and I suddenly feel cold. The air swarms faintly smoky into my lungs. I think again of wasps, building away quietly, chewing wood into paper and making things into other things.
My dog whines. We continue to walk, and Alice suddenly drives past now, going very slowly up the street, watching for something. I feel her eyes pass through my body like X-rays. I feel myself vanish. A girl in a slouchy green beret is walking ahead and Alice raises her hand, a small, private salute. The girl does the same. She looks like she’s 16. Maybe 15. Maybe less.
The car nearly stops. The wheels grind forward, and Alice’s mouth shapes word at the window. What words? Love? What?
She mouthed a phrase.
"Primer for the experience."
I think I see it now. It was how she was being transformed by the war and how the sand was in her crevices. She’s happy and it’s a happiness I can’t reach. I can’t see around it.
Chimney smoke threads up into the sky, and all I can think about is all those people that were left behind, praying for their dead, ash in hand as they try to contact them through mediums of twilit parlour séances. Don’t you have anything to tell me?
I think, too, of Charlotte Brontë’s father cutting up the scraps of his daughter, and I get it. I really get it. I do.